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Q&A: David Cronenberg on Maps to the Stars and his 'cathartic' first US shoot

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We may have also asked him about Fifty Shades of Grey

Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Director David Cronenberg has always made a point of staying outside of the American film industry. But his newest film, Maps to the Stars (opening February 27th) dives headfirst into Hollywood, in all its glory and grossness. The product of a long-developing collaboration with Los Angeles novelist and screenwriter Bruce Wagner, Maps to the Stars is, frankly, pretty bonkers and unflinching in its sprawling depiction of a family afflicted by the disease of fame.

At its center is Julianne Moore as Havana Segrand, a washed-up aging starlet, and Mia Wasikowska as the celebrity-obsessed runaway who becomes her personal assistant. But the entire ensemble is haunted by the idea of fame, and Maps deals in an eerie kind of paranormality that, as Cronenberg assured me during our conversation, is in a lot of ways not really a departure from his psychological sci-fi roots. I spoke to the director over the phone to find out what made him leave his home turf in Canada for the well-worn boulevards of Los Angeles, and what he found there.

Emily Yoshida: You've been making films since the '60s, and yet up to this point you've managed to avoid shooting in Hollywood.

David Cronenberg: Yeah — it's the first film that's been set in LA, but also, it's actually the first time I've shot any film in America.

Was the decision to do that now a function of wanting to work with Bruce, or something you were personally drawn to?

It was really Bruce. It's not that I've been obsessed with Hollywood all these years or burning with resentment — some French critics thought I must have hated Hollywood for many years. But it was really Bruce's obsession with Hollywood; this is where he lives and has always worked, and it was more about the dialogue and the characters. The dialogue was fantastic, I'd never heard that kind of stuff before. And it just happened to be set in Hollywood — for me, anyway. Obviously for Bruce it's a lifelong obsession; he's written about eight or nine novels about Hollywood as well.

"No matter how dark the material you're shooting is, there's a great sense of childlike playfulness"

Once I plugged into it, though, I was very excited to shoot in LA, because I'd been going there since the early '70s. And I'm very familiar with the studio system, even though I've never really made a studio movie. So I was very familiar with what Bruce was writing about, even though I didn't have the depth of experience that he had had living there. And it was very cathartic, actually, to not only be shooting in the US — which I'd always wanted to do — but to be shooting in Hollywood itself. You know, in the heart of darkness itself. [Laughs] Which I don't really think of it as. Whenever I'm going to down to LA, I really look forward to it.

But to be shooting in all of those iconic spots — as I've often said, with Eastern Promises I was shooting in London, but there we were shooting in a hidden London. Here, though, it was a completely different ball game. We shot in all the places people would expect you to shoot, like Hollywood Boulevard, and the Hollywood sign, and so on. But it was a lot of fun, it was terrific fun.

It being your first US film, your first "Hollywood film," were there any ideas you got the chance to execute that you couldn't before?

Sure — to create our own star, on Hollywood Boulevard, for an invented actress was fantastic, for example, it was great fun to do that. No matter how dark the material you're shooting is, there's a great sense of childlike playfulness. It was pure fun, really, shooting in LA. And very congenial — I mean, we lit up the Hollywood sign, which is apparently never really done, for a movie.

Maps to the Stars

Maps could easily be read as a ghost story, a Hollywood ghost story, and some people might see that as being at odds with the rest of your work. How do think it fits in?

For me, those aren't really ghost scenes. Those are memories. Ghost memories. To me, these are people who are remembering dead people. Not seeing dead people, really. And in fact, Bruce originally had a scene where all kinds of dead children were seen walking down the street at night by Agatha (Mia Wasikowska). And I said to him, "We've got to cut that scene, because it suddenly breaks the rules."

It's one thing for people to be hallucinating people they know who've died, as we all do. You know, if your parents have died, you still hear them, you can still sort of see them, you dream about them. That's really the approach I took for the movie. To me they're not real ghosts in the sense of spirits who live after death, which is something I don't believe in. But I certainly do understand the haunting of a person by another person who is dead, emotionally and so on.

"Hollywood is very much haunted by ghosts"

But there's also a sense in which Hollywood is very much haunted by ghosts — you think of Marilyn Monroe and James Dean, or even Humphrey Bogart — people whose presence is still felt very strongly, not just actors but many other creative forces still haunt Hollywood that way, and have an influence on Hollywood. So that's another way of looking at it.

It lends itself well to this stereotype of a certain kind of Hollywood spirituality — psychic healers and all that. You've got some really intense scenes with Havana and her therapist [John Cusack] that almost play out like exorcisms. What was the process of directing and choreographing a scene like that?

Well, the dialogue suggests the choreography; he says, "You're keeping all this agony, and all this pain in your muscles and in your body." And there's certainly truth in that — the way that people hold tension in their bodies. You can almost think of it as a way of protecting yourself against pain that you don't want to acknowledge.

Maps to the Stars

But of course for a filmmaker, and of course for me being particularly body oriented, I would say it made sense to choreograph the scene that way — hands on, physical — because there's sort of an obscure, strange, sexual, therapeutic element which is always there when a stranger, or a near stranger, is touching you in a very intimate way. It's not necessarily directly sexual, but you have allowed this person to to access you in a physical, intimate way, and it makes for a very strange and interesting relationship.

"As a filmmaker, you are body conscious no matter what."

When I did A Dangerous Method we were [portraying] the psychotherapeutic version of therapy, where it was mostly talking, instead of physical. But any filmmaker, whether he's aware of it or not, is fairly body obsessed, because the thing you're shooting most is actors; you're shooting bodies. That's your subject matter — their faces, their body language. So for a filmmaker, you are body conscious no matter what.

Bodies, aging bodies — particularly how they relate to careers — are a big subject of concern for the characters.

And that's true because it's the screen, you know. As you can see with the character Havana, it's an existential desperation. You don't exist if you're not being photographed. And of course, if your body isn't looking good, and isn't going to attract further work, then you're in big trouble. So when you're an actor — and I've had this experience because I've done a bit of acting myself — you're there, it's your body, it's your instrument. That's all you've got. And suddenly, as a director acting, you completely understand why actors are very obsessed with what's on their body, like their clothes and their hair and their makeup, because that is your instrument, that's what you've got.

So, yes, that's what differentiates Maps from a story set in, say, Silicon Valley or Wall Street. The same dynamics are there — ambition, power, money, greed, desperation — but in Hollywood, it's much more visible and body conscious.

This is going to seem like a wild tangent, but I saw Maps To The Stars right before I saw Fifty Shades of Grey. And it made me think about how this kind of extreme physicality and sexuality is getting interpreted, or kind of sanded down, in a pop cinema sphere. And then I thought I should probably ask David Cronenberg what he thinks about Fifty Shades of Grey.

I haven't read it, and I haven't seen the movie, so I really can't comment. I mean, I've read tons about all that. But I must say, I think Variety just listed 16 of the kinkiest movies ever made because of Fifty Shades of Grey being released, and I had two films in that 16 — Crash and Dead Ringers. So I suppose it's sort of old hat to me, I have to say. I did scenes of bondage 30 years ago, so I don't think it's gonna be a revelation to me, let's put it that way.

Maybe a few people will be convinced to start with Dead Ringers instead of Fifty Shades.

Well, education is good, even if it comes late in life.