David Cronenberg on The Fly

The Fly has recently been remastered for DVD — how do you feel about the transfer? I know you had some issues with the image quality in the past.

Yes. The reason I agree to be involved in the commentary and features on this one is that they finally agreed to let me oversee the transfer. It’s really the first time that its looked right since it was on screen.

What are your thoughts on the film, 20 years on?

The one thing that struck me when I was watching it was how emotional it is. I know that when the movie came out people were very impressed by the love story.

Why do you think that audiences find the film is so disturbing?

It springs from very primal fears and emotions… anyone that takes a look at the human condition can see that the fear is very real. When you consider that much of art, religion and culture in general is created as a diversion from the questions of ageing and mortality and existence, and this movie really just dives right into that… It’s interesting to see what happens to Seth Brundle; he’s despairing, but he’s also very intrigued.  I’m 20 years older now than I was then when I made the film, and I can see now what I intuitively knew then, which is that the film is in many ways about ageing.

Do you think people are more sensitive to these emotions in the circumstances of a horror film?

Well there are many different sub-genres to horror films, but one of the things that the genre does do is that it’s very focussed on mortality.

What attracted you to re-making The Fly?

Well the original was popular but it was definitely a B-movie. I remember seeing it when it came out and I remember reading about Vincent Price having to suppress his laughter. Nonetheless it had a magnetism about it; even as a kid when I saw it. But the rethinking of the premise of the original — I thought it was pretty ingenious, it related to DNA and genetics that’s going on now and I thought it had something special. Mel [Brooks, the producer] can be very seductive and he had the idea that I was the right person to do it — and he was right.

Jeff Goldblum wasn’t your first choice for the role, was he?

No, we went to several people, and they were all afraid of the rubber. Jeff was not afraid; that’s part of his confidence in the strength of his own talent as an actor. People I think didn’t see him as having that strong physical presence… mostly he’d been a nerdy intellectual.

Would you say that you’re fascinated with the human body as a place of horror?

Not entirely. I see the human body as the first act of existence; we are our bodies. I don’t believe in an after life or a heaven or anything like that, so for me, the body is it. To understand the human condition — to understand something about our real existence — you cannot look away from the body, and they’re so much in our religion and culture that tries to evade that. I’m saying no, we have to look at the human body and not turn away from it, and that includes, therefore, accepting mortality. So I’m saying it’s not a horror; it’s natural. Part of my goal in my movies is that I’m trying to change people’s understanding of what is beautiful and what is not beautiful… we somehow have to accept the beauty of our mortality and not turn away from it… It still strikes me as odd that we have an aesthetic for the outside of the body but the inside of our bodies usually fills us with revulsion and disgust, and horror… that doesn’t make any sense, because it’s us. That’s why you have the Brundle museum, where he’s looking at the pieces of himself.

It’s kinda hard to have a museum like that in real life…

I’ve noticed a trend, though, when people have endoscopic examinations and laser eye surgery and various X-rays and stuff that they put it up on their walls and show them and it’s an interesting phenomenon.  If you look at a cat scan that shows the inside of your skull, it’s quite beautiful.

Is this fear of mortality the reason why many audiences are so unnerved by your films?

Yes. It’s [the fear] something that many segments of society play on to make money, and I suppose I’m trying to tell the truth.

Are you making a conscious move away from what people “perceive” as horror with Spider and now A History of Violence?

Not really, no. I think these films are still very physical and emotional films, too and they connect.

Tom Stall metamorphasises, in a way.

My subject matter is like one big crystal, with many facets and each facet you look into you have a different perspective — but it’s still the same crystal. I wouldn’t hesitate to do another genre piece or a horror film, if it was the right film

So you’re often approached with proposals for horror projects?

Yeah, I think people don’t really understand what I do, so they might suggest that I do Constantine, for example, or Dark Water, and I’ll say, Look, I don’t do the devil and I don’t do demons and I don’t do ghost because I’m philosophically opposed to those things.  Metaphorically I understand haunting, in sense I feel that I’m haunted by my parents who’ve been dead for a long time, but that doesn’t mean that they’re physically floating around. I mean, they’re floating around in my head. To me, to do a movie that suggesting there really are these spirits of the dead, physically, it implies an afterlife and I really don’t want to promote that because I think that’s a delusion.

It’s a tough thing to ask people to face.

If we accept that the time we have on Earth is really it and the paradise that we seek is only possible here on Earth now, well, we wouldn’t have suicide bombings, for example.

What’s your response to the critical acclaim for Violence?

It’s fantastic. It’s been very gratifying, I mean, it doesn’t happen all the time, so when it happens you enjoy it. It doesn’t mean you’re a better filmmaker to win awards or nominations, though.

— January 2006

Originally published in Empire.

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