If you’re director David Cronenberg, the press rarely wants to talk to you about anything other than your critically acclaimed movies.
But when I recently picked up the phone to talk to the famed filmmaker about his new movie “Cosmopolis,” a publicist gave me one friendly (yet firm) instruction: Don’t ask about Robert Pattinson’s personal life.
Ironically, Pattinson’s extremely public break-up with cheating “Twilight” co-star Kristen Stewart has earned “Cosmopolis” far more attention than it would have gotten otherwise, as fans eagerly awaited his press tour to see what, if anything, he’d say about the split. Like Cronenberg, the man behind films such as “The Fly,” “A History of Violence” and “Eastern Promises,” the 26-year-old British heartthrob has been mum on his private life, but extremely proud of his new indie drama.
Based on the Don DeLillo novel of the same name, “Cosmopolis” follows a 28-year-old billionaire named Eric Packer as he crosses Manhattan in his armored limo to get a haircut from his favorite barber. As Packer treks across the city – impeded by traffic from a Presidential visit, a rap star funeral and Wall Street protests – the young man becomes keenly aware that he is not only losing millions per minute in a financial sinkhole, but that he’s also being hunted by a pie-throwing terrorist and an unstable assassin.
David Onda: Could you tell me a little bit about the unique difficulties of filming “Cosmopolis”?
David Cronenberg: In a way, it’s not a matter of difficulty, it’s a matter of creative excitement, you know? I love the restriction of space. I think I’m drawn to that. I like shooting in confined spaces. You immediately get a ramping up of intensity and it forces you to become visually inventive. So that aspect of it, the fact that most of the book takes place literally inside a limo traveling along one street – I love that rigorousness and the strictness of the structure of the movie. That really appealed to me.
Onda: Given the relevance of this movie during the current economic crisis, was there any concern that this movie was too obvious a choice?
Cronenberg: No, not really. I wrote the script before “A Dangerous Method,” so the timing was never exact. I wasn’t really thinking about that, I was really thinking about the project itself. I think it could stand up whether it was immediately relevant or not. It’s funny, when you look at the reviews of the novel, a lot of the reviews talked about how unconvincing DeLillo was talking about demonstrations on Wall Street [laughs]. When we were shooting I got a text from Paul Giamatti saying, “I can’t believe it. Rupert Murdoch just got a pie in the face!” We had just been shooting that scene. We were thinking, wow, it almost makes it surprisingly relevant when, in fact, we’re not thinking so much about – you know, the movie is not meant to be a documentary about an economic meltdown. It’s a whole other thing. It’s about Eric Packer’s economic meltdown.
Onda: We get the sense that Eric is a very smart man, possibly a genius. He’s built this empire. Yet, by the end, we start to see him slip into somewhat of a downward spiral.
Cronenberg: Well, I think you have to understand that this is probably a process that’s been going on in him for some time, that this is the day, this is the special day. His desire to have that haircut is obviously not just a desire to have a haircut. Everybody keeps telling him he can do it many different ways. But he wants that barber. That barber represents his past, his childhood. This trip along 47th street is really a trip into his childhood and into his past to try and connect with something that he lost, that he disconnected himself from. And it’s also a trip to self-destruction. He needs to destroy what he’s become. He can no longer live with it. And it’s something that’s revealed gradually in the movie, but I think by the end of it you have to feel that, in a weird way, he’s been planning this for a long, long time.
Onda: You’re credited as an originator of the “body horror” genre, so I found it amusing that both Eric and his stalker are hypochondriacs. Was that something you intentionally emphasized?
Cronenberg: No, that’s 100% from the novel. Although, of course, I related to it. Not that I am a hypochondriac, but I like characters who are aware of their bodies, and maybe hyper-aware. And it’s interesting with Eric, because, in some ways, he’s such a disembodied person, so his obsession with his body is almost abstract, it’s almost clinical. It’s as though he still isn’t really believing in the reality of his body, you know? And I like that aspect of that character.
Onda: In terms of casting Robert Pattinson, was there concern over hiring an actor who is so well-known for a massively popular teen franchise such as “Twilight”?
Cronenberg: No, not concern. First of all, it’s an advantage in that it helps you get your movie financed. His fan base, in that case, is good. It gives financiers courage to finance a movie that’s not the normal mainstream kind of movie. On the other hand, it’s not the same audience as the “Twilight” audience, but there has been some crossover, definitely. When we were shooting the movie, there were some beautiful Twihard-based “Cosmopolis” fan sites that were really quite beautiful. And they were reading the book, they were discussing the book, and I thought that was terrific.
Onda: It also helped that he was making all these appearances for “Twilight” and half of his hair was chopped off.
Cronenberg: Exactly right. That was a big deal, because they really wanted him to do that MTV appearance and we were in the middle of shooting, so it worked out for both of us – for MTV and for “Cosmopolis.”
Onda: Was he a pretty good sport about his hair?
Cronenberg: He wanted that. He insisted on it. That was the crucial thing – that his hair should really be cut by the actor who was playing the barber, who is, of course, not really a barber. It was not a great haircut, but it was not supposed to be a great haircut. That was part of the joke, that this barber that he goes to, his childhood barber, is not really a great barber. Rob is a serious actor. That was part of it. “Mess me up.” He’s not afraid. Pie in the face? “No problem.”
“Cosmopolis” opens in limited release this Friday, August 24. Click here to order tickets on Fandango.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.