In 1987, Time Out magazine sent me to talk to David Cronenberg and Jeff Goldblum – in separate interviews, not both at once – to tie in with the release of Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly.
At this point in his career, Cronenberg was well-known to genre fans but pretty much hovered under the radar of more mainstream critics and audiences. The Dead Zone (1983) and, especially, The Fly, were beginning to change that, and the director’s next film, Dead Ringers, would attract attention from parties who had hitherto dismissed him as “just” a horror director, and therefore unworthy of their notice.
What you should probably bear in mind when reading the following piece is that I wrote it shortly after having been diagnosed with psoriasis. This might explain some of the more colourful flights of fantasy, which now strike me as quite touching, and just a little bit desperate.
STAGE ONE: RED AND BLOTCHY SKIN DISCOLOURATION
What with The Singing Detective, disfiguring diseases look like becoming all the rage. Soon everyone will want one. But, while TV is taking that plunge into the plasma pool of peeling epidermis, cinema still teeters on the edge. Disease in film is rarely anything other than tasteful. At worst, it’s Garbo coughing in Camille. More often than not, it’s mere pallid loitering like Marthe Keller in Bobby Deerfield or Ali MacGraw in Love Story. Only in the horror film has disease been treated with anything like realism, albeit with the sufferers usually turning into something less than real. (Alligator People for example. Love means never having to say you’re saurian?)
The films of David Cronenberg have always dealt with transfiguration through disease or mutation, but none have dealt with it so directly as The Fly. The story itself has undergone a mutation from the original 1958 version (scripted by James Clavell from a Playboy short story) which is chiefly memorable for its daffy premise – scientist passes through teleportation device with fly and ends up sporting enormous entomological head and arm – and its hysterical pay-off, the discovery of a fly with a teensy-weensy human head, squeaking ‘Help meee!’.
Young Cronenberg, seeing the adverts that offered “A hundred dollars to anyone who can prove it couldn’t happen!” ventured the theory that it couldn’t happen because there simply weren’t enough extra molecules to produce that enormous head. “And they said: ‘Yeah, screw off, kid.'” As far as he’s aware, no one ever did get the hundred dollars.
The screenplay for the remake was written by Charles Edward Pogue (Psycho III). “It’s the first time I’ve read something where I thought I could have written that,” says Cronenberg, who rewrote it and shares a screenwriting credit. The major remodelling on the 1958 version is that when the scientist, Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum), goes through the teleportation device with the insect, he fuses with
it at a molecular-genetic level. Instead of turning into half-man, half-housefly, or even a 1851b insect, he gradually mutates into something else – Brundlefly. And while his body changes, his behaviour also undergoes a drastic warp: an insatiable libido and an almighty sweet tooth for starters, culminating in an entirely non-human ethos. “Have you heard of insect politics?” asks Brundle. “Neither have I. Insects don’t have politics…”
Cue for lots of gross-out SPFX by Chris Gremlins Walas, as Brundle gets mangier and his table manners get messier – the Calliphora Vomitra pukes up on its doughnuts before it scoffs them. But what makes The Fly more than just another monster movie is the all too human relationship at its core, when Brundle gets involved with journalist Veronica Quaife, played by Goldblum’s real-life lover Geena Davis (she with whom Tootsie shared a dressing-room).
STAGE TWO: FACIAL WARTS AND PIMPLES, HAIRY SCABS, FINGERNAILS OOZING PUS
“Speaking of disgust, is there coffee over there?” asks Cronenberg as he munches into his toasted cheese and ham sandwich. He is charming, bespectacled, and with a serious student-like air that makes him seem younger than his 43 years. The Fly was shot in Toronto, but he is putting the finishing touches to it at Twickenham Studios.
Cronenberg is not known for his restraint in the realm of revolting visceral effects: venereal parasites in Shivers, Marilyn Chambers’ armpit phallus in Rabid, Samantha Eggar giving birth to The Brood of nasty little mutants (Cronenberg’s Kramer versus Kramer, made shortly after the break-up of his own first marriage), Scanners with its exploding heads, and the tumour-inducing hallucinations of Videodrome. The Dead Zone was a more muted mutation, despite its grisly scissors suicide. Cronenberg’s oddball movie, the one his fans tend to overlook, is Fast Company, which was about car racing and featured such classic B-movie actors as Claudia Jennings (killed in a real car crash shortly afterwards) and William Smith.
“A lot of people think it’s an anomaly,” he says, “but it’s as much me as Videodrome or anything else.” Seth Brundle announces that “everything about transport will become obsolete” when his invention gets into gear. But Cronenberg, who likes to race as relaxation, owns a 1962 Ferrari short wheel-based Berlinetta and a 1959 Cooper Formula One car with a Coventry Climax two-litre motor. He also owns a lot of bikes, one of which, the Ducati 450, provided the inspiration for the design of Brundle’s telepods.
STAGE THREE: BLOATED FACE, SUPPURATING SKIN, LOSS OF HAIR AND APPENDAGES
Cronenberg is impressed by Jeff Goldblum’s performance as Brundle. “He is required to be very crazed and visceral and funny and intellectual and sinister in varying degrees at various times. It’s a terrific role, but a lot of actors would be put off because it’s a special effects role at the same time. A lot of actors, when they put this kind of make-up on, feel they’ve been robbed of all their potency because you can’t see all the little twitches and things they do.”
Not Goldblum, who coped admirably with the five hours in the makeup chair required of him during the latter stages of Brundle’s transformation. Geena Davis helped out by reading PG Wodehouse and Kafka (of course) out loud to him, and also managed to trap a fly in a plastic bag. “We found a way of feeding it through a hole, so I kept it as a pet for a week or so and watched it move and eat and stuff.”
Goldblum and Davis first met on the set of Transylvania 6500, where their roles were reversed: “She’s a monster and I’m a journalist.” He played a journalist in The Big Chill too. As Brundle, he has to take his clothes off more than once, but nudity is no novelty. In his first screen role, in Death Wish, he had to pull down his pants in order to rape Charles Bronson’s daughter – “You see my naked bottom from the back”. And he had to get down to basics as a developing pod person in Philip Kaufman’s remake of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (“but I had a lot of fur and gook on me there”). He is soon to be seen as another genetic scientist, James Watson, in the BBC’s The Double Helix. He is extremely tall, pleasantly gawky, and likes to reminisce about the days in Pittsburgh when he would go and see King Kong versus Godzilla or From Hell It Came with his younger sister Pam.
STAGE FOUR: MISSHAPEN HEAD, GENERAL DISTORTION, RECEDING GUMS
There are some who maintain that Cronenberg’s work evinces a disgust with the workings of the human body. “I think that’s completely wrong,” says the director. “It’s a fascination with the human body. But it’s also a willingness to look at what’s there without flinching, and to say: ‘This is what we’re made of, as disgusting as it might seem at times.’ Because I’m really saying that the inside of the human body must have a completely different aesthetic. I could conceive of a beauty contest where people would unzip themselves and show you the best spleen and the best-looking viscera.”
Thomas Mann wrote: “All interest in disease and death is only another expression of interest in life.” Cronenberg, who watched his own father die of cancer, says: “People who have a disease, who are in terrible shape, they have moments of humour and total self-awareness, and I wanted the character of Brundle to be real that way.”
STAGE FIVE: ALL-ROUND LUMPISHNESS, TOTAL LOSS OF TEETH AND DIGITS
As a teenager, Goldblum suffered from acne. Mild, but: “I was miserable. I just wanted to take a razor blade and slash my face up. I can remember looking at all sorts of people in the street. No matter what they looked like, even if they had wrinkles, if they had clear skin I thought: ‘What troubles could they possibly have? What reason other than having bad skin is there to unhappy about?'” Brundle has to contend with rather more than the odd spot, though he does indulge in a satisfactory amount of pus-spurting. It is Brundle’s attitude to his “disease”, the equivalent of Philip Marlow’s psoriatic wisecracking in The Singing Detective, that lends The Fly much of its power.
“We can’t always be happy, or have good things happen to us,” Goldblum explains. “As a matter of fact, we usually have something awful happen to us. Like Cronenberg says, even people who are in love, if they live long enough, one or other of them usually has horrible things happen to them. If happiness is your purpose, then, when things go wrong, you’ve failed, I guess. But if, instead of that, having meaning in your life is the purpose, you can accomplish that in any number of situations, and it’s more in your control, too. It really has more to do with how you respond to circumstances, and if you have some dignity and humanity.”
STAGE SIX: INCREASE IN PRODUCTION OF CAUSTIC JUICES, SPLITTING OF SKIN, LOSS OF JAW. A BIT OF A MESS, REALLY
Cronenberg maintains that The Fly is really a nature film, “a National Geographic special”. But, in the words of HL Mencken:
1. The cosmos is a gigantic fly-wheel making 10,000 revolutions a minute.
2. Man is a sick fly taking a dizzy ride on it.
This article first appeared in Time Out, 1987.
You may also be interested in the following:
- I found The Fly posters at LucyWho.com
- There’s an interesting comparison between Pogue’s screenplay and Cronenberg’s revision of it on Wikipedia.
- Cronenberg: ‘Eastern Promises’, ‘The Fly’ sequels axed over money (digitalspy.co.uk)
- The Behind the Scenes Pic of the Day is becoming something that never existed before. It’s becoming… Brundlefly. (aintitcool.com)
- David Cronenberg’s rarely seen 1972 short film about a scientist developing a psychological weapon (jeredhiggins.wordpress.com)
- The Fly II (1989) (oldgamereviewer.com)
- I Made a Cake of Jeff Goldblum’s Back from THE FLY. (fireflyexpress.blogspot.com)