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David Cronenberg

Director, Producer, Screenwriter, Actor, Editor
(b. March 15, 1943 Toronto, Ontario)

Updated February 2013

David Cronenberg is Canada’s most celebrated, internationally renowned and controversial auteur. Based in Toronto, his career as a writer and director spans 40 years – from his independent experimental features and schlock films of the late 1960s and 1970s (Stereo, 1969; Crimes of the Future, 1970; Shivers, 1975; Rabid, 1976; The Brood, 1979) through his infamous forays into the science fiction and horror genres in the 1980s (Videodrome, 1983; The Fly, 1986; Dead Ringers, 1988) to his art-house adaptations of influential novels (Naked Lunch, 1991, from the novel by William Burroughs; Crash, 1996, from the novel by J.G. Ballard; Spider, 2002, from the novel by Patrick McGrath).

Cronenberg has built a reputation as a seriously transgressive artist whose cinema of existential tragedy routinely provokes the anxieties underlying middle-class values. As Take One’s Essential Guide to Canadian Film suggests, Cronenberg has been “lauded as a late 20th-century taboo-bashing genius by some and loathed as a puritanical body-fearing reactionary by others.” In recent years, the furor over Cronenberg’s work has died down considerably and he is now widely respected as a visionary. Indeed, Cronenberg has been recognized with many awards, including France’s prestigious Chevalier de l’ordre des arts et des lettres in 1990, a Special Jury Prize for audacity at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival for Crash, numerous Genies and a 1999 Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for lifetime achievement in film. He is also regarded as a consummate professional and the epitome of the polite and thoughtful Canadian.

Cronenberg was born in Toronto and raised in a progressive, middle-class Jewish family where he was exposed to science, arts and culture and many ideas from an early age. He enrolled at the University of Toronto to study science, but he became “spiritually disenchanted” with the program and turned instead to the burgeoning alternative art scene.

While earning a B.A. in literature, he became involved in avant-garde cinema circles. He helped establish the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre (CFMDC) and started making his own 16mm shorts, including Transfer (1966) and From the Drain (1967). These student films, while amateurish and comparatively austere, established some of the idiosyncratic trademarks for which Cronenberg would later become famous: the play with science fiction and horror genres through the recurring figure of the misguided scientist and his fragile masculinity; corporate greed and corruption; technology’s interface with the body; concern with aberrant mental and physical states; sexual paranoia; melancholia; and the stylistic embrace of modernism, surrealism, brutalism and the grotesque to render his unique vision. After making his first “more ambitious” works, the feature length Stereo and Crimes of the Future, he travelled to France (on a Canada Council grant) and developed his craft directing small television fillers.

In 1975, Cronenberg’s career was effectively launched with Shivers, a tongue-in-cheek, B movie horror flick about the release of a sexual parasite into a quiet suburban apartment complex. A raging public debate ensued over his status as genius or degenerate. In Film Comment, Martin Scorcese embraced the film as “genuinely shocking, subversive, surrealistic and probably something we all deserve”. Critic Robert Fulford (writing as Marshall Delaney) dismissed it in Saturday Night as “an atrocity, a disgrace to everyone connected with it — including the taxpayers.” Fulford’s article sparked a furious debate in the House of Commons over the suitable use of public funds. (According to legend, Cronenberg’s landlady evicted him as a result.)

Increasingly notorious in Canadian film circles for rejecting the Canadian realist tradition, Cronenberg went on to achieve increasing levels of financial success and critical acclaim. Scanners (1981) did very well at the box office and Videodrome became a cult classic, cementing his reputation as a pioneer in the horror/sci-fi genre. (In his lengthy essay in the anthology Toronto on Film, published by the Toronto International Film Festival, Geoff Pevere argues that Videodrome may be the archetypal Toronto movie.)

Courted by mainstream Hollywood producers such as Dino de Laurentis, Cronenberg received opportunities to work with bigger budgets and bigger stars: Christopher Walken on The Dead Zone (1983), Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis on The Fly; Jeremy Irons and Genevieve Bujold on Dead Ringers; and Peter Weller and Judy Davis on Naked Lunch. Moreover, these projects ushered in a new phase in Cronenberg’s development as an artist, one in which he opted to adapt existing source material more often than write an original screenplay.

While Naked Lunch and Crash have enjoyed critical acclaim, and much has been written about Cronenberg and his oeuvre in both the popular press and academic circles, Dead Ringers is generally regarded as his early masterpiece. As William Beard suggests in The Artist as Monster: The Cinema of David Cronenberg, it is the director’s “most mature film,” taking up “all the most important themes of Cronenberg’s projects.”

In the 1990s and 2000s, Cronenberg’s name was attached (often briefly) to a number of projects, but his next film after Spider was ultimately A History of Violence (2005), an adaptation of a graphic novel about Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), a family man whose life is overturned when a mysterious emissary (Ed Harris) turns up claiming that Tom is not at all what he seems. Universally praised, A History of Violence received some of the best notices of the director’s career: one of the best films of the decade in a poll conducted by Cinematheque Ontario; Best Canadian Film of the year by the Toronto Film Critics Society; countless other critics association awards (for the direction, Josh Olson’s adaptation, and the performances); and two Academy Award® nominations. Though the film wasn’t initially generated by Cronenberg, it was largely seen as sympatico with his earlier work, sharing similar themes with minor variations. (The past, for instance, replaces the body as a source of and centre for betrayal.)

The follow up, the London-set Eastern Promises (2007), re-united Cronenberg with Mortensen, who plays Nikolai, a henchman/hired killer in a Russian gang led by Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl). Nikolai is on the rise, gaining favourable attention from his superiors for both his ruthless efficiency and the attention he pays Semyon’s erractic and troubled son, Kirill (Vincent Cassel). His climb up the ranks is complicated by the emergence of Anna (Naomi Watts), a doctor who is trying to find the family of a child whose prostitute mother died in childbirth. The beautifully crafted film again showcased Cronenberg’s skill with actors, with many in the cast delivering their best work in years.

Produced by English Canada’s most prominent producer, Robert Lantos, Eastern Promises was almost as successful in terms of awards as its predecessor, winning numerous Genie Awards, the Cadillac People’s Choice Award at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival, prizes for best director, best actor and best Canadian film at the Vancouver International Film Festival, as well as numerous international accolades.

In 2011, Croneberg released A Dangerous Method, starring Viggo Mortensen (his third consecutive film with Cronenberg) as the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud; Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung, Freud’s most influential disciple and eventual apostate; and Keira Knightley as Sabina Spielrein, the patient who came between them and who would eventually become one of the world’s first female psychologists. Vincent Cassel plays Otto Gross, a bohemian psychologist whose views shake Jung’s world, while Sarah Gadon plays Jung’s long-suffering wife. A handsomely mounted period piece, adapted by playwright and filmmaker Christopher Hampton from his play The Talking Cure (which was itself based on John Kerr’s book A Most Dangerous Method), A Dangerous Method was viewed by many critics as one of Cronenberg’s most uncharacteristic efforts: Roger Ebert, for instance, noted that it was much more dialogue-driven than the director’s earlier work, while Andrew O’Hehir wrote in Salon, “Even as it deals with sexual perversity and severe mental illness, A Dangerous Method is a restrained and elegant costume drama driven by characters, language and ideas, not violence or outré imagery.”

Part of these and other critics’ evident surprise may have been generated by the seemingly genteel approach to the material , being as the director’s previous adaptations had indeed revelled in what O’Hehir deems “outré” imagery, and had in many cases reflected Cronenberg’s sensibility as much or more than that of the original source. (See, for example, Naked Lunch or Crash.) Regardless, A Dangerous Method was very well received, winning numerous awards both at home and abroad: it was nominated for eleven Genies, winning five (for Art Direction and Production Design, Overall Sound, Sound Editing, longtime Cronenberg collaborator Howard Shore’s score and a best supporting actor nod for Mortensen); won several Directors Guild of Canada Awards, as well as the Vancouver Film Critics’ Awards for best director and best supporting actor (Mortensen); and was voted on to TIFF’s annual Canada’s Top Ten list. (Fassbender meanwhile won citations from the National Board of Review, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the London Critics Circle.)

In 2012, Portuguese producer Paolo Branca suggested to Cronenberg that he adapt Don DeLillo’s 2003 novel Cosmopolis for the screen. Though Cronenberg was unfamiliar with the novel (despite being a fan of DeLillo’s work), he speedily adapted the book, transcribing the relevant dialogue and producing a viable first draft in less than a week. Although DeLillo’s uncannily prescient novel was based on the dot-com collapse of 2000-2001, it also seemed to predict the Occupy protests of almost a decade later and, to a lesser extent, the financial collapse of 2007-2008. Both novel and film focus on Eric Packer (played by Twilight star Robert Pattinson), a billionaire financier who watches, seemingly unconcerned , as the lavish cocoon in which he lives slowly but surely unravels in the wake of his decision to bet his entire fortune against the supposedly declining yen — which, against all logic, keeps rising in value. The film take place almost entirely in the back seat of Packer’s limo — where he takes successive visits from his IT expert, art dealer/ex-girlfriend, the wife whom he has just married (and hardly seen since), his physician and his finance officer — as he stubbornly and foolishly traverses New York City for a haircut, despite anarchic protestors in the streets and impassable traffic blockades occasioned by a visit from the president of the United States, which has effectively shut down Manhattan. Boasting one of the finest casts Cronenberg had ever assembled (including Pattinson, Jay Baruchel, Juliette Binoche, Paul Giamatti, Sarah Gadon, Samantha Morton, Emily Hampshire, Kevin Durand, and musician K’Naan), Cosmopolis was edgier and more formally daring than its immediate predecessor (though equally ruminative and philosophical) and made numerous international ten best lists, including Cahiers du cinéma (where it ranked second) and Sight & Sound, and was voted to the Toronto International Film Festival’s annual Canada’s Top Ten list.

Truly an actor’s director, many foremost stars have gone out of their way to work with him. (Cronenberg often takes on cameo roles in his own or other people’s films to experience what it’s like on the other side of the camera.) And he continues to be held in high regard as a role model and mentor for many of the Canadian new wave directors, such as Atom Egoyan and Don McKellar.

Film and video work includes

Transfer, 1966 (director; writer; cinematographer; editor)
From the Drain, 1967 (director; writer; cinematographer; editor; producer)
Stereo, 1969 (director; writer; cinematographer; editor; producer)
Crimes of the Future, 1970 (director; writer; cinematographer; editor; producer)
Jim Ritchie Sculptor, 1971 (director; writer; editor; producer; TV)
Letter From Michelangelo, 1971 (director; writer; editor; producer; TV)
Tourettes, 1971 (director; writer; editor; producer; TV)
Don Valley, 1972 (director; writer; editor; producer; TV)
Fort York, 1972 (director; writer; editor; producer; TV)
In the Dirt, 1972 (director; writer; editor; producer; TV)
Lakeshore, 1972 (director; writer; editor; producer; TV)
Scarborough Bluffs, 1972 (director; writer; editor; producer; TV)
Programme X series, Secret Weapons, 1972 (director; TV)
Winter Garden, 1972 (director; writer; editor; producer; TV)
Peep Show series, The Lie Chair, 1975 (director; TV)
Peep Show series, The Victim, 1975 (director; TV)
Shivers, 1975 (director; writer)
Teleplay series, The Italian Machine, 1976 (director; writer; TV)
Rabid, 1976 (director; writer)
The Brood, 1979 (director; writer)
Fast Company, 1979 (director; writer)
Scanners, 1981 (director; writer)
The Dead Zone, 1983 (director)
Videodrome, 1983 (director; writer)
Into the Night, 1985 (actor)
The Fly, 1986 (director; co-writer with Charles Edward Pogue; actor)
Friday the 13th series, Faith Healer, 1987 (director; TV)
Dead Ringers, 1988 (director; co-writer with Norman Snider; producer)
Ontario Hydro commercial, Hot Showers, 1989 (director; TV)
Ontario Hydro commercial, Laundry, 1989 (director; TV)
Ontario Hydro commercial, Cleaners, 1989 (director; TV)
Ontario Hydro commercial, Timers, 1989 (director; TV)
Cadbury Caramilk commercial, Bistro, 1990 (director; TV)
Cadbury Caramilk commercial, Surveillance, 1990 (director; TV)
Nightbreed, 1990 (actor)
Nike commercial, Transformation #1, 1990 (director; TV)
Nike commercial, Transformation #2, 1990 (director; TV)
Nike commercial, Transformation #3, 1990 (director; TV)
Nike commercial, Transformation #4, 1990 (director; TV)
Nike commercial, Transformation #5, 1990 (director; TV)
Scales of Justice series, Regina Versus Horvath, 1990 (director; TV)
Scales of Justice series, Regina Versus Logan, 1990 (director; TV)
Maniac Mansion series, Idella’s Breakdown, 1991 (director; TV)
Naked Lunch, 1991 (director; writer)
Blue, 1992 (actor)
M. Butterfly, 1992 (director)
Boozecan, 1994 (actor)
Henry & Verlin, 1994 (actor)
Trial by Jury, 1994 (actor)
Blood and Donuts, 1995 (actor)
To Die For, 1995 (actor)
Crash, 1996 (director; writer; producer)
Extreme Measures, 1996 (actor)
Moonshine Highway, 1996 (actor; TV)
The Stupids, 1996 (actor)
The Grace of God, 1997 (actor)
Last Night, 1998 (actor)
eXistenZ, 1999 (director; writer; producer)
Resurrection, 1999 (actor)
Dead by Monday, 2000 (actor)
Camera from Preludes series, 2000 (director; writer)
Jason X, 2001 (actor)
The Judge, 2001 (actor; TV)
Spider, 2002 (director; producer)
Alias series, Remnants, 2003 (actor; TV)
Alias series, Conscious, 2003 (actor; TV)
A History of Violence, 2005 (director)
Eastern Promises, 2007 (director)
Happy Town series, Polly Wants a Crack at Her, 2010 (actor; TV)
A Dangerous Method, 2011 (director)
London Fields, 2011 (co-writer with Roberta Hanley)
Cosmopolis, 2012 (director; writer)

By: Christine Ramsay
Additional notes by Steve Gravestock