- The Washington Times - Friday, September 14, 2007

This summer, the world lost two of its greatest directors — Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni — on the same day. David Cronenberg, in the District to promote his new film “Eastern Promises,” says both men certainly influenced his work.

“They were part of that late ‘50s, early ‘60s wave when there was a genre called the Art Film with a capital A,” Mr. Cronenberg says. “That was very important to me.”

There are plenty of good directors still working, and promising newcomers pop up all the time. Yet, says Mr. Cronenberg, “what seems to be very difficult is for someone to have consistency, to make film after film after film that really is unique, that has a voice that’s recognizable.”

The director is too modest — too Canadian, perhaps — to point out that he himself is one of the best examples of a singular filmmaker whose clear vision is all over every film he’s made.

Mr. Cronenberg, 64, quickly established himself as the director of thoughtful horror and sci-fi films, such as 1983’s “Videodrome” and 1986’s “The Fly,” that explored what it means to be human. His masterpiece might be 1988’s “Dead Ringers,” in which Jeremy Irons gave two tour-de-force performances as twin gynecologists whose close but warped relationship is derailed by a woman. The director also made headlines with his controversial 1996 adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s controversial 1973 novel, “Crash.”

However, he achieved perhaps his biggest mainstream success with 2005’s “A History of Violence.”

He reunites with that film’s leading man, Viggo Mortensen, for the Russian mafia thriller “Eastern Promises,” due in theaters today.

Yet Mr. Cronenberg — whose pale, striking blue eyes belie his twisted visions — didn’t write “Eastern Promises.” “Dirty Pretty Things” screenwriter Steve Knight did. Mr. Cronenberg, in fact, hasn’t scripted any of his films since 1999’s “eXistenZ.”

“I’m just very lazy and screenwriting is very hard,” he laughs. “You’ll notice there are a lot of directors — Brian De Palma, Coppola — who started off writing their own screenplays because often it was the only way they could get to direct and that was certainly true in my case. It was the screenplay that was the attraction, not me as a director.”

A screenplay can take a year or two to write, and there’s no guarantee you’ll get financing to make it. So “when your career as a director has some momentum,” it’s “very tempting” to agree to direct a script you like, he says.

“Eastern Promises” is still unmistakably Cronenbergian. In fact, when asked about recurring themes that appear in this film — alienation, violence as a force for good and for evil, the importance and changing nature of the physical — he often responds by noting an aspect either wasn’t in the original script or wasn’t there in much detail. It’s clear that he worked with Mr. Knight a great deal in revisions.

The violence, for example, is really only hinted at in the screenplay, the director explains. In the finished film, though, it’s intensely realistic.

“In a movie like the Bourne movies, the violence is all kind of impressionistic with lots of little quick cuts and you don’t really see anything,” Mr. Cronenberg notes. “That has its own effect and there’s nothing wrong with it as a technique. But for me, I think people go to movies because they want to live somebody else’s life, in a way… I want that to be, even when it’s the scary parts, as real as possible.”

In “Violence” and “Promises,” the main characters are conflicted about the violence that can both harm and save.

“It’s an innate thing,” Mr. Cronenberg says. “The instant something’s born, there are a thousand things that want to kill it. That’s part of the protein exchange, the competition of the genetic struggle, and we are part of it. You can’t really say violence is never justified or violence is bad … Unfortunately, things are not that simple.”

Like Mr. Cronenberg’s other films, this one was partly financed by the government agency Telefilm Canada. He believes public financing is crucial for world cinema to survive.

“It’s interesting, I’m reading a biography of the German director Fritz Lang, who ended up in Hollywood during the war. Even in the 1920s, everyone was complaining about Hollywood,” Mr. Cronenberg says. “So things haven’t changed much.”

He says public funding is especially important for films that aren’t too commercial, “that are risky and have a national quirkiness to them.” Mr. Cronenberg’s films — along with those of his compatriots Atom Egoyan, Guy Maddin and Patricia Rozema — certainly have that “national quirkiness.”

Canada is a varied country, but it seems its best filmmakers all explore the darker side of human nature and sexuality.

Mr. Cronenberg helped build that national cinema from the ground up.

“When I started, there was no film industry in Canada. I didn’t have any colleagues. I started with a lot of young underground filmmakers and most of them disappeared. Ivan Reitman was one of them,” he says of the “Ghostbusters” director, who early on decamped to Hollywood

Mr. Cronenberg would have followed him if his first major film, 1975’s “Shivers,” hadn’t received public funding. “I was just stubborn,” he says. “I just wanted to stay at home.”

He still lives in Toronto, the city in which he was born and raised, likely inspiring scores of Canadian filmmakers to do the same. “I’m constantly tempted by Hollywood,” Mr. Cronenberg chuckles.

Shot in London, “Eastern Promises” marks the first time Mr. Cronenberg filmed a movie entirely outside Canada. Yet it still received Telefilm Canada funding.

“It’s an international film,” he says. “I leave it to others to discern that irreducible neutron of Canadianness. I don’t know what it is,” Mr. Cronenberg says — noting that he’s formed, not just by his experiences in Canada, but by American and European films as well.

“And yet I’m still very Canadian. The way I make the films is very Canadian — on time, on budget.”

He doesn’t know what he’ll work on next. Internet reports that claim he’ll direct an adaptation of Martin Amis’ “London Fields” or Bruce Wagner’s screenplay “Maps to the Stars” are incorrect.

Still, a question about a writer with whom he shares a sensibility elicits one possibility: Will he ever do a Philip K. Dick adaptation?

Mr. Cronenberg worked on “Total Recall” for a while, before abandoning the project to Paul Verhoeven.

“It’s very strange that you should mention it. But I can’t say more,” he coyly says. “I’m a fan of Philip Dick as well. And I’ve never turned my back on the genre. It was only a couple movies ago that I did ‘eXistenZ’, which in a way is my homage to Philip Dick.”

Critic’s pick tops list

Movie lovers, apparently, agree with our praise of “The Lives of Others.” The Oscar-winning movie, named best foreign film at this year’s ceremony, took the top spot among new releases in Zagat Survey’s “2008 Movie Guide.”

Set in 1980s Germany, this film about a Stasi officer who gains his humanity through spying on a playwright and his actress girlfriend (named the best film of 2006 by this Washington Times critic), was the first foreign movie to earn the top spot in the Zagat guide’s six-edition history — quite an accomplishment considering that only 4 percent of the movie guide’s 17,643 surveyors said that foreign films were their favorite genre.

Foreign-language films also captured the guide’s second (“Pan’s Labyrinth”) and third (“Letters from Iwo Jima”) slots. In all, 40 new films were added to this year’s guide, published by the company best known for its restaurant guides.

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