David Cronenberg: The baron of blood

David Cronenberg's films are littered with corpses and spattered with gore. But, he tells James Mottram, he is sanity itself
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The Independent Culture

Cronenberg was called the "baron of blood", a name afforded to him when he churned out a series of visceral horror-pictures, beginning with his 1975 debut Shivers. But long gone are the days of commercial crossover hits like Scanners and The Fly, his gore-drenched 1986 remake that marked the end to the first phase in his career. Heralded by the gynaecological horror Dead Ringers, the second period of his body of work has seen a move towards a more cerebral form of film-making: be it tales of sexual perversity in M Butterfly and Crash, or explorations of alternate realities - hallucinogenic (Naked Lunch), virtual (eXistenZ) or schizophrenic (Spider).

As it turns out, A History of Violence might just be the start of phase three, a splicing of Cronenberg's recent psychological preoccupations and his perennial fascination with the body in all its horrific glory. It also represents his first studio movie since The Fly, albeit with the "mini-major", New Line Cinema (the company behind Lord of the Rings). After the "agony" of the commercial failure of Spider, which left the Toronto native in dire straits after he deferred his salary, he was left with little choice but to return to Hollywood, lured by the offer of a $32m budget.

A History of Violence tells the story of Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), a small-town-diner owner whose idyllic Indiana existence is disturbed when he is forced to defend his establishment from two hoodlums. Shooting both men dead, Stall becomes a local media celebrity, attracting unwanted attention from figures from his past. On the surface, at least, it's Cronenberg's most mainstream film since his 1983 adaptation of Stephen King's The Dead Zone. The film continues Cronenberg's recent interest in the need for humans to construct identities, with Tom Stall leading the way as a man who pretends to be something that he's not. "I don't think an identity is something that is given to us genetically, like the colour of our eyes," says the director. "It's something that is created. There's will involved. In Spider, I was examining the same subject - what happens when there's not the will or strength to hold an identity together. I think, every morning, you wake up and have to recreate yourself and remember who you are, assemble that person. I think it's possible to become someone else - by force of will."

Using generic tropes as a cloak to help smuggle complex themes inside what can be perceived as entertainment, the film is a hybrid of two staples of American cinema, the gangster film and the Western. "I knew that, right from the beginning, there was an epic American Western mythology involved in this story of a man who has to use violence to defend his house and family against men with guns," says Cronenberg. "This is a classic American scenario, in history and in American cinema."

Nevertheless, just as he experienced with Crash when Westminster Council banned his provocative adaptation of JG Ballard's novel of auto-erotica, Cronenberg is bracing himself for a media furore with A History of Violence. The softly spoken 62-year-old still shudders at the thought of what happened with Crash. "It was a low point in my career," he admits. You might argue that the savage bloodshed of A History of Violence is never likely to cause the indignation of Crash, with its notorious sequence of a woman's vagina-like leg-wound being sexually penetrated. Yet these are sensitive times, and perhaps aware of the need to defend his use of violent sequences, Cronenberg says: "If I left those out, do you think it would be better? In fact, those shots are very quick. But can you say it's better not to show the consequences of that violence? The idea is to say that this violence is real. It has an impact on a human body that is not very pleasant. This is not a kung-fu fantasy. This is not a retro-Seventies martial-arts movie. This is showing that violence is very nasty, very brutal, very quick, very unpredictable and has horrific consequences."

While Cronenberg has never been a polemical film-maker, critics have already hinted that the film is an allegory for the invasion of Iraq - Stall aggressively defends his patch against insurgents from the East. Although unwilling to get too specific, Cronenberg does concede that the film can be read as a critique of the Bush administration, which "has adopted America's mythology of violence as its foreign policy" - an aggressive but unsophisticated stance along the lines of "we were attacked and so anything we do to defend ourselves is justified". Yet such analysis is too reductive. Even the ambiguous title does not just refer to Tom Stall; hinting at the bloodshed of America's past, it also refers to the potential for violence in us all.

The most violent scene in the film comes as Stall forces himself sexually on his wife, in the stairwell of their home. "The violence is part of the sexuality," says Cronenberg. "It's very possible, maybe inevitable, that violence is incorporated into sexuality. And also there is a sexual element in violence. There is a bizarrely sexual element in state executions, for example - which no one wants to talk about who is in favour of the death penalty. But there is a weird, perverse sexuality involved in executing somebody. It's a long, difficult subject - but sex and violence do seem to go together very well."

Claiming he's not a director who "shouts and screams" on set, it's evident that Cronenberg inspires fierce loyalty in his employees. "His crew he's been working with for 20 years," says Bello. "You could really feel that on set. It was a very collaborative process, and he was very open to all sorts of points of view, though he had a very strong and clear vision about what he wanted."

Such a gentle demeanour probably comes from his bourgeois upbringing in Toronto: his mother was a pianist who used to accompany Nureyev on tour, while his father owned a bookstore and wrote a column about stamps. Childhood traumas are notable by their absence. "I think I'm incredibly sane," he confirms. "Quite frankly, I'm one of the sanest people I know."

'A History of Violence' is released on 30 September