Charting a constellation of has-beens, hangers-on and hopefuls, of celebrity Caligaris, doting agents and pre-pubescent divos, David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars, written by Bruce Wagner, is a caustic tour of Tinseltown, overflowing with cruelty, avarice and panic. Yet it is not without pity. It’s depiction of Havana Segrand (a valiant Julianne Moore) pays equal attention to the middle-aged actress’ solipsism and genuine desperation. Above all, Maps transmits sympathy for the tormented children of Stanford Weiss (John Cusack), a motivational speaker and experimental therapist whose interrogatory methods would not be out of place among the clinicians in Cronenberg’s The Brood. Weiss’ daughter Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), a pyromaniac returning from prolonged exile, and son Benji (Evan Bird), a child star and recovering addict, are both deeply disturbed and capable of viciousness, yet Maps closes on a note of solemn condolence for these star-crossed progeny who never had a chance.
Infused with fecund themes of institutionalized backstabbing, paranoid psychosis, persistent ghosts and bad biology, and delivered with a clipped, elliptical rhythm and precisely honed mise en scène, what impressed me most about Maps were the things that Cronenberg and his regular collaborators (cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, editor Ronald Sanders, composer Howard Shore) brought to Wagner’s script, which Cronenberg has been trying to make for over a decade. As for the script itself, the jokes are more brittle than funny, certain scenes whither before they properly begin, and certain twists seem forced (see the sudden, heavily telegraphed accidental execution of a household pet). Ideas feel over-worked, dialogue over-written. Here’s Robert Pattinson’s chauffer/aspiring actor-screenwriter: “I was thinking of converting [to Scientology]. Just as a career move.” That second line is explanatory, and sort of kills the joke.
But I’d be lying if I didn’t confess that, for all my reservations, Maps held me spellbound. Few directors can captivate so consistently by simply taking someone else’s material and making it utterly their own. But few directors are as singular in their sensibility as Cronenberg, who’s rounding out a pretty great year, one that’s included a new film, a major retrospective and exhibition at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox, and the publication of his excellent debut novel Consumed. So it was a great pleasure, as always, to speak with Cronenberg, one of my favourite living filmmakers (and a consistently engaged and intelligent interviewee), at a Toronto restaurant last week. I had to share him with two other journalists, but our talk, which I’ve edited down a great deal, was fluid and fun.
Our conversation begins when one of my colleagues says he interviewed Cusack, and that Cusack described Maps to the Stars as a fever dream.
David Cronenberg: That’s better than satire, which is the description most often used but one that Bruce and I object to. I think the meaning of satire has been diluted. People these days call anything that’s nasty and funny satire. But if you think of Jonathan Swift, of A Modest Proposal and Gulliver’s Travels, those were real satire, real attacks on society employing fantastical elements. Maps is too realistic to be satire. Bruce claims that every conversation in the movie is something he’s heard, and I believe him. Yet there’s a sense in which everyone in Hollywood is in a fever dream, some state of high temperature, of agitation and anxiety. I think that’s an accurate appraisal.
JB: Perhaps something else that removes Maps from the realm of satire is the fact that its humour is undercut by desperation, sadness, rage and loneliness, something emphasized in the way you continually isolate characters in the frame, even in scenes with lots of dialogue.
DC: That’s exactly true. It’s the absurdity of the human condition that’s the source of the humour. When I was shooting, Julie Moore, being the intelligent, sensitive actress that she is, immediately saw what I was doing. She said, “I see you’re isolating us all. We’re all in our own little bubbles. I like the security of the frame on me.” She understood that it was a subtle way of suggesting that these people, though speaking to each other, are not really communicating. There are very few two-shots. Most audiences won’t notice that but they’ll feel it, that the characters never really seem to occupy the same space.
My other colleague asks if the film’s depiction of Hollywood has prompted objections within the industry.
DC: The film hasn’t screened yet in Hollywood, but I’m curious to see what happens there. I had a studio head come up to me in Cannes, after we’d screened. He embraced me, and said, “Your movie scared the shit out of me. I couldn’t sleep last night. The next morning I went to a party at the Hotel du Cap, and all I could see were scenes from your movie.” I don’t think there’ll be backlash. Most of the movie people who’ve seen it say, “That’s my life.” History of Violence is the closest I’ve ever come to making a studio picture, but, believe me, I’ve seen and heard things as absurd and extreme as anything in Maps.
JB: You’ve mentioned the importance of shooting in the States, but you shot Cosmopolis, which is such an emphatically New York narrative, entirely in Toronto, creating an idea of New York. Could Maps not have been made here, creating an idea of Los Angeles?
DC: No. Because of the veracity of it. It’s almost a docudrama. Whereas Cosmopolis was such an innately surreal, conceptual film. You hope that there’s human reality in Cosmopolis, but it’s buried deep. It’s very stylized. I wouldn’t have wanted to shoot in New York. It would have been too real.
JB: A situation not unlike Naked Lunch.
DC: Right. We couldn't shoot in Morocco because of the Gulf War, but I thought, this isn’t Morocco—this is Interzone. So a stylized, drug-addled version of Morocco that could be created in Toronto was actually better. No so with Maps. You really need to shoot in the iconic Hollywood spots. At one point I said, “I’m not doing any shots that don’t have palm trees.” [Laughs]
JB: Now that you’ve spent several years writing your first novel, giving yourself the opportunity to sculpt characters entirely on the page, has that changed how you direct actors?
DC: I don’t know yet. I was writing Consumed between movies. Which is difficult, by the way. I’d rather not do that again. Likewise it’s impossible for me to know if I would have written a novel the same way had I never directed a film. In writing the book I was very much wanting to visualize the space the characters were in, how they moved around a room, how they were physically. That was very important to me—and it felt like directing. Certainly more like directing than screenwriting, where you don’t do any of that. Screenplays are a pared-down, weird kind of writing where your prose style doesn’t matter. All that matters is dialogue and narrative structure. Yet I think I always had a very visual sense of bodies and how they occupy space and relate to each other. I think that came before I made movies.
My colleague, the one who interviewed Cusack, now talks about interviewing Pattinson. He says Pattinson told him that Cronenberg might be retiring from movies.
DC: I tempt fate or the Devil or whatever by saying this may be my last movie. I thought maybe Cosmopolis was going to be my last. Why? I’ve no idea. Maps? I had lots of fun doing it, lots of energy. You worry, “Am I getting too old? Is this too stressful?” Abbas Kiarostami, who’s the same age as me, says it’s too hard, that he can’t do it anymore. He’d rather just do his photographs. And he got me thinking that maybe I’ll do that too. I’ll just write novels. But then my accountant says no, I can’t afford to retire. You can’t make as much money writing novels, unless you’re Stephen King. So where do I find myself now? I don’t have a rule that says I’m not making more movies, but it would have to be something very seductive to keep me from writing my second novel. Because that’s what I’m doing right now.
JB: I’m relieved to hear that, because something I like about your later work is this interesting tension between the material, which for the most part hasn’t been obviously “Cronenbergian,” and what we might construe as a “Cronenbergian” approach to it—the way you make it your own. With Maps, one thing that struck me as very in keeping with your interests in this sense of biological determinism, this classical notion of incest as a catalyst for tragedy.
DC: Incest wasn’t the major attraction for me, though it makes perfect sense that you’d see that. As you say, it has resonances of Greek tragedy, and also modern genetic tragedy. We know now why incest is not a good idea. Culturally there’s resistance to incest, but occasionally a culture can overcome that. That was the case with the Egyptians, where a royal’s blood was so special that they couldn’t possibly mate with a commoner, and thus had to marry a sibling or cousin to keep the bloodline pure. They overcame the taboo and suffered for it, because there was a lot of genetic weakness in the succession of Egyptian royals. So it’s good trope. I like the idea of Hollywood being incestuous, an enclosed ecosystem of ideas, with no oxygen, no new blood, everything recirculating and getting weaker, as we see with sequel after sequel after sequel. It was pleasing as a metaphor for what’s wrong with studio filmmaking.
JB: So what was the major attraction?
DC: Bruce Wagner. His dialogue, his characters, the madness that’s so convincing. Very rare to find a script with that much power just jumping off the page. And, as always, I had to feel that no one else could do it, or would do it. And that was certainly the case with Maps. [Laughs] Bruce couldn’t find anybody else to do it.