The Dark Knight: David Cronenberg’s creepy obsessions say as much about us as they do about him

The Dark Knight: David Cronenberg’s creepy obsessions say as much about us as they do about him

In a way, David Cronenberg put me in the hospital. Last January, I attended a screening of a documentary by the filmmaker Ric Esther Bienstock about the black market buying and selling of human organs, called Tales From the Organ Trade. Bienstock had asked Cronenberg to narrate because his own films traffic in what she called “intelligent discomfort.” His enlistment was a wink, a good match for the director known as the Baron of Blood. Cronenberg, with his nasally, Vincent Price pitch, guides the audience through gruesome images of organ-emptied torsos and desperately ill patients who rinse their blood in whirring machines while awaiting new kidneys. His looming presence, associated with films about the sexual penetration of open wounds (Crash) and talking half-alien typewriters (Naked Lunch) and TV screens pulsating like O’Keeffe vagina flowers (Videodrome), doesn’t exactly lighten the mood. I fainted, then vomited, then went to the hospital in an ambulance.

It turned out to be nothing more than iron deficiency on top of low blood pressure. When I told Cronenberg about the incident a few months later, he lit up, clapping his hands and announcing: “Excellent!”

It was not, perhaps, a typical response, but I get it. In an extreme form, I had fulfilled the intention of his 40-year career: provocation, confrontation, visceral reaction. For decades, Cronenberg has been leading us—finger crooked and grinning—to look upon our grimmest, weirdest fantasies and fears in films shot almost exclusively here in Toronto. He made horror features in the 1970s when Canadian cinema was best known for realist documentaries, possibly involving owls. But he remained in Toronto, carving a Cronenberg-shaped space for himself in the Canadian arts, then filling it with mutants and fetishists and freaks, and with normal people who clearly weren’t, because if there’s one stable fact in the Cronenberg world view it’s that normal is absurd, a construct. Normal is a lie.

Now the avant-garde boy wonder has morphed into the revered veteran, our country’s most famous director. In the past dozen years, he’s received the best reviews of his career and the Order of Canada. His name on a project can attract acting’s most adored: in his 2011 movie A Dangerous Method, Viggo Mortensen played Sigmund Freud and Michael Fassbender played Carl Jung in an S&M-tinged psychosexual love story with Keira ­Knightley—three actors who form as mighty a movie star triumvirate as exists today.

Last month, the Toronto International Film Festival opened a massive retrospective called The Cronenberg Project—the first major original show that the festival has curated and presented in its new building. Cronenberg is a native son, born and raised in Toronto, and city and filmmaker have grown into sophistication side by side. The exhibit aims to cash in on his global stardom with a hit, a mass pop event—King Tut for film geeks—that will travel to galleries and theatres around the world. Along with screenings of newly struck 35 mm prints and digital ­restorations of ­Cronenberg’s body of work, fans can see an exhibition of artifacts including the Metaflesh Game Pod, the gelatinous console from the video game parable eXistenZ, and the gynecological tools for “mutant women” from Dead Ringers. TIFF curators were recently in Cronenberg’s house near Casa Loma, digging through his basement, and unearthed the leg brace that James Spader wore in Crash—a beautiful, monstrous silver clamp with spikes that chomped into his broken leg. At the centre of the exhibit will be a zone called “David Cronenberg’s Brain,” where fans can interact with footage and walk through a ­recreated set from Naked Lunch. At the same time, MOCCA is featuring six Cronenberg-inspired works commissioned to artists like Marcel Dzama and Candice Breitz.

Last March, Cronenberg turned 70. He has never been more artistically prolific. He made two films almost back to back, A  Dangerous Method and 2012’s Cosmopolis. Then he finished his first novel and spent the fall completing his 19th feature. It was a very good year.

In late May, David Cronenberg sat in a booth at the back of a Second Cup in Forest Hill Village, wearing a black Nike windbreaker and jeans, his signature shock of unfairly copious grey hair in its upright, cockatiel position. In person, he is extremely still, as if the wind avoids him. His son, ­Brandon, said of his father’s aging process: “I would say he’s gone from mellow to more mellow.” But his subdued state was shot through with a palpable frisson of pleasure. He was clearly digging this moment, smiling a lot and laughing easily. He told me, in that voice, that he had just solidified the casting of his new film, Maps to the Stars: Julianne Moore, John Cusack, Mia Wasikowska, and—in news that went viral immediately—­Robert Pattinson. Pattinson is a Cronenberg repeat, appearing in Cosmopolis as a waxen Wall Street hotshot driving around New York, waiting for the economic collapse and a haircut. Presumably many a Twihard got a funny feeling watching their huggable vampire fantasy object receive a rectal exam in the back seat of a limo.

According to the trades, Maps to the Stars is a dark comedy that takes aim at celebrity culture. Cusack plays a self-help guru and father to a 13-year-old child star just out of rehab. He also has a pyromaniac daughter, played by Wasikowska, who becomes involved with a wannabe actor cum limo driver, played by ­Pattinson. Maps is written by the brazen novelist Bruce Wagner. Michiko Kakutani at the New York Times somewhat crankily described Wagner’s most recent book, Dead Stars, as “stomach-turning, sick-making, rancid, repugnant, repellent, squalid, odious, fetid, disgusting”—those are a few of ­Cronenberg’s favourite things.

It’s been seven years since he first began trying to put together the film, a time frame that frustrates him but is also the norm. He’s had flirtations with the conventional studio system, where money arrives up front, and the director is more or less a hired hand. But his DNA is that of an independent director, and he describes getting all the pieces in place for the kind of films he wants to make as “stitching a Frankenstein quilt.”

The Dark Night: David Cronenberg’s obsessions say as much about us as they do about him
Cronenberg with Juliette Binoche and Robert Pattinson at the Cannes premiere of Cosmopolis (Image: Getty Images)

Actual filming is the smallest part of independent movie­making. Cronenberg’s office is scattered with files on movies that never were, like unborn, hypothetical children. Both Dead Ringers and A Dangerous Method took 10 years to come together. Cronenberg’s eldest daughter, Cassandra, remembers finding pieces of paper on the piano as a kid: “List of Superstars Who Rejected Me, List of Actors Who Rejected Me, List of Unknowns Who Rejected Me.” She would hear her father on the phone: “What do you mean there’s no more German funding?” Always with the German funding.

Cronenberg listed for me the investors he approached, with varying success, to get Maps paid for: billionaire individuals, a distribution company in Germany, the Canadian Feature Film Fund, eOne entertainment and on and on. Then there’s casting. Actors sniff around, claiming they want to work with the great director, but often they eventually waver. “It’s not the director, it’s the role. People are worried about their image, and how they’re perceived,” he said. “They’re afraid.”

He said this right after acknowledging that Rachel Weisz had flip-flopped on joining Maps, which meant more waiting. Moore stepped in (she plays a movie star haunted by her dead celebrity mother), and Cusack came late. Maps was scheduled to be a relatively quick and dirty 25-day shoot in Toronto; a lot of potted palm trees would help our city pass for L.A. Then the crew would go to California to shoot mostly exteriors for five days. “No one involved is making their best money on it, believe me,” Cronenberg said. The budget is roughly half that of ­Cosmopolis, around $12 million ­(Cosmopolis’ was $20 million).

These struggles are nothing new. Cronenberg’s sister, the costume designer Denise Cronenberg, recalls a film that nearly never was, 2002’s Spider, a psychological thriller with Ralph Fiennes as a schizophrenic drifter in post-war London. Denise was ­standing in a lingerie store in London, buying bras for the actor Miranda ­Richardson, days away from shooting. Her phone rang and a producer announced that the funding had collapsed, the film was dead, and she should get on a plane back to Toronto tomorrow. “David managed to save it. But these close calls happen all the time, and it’s ludicrous.” Fiennes, ­Richardson and Cronenberg himself all deferred their salaries to make sure the film got made.

The job requires Cronenberg to be as much salesman as artist. The independent film industry has shrunk alongside the economy, and to get the money to make his movies, Cronenberg must travel to festivals on the arm of his producers. “All you’re doing is having dinner with the Finnish distributor and the French distributor and the German distributor and you’re telling them how great the movie is going to be, and why they should invest in it,” he said. “It can leave me feeling like, ‘Whoa, didn’t I already make this movie?’ when I haven’t shot a foot of film yet.”

There is a little bit of humblebrag in these travails, too: the struggling artist, victorious against the soul-crushing machine of commercial moviemaking. As we talked, Cronenberg ­revisited professional obstacles like a war veteran verbally re-enacting battles. With great detail, he recalled his fights against opponents like the Canadian ratings boards, which tried to give his films an X rating in the ’70s and ’80s, and Ted Turner, who stymied the release of the 1996 film Crash because he and Jane Fonda found it distasteful. But he didn’t seem furious so much as proud, perhaps a bit hepped up on the adrenalin required to successfully manoeuvre an entire film. I asked him how it was going, in the days before Maps began to shoot, when the production offices were setting up. “Total disaster, chaos,” he said, then delivered an ear-to-ear grin. “No, not at all. The machine is well run.” The grin just sat there, swallowing the face of a man who is getting exactly what he wants.

David Cronenberg grew up on Crawford Street in the ’40s and ’50s, when what is now Little Italy was a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood. His father, Milton, had a column in the Toronto Telegram on stamp collecting and wrote true crime stories on the side, and his pianist mother, Esther, accompanied the National Ballet. David and Denise (his only sibling) both describe a childhood of science and reading, with parents who encouraged their kids in every creative endeavour. Corridors were lined with books, and his father played records all day long. For fun, Cronenberg dug around in the city’s wild, overgrown ravines, catching butterflies and pinning them on boards (he politely asked me not to make too much of the pinning part).

Milton died at 63, of a mysterious disease that affected his body’s ability to process calcium. His bones became brittle, ribs breaking if he turned over in bed. Esther died at 73, her health having slowly declined after a heart attack. Those losses, says Cronenberg, have been the greatest sadness of his life, and he thinks of his parents every day. The Jew who was raised without religion and never bar mitzvahed has a scientist’s objectivity about death, including his own. “I have a totally anti-religious understanding of things. It’s very existentialist and realistic. I don’t believe in an afterlife. When your parents die, when people you know die, when friends die, it just confirms what you thought.”

When Cronenberg started making movies in the late ’60s, Toronto was pre–CN Tower, pre–self congratulatory multi­culturalism, pre-cool. But the ’60s spirit did finally land, and while Cronenberg studied English at U of T, he became captivated by the underground film movement in the city. He remembers walking on Markham Street in the Annex and seeing a sheet hung up against a wall where a film was being projected—an impromptu film festival. He watched, cross-legged on the ground. “It was magical,” he said. “The political stuff and the excitement that things were really changing. You woke up every morning excited.” He was living in Yorkville, back when ­Yorkville connoted folk singers and speakeasies, not red carpets and offshore money. “It was, grab a camera, do your own thing, create your own art.”

The Dark Night: David Cronenberg’s obsessions say as much about us as they do about him
From left: With Mortensen at the premiere of A History of Violence; With Maria Bello and Viggo Mortensen in Los Angeles (Images: Getty Images)

One of his first movies was Crimes of the Future, a meandering, dialogue-free hour about crazed dermatologists and venereal disease shot in the Brutalist buildings of U of T’s Scarborough campus. (“Somebody said I’m ‘the king of venereal horror,’ to which I always say: Well, it’s a very small kingdom, but it’s mine.”) The movie got the attention of a Montreal production company called Cinepix, which specialized in soft-core porn that made a lot of money in Europe. They bought Cronenberg’s script for a film called Orgy of the Blood Parasites, about a penis-shaped parasite on the loose in an apartment complex. It was retitled the slightly less evocative Shivers. But Cronenberg was allowed to direct the movie, and Ivan Reitman, the future director of blockbusters like Meatballs and Ghostbusters, served as producer. Under his film critic nom de plume Marshall Delaney, Robert Fulford wrote a notoriously harsh review that landed in Saturday Night under the headline: “You Should Know How Bad This Film Is. After All, You Paid for It.” He went on to call it “an atrocity, a disgrace to everyone connected with it—including the taxpayers.”

Cronenberg gets irked, in his mild way (there’s a narrowing of the eyes, a slowing of speech), recalling Fulford’s take on that long-ago cash influx from the Canadian Film Development Corporation. He has always relied on Canada’s arts subsidies and loudly praises a system that has helped create the kind of films that could never get made in Hollywood. “That movie was the first they made that actually got any return on its investment,” Cronenberg said. “It cost $185,000 and it made $5 million. I was not only paying back the taxpayers but funding other films with the profits.”

The sniping alerted the public to the film’s existence, and when it became a hit, Cronenberg became a household name (perhaps one that’s synonymous with perversion, but still, publicity is publicity). Rather than fleeing to L.A. like Reitman eventually would, Cronenberg saw the Shivers fallout as a cue to remain in Toronto: “I found out that you can make movies here and they can make money and you can go on to make your next movie.” Big fish, meet small pond.

At this point, he was living in an apartment on Cottingham Street when the landlady, a woman in her 80s with a slipping wig and sideways lipstick, accused him of making porn films in the house. She kicked him out, but when his next movie, Rabid, became a hit, Cronenberg got revenge. “I had the first serious money in my life, and we bought the house across the road from her, which drove her insane.”

There’s something tidily symbolic about that story: the new talent infuriating the aging status quo and staking his claim in their territory. “It was the new generation taking over as artists, speaking a different language than the generation before us,” Reitman said. “David was creating a very viscerally honest, perverse and unusual look at how human beings deal with sexuality, with death, with the uncomfortable.”

For Cronenberg, amateur biologist and professional existentialist, everything starts with the body. Over and over, his stories show how the body cannot be denied; to suppress base urges and functions is to invite chaos, madness. To that end, critics have coined the term “body horror” to describe what he does. The ultimate bodily reality is, of course, death, and he is a master of dying creatively.

Here’s how you die in a David Cronenberg film: a mutant child in a snowsuit whacks you to death with a paperweight. You gene splice with a fly and your human flesh falls off, pocket by sticky pocket, until your leftover pieces are blown to bits in the teleporter you built. Or maybe your head explodes. (Deaths from, in order: The Brood, The Fly, Scanners).

Cronenberg’s films are a vast, all-you-can-eat buffet for film geeks, each one stuffed with a dissertation’s worth of post-modern theory. Videodrome, a 1983 film with a huge cult following (it sold out in a limited run at TIFF a few years ago) stars James Woods as a sleazy TV executive who falls into an underworld of snuff films, the tool of a nefarious broadcasting conspiracy. His body eventually merges with machine to the point where a cavity opens in his chest, just the right size for a VHS tape or a gun. Cronenberg’s thrall to technology has made him uncannily prescient: Videodrome anticipated virtual reality, as Scanners imagined the Internet in 1981. Jean Baudrillard, the French theorist, wrote that contemporary life is headed toward a “virtual apocalypse,” where all reality will eventually be simulated. Cronenberg has been making art out of this idea for years, and we’ve only now caught up with him, clicking across our screens at each other, existing in a hyperreal state, barely in our useless bodies. Cronenberg was imagining reality as unreality decades before The Bachelor.

But his films have periodically received the same criticism: cold. In his weakest works—the icy Cosmopolis being the most recent misstep—the emotional pulse is there, but faint, as if Cronenberg is distracted by his own wild, brilliant ideas. Watching a Cronenberg film, it can be easy to be impressed, less easy to be invested. But when he turns toward the theme of family, his work comes alive. That warmth bloomed in the 1986 film The Fly—a love story with its guts pulled out.

The Dark Night: David Cronenberg’s obsessions say as much about us as they do about him
From left: With his wife, Carolyn Zeifman; With Emily Hampshire and Sarah Gadon at Cannes (Images: Getty Images)

Mel Brooks was producing a new version of the 1950s cult film, and offered the project to Cronenberg. It was a perfect fit: the story of a scientist who, in an act of hubris, attempts to teleport himself only to discover a fly has hitched a ride, merging man and insect. He elevated the material from comic book kitsch by highlighting the relationship between man-fly Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis as a reporter. There was a poetic quest at the heart of the film, the metaphysical question of what it is to be human, to be at all. “I’m an insect who dreamt he was a man and loved it,” says Goldblum. “But now the dream is over…and the insect is awake.”

Cronenberg had his first commercial and critical success, a true crowd pleaser that earned $60 million worldwide. Rather than accept the offers that came in from Hollywood—Cronenberg was, at one time, up for Top Gun—he continued in Canada, making the twin-gynecologist thriller Dead Ringers. A film about fallopian tube miners seems almost deliberately anti–mass appeal, as if Cronenberg were declaring that he had not, by any means, gone commercial.

He returned to that rich theme of family with A History of Violence, in which Viggo Mortensen plays a husband and father who is dragged out from the perfectly constructed shadows of his bucolic small-town life to reveal a brute’s past. Mob drama aside, the film is, in some ways, a straight portrait of a living, carnal marriage, and a family under siege. It was a darling of year-end critics’ associations around the world, earning Oscar nominations for Josh Olson (Best Adapted Screenplay) and William Hurt (Best Supporting Actor). Then came another hit: Eastern Promises, in 2007, with Mortensen again as a mobster, this time a Russian in London in a lush, violent thriller that earned the actor an Oscar nomination.

Sitting in a theatre waiting for a Cronenberg movie to start is a question of letting go, giving over, because you never know what it will be; your body might respond to the bodies onscreen in the most surprising way. I came to think of my fainting in the theatre as not unlike what I get from an actual Cronenberg film: a kind of purging, a release from all normal behaviour, for one seized moment.

For Cronenberg, film isn’t autobiography or therapy, but an act of imagining the unknown, the forbidden. “Audiences come to a movie to experience another life, to take themselves out of their own life,” he said. He hinted at something godlike in the role of director. “When an actor plays a scene in which he dies, he’s rehearsing his own death. He’s saying: What would it be like to die like this, shot or stepped on by a horse? In a way, as a director, you’re doing the same thing. You’re experimenting with possibilities of life.”

While saturating myself in Cronenberg’s films for weeks, I kept trying to find traces of the man I had met. Beyond the obvious evidence of a mind that never stops churning, there isn’t an immediate connection between director and work, the kind you catch immediately in a film by Woody Allen, perpetually examining his own state of anxiety, or Martin Scorsese, tilling the Catholic soil. I recalled how Tibetan Buddhists rehearse their deaths in days-long intense meditation rituals, believing that enacting the inevitable teaches one to live more fully in the present. They arrive, then, at death unafraid, in a state of calm. This seems like a pretty good description of Cronenberg. He is a man whose work ducks nothing, which is what he demands of us, too: to never turn away. The calmness he exudes seems apt: after a life confronting death, what’s left to worry about?

There is one autobiographical film in his oeuvre: The Brood, the 1979 film featuring those aforementioned mutant children, born from a woman splitting from her husband; the monsters are a physical manifestation of the ugliness between them. At the time Cronenberg wrote the film (with gloves on because his house was unheated upstairs), he was in the middle of a terrible custody battle with his first wife, Margaret Hindson. The Brood, he said in the 1992 book Cronenberg on Cronenberg, was his version of Kramer vs. Kramer: “It got to the real nightmare, horrific, unbelievable inner life of that situation. I’m not being facetious when I say I think it’s more realistic, even more naturalistic, than Kramer.

Cassandra, the kid at the centre of the custody battle, now 41, remembers sitting by the phone in her house at age 15, waiting for a boy to call, and flipping through a movie magazine. That’s how she learned that The Brood was about her parents’ divorce. “I remember just being shocked,” she says. She wasn’t only reeling from having her life—or some mutated version of her life—made public, but it was also one of the first times she had a sense of her father’s stature. “When you’re a kid, you’re totally self-absorbed. Why would I read articles about my father? I live with the guy. I’m going to the mall with my friends.”

Cronenberg has been married to Carolyn Zeifman, his second wife, since 1979. She was a production assistant on Rabid and has since worked on many of his films. (David ­Cronenberg’s Wife is also the name of a jokey, Velvet Underground–tinted British band with 366 Facebook Likes.) They have two children, Brandon and Caitlin. It seems like a kind of Cronenberg army of artists (one would hesitate to call it a “brood”) has been unleashed in the city. In addition to designing costumes for most of ­Cronenberg’s films, Denise has worked on U.S. productions like The Incredible Hulk and Resident Evil. Cassandra has worked as an assistant director on many of her father’s movies and embarked on her own career as an experimental filmmaker, with a short at TIFF this year. Caitlin is a photographer who also shoots stills for films, some of them her father’s. ­Brandon, a Ryerson film grad, launched his first feature, Antiviral, at Cannes the same year as the elder ­Cronenberg’s ­Cosmopolis. Some of the clan descended on Cannes, and ­Caitlin shot the event for the New York Times. (There’s also Denise’s son Aaron ­Woodley, who directed the film Tennessee with Mariah Carey, and his brother, Eric, who composed the music for Antiviral.)

The Dark Night: David Cronenberg’s obsessions say as much about us as they do about him
Cronenberg with his children, Cassandra, Brandon and Caitlin, at a party celebrating Brandon’s movie, Antiviral (Image: Getty Images)

The Cronenberg invasion isn’t so different from the cobbler’s kids who grow up to cobble. Cassandra remembers falling asleep under the editing table. When Caitlin steps onto a film set today, she braces herself for the scent of sawdust that signals her childhood. Brandon remembers a baboon sitting on his lap on the set of The Fly.

The family is tight, gathering regularly for dinners and weekends at Cronenberg’s country home in Caledon. The dissonance between the family man and the freakish films he produces is often noted. “People think it must have been weird growing up in our house, and my dad must be some sort of monstrous crazy person,” says Caitlin. “But he’s just got this incredible imagination. Artists aren’t necessarily the same as their art.”

Cronenberg’s most extreme activity used to be racing vintage cars, but he stopped several years ago, once his kids grew out of visiting him at the track and pouring ice cubes down the back of his race suit. In fact, he sold his Audi R8 sports car and bought a SmartCar. “Going fast in that car is not easy,” he says. “Fifty ­kilometres an hour is an adventure.” (He recently got a ticket and told the officer he was proud of himself.)

Cassandra has two daughters, making the Baron of Blood a grandfather. She and I were in the same downtown moms’ group years ago, and I remember observing David Cronenberg in her backyard serenely eating birthday cake while dozens of screaming toddlers ran around his feet. He boasts that his oldest granddaughter is really into bugs.

In May, Cronenberg hit send on the first draft of his novel, called Consumed. Several years ago, he received an email from Nicole Winstanley, an editor at Penguin Canada, asking if he’d ever considered writing one. Publishing a book is a childhood dream realized for a self-described bibliophile who doesn’t like people to dog-ear his books. He signed the contract with Penguin, wrote over 200 pages, then left it untouched for two years while he made A Dangerous Method and Cosmopolis. Cronenberg won’t reveal the plot, but does say that the novel is not science fiction or horror, and that it touches upon aging. A few days later, he started pre-production on Maps to the Stars.

Before our morning meeting, Cronenberg had been location scouting. He was in Forest Hill and the Bridle Path, assessing mansions that might pass for the Julianne Moore character’s Malibu house. Meanwhile, Denise had been running around the city trying to find costumes for 47 characters.

A fan blog popped up tracking everything Maps, including a picture of Cronenberg’s parking spot at Cinespace, where his production offices were, and a tweet from John Cusack announcing: “Doing a Cronenberg film in Toronto—properly twisted.” When Pattinson arrived at Pearson, he brought a polka-dot shoulder bag that was mocked on gossip sites around the world.

“Rob is a really fine actor. He hasn’t been recognized that way. We said, let’s do more,” Cronenberg told me. It takes a veteran’s business savvy to enlist a star of Pattinson’s stature, though Cronenberg says he likes to repeat his actors because he wants to work with people who are easy, a lot of laughs. “You’ve got to have a playfulness, a lightness,” he says. “Also, not being an asshole or a drug addict really helps.”

Over the years, Cronenberg perfected his mode with actors. He never uses storyboards or rehearses. “I don’t think it helps,” he said. Instead, he brings in the actor, and they block the scene together, the actor shaping the moment, the crew coming in later.

The Dark Night: David Cronenberg’s obsessions say as much about us as they do about him
From left: At age 18; At age 10, on Crawford Street (Images: courtesy David Cronenberg)

Sarah Gadon, the cool blonde Toronto actor, has starred in three Cronenberg movies: A Dangerous Method, Cosmopolis and now Maps to the Stars. She says that a Cronenberg movie spoils an actor. “David just wants you to lay bare what you have. There’s no chaos or insanity. I had no idea that you can make movies in such a calm way, that you could finish at a reasonable hour.”

His sets are notoriously harmonious. Carol Spier, his production designer since 1979, racks her memory for an instance of Cronenberg losing his cool. Finally, she tells me a story about a late night working on The Brood (a movie so gory that cast members wore shirts reading “More Blood! More Blood!”—a phrase Cronenberg was known to shout on set). The crew was tired and worn out, and someone discovered a hunk of plasticine. Everyone began making little plasticine figures of themselves: a boom man with a microphone, a camera operator with a tiny camera. ­Cronenberg thought they were losing focus. “That’s the only time I saw him getting annoyed.” Did he throw a chair? “No.” Scream? “Oh no. Even when he’s annoyed, he does it in a very polite way.”

The crew remains largely the same from film to film, depending on availability—a “family,” he says, that includes Spier, cinematographer Peter Suschitzky and Lord of the Rings composer Howard Shore. This particular family knows how to make movies cheaply and on time, but when Cronenberg worked on The Fly, one of the American producers kept suggesting he’d get a better movie if he threatened to fire his crew: “You’ve got to keep them on their toes!” To which Cronenberg said: “This isn’t Hollywood, you know. You actually have to have a reason to fire the person.”

Cronenberg stayed in Canada because he can make the films he wants to make here. Still, he circles L.A., touches down from time to time. He came close to directing Basic Instinct 2, but producers wanted him to replace the crew he’s been working with for 35 years, which killed the deal. A History of Violence was made with New Line, and just as the studio was getting queasy about early feedback from test audiences, the film got a 25-minute standing ovation at Cannes, so they left him alone.

A few years ago, Cronenberg almost made a huge action film called The Matarese Circle. His script was based on a paranoia-driven spy thriller by Robert Ludlum, and Tom Cruise invited the director to his house to discuss it. (Cruise said Cronenberg’s script was a gift to an actor.) Cronenberg met with Denzel Washington’s people, too, and things looked pretty good, but then MGM went belly up.

Still, he doesn’t rule out the $120-million Big Movie. “It’s something I really would want to do, but it’s hard for a producer to sell me as a director. Because of History of Violence and Eastern Promises, I’m not as hard a sell as I used to be.” He pauses, and says lightly: “The last couple of movies will probably kill that.” (­Cosmopolis received lukewarm reviews and earned only $6 million worldwide.)

If he never does make that blockbuster, Cronenberg will leave a ­different legacy. He forged a kind of filmmaking blueprint that Canadian directors like Atom Egoyan and ­Patricia Rozema use, too: dipping into U.S. and foreign money from time to time, but taking advantage of our grants and tax breaks, and staying put. “He’s been able to construct a methodology for getting his films made and his vision told in his own way,” says Reitman. “His ideas are not easy, and they’re not commercial ideas. There would be little interest in what he does in a major studio, particularly in the last 10 years, when everybody has a hard time getting anything made that’s not a comic book.”

There was a time when Toronto’s Eastern Avenue wasn’t lined with studios, when we didn’t make our way around American movie trailers blocking our streets or snap pictures of celebrities in our coffee shops. In the not-so-distant past, there was only a small homegrown or imported film scene. No Egoyan, Don McKellar, Sarah Polley. No Canadian Film Centre. No TIFF. Cronenberg came first. Of all the worlds he’s imagined, the one that features Toronto as an epicentre for film is the one that might endure the longest.

A few weeks after our coffee, I was in the TIFF Lightbox building on King Street, looking at some of the artifacts that will be displayed in The Cronenberg Project. As workers pounded the walls, getting ready to install “David Cronenberg’s Brain,” a curator with gloves showed me the slimy-looking umbilical cord console plug from eXistenZ, and a mutilated hand from The Fly. I stopped for a long time at the Clark Nova typewriter bug from Naked Lunch, a creature with wings and blue eyes, as big as a breadbox. It’s a normal object made uncanny and ­beautiful. And then, on top, is an orifice of some kind, thick and soft. It’s so many things at once that I had to look at it over and over to make sense of what I was seeing. I got a little queasy, and I knew Cronenberg was smiling.