Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Rob Hunter celebrates sex scenes in movies and revisits David Cronenberg’s Crash.
There’s a lot going on in the news these days, but if we were to pluck two seemingly unrelated strands out of the daily discourse we might end up with David Cronenberg and the topic of sex scenes in movies. Cronenberg has a new movie playing at Cannes called Crimes of the Future, and it seems we can’t go a day without someone lamenting the presence of sex scenes in films and television. So yeah, Cronenberg’s 1996 masterpiece Crash seems like a good pick for this week’s Commentary column.
Keep reading to see what I heard on David Cronenberg’s Crash commentary via the Criterion Collection.
Commentator: David Cronenberg (director, writer)
1. These opening credits were not present when the film debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in 1996, “because the credits weren’t ready.” The film opened in France under similar circumstances, and the credits were completed shortly thereafter by a small Toronto company. “It was really their first shot at doing elaborate head credits, and it took them a long time, but they did a really fantastic job.”
2. The company had issues creating the “dented” look of some of the metallic letters. The crossbar in the A, for example, would pull out when they applied a dent “as if it was actual metal tubing,” and they couldn’t figure out why. The team eventually spoke with a plumber — again, this is regarding digitally created text on the screen — who advised them that the cross piece has to be extended into the sidearms of the A to allow for the pull of the dent.
3. The opening scene features a woman pressing her naked breast to the metal wing of a small plane before being diddled from behind, but”the most difficult part of this scene was actually the choreography of the airplanes, figuring out how they should be placed and how much they should overlap each other so the opening dolly crane shot would work.” Yup, this is definitely Cronenberg’s Crash commentary.
4. This was Deborah Kara Unger‘s first lead role (but her seventh feature), “and she caused quite a stir.” Cronenberg and his team found her while searching for a Canadian actor for the role.
5. “And this is a very good introduction of James Spader I think,” he says as we see Spader’s face rise up from Alice Poon‘s bare behind. “Probably one of the more interesting introductions of a major character in a recent film.”
6. The Ballard’s apartment balcony is real when facing outward toward the city but a set when facing inward toward their living room. Matching the light from natural to artificial isn’t easy, but cinematographer “Peter Suschitzky did his usual brilliant job of making them seamless.”
7. They filmed on roads and highways in Toronto that aren’t typically used as it’s a big deal to shut them down, but the city was thrilled that the film was actually set there instead of it pretending to be an American city. “We got a special, enthusiastic hand from the roads department.”
8. The opening car crash was accomplished with one of the cars being driven via remote control and a dummy behind the wheel, and the other one was being pulled by a cable.
9. Hospital beds are apparently difficult to find and/or expensive to rent, so they filmed in a real hospital.
10. “Despite the fact that this movie caused a huge furor in just about every country it played in, I still maintain that I was very restrained in making it.” He adds that even the sexuality is fairly restrained leading him to believe that it was “pushing some buttons that were very deeply embedded and rarely pushed.”
11. The hospital hallway scene was shot on their first day of filming, and it was a rarity in that Cronenberg had not yet visited the location in person. The place was not what he was expecting, and he “had a rough couple of days working in this place trying to make it work.”
12. “There was much discussion about what Deborah Unger would be holding onto in this scene,” he says during the sequence where Catherine (Unger) gives James (Spader) a handjob beneath the blanket. They ended up with “a very lifelike dildo that James Spader wanted to wear, which he did.”
13. “A lot of people’s driving habits changed after they made this film,” he says, adding that Holly Hunter got rid of her pickup truck — she only owned pickups to that point — and bought a BMW 850 instead after seeing crash test footage.
14. He points out the hood ornament on Ballard’s car and adds that some viewers don’t notice the ornament’s imprint on the dead man’s hand at 7:54. “It’s really the beginning of a whole structure of internal mythology within the film of the imprinting on the human body bey metallic objects and parts of vehicles.”
15. Cronenberg was contacted by Hunter’s agent before he had even sent the script out stating that she very much wanted to play this character. “That was very exciting news, because of course, anticipating going out to actors with this movie I was worried that once again I would be rejected as I had been on many of my other movies.”
16. Spader didn’t need convincing either, although he was curious about the rest of the cast saying “after all, I get to fuck everybody in this movie don’t I.” Cronenberg knew he had his lead right then.
17. “Someone once wrote somewhere that ‘a series of sex scenes is not a plot,’ and my answer was well why not why can’t it be?” He points to the first sexual contact between James and Helen (Hunter) as the perfect example. The pair connect physically after literally crashing into each other, and that propels James to seek the same orgasmic connection with his wife — but it doesn’t work because she hasn’t had “her crash” yet. “So there, you have to notice what’s happening in that scene and not just sort of turn off and watch it as a titillating scene and that’s it. It has meaning in this movie whether someone has an orgasm or doesn’t is extremely significant and has implications and consequences.”
18. The Porsche 550 Spyder in the film is actually a replica made of fiberglass — the real car is aluminum and would have cost the production roughly $2 million of their $9 million budget — called a Beck Speedster.
19. Cronenberg accidentally cameos in the darkness at 30:25 just after the James Dean crash recreation. His voice cameos at 1:30:20 as the car lot attendant.
20. He says a film like this requires “actors who are unafraid, or are not afraid, at least, to be afraid.” His entire cast approached it that way with the understanding that “the fear was the good part.”
21. The character of Gabrielle (Rosanna Arquette) was the center of a big controversy in the UK leading to the film’s opening being delayed for over a year. A British journalist apparently kicked off a furor by criticizing a scene featuring “sex with cripples,” but it backfired on him as the nation’s disabled population struck back.
22. The shot at 40:55 is taken directly out the window of the film’s production offices.
23. “There are probably no more photographed things in movies than sex and cars,” he says as explanation for why it was so difficult deciding where to put the camera during driving scenes and sex scenes. “You know that you’re not gonna come up with a way of looking at it that’s totally unique in one shot that’s never been done before by anyone, so it’s a matter of accumulation.”
24. The sex scene at 44:00 between James and Catherine had to be trimmed for release in Ireland, but it wasn’t the imagery — it was the dialogue — “and I still haven’t at this moment decided whether to let the movie play there without this scene or not.”
25. Cronenberg sets up monitors for the actors during sex scenes so they can see what the camera sees and make adjustments if they feel it’s necessary.
26. The shot at 50:55 is among his favorites in the film.
27. They had six Lincoln Continentals for the film. A couple were for crashes, and a couple were modified to allow for camera equipment and shot setups.
28. The scene featuring James driving Vaughn’s (Elias Koteas) car while the man gets busy with a woman in the back seat might seem “intimate,” but they were driving on real roads and had police escorts. People driving the opposite direction weren’t quite sure what the hell was happening.
29. Cronenberg and Koteas almost worked together on Naked Lunch (1991), but it just didn’t pan out.
30. The dead dog in the car crash was a stuffed pup. “We didn’t kill it for the movie, although I was tempted to put a little note at the end saying that we had.”
31. People have commented that Cronenberg tends to try and adapt books that are “impossible” to make into movies, but “I think it’s impossible to translate any book into a movie.” He adds that “it’s kind of a transmutation, a recreation or reinvention, and gives the illusion of being the book if it works, but no direct translation is possible.”
32. One of the struggles he faced in early attempts to get the film made was the response that “it was a big mistake to have the characters be so strange right from the beginning of the movie.” He was told more than once to Hollywood it up some meaning to structure it with a young, traditional couple whose normal life is interrupted by an accident and the arrival of a “crazy” guy who becomes a sexually destructive element “but finally they shoot Vaughn at the end and live happily ever after.”
33. “Maybe sexual organs are not sexual organs anymore, and maybe there are other ways to have sex,” he says after James fucks Gabrielle’s leg scar. This is the scene that upset some critics and viewers in the UK but that also found support.
34. The sex scene between James and Vaughan is “the scene that more people walk out of than any other scene in the movie.” He received criticism both from straight guys saying it’s too much and gay activists saying it’s not enough, and “I ignore all of this.” Instead, he points out that this coupling features the first real kiss between characters in the movie “and showing Elias Koteas’ bare butt would not have made this scene more intense or better.” He resists the charge that he backed away from the book’s homosexuality and adds, “I even go further to annoy people and say that I don’t think it’s homosexual, by this time everybody in the movie is moving beyond sexuality at all to some other place.”
35. “I wanted the dynamics of this film to be very much anti-Hollywood action movie,” he says, adding that he had to calm his stunt drivers down by limiting what we would actually see when it came to the impact and destruction.
36. They re-shot Spader’s close-ups during the end “chase,” as he had initially performed it as written in Cronenberg’s screenplay — “he was kind of predatory and vicious.” They came to realize, though, that it was the wrong approach and should instead be “playful, excited, and exuberant.”
37. “It’s critical that you listen to what he says, his last words in the movie, and understand what that means.” He’s not wrong — both because the final line remains among the absolute best in a film, and because too many viewers find it too easy to tune out and let their attention fade while watching a movie.
Best in Context-Free Commentary
“Everyone wants to know about the sex scenes in the movie, there were a lot of them, but in each case they were the least difficult part of the scenes to work with.”
“There are a lot of scars and bruises in this movie.”
“It’s conceptually violent, it does violence to people’s concepts of what is proper and acceptable and conceivable even.”
“This is definitely the ‘using the dildo’ takes that you see in this movie here.”
“Technology at its most boring is in fact the most potent technology.”
“We were all very determined in the movie, the cast and I, to make the sexuality as real and as awkward and as strange as it would be under these circumstances.”
“One of the things that this movie does is it offers sequential sex scenes which is something that drives a lot of people mad.”
“It seems to be that the only way you can become immortal is to die young in some flamboyant way in public.”
“I work in a very spontaneous way, there’s very little planned.”
“There’s a lot of discussion about this movie and anal sex.”
“There are those strange characters and those strange creatures who exist at the margins of society, and I am interested in that.”
“In the car wash I was not really worried about how long a car wash takes. This is a very surreal version of a car wash.”
“The tone on the set was very funny and light.”
“A movie with the various combinations of sex that this movie has, lends itself particularly well to sexual politics which is something that I abhor and try to completely ignore when I make a movie.”
“I have to make the movie to find out why I want to make the movie.”
Final Thoughts on the Crash Commentary
Crash remains one of Cronenberg’s finest films, a strange, fascinating conversation-starter about life, love, sex, death and how they’re “not absolutes, they’re variables.” The sex scenes are numerous, varied, and integral to the story being told about a dysfunctional couple on a journey of co-discovery, and the director’s thoughts on the topics at hand are never less than interesting. The commentary is absolutely worth a listen for fans of both Crash and Cronenberg.
Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.