AT THE CLIMAX OF David Cronenberg's Videodrome, James Woods (at this point either a mutated being or a man driven mad by transgressive pirate TV signals) assassinates an industrialist while shouting the slogan, "Long live the new flesh!" It could be the rallying cry for the cinema of David Cronenberg, where the evolution of the human species is explored variously through the effects of technology, disease, addiction, and mutation on the human body. His new film, eXistenZ, takes that exploration to the next logical level—a world where real life and game life blur, as people interface biologically with the cyberworld of virtual reality games jacked directly into the nervous system. Seattle Weekly was able to discuss his philosophy with him briefly when he stopped in Seattle on a promotional tour.
SW: A lot of science fiction movies are about technology, and they're all very mechanical. Your idea of technology is married to the idea of the biological, biomechanical—really more of a fusion of flesh and technology.
DC: I wouldn't even call it biomechanical. I'm not really interested in predicting the bio future of technology; it's more a metaphorical thing. I mean, my understanding of technology is that it is first of all an extension of the human body, and I show that in this movie. When you have this sort of living animal pod module game-playing thing plugged into the body, you see it, there it is onscreen, there's technology as an extension of the human body. But technology is also a pure expression of human creative will. People tend to want to think that it sort of comes from someplace else, and then it does stuff to us, but you won't find me using spaceships and robots because, although dramatically that may be interesting, metaphorically, I think it's quite wrong. The only technology in the universe that we know of, and possibly the only technology that there is, is our own, and it comes from us, and it is an expression of us, and to the extent that technology can be dangerous or have a dark side really only makes sense because it is a reflection of us.
SW: There is that self-destructive and dark side, but there's also an evolutionary side.
DC: If it's accurately reflecting us, it would have both of those things, because I'm not really pessimistic about human nature, either. Sometimes it's difficult to deal with, and sometimes it's very exhilarating and exciting, and I have both of those things in the movie. But in terms of evolution, we really have taken control of our own evolution as a species, literally, and yet we're not really consciously doing anything with it. We are messing around with it at the genetic level, at the most basic level, but we're no longer in the context that Darwin's animals were in—survival of the fittest. That becomes a question of: What is the fittest? Is the guy who can make the most money the fittest? And then he gets the most girls and his genes are spread the widest? And does that mean his children have the best facility for making money? You see, it doesn't really quite work anymore, and we've really subverted it and taken it over in many ways. I think my imagery reflects all that as well—that idea that we would create an animal that could also be a game-playing organ for us is not so extraordinary.
SW: There's logical progression of the biological technologies of your films. The parasite in Shivers, for instance, doesn't look a whole lot different from the game pod in eXistenZ, at least conceptually.
DC: But it's provocative. On a metaphorical level, it's a provocative image and a provocative concept—provocative, I mean, in a sense of not being hostile but to provoke thought and to provoke connections to be made between it and other things.
SW: You've managed to make your films personal projects, adaptations and original screenplays alike. How do you keep doing what you want to do in this kind of industry?
DC: It's very difficult. Because although it seems like there's millions of movies around, they're getting harder and harder to make, partly because of their budgets, but partly because of the complexity of the business itself. I was offered Seven and I was offered Alien 4, and the temptation was to say, "I'll just jump at it and tomorrow I'll be shooting the movie," but then you realize it's not so simple because those movies don't happen unless you get the right casting and you get the right budget and then you have to deal with the studio's script notes, so there are battles to be fought even within that system. It's hard to make a movie, so why not make a movie that you're dying to make, that you're passionate to make?
SW: I know you've butted up against censorship issues for quite some time, and it becomes a pretty big part of at least part of eXistenZ.
DC: Some people try to see this as being a reaction in some way to Crash [which was almost unreleased because of battles with its American distributor, New Line, over the controversial subject matter], but I actually wrote this before Crash. I've had enough run-ins with censors and censorious-minded people that I didn't need the Crash experience to make the comments on it that I do in this movie. And it did have something to do with Salman Rushdie, too, and I think I was thinking more along the lines of his situation, which I guess you could consider to be the ultimate censorship: not merely suppressed but condemned to death for what you have written. It's the ultimate suppression, I guess. And it's not the only subject of the movie, but it is certainly a part of the movie, the idea that what you create becomes a living thing.