Twenty-five years after its initial release, David Cronenberg’s The Fly is thought to be a modern classic, a highly effective mixture of science, romance, and terror that pulled in a much greater audience than the horror fans looking for a cheap thrill. Cronenberg has always been a director poised on horror as a higher art, a filmmaker who understands the grotesque and how much it is apparent in real life. Some, myself included, call The Fly his master work, and Cronenberg, a very intelligent speaker about all things, not just his own work, has much to offer the viewers of his film and the listeners of the commentary he provides that film.
So here, without any further ado or buzz or flitting around your head or what have you, the things we learned from David Cronenberg’s commentary on The Fly.
The Fly (1986)
Commentators: David Cronenberg (co-writer, director), gallons and gallons of dramatic goop
- The Fly came to David Cronenberg through Mel Brooks who was working with producer Stuart Cornfeld at the time. Cronenberg had read the screenplay for the remake before, but couldn’t work on it, as he was in the process of working on an adaptation of Total Recall with Dino De Laurentiis. The director was interested in the way co-writer Charles Edward Pogue had rewritten the original 1958 film, but Cronenberg felt the characters in the screenplay could have been differentiated more from characters in the original short story. Still he was impressed and surprised by how much the screenplay felt like something he would have written.
- The idea of the opening title card for THE FLY, the idea of it fluttering in, was done initially for the film’s teaser. Cronenberg liked it so much he incorporated it into the finished film.
- Cronenberg auditioned several women for the Veronica Quaife role, but he wanted someone who could match Jeff Goldblum’s Seth Brundle in his eccentricities and stature. The director and Goldblum finally decided to look towards Goldblum’s girlfriend at the time, Geena Davis. Cronenberg found that working with a real-life couple meant he and the actors had to find a way to allow them to disconnect from who they were and find these characters who have just met.
- Cronenberg refers to the first designs for the famous telepod as “glass showers” much like how they looked in the original film. The director thought this was somewhat boring. The ultimate design came to Cronenberg and production designer Carol Spier when they went to his garage and saw his Ducati motorcycle. Cronenberg felt the telepods should have more of a machine element to them. In fact, the finalized telepods are the Ducati cylinder head structure turned upside down.
- “You really get into the nervous system of your actors when you’re directing, and it is like a fusion, a sort of Brundlefly fusion.” – Cronenberg on working with his actors, particularly Goldblum, who the director feels was perfect for the role.
- The director mentions he doesn’t think the original story by George Langelaan is a particularly well-written story. However, he feels the basic concept is stunning and “high concept.” Cronenberg believes it is sure to spawn a few more movies sometime in the future. No word on whether this commentary came out before or after 1989’s The Fly II. We’ll just assume it’s after and hope for the best.
- The name Brundle came from Formula One racer, Martin Brundle. Cronenberg generally takes names of his characters from the world of motor racing, as he is an enthusiast. The director notes this is interesting considering Seth Brundle suffers from motion sickness, one of the reasons why he invented the telepods.
- Cronenberg recognizes the theatricality to the movie, and, in fact, mentions how he was working on an opera adaptation with Howard Shore. He points out that most of the movie is three characters interacting in one location. “Four if you count the baboon.”
- The director mentions that watching The Fly for this commentary was the first time he had seen it since 1986 during its release. He makes notice by how disturbing yet emotional he finds the film to be. He believes that is one of the contributing factors to the film’s success, that it attracted an audience that generally did not see horror films, especially one as graphic as this.
- The idea of Veronica flushing the toilet while Stathis Borans is in the shower came about when Geena Davis was messing around on set. Cronenberg refers to this moment as one of the classics of film history and explains the concept of cold water rushing from an apartment and hot water moving to the shower. So there you have it. Pranks 101 with David Cronenberg. Who says the guy doesn’t have a sense of humor?
- The push-in shot of the baboon disappearing from one telepod was Cronenberg’s first ever motion control shot. In order to make the baboon seem to disappear the shot had to be done twice, one with the baboon in the telepod and one without. To ensure both shots are the exact same, computers have to be used to control the camera. This being the early days of such technology, the tracks the dolly traveled on were extremely large, and Cronenberg compares them to 19th Century railroad tracks.
- The idea of Seth Brundle mimicking Einstein in that his wardrobe is made up of the exact same outfit to keep him from using brain power to select clothing is one of the character elements Cronenberg added to the screenplay. In fact, the director states he has taken on this way of dressing himself since, but he says in his case it’s probably just laziness.
- “This is my version of the sexual awakening of a nerd.” – Cronenberg on the sex scene between Seth Brundle and Veronica Quaife.
- Cronenberg has interesting insight into the comparison between scientists and artists, how many scientists also have some kind of artistry about them. The director notes the cross-over between brilliant scientists and brilliants artists, how their creativity works and how they come up with solutions. He mentions how like Seth Brundle, many scientists seek answers through the comfort of producing art. In Brundle’s case it is playing the piano. “You can be a science geek or a science nerd, but it doesn’t mean you have no poetry in your soul or body.”
- The director notes the baboon used in the film became attracted to the script supervisor, Gillian Richardson, as she was evidently close to his height. Cronenberg notes this was a problem on set, and Goldblum, who was exponentially taller than the baboon, was able to dominate him. A subservient relationship grew between Goldblum and the baboon, who accepted the lead actor as the alpha male on set. The director goes on to talk about how you can’t train a baboon, and ways to make it look as if the one in The Fly was performing had to be devised. For one scene, a living fly was attached to a fishing line and dangled around the baboon’s head.
- It always bothered Cronenberg that in the 1958 version of The Fly, the flies head on the human body was the size of a normal man’s head. No scientific or logical reason was given that the flies head would grow to human size if they were simply swapped. Another thing that bothered the director about the original film was the shot from the fly’s point of view, the classic mosaic shot of the screaming wife. “We all know that insect eyes have facets unlike human eyes, many facets, hundreds of them, thousands of them.” Cronenberg goes on to explain that each of those facets would replicate a different piece of the whole picture, not the whole picture itself. So there. Entomology 101 with David Cronenberg.
- The scene where Seth performs gymnastic moves around his apartment was obviously done by gymnast stand-ins. However, as Cronenberg points out, the gymnasts were not used to doing their moves in multiple takes. While competing, gymnasts train for up to years at a time to perform only once. They had to perform their moves so many times during filming it got to the point where they couldn’t do them any longer.
- Cronenberg notes in the scene where Seth is rambling on and on while continuously pouring sugar in his coffee that even though a lot of dialogue was written, Goldblum added lines in order to continue the amping up effect it had on his character. Cronenberg also notes this scene could have a parallel with someone being on cocaine, which was common in the 1980s. He also likens the Brundlefly fusion to a disease and the fact that when someone is given a disease, they always try to find the benefits to what is happening to them. “I really did want there to be a strangely attractive though dangerous up-side to the fly fusion,” mentions the director.
- When recording Howard Shore’s score, Cronenberg remembers Mel Brooks questioning whether certain moments were too much. He particularly noticed how much the music crescendos when Brundle is walking down the street. “The guy is just walking down the street,” said Brooks. “No, Mel,” replied Cronenberg, “The guy is about to meet his destiny.”
- George Chuvalo, who plays the man Brundle arm wrestles in the bar, is the Canadian heavyweight boxing champion. He fought Muhammad Ali and George Foreman and was never knocked off his feet during his career.
- The song “Help Me” by Bryan Ferry was developed for the movie as a promotional tool. It was common in the 1980s to have a song written for your movie so you could have a music video running that promotes the film. Cronenberg doesn’t feel it fit in the movie and using it over the end credits, which was the original plan, was a complete disaster. Howard Shore’s score was just fine, and “Help Me” was left though barely audible during the bar scene.
- The line “Be afraid. Be very afraid.” came from Mel Brooks who said it casually during a conversation about the script. Cronenberg believes that as much as it has been mimicked and reused in films since most probably don’t remember it came from The Fly.
- Cronenberg notes the discussion that The Fly is really about AIDS. The disease was at its highest when the film was made, but the director says it is more about the general idea of aging, disease, and the inevitability of deteriorating. He feels this universal fear was another key element to the film’s success. Likewise, Cronenberg, now much older than he was when he made The Fly, is able to relate to the themes his film brings up. He finds the film to be far more disturbing now than when he made it 20 years prior.
- According to Cronenberg, the basic premise of The Fly, two lovers, one of whom contracts a disease and the other who is forced to watch and ultimately helps the sick one commit suicide, would never have been made as a straight drama. However, as a sci-fi, genre picture, the more serious, dramatic tones and the realism of what the film has to say was guarded. “But you have to consider how many people have given themselves their own death sentence in their bathrooms by discovering that thing in the shower or in the bathtub or in the mirror. That’s where the potency of those scenes comes from.”
- The director mentions a few times the importance of how much Brundle should be able to articulate what is happening to him. By late in the original film, the scientist was a complete mute, and Cronenberg felt this couldn’t have worked for his film. Cronenberg mentions books written from the first-hand perspective of someone who has contracted a terminal disease and how enlightening it was to hear in their own words what was happening to them. The way Brundle explains what is happening to him was drawn from these books allowing the audience to experience the disease even more so than if they were simply watching him transform. This was also important for the director later in the film when Brundle begins to literally lose his own voice.
- Cronenberg notes that even though it isn’t very realistic for someone, in this case Veronica, to only have two people in her life, he felt it important that her only source for comfort or support in dealing with what is happening to Seth is her former lover, Stathis. The director felt it important to emphasize the triangle at the center of the film and to help build Stathis’s motivations later in the film. In fact, The Fly originally ended with Veronica living with Stathis, but audience’s negative reactions – and Cronenberg’s own disapproval of such an ending – forced it to be cut.
- There are a few moments where Cronenberg notes a special effect that would have been done using computers had The Fly been made when technology allowed it. For instance, the scene where Veronica walks in on Seth crawling across the ceiling was done using a huge Ferris wheel and the set being built on that Ferris wheel. As Seth/Goldblum crawls on the ceiling and down the wall, the set rotated to give the supernatural appearance of someone able to do such a thing. Cinematographer Mark Irwin had to devise a system using mirrors in order to light the scene.
- About his own cameo as the gynecologist, Cronenberg mentions he rarely does cameos in his own films. He would prefer to hire actors for all of the roles in his films. However, Geena Davis asked him to play this part, as she felt more comfortable with the director being in this particular…um…position.
- A number of actors were approached for the role of Seth Brundle. Many of them turned the role down, as they were afraid of how much prosthetic makeup they would be required to wear late in the film, that their performance would be lost in the makeup and how much it covered. Jeff Goldblum was not afraid at all. He, in fact, welcomed the challenge. The makeup for the last part of the film took over five hours to apply before filming could even begin. Geena Davis would often sing and read to him while he was having his makeup put on. Cronenberg also notes Goldblum had to learn to speak with various kinds of prosthetic teeth in, and the actor had to work with a speech therapist throughout the filming.
- The “insect politics” speech was something Cronenberg came up with from his days as an entomologist. He was fascinated by insect societies, the division of labor, and the caste structure therein, yet they are very much not human.
- Cronenberg again mentions technology and CGI when discussing the makeup effects on Goldblum. The director finds an immediacy to the character and the performance that is generally lost when a CG performance is given or motion capture is utilized. This is particularly found in the scene between Seth and Veronica on the roof of the Bishop Straun School – they actually filmed there – where the director notes the emotion in the scene and how it could have easily been lost had it been shot using green screen.
- Cronenberg felt that in the final transformation, when Seth is completely gone and all that remains is a giant walking fly, the creature still needed some kind of human element to it for emotion. The articulation was still important even though the character could no longer speak. The director chose to give the creature emotional eyes, what Cronenberg refers to as “big versions of Jeff’s eyes.”
- Many epilogues were thought of to The Fly, most of them dealing with Veronica giving birth or not giving birth, giving birth to a perfectly healthy baby, and even giving birth to a butterfly baby which ended up being a dream. Cronenberg found that the ending they have was so shattering to audiences that nothing worked after that. The director feels the ending to The Fly is the same as the ending to The Dead Zone, another film where many epilogues were thought of but not used.
Best in Commentary
“It’s about mortality and the way that we deal with it and try to understand it and philosophies and emotional attitudes that we develop towards it.”
“The question of technology and science and morality and ethics is often raised in my movies, and there has been the kind of romantic concept of going too far, that you cannot assault the Gods. If you fly too close to the Sun, the wax holding your wings together melts, and you plunge to your doom. I don’t really believe in destiny, per se, but I think that it is innate in our nature to constantly change everything, to question everything, to try to understand everything, and it will inevitably create good and bad, and I don’t think there’s any stopping it.”
Almost as subdued as Christopher Nolan was on his Memento commentary, David Cronenberg lulls you into a calm, forcing you to hang on his every word. Thankfully, most of those words are filled with deep insight into both the concept and execution of this 1986 classic. Without a cast member or fellow crew member to bounce ideas off of, something that works for a lot of the commentaries out there, we’re left with only Cronenberg to speak to us.
This particular commentary benefits from that singular voice tremendously. The director never appears distracted, always seems on target with every thought he wishes to convey to his captive audience. The Fly is one of those films and David Cronenberg is one of those directors where you get the impression another commentary could be recorded with completely new information being brought to it, all of it absolutely fascinating.