Spider, starring Ralph Fiennes as a mental patient discharged into his grim childhood neighborhood and his even grimmer, hallucinated childhood memories, is David Cronenberg’s latest adaptation of an unadaptable piece of literature. This time it’s Patrick McGrath’s first-person novel, about a schizophrenic whose mother called him Spider, which the writer himself had fashioned into a screenplay. (The film opens February 28; see the review.)
What went right? When the dapper filmmaker came to New York last month to accept a lifetime award from Fangoria magazine, he visited the genial writer at his Lower Manhattan loft to discuss that question over bagels and lox and under the eye of a stuffed bat.
DAVID CRONENBERG: This is the perfect fusion. I can’t actually remember what you did, Patrick, and what I did. So I will take all the credit for it.
PATRICK MCGRATH: So many directors pawed that script.
DC: A few in Toronto, actually. Before you sent it to me you sent it to Atom Egoyan, and then he sent it to Don McKellar. I was at a party with these guys and I said, “I’m probably going to be doing Spider,” and they said, “Oh yeah, we read that.” They knew the script. They thought it was terrible.
PM: In those days, it was terrible.
DC: After Atom saw Spider at the Toronto Film Festival, he said, “I read the script, but I didn’t see the movie—until now.” He thought the device of having Spider wandering around in his own memories was very theatrical and wouldn’t work cinematically.
J. HOBERMAN: Did the movie surprise you, Patrick?
PM: I’ve had two of my books filmed now [the other was 1995’s The Grotesque, starring Theresa Russell and Sting]—the first shock is that you have lived with the physical idea of your characters for so long that the first time you see the actor, the body is all wrong.
DC: Isn’t that one of the things about
schizophrenia—you start to think the body’s all wrong?
PM: That’s very true. I’d actually seen a “Spider” walking along the Mile End Road in East London. He looked like Samuel Beckett—lanky, sort of tall, the legs too long. But the first morning, the lanky Spider in my head dissolved when I saw Ralph coming down that street.
DC: You actually thought of Samuel Beckett?
PM: Oh, very much—
DC: Because it’s not in your novel, obviously. And Beckett became our touchstone. I didn’t know that you had had him in mind.
PM: Purely physically. I’d not read him at that point.
JH: David, what was your sense of the novel?
DC: The literary conceit of the book is that the journal is the book. The book Spider was actually written by Spider—which means that he’s a rather good writer, as good as Patrick anyway. I knew it wouldn’t work. But I did love the idea of the journal because I felt that we needed something physical to show that he was obsessive and that he was gathering evidence about the crime. I didn’t realize at the time that I was making him be a kind of artist, a strangely spooky failed artist.
PM: When I first began the novel, it was about Spider’s father. But then as the story developed, I thought it should be told from the point of view of the child, who would be a man remembering this traumatic period. And then it became interesting. I began to think in terms of a psychotic narrator—which you didn’t care anything about.
DC: No. I cared about the vibe—the “Spider vibe.” It seemed very rich to me. And I felt that if we symptomized it, it would narrow what could be quite universal in its implications. If you label a character schizophrenic, then the audience has a chance to stand back and say, this is a crazy person. That’s not me. I wanted them to be Spider.
PM: Spider was somebody that I couldn’t have imagined if I hadn’t grown up around Broadmoor, where my father was chief psychiatrist, and then worked at a mental hospital in Canada. That was crucial, meeting men who were schizophrenic and whose lives had been completely wrecked by that illness.
DC: Patrick, you were apparently made somewhat nervous by my decision to take away the voice-over.
PM: I suppose that I started building the character of Spider in the belief that he only mattered in terms of all this wild stuff going around in his head—the seething inferno that was his brain.
DC: We did that with Ralph’s hair. We did the seething inferno of the hair.
PM: Did I have a scene in the [original] script where we see Spider’s parents actually having sex in bed in the house?
DC: I don’t think so.
PM: It wasn’t there?
DC: No, it’s funny because the Japanese distributor went on and on about how that was such a great scene—the parents having sex and the boy watching. And I thought, well, I don’t think that it’s in there, but I’m not going to tell her, because it’s her favorite scene in the movie. And then, when they finally saw the movie, I didn’t hear a word about “where’s that scene?” But there was never really the primal scene itself. It pleased me to confound the Freudian paradigm as well, because ever since I read Why Freud Was Wrong, a very scholarly, brilliantly written book by Richard Webster, I can’t go along with that paradigm anyway.
PM: I think it was a good idea to not make it a schematic, oedipal setup, because the film isn’t about that. It’s more about the process of repression and the breakdown of that process. Spider has managed to construct an entirely alternative set of memories as to why and how his mother died.
DC: Well, of course, since I’ve read Why Freud Was Wrong, I don’t believe in repression either—
PM: Some of us are clinging to it.
DC: I know. It’s a desperate thing, especially in New York. [glancing up] Oh, you have a bat!
DC: I have butterflies and moths but I don’t have a bat.
PM: No bat? Fangoria will probably give you one.
JH: . . . in appreciation for those eels that Spider’s “bad” mother, Yvonne, cooks up for dinner.
DC: The eels. The eels. Yeah.
PM: He took out the bleeding potato.
DC: There were some very horror-film elements in Patrick’s original script. In particular, there was this bleeding potato—and it makes perfect hallucinatory sense. We had the special-effects guys make the bleeding potato—and it exploded, as usual. Which always happens. When you go to see effects stuff, don’t wear your best clothes. And they finally got it to not only bleed but to glow. They were very proud of it and then I didn’t shoot it. By that time, I felt that the movie was somewhere else. Yvonne was our main hallucination.
PM: Early on in the filming, you asked me to classify every scene as to what sort of zone of reality we were in. We had Spider in the present day, Spider in reliable memory, Spider in what we called “infected memory”—
DC: It’s interesting to see the movie a second time because what you’re seeing is completely different. It’s a trip down memory lane. For most people, there’s a revelation later in life about what was really going on with your parents that they couldn’t tell you because you were a child, and now you have to re-think and re-remember all of that stuff—now you find out that your father was having an affair with that woman in the asylum that you wrote about.
PM: Not my dad, no.
DC: Exactly. That’s what they all say—your dad but not mine.
JH: A number of people at Cannes compared Spider to A Beautiful Mind.
DC: If you see that movie, you’re going to say, wow, let me be a schizophrenic—
PM: Yeah, exactly! Shuffling around Princeton half your life.
DC: I’ve got this really beautiful chick who I have no trouble sustaining this relationship with, I have fun with Ed Harris when I’m bored, I win the Nobel Prize, then I have a movie made about my life starring Russell Crowe, and then we win Oscars. So let me be a schizophrenic.
J. Hoberman’s review of Spider