Graphic of a mugwump from Naked Lunch

Cronenberg and TIFF: The Genesis of the Cronenberg Project

By Piers Handling, Director and CEO, TIFF

In 1990, TIFF made a momentous decision that would have enormous ramifications for its future. We decided to move beyond the boundaries of our 10-day September event and venture into year-round programming. This was a key decision for many reasons, but once this decision had been made, it had a knock-on effect: What would this year-round programming look like? Would we just limit ourselves to screening films? Would there be other functions, and what would they entail?

The director of the Festival at that time, Helga Stephenson, had extensive discussions with myself about the future direction we would take. These conversations soon led us in the direction of assuming responsibility for the activities of the Ontario Film Institute, an independent cultural organization started by the tireless Gerald Pratley, which was essentially engaged in the study, use, and appreciation of film. When these discussions led to negotiations—aided enormously by David Silcox, then Deputy Minister of Culture and Communications for the Province of Ontario—which then led to the Festival absorbing the activities of the OFI, the die was cast. Not only would the new organization screen films, it would now engage in a wider mandate, as the OFI had an extensive library of books, magazines, photographs, posters, memorabilia—and a very small “archive” of sound recordings and some film prints.

Looking forward, we saw an opportunity to approach Canadian filmmakers, with whom we had developed extensive relationships through the sheer fact of showing their films at the Festival, and ask them to donate, on an ongoing basis, their files and archives to us. This fit perfectly into our commitment to Canadian film and artists. We wanted to become their depository, the place where in the future the public, critics, media, academics—indeed anyone interested in Canadian cinema—would have to come to for research and information purposes. We wanted to own this territory: English-Canadian cinema. The Cinémathèque Québécoise was doing this job for Quebec cinema. We wanted to do the same for the rest of the country. And why not? A generation of exciting young Canadian film artists was emerging—Atom Egoyan, Deepa Mehta, Patricia Rozema, Bruce MacDonald, Peter Mettler, Jeremy Podeswa, Guy Maddin, Sturla Gunnarsson—and we wanted to be there for them in more ways than simply premiering their work at the Festival.

And of course, there were more established filmmakers. Some of those—Norman Jewison and Allan King—had already made arrangements with other institutions to house their materials. David Cronenberg was the first person we approached with our new idea. We had a strong relationship with David that went back to our 1983 retrospective, and conversations had ensued almost as soon as we had absorbed the OFI. David was completely open to the idea. He warned us that he kept few written records, but as it turns out he had kept much of his early writings—outlines, treatments, scripts, and notes for projects never realized, or which morphed eventually into some of the films. Most of this material comes from the seventies, during the period when he was grappling with the transition from his first two experimental features to the world of commercial cinema. They make for fascinating reading, as here one can see the genesis of films like Shivers, Scanners, and Dead Ringers. There is much more, in fact 20 metres of shelf space of written records including production notes, posters, audiovisual materials, sound recordings, and about 7000 photographs.

The bulk of his archive consisted of the objects he, and others, had made for the films. Strange objects. Disturbing objects. And David did not own all of these, as they had been designed and made by special effects artists. So we rolled up our sleeves, carved out a deposit agreement in the early nineties and set out to find and identify as many objects that related to David’s films as we could. Almost immediately, a project came our way—in a wonderful and strange way—when the Japanese department store chain Seibu contacted the Ontario government to run an exhibition of “something from Ontario” in its gallery spaces in Tokyo and Fukuoka. Their galleries had screens, and the savvy curator who ran the Government of Ontario’s art collection, Fern Bayer, thought of Cronenberg, and ended up on our doorstep! It was love at first sight.

So, in 1993, “The Strange Objects of David Cronenberg’s Desire,” curated by the indefatigable Fern, opened to packed crowds in Tokyo. The show was a huge hit, so much so that a slimmed-down version appeared that September in the Royal Ontario Museum’s new Institute of Contemporary Culture. A sign on the door warned, “the artistic vision documented in this exhibit strikes at the core of human fears and fantasies. Enter at your own risk. We warn you that some visitors may find these objects disturbing.”

In the years after the Tokyo/ROM show, parts of our Cronenberg collection were exhibited around the world: in Paris at the Festival d’Automne, at the Centre of Contemporary Culture in Barcelona, in Sao Paolo at the Carlton Arts Festival, and in Greece as part of the annual Thessaloniki International Film Festival.

Realistically, as soon as we acquired the Cronenberg donation, the seeds for “David Cronenberg: Evolution” were born. It took us 23 years to build our own space where we could mount it.

When we acquired the collection from David, we joked about the need to construct a Cronenberg wing in any future building—and at that time a building was no more than a fantasy. When the initial thinking for TIFF Bell Lightbox came to the surface in 2000, we knew that one of the first major shows we would put into any exhibition space in our new home would be a David Cronenberg show. It was—as they say—a no-brainer.

Over the years, we have added to the collection, keeping up with new Cronenberg films as they are produced—ten since the original donation in 1990—so an immense amount of new material has been acquired since “The Strange Objects” travelled to Tokyo and appeared at the ROM twenty years ago. In addition, we reached out to his collaborators, including longtime production designer Carol Spier, production designer James McAteer, composer Howard Shore, special effects artist Stephen Dupuis, special effects and make-up artist Chris Walas, and costume designer Denise Cronenberg. Their contributions to the Cronenberg project are now a part of our collection.

Various media are represented in the present collection, from text to visual materials, moving pictures, and sound recordings. These records provide a full range of representation of the production process, from script and development, to visual and design articulation, casting, shooting issues, post-production, marketing and publicity, distribution and press reviews, office correspondence, fan mail, and some documentation relating to David’s on-screen roles. The collection is particularly strong in three-dimensional objects: the helmet from Videodrome, the pod from The Fly, insect typewriters from Naked Lunch, the surgical instruments from Dead Ringers, game pods and insect creatures from eXistenZ, braces from Crash, and costumes from M. Butterfly being a few of the highlights. The records for Naked Lunch and Crash are extensive, and contain correspondence with Burroughs and Ballard.

Finally, we can show off the jewels of the collection that we acquired—as well as the material generously lent to us by their owners, every one of whom is a rabid Cronenberg aficionado.

It has been a wondrous journey.