Kristen Stewart and David Cronenberg examine the existentialist side of filmmaking

For Document’s Winter 2021/Resort 2022 issue, Stewart joins Cronenberg to discuss technology, transformation, and the reality of the human condition

The radical theoretician Régis Debray described it as “a double miracle, an astonishing marriage of ancient and modern, like an outdoor Apollinaire poem.” To the anthropologist Marc Augé, the televised spectacle was nothing less than a work of “great art,” tailor-made for a British public newly liberated from Tory austerity into the arms of Blairite spin and sound-biting. Across the English Channel, the documentarian Mark Cousins examined Princess Diana’s televised funeral proceedings through the lens of shifting spatial relations: Writing alongside Debray and Augé in After Diana, published by Verso Books in 1998, Cousins recalled the mass ovation that Earl Spencer received from a mourning public watching the private service on televisions outside Westminster Abbey. As Spencer took aim at the British tabloids for turning his sister, named for the ancient goddess of hunting, into “the most hunted woman of the modern world,” the thunderous clapping was picked up by the cameras inside the Abbey and fed back to its audience-creators on the same screens they had been applauding at.

Pablo Larraín’s fictionalized drama Spencer, starring Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana in the throes of an existential crisis over the course of three days in 1991, offers little such emotive pageantry. Stewart’s performance is an externalization of Diana’s inner world as she navigates paparazzi culture and historical conventions to confront a terrifying, exhilarating truth of the human condition: We are responsible for creating our own reality. Within the confines of the royal family’s country estate in Sandringham, where Christmas dinners are executed with military precision, madness starts to look like resistance, and physical sickness is symptomatic of an impending release. (In the first of many ominous meal scenes, Stewart devours spoonfuls of giant pearls and putrid-green soup before purging in the toilet of a palatial restroom, evoking Roquentin’s dizzying epiphanies about the absurdity of existence in Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea.)

Larraín cast Stewart after seeing her in Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper, a similarly introspective ghost story about grief. But in Spencer, it’s Diana’s (and Stewart’s) exuberance that prevails, allowing her to transcend fate, tragedy, and the realities constructed in history books and newspapers. “It was really good for me that I didn’t have to get it all right,” Stewart says, “because to do her real justice would be to make sure that she was fucking alive.”

Stewart is now in pre-production on her feature directorial debut, an adaptation of Lidia Yuknavitch’s 2010 memoir, The Chronology of Water, which has gained a devoted following for its frank handling of sexuality, violence, and transformation. But she’ll next be seen on screen in Crimes of the Future (2022), a sci-fi thriller directed by legendary Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg. Cronenberg has had his share of clashes with the British tabloids. His adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s postmodern opus Crash caused a moral panic when it premiered at Cannes in 1996, a year before Princess Diana’s death, prophetically diagnosing the psychosexual perversions of Western culture in the dying moments of the 20th century: celebrities and car crashes. Cronenberg has long been hailed as an oracle for the prescient fusions of flesh and machine he engineered in cult classics like The Fly, Scanners, and Videodrome. But the director maintains that he was only illustrating the inevitable when he predicted YouTube, transhumanism, and stem cell technology. Cronenberg’s philosophical cinema is indebted to the thinking of Sigmund Freud, Edmund Husserl, and René Descartes more than it is to special effects; he mines the depths of the human condition with the analytical audacity of a biotechnician. “The essence of coming to terms with what you are is to come to terms with the body,” Cronenberg says. “There’s a complete interpenetration between the inside and the outside of your body. In a strange way, I guess, Crimes of the Future is very literal about that.”

Kristen Stewart: I think you can hear us now, I can feel it.

David Cronenberg: I’m only hearing you faintly, I don’t know why.

Kristen: Well, shit! Do you want to call me? I’m trying to MacGyver the situation. [Typing] Maybe, David, you should call me because we can’t hear you.

David: I fixed it. [Laughs] Thanks for the suggestion, anyway.

Hannah Ongley: Well, David, thanks for joining us. I know you’ve been very busy with post-production on Crimes of the Future.

David: I’ve been spending time with Kristen every day, but in the editing room. It’s a weirdly intimate relationship because you become so sensitized, as a director, to every hesitation, every body movement, every vocal inflection. So you have this strange relationship with an actor who doesn’t know that you’re doing that.

Kristen: I’ve only ever heard—which was confirmed in working with him—that [David] has just the most gentle precision. I was so impressed with how easy it was to be there, to feel things and discover things without this added pressure of, ‘Holy fuck, I’m working with David Cronenberg, he’s made some of the best movies of our time!’ [David] actually said to me on the phone, when we first spoke about Crimes of the Future, ‘It’s just going to be a lovefest.’ It did feel that way.

David: I wrote this script 20 years ago, so it was almost like a script that somebody else wrote. Except for some of the roles that I cast in Athens, with Greek actors, I had never heard any of the dialogue spoken before. So to hear Kristen start to speak the lines of this character, it was a shock! I was like, ‘Oh, my God, this is a living creature—out of control, in the sense that it has its life–and it’s coming to life right in front of me.’

As I told you, Kristen, you were a revelation to me. You can see an actor, and you can watch an actor, but you still don’t know what it’s like to be on the set with that actor. Sometimes it’s a difficult thing, because you’re not getting what you hoped you could get. [Laughs] I don’t think I’ve said, ‘This was a real mistake, to cast this actor.’ But when you get a Ferrari instead of a Volkswagen, it’s pretty nice.

Hannah: Were you looking for a Ferrari for 20 years?

David: You always are. You’re looking for power and charisma and complexity—just interesting things that you never expected. When you can get that out of a performer in front of you, it’s very exciting. And I was very excited working with Kristen.

Kristen: I’m looking for a Ferrari right now. For the first time in my life, I’m casting something myself. It’s fortuitous, actually, because this very day we’re getting the first round of self-tapes. I’m nervous for them! My gosh, throwing yourself on tape for something and then kind of just casting it out to sea, hoping that the person finds it.

This is going to sound obvious, and I hope not to sound trite, but who you’re drawn to—sometimes you’re able to articulate why, and sometimes you are not. Ultimately, you always sort of test your instincts while making the movie and go, ‘Was that shred of thought, or that inkling, correct? Was I right?’ It is kind of rare—for me, at least, luckily—to be misled into shitty creative exchanges that take from you and don’t put anything back. I’ve been hoodwinked one or two times and I look back on those experiences and go, ‘Oh, my God. Fuck. I can’t believe that I was duped into thinking that we could make something together.’

David: I think that it can come with experience, as a director. You know how you’re reacting; you know what you might be falsely attracted to.

Kristen: Part of me is excited to see what they make in their own little microcosms, to sort of view them as little short films. It’s almost like just a cool experiment to see what somebody does. Such a vulnerable experience! I obviously come from a place of doing auditions in person and really being able to affect each other, to kind of get an impression across that isn’t just embedded in the material. Also, these people haven’t even read the fucking script and it’s, like, raw as shit. I’m like, ‘Tell them they don’t have to do the masturbating!’ I can’t wait to see how people lay themselves bare.

David: Well, in self-taping—first of all, you can’t help but notice their kitchen, and whether they have stuff in the sink or not. And then the dog runs through the shot, and then—

Kristen: [Laughs] Oh, there’s a dog person, that’s good, it means they’re sweet. Yeah, you have to look at all the details.

What I will say about your process—which is trippy, considering you have just outgrown film and don’t want to look back—when you shoot, it still feels like you’re rolling film, which I think some people lose track of with digital cameras. They just sort of roll all the time; they try and get as much as they can. What’s important is to preserve the catalyst: the moments where you can feel that hum of the film turning. It makes people stand at attention in a way that instills the fucking movie with the magic, the feeling that it’s lightning in a bottle, and if you won’t catch the curveball, you’re going to strike out, and the movie’s going to suck. That feeling of immediacy, and everyone together in one isolated millisecond, is something you get with film but we definitely had it on set shooting with digital.

David: One of the assistant cameramen said to me, ‘You know what I’m really loving on your set?’ I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘You say cut.’ I say, ‘What? Of course I say cut. I say action and then I say cut.’ [Laughs] He said, ‘No! Young filmmakers don’t say cut. They just keep rolling.’ Of course, in the old days it was expensive to keep rolling. Now it isn’t.

Hannah: David, you wrote Crimes of the Future 20 years ago. Did you revise the script at all in the years since?

David: No, not at all. The only rewriting had to do, mainly, with changing the locations, not with the characters or the dialogue or anything like that. In fact, I must confess that some scenes I hadn’t read for 20 years. I was kind of shocked. I thought, ‘What is this crazy writer doing? How does he expect me to make this work?’

For me, there has always been an element of found art in moviemaking. Being in Athens, in particular—I hadn’t been there since 1965—there were just great things. The first shot in the movie is a sunken ship on its side. We just discovered this! I was looking for a location, and I saw this ship, and I thought, ‘That has to be in the movie.’ Hitchcock—who young filmmakers used to idolize, I don’t know if they still do—had everything mapped out. He had everything storyboarded, and he called shooting the movie ‘grinding it through the machine.’ In other words, it wasn’t exciting for him. That would be horrible for me. So every day on the set was discovery day.

Hannah: It’s interesting, because you were speaking earlier about the cultural relevance of Crimes today, despite it being a sci-fi you wrote in 1996. Kristen, your new film, Spencer, is set in the early ’90s, and Princess Diana died in 1997, when you must have been, what, seven years old? What was it like to go back and re-experience, or to research, that time?

Kristen: I will say I have a really developed memory of what adults felt like when I was seven. I remember seeing footage of all the flowers outside Buckingham Palace. Obviously I didn’t completely understand what was going on and the impact of the loss, but I did see the result. This mass mourning was really impactful as a seven-year-old.

It’s funny, our movie is a distillation of feeling. All of the authenticity that we tried to infuse into the movie is tonal. We don’t profess to know anything new. It is so far away from authoritative or biopic-y. It is kind of accumulative, by osmosis, like a dream that started with Pablo imagining three days where this woman is about to make a decision on a kind of precipice. In doing all the research and wanting to incorporate as much as we could to make it feel truthful to who she was, we kind of read everything we possibly could and then forgot about it. I think you just have to trust the process and know that those things do find their way into your body somehow.

I think the coolest thing about Diana, the most undeniable impression that I have of her, is that she was very unpredictable. Every time I see a picture of her, an interview with her, I feel like, ‘Oh, fuck. I have no idea what’s about to happen.’ It was really good for me that I didn’t have to get it all right, because to do her real justice would be to make sure that she was fucking alive. All of her empathetic skills, her disarming, casual air—all of that feels like she’s protecting something that is so delicate and fragile. She wears her heart on her sleeve like no other.

Hannah: I would love to hear you speak, Kristen, about the costumes in Spencer. I just watched Personal Shopper the other night and was struck by how your character seemed to have a similar relationship to clothing—when she’s trying on the stiletto boots, and the almost bondage-like aspect of the wardrobe—in the sense that it made her feel both confident and humiliated.

Kristen: We are just little layered beings to begin with. I think every character reveals aspects that might be more surprising to you, or not your default settings, unless you’re pushed and moved by a story to kind of find those things. It’s so trippy—everyone can change their hair color, and a lot of people do. It is remarkable how it changes how you feel. It’s a really interesting place to live as an actor—always kind of imagining the hypothetical. That sounds obvious, but there are versions of yourself that are infinite. And I would say that about everyone—not just for actors. Clothes definitely allow you to meet those people.

In the films that you mentioned, Diana and the girl that I played in Personal Shopper are both feeling so at a loss in terms of who they are and how much space they take up. Both of them are coming from different perspectives—one from extreme loss and the other from rejection and isolation. You start to kind of lose it; you have no rationale for anything, and therefore you don’t know who you are. So the clothes [in Spencer] were a big thing. As beautiful as Diana’s clothes were, they also felt flimsy and ridiculous and embarrassing. Even the most beautiful outfits, ones that should empower you—certain things, I just felt, ‘How fucking ridiculous.’ It was a total projection, but I’m sure there were times when she was like, ‘Why I am wearing this fucking hat?’

David: Can I ask you a question? The accent—in a way, that’s something like costuming, because that also forces you to become some other part of yourself or some other character. Did you have a dialect coach that was there all the time?

Kristen: Yeah. [William Conacher] was kind of a miracle-worker, to be honest. Coincidentally, he’s done all of the Dianas—he worked with Naomi [Watts], he worked with Emma [Corrin] on The Crown—so he’s steeped. For me, he’s so much more than a dialect coach. He’s an artist in his own right, and was very let into the process by Pablo. He grew up in the UK and he has just a completely insider’s perspective, in terms of being a part of that culture in a way that we aren’t. It’s like learning how to do a backflip. If you have the time, your muscularity has the ability. We had three or four months to just have it become second nature. Having said that, I was fully locked into dialogue. I think there’s only one scene in the movie that we improvised and that’s with the children. I didn’t do any ADR [automated dialogue replacement] for that shit!

Accent aside, the way that she speaks has obviously been acknowledged as very particular [laughs]. There are so many layers to her that, on the surface, wouldn’t go together. She is this constant kind of tension and release swan of restraint and then also a little bubbling out of exuberance. It was one of the most physical performances; I came home every single day and kind of ran around my room in this elated, overwhelmed way, passed out, and slept until I had to go to work the next day. It was sad, because these three days are an actual hellscape. But she was so oddly joyous to play that I would go back and do it again, and you can’t say that about a lot of stuff. I just had so much fucking fun playing her.

Hannah: You were speaking about her as someone who felt like she was on a precipice—is that something that you also find appealing in Lidia Yuknavitch’s writing? The Chronology of Water seems to explore those sort of in-between states of open possibilities.

Kristen: I think the only reason to make a book [into a] movie is because I basically want to just possess it. I want to read it out loud in public; I want to be able to share it with other people in real time. [Yuknavitch’s] memoir describes how difficult it was to find the voice that she was able to home in on throughout her life—in the face of having a female body in a world where violence and aggression is aimed at it all the time. How hard it is to re-narrativize over fear and pain is so well articulated, and it kind of opened me.

Also, we haven’t had a coming-of-age story about a woman that feels truthful to me ever. We watch boys jerk off into socks all the time in movies. That was something that I saw when I was, like, 12 years old. American Pie is one of my favorite movies, but girls have never really been allowed to have bodies, and I want to watch that really badly.

Hannah: You both seem deeply invested in exploring the human body during crucial states of transformation. David, as a director, how do you use the body not just to express a character’s internal experiences and emotions, but also to reflect cultural or societal transformations?

David: For me, it begins beyond society. I think of myself as an existentialist. I don’t believe in an afterlife, I don’t believe in God. To me, the body is what we are. We are physical beings. The essence of coming to terms with what you are—with what the human condition is—is to come to terms with the body, and of course, that is not in a vacuum. You are a body amongst other bodies in a society, in a culture, in a world, and so on. There’s a complete interpenetration between the inside and the outside of your body. In a strange way, I guess, Crimes of the Future is very literal about that.

Kristen: [Laughs] Extremely.

David: [Laughs] Yes, extremely. So that’s just my understanding of the human condition. It does involve questions of sexuality and your place in society, and that, of course, involves gender identity and everything else. But it begins with the reality of the body. That is what we are, and when the body is finished, we’re finished. We’re not here anymore. It’s hard for a sentient creature like a human being to imagine nonexistence, but to me, part of the process of coming to terms with your body is nonexistence.

“I think of myself as an existentialist. I don’t believe in an afterlife, I don’t believe in God. To me, the body is what we are. We are physical beings.”

Hannah: Your early movies were very prescient in investigating the merging of human and machine. Do you see human enhancement technologies as a form of creative expression?

David: In early sci-fi from the 1940s, 1950s, technology was always a menace. It was something that came from outer space; it was threatening. To me, it was always obvious that technology is us. It’s an extension of the human body, to begin with. You have a rock, you have a club—it’s an extension of your fist—and then it goes on from there. So, looking at technology, you can really discover a lot about the innermost being of humans. It’s a reflection of who and what we are. Even something as obvious as the internet has revealed stuff that we probably knew all along about the varieties of human beings—their anger, their rage, their ability to be perverse.

Kristen: If you completely and utterly zoom out and look at us as if you were looking at a beehive or something, there’s nothing inorganic. We’ve made it. Look at the weird shit that bugs make. if I were to stumble into, like, a society of ants, everything that they make is of them. If you just zoomed out on us, it’s still the same thing. Whether we’re using these things to kill ourselves or to sustain our lives is definitely a more difficult conversation to have, but I’m with you on [technology being an] extension of us.

Hair Mustafa Yanaz using Oribe at Art + Commerce. Make-up Aaron de May at Art Partner. Set Design Andy Harman at Lalaland Artists. Photo Assistants Mitchell Stafford, James Sakalian, Eric Zhang. Stylist Assistants James Kelley, Grace Beck. Make-up Assistant Tayler Treadwell. Set Design Assistants Laila K. Lott, Paulie Levine. Executive Producer Madeleine Kiersztan at Ms4 Production. Production Ms4 Production. Post Production October.

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