With A History of Violence, David Cronenberg made us take a hard look at ourselves…as Americans, as couples and families, as humans and as the fragile, physical beings that we are. A masterful director, he toyed with our expectations from the details of how the movie unfolds to what we think we can presume about its characters, and even what we—as an audience—want. Its slow-burning story built tension, crescendoed and each time we were in that moment of thrill it stingingly slapped our smug faces, leaving us as uneasy as “hero” Tom Stall after his sudden brush with fame. The film’s view is so intimate and emotional, we almost wanted to shy away. Instead, we couldn’t help but stay until the end, leaving beaten and exhausted, wondering what happened after we had gone.
1. A History of Violence is based on the graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke. While the film is generally faithful, several details were changed: Tom McKenna became Tom Stall and the mobsters were made Irish because Director David Cronenberg (Videodrome, The Fly, Scanners, EXistenZ, Spider, Naked Lunch, Eastern Promises, A Dangerous Method) didn’t feel Ed Harris (Carl Fogarty) and William Hurt (Richie Cusack) would make convincing Italians. When Cronenberg first became involved, he had only read Josh Olson’s (Infested, “Masters of Science Fiction”) screenplay; he was informed about the original source during production.
2. Cronenberg put a lot of thought into the four minute, single take that is the “much talked about” opening shot. The director thought he might cut into or shorten it, but the scene worked so well he decided to keep it. The credits begin over an actual scene with dialogue, something Cronenberg avoided for years because he “thought it felt like television.” Normally the director does a “vestibule (an entrance to the film that is not the movie) so the audience has a chance to segue from their lives to the movie,” but he decided to try the credits over scene this time. Though he traditionally does music, Cronenberg found whatever musical cues they (he and Composer Howard Shaw) put over the scene spoiled the tension that was there. “You don’t know what to think about these men, whether they are in danger or dangerous themselves. Is it sinister or is it not? You don’t really know. We ended up with cicadas and crickets and a little radio music.”
3. Most of the filming took place in Millbrook, Ontario, while the movie is set in fictional Millbrook, IN. Cronenberg said he was happy to go back to the opening scene hotel; he had used it in EXistenZ, thought it had great texture and wanted to use it more. (A History of Violence shot at four locations from previous Cronenberg movies.) The post office clock always stayed at 1:15, it hadn’t worked for ten years, but Cronenberg wanted to show it (because it had the town name).
The diner is a set; Cronenberg marveled at how Production Designer Carol Spier (Eastern Promises, Silent Hill, Blade II, Dead Ringers, M. Butterfly) created the street view outside. It was artificially lit to look like bright daylight was streaming inside. The exterior shots of the street were intentionally Edward Hopper-ish and lighting was expressionistic “because the reality in the movie is a fantasy of reality.” Cronenberg made gestures toward a “naive, innocent past that possibly never existed—seen in Rod Serling’s ‘Twilight Zone.’ The town is maybe too perfect, (something) America itself wants to believe.”
4. Mentioning that the project had been in development without him for a long time, Cronenberg said, “Everybody had an opinion about who should play what roles. And, in particular, there were some characters in Josh’s original script that I got rid of. So there were even characters cast that I didn’t even want in the movie. And Viggo (Mortensen) was certainly on my short list…we’re developing this script so the character does change. And as the character changes and as the dynamics change, it becomes clearer who would be good and what the tone of the [character is].You know Viggo’s just, he’s just the perfect guy. I mean, not only as an actor but just where he is in his career and everything.”
5. In casting Maria Bello (Payback, Secret Window, Thank You for Smoking) as Edie, the director said he had to “think like a marriage counselor…about two people who would look right together, have the right energy.” Cronenberg met with Bello in Toronto while she was filming another movie. “Maria is a beautiful woman, but still not what somebody says is the ‘ice princess’ model of Hollywood these days; she’s real. That means that she bring subtlety, complexity, and possibly the difficulty of her character. I want a real woman, but not an icon.”
6. The sex scenes were not in the original script; Cronenberg asked the writer to put them in. “Because in sex, you’re very vulnerable psychologically and physically and emotionally, and that’s why I wanted those sex scenes, because I wanted to know these characters that way.” The director said, “There is nothing more iconic than the high school cheerleader; it’s the classic American sexual fantasy.” In the bedroom scene, Viggo’s hair looks a little wet because of a deleted scene where the Stall couple went swimming. It was too cold and there were too many mosquitoes, so the bedroom scene replaced it. The director said he’d heard his was the first (mainstream) film to show 69; if it’s true, he’s “very proud.”
7. The actors, Greg Bryk (Billy) and Deborah Drakeford (Charlotte) came up with the idea of Billy running his hand over Charlotte’s breast as an added violation during the robbery scene; Tom (Mortensen) is quietly in control. He would do anything to avoid confrontation. Cronenberg discussed how the close-up of the face hanging sets a pattern. Violence is exhilarating to the audience, but the director wanted the audience to see the “very physical violence to the human body.” Whenever the audience is right in the act of cheering and feeling good about the violence, he shows something (gruesome). “If you like the violence you have to accept the consequences. And even though the violence seems to be justified, the human body doesn’t know whether the violence visited on it was justified. The results are the same…to me, that’s what violence is really about—the human body. That’s the violence we worry about the very most. There’s cars crashing and buildings falling down, but really, if there’s no damage to the human body it’s still not what we worry about.”
8. Viggo Mortensen bought and got a lot of things when he was doing research into who Tom might be, and the things he’d surround himself with. The Stall home and diner was decorated by Viggo himself; Cronenberg said he’s never met another actor who has done that. “He did that to make himself comfortable and feel like Tom.”
9. A dream sequence (“Scene 44”) that featured Tom shooting Fogarty in the chest with a shotgun, thinking the mobster is dead, and then being shot by Fogarty was deleted. Watch the making of the scene for the amusing Videodrome reference:
10. Referencing Jack’s (Ashton Holmes, “Revenge,The Pacific, Nikita” The Divide, Smart People) baseball game, Cronenberg says he still berates himself for not getting a shot of the pitcher. “As a baseball fan, I know people are obsessed with the pitcher.”
11. Both Viggo and Maria felt their characters would wear crosses. Cronenberg hadn’t thought of it and realized it made sense. “Christian values, family values, the added strange undertone that forces you to discuss the nature of Christianity as we find in America now… a very contentious element of the Bush administration, the paradoxical nature of Christianity are all undertones of the movie. I talked about with Viggo at length when we discussed whether he’d do the movie.”
Cronenberg shot Edie and Tom side by side together in the living room in homage to Grant Wood’s American Gothic painting.
12. Not wanting to give anything away, the director discussed in depth with Viggo his facial expressions, walk, stance, etc. Cronenberg said he had to be careful with the angles they shot Viggo with—sometimes he’d look too much like Joey. From the beginning, he wanted the audience to wonder, Is Tom reluctant because he’s just Tom, or because he can sense bad things will happen because of his exposure to the media? Is he panicking because he’s Joey or just because of the frightening events happening? Tom holds the shotgun in a very professional way, which he says he learned from his father, but it’s a technique of a very experienced shotgunner. At the end of the living room scene with his family, there is just a slight hint of Joey: “Then we deal with it.”
13. Cronenberg noted the role of humor in the movie, saying there is a delicate line to walk in a film with serious intentions—how funny can you be? He was worried at some moments “because if the audience is still laughing (when you’re trying to be serious), it can be a problem.” But he was happy to find that audiences could twist and turn with the humor. The director thinks all of his movies have humor, “except maybe The Brood.”
14. In the scene when Carl Fogarty (Harris) drives to the Stall’s home, the lighting is different for “the bad guys” versus the homesteaders because they were shot on two different days. The bad guys were shot in bright sunlight; the next day was overcast and cloudy. Cronenberg: “At this point, you can see Viggo transforming—in quite a spectacular way—into Joey. Fogarty knows. Suddenly they’re communicating in a way that Edie could never understand. Now there is only Joey and Fogarty, (there’s) no Tom here and they both know it.” Cronenberg quipped that he was hoping to get commercial work for Chrysler after using the 300.
15. The film’s violence was developed when Cronenberg was “looking at DVDs that teach you how to kill people on the street,” because he wanted it to be very realistic—not balletic—but like a dirty, nasty street fight. There are no rules, no question of what is fair. The director said the most valuable thing he learned was that all social contract is gone; the only thing remaining is survival. “Jack (Ashton Holmes, “Revenge, Nikita, The Pacific, The Divide) learns this very quickly. You’re suddenly a person who has killed somebody, can never be the same…his life has changed forever…Joey/Tom is realizing what he’s introduced his son to.”
16. The hospital scene features just two people in a room. It was “very difficult” for the actors and for Cronenberg, because of the emotion. Initially they thought to shoot in a real hospital, but it was better to remove the walls and use lighting (on a set). Maria thought her character would vomit, but there was no bathroom—just a closet—so the production designer quickly made a bathroom with what they had. Cronenberg “doesn’t map everything out or storyboard.” He likes actors “to collaborate and do unexpected things; doesn’t want to freeze everyone with storyboards or say “your intuition can have no play.” For Viggo the scene was interesting because he’s pinned in bed, while Maria buzzes around and comes back and forth, giving her the position of dominance and attack. He’s like a butterfly pinned to a spreading board.”
17. When Edie and Joey/Tom return home, the original script ended the scene after Edie yells “Fuck you, Joey!” Cronenberg told Olson, “That can’t be where scene ends, it has to be where it begins.” The sex scene on the stairs is not a rape, it is Edie saying “I accept you as Joey, and there may even be something exciting about Joey.” The director wanted to suggest that “she’s attracted to and repelled by Joey, still looking for the Tom that’s in this creature. Great intense sexuality that comes out of that situation—and also a disgust—a revulsion. Not only with Tom/Joey, but with herself and the fact that what she just did was satisfying.” Bello’s bruises were make-up, but inspired by the real bruises the actress got from doing the scene over and over again. Cronenberg said his stunt man laughed, saying he’d never been asked for sex padding before; they were unable to use padding and both actors got hurt.
18. Cronenberg marveled at Viggo’s body language and accent change, completing Tom’s transformation to Joey as he drives to see his brother Richie (William Hurt). The director mentioned that at the Cannes film premiere, the French people probably couldn’t tell the subtle difference in accent. Toronto substituted for Philadelphia—one of the few other cities that has streetcars. Cronenberg was “pleased to have a Fantasy America. It creates a strange dislocating effect for the (American) audience.” The same bar was featured in a scene for The Fly (1986), when Jeff Goldblum arm wrestles. “Finally, there is a wonderful, critical moment that seems to be casual but has huge resonance—Viggo sits down and in perfect accent says, ‘Yeah, I’m Joey.’ It is the first time (for the audience) he acknowledges his identity.”
19. The outside of Richie’s home is Eaton Hall; the inside is a set. Cronenberg chose the location because in researching the architecture of Philadelphia, he discovered “some major fantasy houses were built.” That encouraged him to give Richie a pretentious house and give William Hurt context to play this “funny, bawdy megalomaniac.” In the graphic novel, Joey and Richie are not brothers, but Cronenberg wanted the sibling rivalry, to reference Cain and Abel and, it gave the director a shorthand way of suggesting their past without monologues. “At a certain point, Viggo became convinced Richie was gay; that’s why he wasn’t married…that’s why some of his hoods in the house weren’t very good.” In casting, Cronenberg wanted to suggest “something strange was going on. It pleased Viggo to think that way when he was playing the relationship.” For his short but memorable appearance, Hurt received a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination; he lost to George Clooney (Syriana).
20. The last page of the script said only two words: “There’s hope.” Cronenberg said he had never been on a set as emotional as the dinner scene. “There was intense sadness and despair, a lot of it was Maria…there were children on the set…even the little girl (Heidi Hayes) was suffused with the emotional feeling on set. One of the difficult things about a set like this is maintaining the emotion throughout the day—(it was) beautifully played by everyone, locked into the same emotional play.”
Cindy Davis would love to take on the one-two punch of A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, however the latter has no commentary. We can comfort ourselves with silly Viggo: