A FATAL OBSESSION
THE MAD SCIENTIST OF CANADIAN FILM, GOES BEYOND HORROR WITH DEAD RINGERS
One spring day in the late 1970s, David Cronenberg took a bad jump while racing a dirt bike and flew over the handlebars. At the hospital, a doctor prepared to fasten his shoulder back together with a long pin that, as Cronenberg recalls, looked like an aluminum eaves-trough nail. But the patient refused a general anesthetic, saying that he would prefer to stay awake. When the surgeon asked whether he could stomach watching his own surgery, Cronenberg replied, “Do you know what kind of movies I make?” The Canadian director has built an international career out of making people squeamish. In films ranging from 1975’s Shivers to 1986’s The Fly, his characters turn literally inside out, their bodies erupting or imploding with wild mutations of the flesh. But his latest movie, starring Jeremy Irons and Geneviève Bujold, marks a radical departure. Dead Ringers, which premièred last week as the opening film of Toronto’s Festival of Festivals, is not a horror movie. Yet it is deeply disturbing—a serenely executed psychological drama with a macabre edge (review, page 52).
Dealing with gynecology, drug abuse, insanity and the phenomenon of identical twins, Dead Ringers ventures onto some highly unusual terrain. Loosely based on the 1977 novel Twins, by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland, the story echoes a bizarre real-life tragedy—the 1975 joint suicide of twin gynecologists in New York City. Despite Cronenberg’s reputation as a bankable director, the major Hollywood studios refused to finance such an unconventional story. It became a Canadian movie by default, as producers Cronenberg and his Toronto-based partner, Marc Boyman, were forced to raise the money themselves.
In fact, Dead Ringers represents a landmark in Canadian film-making. With a budget of $13 million—and another $7 million devoted to advertising and distribution—it is the most expensive independent production ever based in Canada. Opening on 750 screens across North America on Sept. 23, with worldwide distribution guaranteed, it will become the most widely released movie in the country’s film-making history.
Just as Hollywood’s studio executives were too nervous to get involved, Cronenberg had trouble finding a leading man for Dead Ringers. One Hollywood star after another turned him down, despite the Canadian director’s obvious talent. His previous film, The Fly, drew critical raves and earned $100 million at the box office, making it one of the most successful horror pictures of all time. What seems to have scared off most of them was the notion of portraying two gynecologists—identical twins—who share the same lover, abuse prescription drugs and become equal partners in schizophrenic doom.
The role was clearly unflattering. But Britain’s Jeremy Irons, who starred in the television series Brideshead Revisited and the 1981 film The French Lieutenant’s Woman, decided to risk it. And he has achieved such astonishing results that Hollywood insiders have touted him as an Oscar contender even before the movie’s release.
In London last week, filming a children’s movie, Irons admitted that he had reservations about Dead Ringers when he first read the script. “I was worried by
the possibility of bad taste throughout it,” he told Maclean’s. “I thought it could be handled wrongly. I happen to have a female agent, and a female wife, and they found the whole situation of gynecologists taking advantage of their patients very distasteful and very alarming—it’s many women’s nightmare.” But after meeting the director, added Irons, he was convinced of his integrity. “I liked him as a man,” he said, “and I communicated well with him.”
Cronenberg’s inspiration to make Dead Ringers dates back to 1975, when he was intrigued by news stories about the real twins’ suicide in New York. Eminent gynecologists Cyril and Stewart Marcus shared a thriving practice, a luxury Manhattan apartment and a fatal addiction to barbiturates.
According to witnesses, during the months before the twins’ joint suicide at age 45, they were so addled by drugs that, while performing surgery, they could hardly stand up.
Like the Marcus brothers, the twins in Dead Ringers,
Beverly and Elliot Mantle, live, work and degenerate together. But the movie—coscripted by Cronenberg and Toronto writer Norman Snider—contains surreal dimensions absent from both the true story and the novel. “To re-create something doesn’t really excite me,” said Cronenberg. “I want to be
able to invent.” Among his bolder inventions are the scarlet gowns that his surgical team wears, like ecclesiastical robes, in the operating room. “The look of a normal operating room absolutely bores me to tears,” ex-
plained the director. “I wanted the doctors to be like priests and cardinals.” For Beverly, gynecology becomes a sacred calling, a perverse ritual of the flesh.
Understandably, Cronenberg has had to fend off suspicions that his motives were prurient. Geneviève Bujold hesitated to accept the role of Claire, the actress who becomes involved with the twins. “Imagine her reading the script,” said Cronenberg. “In her first scene, she’s on a gynecological table with her legs up and she’s being examined. She has to wonder, ‘How am I going to handle that? Where’s the camera going to be?’ ” Bujold agreed to work for Cronenberg only after he had met with her and explained exactly how such scenes would be filmed.
As Claire, Bujold plays a ornature movie star who is sexually submissive and cyn5 ical about a career that has £ come to consist of roles in 2 TV mini-series. Irons said I that he found Bujold “fasci-
nating” to work with. “In the script,” he added, “her part read like a typical stupid actress. And she brought a great sort of class and quirkiness to what could have been a very two-dimensional character.”
Cronenberg cast both Irons and Bujold in 1987. But that was only half the battle in making the movie. Three weeks before filming was scheduled to begin in Toronto, his main investor, Hollywood producer Dino De Laurentiis, encountered financial problems that forced him to pull out. With $300,000 worth of sets sitting in a rented Toronto warehouse and a cast and crew ready to work, Cronenberg suddenly had no budget. Seeking a new backer, he approached each of the Hollywood studios—without success. “They were worried that it would be too controversial,” recalled Cronenberg. “At one studio someone said: ‘Do they have to be gynecologists? Couldn’t they be lawyers?’ And I said, ‘If you think they have to be lawyers, then you don’t understand this project and shouldn’t be involved in it.’ ”
Without studio backing, Cronenberg and Boyman had to spend seven months cobbling together their $ 13-million budget from a diverse range of sources. The federal funding agency Telefilm Canada provided $1.5 million. Another $1 million came from Torontobased Astral Films—the largest sum ever advanced by a Canadian distribution company. Morgan Creek Productions, a newly created independent company based in Los Angeles, became the principal investor, arranging U.S. distribution through 20th Century-Fox. The balance of the budget came from a lucrative video cassette deal and from British-based Rank Film Distributors, which will release the movie outside North America.
The 11-week shoot presented a formidable technical challenge. To portray the two twins simultaneously onscreen, the film-makers developed a sophisticated version of the old split-screen method used for TV’s Patty Duke Show. Usually that technique requires the camera to remain stationary while filming one twin, and then the other, so that the two images match when they are merged. But Dead Ringers used a moving camera with a computer memory that allowed it to repeat exactly the same trajectory in different shots, creating a much more convincing effect. The technique is so unobtrusive that the viewer soon forgets about it, accepting the twins as separate characters.
Aside from the technology, what makes the illusion so persuasive is the mastery that Irons brings to his dual roles. Because of the technical considerations, said Cronenberg, the job required unusual precision and consistency. “I was asking for an instinctive emotional response—but totally controlled,” explained the director. In scenes of dialogue between the twins, Irons had to deliver his lines to a double, then switch places, taking care to assume the double’s exact position. “It was a great acting challenge,” said Irons. “It is very interesting to try and create a chemistry onscreen between oneself and oneself. The two characters became very sepa-
rate to me, with very different energies.”
Traditionally, Hollywood has portrayed twins as polar opposites—tricking the audience in comedies of mistaken identity and shocking them in soap-opera endings. But Cronenberg said that he wanted to avoid easy stereotypes. Beverly is portrayed as the weaker, more sensitive brother, while Elliot is confident and cynical. Impersonating each other on occasion, Elliot seduces women on Beverly’s behalf, then lets him take over. But Beverly’s deepening involvement with Claire—who introduces him to drugs—upsets the twins’ cozy harmony. And as Elliot is sucked into the slipstream of Beverly’s rapid degeneration, their distinct identities begin to dissolve. On a psychological level, the brothers are as inseparable as Siamese twins.
In fact, the film-makers did some of their own research into identical twins.
Coproducer Boyman visited a large research project in Minneapolis, where he interviewed six sets of identical twins. “It was freaky,” he said. “Every one of them said their ideal was to meet and marry identical twins of the opposite sex.”
They also admitted that they often feel closer to their twin than to their mate. Added Boyman:
“They told me it is the closest relationship that can happen between two people.”
Before filming, Cronenberg gave Irons several books as background, including one about the original Siamese twins, Chang and Eng. He also handed his star a thick gynecol-
ogy textbook. But concern for authenticity did not prevent the director from modifying medical science to suit his artistic vision. When Claire is examined at the twins’ fertility clinic, she is told she cannot bear children because she has a “trifurcated” uterus— three wombs in one. Although there have been cases of bifurcated wombs, doctors have never reported a trifurcated one. “They like to tell me it’s impossible,” said Cronen-
berg. “I say, with all the drugs and radioactivity in the air, everything is possible.”
In Cronenberg, there is the glint of the mad scientist, the Faustian figure tempted to push the frontiers of human knowledge into the danger zone. His movies are full of over-
reaching individuals trying to alter the course of biological destiny—usually with catastrophic results. In The Fly, a renegade scientist makes the mistake of crossing his genes with those of a housefly. “I identify with the geniuses and crazy people of science,” said Cronenberg. “I’m intrigued by our unwillingness to accept anything. We want to transform what we are, to mutate it. We examine our body as a machine and see that it is defective somehow.”
The spectacle of defective flesh in Cronenberg movies is often horrifying, but he insists that he is not trying to manipulate his audience. “I’m sharing the experience,” he said. “If you think of yourself as a puppet master, the way [director Alfred] Hitchcock did, then you are trying to shock, scare, manipulate. But for me, it is much more like waking up from a bad dream and saying, 'I’ve got to tell somebody this.’ ”
Despite his nightmarish obsessions, Cronenberg says that his Toronto childhood was not traumatic. “It was very warm, very loving,” he recalled. He speculates that his interest in horror was a natural reaction to conservative times. “The Eisenhower era was very repressed,” he said. “It did foster a desire to get below the surface and to explore some of the more messy, primordial
things in life.”
Cronenberg’s father, Milton Cronenberg, wrote the Toronto Telegram stamp column for 25 years. His mother, Esther, was a professional pianist. Both parents are now dead, and he has an older sister, Denise, who
latest movies. Cronenberg studied science at the University of Toronto, but soon switched to English literature. There, he met Ringers co-writer Snider. Recalled Snider: “David was different—in the 1960s, everyone else was into back-to-the-earth ideas. He was entranced by science and technology.”
In the late 1960s, Cronenberg made his first 35-mm films, Stereo and Crimes of the Future, establishing a science-fiction approach to sex and death that recurs constantly in his later work. His first commercial feature, 1975’s Shivers, is about parasites that invade human orifices. It was followed by Rabid, starring former pornography star Marilyn Chambers as a vampire; The Brood, in which a woman gives birth to deformed, bloodthirsty children; and Scanners, a story of telepathy and exploding heads. While Cronenberg developed an international cult audience, his box-office success allowed him to command larger budgets. De Laurentiis gave him $10 million to film Stephen King’s novel The Dead Zone in 1983. Then, with the phenomenal popularity of The Fly, Hollywood began to regard Cronenberg as one of North America’s hottest directors.
Despite his success, he has remained steadfastly loyal to his artistic vision. He turned down offers to direct a number of Hollywood movies, including Flashdance, Top Gun and Good Morning Vietnam. And Cronenberg says that he has no interest in creating light, escapist fare. “A lot of people want movies that are like a bland meal,” he said. "They need to eat, but they don’t want to eat anything too amazing. If I’m going to spend a year of my life making a movie, it has to be something real, something that hasn’t been gotten at before.”
No serious movie has ever before focused on gynecology. And the field seems lertile
ground for Cronenberg’s preoccupation with science, sex and disease—in The Fly, he made a cameo appearance as a gynecologist delivering a monstrous, insect-like fetus. Although Dead Ringers is not a horror picture, it grapples with male fear of women’s sexuality. The twins’ clinical fascination with the female body masks an irrational terror. When Claire breaks through that detachment, she threatens to destroy the ultimate male bond. Indeed, in a dream sequence, Beverly imagines that he and Elliot are umbilically connected by a grotesque pulsating cord—which Claire tries to sever. It is the film’s only gruesome special effect, a homage to the director’s own horror films, as if to assure the audience that he has not gone soft.
Cronenberg defends his explorations of taboo subjects like a researcher on the trail of a major discovery. “Every audience wants to see forbidden things,” he said, “things that they wouldn’t allow themselves to imagine.” That approach clearly sets him apart from other directors in Canada, where the documentary tradition has left a legacy of social realism. Said Piers Handling, chief programmer at the Toronto Festival of Festivals and editor of an academic study on Cronenberg: “He is the only major film-maker in English Canada to resist the realist impulse, to look in a very conscious way beyond the surface of life. With Dead Ringers, you feel he’s gone so far—into dreams he didn’t even want to have.” But he added: “David’s fatalistic vision is very Canadian. He has an extraordinary sense of landscape and space—he is fascinated with the deadness of modern architecture and the schizophrenia of humans living in it.”
For Cronenberg, society’s repression is ultimately more horrifying than any of the
creatures spawned by the imagination. He is a vociferous opponent of censorship—“It’s the banality of evil,” he said. Indeed, he goes out of his way to avoid banality. Although he is married with three children, aged 3 to 16, he also enjoys driving a racing car around a track at dangerously high speeds. He calls it “my other obsession.” And when anyone tries to pigeonhole him as a shock-meister, he points to Fast Company, his 1978 movie about drag racing. Cronenberg keeps five vintage racing cars at his farm—including two 30-year-old Formula One Coopers—and he races them at speeds of up to 160 m.p.h. on the amateur circuit. He also owns half a dozen motorcycles.
As a film-maker, Cronenberg has exhausted some of his wilder impulses. Special effects, he says, are beginning to bore him. With Dead Ringers, the mad scientist of Canadian cinema has clearly turned a comer. The movie may disappoint horror fans looking for a fast ride and a good scare. But it could win respect from viewers who have never dared to go to his movies before. David Cronenberg is now driving in a different class—but with his obsessions intact and both hands firmly on the wheel.
BRIAN D. JOHNSON