DAVID CRONENBERG Contributed by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor for Radio Free Entertainment
September 22, 2005
Set against the rural backdrop of a small American town, director David Cronenberg's A History of Violence is a compelling character drama that examines themes of identity, human behavior, family, and past sins.
When nice guy Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) uses violent and deadly force to thwart a disastrous situation at his diner, he is celebrated by the national media, quickly attracting the attention of a dangerous mobster (Ed Harris) who is convinced they know each other. The intimidating criminal soon pays the local hero a visit, resurrecting all manner of shady elements from a past Tom has kept long buried, even from his wife of twenty years (Maria Bello) and their two children.
In this interview, David Cronenberg talks about the making of the movie.
MEDIA: What attracted you to this project?
DAVID: There were a lot of things that were interesting to me about it, but I think the main thing was the iconic Americana element--which is to say, it has elements of an American western, elements of the gangster movie...But I'm not just thinking of movies, because this isn't really a movie about movies. It has to do with America's mythology of itself--the small, perfect town where everybody's friendly and happy, and what that really entails. So that was really the primary thing.
How did you come to cast Viggo in the central role?
Well, it gets very practical. The character has to be a certain age. He has to feel like he could live in a small American town and feel like a member of the town. So there are a lot of very straightforward, practical things first. So you can rule out a lot of actors because they're too young, they're too old. But Viggo...I've been watching his career for a long time, and he's the kind of actor I like the most, which is to say, he has that charisma and the presence on screen of a leading man, but he is not afraid to disappear into the role and to be eccentric and to be subtle like a character actor. So it's a wonderful combination. And also the fact that he has that iconic American--not quite a Gary Cooper, but something like that--feel to him.
Did he say yes to the role right away?
He was interested right away, but I came to Los Angeles from Toronto to seduce him, basically. I think it was a mutual seduction, because we liked each other's work, but we wanted to see if we were talking about the same movie. So we talked a lot about the politics of the script, the characters, the way that I work, the way that he works, and so on. And after that conversation, I knew he would do the movie.
After he was on board, how did you go about casting the other actors?
Casting, I've often said, is a black art. It's a subtle, intuitive thing. There's no rulebook to tell you who to cast. So it all starts with the main character. You cast a main character to give you a certain tone. And then I'm like a marriage counselor--I have to find him a wife. So in Toronto, I met Maria because she was shooting some other movie. And I was thinking of her for this movie. And basically, I have to say, like a marriage counselor, "Yes, I think these two people would make a wonderful married couple." You never know that it will work together, but at least you know that the energy is right and that the look is right. They look like they could be together. Of course, the age has to be right. And then it's interesting because you want everybody to be in the same movie. You know, we've all seen movies where everybody seems to be in a different movie. Somehow they don't feel like they belong together, even though they might be good actors. So that's where the black art comes in--the magic part. It's really the feel of them. The tone of them. And the level of acting has to be the same. A good, high level in this case.
Why are the sex scenes between Viggo and Maria (one of which could be called a little rough) critical to the story?
Well, first of all, [in] the original script that I read, there were no sex scenes. And I asked the writer to write those scenes. We discussed what the scene was. What does it reveal? Because in sex, you're very vulnerable psychologically and physically and emotionally, and that's why I wanted those sex scenes, because I wanted to know these characters that way. What is being revealed is that there's anger both ways because of the disaster that [Viggo's character has] brought on the family and the deception...There's a complex series of things going on. And it starts off violently. And yes, it could be rape to begin with, but then it's not, because it shifts in tone, and becomes something else and leaves them very confused and angry with each other, and bereft. They're sort of longing for the old version of themselves when they could be sweet and tender and gentle together. So this scene is not just a sex scene.
How closely do you work with the actors in those kind of situations?
I'm completely collaborative with them. We talk about everything. And when I shoot, we look at the monitors to see the takes that we've done. I let my actors look at those whenever they want. A lot of directors don't like to do that, to let the actors look at the monitors that are on the set that show playbacks. I really want them to be involved and feel completely comfortable about what they're doing. There's no secret.
Is it true that Maria got a few bruises while shooting the scene on the stairs?
Yeah, she did. They both did. They were both beaten up, because the stairs were really wood. There was no way to hide stunt pads. At one point, I did talk to the stunt coordinator about it. He laughed and he said no one has ever asked for stunt pads for a sex scene before. But then we saw that there was no way that they could hide them. So we went without them. So that was what inspired me to do that scene where she's sitting on the bed and you see the bruises on her back.
Was there any apprehension or hesitation from Viggo or Maria?
No. They were scared because it's scary, but actors like to be scared. I mean, so do I. You don't want to just play it safe all the time, or you get bored. So that was a scene that was scary--both of the sex scenes. Because they're people, so when you do a sex scene, you bring your own sexuality to the scene, and that's very revealing. It's hard to hide who you are when you're doing a sex scene, and that's why people are sometimes reluctant to do it or it's a difficult thing to do. But when you're an actor--a good actor--that's a challenge you want.
With the open-ended nature of the ending, should we expect a sequel?
I don't think so. [jokes] "A History of Even More Violence." I don't think that was ever the intention. It's like life, you know. It's rare that you find a moment of complete resolution where everything falls into place and everybody knows everything. There's always uncertainty, there's always anxiety, there's always fear, and there's a lot of emotion in that...I have to say, at one point, somebody actually suggested a TV series based on it. I said, "What? Every week more guys come to town and [Viggo's character] kills them?" [laughs] I don't know how that would work.
The graphic novel does not pay much attention to the family at all. It's all about the mob. It's completely different. For example, in the graphic novel, there are no sex scenes...there's no subplot of the son with the bully. When the wife discovers that [the husband] has this past, she's upset for about two pages, and then after that, she's just a supportive wife. Not very realistic. So when Josh [Olson] wrote his screenplay, before I was involved, he already took it to a different place. He was much more interested in the family dynamics. But there's a new edition of this novel for the movie, so you could get it. You might find it interesting.
Were you familiar with the graphic novel prior to reading the film script?
I didn't know anything about the source material for ages. I worked with Josh rewriting the script for quite a long time before somebody actually mentioned this graphic novel to me. It's weird, because normally it would say on the front page of the script. So I really ended up treating this like it was an original screenplay. I can't really say that I feel as though I've done an adaptation of a graphic novel.
In terms of his performance, what did you like about Ashton Holmes, the actor who plays Viggo's son?
His emotional accessibility. His emotions were right there. And a lot of actors these days, it's all attitude. I don't know where they pick that up from, whether it's from rock videos or from TV acting or something, but they're not real actors. All they can do is attitude, and that's not the same as acting.
What was the thought process behind Ashton's violent confrontation with the school bully?
People might say, "Did he inherit these violent genes?" And certainly there's a lot of discussion constantly whether there is a violence gene or not. But I think it's obvious that every human is capable of violence, really. It's just maybe a question of who's psychotic or not. That's a whole other question. But we see that the kid is a pretty good politician at first. He can talk his way out of a jam, he can talk his way out of a violent confrontation. He's witty, and he's smart, and he's more psychologically astute than the bully is, so he can embarrass him in front of his own guys. And even in the second instance, he's trying to walk away. But at the same time, we know that he likes the celebrity that his father has gained by his violent acts. And it might be just at that moment that he decides maybe he, too, could be a bit of a celebrity on his own level by committing some violence on this guy. And it's a choice. It's a choice he makes.
Did you see Ed Harris in another role that made you think he'd be a perfect choice to play a villainous mobster?
I've seen him in a lot of things. He did do a movie called State of Grace in which he played a kind of gangster. It's one of the few times that he played a character like that. But I was only curious about that because it had to do with the Irish mob, and it was with Gary Oldman. It's a pretty good picture. I think Sean Penn's in it, too. It's actually got a great cast. But it wasn't something that I needed to look at for Ed. I just know his stuff and I know what a good actor he is, so I just thought he could have a lot of fun with this. It's a character who really thinks he's got everybody's number. He really thinks he's on top of it. He's really confident in what he's doing and is intimidating people with that confidence. And that's not a character he normally plays, so it was interesting for him to do that.
There's been some Oscar buzz surrounding this film. Any Academy Award predictions?
[jokes] Well, I do have a vote. I am a member of the Academy, so I could vote for myself, I guess. It's sweet when people talk about Oscars for this movie, because what they really mean is they like the movie a lot. And so I appreciate that. But I remember when I did Dead Ringers, people said Jeremy Irons will definitely win an Oscar nomination for playing these twins in this movie. And he should have, but he didn't. So who knows.