David Cronenberg: interview

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With David Cronenberg‘s new film ’Eastern Promises‘ opening the London Film Festival, the director gives Dave Calhoun his favourite films about the capital

David Cronenberg: interview
Cronenberg on the set of 'Eastern Promises' with leading man Viggo Mortensen (right)

Next week, the London Film Festival will open with David Cronenberg’s ‘Eastern Promises’, a story of Russian mobsters running amok on the streets of London – mainly Clerkenwell. The film, written by Steven Knight, the writer of Stephen Frears’ ‘Dirty Pretty Things’, is a bloody and mysterious affair that imagines a network of criminals terrorising each other behind the closed doors of restaurants and steam-rooms and occasionally dumping bodies into the river at Deptford. The overriding sense is of a hidden world that’s made unusually public for us when a nurse, played by Naomi Watts, becomes inquisitive about one of the female bodies that passes through her hospital.

It’s the second time that Cronenberg, the 64-year-old director of ‘The Fly’, ‘Crash’ and ‘A History of Violence’, has shot a film in London. His first was ‘Spider’, an adaptation of a Patrick Macgrath novel set partly in the 1950s in which Ralph Fiennes plays a man released into the community after years in a mental hospital. Both ‘Spider’ and ‘Eastern Promises’ make imaginative use of the city, and Cronenberg, who was born and raised in Toronto, views both films as the expression of a lifetime spent visiting London and England – originally via films and books when he was a child and a young man.

‘In a weird way, my head was in England even though I didn’t get there physically until the mid-’60s,’ he explains. ‘I was raised reading “Captain Hornblower” stories, and my father was a huge Anglophile and bibliophile. He got all these serials and bound them, and they were all English. I had English science books too.’

When it was first announced in August that ‘Eastern Promises’ would open the London Film Festival, Cronenberg declared that London is the ‘home of so many of my most potent film influences.’ With that in mind, we asked him to share a few of those influences with us.

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The Fallen Idol, 1948

The Fallen Idol

(Carol Reed, 1948)The son of the French ambassador to London is caught between telling the truth and betraying a confidence. ‘I’m a big fan of Carol Reed, I love the way he directs. It’s so precise, yet it’s not restricting, it’s a beautiful combination of precision and spontaneity. I’ve always been a big enthusiast for his films.‘We see the city and adult life through the eyes of a child. The adult world is always confusing and intriguing and dangerous – and so it is in reality. The fact that the child is a foreigner makes it even more delicious.’

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Passport to Pimlico, 1949

Passport to Pimlico

(Henry Cornelius, 1949)The residents of Pimlico declare a free state.‘I saw this pretty close to its release date. It’s really funny and engaging. When I saw it, I had no idea what Pimlico was. I had not been to London. I didn’t get to London until the ’60s and I was born in 1943. This was all rather magical to me, it was wonderful, eccentric stuff. Canada and the UK have a very different relationship to, say, the US and UK, having had no revolution and all that. I think a lot of British films were shown in Toronto that we were not shown in America. ‘When I looked up the film on the net, I found strangely enough that it was inspired by a moment in Canadian history when Queen Julia of the Netherlands was in Toronto in refuge during the war and the Canadian government ceded her room, where she was giving birth, to the Netherlands, so that the child was legitimately born in the Netherlands and therefore could be the heir to the throne. Apparently, that was the inspiration for this story.’

A Kid for Two Farthings

(Carol Reed, 1955)A young boy in Petticoat Lane is caught up in his own imagination.‘Another film by Carol Reed and also another film in which the adult world, in this case east London, is seen through the eyes of a child. I must have been 14 when I saw that and I seem to recall seeing it on television. It’s funny that I ended up making a movie in the East End, not quite the same East End though. “Spider” was set roughly around 1955, and I was thinking of Carol Reed’s films when I made that. Also, oddly enough, I was thinking of his “Odd Man Out” too, even though that takes place in Belfast – it’s the idea that you’re floating through the city from person to person and each time you get involved in their lives.’

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Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, 1960

Saturday Night, Sunday Morning

(Karel Reisz, 1960)Albert Finney is an angry young man in the Nottingham of the early ’60s.‘In a strange way, all of England felt the same to me in the 1940s and ’50s. Even films like “Look Back in Anger” and “Saturday Night, Sunday Morning”, which were set in towns that to Londoners were as foreign as everything was to me. They all had these accents and attitudes which were very English to me, even though I couldn’t discern the differences between the Yorkshire version and the London version and all that. ‘Films like “This Sporting Life” were all movies that made a huge impression on me. British cinema was a huge force at that time. I would go and see those films one after the other in Toronto when they came out. I had an inkling of what the British New Wave directors were doing, I could hear that the accents were different in their films. They sounded almost Scottish at times to my ear. I certainly got a strong feeling of the class structure and the resistance to it. But even things like “Room at the Top”, even though it wasn’t in London, blurred into one for me until I got to London in about 1966. It was then that I started to have a better understanding of London versus the rest of England.’

The Horse’s Mouth

(Ronald Neame, 1958)Alec Guinness is an ageing painter let loose in the city.‘I almost can’t separate the textures of the city from the textures of Alec Guinness’ character, you know? Both of them are exaggerated and wonderful at the same time, the streets and locations and his character. I remember thinking he was very funny. I loved Alec Guinness, he became to me a classic English actor who could disappear into his role. There was a Guinness texture and a Guinness taste! I loved, too, that he could be a leading actor, he was a character actor who could also be a star and hold a movie on his own. It’s rare. He could be funny and tragic. I remember him careening through the streets and lofts and buildings that were falling apart. It’s decay, but it’s cheerful decay, you know? Not depressing decay. I remember him painting walls and transforming that decay into art. I couldn’t ever in any of these movies conceive of the geography of the city, I didn’t understand the differences between Mayfair and Hackney at that time! It was all visual, it was all coming to me right out of the movie, I didn’t have the context that someone who knew London would have.’

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The Ipcress File, 1965

The Ipcress File

(Sidney J Furie, 1965)Michael Caine is Harry Palmer, a MoD bureaucrat sucked into evil spy shenanigans.‘Here London is a place for, well, eastern promises, I guess – it’s London as a place of danger and spies and undercover operations and things like that. It was directed by a Canadian too, Sidney Furie. It was the ’60s, but it wasn’t swinging London. It was all MI5 or MI6 or whatever. It has an interesting score, as I recall, and the character actors are great.’

The Deadly Affair

(Sidney Lumet, 1966)James Mason falls foul of a spy ring in this Le Carré thriller.‘It’s such an unknown movie, it’s a really fantastic film, a wonderful thriller, as usual with John Le Carré. It’s basically a George Smiley story but they changed the name for copyright reasons. James Mason, Maximilian Schell, Lynn Redgrave, Roy Kinnear, a wonderful cast. I think it’s one of Sidney Lumet’s best. I still remember there’s a Docklands death when a police inspector played by Harry Andrews is murdered – and who knows if it wasn’t in my head when I was filming at the Thames Barrier on ‘Eastern Promises’? It was a scene that stayed with me because at that point you had great affection for Harry Andrews’ character, and then he’s murdered. It’s quite horrifying to lose him.‘When we found Watergate Street in Deptford, which is where the body is dumped into the river during ‘Eastern Promises’, I found that very few Londoners knew of it. People who’ve seen the movie ask me where it is. It’s a place where women and children came down to the river to say goodbye to sailors.’

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Blow-Up, 1966

Blow-Up

(Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966)David Hemmings is a Bailey-esque photographer in swinging London.‘It was shot in London when I was there in 1966. I was a student who took a year off from the University of Toronto and decided to travel and so took a boat to Southampton from New York. I think it cost $169. I went with a friend and that was the beginning of my European year, when I ended up in Copenhagen. I saw the Rolling Stones at the London Palladium in ’66 with the Moody Blues, the Unit 4 + 2 and Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames. I remember that very well. ‘Satisfaction’ was their hit at the time.

‘Unfortunately, I didn’t get into as much excitement as there is in ‘Blow-Up’. I must say there was a tendency for Londoners to shut out colonials. I spent more time with Rhodesians and South Africans than I had intended, which is one of the reasons we ended up going to Copenhagen. But we went to clubs and everyone was singing ‘In the Midnight Hour’. We made some in-roads into the Carnaby Street era. But you weren’t going to get English people to take you home and show you around. You were still on the outside looking in.

‘“Blow-Up” was the London I didn’t get to see: where you’re riding down the street drunkenly in your Rolls-Royce convertible and having sex with two young girls and taking photographs of them, one of whom happens to be Jane Birkin. I needed the movie to show me that side of London. It was a heightened version of London, but nevertheless it felt real, the giddiness of it and the excitement and the political tinge to everything. That felt accurate to me. The movies that are made now about the ’60s are all pretty pathetic as far as I’m concerned, they don’t really capture anything that I think was going on then.’

Eastern Promises’ opens on October 26.


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