On Saturday night (11.16), I went to see eXistenZ (first time on a big screen!) with Carol Spier in appearance for Q&A after the screening. Spier has been working with Cronenberg for a long while – since his 1979 film Fast Company where she worked as an art director. Since 1983 film The Dead Zone, she began collaborating with Cronenberg as a production designer.
Spier studied architecture and interior design until, at some point, she started doing theatre design on the side and eventually got involved in film design. As a production designer she creates the overall look of films (costume design, special effects etc.). She imagines and designs the actual set that hosts the entire choreography of the film. When asked during the Q&A session about how they usually start working on the film’s space, she said they start with the script, she and Cronenberg talk through all the details and characters: “David and I chat, decide the direction we would go, then he leaves me to work.” “His scripts are very detailed.”
Spier recalled that eXistenZ was her first exposure to the game world. The biggest challenge while working on this film was “creating the world that was not real but was supposed to look like real,” while at the same time, it had to have “a feeling of not being real.” There was a question about the design of a pod and a tooth-gun. Spier confirmed that both were entirely Cronenberg’s ideas and that he worked on these designs with the prosthetics and special effect people.
Someone pointed out that in the scene by the end of the movie where the players, relaxing after the game, were all sitting and staring at their devices that looked very similar to today’s tablets or smart phones. I admit, until this screening, I never really noticed this short scene. Possibly because last time I saw eXistenZ was in 2009. “How could you predict that?” the viewer asked. “We did not know that everybody would be sitting and texting; we must have had some kind of insight,” Spier said. I would be very interested in looking at the production notes for the film, if such exist, to see if Cronenberg or someone from the team were building upon the fictional prototypes (i.e. as in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey) or if they were familiar with such projects as Alan Kay’s Dynabook, “a personal computer for children of all ages.” In any case, the devices themselves were not of a big surprise for me, but a certain type of behaviour and body language of users associated with this technology depicted in eXistenZ is strikingly accurate.
Spier was asked about her own favourite Cronenberg’s film. She laughed, but then she mentioned The Fly and also Naked Lunch. “I waited for 9 months, turning down many job offers, to be able to work on this film.”
“When I walked through the show,” she said, “I was trying to recall our work on those films. Some things I don’t even remember now and always think – wait, how did we do that?” It happened that I was there at that moment too – walking through the galleries of David Cronenberg: Evolution. I saw Carol Spier stopping near every prop, reading all the information about it; she looked quite consumed by the show. For a second I thought of approaching her, since I was looking for the ways or getting in touch with her regarding an interview for my book project for a so long time, but I stopped myself. There was something about that intimacy of her engagement with the objects that you would not want to interrupt.
Here is a good 2012 interview with Spier by Timo de Rijk: