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6 Filmmaking Tips From David Cronenberg

From 2012, we rounded up the best filmmaking advice we could find from the man behind such classics as ‘Scanners’ and ‘Videodrome.’
David Cronenberg filmmaking tips
By  · Published on June 13th, 2012

Welcome to Filmmaking Tips, a long-running column in which we gather up the shared knowledge of a particular filmmaker and assemble it all into the internet’s favorite thing: a list. This one is about the filmmaking advice of David Cronenberg.

David Cronenberg has made many types of films, but all of them are unmistakably Cronenberg. From B-horror movies to a beat literature adaptation to a film about the working relationship between Freud and Jung, the Canadian filmmaking veteran’s oeuvre exhibits a versatility of subject matter that somehow maintains consistency in style. Cronenberg’s films are known for their complicated portrayals of sex, in-your-face depictions of violence, and unmitigated explorations of human transformation, whether that transformation is from a human to a fly, a patient to a psychologist, or an east coast mobster to a Midwest suburban father.

David Cronenberg got his start in underground experimental films, then made interesting low-budget B-movie horror features, and has since risen to prominence as one of North America’s most respected and revered auteurs. In August, the 69-year-old Cronenberg’s 18th feature film will be released, and he may follow it up soon with his first-ever sequel.

So here’s a bit of free film school from an experienced filmmaker hailing from America’s favorite hat.

The filmmaking lessons we can learn from David Cronenberg

1. Don’t Storyboard

On the behind-the-scenes documentary for the A History of Violence DVD, screenwriter John Olson pointedly states that Cronenberg doesn’t storyboard his scenes: “He doesn’t storyboard, and he doesn’t rehearse with the actors until he gets [to the set], and then he starts feeling it out, he’ll block the scene, and he’ll see how it works for [the actors]. He’ll start designing his shots around them.”

At first, this sounds like an incredibly risky practice. It takes a lot of confidence for a director to show up on set without something specific in mind that s/he wants to articulate visually. But on the other hand, there’s a charming pragmatism to such a collaborative approach. Anything from the set to the lighting to the faces of the actors themselves may not initially look the way a director envisions them in the storyboarding process, so why commit to something in your head when it may not exactly work on set?

Cronenberg’s no-storyboarding (or, at least, no advance storyboarding) filmmaking style embraces the interactive component of filmmaking and permits an openness toward what other creative contributors like the director of photography, set designer, costume designer, and actors contribute. It doesn’t force the director into a situation where their vision is sacrosanct at the expense of collective creative contribution. Cronenberg sees the vision of the director as what leads a film, not what dictates it.

2. You Don’t Have to Find Inspiration For Your Films in Other Films

According to Mark Browning’s book David Cronenberg: Author or Film-maker?, Cronenberg’s greatest artistic influences are, surprisingly, not other filmmakers but authors. Cronenberg has regularly cited Lolita scribe Vladimir Nabokov and beat novelist William S. Burroughs as the most instructive in building his identity as an artist.

We typically think of the greatest directors as huge cinephiles. Scorsese thinks that cinema’s greatest artistic achievement is Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes. Alfred Hitchcock was a big fan of Luis Bunuel. Even Brett Ratner cites Raging Bull as the movie that made him want to make movies. When assessing the work of a great filmmaker, we often infer that their greatness has been cultivated through devotion to the art and history of cinema. But why can’t one art form influence another?

We can read Nabokov’s influence of Cronenberg in the director’s revisited themes of sexual deviancy and the loss of control. Burroughs’s influence has been more direct, as the author’s most famous novel, Naked Lunch, was the source text for Cronenberg’s inventive, creative adaptation of an “un-adaptable” book. And the beloved Videodrome drew inspiration from a different type of author entirely, Canadian academic Marshall McLuhan. This practice of drawing inspiration from other sources besides movies may explain why so many of Cronenberg’s films are adaptations.

When it comes to making strong, compelling, and confrontational work, perhaps what keeps Cronenberg’s films original and challenging is that they aren’t tapping into something that already exists in filmmaking’s past, but instead looks toward other art forms for inspiration.

3. Work Close to Home

Besides the Europe-set A Dangerous Method and Eastern Promises, nearly all of Cronenberg’s features have been shot in his home of Toronto. Cronenberg frequently utilizes the resources available in the Ontario metropolis’s Pinewood Studios to great effect. Interior Ontario sets have substituted for Tangiers in Naked Lunch, a scientist’s laboratory in The Fly, a suburban American household in A History of Violence, and the streets of Toronto provided the stage for intertwined acts of sex and mechanized violence in Crash.

Cronenberg also frequently works with the same crew. For example, he’s employed the same production designer (Carol Spier), costume designer (Denise Cronenberg, his sister), and composer (Howard Shore) throughout most of his career. He’s also repeatedly worked with the same supporting cast members, like Robert A. Silverman who has been featured in his films from Rabid (1977) to eXistenZ (1999). Only recently, in his numerous collaborations with Viggo Mortensen, has Cronenberg embraced the idea of casting the same leads time and again (Jeremy Irons was previously in two of Cronenberg’s films, but other actors rarely play a lead role more than once).

While screenwriters, source materials, and lead actors may come and go in Cronenberg’s work, he’s clearly established a location that he feels at home working in and a crew that he works well with. The lesson here? Find the ways in which you work best and keep doing it that way. You save the hiccups of working on a set or location shoot you aren’t familiar with, or the troubles you may encounter people you may not know or trust. Filmmaking is difficult because you’re always doing something a little different with each subsequent job, and each film involves new challenges and opportunities. Creating a routine and a community minimizes certain risks that can get in the way.

4. Don’t Be Afraid to Shock

Common wisdom in filmmaking dictates that if we leave terrifying ideas up to the audience’s imagination, they can fill in the gaps and have an even more thrilling experience than if given all pieces of the puzzle at once. This philosophy dictated Hitchcock’s style and worked to great effect in films like Spielberg’s Jaws where the antagonist is rarely even seen.

David Cronenberg does not ascribe to this philosophy. He leaves nothing up to the audience’s imagination. He believes violence should be experienced in all its troubling detail, for this is the only way viewers can truly understand the horror of violence and its repercussions.

Check out Cronenberg’s response to the violent viral videos that circulated after Muammar Gaddafi’s death at the hands of Libyan rebels in October [starting at 2:03].

Experiencing violence forces one to deal with unexpected, complex emotions in relation to it. Cronenberg suddenly felt sympathy for an otherwise unsympathetic dictator. The image has the power to shock, yes, but that shock can challenge long-held assumptions.

Admittedly, seeing the actual death of a human being isn’t the same thing as watching James Woods plunge his hand into an animatronic chest vagina. But Cronenberg’s philosophy of the “real” image is similar to the manufactured ones he creates in his films. Cronenberg has an active imagination, so why would he need to leave things up to the imagination of his audiences? Whether it’s the exploding head of Scanners, the decay of Brundlefly in The Fly, or a bare-assed Viggo Mortensen gauging a man’s eye out in Eastern Promises, Cronenberg doesn’t shy away from the power of the image to shock and prefers to confront audiences rather than leave anything up to the imagination. As Cronenberg states in the History of Violence documentary, “Violence is something we have to come to terms with in our creative life and hope that we don’t have to deal with it in our day-to-day life.”

5. Don’t Distract Yourself with Flash; Trust in the Human Face

No matter which Cronenberg film you watch, you’ll notice a lot of medium close-ups when he films conversations between actors. In fact, Cronenberg’s films seem to revolve more and more around human conversation, culminating recently in his period piece about “the talking cure.” Here’s what Cronenberg had to say about working with dialogue and human faces; or, as he calls it, the “primordial ooze of cinema.” [2:13–3:11]

6. Develop an Environment of Trust, Then Don’t Be Afraid to Go to the Extreme

[In a video we originally shared that’s no longer available on YouTube], Cronenberg talks about working with Susan Petrie on his first feature film, Shivers. With a limited budget, and thus a limited schedule, Cronenberg and his cast and crew had to resort to some unusual methods to get the intended results depicting chaotic and disturbing human transformations onscreen. Petrie asks Cronenberg to slap her before each take in a scene where she had to cry, for the actress (who had been trained in comedy) wasn’t able to cry on her own. While Cronenberg was initially uncomfortable with this process, after receiving encouragement and consent from Petrie to perform the scene this way, he developed a mutually understanding relationship with his cast and crew in order to achieve the intended results. But when another actress came on set, the environment of Shivers seemed abusive to the naked eye.

Of course, Cronenberg isn’t stating here that one should seek to slap their cast members. But when you have a mutually respectful working relationship with your cast and crew, your methods may seem strange and unorthodox out of context. But if everybody is invested in the results of the film, some unusual, extreme and, yes, dangerous methods can be reached as a means to an end.

What we’ve learned about filmmaking

David Cronenberg doesn’t shy away from difficult subject matter. He embraces it. At the same time, his filmmaking style is notable humble and practical. Perhaps this is why he’s able to complexly explore challenging themes, characters, and ideas: if you open up to your actors, cultivate a reliable and trusting crew, work in a space you’re comfortable, and avoid storyboarding, you’re able to work on the little things that matter while avoiding the little things that might get in the way.

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