David Cronenberg and medium-budget filmmaking

Feature Ryan Lambie 20 Aug 2012 - 07:43

With Eastern Promises 2 faltering just months before production, we wonder what David Cronenberg's current situation says about indie filmmaking as a whole...

With this year’s Cosmopolis, director David Cronenberg once again proved his talent for making probing, clinical and often extremely disturbing movies.

Starting his feature-directing career in the 70s with the uncompromising, unforgettably icky ‘venereal horror’ of Shivers (aka The Parasite Murders, aka They Came From Within), Cronenberg has since carved out a fearsome reputation as a creator of movies that are by turns intelligent and horrifying. 

Always working at the very periphery of the mainstream, Cronenberg’s movies have seldom been expensive to make; The Fly (1986) and A History Of Violence (2005) were rare examples of his studio filmmaking, and even they’re fiercely individual movies – for the former, Cronenberg flatly refused to relocate to Hollywood, opting to shoot the movie in Toronto with his usual cast and crew.

Despite Hollywood’s occasional interest in Cronenberg – he was offered all sorts of bizarre projects in the 80s, including Top Gun, which he turned down – the director’s continued to make films in broadly the same independent manner for more than 35 years. 

By constantly working with the same crew and keeping his budgets relatively tight, he’s managed to turn out such varied and imaginative fare as Dead Ringers (a particularly surprising film, coming as it did after the popular success of The Fly), Crash and Spider.

Cosmopolis typifies Cronenberg’s evolving approach to filmmaking; The Fly, it seems, marked the director’s high water mark for outlandish horror, and his movies took on a more dramatic tone thereafter – though they’d never lose their moments of searing violence, as the oozing gunshot wounds of A History Of Violence or the cut throats of Eastern Promises prove. 

Friday the 17th August marked the US release of Cosmopolis. Unusually, for a director who’s worked solidly for decades, Cronenberg doesn’t appear to have anything lined up to follow it. 

For a while, there was much talk about Cronenberg tackling something rather unusual: a remake of The Fly. Now, Cronenberg being Cronenberg, this wouldn’t be as straightforward as it sounds – what he had in mind, he said in interviews, wasn’t really a remake, but a new idea that took its basis from his 1986 film (itself a remake of the 1958 horrror of the same title).

“I basically said to the guys at Fox, there's no way I'm going to remake the movie,” Cronenberg told Cinema Blend last year. “I did it, what's the point? But I do have an idea that I'm interested in that I proposed to Mel Brooks when he wanted to do a sequel to my version of The Fly.” 

The idea Cronenberg refers to may be an early treatment for what would become The Fly II (1989), in which the consciousness of Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum’s character) survives inside a computer system. Cronenberg reportedly endorsed the concept, but this was extensively reworked by later writers.

Cronenberg approached Fox with his concept for a new Fly movie in 2009, and the studio gave him the money to go away and write it – unfortunately, it seems that the people in charge of the purse strings didn’t particularly like what they read.

“It seems now that it’s not going to happen,” Cronenberg said in a recent interview with Empire. “But it's a script that I like and would do. It's not exactly a sequel, and it's certainly not a remake. More a meditation [...] it involves teleportation.” 

With his Fly movie apparently stuck in stasis, Cronenberg had another project he wanted to pursue, and this one looked as though it had every chance of getting the go-ahead: a sequel to his superb 2007 crime thriller, Eastern Promises. Viggo Mortensen was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his performance as a Nikolai, a driver for the Russian Mafia, and the movie did well enough to more than double its $25 million investment.

Over the last couple of days, though, it seems that this project has also met an untimely end. “We were supposed to start shooting Eastern Promises 2 in October,” a frustrated Cronenberg told The Playlist. “[But] It's done... If you don't like it talk to James Schamus at Focus. It was his decision.”

This abrupt cancellation leaves Cronenberg without a project to shoot; with time on his hands. It’s said he’s now writing a novel.

In recent years, it’s become increasingly difficult for independent directors to secure funding for medium-budget pictures – those in the $15 to $30 million range. Now, it seems that even directors with a proven track record like Cronenberg, whose films are relatively inexpensive and seldom fail to at least make their money back, are struggling in an industry increasingly wary of taking risks on any project that doesn’t offer significant returns.  

Speaking to Den Of Geek last year, director DJ Caruso (I Am Number Four, The Salton Sea) talked about the reasons why small-to-medium budget movies are struggling to find the finances they need.

“You can't make an $18 million movie like The Salton Sea right now,” Caruso told us. “If you make a $20 million movie, or you make a $15 million movie, it’s going to cost $35 million to market it. So, we’re going to spend $35 million because that’s how we get people to see it […] It costs so much to market a movie that everyone tries to hit a home run. Let’s spend a $100 million on a movie, because we're going to spend $50 million to market it anyway. So, everyone tries to hit the massive home run, and all the money's drying up.” 

With his concept for what presumably would have been a relatively mainstream sci-fi horror project (The Fly) at a standstill, and a potentially Oscar-worthy gangster picture also stuck in limbo, Cronenberg’s left with Maps To The Stars, an 'acerbic' and satirical script written by Bruce Wagner. Although Viggo Mortensen and Robert Pattinson are both said to be interested in starring in the picture, Cronenberg has described the movie as "difficult to get made" – he'd originally tried to film it about five years ago, only for the financing to fall through. 

"It's not a go picture," Cronenberg said of the film. "It's not obviously a very big commercial movie, and even as an independent film it's difficult." With even a relatively familiar project like Eastern Promises 2 falling apart at a critical stage, it's not currently clear whether Cronenberg will have any more luck with a script which even he admits is a difficult sell.

One thing we can safely say is that he's not interested in directing a superhero movie, or getting involved in expensive studio filmmaking in general. "Anybody who works in the studio system has got 20 studio people sitting on his head at every moment," Cronenberg told Next Movie, "and they have no respect [...] But a superhero movie, by definition, you know, it's comic book. It's for kids. It's adolescent in its core. That has always been its appeal, and I think people who are saying Dark Knight Rises is supreme cinema art, I don't think they know what the fuck they're talking about."

For the past 37 years, David Cronenberg has, in feature after feature, established himself as one of the few true auteurs – a director absolutely dedicated to his dissection of the human condition. That this remarkable director should be struggling to get his pictures made is a truly worrying snapshot of the current cinema landscape. 

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