David Cronenberg and Robert Pattinson talk ‘Cosmopolis’

David Cronenberg remembers the time Oliver Stone asked him, “David, does it bother you to be such a marginal filmmaker?”

To which Cronenberg, one of Canada’s most admired and famous directors, replied, “Well, Oliver, it depends. How big of an audience do you need?”

Therein lies the secret to Cronenberg’s success. Cosmopolis, his new movie opening Friday, is an adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel about a young billionaire named Eric Packer who spends a day in his limo riding around New York City in search of a haircut.

There is practically no traditional plot in Cosmopolis. More than half the movie takes place inside the limo, where Eric has meetings with his staff, gets a checkup from his doctor (“Your prostate is asymmetrical”) and even has sex. Although Eric is played by Robert Pattinson, the hugely popular star of the Twilight series, Cosmopolis is a tough sell for the multiplex crowd — a rigorous, challenging and oddly hypnotic movie filled with dense, jargon-heavy dialogue.

At 69, Cronenberg continues to make his heady movies the hard way.

“When you’re a filmmaker, you spend a year and a half of your life — maybe more — putting these things together: You have to get your financing in place and you go after actors who will reject you,” he says. “It’s a difficult process. So the movie has to really excite and intrigue me and make me feel like I’m going to discover something by making it,” he says.

“Naturally, you have to tailor the budget to suit the subject matter. No one is going to spend $200 million on Cosmopolis. But if you’re realistic about expectations and the size of your audience, and you’re willing to work for not that much money, you can come up with very interesting things.”

Cosmopolis’ $20 million price tag still seems high for such an outside-the-box movie, but Cronenberg offset the risk to financiers by casting Pattinson, who appears in every scene. (Colin Farrell was originally set to play Eric, but had to back out due to scheduling conflicts.)

“I got the script out of the blue and was offered the role, which was a little shocking,” Pattinson says. “Usually, the movies I am offered straight-up are terrible. This script felt so original, it was almost gleaming.

“I knew there was a movie to be made here. I was just worried that I might not be the one to pull it off. I kept thinking ‘There are tons of people better than me for this job!’ It took me a while to make peace with that.”

Cosmopolis offered Pattinson the opportunity to try a kind of minimalist acting he hadn’t done before. Eric Packer is a detached, aloof man who rarely expresses what he’s feeling. On the page, DeLillo makes us privy to his thoughts and interior monologue; on screen, Pattinson uses small gestures, the faintest trace of a smile or a frown and the hardening of a stare to convey his inner state.

“At the start of the movie, I am wearing this dark, blank suit,” he says. “I am wearing completely blacked-out sunglasses and I’m standing still, not moving. Every tool actors use for their performance has been taken away from me,” he says.

“But I felt secure because I knew David was watching me — really watching me — and that gives you confidence. Most of the time on movie sets, I question whether the director is even paying attention to what I’m doing.”

Pattinson’s legion of Twilight fans will be befuddled by this coldly fascinating movie, but Cronenberg has built a sufficient following to ensure an audience for the strange brew.

Not everyone will like it, of course. There isn’t a Cronenberg fan on the planet who could honestly say he loves all of the director’s movies. And that’s a testament to the risks he’s taken from the beginning of his 37-year career.

Gory shockers

The Toronto native started in the 1970s with a series of gory, low-budget shockers sprinkled with subtle social and political commentary. The Brood, for example, may be the most disturbing (and gruesome) movie ever made about divorce. And in Shivers (retitled They Came From Within for its U.S. release), the zombies want to rape rather than devour you.

Those cheap, artful movies were profitable enough to earn Cronenberg bigger budgets, and two early ’80s sci-fi pictures heightened his profile: Scanners, with its infamous exploding head, and Videodrome, a surreal exploration of voyeurism and technology that featured Deborah Harry as a soft-spoken sadomasochist.

But Cronenberg didn’t really enter the mainstream until the one-two punch of The Dead Zone, a well-received adaptation of the Stephen King novel starring Christopher Walken, and The Fly, an Oscar-nominated study in body-horror that doubled as a metaphor for AIDS. Their critical and commercial success seemed to earn him a perch in the Hollywood echelons, proving he could make technically polished pictures and draw strong performances from actors.

And then he walked away from big pictures and returned to personal ones: Dead Ringers, his disquieting study of twins (played by Jeremy Irons); Naked Lunch, a hallucinatory fantasy inspired by William S. Burrough’s novel; M. Butterfly, his disastrous adaptation of the acclaimed play, and eXistenZ, a sci-fi fantasy about virtual-reality games that, like Videodrome, seems uncannily prescient today.

The same can be said of DeLillo’s 2003 vision of anti-capitalist riots, terrorist attacks and fortunes lost to sudden economic shifts.

“It’s amusing to go back and read some of the reviews of that novel, because a lot of the critics said ‘Oh, these demonstrations on Wall Street are so unconvincing!’ ” Cronenberg says. “That stuff seemed like fantasy and made it difficult to relate to. And now, of course, things have changed.”

The prophetic nature of Cosmopolis was the least of what fascinated him about DeLillo’s book, he says.

“I think artists just have highly sensitive antennae, maybe a bit more sensitive than other people. So you are sensitive to things in the air that are going to manifest and evolve naturally in the future. You become an accidental prophet. It’s not something you aspire to do.

“There are certain sci-fi writers who pride themselves on debating the future. Arthur C. Clarke was very proud he predicted there would be information satellites orbiting the Earth before they existed. But my interest in Cosmopolis had nothing to do with its prescient nature.”

Cronenberg says that when he spoke to DeLillo about the novel, the author revealed the book was born out of mundane questions. “He was interested by the idea of limos. Why would someone have such a long, clumsy vehicle on the tight streets of New York? Where do all those limos go at night? Stuff like that. He wasn’t anticipating an economic meltdown when he sat down to write.”

Realistic dialogue

For Cronenberg, too, the inspiration to adapt Cosmopolis sprang not from grand themes but subtle detail.

“I was simply taken by the dialogue. It’s a bit like David Mamet or Harold Pinter, because it’s realistic on one level — it sounds like the way people speak — but it’s also very stylized. When I transcribed it into screenplay form, it gave the movie an incredible cohesion and resonance. That’s when I asked myself, ‘Is this a movie?’ And I thought, ‘Yes. It’s a really interesting movie.’ ”

Nearly all of the dialogue is lifted from the book, which meant the actors had to sound natural while saying lines like, “We’re all young and smart and were raised by wolves. But the phenomenon of reputation is a delicate thing. A person rises on a word and falls on a syllable.”

For Pattinson, the unusual cadences and word choices felt liberating.

“I felt a physical connection with the writing — I thought it was so good — and I wanted to read it aloud as soon as I got the script, just to see how it sounded. It is so perfectly written. I loved the fact that I didn’t need to put my personal stamp on it as an actor. I just had to perform it in the truest way possible.”

With its emotionally cool demeanor, polished visuals and occasional bursts of bloody violence, Cosmopolis folds neatly into Cronenberg’s body of work, continuing themes he explored in previous films, albeit in a radically different way.

“The movie Cosmopolis reminds me the most of is Crash,” Cronenberg’s 1996 adaptation of the J.G. Ballard novel, says William Beard, author of The Artist as Monster: The Cinema of David Cronenberg. “In that movie, the characters were frozen in a way: They were cut off from their own feelings. They had to have car crashes and very strange sex in order to break through the ice that had encased them. They had to go to bizarre extremes just to feel something.

“In Cosmopolis, you have a guy who is literally encased in this car. The limo glides through the streets in this dream-like fashion. He also seems to be a guy who is divorced from his feelings. He’s replaced them with power — he can control people, he has staff at his beck and call, he even has his own philosopher.

“And as the film goes on, you start thinking about other Cronenberg movies where the central protagonist is wrapped up in hallucinations. Cosmopolis presents you with a barrier that you have to struggle with — ‘What the hell is going on here? This movie is not going anywhere, it’s not doing anything, it’s just a guy in a car and strange things are happening.’ And by the end of the movie, he almost has a smile on his face. He’s had his crash.”

Car theme

Tim Lucas, author of Studies in the Horror Film: Videodrome and the editor of Video Watchdog magazine, says automobiles have long been a Cronenberg fixation, reaching back to his little-seen 1979 drag-racing movie Fast Company.

“He once described them to me as ‘machines that could collapse time,’ meaning how they allow people to get from place to place faster, and how they become their own environments with their own time frames that can collapse. I haven’t seen Cosmopolis, but it sounds like familiar territory [for Cronenberg] and also a refreshing and daringly experimental way of approaching the insulation between people and their technology.”

When asked about the symbolic importance of Eric’s limousine , Cronenberg takes the idea one step further.

“Eric is living in a bubble. His limo is a tank, a submarine, but it’s also a bell jar, a vacuum,” he says. “He’s detached himself from the real world and forces everyone to come to him, into the world he’s created.

“When he gets out of the limo, he barely knows how to operate. At his job, he deals with billions of virtual dollars, but he’s never touching real money. He doesn’t know how to pay for something or tip somebody. This is weirdly accurate in terms of the lives of certain wealthy, powerful people.

“Édouard Carmignac, one of the investors in our movie, is considered to be the French Warren Buffett. He wanted to invest in the movie because he felt the book was incredibly accurate. He works with a lot of people who live in this kind of virtual world that is so disconnected from reality. But it is their reality, so they don’t have a problem. Our movie, in a sense, is about what happens to Eric when he gets out of that limo and steps out into the real world.”