David Cronenberg and Robert Pattinson interview: Cosmopolis, capitalism and more

With Cosmopolis out in the UK on Friday, we spoke to director David Cronenberg and star Robert Pattinson about the making of the movie...

It takes a truly special kind of filmmaker to give life to a story about a man crossing a city to get a haircut, but that’s precisely what director David Cronenberg’s done in his latest movie, Cosmopolis. And in choosing one Robert Pattinson to play Eric Packer, the billionaire whose life and fortune appears to ebb away as he crosses New York in an armour plated limousine, Cronenberg has made yet another unusual yet brave move – Pattinson turns in a performance that’s a world away from the wan, glittery vampire he became known for in the Twilight movie, and in a role that requires him to be in almost every scene, the young actor has surely silenced his critics with a turn of considerable depth.

As the strange, hallucinatory Cosmopolis arrives in UK cinemas, it was our pleasure to sit with Cronenberg and Pattinson in a round-table interview, and discuss the making of the film, the changes made from Don DeLillo’s source novel, and its relevance in today’s post-financial crisis landscape.

Note that the following contains one or two mild spoilers about the movie’s plot developments.

Do you feel that Cosmopolis has been informed in any way by the recent Occupy movements in both Europe and the US? 

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David Cronenberg: Well, they didn’t inform the film at all because we really just stuck to the script. It just so happens that what Don [DeLillo, the author of Cosmopolis] wrote was prescient and clairvoyant. It felt more that the world was finally catching up with him! So it didn’t alter what we did, but we couldn’t help noticing that it was like we were making these things happen. I mean, we knew that we weren’t! [laughs].

But Paul Giamatti [who plays Benno Levin in the film] texted me to say: “I can’t believe it, I just saw Rupert Murdoch get a pie in the face.” We’d just shot the scene were Rob [Pattinson] gets the pie in his face, so it was like: “This is weird!”

 So is Cosmopolis an anti-capitalist film?

 DC: It’s interesting, but there really are no anti-capitalists in this movie. It’s also been noted that the Occupy Wall Street movement isn’t really anti-capitalist. What they really want is for the 99 per cent have a piece of the action! So it’s not like they’re communists or socialists and they hate capitalism and want to take it down. So it’s a little odd and not quite what you might think.  And it’s the same with the character of Benno [Giamatti]. He loves capitalism, but his complaint is that he’s been left behind by Eric Packer [Pattinson] who has helped destroy the way that Benno loved to work.  But he’s not an anti-capitalist, so it’s difficult to [pigeonhole] the movie as anti-capitalist.

You’ve made a number of changes to the story from the book to the screen. One of the key alterations is the shifting of the currency which helps bring down Eric’s empire from the Japanese Yen to the Chinese Yuan. Why was that?

DC: [laughs] It was my feeble attempt –as a complete ignoramus in the realm of economics – to make it a little more futuristic. Since the book was written the Yen has collapsed and then you’ve also had the recent Tsunami and suddenly Japan is staggering. But before then it was like the book Rising Sun, everyone was terrified of the rise of Japan and the Yen was going to become the world currency. Of course, the look to the East was correct, but it’s really China that will be the world power and by 2015 the Yuan will be a fully convertible currency and may well displace the dollar. That’s the Chinese plan and no one seems to be able to think that it won’t happen. So that was what I did there, but I don’t think it really changes the tone of it though.

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You say that, but it does reinforce some of the other imagery in the film in a stronger way. For example, the image of the rats recurs throughout. While that comes from DeLillo’s book it also has an added resonance as the rat is actually the first sign of the Chinese Zodiac, which signifies a conqueror.

DC: I never go in for metaphor [laughs]. But I like that. I hadn’t realised that, but I don’t think Don had either. The idea of the rat [becoming a unit of currency] is taken from the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert’s book Report From A Besieged City.

The character of Eric Packer seems more nihilistic than most of David’s previous characters. He seems to be less a seeker of knowledge that we’ve seen before and his main aim in the film – to get a haircut – seems fairly trivial. Were these differences/elements of Packer a factor in both of you taking on the project?

Robert Pattinson: I don’t think I approached him as a nihilist. There’s an energy to the character, but the energy of a nihilist is very different. He’s not really throwing things away consciously, but rather thinks he’s getting closer to something and everything starts falling away.

DC: I never consciously think about my previous work. You’re asking me to be an analyst of my own movies and that’s your job! [laughs] The joy for me is the middle of the night being on the street with your crew and your actors and nobody else around. At that point you’re not thinking about Twilight or Scanners. You’re thinking about Cosmopolis and Eric Packer and the structure of it and that’s a very beautiful and pure thing.

As for the haircut – well, it’s not trivial at all.  In fact, Eric sets it up at the beginning when he says: “A haircut is what? It’s a calendar on the wall”.  It’s his past, he’s returning to his childhood where he was somehow purer and more innocent. When he sits in the [barber’s] chair he somehow becomes a child again and the old barber becomes like his father. So, no, it’s not trivial at all. 

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The poster for the film in the UK reads “Prepare To Be Surprised”. With a sizeable fan base that may have certain expectations about what to expect from a film starring Robert, how do you think they’ll react to the film? 

RP: I hope they come to see it [laughs].

DC: That’s the priority. Just get them into the theatre anyway you can! Hook ‘em, grab ‘em! [laughs]

RP: I think The Twilight fanbase are much maligned because of their tenacity. We were in Germany yesterday and it was a miserable day and they were all waiting in the middle of nowhere and everyone was screaming, but then you go down the line and people are giving you books and stuff. So it’s not like they’re giving you teddy bears! Twilight’s attracted a broad spectrum of people and they’ve all been lumped together. A lot of people who’ve come to the premieres in Europe have seen the film three or four times already and they all have quite interesting critiques of it.

DC: And lots of the girls in those lines actually had copies of Cosmopolis and they’ve either read them or truly intend to read them. Okay, so maybe they’ve only read Harry Potter and Twilight, but now they’re reading Don DeLillo, so what’s wrong with that? [laughs]

Aside from changing the Yen to the Yuan there are a number of other subtle changes you’ve made to the book. I’m thinking mainly about the material with Eric’s new bride, Elise. This plays out differently in film as you have the couple neither touch nor consummate their marriage. Why did you make that change?

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DC: Well, frankly, I never felt that they ever touched. And the scene in the book [where Eric and Elise have sex] during the filmed orgy featuring 100 naked people in the streets of New York… well, I felt that was honestly Eric’s fantasy of reconciliation and a rather juvenile fantasy at that. And I knew that on screen it would be laughable. An audience would never buy that.  So, I felt, no, he disconnects from his wife, he never does touch her, they never do have sex and it’s over. And that’s one of the things that leads him to destroy himself. 

I mean, there are several moments that lead him to that. It’s the death of Brother Fez [the Sufi rap star], it’s the break-up of his marriage, it’s the killing of Torval [his bodyguard] and all these moments all lead him to the end, which is a kind of suicide. The movement of the movie is that he’s going back to his childhood and then beyond, to before he was born, which is to say death.

 Is it correct that you and Robert will be working together again in the film Maps To The Stars? Is that definitely going ahead?

RP: I want to do it. One of the reasons we started talking about it was to try and get some financing for it.

DC: It has created some interest, actually, and weirdly enough that counts. But there’s a brilliant script by a friend of mine, Bruce Wagner. I tried to do it five years ago, but I couldn’t get it made. It’s one of those great scripts and – in a way – it’s like Cosmopolis in that it’s just not an easy sell. It’s edgy, in that sort of nasty, disturbing way. And it has emotion, but it’s kind of a weird emotion. Again, it’s like Cosmopolis, where by the end of the movie it’s become strangely sad and emotional.

It sort of sneaks up on you because you don’t think it’s ever going there, which is how the book struck me too. But it’s hard to make difficult movies, even when you have very credible actors who bring a lot of attention to a project. I mean, Viggo Mortensen wants to play another role in the movie, so you’d think with both Viggo and Robert interested you could raise 15 million euros no problem. But it is a problem, unless you all want to kick in! [laughs] I’ll give you all producer credits!

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