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Exclusive Interview with 'Cosmopolis' Writer/Director David Cronenberg

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David Cronenberg Cosmopolis Interview

Poster for 'Cosmopolis'

© 2012 Entertainment One

Acclaimed filmmaker David Cronenberg adapted Don DeLillo's Cosmopolis for the big screen, casting Robert Pattinson (best known for playing 'Edward Cullen' in the Twilight franchise) in the lead role of Eric Parker, a suave billionaire who rules over his empire from a throne-like seat in a custom limousine. On the day we meet Eric he's obsessed with traveling across New York to get a haircut, something his security team advises him against as the President is in town and protestors are blocking many streets.

As Eric, Pattinson is in every scene of the film, portraying a character unlike any he's tackled before. And in our exclusive interview in support of Cosmopolis' theatrical release by eONE Films, writer/director Cronenberg explained why Pattinson was right for the part of Eric and how he went about tackling the adaptation of DeLillo's novel.

David Cronenberg Cosmopolis Interview

I didn't read Don DeLillo's book but I'm assuming, just from watching the movie, that most readers would have thought it was unfilmable.

"Well, you know, in my landscape all novels are unfilmable, even the very simple ones, because the literary experience and the film experience are really much more different than I think most people realize.  So, for me, it's always been that my mantra is in order to be faithful to the book you have to betray the book. You have to accept that you're creating a new thing that will somehow maybe resonate with the tone or the feel of the texture of the novel.  But it will not be the novel, it will be different. And I realized that from when I did my first adaptation which was Stephen King's The Dead Zone, which many people felt was the first faithful, honest translation of a Stephen King novel - because there had been many up to that point. But, in fact, it's totally different from the novel but it somehow has the feel of the novel to people and therefore they accept it that way."

"I think if you read Cosmopolis, you will be struck by a couple things. One of them is that the dialogue is almost 100% taken from the book.  It's almost word-for-word. There were one or two scenes that I've left out but basically all of the dialogue is the same, and that's because it was the dialogue that really made me feel that this was a movie - the book. I loved Don DeLillo's dialogue. It's unique. It's so...in a way it's like Harold Pinter or David Mamet. You've got a tone that it is the way people speak, but at the same time it's very stylized.  That gives it a really heightened, very dramatic feel, and you know once you see the movie Cosmopolis and you read some of other Don DeLillo book - White Noise, let's say - you will hear the rhythms. You'll start to be reminded of Cosmopolis in any of his books because of that unique dialogue that he writes. So, there's that."

"And then, of course, in the book there's a lot of internal monologue that goes on within the head of this character, Eric Packer, and that is the stuff that you cannot translate into a movie. You often see what I consider to be quite a pathetic thing which is a voice-over reading of the novel to you like you're a kid at bedtime. While you are watching the movie somebody's reading you the novel, and to me that's always an admission of failure. You haven't accepted that the two things are different and you're not going to be able to do exactly the same thing."

It's cheating, isn't it?

"Well, it is cheating and it's also it's cheating yourself as a filmmaker because it means that you have not really found a cinematic equivalent to what's in the book, and you're not really getting the book and you're not really getting a movie, either. You're cheating the audience, yes."

Not being familiar with Don DeLillo's writing, it did take me about 10 minutes of watching Cosmopolis to get into the rhythm and flow of the dialogue, which I ultimately found fascinating.

"It's very hypnotic what DeLillo does and yet if you see the movie again, at that point you have a little more distance because you know what to expect, you realize that everything that's said makes sense. That's the strange thing. All the philosophical, the abstractions and of course then the movie is pretty funny. I mean, his dialogue is really pretty funny. I know people because of that rhythm maybe don't respond to the humor. But I've been to some screenings where there are lot of laughs, and to me that means they are totally getting the movie."

The humor took me by surprise.

"Don is a funny writer. People sometimes think you're either a serious writer or you're a comic writer and you can't be both. But of course the best writers, from James Joyce on, are funny as well. As a filmmaker I don't think I've ever not made a movie that's funny. Somebody says to me, 'Why don't you make comedies?,' and I say, 'Well, I thought I was.'"

There's also a really interesting flow of characters in and out of the movie. They're there for such a brief time, they make an impact, and then they're gone. There were quite a few I wanted to see more of. Is there anyone in particular you wished you could have kept in the film longer?

"I think 'keep them wanting more' is probably a good rule of entertainment rather than, 'Okay, I've had enough of this guy, give him the hook.' [Laughing] So, I think the proportions are pretty good. I mean I love that aspect of it. The character Eric Packer, he has this environment that he's created. It's sort of a vacuum insulated from the outside world and he forces everybody to come into it, to him, and then he dispenses with them when he's finished with them. You know, it's kind of the rhythm of it. It's like a king and his court, that's why he has kind of a seat that's like a throne in the limo. And so I think that the brutality that he has, the fact that when he's finished with them they're gone and he's onto the next, is part of what he is. So if you feel a little longing for some of the characters, that's probably a good thing."

How close did you keep the relationship between Eric and his wife Elise in the film to the way it was written in DeLillo's book?

"It's strictly from the book, but there was in the book a very strange scene which some people have said to me, 'Why didn't you have that scene?,' in which there's a kind of weird reconciliation that he has with Elise. But it's a scene in which Eric comes across a movie being shot in the streets of New York at night in which there are, for whatever reason, about 150 completely naked extras lying around on the street. He goes in to join them, takes his clothes off, lies down to join them and finds that he's lying next to Elise who is one of the extras, and they have this kind of strange reconciliation. And at that point when I was reading the novel I thought, 'Okay, this is a fantasy of his. There is no way, first of all, that you could shoot this on screen and have it be remotely convincing because this is not the way the City of New York works or the way movies work. You're not gong to be able to do that.'"

"I left it out because I really felt it was a kind of fantasy of reconciliation of his and that it wasn't real. And however surreal the movie is, it has a certain consistent level of its own reality and this felt like it was somewhere else. So other than that, though, all the scenes with Elise and the dialogue that they have are as in the book. And yes, she is never in his limo; she's one he can never get. He can never trap her."

And speaking of the limo, the car is basically a character. How difficult was it for you to get that limo design right, considering how much of the film is set within its confines?

"Well it's not a matter of difficulty, it's a matter of fun. It's exciting. I actually find that I like shooting in confined spaces because you get an immediate ramping up of intensity and so on. It also forces you to become very inventive visually.  You're less likely to fall into cliches when you're stuck that way."

"I showed my crew a movie called Lebanon which takes place entirely inside an Israeli tank and also Das Boot which famously takes place mostly inside a German submarine in the World War, just to encourage them, to know what you can do in a confined space and still be dramatic and still be visually interesting. So, I like that."

"And, of course, we built a limo. It's part of Eric's thing where on the outside it looks like all the other limos, because he's not looking to court celebrity or anything like that; he wants to be anonymous - that gives him a lot of the power that he has in his business.  But on the inside, it's very special so it was really fun doing that."

"One thing that isn't in the book is you don't have that center seat that he has, that kind of throne-like seat. That's just my design. And also, given when the book was written [Don DeLillo] had a lot of screens sliding up and sliding down and so on. I felt we didn't need to do that in the era of the iPad and the iPhone and so on. Now you could have screens built into everything. I thought it was a more elegant design and less fussy."

So much of these film does take place within the limo, but it never feels small or claustrophobic.

"Really, the rule was it's Eric's perspective. When he's in the limo, we're in the limo. And of course then we experience his disconnection from the life of the city, and in fact there's dialogue in the diner about how he has insulated his limo. He's proofed it against he sounds of the city and so you get that feeling. We're only outside the limo when he's outside the limo and it gives you a very kind of rigorous control perspective, and for a filmmaker that's a gift.  I really enjoyed that aspect of the novel and I wanted to do that onscreen."

In casting Robert Pattinson, it's kind of a double-edge sword, isn't it? You have his Twilight fans anxious to support him in whatever he chooses to do and then you have the people who dismiss him because he is 'that guy from Twilight'.

"Yeah. In a weird way, on the one hand of course I'm completely aware of all of those elements and also of course when you're making a movie that for an independent movie was relatively expensive, you have to have a leading character who is very charismatic and who can carry the weight and has the star quality and so on, because you're going to be looking at him. He's literally in every scene in the movie, and that's pretty unusual. I mean even in Tom Cruise movies, Tom is not in absolutely every scene of the movie - but Rob is. So he has to have that. But at the same time, you want to forget the movies, you know? You want to forget his movies and my movies because we're creating this completely new thing and you don't know what audience you're going to get. You can anticipate it, you can think about it, but really you don't know. So ultimately when you're making the movie you're saying, 'Okay, I'm here with these actors. They're wonderful actors, I cast them because they're terrific and they will bring great stuff to the script,' and then at that point you're just making a movie and you're not thinking about any other movie."

Needing an actor to carry the film by being in every scene, how did you figure out Robert Pattinson was the right guy to play Eric?

[Laughing] "Well, this is the magic of casting! I think as a director, it's part of your job. It's a really important part of your job.  I think a lot of people don't even realize that the director's involved in casting.  Some people say, 'Did you choose your actors?,' and I say, 'Yes. You're not a director if you don't.'"

"Of course, you're juggling many things, like I say. You're juggling, for example, their passports. This is a Canada / France co-production and we were limited to one American actor. Most people of course don't know that - nor should they. Paul Giamatti is the only American in this movie even though it takes place in New York City. So from that kind of aspect to just finding the right guy...of course he's got to be the right age, there are a lot of things that are just basic. And then after that, though, there are no rules. You as a director just have to intuit that this actor will be able to carry off this role."

"We often talk about chemistry, for example, in movies between actors, let's say.  When I was doing A Dangerous Method, Keira Knightley and Michael Fassbender - how do I know they have chemistry together because I had never seen them in a movie together? They've never been in one; they've never met each other. I don't see them together until I'm actually directing them, so I have to be this kind of dating master who can anticipate that this couple will be good together. It's a strange kind of thing.  So you give yourself credit when it works, and you have to berate yourself when somehow it hasn't worked. That's basically where you're left."

It strikes me with Cosmopolis that the chemistry actually needed to come between you and Robert more so than between Rob and any of his co-stars.

"There's truth in that too. That is the unspoken thing is the chemistry between the director and the actors is the key. And at a certain point I think Rob would...you know, he's a serious actor and he didn't want to be the one who was going to blow this movie. He was kind of thinking, 'Well, I'll be alone in that limo because I won't have one person who is always playing opposite me. It's really a one-man show with a lot of day players coming in.' And I said, 'No, you won't be alone because I'll be there. I'll be with you every moment.' And so that is a real element."

Do you think that you view the character of Eric the same way that author DeLillo did? Or do you think that you two don't necessarily agree on how an audience should look at him?

"I think we actually illuminate things for each other. I've been on the road doing publicity with Don in several countries and I think he was pretty intrigued by seeing what would happen. Because, after all, once you put Rob Pattinson in that role, that's a very specific thing. You've got a particular face and a particular voice and a body, and that's something that the novel can not have. That's one of the things that movies can do that novels can not do, and so it immediately shapes the character in a way that he wasn't shaped in the novel.  So, there are differences, I think, but it's not a major split or divergence.  It's just really shading and shaping things. It's just really hearing the dialogue spoken, which was something that when I read the novel, I thought, 'Yeah, I really want to hear this spoken by really great actors.' Just doing that immediately changes your reaction to the characters and to the words. So there is a difference, definitely."

You said earlier there were one or two scenes from the book that couldn't make it into the movie and you described the movie being shot with naked extras on the streets of New York. Was there anything else you wanted to get into the film but it just would not work?

"I can be pretty brutal in an adaptation. I think, as I say, you have to be, so it's not that I wanted to. One of the other major things was that in the novel, very early on we start reading the journal of Benno Levin, that's the character that Paul Giamatti plays.  He actually writes a journal and we are in his head and we're reading his journal.  And when I met Don in Portugal for the first time, he said, 'I was wondering how you were going to handle Benno's journal and I see you handled it by leaving it out.' I said, 'Well yeah.'" [laughing]

"What I give you is I give you Paul Giamatti instead. I give you his voice and his eyes and his face and the way he moves and his hair and so on. And that's the tradeoff because you can't do a journal in a movie, you know? It deforms it. I mean I basically would have to have somebody reading the journal voice-over, probably Paul, but suddenly you're being read to like a kid. Immediately, it wasn't a question of I wanted to do it, I knew I couldn't do it and so I just didn't worry about it because I felt the last 22 minute scene was just Paul and Rob, and I figured that I'm giving you Paul Giamatti and his performance. That's enough of Benno, you don't need the journal in the movie."

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