David Cronenberg

David Paul Cronenberg, OC, OOnt, FRSC, filmmaker (born 15 March 1943 in Toronto, ON). David Cronenberg is Canada’s most influential and internationally celebrated filmmaker. Dubbed the “Baron of Blood” and “the King of Venereal Horror,” he pioneered a commercial genre cinema in Canada with his at times controversial horror movies. His signature “body horror” films such as Shivers (1975), The Brood (1979), Scanners (1981), Videodrome (1983), The Fly (1986), Dead Ringers (1988), Naked Lunch (1991) and Crash (1996) have challenged audiences with provocative, even prophetic explorations of the relationship between sex, technology and violence. He is an Officer of the Order of Canada, a Chevalier of the Ordre des arts et lettres de France and a member of Canada’s Walk of Fame.He has won 10 Genie Awards and prizes at virtually every major international film festival, as well as lifetime achievement awards from the Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards, the Canadian Screen Awards, the Cannes Film Festival and the Venice Film Festival.

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David Cronenberg at the 2012 Genie Awards in Toronto.

Early Years and Education

Cronenberg showed an early interest in literature and science while growing up in a middle-class Jewish family in Toronto. His father Milton, a true-crime journalist and bookstore owner, and mother Esther, a musician, raised him in an environment of intellectualism and culture. He and enrolled in science at the University of Toronto in 1963 and switched to English Literature a year later. His short stories won awards.

Early Films

Cronenberg never studied film formally but became attracted to cinema when his classmate, David Secter, showed him his first feature, Winter Kept Us Warm. Cronenberg has called it the most influential film of his career. “It’s hard to reproduce the shock I felt when I saw my classmates on screen in a real movie, acting,” he told The Guardian in 2014. “It was like magic.”

The film inspired Cronenberg to make the short films Transfer (1966) and From the Drain (1967)While amateur works, they remain cult relics of an emerging film scene. In 1967, Cronenberg cofounded the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre (CFMDC) with members of the local film scene, including Ivan Reitman (who would later produce Cronenberg’s Shivers and Rabid). The organization, modelled after the filmmakers’ co-op in New York, still operates today.

Cronenberg refined his filmmaking with the short films Stereo (1969) and Crimes of the Future (1970), which offered commentaries on scientific experiments set in a vaguely futuristic world. They were also avant-garde works in form and structure. Cronenberg then moved into the commercial mainstream. His next films combined the conventions of horror and science fiction with a wry and distinctive commentary on contemporary life.

Shivers (1975)

Shivers (1975, also known by its US title, The Parasite Murders) capitalized on the recently introduced Capital Cost Allowance, which let investors deduct 100% of their contributions in the hope of stimulating commercial filmmaking (see Tax Shelter Films). A schlocky horror movie about parasites that unlock the sexual desires of people in a Montreal apartment complex, Shivers rocked Canada’s cultural community at a time when Canadian films were mostly limited to National Film Board documentaries and intimate art films. It was vilified by Canadian critics, most notably Saturday Night’s Robert Fulford, who called Shivers“an atrocity, a disgrace to everyone connected with it — including the taxpayers… If using public money to produce films like this is the only way that English Canada can have a film industry, then perhaps English Canada should not have a film industry.” The film prompted a heated debate in the House of Commons about the kinds of films that should receive public funding.

shivers David Cronenberg, who was reportedly evicted from his apartment due to the bad publicity around Shivers, sold the film to 52 countries and paid back the total investment to the film's producers and the CFDC before the film even premiered.

Rabid (1977)

Cronenberg sparked more controversy with his next film, Rabid (1977), when he cast porn star Marilyn Chambers as a young woman who feasts on the blood of Montrealers. Despite controversy, Rabid and Shivers proved that Canadian films could make money. Rabid earned $7 million on a $700,000 budget. (In 2018, it was announced that sisters Jen and Sylvia Soska would direct a remake.) 

The Brood (1979) and Scanners (1981)

The Brood (1979), Fast Company (1979) and Scanners (1981), turned Cronenberg into a bankable director with a cult following, especially in Europe and the United States. Scanners shocked audiences with its infamous exploding head scene and became a cult hit. It also proved a breakthrough in seeing Cronenberg recognized by the Canadian film community when it received eight Genie Award nominations, including for Best Film and Best Director. Despite growing recognition, Cronenberg still faced criticism, most notably from American film scholar Robin Wood, who contributed an essay to the anthology The Shape of Rage calling the director’s work reactionary, conservative and misogynistic.

Videodrome (1983)

Videodrome(1983) is a dark, disturbing tale about the pervasive (and in Cronenberg’s estimation, perverse) effects of technology. The film marked the beginning of Cronenberg’s ascension in critical circles, a process that has led to his being considered a major artist by most critics.

The film stars James Woods as a cable TV programmer who undergoes a physical mutation when images of graphic sex and violence consume him. Praised by Andy Warhol as “AClockwork Orange of the 1980s,” the film echoes Marshall McLuhan’s theories on the power of images and mass media while also foreshadowing the impact of pornography and the Internet (at one point, the main character interacts with a pornographic video by penetrating the TV screen with his head).

Videodrome “definitively alter[ed] the way Canadian movies were defined and discussed,” critic Geoff Pevere wrote for the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in 2017. "After Videodrome, there was no going back to prairies nostalgia.” The British Film Institute’s Greg Evans wrote that “the dangerous philosophy of Videodrome is the real star here as it continuously asks provocative questions about society’s relationship with entertainment and technology.” As IndieWire wrote in 2015, “Videodrome is a near-perfect early encapsulation of many concerns that crop up time and again for the filmmaker: the body vs. the mind, illusion vs. reality, and the seductive, erotic power of technology. And as such it still works like a key that unlocks his filmography: it may be the most Cronenbergian Cronenberg film.”

Videodrome earned Cronenberg his first Genie Awardfor Best Director. His subsequent films began to explore a range of metaphysical questions involving the relationship between mind and body and ethical questions having to do with the role of technology and science in modern life.

Dead Ringers (1988)

Cronenberg followed these relatively mainstream films with the audacious art film Dead Ringers(1988). An eerie and disturbing psychological thriller about twin gynecologists (both played by Jeremy Irons) who gradually descend into madness, it is generally considered Cronenberg’s best film. It is regarded by many as one of the best horror movies ever made. Featuring kinky sex with Geneviève Bujold, Dead Ringers combines body horror with sadomasochism in Cronenberg’s most visually compelling and critically acclaimed film. Brilliant yet emotionally cold, Dead Ringers asks disturbing questions about the nature of individual identity and explores such themes as eroticism, narcissism, misogyny and masculine-feminine dichotomies.

Dead Ringers opened TIFF in 1988 and proved divisive and controversial but quickly gained critical favour. The Chicago Tribune called it “an astonishing, magnetic, devastating piece of work” while USA Today deemed it “an instant classic.” Janet Maslin of the New York Times called the film “a startling tale of physical and psychic disintegration, pivoting on the twins’ hopeless interdependence and playing havoc with the viewer's grip on reality. It's a mesmerizing achievement, as well as a terrifically unnerving one.” In 2005, the Village Voice’s Michael Atkinson called the film “the keynote address” in David Cronenberg’s “discomfiting vision.”

The film won 11 Genie Awards, including Best Motion Picture and Best Director, and earned Cronenberg the Best Director prize from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. Dead Ringers is considered by many to be among his finest works. It was named one of the Top 10 Canadian films of all time in polls conducted by TIFF in 2004 and 2015. It was also ranked No. 95 in Rolling Stone's 1999 list of “100 maverick movies,” No. 20 in Entertainment Weekly’s 1999 list of the “25 scariest movies of all time” and No. 34 in Total Film’s list of “Top 50 horror movies.” In 2016, it was named one of 150 essential works in Canadian cinema history in a poll of 200 media professionals conducted by TIFF, Library and Archives Canada, the Cinémathèque québécoise and The Cinematheque in Vancouver. 

Naked Lunch (1991)

Cronenberg was hired to direct Total Recall (1990), an adaptation of a Philip K. Dick short story, and reportedly completed 12 drafts of the screenplay, but he departed the project over creative differences with the movie’s producers. Instead, he embarked on a period in which he pursued challenging adaptations of diverse literary sources. Naked Lunch (1991), based on William S. Burroughs’s novel of the same name, was thought by many to be unfilmable. A long-cherished project of Cronenberg's, it was a cinematic success. Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch was not a straightforward adaptation of the novel, but rather a high-brow mutation that blended Burroughs’s novel with aspects of his biography, feverishly imagining the circumstances of the book’s genesis.

“Paradoxically cerebral and primal, reasonable and anti-rational, life-affirming and nihilistic, Naked Lunch is a sensual and intellectual feast,” wrote the Globe and Mail’s Jay Scott. Naked Lunch won Cronenberg Best Director from the National Society of Film Critics and Best Screenplay from the New York Film Critics Circle. It won eight Genie Awards, including Best Motion Picture and Best Director. 

M. Butterfly (1993)

Cronenberg followed Naked Lunch with another literary adaption, M. Butterfly (1993), based on the play by David Henry Hwang. M. Butterfly opened TIFF in 1993 and featured another fine performance by Jeremy Irons. However, the film suffered in comparison to the similarly themed and hugely popular The Crying Game (1992) and quickly fell into obscurity. 

Crash (1996)

Cronenberg’s most controversial film, Crash (1996), is based on the novel by J.G. Ballard. The film features James Spader, Holly Hunter, Elias Koteas and Deborah Kara Unger in a psychosexual drama about car crash fetishists. The sexually explicit film featured penetration in a crash victim’s open wound. The film debuted at the Cannes Film Festival, where president Gilles Jacob programmed it to “explode like a bomb” midfestival. Crash was immediately controversial yet won a Special Jury Prize for “originality, daring and audacity.”

Crash incensed its distributor, Ted Turner, who tried to prevent the film’s release (see also Cronenberg Film Controversy). Despite encountering censorship problems in some countries, Crash nevertheless found relative success and won five Genie Awards, including Best Director, as well as the Golden Reel Award as Canada’s top box office success.

eXistenZ (1999)

Cronenberg returned to an original script with eXistenZ (1999), which examined a similar theme as Videodrome: the relationship of the body to technology. Cronenberg in fact described the film as “a kind of survey” of his previous movies. The New York Times’ Jonathan Dee described the film as “an uncharacteristically self-referential film, about the artist as a figure of danger, and it provides ample opportunity for Cronenberg — who refers to himself as a ‘card-carrying existentialist’ — to bring to the surface themes vital not only to his career but also to his whole philosophy.”

eXistenZ won the Silver Bear for Outstanding Artistic Achievement at the Berlin Film Festival  but bombed at the box office, grossing less than $3 million on its $31 million CAD budget, while being overshadowed by the Hollywood blockbuster The Matrix. Later that year, Cronenberg had the distinguished honour of being the first Canadian to preside over the jury at the Cannes Film Festival. 

Spider (2002)

Cronenberg’s feature films then moved away from futuristic, science fiction material into a more personal inquiry into the psychological, with less reliance on special effects. He was slated to direct a sequel to Paul Verhoeven’s erotic thriller Basic Instinct (1992) but quit the project less than a month before shooting, reportedly due to “vicious fights” with the film’s star, Sharon Stone. Instead, he adapted an early novel by Patrick McGrath, England’s modern master of the gothic horror story.

Spider (2002) stars Ralph Fiennes in a riveting portrait of a schizophrenic. The film earned mostly positive reviews following a troubled production that saw Cronenberg defer his salary to save the film. Spider drew strong critical support, including wins for Best Canadian Feature at TIFF and from the Toronto Film Critics Association, as well as a Genie Award for Best Director. However, Spider lost considerable money at the box office. 


A History of Violence (2005)

The back-to-back financial failures of eXistenZ and Spider resulted in Cronenberg directing A History of Violence (2005), a film adaptation of a graphic novel, as a work for hire. Prior to the film’s premiere at Cannes, Cronenberg told press that he made the film because he “needed the money.” His interpretation of the story about a small-town man’s double life as a gangster injected a mainstream production with sensational sex, jarring violence, existentialist pensiveness and psychological menace. It showed how originality of vision could elevate a genre film.

Particularly interesting were interpretations of Cronenberg mirroring the protagonist’s double life. Manohla Dargis of the New York Times called the film a “masterpiece,” writing, “Mr. Cronenberg, a Canadian, is taking aim at this country, to be sure… This is a film by a man who is masquerading as a respectable American commercial filmmaker, repressing his violent heritage to make the film he wants… To this end, it seems not so much a commentary on America, or on American film violence as it is a reflection on a specifically Canadian detachedness about its relationship to the United States.”  

A History of Violence received numerous honours, including wins for Best Director from the National Society of Film Critics, Best Picture and Best Director from the Online Film Critics Society, and the Toronto Film Critics Association awarded it Best Picture, Best Director and Best Canadian Feature. It earned two Golden Globe nominations, including Best Picture, and Oscar nominations for Josh Olsen’s screenplay and William Hurt’s performance.

Eastern Promises (2007)

Cronenberg reteamed with A History of Violence star Viggo Mortensen for Eastern Promises (2007), a London-set crime drama about sex trafficking and the Russian mob. The film debuted at TIFF, where it won the People’s Choice Award and launched Cronenberg back into the awards conversation. Eastern Promises won seven Genie Awards, earned three Golden Globe nominations, a BAFTA nomination for Best British Film and an Oscar nomination for Mortensen’s performance. 

A Dangerous Method (2011)

Cronenberg and Mortensen collaborated again on A Dangerous Method, an adaptation of Christopher Hampton’s play The Talking Cure, about the relationship between psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud (Mortensen) and Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and patient Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley). The film premiered at the 2011 Venice Film Festival and split critics. Some praised its restraint and performances, while others found it dramatically inert. It won five Genie Awards, including Best Supporting Actor for Mortensen.

Cosmopolis (2011)

Also in 2011, Cronenberg completed Cosmopolis. The adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel featured a young billionaire (Robert Pattinson) trading cybercapital while cruising around New York, played by Toronto, in his limousine. The ensemble drama had a limited theatrical release domestically but found a larger audience internationally. It won two Canadian Screen Awards for the score and song collaboration by Howard Shore and indie band Metric.

Maps to the Stars (2014)

Cronenberg collaborated with writer Bruce Wagner, whose graphic novel was the source material for A History of Violence, for the black comedy Maps to the Stars. The film, Cronenberg’s first to shoot partly in Los Angeles, was a scathing indictment that portrayed the “dream factory” as a nightmare. Despite being called a satire by critics, Cronenberg insisted the film was simply a perversion of reality. The film starred Julianne Moore in a deadpan performance as a has-been actress clinging to fame. Maps premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where Moore’s performance won Best Actress. She later received a Golden Globe nomination. The film received 11 Canadian Screen Award nominations, winning two. As with Cosmopolis, Maps struggled to find a theatrical release in the US and nearly went straight to home video. 

Other Work

Cronenberg has worked occasionally in television, including on the highly acclaimed Crimes Against Nature series. He has acted in a number of films, most notably in Clive Barker’s Nightbreed (1990) and Don McKellar’s Last Night (1998). He had a cameo appearance in the adaptation of Mordecai Richler’s Barney’s Version (2010), playing a hack Canadian director. He also played a reverend in Sarah Polley and Mary Harron’s acclaimed adaptation of Margaret Atwood novel Alias Grace (2017).

Cronenberg directed a stage opera adaptation of The Fly in 2008 with music by his long-time composer Howard Shore. It premiered in Paris and Los Angeles and received generally negative reviews. In 2014, Cronenberg published his first novel, Consumed, which furthered his interest in technology, body horror and existential philosophy. Reviews were generally favourable, with many critics enjoying the continuity between Consumed and Cronenberg’s films.

Cronenberg and TIFF

David Cronenberg maintains a strong relationship with the Toronto International Film Festival, which has contributed significantly in distinguishing him as an artist. The Toronto Star has likened Cronenberg and the festival to conjoined twins growing side by side. In 1983, the festival mounted a retrospective of Cronenberg’s work — the first major retrospective of a Canadian filmmaker. TIFF CEO Piers Handling later wrote, “Unquestionably, the 1983 retrospective began to reposition him, providing the beginnings of respectability in his home country.” TIFF began presenting awards for Canadian films in 1984, after Cronenberg was already established and making films for Hollywood. However, he did win the Best Canadian Feature Film Award for Spider in 2002, as well as the coveted People’s Choice Award for Eastern Promises in 2007.

In 2013, TIFF premiered its first original exhibition, David Cronenberg: Evolution, which showcased memorabilia from the director’s films and travelled internationally. Evolution featured a collaboration with the Museum of Contemporary Art for David Cronenberg: Transformation, which highlighted Cronenberg’s influence on a generation of filmmakers. The virtual reality work BODY/MIND/CHANGE was an immersive extension of Evolution and let audiences inhabit the world of Cronenberg in ways anticipated by his earlier films.

Characteristic Style

Cronenberg’s signature is a mix of graphic sex and violence broadly known as “body horror.” His early works exploited special effects to provoke audiences with bugs and parasites invading the body, exploding heads and images of genitalia intersecting violently with technology. His later films became more introspective and existential, often drawing upon Freudian theory and literary sources to consider the relationship between body, mind and technology. Cronenberg has said bluntly that he sees “technology as being an extension of the human body.”

Despite the frequent classification of his films as horror movies, Cronenberg dismisses perceptions of himself as an artist with a troubled mind. “My imagination is not full of horrors at all,” he told the Guardian in 2014. “This is the misunderstanding of what my movies are. First of all, I think all my movies are funny.” As he told the New York Times in 2005, "I think all my movies are commercial. That's my delusion. I thought Naked Lunch was wildly entertaining, so what do I know?”

Cronenberg often makes playful use of Canadian locations as stand-ins for American settings, often for allegorical purposes. He has collaborated frequently with cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, editor Ronald Sanders, production designer Carol Spier, composer Howard Shore, and costume designer Denise Cronenberg (his sister) on virtually all his films. 

Personal Life

Though raised in a Jewish family, Cronenberg has since come to embrace atheism. As he told the New York Times in 2005, “I’m not just a nonbeliever, I’m an anti-believer — I think [religion]’s a destructive philosophy.”

Cronenberg has an artistic family. His father was a writer, his mother a pianist, and his sister, Denise, has been the costume designer on nearly all his films. His eldest daughter Cassandra, from his first marriage to Margaret Hindson, served as an assistant director on several of his films. Cronenberg met his second wife, Carolyn, when she worked as a production assistant on Rabid. She contributed to several of his productions and directed the documentary Acts of Violence, about the making of A History of Violence. They remained married until her death in 2017 and had two children together, Caitlin, a photographer, and Brandon, a filmmaker. In 2012, Brandon made his feature directorial debut with Antiviral

Honours

Cronenberg has won five Genie Awards for Best Director, more than any other filmmaker, and three for Best Screenplay. He has been named a Chevalier of the Ordre des arts et lettres de France, a member of Canada’s Walk of Fame, a Companion of the Order of Canada, a member of the Order of Ontario, and a Fellow of both the British Film Institute and the Royal Society of Canada.

Cronenberg has received Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards and theAcademy of Canadian Cinema and Television, as well as from festivals in Cannes, Stockholm, Ghent, Palm Springs and Venice. In 2018, the Venice Film Festival honoured him with a Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement as “one of the most daring and stimulating filmmakers ever, a tireless innovator of forms and languages.”

Legacy

In his book Dark Dreams: A Psychological History of the Modern Horror Film (1977), Wright State University film professor Charles Derry wrote that “no discussion of contemporary horror film can conclude without reference to the films of David Cronenberg.” J. Hoberman of the Village Voice called him “the most provocative, original, and consistently excellent North American director of his generation,” as well as “the most audacious and challenging narrative director in the English-speaking world.” Greg Evans of the British Film Institute wrote in 2007 that Cronenberg has “amassed one of the most rich and challenging bodies of work in modern cinema.”

Cronenberg was ranked No. 9 on the Guardian’s list of the world’s 40 best directors. HorrorNews.net ranked him No. 3 on their list of the Top 20 cult film directors and science fiction magazine Strange Horizons listed him as the second best science fiction film director of all time behind Stanley Kubrick.

Select Awards

Canadian Screen Awards

  • Lifetime Achievement Award (2014)

Genie Awards

  • Best Achievement in Direction (Videodrome) (1984)
  • Best Motion Picture (Dead Ringers) (1989)
  • Best Achievement in Direction (Dead Ringers) (1989)
  • Best Screenplay, Adapted (Dead Ringers) (1989)
  • Best Achievement in Direction (Naked Lunch) (1992)
  • Best Screenplay, Adapted (Naked Lunch) (1992)
  • Best Achievement in Direction (Crash) (1996)
  • Best Screenplay, Adapted (Crash) (1996)
  • Golden Reel (Crash) (1996)
  • Best Achievement in Direction (Spider) (2003)

Toronto International Film Festival

  • People’s Choice Award (Eastern Promises) (2007)
  • Best Canadian Feature Film (Spider) (2002)

Directors Guild of Canada

  • Outstanding Achievement in a Feature Film (Spider) (2003)
  • Outstanding Achievement in Direction – Feature Film (Spider) (2003)
  • Outstanding Feature Film (A History of Violence) (2006)
  • Outstanding Direction – Feature Film (A History of Violence) (2006)
  • Best Feature Film (Eastern Promises) (2008)
  • Best Direction – Feature Film (Eastern Promises) (2008)
  • Best Feature Film (A Dangerous Method) (2012)
  • Lifetime Achievement Award (2015)

Others

  • Best Film (Scanners), Fantasporto (1983)
  • Best Science Fiction Film (Videodrome), Brussels International Festival of Fantasy Film (1984)
  • Best Director (Dead Ringers), Los Angeles Film Critics Association (1988)
  • Chevalier, Ordre des arts et lettres, Government of France (1990)
  • Best Screenplay (Naked Lunch), New York Film Critics Circle (1991)
  • Best Screenplay (Naked Lunch), Boston Society of Film Critics (1991)
  • Best Director (Naked Lunch), National Society of Film Critics (1992)
  • Best Screenplay (Naked Lunch), National Society of Film Critics (1992)
  • Special Jury Prize (Crash), Cannes Film Festival (1996)
  • Lifetime Artistic Achievement (Film), Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards (1999)
  • Silver Bear, Outstanding Artistic Achievement (eXistenZ), Berlin International Film Festival (1999)
  • Inductee, Canada’s Walk of Fame (1999)
  • Officer, Order of Canada (2002)
  • Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal (2002)
  • Special Jury Prize (for career achievement), Ghent International Film Festival (2002)
  • Best Director (A History of Violence), Toronto Film Critics Association (2005)
  • Best Director (A History of Violence), Online Film Critics Society (2005)
  • Billy Wilder Award for Excellence in Direction, National Board of Review (2005)
  • Lifetime Achievement Award, Stockholm International Film Festival (2005)
  • Best Director (A History of Violence), National Society of Film Critics (2006)
  • Carrosse d’Or for Lifetime Achievement, Cannes Film Festival (2006)
  • Sonny Bono Visionary Award, Palm Springs International Film Festival (2006)
  • Fellow, Royal Society of Canada (2006)
  • Best Director in a Canadian Film (Eastern Promises), Vancouver Film Critics Circle (2008)
  • Douglas Sirk Award, Hamburg Film Festival (2007)
  • Fellow, British Film Institute (2011)
  • Tribute Award, Gotham Awards (2011)
  • Best Director – Canadian Film (A Dangerous Method), Vancouver Film Critics Circle (2012)
  • Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal (2012)
  • Filmmaker on the Edge Award, Provincetown International Film Festival (2014)
  • Companion, Order of Canada (2014)
  • Member, Order of Ontario (2014)
  • Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement, Venice Film Festival (2018)

Honorary Degrees


External Links