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Emmys 2017
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''Naked Lunch'': Behind the scenes

”Naked Lunch”: Behind the scenes — Director David Cronenberg talks about his adaptation of the William Burroughs novel

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Standing in the midst of a chaotic Third World marketplace, David Cronenberg looks more like a gynecologist from Beverly Hills, as Martin Scorsese once described him, than the director of such wildly idiosyncratic films as Dead Ringers and The Fly. When he softly calls ”Action,” American expatriate Joan Frost (Judy Davis of Barton Fink) begins leading novelist Bill Lee (Peter Weller of RoboCop) through the street jammed with Arabs and camera-toting tourists. They pass booths of hanging meats, fresh fish, baskets of spices, dried lizard skins to be used as an aphrodisiac. A rooster, out of control, lands on a boom. A donkey drops dung. ”Cut,” calls Cronenberg, patiently. An animal wrangler reins in the upstaging fowl; the droppings are shoveled out.

It’s the ninth and, it turns out, final take. (”Kubrick does 100,” Cronenberg says. ”That’s pathological.”) The camera rolls again, and the couple pauses at a stall not found in any market on earth, not even in Naked Lunch, William S. Burroughs’ notorious 1959 novel of addiction on which this film is loosely based. A sinister woman with hennaed hands slices steaks from ”giant Brazilian aquatic centipedes” to be processed into a black powder, the drug of choice here in ”Interzone.” This is no real Tangier bazaar, it is all Bill Lee’s junkie fantasy and he hasn’t even left his dingy New York apartment. And the film company, its plans to shoot in Morocco foiled by the gulf war, hasn’t left its cozy Toronto soundstage.

”One hundred percent hallucination” is how Cronenberg describes the Interzone of his just-released Naked Lunch. With its oozing orifices and talking bugs, the film is a surreal visualization of a book that is itself more chaotic and wild than a druggie’s worst nightmare. The title, which came from Burroughs’ beat buddy Jack Kerouac, is a metaphor for the substances that control us. Banned in the U.S. when it was first published, the novel has long since been absorbed into popular culture: Frank Zappa, Laurie Anderson, and David Bowie all claim allegiance to it; the band Steely Dan took its name from a Naked Lunch dildo. But until now, the novel — with its complete lack of conventional characters or plot — has defied translation to film. A late-’60s attempt to produce a musical version starring Mick Jagger fizzled.

Cronenberg believes he has found the answer: ”Throw the book away,” he says. In production notes he points out that a literal version ”would cost $400 million to make and would be banned in every country in the world.” His adaptation came in at about $16 million, under budget and a modest sum for a film with lots of special effects.

In place of the book’s delirious reveries, Cronenberg has created a plot about a writer very like Burroughs himself. The director denies that the portrait is biographical, but his Bill Lee resembles Burroughs in almost every detail — his drug use, homosexuality, and the accidental, fatal shooting of his wife in a William Tell routine gone wrong. In Cronenberg’s version, Lee struggles to write in a quest for redemption after that tragedy. ”The film is about writing,” says the director. ”Typewriters come to life and insist on being heard.”

”The film is so bizarre,” says Burroughs, who is visiting the set from his home in Lawrence, Kan., ”so beyond the parameters of reality, I didn’t feel like it was an invasion of privacy. David had a free hand.” He is especially pleased with the fantastical latex characters who round out the cast: the ”mugwumps,” sex blobs, and huge talking beetles with typewriter keyboards for heads.

Exuding cadaverous charm as he sits among these rubbery extras, the 77- year-old author describes the appeal of Cronenberg’s mugwumps. ”They have beautiful blue eyes,” Burroughs says. ”They can breathe and smoke. They’re different from my concept: bigger and more benevolent.”

”I find that the more monstery you go, the less provocative the creature is,” says Cronenberg. ”The more humanoid, the more you relate to it. I think of the mugwump as an old, sick junkie, emaciated, with the look of burrowed flesh that junkies have. And there are people addicted to mugwump jism, this fluid they secrete.”

After two turns as RoboCop, Weller is no stranger to mechanical costars, and he worries about being upstaged by a mugwump. ”It’s hard to compete with blue eyes that are this big,” he jokes, his own blue eyes wide, and it’s especially difficult when your character spends most of his time in a drugged torpor. Yet Weller’s portrayal of an addict is uncannily convincing. ”The whole thing about being stoned is to remain in control,” he explains. ”The guy on the nod is actually trying to keep his eyes open.”

In a warehouse full of props, including a telepod left over from The Fly, Weller waits in the wings of a set that is like a taxidermist’s dream — complete with a stuffed turtle, Goliath beetles, and paintings of animals in various sexual poses. His character has just had a hit of mugwump fluid and is witnessing a revolting coupling: One of his two companions, metamorphosed into a centipede, is sucking the life out of the other. Eight tentacles on each side move into mutilated, mottled flesh. Goo tubes extrude liquid. The victim’s eyes roll back in terror as rivulets of blood stream down sunken cheeks.

”I cannot get excited about mainstream Hollywood movies,” Cronenberg, 48, says later. ”To watch is fine, but it would be deadening for me. Like any good artist, I want to be popular and make a lot of money and have my movies seen by everyone — and I want them to be difficult and obstinate and arcane at the same time. The Fly was a hit by accident, and if I have another hit it will be by accident as well.”

So what is it about him that makes an actor like Jeremy Irons thank Cronenberg, who directed Irons as twin gynecologists in 1988’s Dead Ringers, when he accepted his Oscar last year for Reversal of Fortune, a film directed by Barbet Schroeder?

”He combines an absolute precision with a sense of freedom,” says Judy Davis, who plays both Joan Frost and Lee’s unlucky wife. ”I feel in no way locked into an interpretation, yet it’s a most precise script, and he’s a man who gets what he wants.” Raising an eyebrow, she adds, ”He’s a lovely man. I guess he’s just a good manipulator.”

Late in the day, David Cronenberg is strolling down the set of Interzone. It all seems so real, so like Tangier, even down to the smell. Suddenly, inventing one step ahead of today’s film technology, he is inspired. ”The mugwumps,” he muses fondly. ”Hmmm, what smell could we give to them?”