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Chapter 1
Who is My Creator?

The young David Cronenberg was avidly interested in both science and literature. From his first, low-budget short films, "Transfer" and "From the Drain," through his experimental featurettes Stereo and Crimes of the Future and into his early works - Shivers, Rabid, Fast Company, The Brood and Scanners - he demonstrates a keen interest in doctors and scientists who initiate experiments-gone-wrong.

The films' protagonists are not these doctors and scientists, however, but their victims: subjects who must come to terms with an increasing lack of control over their own bodies and impulses.

Through these characters, Cronenberg asks important questions about who we are and how we see ourselves. Cutting-edge scientific research promises new, liberating ways of being and acting, but also confines and destroys. The early films are characterized by gore and viscera: this is the chaos wrought by these doctors and scientists, many of them archetypal father figures. The films end tragically, in mayhem or, at best, ambiguity.

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Films
Choose a film to learn more
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David Cronenberg making "From the Drain" David Cronenberg making "From the Drain"
From the Drain
1967

While David Cronenberg was earning his BA in English Language and Literature at the University of Toronto (after switching from the science department), he became involved in avant-garde cinema circles, helping to establish the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre (CFMDC) in 1967 and, in tandem, starting to make his own 16mm shorts. These include "Transfer" (1966) and "From the Drain" (1967), the former about a psychiatrist and his patient, the latter a discussion between two veterans ending in one's death by a slithering bathtub drain creature. These films, while ultra low-budget and austere, show Cronenberg's incipient interest in sci-fi and horror, absurdism, paranoia, conspiracies, and altered mental states.
 
Courtesy of David Cronenberg

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Ronald Mlodzik as Dr. Luther Stringfellow from a scene in Stereo Ronald Mlodzik as Dr. Luther Stringfellow from a scene in Stereo
Stereo
1969

Cronenberg's first feature - filmed in black and white and with no sync sound - is about seven young adults who volunteer for an experiment conducted by parapsychologist Luther Stringfellow at the fictional Canadian Academy of Erotic Inquiry. After their ability to speak is surgically altered and their telepathic potential increased by a form of brain surgery, the subjects are isolated in a stark, modernist building where researchers observe their behaviour on monitors; later, aphrodisiacs and other drugs are added to the volunteers' food. This film, made at the Scarborough campus of the University of Toronto, and its successor, Crimes of the Future, both delight in the dystopian, brutalist local architecture, exploring themes that would eventually be fully expressed in later films: sex and sexuality, biotechnology and posthumanism.
 
Courtesy of David Cronenberg

A five-year old is held captive in Crimes of the Future A five-year old is held captive in Crimes of the Future A five-year old is held captive in Crimes of the Future
Crimes of the Future
1970

Close in theme and tone to Stereo, Crimes of the Future was also shot on a low budget, with no sync sound. Ronald Mlodzik appears here as scientist Adrian Triopod, director of a dermatology clinic called the House of Skin. Tripod is in search of his mentor, Antoine Rouge, who has disappeared after a plague triggered by cosmetics has killed all sexually mature women, causing the surviving men to manifest strange growths on their bodies. The film turns on the figure of the charismatic scientist anti-hero played by Mlodzik - one who recurs throughout Cronenberg's work. Like Stereo, its setting is the brutalist architecture of the University of Toronto, in this case Massey College.
 
Courtesy of David Cronenberg

Rose (Marilyn Chambers) is subject to horror in a scene from Rabid Rose (Marilyn Chambers) is subject to horror in a scene from Rabid
Rabid
1977

Also produced by Cinepix, Rabid followed Shivers and echoed its predecessor's exploration of contagion and sexuality. Somewhat controversially, Cronenberg cast porn star Marilyn Chambers as Rose, a Quebec biker critically injured in a motorcycle accident who undergoes experimental treatment at the Keloid Clinic of Cosmetic Surgery. Waking from a coma, Rose finds she has an insatiable bloodlust - that can be temporarily satisfied via a phallic stinger in her armpit, which she uses to feed on her victims, who then become rabid. The contagion spreads throughout the countryside, finally reaching Montreal, where, in response, martial law is enforced. Rabid contains some of Cronenberg's rawest imagery: a department store Santa is gunned down; at the end of the film Rose's corpse is thrown in the back of a dump truck. Like with Shivers, Rabid's horror is part allegory, a commentary on the October Crisis of 1970, when Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau instituted the War Measures Act.
 
Photographer: Joel Sussman
Courtesy of Somerville House

A funny car goes up in flames during a drag race in Fast Company. A funny car goes up in flames during a drag race in Fast Company.
Fast Company
1979

Fast Company is the first Cronenberg film made under then-new Canadian tax-shelter laws. It is a genre picture and B-movie — a typical good-guys-versus-bad-guys drag-racing tale — co-written by Cronenberg, and important to his future work in many ways. For instance, it was during this production, which was shot in Alberta, that the director met many of the people with whom he would later work: production designer Carol Spier, cinematographer Mark Irwin, sound recordist Bryan Day, and editor Ron Sanders. Fast Company also attests to Cronenberg's love of cars, both personally (he's a Formula One fan) and conceptually. It follows Rabid and the short "The Italian Machine," both about bikers, and presages his full-on examination of car fetishism, Crash, as well as the project Red Cars, an unproduced script turned into an art book by Italian publisher Volumina in 2005.
 
Photographer: Rick Porter
Courtesy of Chesler / Perlmutter Productions

Offspring of Nola Carveth (Samantha Eggar) attack a victim in The Brood. Offspring of Nola Carveth (Samantha Eggar) attack a victim in The Brood. Offspring of Nola Carveth (Samantha Eggar) attack a victim in The Brood.
The Brood
1979

The Brood is a Freudian horror film, and a deeply personal effort for Cronenberg. Like Fast Company, it was made under tax-shelter incentives, and was the director's most sophisticated and expensive film to date, garnering five Genie nominations. It marked Cronenberg's first collaboration with composer Howard Shore, with whom he would later establish a prolific working relationship. The Brood tells of Nola (Samantha Eggar), a victim of childhood abuse, who falls under the cultish psychiatric care of Dr. Raglan (Oliver Reed), whose patients are taught to give physical expression to their pain and anger. Nola's ex-husband Frank (Art Hindle) engages in a battle for their daughter Candice (Cindy Hinds), who, he discovers, is being taken over by the manifestation of Nola's suppressed rage - a brood of sexless, murderous children whom Nola births on the surface of her body. Cronenberg famously described The Brood as his own Kramer vs. Kramer: it was based on his real-life experience divorcing his first wife, who had joined a cult and fought with him for custody of their daughter.
 
Photographer: Rick Porter
Courtesy of Laurem Productions Inc.

Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside) engages in a battle of extra-sensory powers in a climactic scene from Scanners. Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside) engages in a battle of extra-sensory powers in a climactic scene from Scanners.
Scanners
1981

Scanners was Cronenberg's most commercially successful film to date. Stephen Lack plays Cameron Vale, a 35-year-old derelict recruited by the ConSec research agency as one of the world's few hundred "scanners" - people born with remarkable telepathic abilities. ConSec doctor Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan) asks Vale to put a stop to Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside), a scanner who uses his powers for evil. In the film's most famous scene, Revok causes a ConSec agent's head to explode - a virtuosic display of make-up effects created by Chris Walas, who later worked with Cronenberg on The Fly and Naked Lunch. Like The Brood, Scanners explores the bifurcated human mind, where conscious and subconscious are in constant battle. It also deals with the marginalization of people bearing extraordinary physical or psychological traits.
 
Photographer: Denis Fugère
Courtesy of Laurem Productions Inc.

Max Renn (James Woods) connects with Nicki Brand (Deborah Harry) in Videodrome. Max Renn (James Woods) connects with Nicki Brand (Deborah Harry) in Videodrome.
Videodrome
1983

The last of Cronenberg's tax-shelter films, Videodrome is ambitiously conceptual - increasingly taking place in the psyche of its protagonist Max Renn (James Woods). Renn, a producer at a small cable TV station in Toronto, finds a signal from a station in Pittsburgh known as Videodrome, which broadcasts sadomasochistic porn. As Renn sets out to meet those involved with Videodrome, including Nicki Brand (Deborah Harry), he becomes embroiled in a dystopian conspiracy in which business interests fight renegade media theorists for the control of his and everyone's minds. The influence on Cronenberg of media philosopher Marshall McLuhan, whom the director encountered as a student at the University of Toronto, is abundant in Videodrome, through the McLuhan-esque character Brian O'Blivion (Jack Creley). The Cronenbergian theme of human/machine fusion is also present, as in the famous scene of Renn reaching through a slit in his abdomen. Videodrome marks Cronenberg's first collaboration with sister Denise Cronenberg, here a wardrobe assistant, and Costume Designer on all his subsequent films.
 
Photographer: Rick Porter
Courtesy of Universal Studios Licensing LLC

Disease is the love of two alien kinds of creatures for each other...

Shivers was David Cronenberg's first full-length feature film, partially funded by the CFMDC and produced by Ivan Reitman and Montreal's Cinepix. It takes place in a chic Montreal condominium, where a research scientist, Dr. Emil Hobbes (Fred Doederlein), injects a parasite into his young mistress, who, under the parasite's aphrodisiacal influence, spreads it throughout the building. The condo's resident doctor, Roger St. Luc (Paul Hampton), his nurse Forsythe (Lynn Lowry) and Hobbes's assistant, Rollo Linsky (Joe Silver), fight against the parasite's spread but eventually become infected.

Shivers sets the tone for Cronenberg's filmography, continuing his interest in epidemiology and parodying the sexual revolution, problematically acting as a HIV/AIDS allegory before the fact.

Shivers elicited controversy in Canada, with journalist Robert Fulford, writing as "Marshall Delaney" in Saturday Night magazine, calling it "perverse", "disgusting" and "repulsive" - a waste of taxpayers' money. Debate reached the House of Commons, but ultimately the film grossed approximately $5 million internationally, covering its costs two times over and making it the most successful film the CFMDC had ever funded.

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Allan Kolman as Nicholas Tudor is examined by Joe Silver as Dr. Rollo Linsky after being infected by a parasite in Shivers. Allan Kolman as Nicholas Tudor is examined by Joe Silver as Dr. Rollo Linsky after being infected by a parasite in Shivers.
Shivers
1975

Allan Kolman as Nicholas Tudor and Joe Silver as Dr. Rollo Linsky
 
Photographer: Attila Dory

David Cronenberg discusses a scene with Fred Doederlin as Dr. Emil Hobbes on the set of Shivers David Cronenberg discusses a scene with Fred Doederlin as Dr. Emil Hobbes on the set of Shivers
Shivers
1975

David Cronenberg directs Fred Doederlein, who plays Dr. Emil Hobbes, and Cathy Graham, who plays Annabelle Brown.
 
Photographer: Attila Dory

Dr. Emil Hobbes (Fred Doederlin) following David Cronenberg's direction in a scene from Shivers. Dr. Emil Hobbes (Fred Doederlin) following David Cronenberg's direction in a scene from Shivers.
Shivers
1975

Fred Doederlein as Dr. Emil Hobbes and Cathy Graham as Annabelle Brown
 
Photographer: Attila Dory

David Cronenberg looks at Allan Kolman as Nicholas Tudor before a take of Shivers David Cronenberg looks at Allan Kolman as Nicholas Tudor before a take of Shivers
Shivers
1975

Director David Cronenberg with Allan Kolman, who plays Nicholas Tudor
 
Photographer: Attila Dory

David Cronenberg demonstrates the actions of Dr. Emil Hobbes on the set of Shivers David Cronenberg demonstrates the actions of Dr. Emil Hobbes on the set of Shivers
Shivers
1975

David Cronenberg directs Cathy Graham, who plays Annabelle Brown
 
Photographer: Attila Dory

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David Cronenberg CBC Interview
October 2011

Interviewer: Are you out to make a body of art or are you out to make a fast buck? Because one of-
 
DC: Fast?!
 
Interviewer: Yup.
 
DC: It took me 4 years to get Shivers made! And I made $13,000 for it. That's not fast and it's not much of a buck either.
 
Interviewer: But your films do make money.
 
DC: Yes, that film finally did make money when it finally got done and if you consider how long I made it, it would probably average out to about $9,000 a year doing that film.
 
Interviewer: That's one of the things that bothers the Canadian Film Development Corporation - is that you go and you borrow money from them, you make these dreadful movies, or so-called dreadful by the critics, you make a buck and return the loans instantly to the CFDC and they don't want to admit that they're funding you as a Canadian filmmaker.
 
DC: Well, in a way that's true, actually because Shivers caused a lot of embarrassment in the houses of parliament. People were wandering around the Secretary of State's office muttering, "What are we gonna do about Cronenberg?" Now, this is as though they had nothing else to worry about. The problem there was that this Film Development Corporation is a government organization. The people who work for it are civil servants. They have to answer to two masters; one is business- if the films don't make money they say "Why is this film losing money?" If the film does make money but is sensationalistic in any way, which it really has to be to make money, then questions are raised in the houses of parliament. "Why is tax money going into this obscene, perverse film?" And they say "Well it made its money back in about 3 weeks, and so the money has been recouped."
 
Courtesy of CBC TV Archive Sales

Chapter 2
Who am I?

As Cronenberg established himself as a director of international repute in the 1980s, the characters in his films found a new sense of individualism. Beginning with Max Renn in Videodrome, and continuing through the 1990s in films such as M. Butterfly, Crash and eXistenZ, Cronenberg's cinema remains concerned with renegade experiments involving science, technology, drugs, art and sex.

But his protagonists take on the responsibility of these experiments themselves. The results may be as failed as those in the earlier films, but questions of identity are explored with vigor, not fear or repulsion. From Seth Brundle in The Fly to the twins in Dead Ringers to Bill Lee in Naked Lunch, there is no longer a distinction between experimenter and subject. The two merge in a series of bold existential trials. Power of choice, however dangerous or ultimately futile, belongs to Cronenberg's protagonists.

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Films
Choose a film to learn more
Crash
1996
eXistenZ
1999
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Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen) campaigns for the US Senate in an adaptation of The Dead Zone. Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen) campaigns for the US Senate in an adaptation of The Dead Zone.
The Dead Zone
1983

The start of a new chapter in Cronenberg's career, The Dead Zone was his first major adaptation - here, of a Stephen King novel. Continuing a theme from Scanners, The Dead Zone features Christopher Walken in a brooding, nuanced performance as Johnny Smith, a schoolteacher who gets into a car accident and wakes up from a coma several years later with clairvoyant powers - ones eventually harnessed by the police. The estrangement caused by this, and his lost years in a coma, turns Smith into a recluse. He is eventually hired to tutor the introverted son of millionaire Roger Stuart (Anthony Zerbe), an associate of a conservative senatorial candidate (Martin Sheen) whose imminent victory Smith foresees as the beginning of Armageddon. The Dead Zone marks Cronenberg's continued collaboration, after Fast Company, with production designer Carol Spier.
 
Photographer: Rick Porter
THE DEAD ZONE © 1983 by Paramount Pictures Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

Jeff Goldblum as Seth Brundle in transition to becoming the Brundlefly. Jeff Goldblum as Seth Brundle in transition to becoming the Brundlefly.
The Fly
1986

Like The Dead Zone, The Fly was another adaptation - in this case of a 1958 Vincent Prince B-movie. It was a commercial success, and won an Academy Award for Best Makeup for Chris Walas and Stephan Dupuis. A return to science fiction and horror for Cronenberg, The Fly stars Jeff Goldblum as Seth Brundle, a brilliant scientist who has designed a teleportation device, the developments of which journalist Veronica Quaife (Geena Davis) tracks. As Quaife and Brundle begin an affair, Brundle teleports himself, neglecting to notice that a fly has entered his transfer pod. After an increasingly gruesome series of metamorphoses, he eventually realizes he has been fused with the fly. The Fly is the culmination of Cronenberg's exploration of the scientist archetype. Like The Brood, it has autobiographical dimensions: the director's father was dying at the time, and his attention to modes of physical deterioration was acute.
 
Photographer: Attila Dory
Footage and Stills From "THE FLY" (1986) Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox. All rights reserved.

Bill Lee (Peter Weller) and a mugwump in a bar scene from Naked Lunch. Bill Lee (Peter Weller) and a mugwump in a bar scene from Naked Lunch. Bill Lee (Peter Weller) and a mugwump in a bar scene from Naked Lunch.
Naked Lunch
1991

The themes of writer and artist William S. Burroughs affected Cronenberg profoundly throughout his career, no more so than in this loose adaptation of Burroughs' most famous, and notoriously "unfilmable," novel. Peter Weller plays Bill Lee, a hipster insect exterminator who conducts experiments with his wife Joan (Judy Davis) mainlining bug powder. After Lee accidentally kills Joan attempting their "William Tell routine," he enters Interzone, a hallucinatory version of Tangiers. Cronenberg's film acts as an irreverent tribute to Burroughs, giving life to his scatological imagery: personified cockroaches, anal-rape creatures "Mugwumps," and even the novel's notorious talking asshole. Concepts of addiction and otherworldliness, strongly present in Dead Ringers, recur here, as well as the interest in grotesque humour and metamorphosis seen in The Fly.
 
Photographer: Attila Dory
© Recorded Picture Company, 1991. Footage and Stills From "NAKED LUNCH" Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox and Entertainment One. All rights reserved.

Rene Gallimard (Jeremy Irons) longs for the mysterious opera singer Song Liling (John Lone) in M.Butterfly. Rene Gallimard (Jeremy Irons) longs for the mysterious opera singer Song Liling (John Lone) in M.Butterfly.
M. Butterfly
1993

M. Butterfly is based on the play by David Henry Hwang, who wrote the screenplay for this adaptation. Like Dead Ringers, it is loosely inspired by a true story, and also stars Jeremy Irons, here playing René Gallimard, an accountant at the French embassy in 1960s Beijing who falls for opera diva Song Liling (John Lone). Liling is a biological male, but successfully conceals this from Gallimard for many years, initiating an affair and acting as a double agent for the Maoist regime, to which he feeds information, provided by Gallimard, on American troop movements in Vietnam. Although it is a period drama, M. Butterfly is a showcase for the preoccupations of this stage in Cronenberg's career: the divided self, the limits of free will and autonomy, and the attempt to control and experiment with one's own body.
 
Photographer: Takashi Seida
Licensed By: Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Ted Pikul (Jude Law) plug into a game pod to play eXistenZ. Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Ted Pikul (Jude Law) plug into a game pod to play eXistenZ.
eXistenZ
1999

A "virtual reality" film that shows Cronenberg's predilection for games and gaming, eXistenZ stars Jennifer Jason Leigh as Allegra Geller, creator of the titular game, with which players engage by plugging organ-like pods into their "bio-ports" - holes surgically inserted at the bases of their spines. After a publicist (Jude Law) rescues Geller from an assassination attempt at a game demonstration, the two play eXistenZ to ensure her copy is not damaged, eventually encountering a tangled corporate conspiracy that threatens their safety, blurring actual and simulated lives. eXistenZ is Cronenberg's first original screenplay since Videodrome and in many respects elaborates on its themes, acting as a prescient consideration of the ramifications of biotechnology. (eXistenZ also came out the same year as The Matrix, whose parallel-world concept is suggestively Cronenbergian.)
 
Photographer: Ava V. Gerlitz
Images provided courtesy of Entertainment One

Let me introduce myself.
I'm one of the Mantle twins.

After two films made in the Hollywood system, Dead Ringers - which opened the Toronto International Film Festival in 1988 - saw Cronenberg returning to more idiosyncratic material. The film is co-written with Norman Snider, and loosely based on the real-life story of twin doctors Steven and Cyril Marcus, who were found dead in their Upper East Side apartment from a barbiturate overdose.

Jeremy Irons plays Dead Ringers' twin gynecologists Elliot and Beverly Mantle, the former confident and physical, the latter reserved and cerebral. Once the mantle brothers fall in love with actress Claire (Genevieve Bujold), their compartmentalized, symbiotic relationship unravels, with increasingly disturbing results.

Dead Ringers is Cronenberg's most intimate exploration of the theme of doubling or twinning, and key to his interest in parallel worlds - with the twins, in their mounting addiction, creating a decadent space away from reality. Dead Ringers marks Cronenberg's first collaboration with cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, with whom he would work on subsequent films.

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An embrance is shared between Cary (Heidi von Palleske) and the fated Mantle twins (Jeremy Irons) in Dead Ringers. An embrance is shared between Cary (Heidi von Palleske) and the fated Mantle twins (Jeremy Irons) in Dead Ringers.
Dead Ringers
1988

Eliott Mantle (Jeremy Irons) tempts his twin brother Beverly with a shared embrace from the seductive Cary (Heidi von Palleske)
 
Photographer: Attila Dory
Courtesy of Morgan Creek

Young Mantle twins (Nicholas and Jonathan Haley) conduct a science experiment in Dead Ringers. Young Mantle twins (Nicholas and Jonathan Haley) conduct a science experiment in Dead Ringers. Young Mantle twins (Nicholas and Jonathan Haley) conduct a science experiment in Dead Ringers.
Dead Ringers
1988

Nicholas and Jonathan Haley as the young Mantle twins
 
Photographer: Attila Dory
Courtesy of Morgan Creek

David Cronenberg directs Geneviève Bujold on the set of Dead Ringers. David Cronenberg directs Geneviève Bujold on the set of Dead Ringers.
Dead Ringers
1988

Director David Cronenberg consults Geneviève Bujold, who plays Claire Niveau
 
Photographer: Attila Dory
Courtesy of Morgan Creek

Claire Niveau (Geneviève Bujold) prepares to be examined by her gynecologist (Jeremy Irons) in a scene from Dead Ringers. Claire Niveau (Geneviève Bujold) prepares to be examined by her gynecologist (Jeremy Irons) in a scene from Dead Ringers.
Dead Ringers
1988

Geneviève Bujold as Claire Niveau
 
Photographer: Attila Dory
Courtesy of Morgan Creek

Beverly Mantle (Jeremy Irons) makes love to a bound Claire Niveau (Geneviève Bujold) in Dead Ringers. Beverly Mantle (Jeremy Irons) makes love to a bound Claire Niveau (Geneviève Bujold) in Dead Ringers.
Dead Ringers
1988

Geneviève Bujold (Claire Niveau) and Jeremy Irons as Beverly Mantle
 
Photographer: Attila Dory
Courtesy of Morgan Creek

Lovers Claire Niveau (Geneviève Bujold) and Beverly Mantle (Jeremy Irons) are intertwined in a scene from Dead Ringers. Lovers Claire Niveau (Geneviève Bujold) and Beverly Mantle (Jeremy Irons) are intertwined in a scene from Dead Ringers.
Dead Ringers
1988

Geneviève Bujold (Claire Niveau) and Jeremy Irons as Beverly Mantle
 
Photographer: Attila Dory
Courtesy of Morgan Creek

Elliot Mantle (Jeremy Irons) clings to his twin brother in a scene from Dead Ringers. Elliot Mantle (Jeremy Irons) clings to his twin brother in a scene from Dead Ringers.
Dead Ringers
1988

Jeremy Irons as the Mantle twins
 
Photographer: Attila Dory
Courtesy of Morgan Creek

The Mantle twins' (Jeremy Irons) madness leads to chaotic horror in a scene from Dead Ringers. The Mantle twins' (Jeremy Irons) madness leads to chaotic horror in a scene from Dead Ringers.
Dead Ringers
1988

Jeremy Irons as the Mantle twins
 
Photographer: Attila Dory
Courtesy of Morgan Creek

David Cronenberg directs Jeremy Irons on the set of Dead Ringers. David Cronenberg directs Jeremy Irons on the set of Dead Ringers.
Dead Ringers
1988

On location in Toronto, director David Cronenberg consults with Jeremy Irons, who plays the Mantle twins
 
Photographer: Attila Dory
Courtesy of Morgan Creek

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DEAD RINGERS TIMELINE
2013

JEREMY IRONS: No, although I have to say I'm always attracted to people who live lives quite outside my- mine. People, so to speak, living on the edge of my experience. I mean, I would never go there but it would be very interesting to explore it. I think that's one of the functions of drama which- that's been happening ever since the Greeks. Let's tell a story which, hopefully, none of us will have to experience in life; but let's see what happens to these people; how it is to be these people. How you get into a situation that these two- because, remember, the Mantle twins were well-known New York gynecologists; that's who the story was based upon. I think they were called the Marcus twins in New York. And how do you get there? That, for me, is really interesting. And, I think, why- `cause it's interesting, I look back at movies I've made and the subjects and I think "Whoa! They're all a bit on the edge, aren't they?" But that's interesting. It's like going exploring; going to a foreign land. How is it to be inside that person? Truthfully. Without judging. That would be a really interesting adventure. So I'm attracted by subjects like that.
 
I think what any artist is trying to do is to- whether he be a painter, or whether he be an actor or a writer- is to get to the core of existence. To mine in, and in? to those areas which we all share. Which have nothing to do with the distractions of life and the world around us. But to get to some sort of vulnerable purity of emotion.
 
And, David is- I remember on Dead Ringers, a scene where Beverly had to emotionally collapse. And we were in studio, and we did it a couple of times and I was just nowhere near where I had to be. And I said to David- and this tells you the sort of relationship one has with a great director?rare- I said "David, um, would you fancy sending everyone off for a cup of tea?" He said "Sure. Give me a shout when you think you want to do it." So everybody went off to the buffet table, which has coffee and whatever and I, sort of spent about- I don't know, not long- 15 minutes, maybe 10 minutes getting to where I knew I needed to get for the scene and then I gave it, I said to the assistant, "Listen, let's start again." People came back, I did the scene in one take.
 
You know, that's the nature of it. Film is collaborative and I think that's the word I would use most about my work with David; that it feels like a collaboration. And, always, working with the best directors feels like a collaboration. It may not be. They may be manipulating you to their heart's content, but you don't know that. It feels like a collaboration; that's when I'm happiest.
 
© TIFF

Winner of a Special Jury Prize for audacity at the Cannes Film Festival, Crash is the most controversial film of Cronenberg's career, and was central to the debate around screen violence and censorship in the late-1990s.

It is in many respects a companion piece to Naked Lunch - a literary adaptation of the work of one of Cronenberg's influences, this time J.G. Ballard. James Spader plays Ballard, a movie producer who gets into a car accident and, through interaction with the surviving wife of the driver who's been killed, is introduced to a cult that fetishizes car crashes, especially those of celebrities. A string of kinky sexual scenarios ensues, leading to a startling climax.

Previous Cronenberg works resonate in Crash: the motorcycle accident in Rabid; Fast Company's drag racing; the coma - inducing car crash in The Dead Zone. Fetishism and paranoia - integral Ballardian and, in turn, Cronenbergian, themes - are prevalent. But Crash is also a reversal for Cronenberg. Unlike films such as The Fly, Crash portrays changes to the body as erotic - creating sexuality rather than destroying it.

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I've always wanted to drive a crashed car.
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James Ballard (James Spader) comforts his wife Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger) on the side of a highway in Crash. James Ballard (James Spader) comforts his wife Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger) on the side of a highway in Crash.
Crash
1996

James Spader as James Ballard and Deborah Kara Unger as Catherine Ballard
 
Photographer: Michael Gibson
"Crash" appears courtesy of Entertainment One. Licensed By: Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.

James Ballard (James Spader) is inspected by Vaughan (Elias Koteas) following his traumatizing car accident. James Ballard (James Spader) is inspected by Vaughan (Elias Koteas) following his traumatizing car accident.
Crash
1996

Vaughan (Elias Koteas) inspects the steel leg brace of car crash victim James Ballard (James Spader)
 
Photographer: Michael Gibson
"Crash" appears courtesy of Entertainment One. Licensed By: Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.

David Cronenberg directing James Spader on the set of Crash. David Cronenberg directing James Spader on the set of Crash.
Crash
1996

Director David Cronenberg consults on location with James Spader, who plays James Ballard
 
Photographer: Michael Gibson
"Crash" appears courtesy of Entertainment One. Licensed By: Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Vaughan (Elias Koteas) documents a fatal car accident in a scene from Crash. Vaughan (Elias Koteas) documents a fatal car accident in a scene from Crash. Vaughan (Elias Koteas) documents a fatal car accident in a scene from Crash.
Crash
1996

Vaughan (Elias Koteas) photographs the scene of a car crash
 
Photographer: Jonathan Wenk
"Crash" appears courtesy of Entertainment One. Licensed By: Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.

David Cronenberg behind the camera on the set of Crash. David Cronenberg behind the camera on the set of Crash.
Crash
1996

Director David Cronenberg behind the camera
 
Photographer: Jonathan Wenk
"Crash" appears courtesy of Entertainment One. Licensed By: Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.

David Cronenberg between two prop cars on the set of Crash. David Cronenberg between two prop cars on the set of Crash. David Cronenberg between two prop cars on the set of Crash.
Crash
1996

Director David Cronenberg on location
 
Photographer: Jonathan Wenk
"Crash" appears courtesy of Entertainment One. Licensed By: Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Vaughan (Elias Koteas) strokes a car before performing a recreation of the car crash that killed James Dean. Vaughan (Elias Koteas) strokes a car before performing a recreation of the car crash that killed James Dean.
Crash
1996

Elias Koteas as Vaughan
 
Photographer: Jonathan Wenk
"Crash" appears courtesy of Entertainment One. Licensed By: Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Gabrielle (Patricia Arquette) is aroused at a car dealership in a scene from Crash.
Gabrielle (Patricia Arquette) is aroused at a car dealership in a scene from Crash.
Crash
1996

Gabrielle (Rosanna Arquette) in steel-reinforced leg and hip braces
 
Photographer: Jonathan Wenk
"Crash" appears courtesy of Entertainment One. Licensed By: Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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Crash Timeline
2013

JEREMY THOMAS: I had no idea when we did Crash that it was going to be controversial; I had no idea. I was completely shocked. I was shocked, honestly. I mean, it shows how naïve I am. But I was completely shocked when it created that sort of unbelievable response. Ballard said it was identical to when his book came out; I mean it was the same people were shocked. And, you know, in fact, the idea of the sexual opportunity of a car crash, it titillated me. I thought "well that's a very interesting idea". And I think it's a fantastic idea. And when I read the book originally, I thought "Wow, that's unbelievable!" but what's in the book is not exactly in the film. Some of it's in the film, and then some of it has been synthesized into other areas of the film, which is not exactly like the book. But that's the brilliance of his adaptation; David's adaptation. It was such a really brilliant adaptation which is why Ballard liked it so much. And Ballard was really; he was absolutely thrilled by the film. J.G.; he really loved it; he really loved the film. And the idea that somebody managed to take his thought and put it into celluloid and film, you know.
 
Everybody respects David Cronenberg. I mean, he's - I mean- he's like a description; he's an adjective. You know? I mean, he is a description of something. "It's Cronenberg-like." You know what it is. So David Cronenberg has turned you "Cronenbergian". I mean- how many filmmakers? Hitchcockian. Cronenbergian.
 
Now, as a producer, I'm a sort of self-professed expert in movies. Because I've seen thousands of films since I was a child. And, therefore, I know what directors can do. And I know every director- what they can do. Now Cronenberg, somehow, his alchemy is by putting together images and sound and camera lens together to make these special films. And when you look at what he's choosing- I mean, I look and see the lenses he chooses and the way he chooses to track or not to track or whatever he does, and the music he chooses and the way he decides to do it- that is his hidden talent. And that's why he's so special; because he knows something; or he's working in a way that nobody else works, which is his signature. Which is terrifying some people. But, of course, to somebody like me and to many other fans; that's what they really find special. Because he is very individual and unique. And I don't think- there are probably only a dozen film makers in the world today who've got that ? well, maybe less, even ? who have- you can look at the film without any credits on it? "That's Picasso," or "That is a Matisse" or "That is David Hockney." Now, with painters, you can do it- maybe even literature a little bit; paintings particularly. You can look at painters and you look at the- and you say "Well that is a painter." You can go with no signature on it: "I know who that painter is. That's Dali." And you're pretty-well right. With filmmakers, it's impossible. It's very difficult. I mean I don't even think you can go see Spielberg and say "that's a Spielberg film." Can you link that film to that film? I don't think you can. With Cronenberg; with 90% of his films, you can watch them with no credit and say they're his films.
 
© TIFF

Chapter 3
Who are my friends?
What is my family?

The most recent stage in Cronenberg's cinema sees the director turning outward. Family, friends and society are key concerns. The eponymous character in Spider, with whom Cronenberg intimately relates, is affected by past trauma in his attempt to make sense of the world he currently inhabits.

In A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, superheroic protagonists preserve the order of family and society by accessing their own dark, antisocial pasts.

In A Dangerous Method and Cosmopolis, Cronenberg forces the founders of psychoanalysis and a hermetic capitalist, respectively, to contend with what is outside their worlds of theory and money.

In this period, we also see Cronenberg revealing his own anxiousness about artistic identity and mortality in the evocative shorts "Camera" and "At the Suicide of the Last Jew in the World in the Last Cinema in the World."

T
Films
Choose a film to learn more
Spider
2002
Cosmopolis
2012
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Spider explores the mind of a mentally-disturbed man (Ralph Fiennes). Spider explores the mind of a mentally-disturbed man (Ralph Fiennes).
Spider
2002

Written by Patrick McGrath and based on his novel, Spider is a quiet, understated film, which won Cronenberg Best Director at the Genie Awards. The film is told from the skewed perspective of Dennis "Spider" Cleg (Ralph Fiennes), a mentally disturbed outpatient who inhabits a London halfway house, lighting out from it to revisit his 1950s childhood, observing the ostensible murder of his mother (Miranda Richardson) by his father (Gabriel Byrne), and her replacement by his father's mistress Yvonne (also played by Richardson). Critics saw the influence of Samuel Beckett, and although it moves into the domestic sphere, with a more explicit psychological focus that carries into subsequent films, its interest in doubling, sexuality, violence, and alternate realities ties it to previous work. Cronenberg was awarded the Order of Canada the year Spider was released.
 
Photographer: Takashi Seida
Images provided courtesy of Prospero Pictures, Entertainment One and Sony Pictures Classics Inc.

Small-town coffee shop owner Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is antagonised by gangster Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris). Small-town coffee shop owner Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is antagonised by gangster Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris).
A History of Violence
2005

Cronenberg's boldest Hollywood production to date, A History of Violence is a searing allegory of contemporary American life and politics. Viggo Mortensen plays Tom Stall, a model citizen in small-town Indiana, who has a lawyer wife (Maria Bello) and two children. After two men attempt a robbery of his diner and he kills both of them quickly and brutally (becoming a local hero and media celebrity as a result), Stall is confronted by stranger Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris), who demands that Stall admit to his past as a cold-blooded hit man. In A History of Violence, Cronenberg investigates the conflict between the self and the collective: the capacity of the apparently superhuman figure to function socially, and as a result concealing his identity. A History of Violence and its follow-up Eastern Promises, also starring Mortensen, see Cronenberg working explicitly within the film noir tradition.
 
Photographer: Takashi Seida
Licensed By: Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Nikolai Luzhin (Viggo Mortensen) and Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts) exchange distrusting glances in Eastern Promises. Nikolai Luzhin (Viggo Mortensen) and Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts) exchange distrusting glances in Eastern Promises.
Eastern Promises
2007

Winner of the Audience Prize at TIFF, Cronenberg's second collaboration with actor Viggo Mortensen concerns the activities of the Russian mafia in contemporary London. Mortensen plays Nikolai, driver for godfather Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl) to whose restaurant midwife Anna (Naomi Watts) is led after finding a card among the belongings of a 14-year-old girl who has died in childbirth. Anna uses Nikolai as her guide to Semyon's disturbing underworld, eventually discovering that the girl was drugged, abused, and forced into prostitution by Semyon and his sadistic son (Vincent Cassel). Like A History of Violence, Eastern Promises investigates ideas of good and evil through a conflicted anti-hero played by Mortensen, torn between virtuous and violent behaviour and in fact using his dark side to facilitate justice. Mortensen was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his performance.
 
Photographer: Peter Mountain
Courtesy of Universal Studios Licensing LLC

Psychologist Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) looks up to his mentor, Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortenson), in A Dangerous Method. Psychologist Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) looks up to his mentor, Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortenson), in A Dangerous Method.
A Dangerous Method
2011

A Dangerous Method is Cronenberg's explicit acknowledgment of the influence of psychology and psychoanalysis on his work. Written by Christopher Hampton and based on his play, A Dangerous Method is a loose account of the effect of Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) on the career of Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender). Spielrein's relationship with Jung begins with her treatment under him for hysteria; despite Jung's marriage, the two become lovers, and Spielrein eventually begins her own psychiatric practice, at the same time that Jung falls out with his mentor Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen). A Dangerous Method presents two love triangles - Spielrein, Jung and his wife; and Spielrein, Jung and Freud - the latter about ideas as much as sex, with the three figures dispersing afterwards. The central question of the film - whether psychological exploration is merely a way to define the self, or, as Jung claims, to change it - is present in much of Cronenberg's work.
 
Photographer: Liam Daniel
© Recorded Picture Company, 2011 A DANGEROUS METHOD appears courtesy of Prospero Pictures, Entertainment One & Sony Pictures Classics Inc.

Troubled 28-year-old billionaire Eric Paker (Robert Pattinson) in a scene from Cosmopolis. Troubled 28-year-old billionaire Eric Paker (Robert Pattinson) in a scene from Cosmopolis.
Cosmopolis
2012

Based on Don DeLillo's novel of the same name, Cosmopolis follows billionaire asset manager Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) as he sets out across Manhattan in his custom-outfitted limousine to get a haircut. Between him and his destination are, among other things, a presidential motorcade, a massive anti-corporate protest, and a famous rapper's funeral. As his journey continues, Packer crosses paths with lovers, advisors, doctors, and his wife. They watch as he loses his fortune, descending into the darker regions of both the city and his obsessions, and revealing himself as a man at odds with his own humanity. Cosmopolis may be Cronenberg's most political film - its depiction of protests presciently suggests the Occupy Wall Street movement, which occurred after the film was made. It also attests to Cronenberg's ongoing interest in and exploration of digital technologies.
 
Photographer: Caitlin Cronenberg
Courtesy of Prospero Pictures

Awards & Recognitions
National and International Honours
1990
Awarded Chevalier de l'ordre des arts et des lettres (France)
1999
Recipient of the Governor General's Performing Arts Award for lifetime achievement in film
1999
Inducted into Canada's Walk of Fame
2002
Made an Officer of the Order of Canada
2009
Recipient of the Légion d'honneur (France)
2012
Recipient of the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal
Academy Awards
1987
Stephan Dupuis and Chris Walas win the Oscar for Best Makeup in The Fly
2006
William Hurt is nominated for an Oscar for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role for A History of Violence.
2006
Josh Olson is nominated for an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for A History of Violence.
2008
Viggo Mortensen is nominated for an Oscar for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role for Eastern Promises.
Canadian Awards
Cronenberg himself has been nominated for a total of seventeen Genie Awards, with nine wins including Best Director for Videodrome (1984), Dead Ringers (1989), Naked Lunch (1992), Crash (1996), Spider (2002); Best Picture for Dead Ringers (1989), Naked Lunch (1992); Best Adapted Screenplay for Dead Ringers (1989) and the Golden Reel Award for Crash (1996). Collectively, his films have been nominated for a total of 85 Genie Awards, with 40 wins.
The Toronto Film Critics Association named Cronenberg Best Canadian Director for A History of Violence (2005).
Cronenberg has won the Director's Guild of Canada Award four times for Spider (2003), A History of Violence (2006), Eastern Promises (2008) and A Dangerous Method (2012)
Other International Awards
Collectively, Cronenberg films have been nominated for six Golden Globes, including Best Picture - Drama for A History of Violence (2006), Eastern Promises (2008); Best Actress - Drama, Maria Bello in A History of Violence (2006); Best Actor - Motion Picture Drama, Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises (2006); Best Original Score - Motion Picture, Eastern Promises (2008); and Best Supporting Actor - Motion Picture, Viggo Mortensen in A Dangerous Method (2012).
BAFTA nominations in varying categories were given to A History of Violence (2006) and Eastern Promises (2008).
France's César Awards nominated both A History of Violence (2006) and Eastern Promises (2008) for Best Foreign Film.
Festival Awards & Recognitions
Winner of TIFF's People's Choice Award for Eastern Promises (2007), and Best Canadian Feature for Spider (2002).
Cronenberg's films Crash (1996), Spider (2002), A History of Violence (2005), and Cosmopolis (2012) have all been in the running for Cannes' Palme d'Or prize.
(1996) Crash wins a Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival
(1999) Cronenberg presides over the Cannes Film Festival Jury
(2006) Cronenberg has awarded the Carrosse d'Or, Cannes Film Festival's lifetime achievement award
 
(1999) The Silver Bear for Outstanding Artistic Achievement was given to eXistenZ at the Berlin International Film Festival. Cronenberg had previously been in competition for the Silver Bear for Best Director for Naked Lunch in 1992.
(2011) A Dangerous Method is selected to be in competition for the Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival.
Cronenberg's films Shivers (1975), Rabid (1977), The Brood (1979), and Spider (2002) all won prestigious prizes at the Sitges Film Festival.
Cronenberg has been the recipient of six awards at the Avoriaz Fantastic Film Festival including the Critics Award for The Dead Zone (1983), the Special Jury Award for The Fly (1986) and the Grand Prize for Dead Ringers (1988).