Vincenzo Natali: Child of the New Flesh
As the world continues to mindlessly writhe around like a splat of hysterical maggots on a coin-operated mattress, the arrival of David Cronenberg’s newest transgressive impact event, Crimes of the Future, feels like a vital instrument in the quest for psychic clarity. His new film is a parabolic mirror reflecting our corporeal future across its curve - a body-vision long overdue. Cronenberg shows us what we could become if we advanced our minds beyond the technology-saturated mediaswamp and into the realms of true physical and spiritual transcendence. All the while the Canadian maestro’s artistic progeny seek to inflict their own aftershocks upon the weary consciousness of the celluloid city. Vincenzo Natali is one of Cronenberg’s most devoted partisan, a true child of the new flesh and burgeoning ‘heroic pervert’ in his own right. Natali also happens to be an immensely talented filmmaker with five feature films behind him and a litany of award-winning television propping up his curriculum vitae. Natali is a totemic presence in today’s disposable culturedump - an auteur with a cinematic philosophy. I caught up with Vincenzo to discuss his childhood, the literary influences that shaped him - as well as adapting the work of J.G. Ballard and William Gibson, plus his thoughts on Cronenberg’s latest landmark, Crimes of the Future.
I actually really wanted you to be part of the Cronenberg book, Children of the New Flesh (11:11 Press). I wanted you to be part of Communications section near the end of the book, but I just didn't realize how accessible you were. I didn't realize that if I simply sent a message to you on Twitter you would reply. I thought you were unobtainable!
Far from unobtainable! So exciting about that book, though. I can't wait to read it.
You were born in Detroit but grew up in Toronto – if you have any sense of national identity would you be happy to consider yourself a Canadian director?
I mean, I have no living memory of Detroit. I was born there, but my parents divorced each other shortly after and my mom took me to Toronto. So, I grew up here, which is where I'm right now. So, yeah, I definitely identify as Canadian and with Toronto and in particular, which is part of the reason the Cronenberg films, I think, resonate with me. I kind of recognize where they're from. And then he, I think, makes an attempt to set his films in Canada quite often. So yeah, there's some kind of personal resonance.
You cut your teeth at North York’s Canadian Film Centre (CFC), founded by Norman Jewison (Fiddler on the Roof and The Thomas Crown Affair) and where Cronenberg is on the board of directors.
I would be the least bit surprised yeah. Jewison came in a couple of times while I was there.
We’ll talk about Cronenberg soon but I’m curious what your path was to where you are now? Was it always on the cards that you’d go into filmmaking?
I mean, in my early childhood, I wanted to be a comic book artist, and I still am at the ripe age of 53. I'm still aspiring.
There's plenty of time. You could still do it.
Well, actually, over the course of the pandemic, I finished a graphic novel, so they'll hopefully get out there this year. But I really love that art form and consider it probably to be the most closely related art form to movies. But subsequent to seeing Star Wars at the tender age of eight, I did fall in love with movies in a way that eclipsed my love of comic books. And from that point onward, that's sort of what I wanted to do in one form or another. And I'm very typical of my generation. I grew up making super eight films with my friends, and just like the J. J. Abrams movie, we just made these crazy science fiction films in our backyard growing up, and that was my past. It was like from the age of eleven onward, really. I got into it and then I've matured very little since then.
No, not at all. You're a very mature filmmaker. That was something that I feel was part of your design as an artist - you're dealing with fantastical themes and stories, but you treat your subjects very seriously. I think that's to your benefit.
Oh, thank you. Yeah, I've suffered for that a little bit, too. I think I care so much about those movies, those kinds of movies, that I just can't do the, you know, the rote version. Also, it's just such an investment making a film, you know, kind of all or nothing.
What do you think it is about the horror and science fiction genres that draw you into its kind of magnetic field? Do you think there's restorative, therapeutic value in genre cinema for a viewer as well as a creator?
I think you hit it on the head. Yes, that is exactly what it is. I think that when it's in its best form it's always metaphorical. I'm thinking of all of the cinema fantastic core science fiction fantasy. It's always dealing indirectly with something that exists in the real world, but by not approaching it in a direct way—it actually allows people to confront those things and simulate them in a way that they couldn't if you were just doing a docu-drama or straight, realistic contemporary story.
Absolutely. So did you have Canadian filmmaker heroes growing up, apart from David Cronenberg?
I hate to say that really it was just David Cronenberg. I mean, Norman Jewison is intensely important to me because his film school changed my life. He's a lovely man and a great filmmaker, but his films for me are actually kind of the opposite of what I do. I like them and I enjoy watching them, but they're not influential to me personally, just because that's not my interest. But obviously he'd be seminal. I’d also include Norman McLaren, who is very famous for working with the National Film Board and did a movie called Neighbors. It was an animated film. He was very eclectic as an influence, I have to say.
Not to get too much into the weeds, but you see, growing up in the late 70s we had a thing called the tax shelter system. And essentially what it did was offer a way to jump start the English Canadian film industry by allowing pretty much anybody who wanted to invest in movies and get a tax break. So you suddenly had dentists and lawyers and all these people with no understanding whatsoever in the film industry becoming producers. And it was sort of a Wild West time. And that's, I think, partly why David Cronenberg has the career he has and had the start he had, because there was a lot of money coming into the system and looking for commercial movies to make. So not necessarily art house films, which is more the trend that Canadian cinema took post the tax shelter years. And at that time, as these films were being made, they were largely seen as trash and they were actually quite widely distributed and a lot of Canadian products sort of slipped into the studio distribution stream without anyone even really knowing they were Canadian movies. And that's part of why there was a backlash later on, because there was a lot of, you could say, government investment in these films, but what was perceived of as very little cultural return on the investment. But I think in hindsight, you can look at that period and go, oh no. Even though the movies weren't wearing the Canadian flag on their sleeve, actually you can kind of feel their Canadianness in a way that's perhaps even more authentic and subtle than some of the films that came afterwards that were more overtly declaring their national personality.
And David Cronenberg's films would fall right into that category?
Certainly on the edge of sort of exploitation horror movies that on their face seemed like they would sit comfortably on a Drive-in double bill. But when you actually take a closer look, you realize they're highly subversive works of art, very Canadian and very culturally specific. So, there are a lot of other movies like that from that period, like Black Christmas by Bob Clark.
It would be a very famous example. A lot of horror films. My Bloody Valentine was a very famous one. And other ones like – oh, there's a really cool movie no one talks about but I've always liked a lot called The Amateur, which is a CIA thriller in that period. Those films, I guess, would have been influential to me, but I think the only filmmaker that I would have recognized at that time was Cronenberg.
There seems to be quite an interesting phenomenon that Scotland and Canada share, I think, and it's that we're quite self-facing. I think for the book we focused on seven of Cronenberg’s short films but we actually couldn't get a hold of quite a lot of them. I mean, there were three early documentaries, another episode of Peep Show called “The Victim,” a few TV films, Scarborough Bluffs, Winter Garden, In the Dirt, and a few others. Scripts and kinescopes were consigned to the warehouses of the CBC complex in Toronto. I always thought he’d be a celebrated artist in his home country, given retrospectives, etc.
So, how is he regarded in Canada today?
Oh, highly regarded. Highly. I don't think there's any lack of interest here. Quite the opposite. I think he's sort of enshrined as a very important cultural figure. Who knows? Maybe he doesn't want you to see those movies.
Hey, I don't know. Or maybe they were just so small and obscure that they didn't survive long enough to be discovered when he was venerated. As a great filmmaker here, Canada has an odd sort of (I'm sure maybe Scotland is like this, sort of in line with what you're saying) an odd process of at first attacking its artists and belittling them and in a kind of self-loathing way perceiving them as less than the kind of artists that come from other places like the United States, for instance, our big brother to the south. But then when they find acceptance in the international realm, they come back as heroes and then they're venerated. And that's actually what happened with David Cronenberg, famously, when he made his first feature film, Shivers. There was a cultural critic here, I think his name was Robert Fulford, who wrote an article saying “Do you know where your tax money is going?” That’s paraphrasing. So he wasn't appreciated here immediately, but as his career evolved and he became an icon, absolutely.
I think it's funny as well that you're talking about Scotland and Canada again. We've both got the Big Brothers that we live in the shadow of, because Canada has got America, Scotland has England.
Maybe we’ve been bullied into this odd temperament, an intrinsic artistic self-consciousness. You once said, “I’m afraid for Cronenberg to see Splice. I’m scared to find out what he might think of it.” Did you ever find out what he thought?
Very indirectly. I shouldn't even say because I'm not sure. No, I never had that conversation with him. But he has always been very nice to me. When I made my first film, Cube, I invited him and Norman Jewison to see it right after it was finished. And he very kindly gave me a quote that ended up on posters all over the world that was very flattering. And as a gift to him, I sent him Alderson's severed head - the guy who's cubed at the beginning. And then he just has consistently invited me to screenings of his films and so on. And then my second film, I screened for him personally once, and he gave me great feedback. So, I don't know him well, but he is a very nice man who's very supportive of local talent. And I've always felt like I didn't want to impose myself, frankly. And I always, when I really admire somebody, it's hard for me to relate to them in a kind of relaxed social situation.
Cronenberg’s work almost seems to serve as a bridge between the mid-century and the late century psychic disturbance: his early films feel like Beckett or Pinter plays (there’s an element of that in films like Cube and Nothing, which are very self-contained, almost elaborate chamber pieces). What are your thoughts on his very early work, like Transfer, Crimes of the Future and Stereo?
Well, I think it's funny because it's hard to know how to attribute these things. But I do think that there's just a cultural thing that comes from growing up in the same city. And Canadians tend to be very inward looking in contrast to Americans. If you look at Canadian cinema, it tends to be quite dark and quite introspective. Actually. It feels more akin to Scandinavian cinema than it does to American cinema. Even though we're right across the border from the United States. There's actually quite a stark contrast. And I think the other aspect that comes into play is just we don't have a lot of money to make our movies with. So making a chamber piece is as much a practical solution as it is kind of an artistic imperative. And so I think I found myself in the same boat somewhat for all those reasons. But I'm sure he's influenced me, too, in that regard. I have to say The Fly was definitely an influence on Splice because I really loved how that film, which is unquestionably a creature movie, is so heavily focused on the relationship and it just makes it intensely interesting because, of course, most creature movies tend to be much more about spectacle, and the human beings very often are not that well rendered. But in his version of The Fly, the human component of it is about as emotional as any movie I've ever seen.
And then it just sort of reaches new heights because it has this creature element pasted onto it, which is, I should say, an essential part of its DNA. But that was inspirational for Splice, for me, for sure. I wanted to do a contemporary genetic version of the classic Mary Shelley Frankenstein story, but really not let the creature escape into the world, which is invariably where those stories always go, even the Mary Shelley version. And I wanted the scientists to imprison their creation and develop this kind of perverse psychosexual relationship with it. That to me was very exciting and I feel, frankly, that's very Cronenbergian, so I unquestionably took that from him.
I think there's another kind of piece of connective tissue here. I think something that separates Cronenberg from other auteurs is that he considers himself a writer first, like Truffaut and Goddard. It’s obvious from your films that there’s a depth and complexity there, and I was wondering what your literary influences are specifically? I can see elements of cosmic horror, like Lovecraft and Ligotti, but also Stephen King and the like. Anything surprising or left of centre that people might not think of?
I was lucky that I had a very special early childhood. Because, not to get too autobiographical, but my parents were divorced, but I would spend my summers with my dad, who lived in a little log cabin in upper New York State wilderness. And there was no TV, there was no town close by. Like it was very isolated. And so he read to me and that was my entertainment. And he probably read virtually all of the classics, plus the entirety of The Hobbitand The Lord of the Rings, the Chronicles of Narnia, the Cascada books. I think a lot of my literary influence, whatever they might be, came from that time. And then I remember, a very significant moment for me was when I read The Shining when I was eleven years old, the Stephen King book. And that was the first adult book, quote unquote, that I read on my own. And it really affected me. I think the Stephen King influence is absolutely there and then later, William Gibson and J.G. Ballard are very important to me.
Oh, William Gibson! I love Ballard as well. But William Gibson is interesting because the Neuromancer film has been in development hell for so many years. Do you feel that's too lofty a project to take on yourself or...
I was supposed to do it!
Oh, seriously? Oh, sorry.
No, no! I spent years working on it. Yeah, I feel like it was one of the best to be honest, one of the best scripts I ever wrote. I hope I'm not deluding myself, but I felt I had cracked the book and Gibson really liked it. Everyone liked the script, and it was just a very hard film to finance. I just couldn't raise the $100 million or $60 to $100 million that I needed to make that movie. So, yes, I don't know if this is official. Anyway, I happen to know that it is being made somewhere. I don't know if it's been announced yet, so I probably shouldn't say, but it is out there. But I have since done my own TV series based on William Gibson's book, The Peripheral, that will be coming up fairly soon through Amazon.
Yeah. I definitely stayed in the orbit of his work, and he remains very important to me.
Cool. Is there any Ballard work you would love to translate or adapt?
VN - Yeah, well, again, you're touching on the two big failures of my career! I love talking about them. The two ambitious projects that, I won't call them failures, that were never made. They were very successful to me insomuch as I felt like the scripts were great and everything was great, I just couldn't raise money for them. I couldn't raise enough. But I was going to do Ballard’s High Rise and worked on that for a long time. But there are other Ballard works that I remain interested in and continue to pursue, which I probably shouldn't even talk about. So, yeah, I think he's a genius. I feel like Ballard and Gibson are kind of related, though very different from each other. One is so consummately British and the other is very American, even though he lives in Canada. I don't know what Ballard thought of Gibson, but I know Gibson was greatly influenced by Ballard, and you can feel it. And I feel like there are two guys who really understand where we are headed. They understand the relationship between humans and technology in a way that I don't think many others have.
I was going to ask about Burroughs, again just to link it back to Cronenberg. Whenever I read William Gibson, I was reading Burning Chrome last month, and I was like, these stories are, like, super Burroughsian. And I don't know if you ever felt this?
I'm sure Burroughs is equally influential. Yes, absolutely.
How is your perspective of Hollywood as an insider? What do you think would have become of an artist like David Cronenberg had he gone to Hollywood earlier in his career?
I think he would have just come back. I think he probably knew that. He probably thought, I'm better off where I am. I think he's wise enough to know that going down that road would not suit him. That would be my guess. Famously, he was offered all these crazy movies like Top Gunor Return of the Jedi. But, yeah, he’s one of those filmmakers who has to have creative control in a way that Hollywood doesn't permit. Like there are other filmmakers I have met that fall into that category, like Terry Gillian. You just can't tame these wild beasts. It doesn't work. You either work with them or you work against them, and there's no middle ground. And that's what makes them so intensely exciting as artists, because they're utterly single minded in their purpose and they really don't know how to compromise themselves on that level. And I mean that, of course, in the best possible way. And I think he probably didn't need to go to Hollywood. That's the thing. He somehow managed to be relatively commercially viable over the years. And certainly, some of the huge hits, I think the early ones, all returned on their investment and then much more. And then as he drifted more into, for lack of a better word, arthouse cinema, he probably found himself a little more outside the commercial mainstream, but still viable. And I was so excited when the new Crimes of the Future was made.
Which leads me to my last question. I was going to ask if you'd seen it and what you thought of it.
I did see it. I saw it in Toronto. We have a cinematheque here called the Bell Lightbox, and I saw it with Cronenberg and the cast in attendance. So it was a very exciting environment to watch it in. And I thought it was amazing. That was very inspiring. To see somebody at that stage in their career doing something that is so intensely relevant and kind of more in tune with this moment than probably a lot of films made by people half his age. And that it was so, as he always is, bold and transgressive and yet emotional at the same time. I think there's a lot to unpack in that movie. I need to see it more times. But it feels like the work of a master. It just feels like every stroke, every shot in it is done with such ease and confidence that only comes from that kind of maturity as a filmmaker in its simplicity. Not to say that it's simplistic, but that it's just done with elegance. It's just very spare, to be honest. If I have a complaint about it, it's just I wish it was longer. I usually have the opposite complaint about most contemporary films. But it was outstanding. I was really looking for another 15 or 20 minutes, which is why I really need to revisit it to kind of see how I feel about that. But my first view, I was like, oh, wait, that's it. There are a few more narrative threads that were going to be tied up.
It does end very abruptly. Ends with Saul Tenser accepting that his body digests plastic. Then it kind of ends.
Exactly. Yeah. Maybe that is the best way to end it. I just felt at that time I was really involved in the story. That's why I was intensely interested in how it was all going to play out. Aside from that and a few quibbles, I really thought it was just a magnificent and utterly original film made by one person. He also had the very unique and appealing trait of not presenting any kind of clear moral perspective. I think it's interesting how much like J.G. Ballard he is here – which actually makes sense when you read Crash. He looks at human behavior from a dispassionate, almost scientific lens.
Yes. He doesn't make sort of ethical statements. He's very non-judgmental.
Exactly. Which I think is really unusual in movies, partly because I think there's a pressure on the filmmaker to make those statements to satisfy an audience. But by remaining in that kind of ambiguous realm is quite courageous of him because I think audiences are often made uncomfortable by that. Because it's looking at the human relationship with nature and how we're effectively destroying our own habitat and environment. Considering that this phenomenon might be a natural extension of our evolution and therefore not necessarily a bad thing is just refreshing and very interesting and most importantly, thought provoking. I have no idea where he stands on it and I think that's kind of great. That's sort of a question that certainly weighs heavily on me at this particular moment. So it really touched a nerve. And then I just thought this story about this man trying to kind of explain his child's death was really profound, too. Yeah. Just went in interesting directions. And the funny structure that started quite aggressively grabbed you by the lapels and dragged you into that world and then it became kind of languid and seemed to be on the verge of losing direction. But he saved it, the way he always does. A master.
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