David Cronenberg is giving me a lesson in Russian criminal body art. He gestures towards a poster for his latest film, Eastern Promises, which has been hastily erected in the hotel room where we meet. Dominating it is a pair of tattooed hands, the right one with a sunrise over a sea. Underneath it is the word "Cebep" – Russian for "North". "That seems fairly innocent," says Cronenberg, his tattered brown jacket lending him a professorial air. "But in fact it's a white-supremacist tattoo. 'North' means 'white people'. It means 'not South'. It means the supremacy of white people. That would be understood by anybody in prison or any criminal who saw that."
This articulate analysis is typical of Cronenberg, yet to hear it is, nevertheless, surprising. In the past, he might have focused on the painful ritual of searing flesh with ink. The Canadian director has always been fascinated by mutilation of the body, self-inflicted or otherwise, from the first horror films that brought him to prominence. Take, for instance, the radical plastic surgery in his second film, 1977's Rabid, and the rabies-like disease that turns its carriers into blood-sucking vampires, to observe that fascination. Or the form of psychotherapy in The Brood that physically manifests negative emotions in the form of sores across the skin. Even Dead Ringers, a more cerebral film, featured a "mutant" woman with three cervixes.
But Eastern Promises, a Russian mob story set in contemporary London, is far removed from the films that earned Cronenberg the nickname "king of venereal horror". In truth, the director has not made an out-and-out horror since his 1986 remake of The Fly, the 1950s B-movie about a scientist who ends up genetically spliced with an insect after an experiment goes awry. The Fly, starring Jeff Goldblum, grossed $40m and remains Cronenberg's biggest hit to date; Hollywood, naturally, turned its attention to him. "I went through that phase where people said, 'He's a good director. We just need him to not direct that stuff and to direct our stuff.'" It was the pivotal moment in Cronenberg's career. Instead of taking the big studios' advice, the director marked his card by making 1988's Dead Ringers, the true story of the Toronto gynaecologists – and identical twins – Beverly and Elliot Mantle (played brilliantly by Jeremy Irons).
In the very first scene of Dead Ringers, when the protagonists are seen briefly as children, we're glimpsing a little of Cronenberg himself – "I did wear glasses as a kid, I was interested in science and I was precocious," he once said. The film set Cronenberg on a personal filmmaking journey, culminating in what is arguably his masterpiece, his 2002 adaptation of Patrick McGrath's novel Spider, about the eponymous mental-asylum inmate who is released back into society. "When I first read it, it didn't take much for me to think of myself as someone walking around the streets mumbling to himself in a language no one understood," he says. "I really feel I'm half a degree separated from Spider at any given moment."
Though his silver hair and pallid complexion lend him an almost haunted look, the 64-year-old is anything but crazy. "I think I'm incredibly sane," he smiles. "I'm one of the sanest people I know, frankly, and I've felt like that from day one." Indeed, he considers his work "a philosophical endeavour".
An atheist, as well as "a card-carrying existentialist", as he puts it, he uses film "as a kind of exploration of me and my feelings about a lot of things. I try to understand what the human condition is. I try to understand what I am and then I hope the audience will be involved in that, be interested in that, and want to do that with me as well."
It is a fairly standard artistic credo – but few film-makers have expressed their need for self-evaluation in quite such an extreme way. In 1979, for instance, Cronenberg married Caroline Zeifman, who had been his production assistant on Rabid and later went on to bear him two children, Caitlin and Brandon. At the time, Cronenberg was going through a divorce from his first wife of seven years, Margaret Hindson. The experience of fighting for custody of their daughter Cassandra – Cronenberg even "kidnapped" her from school, when Hindson threatened to take her to California – fed into 1979's The Brood.
And so Cronenberg has continued, his films working, at one level, as lurid metaphors of the film-maker struggling outside the mainstream: The Fly dwells on the downfall of a rogue scientist, and his 1991 version of the junkie classic Naked Lunch, which blended the novel with biographical elements of renegade author William Burroughs' life, was as much a self-portrait as anything else. Likewise, his 1999 exploration of virtual reality, eXistenZ, about a game designer under threat, was inspired by Salman Rushdie's experiences in publishing The Satanic Verses, but could also be read as a reaction to Cronenberg's own preceding film, the notorious Crash.
An adaptation of JG Ballard's novel about a group that gets their sexual kicks from car crashes, it caused a furore upon release. Last week, Cronenberg attended a screening of Eastern Promises, which opened the London Film Festival. This glitzy Leicester Square première was in the very London borough, Westminster – among several others across the country – which decided to ban Crash, spurred on by a hysterical media campaign.
"The reaction I got in England was a high-low point for me in my film-making career," he says. "I can't pretend it didn't make an impression on me; it did. I have a much better understanding of the way the press works in this country now. It demonstrates one of the possible flaws of democracy."
Eastern Promises is unlikely to cause the same sense of moral outrage. It may open with a gangster having his throat cut but, as Cronenberg knows only too well, violence on screen is tolerated in a way that acts of sexual perversity are not. His previous film, 2005's A History of Violence, an adaptation of a graphic novel about a small-town family man with underworld connections, was his biggest hit since The Fly, taking $31m in the US. Nevertheless, says Cronenberg, "We lost a lot of money and audience because of that word [in the title]. ' Women literally said, 'I don't want to see a movie that's violent.' And since we've called the movie violent, they think it is."
Hence the rather non-committal title Eastern Promises, which "sounds like a cheap perfume", jokes Cronenberg. "I must confess I wasn't crazy about the title at first, then it sort of settled in." The tactic evidently worked: the film won the Audience Award at the Toronto Film Festival last month. Despite a long association with the festival, it is the first time Cronenberg has won the award in the city where he was born, raised and still lives. "I feel like I've been elected prime minister," he smiles.
At first glance, Eastern Promises confirms that a new chapter in Cronenberg's career is well under way. In the same way as A History of Violence, it returns him to the sort of genre film-making – albeit the gangster film, rather than the horror movie – that is overtly more commercial than his more oblique work from the 1990s. It also reunites him with the lead from History, Viggo Mortensen, who plays Nikolai, a driver-cum-bodyguard for the real-life Russian crime family known as Vory V Zakone. Written by Steven Knight, whose credits include another exploration of the underside of London, Dirty Pretty Things, the story sees Nikolai come into contact with a nurse (Naomi Watts) who has inadvertently uncovered some incriminating evidence against his employers.
Yet, according to Cronenberg, Eastern Promises is no different to his previous films. "I've always been dealing with transgressive groups, so in that sense, it's not unusual for me, as I'm interested in marginal characters outside society," he says.
While this is the first time he has dealt with organised crime groups that actually exist, Cronenberg admits he has no interest in "the mechanics of mob-dom". He prefers a more anthropological approach, looking at the migration of Eastern European criminals to the West. "Each culture – whether it's Albanian, Chechnyan or Russian – has [come here and] created this hermetically sealed version of its own home country."
Intriguingly, it was Mortensen who, in the course of his research, suggested the heightened use of tattoos in the movie, even though they were only alluded to in the script. He gave Cronenberg a book, Russian Criminal Tattoos, as well as a documentary, The Mark of Cain, both of which explained how Russian criminals express their nefarious achievements via body art.
Cronenberg was particularly taken with The Mark of Cain, with its interviews with various Russian mob men locked away in a maximum-security prison. " This old guy gave this wonderful lament. He said, 'The new criminals who come here, they get these tattoos but they don't know what they mean. They just get them for style and fashion. All they're interested in is money. They don't have any sense of honour or loyalty.'" According to Cronenberg, this is a fallout from the collapse of Communism as Russian criminals head for cities with rich pickings, such as London. "In a way we're seeing this raw, brutal capitalism coming out of Russia that is creating a new class of criminal, who are closer to being capitalists than the old thieves."
Eastern Promises side-steps the tourist-trap locations most films set in London go for, and shows how acquainted Cronenberg is with the city. He briefly lived here during the 1960s, after interrupting his studies at the University of Toronto in what was evidently a formative experience; the young Canadian returned home with long hair and a paisley shirt, to the shock of his professors.
As a boy, Cronenberg had been desperate to be either a lepidopterist or a vet, and had begun college as a science student; within a year, he had changed to a literature degree after realising he was spending more time on the arts campus. "I always felt that I would be some kind of artist," he says.
It was certainly in his blood: his father, a former bookshop-owner turned journalist, wrote detective fiction, while his mother was a pianist. The young Cronenberg thrived in this environment, publishing a book of ghost stories in his youth, as well as playing classical guitar. "I think what I got at home was an unshakeable, totally realistic faith in my own abilities," he says. "Even as a child, I thought I would be a novelist." By the time he was preparing to shoot his first short film, 1966's Transfer, these artistic urges had manifested themselves on celluloid.
In his time, he has experimented with the avant-garde (his 65-minute shorts Stereo and Crimes of the Future), exploitation films (Shivers and Rabid), as well as an ongoing dalliance with the mainstream. "I keep flirting with Hollywood," he says. "There's a lot of power and money there." Recently, he even came close to directing the woeful Sharon Stone sex thriller Basic Instinct 2. He says the script in its original form didn't happen, "probably because it was good... too interesting, perverse, dark, complex". He sighs and sinks in his chair. "To me, that's Hollywood right now. The fact that [studios think] there is only one kind of movie, and it should be a Hollywood movie, is pretty terrifying."
Even when working with big-name actors such as Fiennes and Jude Law (in eXistenZ), Cronenberg experienced a sense of isolation from Hollywood throughout the second phase of his career. As films from Dead Ringers to Spider failed to make money, he became something of a pariah. "My stock went down," he admits. "They'd think, 'He's too weird.'" It was only after History proved he was capable of putting bums on seats that he was welcomed back into the Hollywood fold. "People were phoning me who were avoiding my calls after Spider," he says. "It's straightforward. They were worried I'd take their wonderfully commercial project and turn it into Spider."
No more though, as the reaction to A History of Violence and now Eastern Promises shows. "I think they're seen as more mainstream, so I'm a safer bet suddenly," he says, admitting that he's been receiving offers to direct films that are "not so genre-oriented".
After more than three decades making films, Cronenberg has finally broken away from being pigeonholed as a horror director. "I'm hot for 10 minutes," he says wryly. "That is basically what it is." Maybe he should get a tattoo to mark the occasion. *
'Eastern Promises' opens on Friday. For further information on London Film Festival,go to www.lff.org.uk
What, no gore?: Five Cronenberg films for the faint-hearted
Fast Company (1979)
An aberration among Cronenberg's early horror films, this drag-racing movie has plenty of fireballs but little in the way of scares
M. Butterfly (1993)
Not a drop of blood – until the final scene – in this story of a French diplomat who engages in a relationship with an opera singer in 1960s Beijing
With all of its horror psychological, this masterpiece about a former asylum inmate is safe enough (almost) to show your granny
Dead Ringers (1988)
You'd think this true story of twisted gynaecologist twins would see the baron of blood let rip, but he remainsrestrained
This JG Ballard adaptation about auto-erotica is gore-free, but that's not to say that the sex is for the squeamish