Last night I mixed with a host of iconic celebrities at Toronto’s Gladstone Hotel. Most of them were not present in the flesh but on the walls, as portraits in Macleans: Face to Face, an exhibit of 50 photographs from the magazine’s archives that’s part of the Scotiabank CONTACT photography festival. Extraordinary images: Pierre Trudeau, Sarah Polley, Stephen Harper, Justin Bieber, Johnny Rotten, Henry Kissinger, June Callwood . . . and David Cronenberg, who attended last night’s opening reception for the show with his wife Carolyn. It provided a rare chance to have a casual chat with Canada’s most engaging filmmaker outside the usual strictures of the publicity mill.
He seemed to be in a good mood. A few days earlier he had just completed his first novel and had sent the manuscript off to his publishers, Penguin Canada and Scrivener in the United States. Working with star New York literary agent Andrew Wylie—whose clients include Elmore Leonard, Martin Amis, Philip Roth and Salman Rushdie—Cronenberg says he secured an advance to write the book four years ago, based an outline and a sample of writing. But then the business of making movies got in the way, and two films later (A Dangerous Method, Cosmopolis) he resumed the manuscript. He said it was strange reading what he’d written years earlier and trying to re-inhabit the voice—”it was as if it had been written by someone else.”
At 70, Cronenberg feels he’s getting a rather late start on a literary career, considering that his boyhood ambition, before he became filmmaker, was to be a novelist. Martin Amis, he noted, feels he doesn’t have much writing left in him, and he’s only 63. The title of Cronenberg’s novel, which weighs in at about 95,000 words, is Consume. Though he was reluctant to categorize it, he said it’s neither science fiction nor horror.
“So it’s not ‘Cronenbergian’ ?” I asked.
“Oh, they think it is, ” he said, referring to his editors, who are already giving him notes. He said it was more in tune with the sensibility of his later films.
Unlike a movie, I suggested, a novel is something over which the author has complete control.
Cronenberg knew what I meant, but said he has come to the point where, looking back on his films, he prefers to take complete responsibility for them, recognizing that any flaws are ultimately all his doing. He’s said he’s been fortunate in that regard—to have had full control over the movies he’s made.
As we toured the portraits in the Face to Face exhibit, Cronenberg paused by a photo of Stompin’ Tom Connors. “I was the production assistant on Across This Land,” he said, referring to a 1973 documentary about the singer, who died in March. Stompin’ Tom generated such goodwill, he recalled, “I could get whatever I needed, a streetcar, a helicopter. So I got promoted from production assistant to production manager.” Across This Land was produced by Cinepix, the company that would go on to make Cronenberg’s first professional feature, the horror movie Shivers, in 1975.
Who knew? With his irresistible charm, Stompin’ Tom served as a stepping stone for another iconic Canadian, a frustrated novelist became Canada’s most eminent auteur.