'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.

Do you think at all in terms of genre when you make a film? Do you say "this is going to be an art house film, this is going to be a genre film"?

There used to be a genre called the Art film, with a capital "A," in the days of Bergman, Fellini, and Truffaut. Now it doesn't exist, and you're left with horror movies, thrillers, and romantic comedies. I don't really think in terms of genre at all when I'm making a movie. No matter what kind of movie you're making, you're either fulfilling, denying or deliberately subverting your audience's expectations. For me, genre is more of a marketing question than an artistic question.

You've also gone back and forth between original ideas and adapting novels. Do you find a certain amount of freedom in adapting other people's work?

It gets you out of a rut. I used to think it was a mistake, and that if you were going to be a true auteur, you should write your own movies and they should be original. Then, I realized, when I made The Dead Zone, that it could be refreshing to fuse your sensibility with someone else's and create a work that neither one of you would have done alone. I decided that however a movie develops is fine. It can come from anywhere. I wrote the script for Cosmopolis in six days. I could not have written an original screenplay in six days. The book was already there. It took a lot of the load.

How were you able to write the script so quickly?

It's the first time this has ever happened to me like that. I didn't think I was writing a script. I transcribed all the dialogue and put it into screenplay form. So I just had the dialogue and characters' names. That took three days of typing on my computer. Then I filled in the scenes and the action. That took another three days. I looked at what I had. I read it and I thought "This is a movie. This is a good movie I'd like to make." It's very unusual.

Was it challenging to direct a film in which so much takes place in the confined space of a limo?

It was exciting and fun. I showed my crew the movies Lebanon, which takes place entirely inside an Israeli tank, and Das Boot, which takes place almost entirely in a German submarine. I like the way it forces you to be inventive visually. It makes you look at unusual angles. Of course, it was a challenge to build a limo that could come apart in 24 different places. But it was not really a problem.