DATE October 3, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Law Professor Cass Sunstein on the nomination of
Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Today President Bush nominated White House counsel Harriet Miers to replace
Sandra Day O'Connor in the Supreme Court. If ratified, Miers would be the
third woman to serve on the Supreme Court. She's also served in the Bush
administration as assistant to the president, staff secretary and deputy chief
of staff. When he was governor, Bush appointed her chairwoman of the Texas
Lottery Commission. In 1996, Miers became the first female head of her law
firm, which then had about 200 lawyers. Earlier today, we called Cass
Sunstein, a professor of law and political science at the University of
Chicago. He's a former clerk on the Supreme Court and has written extensively
on issues of constitutional law. Sunstein's new book is called "Radicals in
Robes: Why Extreme Right-Wing Courts are Wrong for America."
Miers has never been a judge, and very little is known about her judicial
philosophy and her positions on the controversial constitutional issues of our
time. I asked Sunstein if it's unusual to have so little information on a
Professor CASS SUNSTEIN (University of Chicago): What makes this nomination
really quite unusual is that in at least the last 20 years and probably more,
we either know that the nominee is very qualified in terms of sheer ability or
we know something about the nominee's orientation to constitutional law or
both. This is doubly a stealth candidate; it's someone who doesn't have the
record of demonstrated excellence that many recent appointees have had,
including Chief Justice Roberts, and it's also someone who has a thinner
record in terms of the great issues of the day than anyone, really, in memory.
She hasn't been a judge, and so there isn't judicial product to evaluate, and
that distinguishes her from most of the recent appointments. Not only that,
she hasn't had Supreme Court experience, at least nothing substantial, so we
don't know if she's experienced in the kind of litigation with which she'll
have to deal. And also she doesn't have any academic work that might show
that she's thought in a sustained way about constitutional law. We do know
she worked for a number of years on the Texas Lottery Commission, but that's
not maybe the best background for the position of the Supreme Court justice.
So there are a lot of gaps in her record compared to the recent appointees,
which suggests she has a great deal to learn.
GROSS: Now it's interesting. The president must know where she stands on a
lot of issues because she's worked so closely with him.
Prof. SUNSTEIN: Yeah. The fact that this has been a White House counsel, the
president's personal lawyer and someone who hasn't spoken publicly in any
capacity to most controversial legal issues really gives the White House a
terrific advantage over the American public in terms of knowledge of where she
GROSS: And what does that mean, that they have the advantage over the
American public in terms of knowledge of where she stands?
Prof. SUNSTEIN: Well, yeah, it means that democratic evaluation--and by
democratic, I mean small D rather than capital D--is very difficult. So both
conservatives and liberals should be puzzled by this, meaning puzzled about
where the candidate stands on legal issues. So the advantage that the White
House has over really everybody else is that no one can tell from the existing
record where this person stands on issues of constitutional philosophy. So it
would be surprising if conservatives are dancing in the streets with joy at
this appointment. This is not someone who has a demonstrated record of
conservatism. It would also be surprising if liberals are breathing a sigh of
relief or if liberals are lamenting it, because they just don't have enough of
a record to know what to go on.
GROSS: Now some Democrats felt that John Roberts didn't have enough of a
clear track record on the most important judicial issues and constitutional
issues of our time. And he managed to get through the hearings and get
confirmed without directly addressing several of those main issues. So if you
look at how the Roberts confirmation played out, and then try to extrapolate
from that to the Miers confirmation, what do you see in terms of the ability
of Democrats and Republicans to elicit from her where she stands on issues?
Prof. SUNSTEIN: Democrats and Republicans actually learned a lot about Chief
Justice Roberts. They read his opinions, and there were over 50 opinions for
them to read, and they could tell from the opinions that he is meticulous,
careful, someone who doesn't have his ideology in the forefront. So his
judicial opinions were judicious, and that told them something. They also
had--the Democrats and Republicans--an extended record in which he talked a
fair bit about constitutional issues. He also was forthcoming, more
forthcoming than might have been expected, on some key matters. He said he
believed there is a general right of privacy in the Constitution. He
disassociated himself from the Scalia-Thomas view that the Constitution means
exactly what the ratifiers believed it meant. He suggested a kind of
moderation with respect to precedent that made at least some Democrats
comfortable. So there was a record there, not as extensive as in the case of
Judge Bork or Justice Ginsburg, but there was a record there.
What makes this case quite different is there isn't the kind of public
documentation that Judge Roberts had, and there isn't the kind of comfort that
could come from reading a set of opinions, as Judge Roberts had, that showed
this is a quite judicious person. Also, we shouldn't underrate in the Roberts
case the powerful impact of sheer excellence. So a number of Democrats, as
well as most Republicans and many millions of Americans, could tell this is
someone who really knows what he's doing. To read Judge Roberts was to see,
this is someone with a first-rate mind; to hear him is to see this is someone
with a first-rate mind. Now it may be that Ms. Miers is similarly excellent,
but she doesn't have the kind of background that demonstrates that excellence
that Judge Roberts had.
GROSS: What are some of the first questions you'd want to ask if you were on
the Judiciary Committee?
Prof. SUNSTEIN: Well, there's such a gap there, I think the first question
to ask is: Do you believe the Constitution means what it meant at the time it
was ratified?--to see whether she has that view associated with Justice Thomas
and Justice Scalia. A second question is to ask, do you believe that there's
a general right of privacy in the Constitution? I think a third set of
questions would have to do with the president's power in domestic and
international affairs. Many people were concerned about Judge Roberts, that
he's had such extensive experience in the executive branch that in connection
with the war on terror, in issues involving internal security, Judge Roberts
would bend a bit in the president's favor, and that made members of Congress
of both parties nervous, not just with respect to privacy but also with
respect to separation of powers. Ms. Miers has similarly had executive
branch experience and more recently close to the sitting president. So the
nervousness might be that on executive power, she would be very pro-president.
You want to ask a bunch of questions about that.
But we have to keep in mind with any confirmation hearing, there's a limit to
how much you can really learn, because the person is so well-schooled and is
really running, in a sense, for the office, so with Judge Roberts, it wasn't
just that he performed sensationally well in the hearings; it's also that as
judge, there was a record of both excellence and meticulousness to provide
some assurance. So you do want to ask her a bunch of questions about privacy,
constitutional method, the power of the president, some questions maybe about
equality, too. But it's not clear that they can get enough from that to make
a full evaluation, even if she's reasonably forthcoming, because she doesn't
have a public record to study.
GROSS: Right after President Bush announced her nomination, Harriet Miers
spoke briefly, and in her comments she said, `It is the responsibility of
every generation to be true to the founders' vision of the proper role of the
courts in our society.' Do you read anything into that?
Prof. SUNSTEIN: Yeah, that's a problem. I mean, the view that the founders
should be followed in all particulars, that's a red flag. The founders
believed in slavery, at least Constitution-accepted slavery. The founders
certainly permitted awful forms of race and sex discrimination. They had a
much narrower view of free speech and freedom of religion than we now do. The
founders didn't apply the Constitution to state governments at all. Now I'm
sure she understands that the Constitution was amended, most important, after
the Civil War in a way that greatly expanded our rights. But if the Civil War
amendments are considered a second founding as some people consider them, then
even since then, we've expanded our rights. The founders of the Civil War
amendments--that is, the people responsible for them--didn't intend to ban sex
discrimination, and our Constitution now bans sex discrimination. And there's
a good argument that they didn't intend to separate church and state with
respect to states. Now there's a good argument that in 1900 or 1890, Utah
could establish an official religion and so too for Massachusetts or Illinois
or California, but we've gone beyond that through interpretation.
So our tradition has been faithful to the text of the Constitution but not
faithful always to the particular views of the people who produced that text.
And that's good. So when she talks about the founders' vision, she seems to
be speaking of a constitutional approach that has been discredited. It's not
clear that she endorses that approach to constitutional interpretation--that
is, the view that we should go into a time machine and ask what the founders'
specifically thought, but she does need to be asked about that.
GROSS: Harriet Miers' work in the past few years had been working with
President Bush in the White House in one capacity or another. Can President
Bush and Harriet Miers invoke the attorney-client privilege to say, `Well, no,
we cannot turn over any of her papers she since started working in the White
Prof. SUNSTEIN: No question, the president can invoke attorney-client
privilege. In fact, he can go further than that. He can invoke executive
privilege, which is constitutionally protected, to say that his private
communications with her lawyer--with his lawyer are something that no one has
a right to. So the president stands on very strong ground in saying that this
is not material that should be made public if that's what the president
chooses to say. Now any privilege can be waived, so if the president thinks,
`Some documents at least I want to make public as a way of giving some sense
of what this person is like,' the president can certainly do that. So insofar
as the president wants to maintain confidentiality with legal advice from his
own lawyer, he is on the firmest possible ground. On the other hand, members
of the Senate can say, `If we don't have that, we just don't have enough to go
on.' So they can say in a way that is respectful of the president's
constitutional prerogatives, `We can't vote for her unless we see more.'
Now it's possible that her quite interesting background in Texas and her
recent work in the White House, combined with her dedication to public
service, will convince many or most of the--that there's enough there. This
is obviously a dedicated public servant, someone who has devoted her life to
thinking about law in multiple domains, and some people will think that's
enough. But without demonstrated evidence that says something about her views
of constitutional law, other people will be very nervous.
GROSS: Cass Sunstein, thank you very much for talking with us.
Prof. SUNSTEIN: Thank you so much.
GROSS: Cass Sunstein is a professor at the University of Chicago. His new
book is called "Radicals in Robes: Why Extreme Right-Wing Courts are Wrong
Coming up, director David Cronenberg talks about his new film, "A History of
Violence." This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Writer and director David Cronenberg on his new film "A
History of Violence"
TERRY GROSS, host:
My guest is film director David Cronenberg. His movies include "Scanners,"
"The Dead Zone," "Videodrome," a remake of "The Fly," "Dead Ringers" and
"Naked Lunch." Cronenberg's new film, "A History of Violence," asks whether
some people are inherently violent and whether they can change. The film
stars Viggo Mortensen as Tom Stall, a husband, father and owner of a diner in
a small town in Indiana. He becomes a hero when he kills to armed robbers who
are threatening the lives of everyone in the diner. Soon after, a mysterious
man with a scarred face shows up at the diner and claims that Tom isn't who he
says he is. The mysterious man is played by Ed Harris.
(Soundbite from "A History of Violence")
Mr. VIGGO MORTENSEN: (As Tom Stall) Well, welcome to Stalls. You gentlemen
like some coffee?
Mr. ED HARRIS: (As Carl Fogaty) You're the hero.
Mr. MORTENSEN: (As Stall) Oh, I don't know, sir. It was just a...
Mr. HARRIS: (As Fogaty) You're the big hero. Sure took care of those two bad
Mr. MORTENSEN: (As Stall) I don't really like talking about it, sir. We're
trying to get back to normal here. Can I offer you gentlemen some coffee?
Mr. HARRIS: (As Fogaty) Sure, give me some coffee. Make it black...
Mr. MORTENSEN: (As Stall) Yes, sir.
Mr. HARRIS: (As Fogaty) ...Joey.
Mr. MORTENSEN: (As Stall) And your friends?
Mr. HARRIS: (As Fogaty) They don't drink coffee. It doesn't agree with
Mr. MORTENSEN: (As Stall) Who's Joey?
Mr. HARRIS: (As Fogaty) You are.
Mr. MORTENSEN: (As Stall) My name's Tom, sir.
Mr. HARRIS: (As Fogaty) Of course, it is.
GROSS: David Cronenberg, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
Mr. DAVID CRONENBERG (Writer & Director): Thanks.
GROSS: "A History of Violence" is basically saying that everyone, or at least
most people, have the potential to be violent but some people are forced to
become violent to fight a bully, whereas others just seem to have a taste for
it. Do you believe that most people do have that potential?
Mr. CRONENBERG: Well, I think it's innate in us just genetically that we are
capable of violence, but in specific cases, you have to go on a case-by-case
basis. But I think in the movie, it's really examining the ambivalent
attitude that people have towards violence. It's--you know, you sort of don't
want it to come and visit you in your house, but on the other hand, you might
find it rather exhilarating when you see it visited on other people, either in
the movies or alive. So it's--I think the movie does deal--is a meditation on
that ambivalence rather than, you know, saying anything very specific about
genetics, let's say.
GROSS: Well, you know, talking about that ambivalence about violence, I think
movies themselves reflect that, because violent movies are incredibly popular.
People seem to like violent scenes in movies. At the same time, there's
always this kind of attempts to crack down against violence in movies and, you
know, fear that violence in movies will lead to violence in real life. How
does that whole infatuation with violence and movies, how did that affect your
style of shooting the violent sequences?
Mr. CRONENBERG: Well, rather than having an overarching theory of where
violence in cinema should go or shouldn't go or even thinking about my old
movies and what people expect from me or don't expect from me, getting rid of
all that, I think only about what is in this movie, and in it, I say, `OK.
Where does the violence come from?' Well, it comes from specific characters.
What does the violence mean to those characters? Where did they learn to be
violent? That really was the ruling factor in deciding how to portray it.
And I came to the conclusion that for these people--I'm quoting a line from
the movie--"Business would come first." You know, it's business for them.
It's criminal enterprise. It's not sadistic pleasure. It's not ballet. It's
not aesthetics. It's not martial arts. It's business. Get it over with, get
it done. If you have to kill somebody or hurt somebody, you do it as
efficiently as possible and normally using techniques that you've learned on
the street. You know, you haven't been trained professionally. You haven't
been in the Army or anything like that. So that was the tone that I gave to
the violence in the movie.
And it's very intimate, the theory being that when you want to kill someone,
you get close to them. You don't get far away from them. You actually get as
close to them as you can. So the violence in the movie is very, very short
and quick and realistic, no slow motion, no multiple cuts and so on, and it's
very strangely intimate and very physical.
GROSS: What did you have to learn about guns and fighting in order to direct
Mr. CRONENBERG: Well, I really started only learning about guns through
movies because in Canada, you know, we have very strict gun control laws, and
I actually never held a pistol in my hand until I was making a movie actually.
And in terms of killing on the street, well, I did find a couple of DVDs on
the Internet that purport to teach you how to do exactly that, you know, how
to kill somebody with your bare hands if you're attacked, mugged, robbed. And
that was also one of the places where I found that sense of intimacy with the
person that you're trying to kill. The whole idea of those was that you moved
into the person; you don't step away so that they can shoot you or stab you or
whatever. You actually get close to them so that you can touch them, feel
them, smell them, see their sweat, see their pores, and from that vantage
point, you actually are much more capable of inflicting damage and surprise on
an attacker than you would think.
GROSS: Was it kind of creepy to be watching this DVD about how to kill
Mr. CRONENBERG: Well, it's presented in a very matter-of-fact, pragmatic
kind of way, you know, with a great patina of professionalism and so on.
There wasn't just one. It was several. And so it kind of decreases the
creepiness. It sort of...
GROSS: The presumption is, you're the innocent victim who's...
Mr. CRONENBERG: Yeah, that's right. I mean, it...
GROSS: ...learning how to kill in self-defense, and you're a good guy. No
bad guys are watching this DVD.
Mr. CRONENBERG: That's right. And you're getting--and you're seeing
testimonials from old-aged pensioners in Miami, you know, who are saying, `I
feel much more secure walking down the street now that I know I can kill,' you
know? So it kind of takes the sinisterness out of it, which in a way makes it
even more sinister I suppose. And, of course, I have no idea whether I could
ever do that based on what I saw or not. You know, I mean, and certainly one
hopes never to have to figure that out.
GROSS: Now "A History of Violence" is--it's kind of like a Western, and in
part, because there's a character in it who has renounced violence but is
forced back into it in the way that a lot of characters in Westerns have been,
like Johnny Guitar, you know, the guy who gives up guns but has to pick them
up again because of threats against him and someone he loves. Was your style
of shooting this movie inspired by Westerns?
Mr. CRONENBERG: Not really the style, but certainly one of the things that
attracted me to the project was that kind of iconic Americana tone that there
is, and it's not just Westerns but gangster movies as well, and it's kind of,
you know, America's mythology of itself, which it has very successfully
exported to the rest of the world through its movies and its art and so on.
The man standing alone with a gun protecting himself and his family against
the bad guys and taking vengeance and having that be very justified because of
what he is and taking the law into his own hands is another very American
theme which is not particularly obvious in other countries, including Canada,
the idea that you--at a certain moment of crisis you must take the law into
your own hands, that sense of individualism and righteousness. The
righteousness of the individual is foreign to many countries, most countries,
I would say.
GROSS: David Cronenberg directed the new film "A History of Violence." He'll
be back in the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest is film director David Cronenberg. He first became known for horror
films such as "Rabid," "Scanners," "The Dead Zone" and a remake of "The Fly."
As David Thompson wrote, `Horror for Cronenberg is not a game or a meal
ticket. His subject is the intensity of human frailty and decay; in short,
the body and its many accelerated mutations, whether out of disease, anger,
dread or hope.' Cronenberg's new film is called "A History of Violence." It
stars Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello.
There's two sex scenes in "A History of Violence" that are both very
passionate, and one of them is kind of playful and about role-playing, and the
other is much more in anger and in violence but still very, very passionate.
Actors in both scenes reveal a lot about the characters. Actors are always
talking about how difficult it is to perform the sex scenes and how
self-conscious they are and uncomfortable. What about directing scenes like
that? What are the challenges in directing them?
Mr. CRONENBERG: Well, the vulnerability both physically and psychologically
of actors in a sex scene is probably pretty obvious to most people, but there
is the same thing going on with the director. You know, the director's very
sexually inhibited or repressed or shy or embarrassed or anything else, it
inevitably is communicated to the crew and to the actors, and it makes them be
the same. And, therefore, you don't get a very good scene probably.
So it's really a matter of being funny, being loose, being specific, giving
the actors a sense that you know what you're doing. In my case, I make sure
that the actors can look at a monitor and see the recordings of what they just
shot at any moment so they know exactly what they look like and what's going
on; no secrets, no surprises to hit them later. And it's just being very
gentle and supportive, you know, and still, of course, getting what we want
but never letting go until we've got what we want.
Now the scene--there's a scene on the stairs, sex on the stairs, very hard
wooden stairs between Viggo and Maria Bello, and that was physically very
difficult, too, because she was really--they were both actually quite battered
and bruised after that, because it took a day and a half to shoot that, and
those were real wooden stairs. At one point I asked my stunt coordinator if
he had stunt pads, and he laughed and he said he'd never been asked for stunt
pads for a sex scene before. But, in fact, we couldn't use them because, you
know, you'd see them. So they had to do them without them. But, yeah, I
think it is a challenge, and I think some directors are very inhibited, and
you can tell. It gets communicated.
GROSS: Is it hard to not feel like, you know, you're a voyeur or a Peeping
Tom when you're setting up a scene like that?
Mr. CRONENBERG: You are totally a voyeur and a Peeping Tom, and it's better
if you just admit it, you know, because at that point, you are the audience as
well and you are watching. You're watching sex. I mean, it's not real sex,
but you're watching a simulation of sex. So this is something once again that
is joked about on my set. I mean, we all are in on the joke. There's, you
know, nobody who's not. So all of those aspects of it are out in the open,
and there's no--you know, nothing's covered up.
GROSS: Are these the most passionate sex scenes that you've ever done as
opposed to sex scenes that are about the potential for contagion?
Mr. CRONENBERG: No, I mean, I think that there was a wonderful scene between
Jeremy Irons and Genevieve Bujold in "Dead Ringers," for example.
GROSS: Oh, sure. Sure. Sure. Sure.
Mr. CRONENBERG: Yeah, that was pretty passionate and was pretty, you know,
intense. So I've done that before. It's just--but each scene, of course, is
unique. And, for example, the cheerleader scene as we call it, the
role-playing scene where Maria dresses up as a cheerleader and the idea is
that they're going to create a past for themselves that they never had because
they were not teen-agers together. He came to town later. Of course, it does
have resonances for the whole theme of identity and role-playing and so on in
the movie. So it's not just a sex scene for sex. And also, it really pleases
me that these two scenes, the only two sex scenes in the movie, take place
between a couple who have been married for 20 years and have two kids because,
you know, certainly in American movies, it's like adolescent sex or forget it.
You know, it's like if you're married, your sex life is gone, not worth
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Cronenberg, and he
directed the new film "A History of Violence."
I really like the opening shot of the movie. And when I saw it, I thought,
`Oh, this is going to be good.' And in the opening shot, two guys are walking
out the door of a motel room, and they're walking into bright sunlight and
they really have to squint. The sunlight really hits them, and you can tell
that they've come from a world that's, like, really dark...
Mr. CRONENBERG: Yes.
GROSS: ...into this bright light, and you figure there's something really
dark about these guys, and there certainly is. Can you talk about what you
try to do in an opening shot to try to establish the tone, the mood,
'cause--and how important do you think that opening shot is?
Mr. CRONENBERG: Well, you know, it's interesting. This movie, I don't have
an opening title sequence that's separate from the movie and I've often talked
about my enjoying doing that; that is to say making a title sequence that
isn't a scene from the movie so that people are not put in the position of
reading titles and watching the movie at the same time and using that title
sequence as a kind of vestibule, you know, to kind of ease the audience into
the movie from being in their own world and using that title sequence to set a
tone that will set them up for the movie.
In this case, I shot that scene and it's really--it's a single shot that lasts
for four minutes, and is quite a complex little shot with dollying and craning
and a few other things, not for spectacle. It's quite tight and intimate, but
it does go through some very difficult little moments. And there's a kind of
strange languidly sinister tone to these two guys, and they take their time
talking and I don't rush them. There's a lot of space between the words and
so on. And I really like that tone so much that even though I did shoot
coverage for it, which is to say shot--did other close-ups and so on so that I
could tighten the scene or whatever by cutting into it, I thought that the
one--the single shot worked so well that way that I would leave it and not cut
into it. And at that point, I felt, `Well, here's a perfect opening scene
that I think I could put titles over in a way that I haven't done for many,
many years,' and then, therefore, this shot would have to do two things. It
would have to be the first scene in the movie and it would have that vestibule
effect that I normally use a title sequence to get. That is, it would be a
scene that would tell the audience a lot about what they were getting into
with this movie.
And interestingly enough, too, there's no music over this shot, which is also
I think rather rare these days. Howard Shore, the composer--he composed some
pieces to try over this opening scene, and whatever we did, it gave too much
away. It pointed in a direction, and the scene itself is so kind of
sinisterly directionalist that it was actually better to have no music there.
So it turned out to be, I think, quite an important shot and quite an
important sequence for the movie because it does set up really an awful lot
the more you think about it.
GROSS: My guest is director David Cronenberg. His new film is called "A
History of Violence."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is David Cronenberg. His films include "Scanners," "The
Fly," "The Dead Zone," "The Dead Ringer," "Naked Lunch" and "Crash." His new
film is called "A History of Violence."
You've written some of the movies you've directed, but "A History of Violence"
is an adaptation of a graphic novel. You were approached with the screen
adaptation of the graphic novel and decided to direct the film. Is there a
difference for you in how you approach material that you've written as opposed
to approaching material that you have not? And I'm wondering in a way if you
feel freer to take liberties with either of the two.
Mr. CRONENBERG: No, I feel free to take liberties with everything. You
know, I mean, to me, that's what I have to do. At the--my first adaptation
that was "The Dead Zone," an adaptation of the Stephen King best-seller, and
before that, all of the movies I had made I had written myself. They were
original screenplays, and I felt that--it immediately became obvious to me
that in order to be faithful to that book, I had to betray the book. In other
words, there is no way of translating a book to the screen because the two
media are so completely different. There is no dictionary for that
translation. You know, you really have to reinvent it totally for the scene.
And what you do is you try to capture the ambiance, you know, this tone of the
book rather than be faithful literally because if you try to do it literally
faithfully, you're doomed to failure. So taking liberties with adapted
material was as necessary as when you've written it yourself.
GROSS: I'm glad you mentioned "The Dead Zone." This starred Christopher
Walken as somebody who--when he touches someone, he can see their future. And
this was relatively early in Walken's career, and since then, you know, a lot
of comics and impressionists have affectionately mocked his very strange
pattern of speaking where accents fall on very unlikely words within
sentences. Were you aware of that when you were directing him, and did that
throw you at all?
Mr. CRONENBERG: No. I mean, I think it's a brilliant performance. You know,
remember, he had won an Oscar at that point.
GROSS: For "The Deer Hunter."
Mr. CRONENBERG: For "The Deer Hunter," yeah. He's a fine actor.
GROSS: Oh, yeah. Right.
Mr. CRONENBERG: You know, it's--but every actor has a specific kind of
rhythm and diction, and you develop a relationship in the editing room with
the actor that's a unique relationship. Nobody has that relationship other
than a director who's editing an actor because you live with that diction for,
well, weeks or months that you're editing the movie, and you become so attuned
to that. I mean, for example, Jeff Goldblum also has some very unique and
specific speech patterns that are not like anybody else's, you know, and you
have to deal with that when you're editing. How much do you go with it? How
much do you try to force it into a more familiar rhythm and so on?
GROSS: Can you think of an example either with Christopher Walken or with
Jeff Goldblum about how those rhythms made you need to make a difficult
decision, how it was unpredictable and it threw you?
Mr. CRONENBERG: No, never. I mean, it's always--it would delight me and
surprise me, but not...
GROSS: Oh, how about an example of how it delighted you then?
Mr. CRONENBERG: When Chris wakes up from his coma in "The Dead Zone" and they
tell him that he's been gone for five years. He says, `Five years.' You
know, it just--I didn't really capture it. I haven't listened to it for quite
a few years, but there was just a wonderful--the surprise, you know, the shock
and the horror of it all was expressed just in those two words, and it was the
way--it was the rhythm between the two words, just having the two words to
work with, that expressed that, and, you know, it's just fantastic.
GROSS: You've made a lot of films with very dark and potent fantasies in
them, and I want to quote something that you've said. You've said, "As an
artist, one is not a citizen of society. An artist is bound to explore every
aspect of human experience, the darkest concerns. You cannot worry about what
the structure of your own particular segment of society considers bad behavior
or good behavior. You have no social responsibility whatsoever." First of
all, does that--do you still agree with that?
Mr. CRONENBERG: Absolutely I do.
GROSS: Why do you think it's important for an artist to not be inhibited when
it comes to exploring the darkest parts of their imagination?
Mr. CRONENBERG: Well, this society does not tend to encourage people to tell
the truth. Society in general is interested in sustaining itself and that
includes whatever fictions, facades or hypocrisies that society needs to
sustain itself. So you are not encouraged really to tell the truth. You're
encouraged to be a good citizen, I mean in a bad sense, which is to say an
obedient citizen, one who toes the line, one who sort of accepts the standards
of society without question. And this is a natural thing. All societies have
this kind of gyroscopic need to sustain themselves, maintain themselves, and
that imparts a certain stability. But at the same time, if you only go with
that, then you never get improvements. You never get corrections of
injustices and so on. So you need the words of, you know, the rebels, the
artists, the people who will not accept reality as it is presented but figure
that there's something else going on, there's some other things--I don't
mean--I'm not talking about conspiracy theories. I'm talking about looking
for the truth about the way things work and how those things might be
improved. So it's a--you need both forces, though, you know, for
civilization. You need both of them.
I mean, in the Freudian formula, civilization is repression, you know,
repression of the most basic, base primitive instincts, but you don't get
civilization without a rebellion against repression as well, as in the
Freudian formula that would come from the unconscious and dreams and so.
GROSS: So are you working under the premise that most people have very dark
thoughts or fantasies that they wouldn't admit to in public and that it's in
part your job to talk about those things that people have but they won't
necessarily say that they do?
Mr. CRONENBERG: Yeah, I think that's true. I think if you imagine just
taking anybody asleep and drilling a hole in their forehead and having their
dreams projected onto a screen for a couple of thousand people as though it
were an entertainment, what do you think you'd see from anybody? You know, I
think you'd see some pretty--you'd see some boring stuff, but I think you'd
see some amazing things as well, you know, perhaps quite shocking, and it
would come from straight citizens of all kinds, you know, and it's all there.
GROSS: A couple of your movies are almost about that, like "Scanners" in a
Mr. CRONENBERG: Yeah, I mean, that was...
GROSS: It almost operates on that principle.
Mr. CRONENBERG: Yeah, there is a hole drilled in a forehead in "Scanners,"
and I suppose I've been taking my metaphor that I just gave you from that.
GROSS: So if we're operating on the premise that you've done a lot of scenes
over the years that are about these dark places that we don't want to admit
exist in our minds, which of those scenes has gotten the strongest reaction
from viewers and has proved to be, like, most troubling to viewers?
Mr. CRONENBERG: Well, I think there are some scenes in "Crash" that really
have disturbed a lot of people. That movie caused a lot of controversy in
various countries, including this one, and...
GROSS: Well, "Crash" is a movie about people who get turned on basically by
car crashes in which they or other people are injured. And so...
Mr. CRONENBERG: Yeah, that--it's--but they're not exactly turned on. You
know, they are and they aren't. It's really--don't forget, everybody in that
sort of strange, invented subculture has been in an accident as a sort of
life-transforming accident, and it's almost as though in order to come to
terms with the fact that they survived that and perhaps were deformed by that,
that they have to relive it in a more controlled way, and they find that the
only people they can relate to are other people who've undergone the same
So, you know, in a way, the movie is a metaphor for those people who undergo
these life-shattering experiences, whether it's being comrades in arms in a
war or whether it's people who have had to fight off the same disease as you
have, finding people who are, as I say, almost a subculture who are the only
ones who can understand what you've gone through and finding strange ways to
relive that experience and so come to understand it.
GROSS: And transform it so that it has a different meaning.
Mr. CRONENBERG: Yes, that's right...
Mr. CRONENBERG: ...or transform it so that it has any meaning, because you
might think that the thing that struck you is meaningless, and we are
creatures who do not like to feel that things are meaningless, and we are very
prone to giving things meaning whether--meaning really only comes from us in
the universe. As far as I'm concerned, the only place that meaning comes from
in the universe is the human mind. Without the human mind, there is no
meaning in the universe, as far as I'm concerned. So we are the inventors of
meaning, and we are the only consumers of it. I mean, your average bunny
rabbit in the grass does not need meaning to exist, but we seem to need it.
GROSS: My guest is director David Cronenberg. His new film is called "A
History of Violence."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is director David Cronenberg. His films include "Scanners,"
"The Fly," "The Dead Zone," "Dead Ringers," "Naked Lunch" and "Crash." His
new film is called "A History of Violence."
You've done several horror films. I mean, they're not standard horror films,
but they're, like, your take on horror films, and you've said that the horror
in horror films is about the inevitability of death. Do you think your
understanding of death and your way of addressing it has changed as you've
Mr. CRONENBERG: Well, I think my understanding has gotten deeper and more
profound. Yeah, I think so. I don't know that that really necessarily will
change the way that I deal with death in films. I said very early on that I
think as early as "Scanners," I seem to recall saying to somebody, `Every time
I kill somebody in my movie, I'm really rehearsing my own death, you know?
It's like a trial run to see how it would feel, to see how I would feel.' And
I still think there's still some truth in that. You know, that's why I don't
take death lightly in my films. It's always a very significant event.
GROSS: Does it give you a sense of control to be directing a death scene?
'Cause we really have no control over death, but as a director, for those
moments, you do.
Mr. CRONENBERG: Absolutely. I think that's one of the reasons that directors
become directors and actors become actors. It's--imagine the sense of control
you have as an actor to sort of die doing 10 takes in a movie and then you get
up and you're still alive, you know? It gives you a feeling of some kind of
immortality, even though you know it's a false sense, and it gives you a
feeling that perhaps in some way you will be more prepared for your own death,
having rehearsed it so many times.
GROSS: Now I was reading a little bit about your father's death. He had what
sounds like a horrible disease that--where the disease attacks the body's
ability to process to calcium, and your bones become so thin and brittle that
they could break just turning over in bed, which is what started happening to
him. I don't know when your father died, but, you know, when I see your
movie, "The Fly," I always think about how the body can betray you because the
Jeff Goldblum character, who mixes his genes with the genes of a fly and
starts to transform himself into a fly, his body starts to putrefy, and it's a
very disturbing movie because of that.
Mr. CRONENBERG: Yeah. Well, it's--once again, it's like--it's rehearsing.
You know, at the time, people wanted that to very much represent AIDS, and
they were sure that I was creating that as a metaphor for AIDS, and I said,
`Well, really it's more like a metaphor for aging and the kind of thing that
everybody has to undergo.' We all have this one disease, you know? It's
called mortality, and we are absolutely doomed to play that out. So it--but
once again, I mean, that character starts to feel that he's not just dying,
he's transforming, he's becoming something else. And, of course, in a certain
narrative sense in that movie, he really is becoming something else, but he's
also transforming into oblivion, let's say, and that's something that's very
difficult for people to accept, you know, their non-existence, and so much of
art and religion and politics has to do with evading that reality, to not have
to accept one's own personal oblivion.
GROSS: Are there scenes in movies that you saw when you were young that
disturbed you, that you were afraid to go to sleep afterwards or that those
images would kind of come up and bother you and you couldn't get rid of them?
Mr. CRONENBERG: Oh, sure. "Bambi" terrified...
GROSS: "Bambi" with the fire?
Mr. CRONENBERG: Terrified. Terrified. Oh, the death of the parents and,
you know, "Dumbo," you know, the scene where Dumbo's being separated from his
mother, because these are things that--censors, who were worried about what
children can take and what they can't take, seem never to understand is that a
child's perspective on things is quite different from an adult's. And
separation from the parents is one of the huge traumatic things that exists in
a kid's mind. And so I can say that the original "Blue Lagoon" movie, not the
Brooke Shields one, the one way earlier with John Hall, there were scenes in
that--that was a movie that made me sleep with the lights on for a week. It's
about a couple of kids who are on a boat. The boat catches fire and sinks,
and the kids are the only ones left alive, and they swim to this nearby island
and they grew up in isolation on the island. But it's the fact that they're
alone, you know, that their parents have died; that was the terrifying thing
about that movie for me.
GROSS: And did that contribute to you wanting to make movies, being so...
Mr. CRONENBERG: I doubt it. I doubt it. You know, I always thought I would
be a writer, and even at that early age, I thought that I would be a writer
and my father was a writer. I'm sure that had a lot to do with it. I used to
fall asleep to the sound of his typewriter, you know? So it was kind of a
surprise when I found myself being a filmmaker. It was really not something
I'd ever anticipated, and it really didn't come to me until I was at
university, University of Toronto. So it was relatively late in life compared
with some of the Hollywood wunderkinder whose fathers were in the film
business and so on. So they had a lot of models for that, and I didn't have
that. I had the model for writing really.
GROSS: David Cronenberg, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. CRONENBERG: Well, it's been a pleasure for me, too. Thank you.
GROSS: David Cronenberg's new film is called "A History of Violence."
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
We're closing with music from the soundtrack of "A History of Violence,"
composed by Howard Shore.
(Soundbite of music)
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