David Cronenberg is often referred to as an auteur - that is, a film director who has built a consistent body of work exploring one central theme or vision. Over his career, Cronenberg has examined issues of identity, making movies which dissolve the boundaries between mind and body, body and machine, and human and animal. Often profoundly disturbing and drenched in violent and sexual imagery - and always daring and thought-provoking - Cronenberg's body of work makes us question what it means to be a human individiual in the modern world.
Cronenberg was born in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, in 1943. His father was a journalist, and his mother a pianist. Cronenberg was artistic from an early age, playing classical guitar until 12 and writing short stories into his twenties; he attended the University of Toronto, majoring first in science but soon switching to literature. He won a prestigious award for one of his stories while at university, and also became interested in film, shooting a few no-budget thrillers. He founded a local film cooperative with Iain Ewing and Ivan Reitman and graduated top of his class in 1967.
Cronenberg began making films at an interesting time in Canada. The government was rethinking its policies towards supporting movie-making and decided to actively promote non-documentary filmmaking through the newly created Canadian Film Development Corporation (CFDC). After the independent release of his avant-garde science fiction horror film, "Stereo", Cronenberg received CFDC support for his next venture, "Crimes of the Future", another dark and experimental sci-fi offering. The support continued through the next half decade: 1975's "Shivers", a gore and sex-fest about professionals turned sex maniacs after being infected with phallus-like parasites; 1977's "Rabid", starring porn star Marilyn Chambers as a Typhoid Mary character who reduces Montreal to foaming murderers; and 1979's "The Brood", about an angry mother whose rage manifests as horrific mutant killer children.
Cronenberg continued over his next few offerings to explore the theme of altered bodies bringing down civilization. 1981's "Scanners", featuring a menacing Michael Ironside and an infamous exploding head, established him as a "body horror" master, and was followed up by 1983's "Videodrome", a frightening and gory critique of mass media and its effect on humanity. The same year saw the release of "The Dead Zone"; though it was the first script he had not had a hand in writing, it bore his unmistakeable stamp in its exploration of disease, psychosis, and the interface between the human body and technology. He pushed this theme farther with his terrifying remake of "The Fly", then aimed at more psychological fare with 1988's "Dead Ringers", about twin gyneocologists whose identities begin to fracture and merge under the influence of sex and drugs. 1991's "Naked Lunch" was based on the autobiographical novel by William S. Burroughs, and featured unforgettable images such as cockroaches becoming typewriters. 1993's "M. Butterfly" eschewed Cronenberg's usual horror-laden tropes and imagery but explored familiar themes of identity and sexuality through a sympathetic and restrained interpretation of the true story of René Gallimard, a French diplomat who did not realize that his Chinese lover was actually a man.
1996 saw the release of "Crash", based on a disturbing story by J.G. Ballard, concerning a group of people whose sexuality is entwined with car accidents and wounds. (When Canadian director Paul Haggis came out with his own film titled "Crash" in 2005, Cronenberg protested what he saw as an unethical and annoying use of the same name.) 1999's stylish "eXistenZ" - Cronenberg's first original screenplay since "Videodrome" - was set in a virtual reality world and followed a game designer on the run. In 2002 he released the haunting "Spider", about a schizophrenic and his hallucinatory world; 2005's "A History of Violence", his most acclaimed and successful movie to date, again covered the terrain of identity through psychology. He garnered similar attention for 2007's "Eastern Promises", set this time in London's Russian mafia underground.
It is perhaps surprising, given the extreme limits that his films push, to learn that the real life Cronenberg is calm and caring and by all accounts a pleasure to work with. He has a fiercely loyal crew - including his sister, costume designer Denise Cronenberg, cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, and composer Howard Shore - that he prefers to call on for his films. He has remained independent - he was called on to make "Total Recall", but dropped out of the project after a year, citing "creative differences", and in spite of being considered, did not in the end work on "Return of the Jedi" or the sequel to "Basic Instinct". He often makes movies in Canada, and credits Canadian government support as a major factor allowing him to pursue his vision away from the strictures of Hollywood. Though never a huge box office success, Cronenberg has achieved considerable critical acclaim, and his reputation has become such that stars such as Ralph Fiennes and Viggo Mortensen will forego their usual hefty fees for the chance to star in one of his films.
David Cronenberg has acted in several movies (e.g. "Nightbreed", "To Die For", "Last Night"), and has had cameos in a few of his own. He has been married twice, has three children, and lives in Toronto. He was jury president at the Cannes Film Festival in 1999 - which resulted in controversial top prizes for "Rosetta" and "L'Humanite" over popular favourites like "All About My Mother" and "Kikujiro" - and was awarded the Order of Canada in 2002.