'Cosmopolis': A Financial-Crisis Fable Written Before the Financial Crisis

Director David Cronenberg talks about the making of his new film, the timely Cosmopolis.

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David Cronenberg, right, and 'Cosmopolis' star Robert Pattinson. (AP Images)

Canadian director David Cronenberg's films have often been prophetic. His first two mainstream features, They Came From Within and Rabid, anticipated some aspects of the spread of HIV. Crash, which was made in 1996 just as the Internet was taking off, foresaw that technology and sex were about to get bound together in new ways.

But his latest, Cosmopolis, seems more interested in the here-and-now than in the future. Adapted from Don deLillo's novel, it follows billionaire Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) on a day-long trip across New York as protests rage and the financial market goes into free fall. Sound familiar? Eric is hounded by anarchists with spray cans and cream pies, a more serious threat of assassination, and his own self-destructive urges. Much of the film is creatively shot from the confines of a stretch limo. I recently spoke with Cronenberg in New York about the film, which goes into limited release this weekend.

Were you attracted to Don deLillo's novel because of the references to the economic downturn and political protest?

Not at all, actually. Really, it was the dialogue. I loved the wit of it and the unusual structure. I don't think conceptually so much. You can't say to an actor, "You will act the embodiment of Western capitalism in the age of technology." An actor has no idea how to act that. Likewise, for me, themes don't attract me as much as texture. Those themes that you're talking about certainly are dealt with to some extent. But I was mostly working with actors and dialogue rather than what you might legitimately analyze after the fact.

I remember reading the book when it came out. I had forgotten when it was written. Today, I checked the date and was surprised it was written as early as 2003. I thought it had to have been written after the financial collapse of 2008.

In fact, if you look up some early reviews of the book, some of them say the idea of people protesting against Wall Street is absurd and not convincing. I know from talking to Don deLillo that his interest started with limos. He wondered "Why would anyone want a car that long in Manhattan, which has these short, cramped streets? Who's in these limos? Where do they go at night? " He started off by exploring those ideas and then constructing a character who would be inside such a limo. That's really how it began for him. The fact that the book ended up being so prophetic is accidental. But as an artist, maybe you have antennae that are a little bit more sensitive than other people's. You pick up things in the air other people don't notice. Even if you don't intend to, you can predict the future. For example, I had that happen with Videodrome. A lot of people feel that movie, in retrospect, anticipated the Internet and interactive TV. If you watch it now, you can't deny that connection, but I was just observing the moment.

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Steve Erickson is a freelance writer who lives in New York. He has written for Gay City News, The Nashville Scene, Film Comment, the Tribeca Film Festival's website, Fandor's blog, and elsewhere.

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