David Cronenberg: How I seduced Rob Pattinson

Legendary director David Cronenberg tells Salon about casting a vampire heartthrob as a 1 percenter in "Cosmopolis"

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published August 18, 2012 10:00PM (EDT)

Robert Pattinson in "Cosmopolis"
Robert Pattinson in "Cosmopolis"

Whatever you make of the twists and turns of David Cronenberg’s career, which now encompasses 18 feature films going back to 1975, including such disruptive or subversive classics as "Crash," "Naked Lunch" and "A History of Violence," he has steadfastly refused to repeat himself. With “Cosmopolis,” his hypnotic, minimalist adaptation of Don DeLillo’s allegorical 2003 novel, whose only plot and action involve an ultra-rich currency trader driving across Manhattan in a stretch limo, Cronenberg once again forges into unexplored terrain. This dreamlike vision of a 1 percenter – or more like a one-tenth-of-1-percenter – facing moral, existential and financial meltdown is a flawed, strange and undeniably powerful creation, with a hallucinatory and apocalyptic undertow that DeLillo’s novel (to my taste) mostly lacks.

As to the question of whether “Cosmopolis” represents a turn away from more straightforward (or at least straightforward-seeming) dramatic films like “A Dangerous Method” or “Eastern Promises,” well, I know from experience that Cronenberg will deny any such motivation. Still, those movies didn’t connect with audiences or Oscar voters nearly as much as was hoped, and he clearly felt the urge to try something new. Arguably, “Cosmopolis” combines many of Cronenberg’s fascinations into one compact vehicle: It’s derived from a self-consciously difficult work of literature, and it’s an experimental film (or very nearly so) with elements of psychological horror, twisted sexuality and unexpected violence. It’s also a relentlessly talky film, with big swatches of DeLillo’s stylized dialogue imported intact, that turns a major movie star in a new direction.

That star is, of course, Robert Pattinson of the “Twilight” series, who plays a very different species of vampire here. Eric Packer is a rapacious but almost entirely affectless character, a financial genius who moves very, very slowly across midtown New York in that limousine – the streets we see in the film are mostly in Toronto – on a day he has placed a huge and counterintuitive bet against the yuan, the Chinese unit of currency. (In the novel, set in the year 2000, Eric’s nemesis is the Japanese yen, a fact I discuss with Cronenberg below.) Indeed, on his way toward a distant West Side barbershop, Eric’s entire empire is under attack. His diffident, blond, poetry-writing wife (Sarah Gadon) is drifting away from him, his limo is vandalized in Times Square by Occupy-style anarchists, and his cryptic, heavily armed security chief (Kevin Durand) reports that one or more credible threats have been made against his life.

Pattinson is on-screen in every scene and almost every shot, consuming sensation the whole time. Eric has sex with several different women during his crosstown ride, and perhaps the hottest of these scenes involves no touching, unless you count the proctological exam he’s simultaneously receiving. He receives a briefing on economic theory, provided by Samantha Morton, that sounds like a demented hybrid of Antonio Gramsci, Paul Ryan and Machiavelli. (Like almost all the dialogue in “Cosmopolis,” it comes straight from the book.) All the signs point, from early in the story – if you want to call it a story – toward a willed or fated act of self-destruction. Eric’s favorite rapper has just died, snarling traffic with a huge funeral procession. He takes a pie in the face from a famous Romanian “pastry assassin” played by Mathieu Amalric, commits a murder and finally comes face to face with Benno (the great Paul Giamatti), the disgruntled loner who yearns to murder him.

I wouldn’t argue that Pattinson has immense dramatic range, but I think the same thing here as I think in “The Twilight Saga”: He’s a commanding screen presence who can do a lot with a little, and he holds the center of “Cosmopolis” all the way through. After the tabloid uproar surrounding his apparent breakup with “Twilight” co-star Kristen Stewart, Pattinson backed away from most interview requests, including mine. (He did, of course, accept ice cream from Jon Stewart, a memorable publicity coup if nothing else.) That put Cronenberg in the position of speaking on his young star’s behalf, which he did with reasonable dignity. Not that talking to Canada’s leading filmmaker is any kind of hardship. Over the past decade or so I’ve averaged an interview a year with Cronenberg, and it’s always a pleasure, rather like reconnecting with your favorite college professor and being reminded why you liked him so much – and realizing he still has things to teach you.

David, you’re both the writer and director of this film. If I’m correct, that’s your first screenplay credit in many years.

I think “eXistenZ” was the last one, back in 1999, and that was an original screenplay. So, yeah, this was the first one in a long time.

Tell me how you wound up writing this. I can well believe that you’re a DeLillo reader. Is this an idea you’ve been developing for a long time?

Not really. It's all very intuitive and spontaneous, really, not very calculated. When the book was proposed to me by Paulo Branco, who is a very experienced Portuguese producer, I said, "Well, let me read it." I had read many books of Don DeLillo's, but not this one. I was really struck by the dialogue, you know. I thought this was pure Don DeLillo; his dialogue is always extraordinary, very stylized yet somehow real at the same time.

I thought I would really love to hear actors speaking this dialogue. It's a bit like David Mamet's or Harold Pinter's. That is to say, it isn't the way people really speak, but it's very stylized, and that elevates it to some strange plateau. The thing is, those two guys are playwrights, so you get to hear their dialogue spoken. And DeLillo -- I don't think he's ever had a movie made out of one of his books, so you don't hear it.

So I thought, well, let me see if this is really a movie. I spent some time transcribing the dialogue from the book, exactly as it was on the page, and putting it into screenplay format. By the end of it I looked at it and said, yeah, it is a movie, and in fact it's a movie I'd really like to make. And also -- here's the screenplay! [Laughter.]

I wasn't really thinking I was writing a screenplay, I thought I was just doing an exercise to see what the movie might feel like. And that's unusual for me. I've never done anything like that before. It didn't surprise me in the sense that every screenplay I've ever written, whether it was an adaptation or an original one, has gone through a completely different process, unique to the particular project. It's always a different thing.

I went back and reread the novel after seeing the film, and it’s striking how close the dialogue is. There are probably moments you depart from DeLillo's text here and there, but I can’t point to anything specific.

Yeah. I think there are almost none. It was really more a question of selection. There were things that I left out, but not things I rewrote. It's interesting: In some novels, the dialogue isn't really very good in dramatic terms, in cinematic terms. It works in a literary way, but it's not something that would work when spoken aloud. If you were adapting a novel of that kind, you would absolutely rewrite the dialogue to feel more dramatic or theatrical. I never felt that way with Don's.

I feel like there’s a strong parallel between the stylized nature of the writing and the stylized, highly artificial visual world you have created for that movie. Does that sound right to you?

Yes, it absolutely does. And it's something that happens organically, because I don't do storyboards and I don't bring a concept or overall theme that I impose on the movie in terms of characters or visuals. My cameraman and I, we don't even know how we're going to shoot it until we're actually shooting it. We don't know what lens we're going to use, or how we're going to light it. Obviously there's a lot of prep that you do when you're constructing the sets and so forth, but ultimately it's an organic whole with the actors you've got, with their faces and with the way they speak. So I think, absolutely, there is a direct relationship between the stylization of the dialogue and the visual stylization of the movie. Which is, in both cases, not what you would call naturalistic or documentary.

You've compressed a number of events in the novel in space and time, which is a normal thing to do in any adaptation. But it also struck me that you made a deliberate choice to have more things happen inside that car. You really make that limousine the central space of the movie, both literally and metaphorically, which isn't quite true in the book.

Yeah, that's right. In particular the scene with Didi, who is played by Juliette Binoche. That scene is in her apartment in the book, and I thought, that's just not going to be as interesting as it could be, visually. By that time I could feel the power of the limo, that it's a time capsule and it's a tank and it's a submarine and it's, you know, a tomb. It's a whole bunch of things. It is Eric's world, you know? It's where he has total control and total power.

He has that center seat in the limo, and that isn't described that way in the book. It's like a throne, where he's the emperor of this very small empire. But because of the electronics and the technology, it's a small empire that somehow encompasses the globe. He forces everybody into the limo, to come to him. So I thought, well, he's having sex with this woman Didi, who is also trying to sell him art. Why not force her to come to the limo as well? It just made sense to me, and it didn't feel in any way like a betrayal of the tone of the book.

Did you have any communication with Don DeLillo during the making of this movie?

Well, yes. After I wrote the screenplay I met him in Estero, which is a Portuguese film festival run by Paulo Branco, the producer. He had read the script and he liked it. One of the first things he said to me was, "I was wondering how you would handle Benno's journal, and it was interesting to see that you handled it by leaving it out." [Benno Levin, played by Paul Giamatti in the film, is an ex-employee who is stalking Eric.] I said, "Don, here's the thing. It's innately literary, a journal, and there's no way to do it cinematically with force and elegance." You would end up with shots of Paul Giamatti sort of scribbling away, and somebody reading the journal in voice-over. To me that's always an admission of defeat, when you have somebody reading you the novel like you're a kid at bedtime. So I told him, "What I will give you in exchange is I give you Paul Giamatti. I give you his face and his voice and his eyes and the way he moves, which you don't get in the book. That's the trade-off."

Of course everybody wants to ask you about your star, who unfortunately has decided not to join us today. I guess he has his reasons. How and why did you wind up casting Robert Pattinson?

Well, it begins in a very pragmatic way. You get a list of 10 people from various producers and agents, and you start with the basics. How old is this character, and how old is the actor? This character is young, his age is given as 28. So that's where you start. Does he feel like the right guy? Eric talks about working out a lot and is very physical, so you're not going to cast someone who's overweight. It's simple stuff like that to begin with. And then you get to the pragmatics: How big is your budget and what kind of star power do you need to get the movie financed?

And here's something people don't think about, which is the passport of the actor. This is a Canada-France co-production, so you're really restricted in the number of Americans you can use. There's only one American in this movie, even though it's set in New York, and that's Paul. So the fact that Rob is British helps, because he can fit into the co-production thing. So that's the long way round, and ultimately you get to: Does the guy have the chops and charisma to hold the movie together? Because this character is in every scene of the movie, without exception, and that's very unusual, even for a star.

So I looked at everything I could find that Rob had done, including “Little Ashes,” where he plays the young Salvador Dali, and I thought, yeah, he could really do this. And I think he's actually extraordinary. It's ultimately intuition on my part, and casting is a huge part of directing that's very invisible. Making-of documentaries don't usually cover the casting process, but for a director it's a hugely important part of your art. Juggling all those other balls that I was just talking about, and still coming up with the right guy.

I realize I’d be better off asking him that question, but do you think Rob is eager to change his image after “Twilight,” and push into doing different kinds of characters? After this role, and playing a sadistic sociopath in “Bel Ami,” it certainly looks that way.

Well, I know from doing interviews with him in Europe that he's not really thinking in terms of his career. He gets offered a lot of stuff, and it's usually very conventional, boring stuff. He's always been interested in doing unusual stuff. He'll tell you that when they started with "Twilight," he thought it was kind of an indie film. Which it sort of was, you know! It had Catherine Hardwicke as the original director, and it was an unusual, off-kilter vampire story. Nobody knew that it would be the kind of mainstream success that it became.

In a way, "Cosmopolis" is a lot closer to his heart than "Twilight," you know. When he read it, he told me that he was also struck by the dialogue. He thought it was incredibly fresh and new and surprising and engaging, and he immediately wanted to do it. He was afraid, because I think he still hasn't come to terms with the fact that he's actually an actor! He didn't grow up thinking he wanted to be an actor. As with many actors, and not just young, inexperienced ones, he wasn't sure he was good enough! He wasn't sure he was the right guy, and he didn't want to be the guy who would bring down this terrific project. So my job, at that point, was to convince him that he was indeed the right guy. That took me about 10 days, I suppose.

Are you telling me that you have actually watched the “Twilight” movies? That’s a bit hard to imagine.

Yeah -- or no, I watched about one and a half of them. I'm interested in everything, frankly. I'm not a snob, you know. I really am curious about everything. If something's hugely popular, it doesn't automatically mean I'm going to look at it, but sometimes I'm curious as to why something is really popular, let's say. In the case of "Twilight," I was watching it for Rob, that was the thing. It’s not like – I mean, I hadn't seen them before that.

I’ve spoken to you enough times over the years that I know you view each project as very distinct and organic, emerging from its own process. But a lot of people are going to say that “Cosmopolis” feels in some ways like a return to earlier Cronenberg themes and subject matter, compared to, say, the last three or four films. And, you know, I’m not sure they’re wrong.

Well, I do know what they're talking about. But I think they're often basing that on the trailer. [Laughter.] And when they see the movie, they're baffled again, you know? Just seeing the trailer, it may seem like "Crash" meets "Videodrome" or something. When they see the movie and realize that it is also wall-to-wall dialogue, like "A Dangerous Method," and that the dialogue is as dense and intense and complex as it is in "A Dangerous Method," then they get a little confused. That's of interest to me, but it's not anything that goes into the making of the movie. You can tie yourself up in knots and paralyze yourself if you worry obsessively about people's expectations of you, and where they think you should go in your career. You can't function out of that. It's interesting after the fact, I guess, for me to observe it. But it isn't part of the decision-making process.

Right. Well, what I would say is that the stylized, non-naturalistic feeling of "Cosmopolis" recalls your earlier work in some ways. It's a movie that takes place in an artificial, constructed space, a psychological space that you're not claiming correlates exactly with the real world. You've almost always done that, arguably, but in a movie like "A Dangerous Method" it’s a lot less visible. I know you got nettled when people said it was like Masterpiece Theatre, but it is a largely realistic period piece, at least on the surface.

Yeah, although I just read some critique that called "Dangerous Method" a sci-fi version of Freud. I kind of like that! As a filmmaker, you're always dependent on how sensitive the critic is to what you're doing and to the nuances of things. As with anybody, some critics are not as sensitive as others, they're not getting what you're doing. Some people wrote that movie off -- "well, it's just a costume drama" -- and depending on how unobservant you are, you could say that. On one level, that describes the movie. The people are wearing period costumes, no question about it. If that's as far as you want to go, so be it.

Look, I have a very intimate, microscopic, tight relationship with the material I'm working with, and there's no room in there for thinking about my other movies while I'm doing that one. It doesn't mean than an analysis after the fact of this movie, compared with my other movies, is useless or inaccurate. That's not what I'm saying. It's just not part of the process of creating the movie.

Talk about the decision to set “Cosmopolis” in what I take to be the present, or more likely the near future. The novel is of course set in the year 2000, and is meant to capture, I suppose, the boom times at the end of the Clinton years, just before 9/11.

Well, I thought the novel was prescient enough that it would work now. You get into weird little things: Are the clothes so different between now and the year 2000? Are we going to go crazy making sure that style of suit and tie was OK for the year 2000, or did it go out of fashion in 2008? It didn't seem enough of a disjoint in time, and of course all questions about the millennium and the apocalypse and all such things are not really on anybody's radar right now, and would be a distraction rather than a source of power. It wasn't really much of a question for me. I was never going to make this a period piece; 10 years is not enough time. And the technology was close enough, you know. There weren't iPhones and iPads then, but that change worked really well. It honestly wasn't much of a shift.

One thing you did change was the particular currency that leads to Eric’s downfall. I chuckled almost every time the yuan is mentioned. That's perfect for this moment, of course, and even more perfect for the future. But as people who’ve read the book will recognize, it was originally the Japanese yen.

Even with me knowing absolutely nothing about currency trading, I could see what was happening with the yen. It was no longer the scary world power that it was in the year 2000. You know, we had "Rising Sun," a movie about how Japan is taking over the universe. That felt immediately passé, so I thought, well, let me add my own little touch here. Which is to anticipate, I think it's the year 2014, when the yuan is supposed to become completely convertible with other currencies. So what I'm talking about is a bit futuristic in that sense, because the yuan is not universally tradable right now, as is suggested in the movie. But obviously China is the power now, and not Japan. I just thought: Let me have this quiet moment of contribution to the world economy!

When Eric’s limo is attacked by anarchist protesters, everyone watching the movie will be thinking about Occupy Wall Street, and you probably were as well. But I suppose, writing the book a decade ago, DeLillo was thinking of an earlier generation of anti-capitalist protests: Seattle in 1999, Quebec City and Genoa in 2001.

Yeah. You know, I think some of the early reviews of Don's novel kind of dismissed that. They said that the idea of protesters on Wall Street was completely unconvincing. [Laughter.] Certainly Don was not trying to be a prophet. It's not really in our job description as artists. But if you have that sensitivity, you know, you're inevitably going to anticipate real events. At one point Paul Giamatti texted me and said, "I can't believe this. Rupert Murdoch just got a pie in the face!" That was just after we'd shot the scene where Rob’s character gets a pie in his face from an anti-capitalist protester.

That was all very spooky, but that wasn't my motivation for making the movie. It wasn't like, "Oh, yeah! This is the movie about capitalism I've always wanted to make!" You know, you absorb the Zeitgeist, if your antennae are sensitive enough.

“Cosmopolis” is now playing at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center and the Sunshine Cinema in New York, and the Landmark in Los Angeles, with wider release to follow.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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