INTRODUCTION: From Novel to Film

Chris Rodley: Great books often make very bad films. J. G. Ballard's Crash is so original and so complete a vision in itself that it must have seemed a daunting challenge.

David Cronenberg: It's also hermetically sealed. But there was something about it that I thought really did lend itself to being distilled and transformed into a film. You can only go on your instinct. When I fiinally started to write it, I was surprised just how directly it distilled. I hought I would be doing a lot more funny stuff, like inventing other characters, changing things structurally. But it distilled in a very pure way. And what was left was not only the essence of the book, but a living thing in its own right.

Chris Rodley: With The Naked Lunch, you said it was a matter of choosing exactly when to do a film adaptation. That you had to let it alone until you felt you could assert yourself over the material. Was that the case with Crash?

David Cronenberg: I might have put the book away before I finished it, because I was afraid I was going to want to make it into a movie. That was probably the gestation period: between when I didn't finish it and when I did. But then I didn't think about it for a couple of years. I think it needed that time to settle.

Chris Rodley: Have you managed to make Crash the novel into a Cronenberg film?

David Cronenberg: Every day you're making a thousand decisions about what a film should be. It's hard to feel that it's not you. I think this is a lovely fusion of me and Ballard. We're so amazingly in sync. We completely understand what we're both doing. Right down to why he called the main character 'James Ballard'. There was never a question in my mind that I wouldn't call that character James Ballard. I knew why he did it. For some people it might seem strange. It is quite unusual. It might be unprecedented for an author to write a book like Crash and name the main character after himself. All of these things just seem so right to me.

Chris Rodley: You and Burroughs are very different as people, in that Burroughs lived his books. Are you closer to Ballard? He has always distinguished between his imaginative life and his 'ordinary' daily existence.

David Cronenberg: I think that's true. Although I don't know if I could live in Shepperton! But even when you talk to Burroughs he'll say, 'Look, I spend 70 per cent of my life sitting at a desk, so how adventurous is that?' And now he lives in Lawrence, Kansas. That makes Toronto seem adventuresome! But I do know what you mean. The Ballard character in Crash could just as easily have been called David Cronenberg, and it would have the same relationship to me as Ballard the character does to Ballard the writer.

Chris Rodley: The shooting script of Crash is only 77 pages. Very short. Was that intentional?

David Cronenberg: Yes. I've been doing that for some time. It's part of what I think is my strength as a producer/director. It's a question of control. I shoot slow, with a lot of attention to detail. I'd rather focus microscopically on 77 pages. I like to have the script really pared down.

It's also an issue of budget. If I'd had a120-page version of Crash, I couldn't have afforded the movie. My shooting schedule wouldn't have been any longer in terms of days, but it would have been almost half the time that I needed to do it right. I remember George Bernard Shaw saying that the length of a play is dictated by the capacity of the human bladder. You've got to get up and pee!

I like things to be taut and intense. To make a two-hour movie of Crash would be so draining people would hate me for it! If you're going to do different material on low budgets, that's a critical thing. Also, with a 77-page script I'm building a protection for myself and my actors. I can guarantee them that I have control, that I have final cut. That's part of directing actors.

Chris Rodley: It's a very hardcore script. When it was completed, were there any 'worried' reactions initially?

David Cronenberg: My then agent at CAA, who I still like very much, said, 'Do not do this movie. It will end your career.' When I said, 'I really want to do this,' he said, 'OK, then forget I said this. As a friend and business associate I felt I had to tell you.' I changed agents ultimately, and certainly that moment had something to do with it, because he really wanted me to do films like The Juror with Demi Moore. So I figured that we weren't talking about the same stuff. We'll see if Crash ends my career. I don't think so. I've never been in competition at Cannes before. That's definitely a good career thing!

Chris Rodley: To get this script made, did it have to be low-budget?

David Cronenberg: It was always going to be low budget. There was no question. It was obvious from the word go that $10 million was really what we were talking about. The question then became how far under 10 million.

Chris Rodley: After the big-budget location extravaganza of M. Butterfly, was Crash intended as a back-to-basics Cronenberg movie?

David Cronenberg: Absolutely. That was very conscious. But it wasn't just the budget. It was also subject matter. My last three pictures have basically been studio pictures. Even M. Butterfly, despite the location shooting. Here we were shooting in Toronto locations with available light. There was no way we could afford to light three miles of road. It was very much like shooting Scanners. This means you have to absorb and incorporate what's there. It's much more like found art, and that's very exhilarating.

What's interesting is that this extended to the music as well. Since Dead Ringers my composer, Howard Shore, had gotten into the habit of going to London and recording with an 84-piece orchestra! We didn't have the budget, so he came to Toronto. He hasn't recorded in Toronto since Videodrome. So it would be: first day, do the whole movie with six electric guitars; third day, do the whole movie with two percussionists. Very much like we did on Scanners and Videodrome. We had many discussions about returning to the old style, except we felt we were a lot better at it! But the techniques and the parameters were like the old days.

Chris Rodley: Seeing Crash, I was immediately reminded of very early Cronenberg. Shivers and Rabid mainly. Like those two, it is uncompromising, very stark and very bleak.

David Cronenberg: I don't disagree. I was also thinking of the Darryl Revok character in Scanners. Vaughan in Crash does seem very much like my own creatures, who were emerging at the same time Ballard was writing his creatures.

Chris Rodley: There also seems to be a sci-fi link. Ballard's version of science fiction isn't dissimilar to the worlds of Videodrome, Scanners or Shivers. Is it or isn't it the future?

David Cronenberg: Yeah. The conceit that underlies some of what is maybe difficult or baffling about Crash, the sci-fi-ness, comes from Ballard anticipating a future pathological psychology. It's developing now, but he antipates it being even more developed in the future. He then brings it back to the past - now - and applies it as though it exists completely formed. So I have these characters who are exhibiting a psychology of the future.

I think that'll be tricky for some people. If they try to apply the normal movie psychology to these characters, they're doomed to be confused, baffled and perhaps frustrated by Crash. Where are the sympathetic characters? Where is this recognizable domesticity that is then destroyed by Vaughan?

Some potential distributors said, 'You should make them more normal at the beginning so that we can see where they go wrong.' In other words, it would be like a Fatal Attraction thing. Blissful couple, maybe a dog and a rabbit, maybe a kid. And then a car accident introduces them to these horrible people and they go wrong. I said 'That isn't right, because there's something wrong with them right now. That's why they're vulnerable to going even further.' The novel is uncompromising in that way. Why shouldn't the movie be?

Chris Rodley: Ballard loves the film and says it is even more extreme than the book. Do you agree?

David Cronenberg: In the book you're in the head of the character James Ballard.There's that interior monologue thing that fiction does so beautifully, and which movies cannot do at all. Maybe that would give people more of a feeling of empathy for the character. But not much. When Ballard says that I go even further than the book, that delights me. I don't know how accurate it is though. I think it might just be a difference in the media. The immediacy of movie reality might do that on its own.

Chris Rodley: Hearing that Holly Hunter was to play Helen Remington, it sounded like radical casting. How did you decide on her?

David Cronenberg: I've had some people saying angrily. 'I don't know what Holly Hunter was doing in this movie!' Outraged. But that's Holly. She wants to outrage those people. She was the first in! I hadn't even sent the script out. Her agent phoned me and said, "Holly wants to play Helen Remington." Holly is tough in ways her fans don't realize. She's not afraid. She had let me know as far back as Dead Ringers that she liked my movies and wanted to work with me. So you see an actor saying, 'OK, so I've got some power now. I've got some fame and clout and what I want to do is work with these people who always seem to do things that I wish I was in.'

We did have some discussions, but always with the understanding that she was already in. This was a character she wanted to explore. You can imagine the kind of things that Holly must get offered. None of them would be like Helen Remington! So we talked about the function of the character in the script.

Chris Rodley: What about James Spader?

David Cronenberg: Well, I was really surprised that right away he wanted to do it, because he's doneso many different kinds of movies it's hard to know. It was obvious he wasn't afraid to play unromantic or strange characters. But I didn't realize the depths to which he was willing to go in terms of exploring the dark. He really was an incredible collaborator and buddy once we started. He said that he was afraid of the script, as well as being intrigued, terrified and mystified by it. But he absolutely wanted to do it. So I thought, 'He's my kind of guy.' He did want to know who else was going to be in Crash, because he said, 'After all I do fuck everybody in the movie.' So I thought, 'He's going to be fine.' And by God he was more than fine.

Chris Rodley: How did he cope with doing certain scenes? He has to f*ck a wound in Rosanna Arquette's crash-damaged leg!

David Cronenberg: In the character that Rosanna Arquette played, there's a definite humour involved. But people are pretty grossed out by that scene, I must say. But for me and for James it was just,'Well, it's in the book, and it's in the script.' It made perfect sense and was integral to what's happening with those characters at that time. Being involved in a strange sexuality that is a mutation - not genetically but physically - through scars, car crashes, and self-mutilation. It was just a question of how to do the scene effectively. The way you would do a dialogue scene.

I did a little rehearsing with this movie because the actors requested it. As Holly put it, it's really a matter of comfort. Getting to know each other, given what everybody had to do. So we sat and talked and told stories, read stories, discussed what were the nuances of the dialogue and how could we best make them work.

Chris Rodley: There's another very confrontational scene of anal sex between Deborah Unger and Spader. They're in bed, and Unger talks throughout their f*cking about Vaughan and his car. How it must smell of stale semen et cetera.

David Cronenberg: She's very verbal there because what's happening is that they're incorporating Vaughan into their sex life. So the way she talks - getting her husband aroused by talking about him having homosexual sex with Vaughan - means there are really three people in that scene. That is very close to how the scene is in the book.

That was a difficult scene to do, but in bizarre ways.You can't get hair to look the same when it's messy! You can't get pillows to scrunch up the same way! I had those agonies, as well as getting the scene to work. For the movements to be sexy, elegant but awkward. And finding the right tone. It's difficult for actors physically when you're doing a lot of takes.

Chris Rodley: You did a lot of takes on that?

David Cronenberg: Oh yeah. Several masters, and several of each close-up. We had to take breaks and stuff. One of the ways that I worked in this movie was to let the actors look at tapes of what they'd done. I've known directors who won't tape what they're shooting, or who deliberately use horrible black-and-white monitors so the actors won't look good. I had the best colour monitor I could possibly find, and I showed my actors whatever they wanted to see. It was a measure of trust. They could see exactly how they looked naked, how they looked talking, or where their ass was when their skirt was pulled up. If they were going to freak out and be upset then fuck it, they were going to freak out and be upset and we'd discuss it. I found it was well worth the time on the set in terms of just finessing what they were doing.

Chris Rodley: The movie begins with three sex scenes in a row. Again, this seems very confrontational.

David Cronenberg: It is. There are moments when audiences burst out laughing, either indisbelief or exasperation. They can't believe that they're going to have to look at another sex scene. To me that was replicating the tone of the book, which was absolutely unrelenting and confrontational. I thought that was one way I could replicate that.

Chris Rodley: In fact, rarely does a sex scene appear in isolation. They usually come in pairs!

David Cronenberg: And they all mean different things too. Each one leads to the other one. The first scene is of Deborah Unger with this anonymous guy in a airplane hangar. Then James Spader with an anonymous camera girl. They're parallel of course. And then James and Deborah come together, fuck, and compare notes. That's how they develop their sexuality. In one of my little test screenings someone said, 'A series of sex scenes is not a plot.' And I said, 'Why not? Who says? It worked for Arthur Schnitzler.' And the answer is that it can be, but not when the sex scenes are the normal kind of sex scenes: lyrical little interludes and then on with the real movie. Those can usually be cut out and not change the plot or characters one iota. In Crash, very often the sex scenes are absolutely the plot and the character development. You can't take them out. These are not twentieth-century sexual relationships or love relationships. These are something else. We're saying that a normal, upper-middle-class couple might have this as their norm in the not-so-distant future.

Chris Rodley: I was struck by the desire in the film to merge with metal and technology. It reminded me of ideas like the handgun in Videodrome.

David Cronenberg: A car is not the highest of high tech. But it has affected us and changed us more than anything else in the last hundred years. We have incorporated it. The weird privacy in public that it gives us. The sexual freedom - which in the 50s wasn't even subtle! I mean, the first guy who had a convertible in High School was the guy who had the sex. He could take girls out to the country and do things to them. You'd have to take the fucking bus, and that's not the same. He had a mobile bedroom. That's exactly why people still refuse to take public transport! If they had little isolated sleepers in the subways, maybe it would work better.

So we have already incorporated the car into our understanding of time, space, distance and sexuality. To want to merge with it literally in a more physical way seems a good metaphor. There is a desire to fuse with techno-ness.

Chris Rodley: And yet in Crash doing this seems to lead inevitably to death. The body is destroyed in this process of merging.

David Cronenberg: That's just an acknowledgement of the way it works with humans, which is more disguised than - let's say - with a salmon. After salmon spawn, they're so exhausted, they die. Their sexuality and desire lead them to death. But there's a sense in which Crash - the book and the movie - are totally above death. They are about how much human control, and human will, are going to be involved in that.

Chris Rodley: When Ballard claims the dead Vaughan's car at the end, it's as if he's claiming his body. The movie does seem to imply that after a fatal crash, a merging has taken place.

David Cronenberg: Yes. I still remember when Marilyn Monroe's body wasn't immediately claimed. As a kid I thought, 'Well fuck, I'll claim her body. OK, she's dead, but she's still Marilyn Monroe.' I thought, 'Boy, that's very strange. This body that was the most desired body in the history of humankind, and no one will claim it.' Taking the car in that scene is exactly like claiming Marilyn Monroe's body.

Chris Rodley: Is the movie tapping into current obsessions with body-piercing and scarification?

David Cronenberg: Oh yeah. I've seen some very middle-class people with eyebrow rings and stuff like that. I think theywould be mortified if you said it was self-mutilation, or very primitive, or related to scarification but without the ritual tribal structures that justify it. It's a huge not-so-far underground culture. And tattooing. That's why I had a Lincoln steering-wheel shape tattooed on Vaughan's chest towards the end. That was my invention. But I'm sure someone somewhere has that - anticipating having a steering wheel buried in their chest in a crash.

Chris Rodley: Can you discuss your view on the characters' desire to explore the sexual excitement of the car crash?

David Cronenberg: It's making very conscious what is already out there. It's not so far-fetched. Apparently at one of the early LA screenings of Crash they were doing some focus-group thing and a guy came down waving his arm - which was in a cast - saying, "I've just been through the hell of a motorcycle accident and I broke my arm and there was nothing sexy about it. It was just hell and I think Cronenberg's gone psycho.' I don't think too many people will take the movie on that level and maybe go out and do it. But one of the reasons this movie puts pressure on the unconscious is because this is something that has flitted through everyone's mind on one level or another at some time.

Ballard really touched on those aspects of writing about cars that can really arouse you. Surprise you. You find things arousing that you never thought could be: his descriptions of semen on steering wheels and instrument panels, and of how it got there. It was techno-sex.

Chris Rodley: Vaughan and his motley group reminded me very much of the low-life souls at the Cathode RayMission in Videodrome.Or the scanners, who were derelicts.

David Cronenberg: In most sci-fi movies it's usually the elite who are on the cutting edge of whatever's going on, but I think it's quite the contrary. It's going to be a grassroots-type movement. Those are the ones who are not fighting it, not analysing it, not organizing it. They're just experiencing it.

Chris Rodley: The characters want to embrace the car crash, a potentially life-threatening event, rather as characters approach disease in your earlier films. In the script, Vaughan actually says that we must see the crash as a 'fertilizing' event. Not a destructive one.

David Cronenberg: Yeah. That is a line right out of Ballard. And yet it is so much my line about parasites being a good thing rather than a bad thing. Or viruses being a creative force rather than a destructive force, if seen from their perspective. Absolutely.

But it's also about the tension between reality and that whole idea of an idealized life. It's strange to me that we can conceive of a life that possibly no one has ever lived and say that that life is ideal: what we should aspire to and strive to attain. That's always seemed quite odd to me, even though fantasy often precedes reality. You need the fantasy to give shape to the reality you're trying to move towards.

In Crash I'm saying that if some harsh reality envelops you, rather than be crushed, destroyed or diminished by it, embrace it fully. Develop it and take it even further than it wanted to go itself. See if that's not a creative endeavour. If that is not positive.

And the more strange and grotesque the circumstances, the more interesting it becomes. It's also me picking up on some of the philosophical tone of Ballard; trying to figure out once again my own little philosophy of life.

Chris Rodley: Ballard says that Crash is a cautionary tale from the eye of the hurricane. Do you think it's timely in that we're approaching the millennium, and this century has definitely been the century of the car?

David Cronenberg: Well, the place of the car in the world economy can't be overestimated. Although people don't think of cars as being very high tech, every high-tech development is represented somewhere in a car. Whether it's fibre-optic electronics, or in the metallurgy. All of these incredible industries serve the car.

So if suddenly we said, 'There can't be any more cars, we're stopping today,' it would be the end of the world: economies diving, people not knowing what to do with themselves. Our attachment to it, as discussed in the movie, is very primitive indeed. It has become the quintessential human appendage. I think it won't go away easily. It's got a lot of shape-shifting to do before it disappears.

Chris Rodley: What surprised you most about making Crash?

David Cronenberg: It has become a very emotional movie. In the beginning it wasn't, and certainly I would never have said that about the book. I find that people come away having been really shaken, feeling very emotional but not knowing why or how. It doesn't push any of the usual buttons. And that's really good.

This interview is an edited version of one which originally appeared in Sight and Sound, June 1996.
The full version appears in the revised edition of Cronenberg on Cronenberg.
(Thank you, Patti)