Photo credit: Myrna Suarez / Simon & Schuster
During a pivotal Skype conversation in the book, the call crashes. The character describes looking at a digital vacuum on the screen created by the pixelated ghost image and the standard, cosmic Mac desktop image. It reminds me of Jean-François Gautier’s Does the Universe Exist?, in which he states that a galaxy can be observed, but the universe cannot. The observer is never truly objective or separate. Is the Internet overreaching in that it’s an attempt at categorizing an unquantifiable whole?
I’ve always felt that technology is us. Technology are us. In the 1950s, all the sci-fi stories were about how dehumanizing technology was and how soul-destroying. But in fact, it’s an extension of us. I’m talking to you on the phone, the phone is an extension of my ear and my voice, to that extension is an extension of my neurological system. All technology comes from human beings — from their creative imagination and so on. Therefore, it embodies all that is good and bad in us — from the most horrifying war machines to the most beautiful creations possible. I don’t really see it as being separate from us and molding us from outer space. We have seized control of our own evolution without perhaps being conscious of it and without perhaps having an end goal in mind. We no longer live in nature, where we are formed by the environment and against the environment. When it’s cold, we create fire to keep us warm. Now we can recreate fire in almost all of our environments — and therefore, we derailed what would have been considered natural evolution to a sort of techno evolution of us. Is that bad? Is it good? Well, it’s both of those things.
Consumed has this great mischievous sense of humor that is often overlooked in your movies in favor of the visceral. I’m thinking of things like the verbal and intellectual sparring in A Dangerous Method, or your casting choice in Rabid [porn star Marilyn Chambers]. In the book, there is some clever word play. You also make a humorous self-reference, labeling one of Naomi’s computer folders “body horror.” Can you talk more about balancing the humorous and menacing?
It’s part of my response to the freedom and intimacy of the novel form, which I don’t find in the film form. One of the reasons I wanted to write a novel was: Do I have a literary voice? Do I have a prose voice? And if so, what is that voice? The only way you can discover that is to write and to let it flow in a natural way without a preconception of what you should be writing or what people expect you to write based on your movies. You have to forget all that stuff and just relate directly to your own head, which is part of the intriguing wonderfulness of writing for days and days and days. You can play that sort of game with yourself. It just arises organically out of the desire to create a narrative and to have characters who come alive, who feel physically and intellectually as though they exist to the reader.
In the book, there’s a memorable scene where Naomi takes Aristide Arosteguy’s (Ari’s) photo. He invites her to capture inside “the mouth of the cannibal” by stretching his cheek open to one side with his finger. Naomi describes it as grotesque and perverse. The passage startled me, because there’s a photograph of you on the cover of a different book [David Cronenberg: Interviews with Serge Grunberg] doing the same thing. Do you want to talk about any parallels?
Aha! You’ve caught me. That is exactly what happened. That was what the photographer wanted me to do. I did feel that it was a very perversely intimate kind of thing he was asking me to do. But it was also inventive and surprising. That’s part of the cannibalizing I’m talking about. That occurred to this character, but the character is not me. That’s the kind of thing you can do in a novel. You can do it to a certain extent in a movie, yes, but not so fully. Because you can give physical characteristics to people you know to some of the characters in your book. So it’s not really immediately transferable to what you do in a movie.
In that same book of interviews, you discussed a difficult period in your personal life that coincided with writing The Brood [a divorce and child custody battle]. You talked about your compulsion to write The Brood and how that experience was unusual for you since your writing usually comes from a more intuitive, creative, fantastical place. You said that it was the closest you ever came to your autobiographical first novel. Do you still feel that’s true?
In a way, Consumed could be a kind of intellectual autobiography, and it would be very obscure to follow the twists and turns of that. It’s certainly my response to real people in the book embodied by certain characters, but it’s not what people would normally think of as autobiography. And of course The Brood technically being a horror-fantasy on some levels, there’s not a lot of biography either. But it’s true that was the movie that was closest to me compared to all the other films I’ve made. Perhaps the novel Consumed in some ways is the next closest to me, but it is because of that intimacy that I was talking about.
In Consumed, you take on a new form of “parajournalism.” You describe parajournalism as an artistic collaboration. The other collaborations in the book involve a type of parasitic roleplay — as in the scene where Ari breathes into Naomi’s mouth or has her act out a surgical procedure. Do you characterize the relationship between the subject and journalist as a form of collaboration or does it feel more invasive to you?
It can be almost anything (laughs). Certainly I mentioned the old New Journalism that Tom Wolfe promoted: the idea that the journalist becomes partly the subject of everything he or she writes, that he should be a real performer, that he should shape the narrative, and that mixing in some fantasy and fiction was OK. I think that Naomi and Nathan are too timid to pursue it aggressively, but they’re kind of doing it anyway — almost accidentally they’re getting involved with the lives of their subjects. And they are aware that there’s a sort of historical precedent in journalistic theory about New Journalism that maybe gives them support for what they’re doing.
But really there’s almost a Henry James element here, in which you have naïve North Americans getting involved with cynical, sophisticated Europeans. And although times have changed, I still think there’s a little bit of that, and it’s accurate. I’m not really saying this is what all journalism is or should be, and I’m not even saying that’s been my experience of journalism — because, actually, I’ve never had anyone be that invasive or involved in my life as a journalist. In fact, one of the reasons I don’t have a Facebook page or I don’t Twitter is because I don’t really want to be that accessible, frankly (laughs).
Right now everyone is talking about seeing Ben Affleck’s penis in Gone Girl. But you’ve already featured full-frontal male nudity in Eastern Promises…
And in Maps to the Stars. There’s very definitely male frontal masturbatory stuff in that movie as well.
Yes. It’s still one of cinema’s last taboos. You address a more aggressive taboo in the book: cannibalism. You also address taboos surrounding the sexuality of an aged person.
Which would be me [laughs].
Is there a thrill in addressing a taboo for the first time? What are the challenges in taking on something like that?
There’s no challenge. All you have to do is not be afraid to do it. I’m 71, but I still like and have sex — so I’m going to write about it. If you’re really writing deeply about a character, you have to deal on some level with their sex life, because it’s such a huge part of life even though it’s often hidden. You can have very good friends you’ve known for years, a couple, and you have no idea what their sex life might be like. That’s often the case. But when you’re writing, when you’re creating some narrative, you are really wanting to go into those dark corners that are hidden in people’s lives, because that’s interesting. You know, I thought I would have my first novel published at 21, because I always thought I would be a novelist and never imagined I’d be a filmmaker. I probably wouldn’t have been talking about elder sex then. That’s undoubtedly true, but now that I’m living that, it’s just a natural subject.
Your film focus has shifted away from overt horror imagery. The book suggests a return. Will we be seeing more body horror on the big screen?
I don’t even know what body horror is. It was invented by some clever journalist, and it seems to have stuck. The body is not a source of horror, it is what we are. My focus is on the body, and I don’t think of it as an obsession at all. For me, the body is the first act of human existence. I don’t believe in an afterlife. I don’t believe in a spirit that exists apart from the body. It is all body. It’s natural for someone to be interested in what happens to their body — and for me as a writer, likewise as a filmmaker — to focus on the body as well. What is it you photograph the most? You’re photographing the human body, the human face. To me, you’re photographing the beautiful, wonderful aspect of it. And then if you accept what George Bernard Shaw said about conflict being the essence of drama — if the body is your subject and you’re dealing with conflict within the body — then immediately you’re dealing with things that happen to the body. It’s not really a question of horror, per se. In my early films, which are all definitely in the horror genre, you can get that.
Will there be another book? What about your next film project?
I have a current tickling of a book idea. I would definitely like to write another book. At the moment I don’t have any film projects. You never really know what might come along the next day, but at the moment there is no movie that I feel I must make. But I do have the desire to make another novel.