Finishing a TV interview the other morning, director David Cronenberg eyed a nearby glass of water. "Is it actually OK to drink the tap water here?" he wondered cautiously, having just flown in from Toronto to plug his new film, "Dead Ringers."
The TV reporter gave good grades to the water, but advised against eating the fish that swim in it. "Fair enough," Cronenberg replied with a grin. "If any fish come out of the tap, I definitely won't eat them."
Fans of Cronenberg's guts 'n' gore classics will relish the irony of the 45-year-old Canadian being vaguely nervous about drinking tap water.
His new film, which stars Jeremy Irons as a strange pair of identical-twin gynecologists, is a disturbing psychological thriller. However, his previous films, which include "The Brood," "Videodrome," "Scanners" and "The Fly," have reveled in the sweet smell of excess.
Teeming with ghastly images of eroticism and horror, Cronenberg's tales have featured a woman who gives birth to a brood of slimy, murderous demons; rival mental giants who use lethal ESP powers to blow each other's heads off; and the saga of a soft-porn entrepreneur, obsessed with hallucinogenic TV mind control, who rules a video empire teeming with torture, sex and murder.
No one would accuse Cronenberg of inspiring \o7 neutrality. \f7 Critics have celebrated and savaged him. His films have been shouted down in the Canadian House of Parliament. His makeup technicians have won Oscars. Director John Carpenter once pronounced, "Cronenberg is better than all the rest of us combined."
Until now, Cronenberg has been cast as the headmaster of the Film School of Shock. But "Dead Ringers," with its chilling assault on identity and madness, presents him as a true cinematic soul-brother to "Blue Velvet" director David Lynch. As if relaying signals from some faraway video galaxy, both film makers offer eerie, unsettling visions abuzz with images that owe as much to the artistic avant-garde as to traditional horror motifs.
Poking at a bowl of oatmeal as he puttered around his West Hollywood hotel room, Cronenberg hardly seemed like the sort of guy whose films are so gory that his actors once made him a T-shirt emblazoned with his favorite on-set exhortation: "More Blood! More Blood!"
An inquisitive, keen-witted man, he wears thick glasses and Cordovan loafers. He has such an earnest, orderly air that director Martin Scorsese once likened him to "a gynecologist from Beverly Hills."
Yet contradictions lurk beneath that tranquil surface, as if Cronenberg perhaps had dual--or twin--personalities. A director who developed his own formula for screen blood (a cornstarch base with cherry flavoring), Cronenberg was once thrown out of his apartment when his landlady discovered he was making a horror film with porn star Marilyn Chambers. Yet this is the same erudite fellow who studied briefly under Marshall ("the medium is the message") McLuhan, idolizes writer Vladimir ("Lolita") Nabokov, quotes Freud and insists on brushing his teeth before his interview.
"I've never felt any trouble relating with my audience," he said, taking a seat by his hotel-room window. "I always assume my own responses--what I find funny, what I find sad--will be in line with theirs. Some film makers, like Hitchcock, felt they could manipulate their audiences. They wanted to control them, like a puppeteer.
"But I see the relationship as more participatory. I feel like I've just woken from a dream and say, 'Geez, I've got to share this with somebody.' "
But aren't his dreams inordinately hideous and alarming?
Cronenberg shrugged. "Those are usually the ones you want to tell people about."
Nearly a decade ago independent producer Carol Baum gave Cronenberg a novel called "Twins," which chronicled the descent of identical twin gynecologists into madness. Cronenberg, Baum and producer Joe Roth optioned the book, which Cronenberg and writer Norman Snider turned into a screenplay.
"Dead Ringers" also owes a debt to the real-life Marcus twins, noted New York gynecologists who were found dead in 1975 in one brother's garbage-strewn Upper East Side apartment. Like Cronenberg's fictional twins, Elliot and Beverly Mantle, the Marcus brothers had been inseparable from childhood, treated infertile women, often passed for each other during examinations and fell victim to drug addiction and schizophrenia.
From the "Twins" novel, Cronenberg borrowed a key plot device--a famous actress, played by Genevieve Bujold, who has an unwitting affair with both men.
The project made the rounds at various studios, attracting little enthusiasm. "We pitched it everywhere," said Cronenberg, fixing himself a \o7 cappuccino. \f7 "They were fascinated by it, but no one wanted anything to do with it. They all hated the idea of gynecologists. I think gynecology--as a concept as much as a profession--makes both men \o7 and \f7 women very uneasy. The notion of a clinical intimacy with strangers makes people uncomfortable."