Get our free newsletter
David Cronenberg’s Spider is an entirely different creature from The Fly. The latter, the Canadian director’s biggest mainstream success, oozed with the corporeality that’s characterized most of his work. His new film, however, is a quieter, more cerebral affair. It’s also a project that began long before Cronenberg got involved, and it came to him already outfitted with a producer, a star, and a script (written by Patrick McGrath from his own novel). This is not the way the 59-year-old filmmaker usually works.
“When I started, I wrote all my own original scripts,” says Cronenberg, whose upswept silver hair, checked jacket, and expansive, articulate remarks suggest a hip college professor rather than a horror-flick auteur. “Partly that was because, as a beginning director, no one was going to give me a script. It was really a script that got me into the film businessmy first script was for a movie that here was called They Came From Within. But I’ve done a lot of adaptations, starting with The Dead Zone, which was a script I didn’t write, based on a Stephen King novel. M. Butterfly was based on a play. Crash was a script I wrote, but it was an adaptation of a novel. So I’ve done every possible variation.”
Working from someone else’s screenplay isn’t hard, Cronenberg says, although “I used to think it would be. I was very arrogant and intolerant of directors who didn’t write their own scripts. I didn’t think they were serious artists. Even though I knew that there were very good directors who couldn’t write.
“With Patrick’s script,” he continues, “the most that I did was subtract. There were things in it that were still vestiges from his novel that I didn’t think worked. I didn’t really write anythingI just took things away. But once you’ve done whatever you’re going to do with the writing, then you’re a director with a script, and it actually doesn’t matter whether it’s your own script or not. When things aren’t working, you curse the damn screenwritereven if it’s you. By the time you actually get to the set, you don’t know where the script came from.”
Ralph Fiennes plays Spider’s namesake, a mental patient who’s just been released to a halfway house in the bleak East London neighborhood where he grew upand broke down. “Normally, I don’t want to think about a particular actor while I’m reading a script, and certainly not while I’m writing one,” notes Cronenberg. “Because I want the character to evolve on his own, without my tailoring it, consciously or unconsciously, to a particular actor. On the other hand, I had tried to get Ralph into a movie, and he really seemed like an actor that I would like to work with. So I couldn’t resist that. And by Page 2, I thought, Well, Ralph has cast himself perfectly.”
The part in which Fiennes cast himself is almost mutewhich the actor has said was “a relief” rather than a hardship. “He does a lot of theater,” Cronenberg says. “He gets lots of chances to speak. If you think of it, it’s all body. An actor has his body to work with. Even if you’re thinking of voice, it’s all physical. He speaks body language in the movie, and that’s another kind of challenge.”
Spider is also a tricky assignment for its lead actress, who plays three roles. “I immediately said, ‘I think Miranda Richardson would be great.’ Because I also had my eye on her for some things that didn’t work out. And [the producers] said, ‘That’s amazing that you should say that, because they did a reading of the script’which is something that’s often done when producers are frustrated and they can’t get the movie made’and they asked Miranda to read those roles.’”
Richardson was hired, followed by Gabriel Byrne, Lynn Redgrave, and a newcomer, 13-year-old Bradley Hall, who plays Spider as a boy. “When I hear they talked to 500 boys for Harry Potter, the mind boggles,” Cronenberg says. “I talked to 36, and I thought that was enough.”
Keeping this cast together proved difficult, however, because money was tight. “This movie was not cheap by independent-film standards,” the director reports. “It was eight million U.S. dollars. But the budget that looked like it would work was 10. And we could not raise 10 million. A lot of us deferred our salaries. I did, and Ralph did, and Miranda, and the producers, and Patrick McGrath.”
Then, as production was about to begin, the director says, “the financiers were screwing up. The money wasn’t appearing when we needed it. When we starting building the sets, there was no money for it. So we had to stop everything and go to new financiers. That’s when we thought we might lose Miranda. It was very iffy. When we left England after three weeks of shooting, nobody in England had been paid. They would have had a perfect right to say, ‘We’re not coming to work until we get paid.’ But they didn’t. They hung in, and eventually they did get paid. You don’t like to do that.
“I have a very congenial set,” adds Cronenberg, who does indeed seem more easygoing than most of the characters in his films. “I like to have people feeling happy to be there and doing what they’re doing. I don’t yell, and nobody screamsnone of that stuff that you hear about. But there is tension if people are not getting paid and are worried about it.”
Most of Spider was shot on sets in Toronto, where the director usually works. But the East London exteriors give the movie a sense of time and place rare in Cronenberg’s work. He argues that M. Butterfly and Dead Ringers have a similar specificity, but concedes that “it’s true that it was different for me doing Spider. Because it’s set in an England that I almost know. It’s set in the late ’50s, and then the present tense of it is in the early ’80s. I first went to England in the mid-’60s, and it hadn’t changed much since the ’50s. So I have a personal connection that is not apparent in my other films.”
The production and costume designers furnished an accurate look, even shipping what Cronenberg calls “vintage, horrible English wallpaper” to Canada for the interiors. “I’ve talked to a lot of English people who lived in those areas, and they say it’s dead-on. They cringe when they see that wallpaper.”
And yet, he notes, something isn’t quite right. “The moments when Spider is alone on the streets of London, that isn’t really accurate. You would never find the streets of London that empty. Not in the ’40s or ’50sor probably ever.
“I had extras dressed ready to fill the frame,” he explains, “and I had period cars ready to drive through, and bicycles and baby carriages and stuff. But whenever I did that, it felt wrong. And I would keep taking them away. I’d say, ‘OK, let’s get rid of that baby carriage, let’s get rid of that bicycle.’ Until it was only Spider alone. And that felt right. I realized that to a certain extent I was making an expressionistic film. It’s expressing his isolation, his alienation, his sense of confusion.”
Cronenberg first went to London as a graduate student, but his most memorable experience there may be the one that came 30 years later, when he made 1996’s Crash, a controversial film about people who eroticize auto accidents. The movie was actually banned in Westminster, the central London borough that contains the city’s largest cinemas. “I could go on for five hours about the silliness of Crash in Britain,” he says. “Of course, the movie was controversial everywhere. Ted Turner tried to ban it here.”
A hostile British film critic, Cronenberg recalls, wrote that “‘this disgusting film even shows a man making love to a disabled woman.’ He thought he was politically correct somehow, but he blew it. The reaction from the disabled was, ‘This movie is the only movie that has ever shown how sex is for us.’ They had radio shows where disabled people were talking about their sexuality and saying, ‘We like Crash.’ People who live in England told me that for a year after Crasha year!there was not one day when there was not some reference to the film in the press or on radio or on television. I guess that’s fame.”
The director smiles. “There’s no press like the English press,” he says. “They’re really crazy.”
Cronenberg is reminded of the riots that erupted in Phnom Penh after a journalist there attributed a fictitious anti-Cambodian slur to a Thai actress. “The English would love to do that,” he declares. “They’ve probably got that on their wall as something to attain. If they could induce a riot in England that would have people killed because of one of their headlines, they would absolutely do it.” Mark Jenkins