Q·Q with Tom Power

David Cronenberg on Crimes of the Future and why he sees body horror as 'the body beautiful'

Canadian director David Cronenberg has never been afraid to challenge his audience with grotesque or graphic themes. But behind every scene are deeper questions about the human condition. In an interview with Q’s Tom Power, he spoke about his latest project, Crimes of the Future.

The director spoke with Q’s Tom Power about his latest film and what it says about the human condition

Canadian director David Cronenberg has never been afraid to challenge his audience with grotesque or graphic themes. But behind every scene are deeper questions about the human condition. (Caitlin Cronenberg)

David Cronenberg's latest film, Crimes of the Future, finds the Canadian director revisiting the body horror genre that he helped pioneer with films like Shivers, Videodrome and Dead Ringers.

But in an interview with Q's Tom Power, Cronenberg said he would never use the term body horror to describe his work, despite the obvious through line of bodily transformation, strange viruses and humanity merging with technology. "For me, it's not horrific," he said. "It's the body beautiful or something, not body horror."

Crimes of the Future is set in a world in which humans are in the next stage of evolution, bodies are mutating, surgery is the new sex and many no longer feel pain.

It tells the story of a performance artist named Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) who grows bizarre new organs that his partner Caprice (Léa Seydoux) removes surgically onstage in front of a live audience. Cronenberg said this aspect of the film is something he can relate to as an artist.

"In this movie, Viggo literally, his character, is giving the insides of his body to his audience as a representation of his creativity — a physical embodiment of it," he told Power. "And I'm thinking, 'Yeah, well, I sort of feel like that myself.' I mean, that is you are opening yourself up … and you're risking everything that you are when you do that."

WATCH | David Cronenberg's full interview with Tom Power:

Body is reality

Crimes of the Future features the line "body is reality," which for Cronenberg isn't just a catchy phrase, but also a philosophy. As an atheist and existentialist, he believes the body is the essence of human existence and when we die, we simply disappear.

For me, the body is the essential fact of the human condition.- David Cronenberg

In the same way he considers body horror a misnomer, the director sees his work as realistic rather than dark.

"If you're an existentialist, it means that you're accepting death as a reality and oblivion as a reality and non-existence as a reality," he told Power. "These are very, very hard things for people to accept, understandably. And so to me, is that the dark side? No, it's the realistic side."

The decision to make the film's main characters performance artists came from an interest Cronenberg had in performance art — particularly body art — in the late '90s and early '00s.

"I thought, 'OK, that's incredible dedication,' I mean, because a lot of the things that they were doing — surgeries and whatever — were irreversible," he said. "So you were really committing yourself in your most essential self. And for me, the body is the essential fact of the human condition."

Cronenberg said it's natural that he'd want to explore the "essence of what we are" because the human condition is the subject of all art. "All art is an examination of the human condition from whatever perspective you happen to choose," he told Power.

David Cronenberg in conversation with Tom Power in the Q studio in Toronto. (Christy Kim/CBC)

Having written the script for Crimes of the Future around 1998, Cronenberg thought the story would be irrelevant today given the rapid pace of technological advancement in the last few decades, but his good friend, producer Robert Lantos, convinced him the subject matter was "more relevant than ever."

For Cronenberg, technology has always been "ultra-human and a complete extension of what we are" — something that becomes a part of us for better or worse.

As he nears 80, he said the idea of the body merging with technology has become a reality for him personally, as he had cataract surgery not long ago and also uses hearing aids.

"I am bionically enhanced already and … it produces literally a different reality, no fooling, for real," said Cronenberg. "That just confirms my anticipation of what it would be like to change yourself in terms of, you know, body morphism, transmorphism and so on.…

"Anybody who's had surgery and had things removed, had a hernia operation, had their gallbladder removed, they are, you know, they're changing their body and they're changing their reality."

The full interview with David Cronenberg is available on our podcast, Q with Tom Power. He also spoke about some of the Hollywood blockbusters he's turned down and what happened when someone from George Lucas's team gave him a call one day. Listen and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

Written by Vivian Rashotte. Interview produced by Vanessa Greco.