David Cronenberg and Collaborators

There was a fantastic event organized by TIFF Higher Learning team on November 1: a meeting with David Cronenberg and his two collaborators, producer Jeremy Thomas and makeup / special effects artist Stephan Dupuis. The event was primarily addressed to students, and there were many of them in the audience. I overheard teens talking around me that they had never seen Cronenberg’s films before. Their first encounter with this director began from that live meeting with him. Most of the audience did not know what to expect; some, like me, had been dreaming about such meeting for about 20 years. The audience was rather diverse: people who love his films; those who write about Cronenberg’s work, or even people like Carol Spier, another Cronenberg’s known collaborator, who was sitting several seats away from me.

In the discussion moderated by Noah Cowan they touched upon a variety of topics related to the production of Naked Lunch (1991), eXistenZ (1999), Crash (1996), and Cosmopolis (2012). Here are some most interesting fragments of the conversation restored from my notes.


A mugwump. Although the exhibition downstairs suggests the similarities between the mugwump’s and Cronenberg’s faces, Cronenberg himself insisted that “the mugwump is Burroughs.” The mugwump, he said, was the way of creating Burroughs’s presence in the film, of imitating his voice. When asked about the look of the mugwump, Cronenberg said that it was a collaborative work of several people, on what Jeremy Thomas jokingly commented that it was a director’s decision in the end.

The mugwump, all agreed, was a real actor (and “a good one,” Cronenberg said, “because he was not very demanding”). Although, in a sense, he was: as Stephan Dupuis recalled, the mugwump was made very skinny (again, like Burroughs) and the tech people had a hard time inventing the way of pulling the cables through his body. “They were really mad at me,” Dupuis laughed, “because they used to work with a very different, very fat kind of puppets, never skinny one.” Dupuis also spoke about his work for Crash, “the movie about design wounds,” and the reaction of actors who wore his “designs.” “No, nobody was disgusted by the look of the special effects,” he said. Those who came to play the parts in Crash were people who would rather ask him to make a wound or a scar a little more than a little less affective.

A lot was said about Cronenberg’s avoidance of storyboards. He explained it by the way independent film works: because the crew has to improvise, to adjust to circumstances, to experiment on the set, the storyboards only create the unnecessary constrains for the crew. The three of them mentioned only one case, the very end of The Fly, when the sequence of shots was storyboarded. Otherwise, according to Cronenberg, “it’s a very organic work.” “I never do storyboards. I don’t know what I am going to do when I am going on the set. Fellini used to say ‘if I knew what I am going to do every day, I would be bored’.” “Filmmaking is found art.”

In his discussion of pre-production, Cronenberg was also rather critical about previsualisation, or previs, popular in today’s filmmaking. Its goal is in visualizing a film with a help of computer animation in order to suggest the ways of camera movement and the entire spatial organization of film. Previsualizaion is a modern substitution for storyboards. One often hears today in film production “I saw previs, it’s gonna be a great movie.” “Imagine,” Cronenberg said, “someone does previs even before the director comes to the film.” Just like with the storyboards, he does not accept it: “You kill the very idea of collaboration with the crew and the actors if you storyboard everything.” “A director should look at the monitor, not at the storyboard.” “A storyboard is a security blanket, and I am prepared to make a film not because I have a storyboard, but because I work with the script.” Storyboarding is “Hitchcock’s mythology,” Cronenberg concluded.

Jeremy Thomas was focused on the conversation, honestly sharing ups and downs of the producer’s work. Stephan Dupuis was incredibly sweet and funny. He was wearing a red bow tie. David Cronenberg has a great and very subtle sense of humour. Not that I did not know that. Everybody does who saw at least one of his films, but seeing him perform it for you is hilarious. I read somewhere he said he could have been (or was planning to become) a surgeon. He definitely could have been a stand-up comedian. I can’t believe I’ve just said it.