Even for David Cronenberg, ‘Slasher’ Felt Like Something ‘Different’
Even for David Cronenberg, ‘Slasher’ Felt Like Something ‘Different’
A conversation with the director David Cronenberg goes to dark places, naturally. He’s among a handful of filmmakers who can legitimately be credited as a progenitor of a subgenre — body horror, a cinematic trip into fleshly transmutation and grotesquerie — that influenced generations of directors, including Julia Ducournau, Jordan Peele and James Wan.
But there was mirth, not a hint of the macabre, in his from-the-gut laugh when I broke this news to him during a recent phone conversation: A coffee shop is set to open in Chicago called “The Brewed,” a homophonic riff on “The Brood,” his 1979 sci-fi-horror film about mutant children.
“That’s great!” he said. “I remember there were a couple of video stores in the ’80s called Videodrome.”
Such cultish worship of Cronenberg’s work is no shocker given his indelible stamp on scary, which pops up regularly across the horror landscape. But it wasn’t directing or his reputation Cronenberg wanted to talk about. It was acting: He stars in Season 4 of the Canadian horror anthology series “Slasher,” which debuts Thursday on the AMC horror streaming service, Shudder.
In the new season, subtitled “Flesh & Blood,” Cronenberg plays a wealthy, brutal-minded patriarch who reunites his dysfunctional family on a secluded island — and then sets them against one another in horrific tests to determine who gets his hefty inheritance. That is, if they can avoid the masked killer stalking the grounds.
“There’s almost no aspect of this character who aligns with my own perception of myself,” he said. “That’s always exciting.”
Cronenberg, 78, has been directing since the late ’60s, when he first made a splash in underground cinema circles in Toronto, his hometown. In the decades that followed, terrifying films of his like “Shivers” (1975) and “Videodrome” (1983) defined what came to be known as body horror. But he also pushed boundaries in other kinds of films: phantasmagorical dramas about contagion (“Rabid,” 1977), renegade telekinesis (“Scanners,” 1981), sinister romance (“Dead Ringers,” 1988), and gangland violence (“Eastern Promises,” 2007).
“Slasher” isn’t Cronenberg’s first time in front of the camera. Over the years, he has appeared in a few of his own films, including as a gynecologist in The Fly” (1986) and an obstetrician in “Dead Ringers.” He has popped up in plenty of television, too, including as a doctor on “Alias” and a reverend on “Alias Grace.” Most recently, he played the mysterious Kovich on the recent season of “Star Trek: Discovery,” a role he will reprise next season on Paramount+.
Adam MacDonald, who directed all of “Flesh and Blood,” said he had been jittery about directing a director “on the Mount Rushmore of filmmakers.” But he said he had felt free to treat Cronenberg like any other cast member.
“I never got the sense that he took himself too seriously,” MacDonald said. “He took the job seriously. He was very prepared.”
Cronenberg declined at first to say anything about “Crimes of the Future,” his first feature since “Maps to the Stars” debuted in 2014. (“I haven’t made it yet,” he said.) But in a follow-up email he said the film, which stars Viggo Mortensen, Léa Seydoux and Kristen Stewart, is “absolutely not based” on a short film of the same name that he made in 1970.
In a phone call from Greece, where he was set to begin shooting “Crimes of the Future,” talked at length about acting, about the TikTok generation and about what’s so scary about Canada. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
What do you enjoy about acting?
It’s an interesting challenge to become another person and to interpret a script as an actor rather than as a director. It’s also a way for me to connect to filmmaking without having to devote two years of my life. As an actor you can get in there, and maybe it’s a week. Yet you’re there with a crew and the cameras and the lights and you’re still living the life of moviemaking.
What drew you to the role in “Slasher”?
I was attracted by the fact that they asked me. I’ve done a lot of acting, and I usually end up playing scientists or doctors. This was different.
The other thing — and this is external to the show — is that this was going to be the first production that had Covid protocols in place, and anticipating the movie I’m now making, I was curious to see how it works. I wondered, Could I make a movie? Was it too expensive, awkward, impossible? I was happy to see that after a while you get quite used to it. It made it very clear what would be involved and how it could work.
I’m not Canadian, but there seems to be something very Canadian about “Slasher” as a series. I just can’t put my finger on it.
We do have a reputation for a certain kind of horror film that’s uniquely Canadian. Is it the water of Lake Ontario? [Laughs.] I’m not sure. It did feel weirdly comfortable working on the show in that strange, nationalistic way, but without anybody making a big deal out of it. I think we do have our own perspective on things in the dark.
“Slasher” as a series has been very diverse, with casts and characters of assorted races and sexualities that haven’t always found homes in horror. This season, there’s a character who identifies as nonbinary and queer.
I can only say that in all of my films, including my early underground films, I’ve always had nonbinary and gay characters, so for me that’s not a new thing. It’s just a natural thing. It wasn’t coming from social pressure.
I think one reason people enjoy horror is because horror digs underneath the walls of normal society, and people have a need to feel and see and experience that, even if they can only experience it in art forms and not in their lives. It’s natural for horror films to connect with what normal society suppresses.
Do you enjoy working in episodic television the way you do feature filmmaking?
Episodic television is much more like a novel in that you have time to develop characters and delve in their past. You don’t have time for that in a feature film. It’s cinema, but it’s a different form of cinema. I find it very intriguing. I wouldn’t mind getting involved with a series.
As a director, it’s impressive when one director can direct the entire series. That’s a real commitment of time and energy. I think David Lynch directed all episodes of his return to “Twin Peaks,” and that’s astonishing.
Is there a series you’d like to direct?
I wrote a novel called “Consumed.” It’s my only novel. I think that would make a good series, although I’m not sure because I haven’t thought about it that way. I’d have to say that’s as close as I come to putting a name on some series.
To what extent did horror influence you as a kid?
I had a very upbeat, happy childhood. I liked nature, insects, animals. As a kid in the ’50s, the movies I watched were westerns. It wasn’t as though I studied all the film genres that were around and decided horror was a place a young filmmaker could make an impression.
But horror was one of the few genres that was open to independent filmmaking that could come from Toronto or Montreal and make an impression. “Scanners,” a low-budget film, was the No. 1 movie in North America for a week. I can’t claim I’ve ever figured it out.
Do you see creative similarities between young people making movies with their phones and the filmmakers you associated with in the ’60s.
The technology then was very difficult to master, like the simple thing of getting sound in sync with pictures, which is something that people who shoot on their phones don’t think about. In those days, you had to really want to do it because it wasn’t easy.
I love the fact that the access to that kind of imagery is easy and available. You still have to have talent to do something great. The fact that the technology is less of an impediment doesn’t change the fact that some people will make great films and cinema, even if it’s TikTok cinema, because the talent is there. You don’t know where that comes from.
John Waters recently said that you should direct the first Covid exploitation movie.
It’s not exactly at the top of my list of ambitions, but it was very sweet of him to say that. In a way I think I already did that with “Shivers.” Maybe he should do it.