September 13, 2018
Venice 2018

5 Takeaways from David Cronenberg's Master Class at the Venice Film Festival

"When it's analog, each generation degrades, somewhat like humans."

David Cronenberg was the man of the hour at this year’s Venice Film Festival, the event’s organizers toasting the acclaimed genre filmmaker with this year’s Golden Lion lifetime achievement award.

“His name became an adjective, just like all the great ones,” Guillermo del Toro, this year’s Venice competition jury president, told the crowd as he presented his friend with the award.

The day before he accepted the honor, the director of The Fly, Dead Ringers, and A History of Violence took questions from an attending audience on his life, career, philosophie,s and thoughts on the future of filmmaking.

It turns out that the man who brought us so many disturbing, horrific onscreen images and sensations of doom is actually….kind of an optimist (at least when it comes to the future of movies). Below are five things we learned from Cronenberg’s Master Class, which you can stream in its entirety.

1. He’s not a fan of 35mm film

Many directors of Cronenberg’s generation (and even several younger ones) often talk about the qualities the art form has lost by transitioning away from older technologies like 35mm film. Cronenberg thinks going digital has been an improvement.

“I hate film, actually,” he said. “I’ve found that doing film was very frustrating, artistically. Because it would be like doing a painting and then showing people a bad photograph of your painting.”

Cronenberg’s reasons for hating film are mostly technical. For much of his career, he was frustrated that the release prints of his movies would have a different look from his carefully constructed negatives.

“By the time your film gets to the cinema, it has been changed. The color changed, the density changed,” he said. “When it’s analog, each generation degrades, somewhat like humans. Whereas digital, you can have an exact replica of your original. There’s no such thing as an original. So that’s fantastic.”

There is one quality he misses about working with film: the smell. “I think you can get an air freshener that you can put in the editing room, and then it’d be perfect.”

2. He really wants a job with Netflix

Cronenberg praised the streaming giant for just about everything, including its “disruptive” business model, its internationally focused programming, and its promotional strategy of de-emphasizing actors and directors in favor of narrative and genre. He then went a step further.

“Actually, if they offered me a job right now...and I haven’t been working,” he hinted, “I hope they’re listening, and you can all write them.”

At multiple times during the Q&A, Cronenberg even went so far as to ask audience members if they had Netflix’s phone number.

Cronenberg’s last film, Maps to the Stars, came out in 2014, though since then the filmmaker has acted on the TV series Alias Grace.

“A series that goes on for two or three years is very novelistic. You live with the actors in a way that you don’t with a single movie.”

3. He likes TV

On Sept. 1, a Variety article had reported Cronenberg was working on a TV series, but he said that the story was “news to me.” He’d only been thinking about making one.

Cronenberg is intrigued by the storytelling possibilities of TV. “A series that goes on for two or three years is very novelistic,” he said. “You live with the actors in a way that you don’t with a single movie.”

He praised shows like The Americans for being able to maintain a “consistency of tone” despite the many different directors who helmed the episodes. “For me, that’s an intriguing possibility, because when you’re directing a movie, you have to control everything. You have to be a control freak.”

Cronenberg’s 2014 novel, Consumed, may be coming to TV, but he won’t be the one adapting it. He said a producer had made a deal with AMC to develop a series based on his book.

4. He keeps up with new technology

Cronenberg recently bought a drone, and calls the devices “fantastic for cinema.”

“It does free you,” he said, noting the drone’s potential for capturing airborne shots. “In the old days, you would have to have a helicopter.”

He also owns a Tesla and has played with VR headsets, although the filmmaker is more skeptical about VR’s future in storytelling because he tends to get motion sickness when he uses it.

“It’s a problem that could become a crucial one for VR, because if you can only take three minutes of it before you will vomit, then you can’t really explore VR completely,” he said.

Although many of Cronenberg’s films, including Videodrome and eXistenZ, function as critiques of technology’s effect on society, his stance on technological advancement is more nuanced.

“For me, our technology is just an extension of our bodies and our brains,” he said. “You have drones that destroy people and you have drones that save people, and that’s just classic human technology.”

5. He’s working on a restoration of Crash

One of Cronenberg’s most notorious films, Crash, caused a sensation when it premiered at Cannes in 1996. At his Master Class, the director clarified which Crash he was talking about by saying, to applause, “That is not the one that won the Oscar, but the better one.”

Cronenberg is currently supervising a restoration of his original cut of Crash, based on the J.G. Ballard novel about people who get erotic pleasure from car crashes. He’s still bitter that 10 minutes of the movie had been cut from its initial theatrical release, saying the theatrical cut “made no sense.” Further confusing matters, the film’s DVD release included both cuts of the movie, and when Cronenberg once tried to screen the movie during a talk on censorship, the event’s organizers accidentally showed the censor ed version.

The director has fond memories of premiering the movie at Cannes, recalling that the festival organizers “wanted to put my film in the middle of the festival so that it would explode like a bomb… That’s what happened, and it was pretty exciting. There was a lot of hatred.”

Yet when it came time for Cronenberg to choose a movie of his to screen at his Venice award ceremony this year, he opted for a lesser-known entry in his filmography: 1993’s historical drama M. Butterfly. Cronenberg said he felt the film, about a French diplomat in 1960s China who falls in love with an opera singer cross-dressing as a woman, had been misunderstood because it was released only a year after the similarly themed The Crying Game.

“I think that people thought that John Lone was not as good as Stephen Rea from The Crying Game,” he said, comparing the performances of the two male actors playing transgender characters. But while The Crying Game rested on the twist that its lead was trans, Cronenberg argued that his film isn’t supposed to keep the character’s sexuality a secret, but rather leave it ambiguous as to whether the love interest (played by Jeremy Irons) knows the truth.

“So I thought, I will force people to see it, whether they like it or not,” he laughed.     

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