David Cronenberg on how to be a leader without being an egomaniac

“When you have everything working beautifully, get out of the way”

David Cronenberg sitting on a couch, wearing a dark suit, against a dark background, wearing sunglasses

“I’ve never had that need to be the ringmaster with the whip.” (Nicolas Guerin/Getty)

It takes an average of 588 people to make a hollywood film, but they all follow the vision of one director. David Cronenberg, whose latest film, Maps to the Stars, hits theatres this month, tells us about the school of invisible management and knowing what your strengths are.

You’ve made some pretty chaotic movies, but your sets are famously known to be harmonious. How do you create that kind of work environment?

Part of it is just your personal temperament. There are some directors who thrive on chaos. I don’t enjoy it, and, for me, it’s never been the way to get the best out of people. I want crew and actors on my set to feel secure and noticed and observed. Sometimes you have actors who create chaos because they’re not feeling acknowledged.

Sounds like you don’t bring much of an ego into management.

To me, the more invisible the director is on the set, the better. There was a time when someone came to visit the set and wondered where the director was. They thought I was the assistant director. I take that as a huge compliment. I’ve never had that need to be the ringmaster with the whip. When you have everything working beautifully, get out of the way.

Early on in your career, you were pursued to direct Top Gun and Return of the Jedi. Weren’t you even a bit tempted to go mainstream?

Not really. I always say that no matter how good an actor is, no matter how much you want to work with them, you don’t do anyone any favours by casting them in a part that isn’t right. In the same way, you shouldn’t miscast yourself. I was also offered the chance to direct Flashdance. I have no idea why, but they were really pursuing me. I had to say to them, Look, I will ruin this movie!

Were you always so confident in knowing what you did and didn’t want to do?

Well, originally my goal was to be an obscure novelist. Filmmaking wasn’t even something that occurred to me. It just wasn’t a world I had access to. I didn’t think I could make a movie any more than I would have thought I could make a car. Yes, there are cars on the street, but I never thought I could design one. After getting a taste for directing, I thought, OK, I’ll become an obscure filmmaker then. The problem with that is you can’t get funding. You can write a novel by yourself.

Has film funding changed a lot since you started?

Oh yeah, it’s constantly changing. You think of back in the ’70s with the tax breaks, and how suddenly there would be tons of money in October, November, when all the dentists and doctors and lawyers needed tax relief, and they would invest in movies. The money would be there before the movie, which is definitely not the case now. With independent film today, every director is ultimately a producer, because you have to sell your film from scratch, every time.

Like launching a startup…

Absolutely. It’s very similar. Now you even get crowdfunding for movies.

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So in terms of selling a product, do you have any advice?

Well, sure. My sales strategy is basically having a reputation that precedes me. It took a while to build, but at this point I think I have a reputation for being a stable Canadian—on budget, reliable, not a prima donna. And at the same time, people know that this doesn’t take the edge off my movies from an artistic standpoint.

Has the choice to stay in Canada affected your work artistically?

I’m sure if I [had moved to Hollywood] my career would be quite different. The pressures and standards would shape you, there’s no question.

Your new film, Maps to the Stars, looks at a lot of those pressures and standards. Were you nervous creating such a dark portrait of the industry you work in?

I don’t think you could make that movie if you were nervous. People are calling it a satire, but I think the movie rings pretty true. It was really thanks to Bruce Wagner’s script, the dialogue, the intensity of the characters and their existential fear—which is unique in the movie business, because you’re being immortalized on film, and then suddenly nobody cares about you and the phone doesn’t ring anymore. That’s a particular kind of fear that exists in Hollywood.

Have you taken flack for airing the industry’s dirty laundry?

I’ve had lots of feedback. One studio executive embraced me and said, “Your movie scared the shit out of me. I had nightmares about it, and the next day when I went to a hotel party all I could see was scenes from the movie.” I thought that was a great review. It obviously struck a nerve.

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Julianne Moore’s character is obsessed with getting cast in a certain movie. How far has anyone gone to get cast by you?

Unfortunately, not far enough. Nobody has offered me sex or money or anything! I’ve definitely been lucky to be contacted by a number of actors who have expressed interest in working with me, which is great and very flattering. I have always thought I would love to work with Christopher Walken again [Walken was in The Dead Zone, 1983], but the right opportunity just hasn’t come up. And with Julianne Moore, I’ve had my eye on her for years, so this was great.

Maps is certainly dark, but it does seem like your career has veered away from gore and sexual deviancy in recent years.

Well yes, the early films were definitely horror films, which is how a lot of filmmakers start their careers. I’m happy I made those films. They definitely helped with building my reputation, but I feel like I moved away from it a long time ago. If a movie demands sex and violence, then that’s what you give it, but if it doesn’t, you don’t impose that. I have a very broad range of interests. I’m not interested in repeating things I’ve done.

And yet, you’re still sometimes referred to as the King of Venereal Horror.

I always say, It’s a very small kingdom, but at least it’s mine. That’s really more of a shorthand. As a kid, I called myself the Baron of Blood. That was because it was guys like John Landis, John Carpenter, George Romero and I. We were all trying to find our little niche within the genre. Those labels stick partly because of the Internet. Nothing ever dies.

Maps to the Stars hits theatres on Oct. 31. David Cronenberg’s debut novel, Consumed, was published by Penguin last month.

Watch the trailer for Maps to the Stars: