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David Cronenberg – Biography

David Cronenberg, director,
David Cronenberg photo © 2014 Ralph Lucas for Northernstars.ca

Born in Toronto, March 15, 1943, David Cronenberg wasn’t your average kid. For example, while most youngsters would be outside playing, David would spend hours watching with rapt attention exactly how a praying mantis devoured a meal. While his parents were, by all accounts normal, they didn’t exactly have common, everyday jobs. David`s father was a stamp columnist for the Toronto Telegram newspaper and a freelance writer, and his mother a professional pianist. Cronenberg grew up surrounded by books and art. His early interests were fiction and science, and he never saw them as being incompatible. In fact, he went on to study science at the University of Toronto. There he developed an interesting balance between the two. For example, although he felt that no one could really be taught how to write, he also thought that a person would need to be taught science if they wanted to write about science. It was at the U. of T. that David`s somewhat insular world expanded when he started to hang out with art students. He would eventually drop science in favor of English. From there it was a relatively short leap, at least for him, into filmmaking.

This poster for Scanners was scanned from an original in the Northernstars Collection.
This poster for Scanners was scanned from an original in the Northernstars Collection.
Cronenberg first thought about making movies because of a friend also named David. David Secter had made an ambitious student feature titled Winter Kept Us Warm (1965), using local people and places that Cronenberg knew. It showed him that making a film didn’t have to be complicated and so, in 1966, he directed his first short, Transfer, in which two men talk and eat across a table in a snowy field and end up engaged in a duel in which they flap their neckties at one another. His next film, From the Drain (1967), is about two veterans in a mysterious war who sit in a bathtub until one of them is strangled by a plant that grows out of the drain. Clearly, David Cronenberg was coming from another place. A place no other Canadian director had really bothered to explore.

Cronenberg would go on to form the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre with Robert Fothergill, Jim Plaxton and Lorne Michaels. Using funds from a grant to make his first serious project, Cronenberg released a sixty-two minute film called Stereo in 1969. He would follow this with Crimes of the Future (1970), which earned him notice in the art film circles.

David Cronenberg then went deep into the genre of horror in the 1970s. He would establish a reputation for himself as an original horror master with Shivers (1975), which really launched his career as a writer and director. He followed this with Rabid (1977) and The Brood (1979). While some critics found his films distasteful, some considered him a genre auteur with great artistic vision. In the 1980s, Cronenberg’s films explored six themes: the paranormal, the intrusion of visual media, biology, technology, identity and the psychology of delusion. Titles from this era include Scanners (1981) and Videodrome (1983). But with the release of The Dead Zone in 1983, The Fly in 1986 and Dead Ringers in 1988, Cronenberg showed that he was much more than a competent filmmaker. He was able to deliver a quality of filmmaking and storytelling usually not seen within the horror genre and, more importantly, these films marked his emergence as a filmmaker of international status. The Dead Zone, for example, won the 1984 Critic’s Award at the Avoriaz Film Festival in France and Dead Ringers won the Grand Prize and 11 Genie Awards including Best Picture, Director and Adapted Screenplay. During this time his career expanded to include directing for television, and that even included directing a few TV commercials. Also, like many directors before him, Cronenberg made the occasional appearance in front of the camera, acting in both his own films and films for other directors.

Naked Lunch, movie, poster,
Scanned from an original in the Northernstars Collection.
As his reputation grew, critics began to look at his work differently. If he hadn’t been taken very seriously before, Cronenberg entered the 1990s as a force to be reckoned with. His films had changed. While still working within a particular genre, his films pushed out beyond the usually narrow aspect reserved for horror into the broader realm of fantasy. As a “bankable” director Cronenberg was able to access larger budgets and his films reflected the higher production values of mainstream movies. Examples include his 1992 film, Naked Lunch, based on the William S. Burroughs novel, M Butterfly released in 1993, and Crash, released in 1996. Crash was sufficiently “out there” in its approach, plot and story telling that the Cannes Film Festival found it necessary to invent a Special Jury Prize specifically to recognize his unique filmmaking style. He ended the decade with the 1999 film eXistenZ. Also in 1999 Cronenberg was asked to head up the Cannes Film Festival jury. He had come a very long way from those first short experimental films at the University of Toronto.

Cronenberg entered the new millennium with no sign of slowing down after more than 30 years of filmmaking. Spider had its North America premiere as a Gala Presentation at the 2002 Toronto International Film Festival. It went on to be given the festival`s Best Canadian Feature Film Award. Cronenberg was named Best Director at the 2003 Genies for his work on Spider. A long-time favourite in France, Cronenberg, who had previously been given a Chevalier des arts et lettres, was elevated to the level of officer in a special presentation by Philippe Guelluy, the French ambassador to Canada. His 2005 film A History of Violence was selected for compeitition at the Cannes Film Festival and opened to excellent reviews after playing at the Toronto International Film Festival. A solid piece of work, it has been said it was his most “American” film yet. By that most people meant it was clear Cronenberg had set his sights on making his own kind of movie but also wanted to reach out to the mainstream movie-going public. Because of the rules governing what constitutes a Canadian movie, A History of Violence did not compete in the Genie Awards but Josh Olson was nominated for writing in the Adapted Screenplay category at the Oscars® and William Hurt was nominated for Best Supporting Actor.

This poster for eXistenz was scanned from an original in the Northernstars Collection
Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, released in 2007, was built on decades of experience and was at that point in time his most polished production. BBC News placed Eastern Promises on their year-end review of the Top 10 films of the year. According to the website, Box Office Mojo, the film had pulled in more than 40-million dollars worldwide in its first three months after being released in mid-September. Eastern Promises recieved nominations and/or awards from The Golden Globes, The British Film Awards, the Academy Awards and the Genies where it walked away with seven of the coveted Canadian film awards in early 2008.

In March of 2014, just a few days before his 71st birthday, David Cronenberg was given a special Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2nd annual Canadian Screen Awards. In their tribute to Cronenberg, actors Jay Baruchel and Viggo Mortensen spoke frankly about the director`s place in the business. “Mainstream movie business people, much as they might praise him from time to time, seem very reluctant to reward him officially. I can understand that because David basically is not one of them. And I think they know it — a fact that probably makes them even more uncomfortable than his movies do,” said Mortensen, who has starred in three of Cronenberg`s films A History of Violence, Eastern Promises and A Dangerous Method. “I think we’re definitely doing the right thing here tonight,” he continued, saying of Cronenberg that he is “the finest director and the sanest man I know for theartistic excellence and the singular courage of his work.”

Cronenberg significantly altered the tone of the tribute by telling a joke. “A man visits his doctor. He says ‘Doctor. I can’t pee.’ The doctor says ‘How old are you?’ He says ‘I’m 93.’ The doctor says ‘You’ve peed enough.’ When I was asked if I would accept this lovely award, it did occur to me the Academy was sending a message that went: David, you’ve peed enough.” Fortunately for us he graciously accepted the special tribute. “Somehow I found a way to say yes,” he said. “I can accept this fantastic and very sweet award that has been given to me by my colleagues with, I know, an incredible sweetness and affection — which makes it, you know, just a beautiful thing.”

Back in the media room, Northernstars.ca Publisher, Ralph Lucas asked the director about the changes he has seen in the Canadian film industry since he first started making his films. Cronenberg responded in part by praising Telefilm Canada and the Canada Council for making his first films possible. “Without their support, I would not have been able to make my movies in Canada.”

It was announced in April of 2014 that his Maps to the Stars would be one of three films to screen in competition for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

David Cronenberg has achieved what few other Canadian directors can claim. He has been able to build an international reputation while remaining solidly fixed within the Canadian landscape. Blessed by a vision that has been remarkably constant, he has been able to build success upon success. Looking back over his career to date, it is easy to see that while he remained within a relatively narrow field, each outing was a new direction, a new expression, a new experiment. We can only hope his unique approach to combining art and science continues.

Also see: David Cronenberg’s Filmography.

Northernstars logo imageThis biography is Copyright © 2015 by Northernstars.ca and may not be used without prior written permission. The photo of David Cronenberg at the 2014 Canadian Screen Awards is Copyright © 2014 by Ralph Lucas. The posters for Scanners, Naked Lunch and eXistenZ were scanned from originals in The Northernstars Collection. Click here for more information about copyright.