Braking and Entering: Director David Cronenberg on His Austere and Unnerving J.G. Ballard Adaptation, Crash
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James Spader in the crash (Photo: Criterion)

The following interview with David Cronenberg about his film Crash originally appeared as the cover story of Filmmaker & # 39; s Winter, 1997 edition. Having just been republished in a new Criterion restoration, Crash is being republished online for the first time. Also with regard to Crash: Joanne McNeil's essay on the relationship between work and source material, J.G. Ballard's novel.

Blood, semen, and gasoline are the fluids flowing through David Cronenberg's compelling study of sexual fetishism, Crash. But Crash is not a messy affair, but amazes with its cool precision and clever type of intellectual provocation. Adaptation by J.G. In Ballard's cult 1973 novel about a group of jaded townspeople eroticizing car accidents, Cronenberg made his best film since Dead Ringers, a rigorous, minimal, yet emotionally moving romantic suite.

In Crash, James Spader plays a character named Ballard, a film director whose sex life with wife Deborah Unger has reached a dead end. When he accidentally smashes his car in Holly Hunter's vehicle one night and kills her husband in the process, a paraphilia is triggered among the three that moves between them like the mutated virus creatures of previous Cronenberg films such as Rabid and Shivers. The characters' growing obsessions lead them to Vaughn (Elias Koteas), a kind of rebel leader of car accident fetishists.

After Crash won a special award for “boldness” at the Cannes Film Festival, which was banned by local councilors in London cinemas and denounced by New Line owner Ted Turner, Crash is due this spring via New Line are opened properties.

Filmmakers: You originally read Crash years ago. Record and read it again before writing the script – how have the intervening years affected your approach to the material? Did you turn it differently than in the days of Rabid, for example?

Cronenberg: Knowing how you are changing in terms of your filmmaking is difficult. Of course, you hope you get better and more mature, but maybe you don't. I did not read the book carefully because, in my experience, I must be prepared to betray the book in order to be faithful to it. It sounds like a paradox, but it isn't. The two mediums are so different that if you try to be literally faithful, you will fail. So you have to adapt to doing something new for the screen that has its own life and that is filtered through your nervous system, your sensitivity. And with Crash, I really thought I had to do what I did with Naked Lunch – kind of a construct. Naked Lunch is not just the book, the life of his Burroughs, and that other foreword he wrote – all these other things. But to my surprise, when I started Crash, it went pretty straight to movies. I found a cinematic essence that wasn't in Naked Lunch. There were ongoing characters, character development. The book certainly has a clear, relentless tone. For me, this was a cinematic basis for the film, although it is true that the structure of the film is in no way classic, any more than the book is a classic Victorian novel. Crash looks like a regular mainstream movie on the surface but doesn't work like one, and that has created some interesting confusion and confusion.

Filmmakers: In terms of the structure of the story, one difference between the film and the book is that the book incorporates this idea of ​​spectacle and media mythology. Towards the end there is this big car accident with Elizabeth Taylor. But in the movie, which is about halfway through, the extras seem to go away and the movie becomes very claustrophobic and only deals with these three people.

Cronenberg: It's closer to five, but yes. But I don't see the book as a (dealing with) spectacle. Vaughn's desire to break up with Elizabeth Taylor and the fact that he almost does is told in an offhand sort of way. We can talk about why I don't have Elizabeth Taylor in the movie, but I found the book very inside. The police in the book are almost an abstraction. The book doesn't really go into (the John Grisham's) way of (portraying) the investigator's point of view – (the idea) that the police represent social forces. I don't think the book is really about social forces as it does internal forces, so I feel like I've actually stayed true to the book in that way. The film doesn't contain many extras. I had this poor man who kept saying, “I have these hundred extras. Should I get them out on the streets, make the streets come alive? “And I kept saying," No, I don't want her. " Basically, I felt like my process (in making the film) was the same as Ballard's. It's a bit like going back to Godard's invention of the jump cut and saying, "Whatever is boring and doesn't interest me, I'll just ignore it completely." It does not exist. I did that and I think Ballard did that too. I really don't want to know what a passerby in another car might think of that whore in the back seat of (Vaughn's) car. If the film were realistic, whatever we understand, we could expect (see) that reaction and it could be a source of entertainment. The film, like the book, is very strict, very distilled, and that gives you some of its tone. Even if the details with which we choose to do this vary from book to film, I think the process is the same.

Crash (Photo: Criterion)

Filmmakers: There was always this relationship between Ballard and the surrealist artists, the idea of ​​the outside world as a kind of projection of the subconscious –

Cronenberg: Yes! I agree.

Filmmakers: But Ballard was certainly interested in the 20th century landscape and its relationship with psychology. I can understand that Elizabeth Taylor is not in the movie, but what about billboards, advertising, the media?

Cronenberg: Watch TV –

Filmmakers: Law. That's not in the movie at all.

Cronenberg: That's right. And I have to say that his presence in the book isn't particularly dynamic either. Elizabeth Taylor – Elizabeth Taylor is no longer Elizabeth Taylor either. It doesn't have the iconic Hollywood value it had 25 years ago. Breaking Vaughn down with a 65 year old woman doesn't mean the same thing!

Filmmakers: But you could have had Sharon Stone in there or something.

Cronenberg: I don't think you could. I don't think Hollywood icons have the same function or power now as they did then. They are not the same. Also, it would belittle him to turn Vaughn into a celebrity stalker who wasn't exactly a set category when Ballard wrote, but is now. I wanted it to be slippery and difficult to locate. So those were the two main reasons I got rid of this whole "stalking Elizabeth Taylor" routine and replaced James Dean – dead dead, probably a 1950s Hollywood icon.

Filmmakers: When I first picked up the term "realism" I noticed that people know how to react when dealing with extreme subjects and when the film relates to the real world. For example, people might have been shocked by kids, but the idea that the film was some kind of education related to “kids today” enabled them to deal with it. The horrors of Crash, on the other hand, arise from the imagination, and that seems to be much more difficult for humans to manage.

Cronenberg: It is. But you can't separate the reality of the film from the structure. Hollywood film has been the predominant style of filmmaking since the dawn of cinema. Now even more. And people come to a movie with the “Hollywood filter”. One reviewer said to me: "What worries me most about your film is the lack of moral character." But in most of the movies, moral stance is just a narrative tool. The characters must be outraged, the filmmakers must be outraged, but it's a device. Most people know that no one who made the film cared about the subject was not outraged and could care less about it. One of the things this film is about is: What if you don't have this moral attitude? What's all the moral points of view are wrong? Or at least belong to the past and no longer apply – a truly existential view of modern life. We have no values. We can create any value we want. So taking a moral stance would mean completely betraying the movie's business. That's the most exciting thing you can do. Instead of composing a message, say, "I have no message." And that (idea) is not part of the Hollywood filter.

Deborah Kara Unger and James Spader at Crash (Photo: Criterion)

Filmmakers: The sequence of sex scenes that open the film is also not part of the "Hollywood filter".

Cronenberg: There are some very interesting formalistic problems that arise with this film. The fact that it starts with three sex scenes in a row really gets people going. They are either laughing or they are upset and don't know how to deal with it. Since some people have never seen more than one sex scene other than a porn film, they assume that the film is pornographic and respond to it (accordingly). You don't see everything that is developed in these scenes, the connection between the various scenes.

Filmmakers: How does the concept of pain differ from film to literature?

Cronenberg: Here, too, the two media are so completely different that they do not replace each other. In fact, for me, they hardly overlap. And one of the things even a Danielle Steele can do is the inner monologue. The voice-over (in the movie) doesn't produce the same effect. It's not the same in the movie when someone is in pain talking about their pain. A torture scene is very difficult to film (in a complex way) and not as a physical, hideous event that you watch and writhing over. To get across the intricacies of Crash, where pain is completely consensual and quite complex, I immediately went non-literal (in filmmaking). The soundtrack becomes very important and the rhythms of cutting begin to convey something of what is being experienced. Because film is so literal and physical, you have to work hard to overcome that.

Filmmakers: I know Crash was on a smaller budget than some of your other films. Did you have to go back to a previous way of working?

Cronenberg: I went back to a previous way of working, but that was the nature of the film, not the budget. Crash was much more like shooting scanners than shooting M Butterfly. The budget always feels the same: you never have enough. It doesn't matter how big it is. You feel like you are changing yourself, but because you're smart, you really aren't. And you are trying to take advantage of what might be considered a disadvantage. But every film is like that. We shot on the street, at night, in the cold and had to use a lot of ambient light because we couldn't afford to light five miles of highway. The scenes at the end, in the rain at night – that was real rain. At night 35 stunt drivers and 35 stunt cars were on the road. And we just put in (artificial light) when, like inflating car headlights, we could give (the movie) a controlled appearance. And we got roads that were very well used in Toronto (instead of) building a (brand new) freeway, the 407, which we could have had. I wanted a used look and texture. So this is a choice. You don't have full control or access, but instead get something else: the texture, the wear, the rust. The only thing I can say specifically is that I didn't know if I wanted to see Vaughn's final crash, but I would have tried if I could have afforded it. But I couldn't so I decided to do it off-camera and do a tableau.

Filmmakers: How did you handle all that auto work?

Cronenberg: I really wanted to avoid the clichés of an action picture, so there are no slow-motion shots and you don't see everything repeated from five different angles. One of the conceptual problems in creating this movie was dealing with the action movie logistics without making an action movie. I had to do the hard part without getting the goodies. I still had these 35 stunt drivers and was hard to choreograph, but also said, “I don't want the car to tip over. I don't want to film it flying in slow motion in the air and then exploding.” And even wherever I put the cameras on the cars – I mean, two of the most photographed things in the world have to be sex and cars. So it's in the subtleties. When people say they've never seen them photographed like this, I love it. You may have seen this footage in a commercial, but it's the way the camera angles are used relative to the dialogue that gives the off-center sound. Again, that has nothing to do with the budget. You have to put the camera somewhere.

Filmmakers: Have you built special auto rigs?

Cronenberg: Oh tons. We had six Lincoln's and I cut one of them in half and built a pickup truck so that the deck and back seats and trunk were all gone. We could make camera movements and carry lights and generators. We built very elaborate light tubes over the Porsche to generate some light. But it's pretty much invisible. We wanted it to blend in so you wouldn't feel a discrepancy between a very plastic studio look and an ambient light look.

Filmmakers:How did you occupy the cars?

Cronenberg: I really had to fight against my tendencies as a car enthusiast. I gave the Ballard character a very boring car – a Dodge dynasty, although we used our own symbol for it. I don't want it to be exciting. The wired magazine called Jacques Villeneuve, the Canadian racing driver, the ultimate man-machine interface – he has embedded the car in his physical being in such a way that he doesn't even think about it. I wanted to suggest that by giving Ballard a boring car.

Filmmakers: What is the emotional effect of a controversial film?

Cronenberg: I do not like it. I don't know if Oliver Stone really enjoys what he does about controversy. I have the feeling, without ever meeting him, that maybe he is a more combative and confrontational person than me. And maybe he's really happy when he upsets people. I'm not. If everyone who saw Crash said, "I enjoyed it," I would be perfectly happy. What is happening in the UK, where the press is deforming, demonizing and turning the film into something it is not before your eyes – that is very depressing. In France the (film) had a good healthy debate about what cinema should do and about sexuality. That is exciting. But this whole idea that all advertising is good advertising is not true. Talk to Salman Rushdie.

Filmmakers: There are many sexual fetishes in the world, but car accidents are not the most common.

Cronenberg: No.

Filmmakers: You can't go on the internet and find alt.sex.carcrash.

Cronenberg: You probably will soon.

Filmmakers: To what extent did you look for a real-life analog of Crash before filming?

Cronenberg: Not at all. I mean, the movie works on such a non-literal level that it's really irrelevant. What Ballard is saying isn't that car accidents are sexy. It is so that the event of the car accident contains a deeply hidden erotic element. I think that's true, and that's what we talk about in the film. But it's so difficult for people to take care of. Someone will say, "I was in a car accident and it's not sexy." I heard from this psychiatrist who said, “Yes, I deal with one of these guys every week. He visits her (car accidents) and stands around getting sexually aroused. “Strangely for me, it has almost nothing to do with the film. The movie has more to do with the relationship between sex and death – the fact that when we are physically at risk, we also become sexually aroused. There is a very ancient primordial trigger: members of your species are dying, so you should get sexy so you can mate and breed. Sex and death. Thanatos and Eros. Understood for thousands of years – mind you, not by British journalists. It's a very complex interrelation. At this level – mortality and death – you find the meanings that make sense in the movie.

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