Several factors compelled director David Cronenberg to lens the screen adaptation of author Patrick McGrath's gritty psycho study Spider. It meant an opportunity to work with star Ralph Fiennes, who was connected to the project. But there was also the potential to tell a tale of full-on Freudian high dudgeon, unapologetically presented sans po-mo nods and winks.
"I think of myself as a modernist," the 59-year-old Canadian filmmaker says in a soft tenor reminiscent of an indulgent biology teacher's. "I'm a sincere filmmaker. Spider is completely nonironic."
It's also the latest adaptive feat in a career that includes translations of such "unfilmable" novels as William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch and J.G. Ballard's Crash. Written for the screen by McGrath himself, the film concerns Douglas "Spider" Cleg (Fiennes), a schizophrenic prematurely released from a London asylum. He's given a small room in a lodging house in the East End, where his real-time dissolution runs in sync with his slow recollections of his fraught relationships with his mother (Miranda Richardson) and father (Gabriel Byrne). The film's depopulated locales -- it was shot in and around London and Ontario, Canada -- work with its bare-bones décor and minimalist language to vividly evoke Spider's skewed worldview. As with many aspects of the film, they bear another modernist's influence.
"When I was doing the sound mix of eXistenZ," Cronenberg recalls, "the book that I was reading was called The Last Modernist, a biography of Beckett `by Anthony Cronin`. Beckett was kind of a touchstone for us for Spider, in the sense that Spider could have been a character from Beckett and `you have` those photos of Beckett wandering around the streets looking like a vagrant, but of course, not being one."
Cronenberg enhanced the introspective feel by suggesting that cinematographer Peter Suschitzky utilize a "kind of lighting which is very subjective and not realistic. There are scenes where light is coming from a wall where there is no window. I encouraged him to not worry about the things that all cameramen worry about, which is dealing with sources of light. I said, 'It's his inner landscape that we're lighting.' Normally cameramen hate that stuff, but Peter got into it."
The film was shot on a low-contrast stock that "tends to make foregrounds and background blend together," the director says. Howard Shore's soundtrack is sparse, while every select ambient sound is "accentuated and emphasized" to create the "hyper kind of sensitivity to certain things" often experienced by schizophrenics.
What Cronenberg didn't want was to lose metaphoric fluidity by making his film too medically correct.
"I wanted to feel completely free to allow Spider to develop in a different way and not worry about, 'Would a schizophrenic do this? Are the symptoms correct?' and so forth." (A certain veracity was probably inherent in the script: McGrath's father was for many years a medical superintendent at Broadmoor Hospital, a British asylum.)
Fiennes did meet with schizophrenics and psychiatrists as research, but again, Cronenberg was concerned about the approach becoming too literal.
"I said, 'Ralph, I'm sure that you'll find something as an actor that you can use from that, but I want you to remember that this is not a clinical study of the disease. I'm doing a study of the human condition. And Spider here is my emblem for that -- he's the tool that I'm using to explore that.'''
A rather uncanny tool, as it turns out. After a screening in Toronto, Cronenberg was approached by a woman that he knew slightly, a middle-aged woman.
Having watched the emotionally lacerating scene of Spider attempting to fit his adult body in a too-small tub for an agonizing bath, the woman asked, ''How did you know about the bathtub?''
"I said, 'What do you mean?' She said, 'My son, he's 6 foot 3 `inches` and he's 23. He's schizophrenic and that is exactly how he lies in the bathtub. ... You must have done research.' And I said, 'No, in the script it just says, "Spider lies in the bathtub."'
"She found it totally accurate. I never expected something like that."
Asked about Ron Howard's glitzy view of mental illness, which was raking in Oscars about the time Spider was being shot, Cronenberg gets charmingly catty.
"I didn't even know A Beautiful Mind existed," he says. "It had no influence whatsoever, other than people asking me about it because it's obvious. One of the first articles, a good review of Spider, was called 'An Un-beautiful Mind.' And really, they've been very gratifyingly nasty to A Beautiful Mind when they compare it with Spider, because you know, obviously that's the Hollywood version of schizophrenia. Spider is not.
"I mean, A Beautiful Mind is very misleading. It's not completely truthful to that particular character. It's also not truthful in terms of what normally happens when someone is schizophrenic -- it's devastating, normally. What I'm saying is that there are many ways to truth, and I felt that our way was the way through art, as opposed to contrivance."
Although almost all his films deal with psychological disruption in some way, and often peak with moments of secular transcendence (see Videodrome or Crash), Cronenberg adds that, personally, "I resist that kind of mysticism. I think that madness truly is physiological derangement. There are kinds of psychological derangement, certainly. But madness in the clinical sense is, I think, physiological, and something that you have to endure and try to work with, rather than something that is a transcendence to be aspired to.
"But as a continuing metaphor, it has all kinds of potential. `There are` things that you don't want in your life but are very neat in your art."