A man in a brown suit sits hunched on a beach beside the splintered hull of an overturned boat. His arms are clutched tightly around his body. His face glistens with a cold sweat as he fumbles with a vial of drugs. Behind him stretches a desert landscape of Bedouin tents, sedentary Arabs and a camel that hunkers sphinxlike in the sand. In the distance, through the iron grillwork of a Moroccan archway, sunrise casts an orange glow over the sea. In reality, however, it is a cold, grey day in Toronto. The desert consists of 700 tons of sand heaped on the floor of a former munitions factory. The ocean is a backlit photograph. And the camel is a zoo-born beast named Clementine, a $l,000-a-day extra enjoying her first glimpse of the “desert.” That was the scene last week on the set of Canadian director David Cronenberg’s new movie, Naked Lunch. But the film’s real setting is neither North Africa nor Toronto: it is a place in the mind of a writer who never leaves Manhattan—a hallucinatory world called Interzone.
The writer is the man in the brown suit, portrayed by American actor Peter Weller, star of the RoboCop science-fiction thrillers. Called Bill Lee, he is a fictionalized version of the American novelist William S. Burroughs, author of the enormously controversial Naked Lunch (1959). At first glance, that incendiary masterpiece seems unlikely material for a movie adaptation. An inside story of drug addiction, the book has no coherent plot. Its narrative alternates between delirium and manifesto,
cutting from hot-blooded hallucination to icy satire. Its graphic scenes of homosexuality, orgasmic murder and dismemberment are unfilmable, even by contemporary standards.
But Cronenberg has not attempted a literal translation of Naked Lunch, which he says “would cost $400 million and be banned in every country in the world.”
Instead, he explained during a break in last week’s filming,
“I’m doing it metaphorically.
I have a lot of sexy rubber in this movie. And I don’t mean underwear. I mean creatures that are kind of sexy and embody the sexuality of the characters.” Centipedes figure prominently in the movie—including a man-sized wriggler that envelopes a teenage boy.
Cronenberg, 48, has made a career out of defying the limitations of moviemaking.
He portrayed exploding heads in Scanners (1981), a human insect in The Fly (1986) and drug-addicted, suicidal gynecologist twins in Dead Ringers (1988). He is, in fact, a supremely logical candidate to translate Burroughs to the screen. In their work, both artists are obsessed with insects, viruses, mind control and helter-skelter mutations of the flesh. They
have both explored the surreal headwaters of biological horror. And while visiting the set in Toronto last month, Burroughs, 77, recalled that when he first heard of Cronenberg’s interest in filming Naked Lunch, “I thought, well, he’s the one that can do it if anyone can.”
The director, meanwhile, says that Burroughs has been a major influence on him since he was an aspiring, adolescent novelist. Cronenberg, who first met the author seven years ago, has been trying to make Naked Lunch since 1980, when he initiated the project with British producer Jeremy Thomas, who made the Oscar-winning China epic The Last Emperor. In 1985, they travelled with Burroughs to g Tangier, Morocco, where the author wrote § much of the novel. And in 1989, Cronenberg I wrote a script that Burroughs eagerly en£ dorsed. Meanwhile, with Toronto-based proS ducer Gabriella Martinella, Thomas found in! dependent financing for a $ 19-million coproduction between Canada and Britain.
The film-makers had planned to shoot in Tangier. But with the outbreak of the Gulf War, the political climate in Morocco became volatile. Cronenberg hastily rewrote the script to allow all filming to take place in Toronto, where the three-month shoot ends on April 20. And now, the director says that the change in location improved the movie. “We were seduced by Tangier,” he said. “But Interzone is really meant to be a state of mind. Rewriting the script took it that one extra step.”
The movie, for release next winter, dramatizes the act of writing Naked Lunch, the novel. Six of its characters, including Lee, are writers. “The film is about writing,” said Cronenberg. “It moves back from the page to include the writer and his typewriter—typewriters are big characters in the movie.” In fact, typewriter creatures are among the movie’s special effects. The film-makers also use puppetry to create the “mugwumps” of the novel. Said Cronenberg: “They’re these other-planet kind of lizard-human creatures. And there are people addicted to mugwump jism, this fluid that they secrete.”
Unlike the novel, the movie makes no mention of heroin. “I didn’t want it to be a drug movie in the normal sense,” explained Cronenberg. All the drugs in the movie are fictional. They range from mugwump jism to “the meat of the black Brazilian aquatic centipede,” which are both described in the novel. The movie’s Bill Lee, meanwhile, works as a bug exterminator (as Burroughs once did) and becomes addicted to his own exterminating powder. “That’s my invention,” said Cronenberg. “Burroughs liked it a lot.”
On the Naked Lunch set, the director looked a little like an exterminator himself. Along with everyone else in the crew, he wore a white paper mask over his mouth and nose to block
the dust raised by the manmade desert. As filming resumed, Lee (Weller) went back to his place in the sand. A crew member sprayed his face with fake sweat. Another fanned him gently with a board to simulate a breeze. Calls for silence ricocheted around the set. The camera rolled, and with a soft voice, Cronenberg said: “Action.”
Weller summoned up a deep, racking cough. As his saliva dripped to the sand, he looked up to see a debonair man in an ice-cream suit, a character named Yves played by British actor Julian Sands. “Enjoying the beach?” said Yves. “I never would have expected to see you up so early.” It was a brief encounter, but the actors ran through at least a dozen takes. Later in the day, Weller was performing a similar scene, in which he lies half-buried in sand. The backdrop had been changed to a moonlit night. A donkey had replaced the camel. And Arab extras sat around a campfire and mimed conversation.
During a break, the actor returned to his trailer. He dusted off his suit and poured the sand out of his shoes. But, still wearing his 1950s fedora, he seemed to remain in character. He is an intense presence, with gaunt cheeks and piercing blue eyes. Smoking a huge cigar and swigging from a litre of mineral water, he said: “I’ve been a fan of Naked Lunch for a long time. Initially, what attracted me is that it was the great novel of disobedience. Nowadays when I read it, it’s more a prophetic novel of sadness and horror.”
Indeed, the book foreshadows the AIDS epidemic. It predicted that “a real dilly of a VD” would origmate in Africa and afflict homosexuals. The Jules Verne of social decay, Burroughs also foresaw current trends in cosmetic surgery and the wide-scale abuse of rapidly addictive drugs. “All this has come to pass,” said Weller, who met extensively with Burroughs before shooting began. “We talked about pistols and governments and addictions and drugs and art. And about how criminalizing drug addiction is ongoing lunacy, creating criminals out of people who are sick.”
Weller describes Naked Lunch as a movie about “addiction, loss and freedom.” His character is trying to exorcise his guilt over killing his wife, Joan, who is played by Australian actress Judy Davis. (Burroughs accidentally killed his wife with a handgun in 1951.) “It’s like an exorcism for me, as well,” said Weller. “I’ve had a disturbing year.” Refusing to elaborate, he added: “I’m not going to tell you a God damned thing about my personal life.”
But Weller talked enthusiastically about Cronenberg, whom he described as “a gifted, gifted man.” To make Naked Lunch, the actor turned down a lucrative offer to star in RoboCop III, which is now being filmed in Atlanta. “Instead, I’m freezing my butt off in Toronto doing a movie about an aging drug addict homosexual who killed his wife. But I’d rather be doing this than any other movie I can think of.” Weller drained the last of the mineral water, dropped his cigar stub into the bottle and prepared to go back to the desert.
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