by Gary Indiana
(Originally appeared in the Village Voice, December 31 1991)
This behind-the-scenes report, which includes interviews with William S. Burroughs and David Cronenberg, on the making of the Naked Lunch film has never been reprinted until now. A few points from the report had stuck in RealityStudio’s mind all these years, and fortunately the yellowed pages torn from the Voice had remained in a file folder as well. Gary Indiana, author of Horse Crazy (which Burroughs compared to Genet), Rent Boy, and numerous other works of fiction and non-fiction, has kindly given permission to RealityStudio to reproduce his report.
Toronto. After an ugly episode at Immigration, the van from Naked Lunch Productions whisks us off to a factory building near an expressway ramp. Whenever you cross boundaries, it’s good to remember that the oafs who guard them are intoxicated by ugly delusions of omnipotence. Never put “writer” on your customs form. Take the attitude that you are a very small, insignificant insect. An aphid, perhaps, or a dung beetle. Toronto: dismal vistas of leafless maple trees and brown three-story houses. Zones of upscale Boutiqueville. Gothic-themed public buildings from the late 19th century, patches of melting snow, cars with real rust on the fenders. Lots of KMart winter wear on people in cars. Parts of Toronto look like they seeped out of Nathaniel Hawthorne, other parts like relics of the Industrial Revolution. Downtown fits the generic profile of a modern Western city, with emporiums of designer food and sports equipment and automatic-teller machines garnished with homeless people. Since this is Canada, there are fewer homeless, who ask for less money, and none of them looks especially deranged or desperate. Like all civilized countries, Canada has a national health service.
This unmarked factory is where David Cronenberg is shooting Naked Lunch. Ever since the money for this project came together, snippets of info have been circulating, most of them vague, couched in the protective language people use when they’re not at all sure how the final product will play. The movie stars Peter Weller, Judy Davis, Roy Scheider, and Julian Sands. Shooting was supposed to start in Tangier, then the gulf war broke out and insurance fell through. The producer, Jeremy Thomas, has a special interest in alternative American lit, having produced the Bertolucci version of Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky.
Now that Naked Lunch has become a studio film, it’s been rewritten to make it even more an innervision of its main character, William Lee (Burroughs’ alter ego), as he travels back and forth between hallucination and reality. The script (reportedly) is an amalgam of several Burroughs texts, not just Naked Lunch: there are parts of Exterminator!, Junky, and other things knocking around. As to how much of Burroughs’ biography has been folded in, the publicity people are equivocal. Yes, it does draw on certain real-life episodes, and no, it isn’t the story of Burroughs. All representation is fiction, but in this case the question is, what kind of fiction?
In most of Burroughs’ writing, details of his actual life are pretty thoroughly transmuted into dreams, fantasies, hallucinations. He’s said that fully half his work comes directly from dreams, and Burroughs is surely one of the few eminent American novelists to make extravagant use of his imagination, uninhibited by precepts of naturalism or classical narrative structure. Cronenberg, a filmmaker known for exactly this kind of oneric material, has supposedly run something like a linear plot through the kaleidoscopic imagery of the novel, boiling off a lot of its gorgeous but unfilmable excess.
Naked Lunch is expected to focus fresh attention on the book, and on Burroughs. It will be interesting to see how the schizoculture of the ’90s recasts Burroughs, whose influence on American arts and letters has been vast and incalculable, but whose iconoclasm seems ever more remote from the American mainstream in the Age of the Right Wing Dinosaurs. There is even less support for experimental writing today than there was in the early ’60s when Naked Lunch first appeared: Then, at least, college campuses were cauldrons of revolt, underground papers had a great vogue, and it was a mark of honor to despise the mediocrity of American society that Burroughs satirized, this roaring disease of a society that gets worse as it gets older. The climate has changed. Things have taken a cold, wiggy turn.
Naked Lunch was a breakthrough novel in a formal sense (Burroughs is, precisely, Matthew Arnold’s nightmare), but also for its infernal vision of politics, addiction, and sexuality. These were all hot buttons in the early ’60s and are even hotter now, in an environment where resurgent puritanism and popular obscenity cohabit a weirdly symbiotic cultural space. According to the loose buzz in Toronto, Cronenberg has substituted imaginary chemicals for hard, real drugs — bug powder, Mugwump juice, the black meat of the giant centipede — to make the addiction angle more metaphorical, less of a toreador’s cape for preacher-critics. As for the sexuality… well, it’s hard to imagine even doing Naked Lunch as a movie.
Burroughs’ work is saturated with gay sex, especially adolescent gay sex, and celebrates male bonding in graphic, apocalyptic terms. While it’s true that Burroughs has never been a merchant of “positive images,” of gays or anybody else, his writing is a monument to autonomy — political, sexual, spiritual. Certainly Burroughs never thought twice about the seemliness or acceptability of two boys fucking each other on the page, and if one of them turned into a devouring green ooze in the process, so much the better. Film is another country. You don’t get $20 million out of Fox or Paramount or any studio for two boys fucking and green ooze. This is sure to become an issue when the film opens — David Ehrenstein, a film writer for The Advocate, has already warned his readers not to expect much from “heterosexual Cronenberg” — and one very much in the air in Toronto among the press that’s been invited up.
At this juncture, it’s hard to know what to expect. We may or may not get a look at the script. We may or may not be allowed to watch some special-effects shooting. Judy Davis has either finished filming or won’t be filming for another week. Peter Weller is on the set. Peter Weller was on the set but he left. Peter Weller is coming back later.
The journalists are set loose inside the studio. We pick our way through a mazy, prop-shop replica of the Medina in Tangier, taking snapshots. In my own Burroughs movie, the intestinelike streets would teem with Arab youths, pulling their cocks out and jacking off for the camera. Or full of Wild Boys slaughtering white colonists with laser guns and steel boomerangs. It does look like the Petit Socco in Tangier, though a little glimpse of the “Arabs” later in the day suggests a costume party at an Ivy League fraternity. There’s a dust-coated ’50s sedan marooned in the middle of an alley, a relic of North America in the gray Eisenhower years. Visions of spectral junkies dunking pound cake in Nedicks, subway hustlers rolling a drunk on Christmas Eve in the Lexington IRT. What I would put here, in front of the car, is that depraved Salvation Army Santa Claus from Exterminator! “Fight tuberculosis, folks.” We come to a large white space where a bizarre translucent creature, maybe six foot three, stands leaning against a sawhorse, clutching a huge pink erection in a space-monster fist. “Don’t take any pictures of that.”
A large platform has been built on the main soundstage, above the traffic of tech crew and actors. From what we can see on the monitors below, the platform has a series of hallways and rooms, some seedy, some opulent, changing with the lowering of backdrops. The decors mirror the interior of Bill Lee’s consciousness, shifting with the ease of dreams and memories from New York to Tangier, or Interzone. On the set, and in the executive offices on the second floor, everything seems to hum along smoothly, myriad details are being tended to, yet a certain informality prevails, more like on a European set than an American one. (Even Fassbinder’s sets were less autocratic than those of most NYU student films.) I tell a British journalist who’s writing a book on Cronenberg that the Cronenberg people seem unusually sanguine, even relentlessly so. “Yes, well,” he says meaningfully. “David insists on it.”
The monitors are now picking up the grid of what looks like a large bird cage with a parrot inside. Behind the parrot, a fleshy tubular object begins a slow rotation. We can just make out… something, a bunch of claws or insect mandibles… closing over the torso of a naked youth. Out here near the coffee and danish table, the teleporter pod from The Fly stands open-mouthed and forlorn, gathering dust.
Burroughs has already toured the set, held court in a lounge upstairs at the studio, and been photographed with Cronenberg in the special effects shop, surrounded by translucent Mugwumps. (“Mugwumps have no liver and nourish themselves exclusively on sweets. Thin, purple-blue lips cover a razor-sharp beak of black bone with which they frequently tear each other to shreds in fights over clients. These creatures secrete an addicting fluid from their erect penises which prolongs life by slowing metabolism.” Cronenberg’s Mugwumps pretty much follow Burroughs’ description.) It’s been a long day, punctuated by many Senior Service cigarettes and foreign journalists, and now we’re in his suite at the Sutton Place Hotel. A friend has been sent out to see if he can find a joint.
At 77, Burroughs is disquietingly alert and energetic, though his back is slightly hunched and he sometimes uses a cane. That he is so well preserved must be one of life’s little ironies, given his biography; on the other hand, as he’s often written, there’s no evidence that heroin or other opiates in controlled doses do any damage to the human body, drug hysteria to the contrary. It’s the precarious, messy lifestyle of most junkies that does them in, and Burroughs, who cleaned up years ago, is nothing if not fastidious.
He likes to get up and perambulate around the room. As an interviewee, not a self-starter. Since the film is heavily veiled in secrecy, there isn’t much to talk about on that end, though Burroughs says he’s generally content with what he’s seen. “Of course, I didn’t write the script. That’s probably a good thing.” He fixes a vodka and Coke. I join him. Have I see the bug typewriters? he asks. I haven’t. In the movie, the typewriters Bill Lee uses metamorphose, when he’s on the nod, into large squishy insects that speak through sphincterlike holes in their backs.
The conversation drifts into other areas. Does he think there’s more censorship of movies than books because we’re a visual culture?
“I don’t know what you mean by a visual culture. We’re supposed to be a TV culture. Apparently, the TV hasn’t penetrated the carapace of ignorance and inattention. I’ve seen statistics that half the high school graduates couldn’t locate Vietnam on a map and didn’t know that we’d fought a war there.”
“I think that must be a little exaggerated,” Burroughs drawls. “Anyway, that’s okay with me. There’s too many of them anyway. Let them shoot each other.”
Earlier in the day, riding through Toronto in one of the company vans, I told Burroughs about a strange case of organ-snatching in New York: a man met a woman in a bar, left with her, and woke up four hours later in Central Park with one of his kidneys surgically removed. The incident so much resembled the medical fantasies of Burroughs’ novels that I thought he would recognize reality catching up with his fiction. Instead he said, “That’s the weirdest thing I ever heard.” And here is something about writers, about obsessive writers, that’s both touching and bewildering: as my friend Lynne said when I told her this, the source of a writer’s most recurrent and familiar fantasies will always seem new and shocking to the writer himself.
During the long period when Burroughs used his cut-up and fold-in methods to generate writing, he often claimed that the resulting texts could foretell future events. One such text accurately predicted a Getty heir’s lawsuit against his own father. More cosmically, all of Burroughs’ early novels describe a fatal, sexually transmitted virus that produces AIDS-like symptoms. If he can see into the future, I think, Burroughs should be able to see into the past, too: I ask him where he thinks the virus originated.
“It’s hard to say. A number of people have suggested that it was a laboratory product, and quite deliberate. It’s a simple variation on the Visna virus that occurs in sheep, and it’s always fatal. It would be a very simple job for a biochemist to make. So, it could have been deliberate. For example, the connection with Kaposi’s sarcoma. Why Kaposi’s? Before AIDS, Kaposi’s was regarded as a very rare form of cancer, rarely fatal; it was not usually malignant. Oncologists described it as an indolent tumor, a lazy tumor. Why that should be associated with AIDS is pretty much an enigma.” Burroughs pauses meaningfully. “One of many.”
Weller, Burroughs, and Cronenberg hold a press conference in front of a wall-size painted backdrop of Tangier harbor as seen from a window of, if I’m not mistaken, the Hotel Rembrandt. (Matisse had the same view, in 1913, from his room in the HÃ´tel Villa de France at the other end of the Avenue Pasteur.) The Canadian press has packed the room, and in the crossfire of Q&A, Cronenberg articulates his basic approach: “To move back from the page itself to include the writer and his writing machine.” Burroughs amiably allows that he “wouldn’t expect to see any more than a tiny fraction of [the book] on him.”
I am seated next to Ira Silverberg, a literary agent who handles some of Burroughs’ public relations. Ira murmurs in my ear: “The low point will be when somebody asks William why he lives in Lawrence, Kansas. Someone always does.”
“Do you regret the period in your life when you were addicted?” someone asks.
“The point is,” Burroughs tells the reporter, “a writer can profit by experiences which would not be advantageous or profitable to others. Because he’s a writer, he can write about it.”
An arm shoots up near the front of the room.
“Mr. Burroughs, why do you live in Lawrence, Kansas?”
At the press conference, Cronenberg indicated that his film was a merger of his own prodigious fantasy equipment with selected bits of Burroughs’ writings. A collaboration rather than an adaptation. Later, touring the special-effects department to look at numerous hacked-up giant centipedes and gashed-open beetles with typewriter keys growing out of them, I’m reminded of the scattered moments of lucidity recorded by the narrator of Naked Lunch, when the author is yanked back from his overcrowded reveries and realizes that he’s alone in a squalid room, staring at his shoe. It’s the merest thread of a motif, maybe the saddest note struck throughout, and the place where autobiography intersects fiction.
The movie’s apparent emphasis on the author, and on the demonic process that resulted in Naked Lunch, testifies to the force of the Burroughs legend. (“When I got to know him,” Paul Bowles wrote in 1959, “I realized the legend existed in spite of him and not because of him: he didn’t give a damn about it.”) The legend is a classical redemption narrative. A man who spent years in a drug twilight, outside the law, who accidentally shot his wife in a drunken William Tell stunt in Mexico, etc., saved his soul through the act of writing. From Villon to Genet, literary history is full of exemplary figures who brought back startling visions from the lower depths.
Of course, times have changed, and changed again, since the cultural revolution of the ’60s, when Burroughs’ road map of the abyss functioned equally well as trip guide or caveat. Even the avatars of the punk movement who owed so much to Burroughs have gotten older; in many ways, the Reagan revolution has effectively turned the clock back to a time when screaming “shame” at the neighbors was a popular blood sport. Coming back from hell isn’t what it used to be. Recovery (from anything) has become a tiresome religion, the main tenet of which is that nothing valuable emanates from nonconformity.
Burroughs’ cranky, pessimistic view of humanity is essentially conservative, but at the same time it’s a mystical, libertarian one. His work celebrates the individual’s freedom to fuck himself up however he chooses, hence his career-long railing against Control — drug control, sex control, even gun control. The heroes of Burroughs’ books are those unassuming souls, whether criminals or law-abiding citizens, capable of minding their own business. His positions are at odds with the current critical atmosphere, wherein every artistic statement is subject to attack from both the right and the left. Radical elements at either end of the spectrum are completely immersed in the mentality of the Inquisition — puritanical, censorious, obsessed with punitive utopianism. A politics of big, blocky stupidities thrives on reverse redemption and one-dimensional “truths.” In Toronto, I wondered if reviews of Naked Lunch, the film, would take the thing on its own terms or dance around the private history of William Burroughs. Instead of DRUG ADDICT WRITES GREAT BOOK, article heads would probably reveal, “GREAT” BOOK WAS WRITTEN BY DRUG ADDICT.
A few months later, in October, Fox screens the final cut, and a lot of nagging questions are settled by other questions. An executive from Fox calls the next day and asks what I think of the movie and I tell her, honestly, that I haven’t figured that out. The effect of this movie is unusually delayed.
I recognize the fact that I can only look at Naked Lunch through the scrim of Naked Lunch, since I’ve lived with the book as a literary model for at least 20 years. Maybe Cronenberg should’ve given the film a different title to avoid raising a certain kind of expectation. Film is always pillaging literature, making the active, private act of reading into the passive, public one of staring. And this is a special case, where one strong, even overbearing sensibility has been grafted onto another, as in one of Burroughs’ “third mind” experiments.
If you focus on what isn’t in the movie — the saturnalian side of Burroughs, the atmosphere of a demented sex carnival going up in flames — it’s easy to ignore what’s there. There will be plenty of people whose sudden, proprietary interest in Burroughs begins and ends with the fact that he’s gay, who’ll feel swindled by what one of my screening companions calls “this strange heterosexualized version of Burroughs.” Cronenberg has invited this sort of criticism by the hybrid nature of his project, which plays not only on the carnivalesque inventions of Naked Lunch, but with well-documented facts: the shooting of Joan Vollmer in Mexico, the relationship with Ginsberg and Kerouac, the friendships with Paul and Jane Bowles in Tangier.
It’s on this literal plane that things have been placed askew. Where the film appears to spill over into biography, the facts have been cropped, blurred, translated into something else. In the introduction to Queer, Burroughs states: “I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death, and to a realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing… The death of Joan brought me into contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out.”
Cronenberg weaves this rationale into an elaborate design, in which the act of writing is not only expiative but is the restaging of primal trauma. The shooting — which really was an accident, however reprehensible the circumstances — can be read, in the film, as an act of sexual jealousy, an idea even Burroughs’ harshest detractors have never suggested. The hint of sexual estrangement and anger prior to the act sets the stage for another complicated involvement, ending in a hallucinatory reprise of the shooting with a character modeled (right up to the lipstick) on Jane Bowles. This movie is emphatically a fiction.
By its own logic, however, Naked Lunch makes emotional sense; it’s emotionally devastating, the kind of work that leaves an acrid, lingering taste of what it’s like to lose everything and then continue losing to the point where the self is practically obliterated. It’s deceptively faithful to Burroughs’ work in its treatment of all sexuality as a form of psychic vampirism or cannibalism. There is an unanticipated convergence between filmmaker and writer, quite aside from their shared predilection for science fiction. The film is surprisingly muted, with a note of quiet doom bleeding through it — you can hear the strangled wail of the outsider, trailing through the universe of cheap furnished rooms and desolate fixes in bus station toilets that Burroughs has always shown through a grimy window painted with arabesques. With some differences in surface geography, there is also the spiritual territory where Cronenberg has often joined the mystical with the irremediable: think of the endings of Scanners, The Brood, and Videodrome, where particular horrors find their solution in the revelation of a larger, universal horror, i.e. the horror of existence.
One ends up with a slightly divided view. In many ways, Cronenberg’s the best possible director to treat what’s formally and imaginatively special about Burroughs — the sense of continual displacement, the fracture of space and time, the vision of the soul hunted through landscapes of bottomless alienation. At the same time, the homosexual saturation of Burroughs’ work attracts and repels Cronenberg with equal intensity. To keep this polarity intact, he’s transposed it into a predominantly heterosexual schema, where he feels, not more comfortable, but correspondingly queasy — consider, for example, the diseased eroticism of Videodrome or Dead Ringers. In Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, apart from a general revulsion against the body, there’s an implicit salvational fantasy attached to the wife/mother figure, and a strong sense of threat coming from otherness, from homosexuality — it can’t really be called homophobia, but something more grandiose and complicit with Burroughs’ own misanthropic paranoia.
The only thing to be regretted about this is the virtual absence of movies this size, financially speaking, that deal with gay material undisguised and diluted. It’s that absence that makes each rare, tentative appearance of homosexuality in films problematical, a site of critical passion, much more than the appearances themselves. This is not Cronenberg’s problem, or Jonathan Demme’s, or Gus Van Sant’s, and criticism of their work based on the absence of many mainstream, vapid “gay movies” misses the point of what works of art are all about. Cronenberg has done so much to destroy the conventions of quotidian cinema in Naked Lunch (including romantic conventions) that overt political objections become moot: it’s not a film that operates on any obvious level, its pathology is rich enough to be read in opposite ways, the risks it takes are unexpected and upsetting.
I decided to ask Cronenberg what he thinks about the film, since my own reactions seemed, at first anyway, unduly colored by some dozen readings of Naked Lunch over the years. Here is an interview from early November 1991:
Gary Indiana: Mary McCarthy described Naked Lunch as the first novel of statelessness. The film is full of subtle displacements of the background; like the book it describes the shifting territory of the protagonist’s brain. How did you determine the look of the movie?
David Cronenberg: The idea was that in order to come to terms with a lot of things, the main character, William Lee, has to invent another country for himself to go to. He has to exile himself. But that Interzone is really a state of mind. What I’m really saying is that physically, he’s never left New York. And I give little hints and signs of that, so that he’s really put himself in a place that will — he hallucinates or imagines a place that will force him to come to terms with a lot of things about himself, which he’s not been able to come to terms with. One thing is his writing, that he has to write to save himself. Another is his homosexuality, that he must come to terms with it. He’s trying to be straight — what’s happening in the beginning is, as he said to the cops, “I was a troubled person, I’m straight now, got a good job, I’m married — ” He’s trying that trick, which a lot of artists have tried over the years, to become totally bourgeois and now allow themselves to be outsiders or aliens. They try to integrate with society, but of course it doesn’t work. And so the pressure of that impulse forces him to put himself into a situation, unconsciously, really, where he will transform into another version of himself, a more real version of himself, where he will be a homosexual, he will be a writer, he will be a man who functions well in a kind of hallucinatory territory. And that’s basically the structure of it.
Indiana: In dealing with the act of writing on his part, the process of making this book Naked Lunch is shown in almost an occult way, as something forced on him by his own demons. Lee’s somebody who doesn’t even really recognize his work as something that he’s done, when he’s presented with it. What happens to him is really different than what happens to a filmmaker working with dozens of people, but I wonder if some of that connects with your process of writing a script?
Cronenberg: It connects not only with the process of writing a script, but with shooting a movie. There’s no question. Even though writing is a very private, solitary affair, normally — although a lot of filmmakers have sessions with 10 writers all screaming at each other in a room, so it’s not quite the same — but for me it’s basically the way you would work as a novelist alone. And in the filmmaking process you’re suddenly collaborating and it’s a very social, communal kind of thing. But it’s also very hallucinatory, because you’re tired, you’re in a studio, often, and you literally don’t know if it’s day or night. You could be anywhere. When you’re on the set, the lights are on it’s daytime, when the lights are lit for night it’s nighttime, that sort of thing.
Indiana: A lot of your films show characters entering a kind of mystery or conspiracy that quite often leads them to their doom. This film, to some extent, shows somebody saving himself, but it’s equivocal, because in the end, this primal act of having killed his wife comes up again.
Cronenberg: In the sense that he’s driven and forced to become a writer because of the act of killing his wife, and to try to understand that and come to terms with that, and make order out of chaos, in that sense, I’m saying that as he continues to write through his life he’s continuing to kill his wife. He’s driven. It’s my sort of metaphor, I’m trying to establish that this is the act that continually drives him. You know, metaphor in cinema is a very problematical thing. It’s very well established and works very well in literature, but you can’t do it literally onscreen. There’s no literal equivalent of a metaphor. Eisenstein tried it, you know, he’d say “the crowd roared like a lion” and he would cut to a lion roaring. It was ludicrous. So, you have to find other means to express these things which are symbolical or metaphorical.
Indiana: The presiding metaphor of Naked Lunch the book, and I wonder how much do you agree with it, is that contemporary society is a pyramid of addiction, that everybody is addicted to something?
Cronenberg: Well, it’s a simplification of both the book and society, maybe. It’s not bad to say it to illuminate things, but I don’t think it would hold true on every page, or in every social instance. You’d have to get very specific what you mean by addiction. It’s true that the movie is stepping back one step from Burroughs’ writing, let’s say, and it’s discussing the act of writing, and maybe the addiction to writing, the need, the incredible need to write. In that sense it’s not a real replication of the book. I think what has really resulted is a third thing. It’s something that is a fusion of me and Burroughs and has resulted in a third thing that would not have been done by Burroughs by himself and would not have been done by me by myself. It discusses the book, let’s say, rather than actually being an attempt to portray the book.
Indiana: The film is demanding on a narrative level; it’s like Videodrome in a way, because it deals with overlapping hallucinated states. Are you worried that some viewers will lose their place in it?
Cronenberg: Well, Videodrome was different in that I was very rigorous in Videodrome about it being a first-person film, and when his reality changed the reality fo the film changed, and you had no outside references at all. This is different, because there are outside references. For example in the insect-typewriter’s death scene, after he drops the typewriter and walks away from it, I cut to a real typewriter with the paper in it. You should understand then, that perhaps what was really happening, if you had been there watching, a third person, you would’ve seen a man sitting there, drugged out, typing madly and mumbling to himself, that’s what you would’ve seen. There are more outside references to help you along.
Indiana: I had the problem that I’d seen the script, I was focusing on how you would carry of certain things in the script.
Cronenberg: I was ambivalent about letting people see the script, because the relationship between the script and the movie is such a strange, complex one, and most people never get a chance to plug into that. They don’t normally read the script and then see the movie. When you’re making a movie, so many things happen that later you look at the script and flip it aside. Before you shoot it is the Bible, and after you shoot it’s like toilet paper. It’s nothing. It’s amazing, it’s a totally different experience from writing a book, let’s say, because you know that the object of the script is to make the script completely obsolete by the making of the movie. And you become totally ruthless. Some things that worked very well on paper, or were even essential and crucial, become redundant by the way things are played on screen. Suddenly you say, “That’s obvious by this time in the movie, we don’t need that scene,” whereas on paper you needed it, because it wasn’t there yet.
Indiana: This film seems more like Dead Ringers than earlier films like Scanners. There’s a level of melancholy, and it seemed to me a very subdued film, in a way. You’re dealing with a very hallucinatory and strange reality, but it seems a much more interior and psychologically active film than on the level of some kind of incredible spectacle.
Cronenberg: It might simply have to do with my advanced years, but once you blow up a few cars, it starts to get boring, I have to tell you. And the things that interest you as you mature, obviously, and your sense of control, as well — it’s now a fine vibrato that I’m worried about here, rather than sweeping musical phrases, I guess is one way to make an analogy. I’m concerned with the delicacy and subtlety of things, despite the possibility for sensational stuff, with both Burroughs and the theme of my script.
Indiana: The feeling you get from Bill Lee’s adventure is one of incredible sadness.
Cronenberg: When I read Literary Outlaw, it’s such a tremendous book, there’s so much in it that’s funny and spectacular and wonderful, but my final feeling was sadness. Real sadness.
Indiana: The intersexuality of some of the characters to some extent seems to be mirroring Lee’s ambivalence, and a lot of other characters in the film. Since sexual identity has become so politicized, do you anticipate a lot of criticism for the way you’ve dealt with it?
Cronenberg: I really hope that it’s not criticism but discussion. One of the things I did with drugs in the film was invent my own drugs, to kind of cool off the political aspects of that, because I didn’t want people thinking of Nancy Reagan when they’re watching the movie. With the sexuality, there’s no way to cool it off, I just did what I wanted to do and what I felt was true to the film, and kind of let the chips fall where they may. If you write a political tract or a critical work, okay, you can work out of a political stance or juggle all those things that are happening culturally at the moment. But when you’re trying to create a fiction, I think you have to ignore all those things. You have to pretend they don’t exist. You assume they’re embedded in your sensibility so they will find expression that way. But I couldn’t worry about what radical wing of what movement would say about this moment in the film. If you do that, you paralyze yourself. Because of course I’ve been hammered from every side at times, and if I’d tried to avoid being hammered I would’ve done nothing.
Indiana: Realistically, do you expect to get mau-maued?
Cronenberg: I had a bit of that already with The Advocate. I was disturbed because of the quote: “Well, don’t expect too much, because the heterosexual Cronenberg has already gone on record as saying that Burroughs is not really gay.” That’s not what I said, and when I tried to call David Ehrenstein to discuss it, he wouldn’t talk to me. So I could see already, before the movie had been made, that I was in for trouble. It was the usual taking out of context for a political purpose. I would still talk to The Advocate or Ehrenstein again after he sees the film; I’m not going to back away from anything. James Grauerholz was quoted in The Advocate, and I appreciated what he said, which was basically, “Burroughs’ Naked Lunch does not belong to any particular sexual or political party, and it’s not their possession,” so they can’t claim that I’ve stolen something.
Indiana: Well, like I said, it’s hard for me as an American writer to see the film without reference to the book.
Cronenberg: Somewhere there’s got to be a critic or journalist who knows nothing about Burroughs. It would be great for someone to write from that stance.
Indiana: I only have one more question: the milieu of the film is an Interzone that partly recreates the milieu of legendary figures of American literature. Ginsberg, Kerouac, Jane Bowles… I know they’re not to be taken literally as representations of those people but people kind of inspired by them; this is just a question for you as Canadian filmmaker, I guess, but however accepted these people have become, they will remain in a curious way peripheral or alternative figures in the American mainstream. Which is very troubling in some way. How do you, as a Canadian, if you don’t mind me asking it that way, feel about the mainstream culture of the U.S. as it is now, especially as an independent filmmaker?
Cronenberg: Well, it’s interesting, because I suppose vis-Ã -vis the American cultural mainstream, Canadians also feel peripheral, and it would be logical for a Canadian feeling the effects of the huge American machine to the south of us to feel peripheral and to feel some kind of kinship to Americans who are also peripheral. Tangier as Toronto. And that was one of the things McLuhan always felt, that his position, here, not right in the middle of the stream, but in a backwater, allowed him to make some very objective comments on what was happening in America, precisely because he wasn’t an integrated part of it. I don’t have any sweeping thing to say — Canadians have a very perverse, ambiguous, ambivalent relationship with America, as maybe you know. We feel part of it and not part of it, inferior and superior to it at the same time, it just goes on and on in circles, but the main thing is, for me, when people here say — well, they don’t say it to me much anymore, but — why aren’t you making real Canadian films? And I say, To make a Canadian film that ignores America is impossible. It wouldn’t be a real Canadian film. There’s no way to isolate the uniquely Canadian thing — subject, look, whatever — and have no reference at all to America. If you ask a Canadian what he is, if you’re French, let’s say, the first thing you say is, “We’re not Americans, you know.” Where would we be without America? That’s the strange position we find ourselves in. To me, this is a Canadian movie despite the fact that Canada’s not mentioned in it. It’s perfect, if you see what I mean.
Around the same time I talked to Cronenberg, a print of Naked Lunch had made its way to Lawrence, Kansas, where Burroughs was much preoccupied with his cats, his guns, and editing The Granta Anthology of Deathless Prose.
“Now that you’ve had a chance to see the film,” I asked him on the phone, “what are your impressions?”
“Well, I like it very much. Of course, it’s a Cronenberg film. I think he’s done a great job. Nothing at all what I would’ve done, but that’s as it should be.”
“If a movie tried to picture the things described in Naked Lunch,” I said, “it could never be shown in a commercial theater.”
“Not only that, but even a novel written for film, like Jaws, you have to slice and cut and omit a great deal just as a sheer matter of time. As David pointed out, you could make two or three hundred movies from Naked Lunch.”
“The film seems more interested in exploring the creative process, specifically the writing of Naked Lunch. This seems to unavoidably invite critics to link events and people in the movie with events and people in your real life. How do you feel about that?”
“There was a question whether I should take any part in the film, and both Cronenberg and I independently decided absolutely not. The minute you get somebody in there that everybody knows, you destroy the whole structure, and it becomes real. Which is what David was trying to avoid.”
“David Cronenberg’s story is his interpretation. Other quite valid interpretations are possible. You take a very complex novel like Naked Lunch, a novel with a great deal of talk in it, and you’re going to have to select one line. I think the ending worked very well. The ending has the surprise of recognition, that is to say, something that is surprising, but appropriate.”
“William, you’ve written many books since Naked Lunch. Do you feel very distant from it?”
“No, I wouldn’t say so. I see the other books as just a continuation. I feel that the work I’ve written is really one long book.”
“I have a quote here from Genet. When he gave permission to Fassbinder to film Querelle, he sent a letter that said, ‘Tell Mr. Fassbinder that I wrote that book 40 years ago, and I no longer remember anything about it.'”
There’s a momentary pause.
“I think he’s kidding.”