Flavorwire Interview: David Cronenberg on Body Horror, Dick Pics, and His First Novel, ‘Consumed’

Insect-ravaged breasts; underground surgery; philosophical musings about “cancer beauty,” consumerism, and Crisco; intercontinental sex games; geopolitics and global conspiracy; cannibalism and techno-fetishism; Sartre and Beckett; North Korea and the Cannes Film Festival: David Cronenberg’s provocative debut novel Consumed weaves together some of the sui generis filmmaker’s most outlandish images and associations yet.

The promise of lurid headlines and hotel sex beckons long-distance lovers and journalists Naomi and Nathan around the world. They become entangled in a bizarre case involving elder Marxist philosophers and sexual libertines Célestine, who was gruesomely murdered, and Aristide Arosteguy. He’s been accused of the crime — and of consuming her mutilated body. An interconnected story involving an unlicensed surgeon, a rare STD, and a family full of secrets weaves together a surreal, shocking tale that taps into familiar Cronenbergian anxieties.

We recently spoke with the director about his process and preoccupations, dick pics, journalism, and what he thinks of the term “body horror.”

Flavorwire: You recently called yourself a cannibal. As a novelist, you stated that you cannibalize your life and the lives of people around you to bring your characters to life. Your films tend to feature recurring actors, which suggests your on-screen characters might materialize in a different way. Is it the same when you’re writing a screenplay?

David Cronenberg: No, it’s really different. I found this was a new thing for me, what I was describing, this cannibalization [laughs]. It is just much more interior, intimate kind of writing. Screenwriting is sort of held at arm’s length. Rick Moody — who I just did an onstage discussion with last night at the New York Public Library — said in an essay he wrote about the making of the movie The Ice Storm from his novel, that movies were always in the third person and novels were always in the first person. Maybe not technically, but emotionally. When you’re writing a screenplay, it’s a different distance. It’s almost like when you watch a movie, you’re quite a distance from the screen. And when you read a book, it’s quite close to you — to your heart and your brain, physically. In a screenplay, you are making a template for a lot of people to collaborate with you on: your actors, casting people, location people, costumers, lighting technicians, your cameraman. With a novel, there are none of those people. It’s a much more direct communication with your reader.

A key strength of the book is its associative power. It’s a collection of lifetime obsessions and ideas that we’ve seen throughout your films — from the Baudrillardian connections to Videodrome to the scathing satire also seen in Cosmopolis and Maps to the Stars. But the book is a metamorphosing of those interests. You made me think about how people consume the same information in new ways over time. What made these concepts in the book different from the way you explore them in film?

Some people, film critics, always feel like you have a list of stuff — a list of themes and metaphors and concerns and obsessions. And it’s nothing like that. When I’m writing, when I’m making a movie, it’s as though I’m making the first movie I’ve ever made. Except for my understanding of the medium technically — my experience helps — it’s as though I never made another movie. When I set up a shot, it’s as though I never did another close-up in my life before. And I want that, because I need that freshness.

With this novel, it really was the first time I had written, so I didn’t have to pretend [laughs]. I suddenly get into the heads of my characters. I’m living their lives, interconnecting them plot-wise with other characters in a very direct relationship I have with that. Therefore, I know that my nervous system is what it is. It’s related to what it used to be when I was younger. But it has changed. We now know it has literally, physically changed. Your neurons in your brain are constantly renewing themselves, so you are really working them in a different neurological system, with new experiences embedded within. I assume, but I don’t really care, that those things will take care of themselves. The things that I’m interested in, that I’ve always been interested in, will always be there. Some new things that I’ve never been interested in before will suddenly come to the fore — some political things, for example, which you won’t find in my movies. And some philosophical things and intellectual things, which are much more accessible in the novel form than they ever are in film.

Movies, in some way, are very restrictive — compared to what you can do in a novel. It might not seem so, because we’ve all seen epics take place in many cities with a lot of characters, so you feel that a movie is very expansive and very broad. But I feel that the most intimate and profound creative way is a much less broad and freeing kind of art form.

You introduce characters, young and old, whose lifestyles suggest libertine attitudes about desire as pleasure, not possession. But their lives are consumed by acts of ownership through technology — which you handle in a relentless, American Psycho kind of way — and cannibalism. One of the mantras is: “Even desire for a product, a consumer item, is better than no desire at all.” I’m also thinking about the passage in which Naomi takes dick pics of Nathan. People often hang on to pleasurable experiences by capturing and preserving them — in this case, via iPhone. How do you perceive our culture of sexting and dick pics and the inherent possessiveness of it?

I lived through the ‘60s, where there was a different kind of libertinism [laughs]. It wasn’t thought of that way, unless you were very right-wing and conservative. It was thought of as just freedom — freedom from oppression, really. And so it had a political aspect to it as well. Sometimes people talk about my movies as being cool and clinically detached, and I suppose you could say the same at some point about my novel, but for me it’s not detachment — it’s neutral observation. I’m letting the characters be what they are. Certainly for a young journalist [like Naomi and Nathan], you have to be plugged into the Internet, you have to adapt to technology, you have to know what an instrument is or what it can do. So they’re not obsessed with technology. They’re just fish living in water. There’s the old saying: “A fish doesn’t know what water is.” And for them, they’re in that water of technology. If a reader says this is a horrible way to live that’s developed amongst our young people, that’s OK. I’m really being an observer. I’m not being any sort of a prophet or moral creature. I’m just saying that this is what I see as our current reality.

Photo credit: Myrna Suarez / Simon & Schuster
Photo credit: Myrna Suarez / Simon & Schuster

During a pivotal Skype conversation in the book, the call crashes. The character describes looking at a digital vacuum on the screen created by the pixelated ghost image and the standard, cosmic Mac desktop image. It reminds me of Jean-François Gautier’s Does the Universe Exist?, in which he states that a galaxy can be observed, but the universe cannot. The observer is never truly objective or separate. Is the Internet overreaching in that it’s an attempt at categorizing an unquantifiable whole?

I’ve always felt that technology is us. Technology are us. In the 1950s, all the sci-fi stories were about how dehumanizing technology was and how soul-destroying. But in fact, it’s an extension of us. I’m talking to you on the phone, the phone is an extension of my ear and my voice, to that extension is an extension of my neurological system. All technology comes from human beings — from their creative imagination and so on. Therefore, it embodies all that is good and bad in us — from the most horrifying war machines to the most beautiful creations possible. I don’t really see it as being separate from us and molding us from outer space. We have seized control of our own evolution without perhaps being conscious of it and without perhaps having an end goal in mind. We no longer live in nature, where we are formed by the environment and against the environment. When it’s cold, we create fire to keep us warm. Now we can recreate fire in almost all of our environments — and therefore, we derailed what would have been considered natural evolution to a sort of techno evolution of us. Is that bad? Is it good? Well, it’s both of those things.

Consumed has this great mischievous sense of humor that is often overlooked in your movies in favor of the visceral. I’m thinking of things like the verbal and intellectual sparring in A Dangerous Method, or your casting choice in Rabid [porn star Marilyn Chambers]. In the book, there is some clever word play. You also make a humorous self-reference, labeling one of Naomi’s computer folders “body horror.” Can you talk more about balancing the humorous and menacing?

It’s part of my response to the freedom and intimacy of the novel form, which I don’t find in the film form. One of the reasons I wanted to write a novel was: Do I have a literary voice? Do I have a prose voice? And if so, what is that voice? The only way you can discover that is to write and to let it flow in a natural way without a preconception of what you should be writing or what people expect you to write based on your movies. You have to forget all that stuff and just relate directly to your own head, which is part of the intriguing wonderfulness of writing for days and days and days. You can play that sort of game with yourself. It just arises organically out of the desire to create a narrative and to have characters who come alive, who feel physically and intellectually as though they exist to the reader.

In the book, there’s a memorable scene where Naomi takes Aristide Arosteguy’s (Ari’s) photo. He invites her to capture inside “the mouth of the cannibal” by stretching his cheek open to one side with his finger. Naomi describes it as grotesque and perverse. The passage startled me, because there’s a photograph of you on the cover of a different book [David Cronenberg: Interviews with Serge Grunberg] doing the same thing. Do you want to talk about any parallels?

Aha! You’ve caught me. That is exactly what happened. That was what the photographer wanted me to do. I did feel that it was a very perversely intimate kind of thing he was asking me to do. But it was also inventive and surprising. That’s part of the cannibalizing I’m talking about. That occurred to this character, but the character is not me. That’s the kind of thing you can do in a novel. You can do it to a certain extent in a movie, yes, but not so fully. Because you can give physical characteristics to people you know to some of the characters in your book. So it’s not really immediately transferable to what you do in a movie.

In that same book of interviews, you discussed a difficult period in your personal life that coincided with writing The Brood [a divorce and child custody battle]. You talked about your compulsion to write The Brood and how that experience was unusual for you since your writing usually comes from a more intuitive, creative, fantastical place. You said that it was the closest you ever came to your autobiographical first novel. Do you still feel that’s true?

In a way, Consumed could be a kind of intellectual autobiography, and it would be very obscure to follow the twists and turns of that. It’s certainly my response to real people in the book embodied by certain characters, but it’s not what people would normally think of as autobiography. And of course The Brood technically being a horror-fantasy on some levels, there’s not a lot of biography either. But it’s true that was the movie that was closest to me compared to all the other films I’ve made. Perhaps the novel Consumed in some ways is the next closest to me, but it is because of that intimacy that I was talking about.

In Consumed, you take on a new form of “parajournalism.” You describe parajournalism as an artistic collaboration. The other collaborations in the book involve a type of parasitic roleplay — as in the scene where Ari breathes into Naomi’s mouth or has her act out a surgical procedure. Do you characterize the relationship between the subject and journalist as a form of collaboration or does it feel more invasive to you?

It can be almost anything (laughs). Certainly I mentioned the old New Journalism that Tom Wolfe promoted: the idea that the journalist becomes partly the subject of everything he or she writes, that he should be a real performer, that he should shape the narrative, and that mixing in some fantasy and fiction was OK. I think that Naomi and Nathan are too timid to pursue it aggressively, but they’re kind of doing it anyway — almost accidentally they’re getting involved with the lives of their subjects. And they are aware that there’s a sort of historical precedent in journalistic theory about New Journalism that maybe gives them support for what they’re doing.

But really there’s almost a Henry James element here, in which you have naïve North Americans getting involved with cynical, sophisticated Europeans. And although times have changed, I still think there’s a little bit of that, and it’s accurate. I’m not really saying this is what all journalism is or should be, and I’m not even saying that’s been my experience of journalism — because, actually, I’ve never had anyone be that invasive or involved in my life as a journalist. In fact, one of the reasons I don’t have a Facebook page or I don’t Twitter is because I don’t really want to be that accessible, frankly (laughs).

Right now everyone is talking about seeing Ben Affleck’s penis in Gone Girl. But you’ve already featured full-frontal male nudity in Eastern Promises

And in Maps to the Stars. There’s very definitely male frontal masturbatory stuff in that movie as well.

Yes. It’s still one of cinema’s last taboos. You address a more aggressive taboo in the book: cannibalism. You also address taboos surrounding the sexuality of an aged person.

Which would be me [laughs].

Is there a thrill in addressing a taboo for the first time? What are the challenges in taking on something like that?

There’s no challenge. All you have to do is not be afraid to do it. I’m 71, but I still like and have sex — so I’m going to write about it. If you’re really writing deeply about a character, you have to deal on some level with their sex life, because it’s such a huge part of life even though it’s often hidden. You can have very good friends you’ve known for years, a couple, and you have no idea what their sex life might be like. That’s often the case. But when you’re writing, when you’re creating some narrative, you are really wanting to go into those dark corners that are hidden in people’s lives, because that’s interesting. You know, I thought I would have my first novel published at 21, because I always thought I would be a novelist and never imagined I’d be a filmmaker. I probably wouldn’t have been talking about elder sex then. That’s undoubtedly true, but now that I’m living that, it’s just a natural subject.

Your film focus has shifted away from overt horror imagery. The book suggests a return. Will we be seeing more body horror on the big screen?

I don’t even know what body horror is. It was invented by some clever journalist, and it seems to have stuck. The body is not a source of horror, it is what we are. My focus is on the body, and I don’t think of it as an obsession at all. For me, the body is the first act of human existence. I don’t believe in an afterlife. I don’t believe in a spirit that exists apart from the body. It is all body. It’s natural for someone to be interested in what happens to their body — and for me as a writer, likewise as a filmmaker — to focus on the body as well. What is it you photograph the most? You’re photographing the human body, the human face. To me, you’re photographing the beautiful, wonderful aspect of it. And then if you accept what George Bernard Shaw said about conflict being the essence of drama — if the body is your subject and you’re dealing with conflict within the body — then immediately you’re dealing with things that happen to the body. It’s not really a question of horror, per se. In my early films, which are all definitely in the horror genre, you can get that.

Will there be another book? What about your next film project?

I have a current tickling of a book idea. I would definitely like to write another book. At the moment I don’t have any film projects. You never really know what might come along the next day, but at the moment there is no movie that I feel I must make. But I do have the desire to make another novel.