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Director Series-Cronenberg

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With New Line’s A History of Violence, director David Cronenberg once again poses fascinating questions of identity and the nature of reality. He also gets the chance to explore iconic, mythic Americana for the first time in this western in modern dress. Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello play husband and wife in Indiana with two children whose idyllic existence is shattered by a series of violent acts. Here Cronenberg discusses his collaboration with his long-time crew: production designer Carol Spier, editor Ron Sanders, cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, ASC, costume designer Denise Cronenberg, his wife and composer Howard Shore.Below the Line: How did you and your key department heads approach A History of Violence?David Cronenberg: The script, of course, makes its own demands. You have a small town in Indiana with a diner. But it really starts more with the characters than an overarching structure. Peter Suschitzky works very much the same way as I do. We look at things… he suggests movies; for example, Fritz Lang’s Human Desire for the idea of the past catching up to you. And, of course, we always end up talking about some painting. And in this case, it was inevitable that it was Edward Hopper. But we didn’t want it to be kitschy or cutesy retro—we didn’t want to take it that far from reality. Most of Hopper is soft, moody light. It’s very sensual.And then when I talk to Carol [Spier] and Denise [Cronenberg], it’s about the reality of the town, and the reality of the people in it. The actors have to be specific characters. I think the key for me, always, is knowing that actors can’t play an abstract concept. You don’t play the embodiment of evil. So I try to let the actors and characters guide us. Once you find the locations, it starts to tell you things, details. It’s the same for Peter and Carol. Day-by-day it’s hands-on; it’s tactile; it’s physical. Does it look right? But if you’re true to all of those things, once you come out the other end, you find it’s coherent.There’s a moment in the beginning, for example, when Viggo walks down the street, stops to say hello to everybody and stops to pick up some junk that people have left on the windowsill. He turns and feels the sun on his face and we cut to the inside. Now we’re in a set but we can still see the street through the windows and what looks like daylight. It’s a beautiful moment for me in the way it blends exterior location and interior set.BTL: You must have quite a shorthand with your crew.Cronenberg: As I say, it’s all in the details and the details have to be right. But we’ve done so many movies together that we have our own references. They can be negative references. We don’t want this movie to look like that one. And of course, my crew works on more movies without me. The potential downside for working with the same people is that you get too comfortable—you get in a rut. But that’s not the case. It’s always exciting. The project is always different. The actors are always different. It always shakes you up. The crew always takes you to different places.The other thing is in terms of temperament. There’s no energy spent to understand each other and where we’re coming from. There’s no Diva-ness. The pleasure comes from engaging the work. We’re incredibly efficient because of that. But it doesn’t mean we’re not passionate. It’s a very emotional thing for us to be working together again, because, as we get older, we know the number of films we do together diminishes. It makes for a very potent mix for moviemaking.BTL: What’s your process, and how do you incorporate music?Cronenberg: When I have a script that I’m interested in doing, whether I’ve written it myself or not, I send it to four people: Carol, Howard, Peter and Ron. And I talk to them before I say I’m going to do this movie just to get some feedback and have them start thinking about it. That’s where it begins. With the music, it starts with Howard reading the script before we make the deal to do the movie. There’s a constant dialog. As the thing goes forward, when we’re in preproduction, there’s a lot of discussion as well, even with Howard. With A History of Violence it had to do with American iconography. Howard had DVDs of John Ford movies and Howard Hawks westerns. And I think you can hear some Aaron Copland and East of Eden. So it’s really coming to grips with the yearning—this bittersweet yearning for some past that people might think was better but never really was.BTL: Talk about the opening four-minute shot.Cronenberg: Once again, as with the music, as with everything, there’s no overarching concept that you impose from the outside. I don’t make storyboards for that reason. It’s all feeling the moment with the actors, with the location, so I couldn’t have told you more than maybe a few days before we did that opening scene that we would need that crane. The languidness was in the script and there was a strange tone of not knowing is the movie really going to be about these two men. You don’t know if they’re the sinister ones or not. That’s why there’s no music. I just didn’t want to give the audience anything.BTL: And what did Ron think of this?Cronenberg: Well, Ron wasn’t convinced that it worked as one shot until we were in the cinema. He’s an editor; he likes to cut. He tried to cut it with the stuff that I had done and I felt it didn’t work as well. He wasn’t sure, and this was a case where I had to prove to him that it worked. But we’ve been working together now for 30 years, so we have our routine down pretty well. We convince each other when we’re skeptical.BTL: Now contrast this with the semi-rape on the staircase.Cronenberg: Well, exactly, the fact that you could call it a semi-rape… it’s such a complex scene [including attraction/repulsion to violence]. Of course, it was a very complex thing to shoot for the actors and the crew. We used three basic sets and pull walls out all the time. So it went on for a long time, and they couldn’t wear padding. It’s just too obvious. Anyway, I wanted a brutality, as well as a sense of romance conveyed visually and through the music. And the lighting and camera movement and angles and music all had to address the complexity of this. When he had the temp music there, it totally did play like a rape.It’s the most emotionally complex scene in the movie and really needed everything from everybody. Carpentry was important too because of the way we had to shoot the stairs. We had great set builders. That’s the other thing. Carol produces these great sets, and we have wonderful construction manager, Joe Curtin. When you’re on set, these are not minor things; they give me the feeling of solidity and support, both literally and figuratively. Joe’s a very experienced construction manager, who’s done most of my movies as well. The average person might not understand the connection between a sex scene and set construction, but to any crew-member it’s a pretty obvious thing.

Written by Bill Desowitz

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