Crimes of the Future

The prosthetic team behind David Cronenberg’s body-horror epic pick apart the flesh
By Ella Joyce | Film+TV | 9 September 2022

Pain is the new pleasure and surgery is the new sex. Time and place are unknown, but we are somewhere in an alternate future in David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future. It’s a world where humankind is learning to adapt to synthetic surroundings, and alter its biological makeup as a consequence. The body itself becomes a work of art either naturally or surgically, as the narrative meditates on the concept of human evolution and mankind’s role within it.

Originally written in 1998, the script has been in Cronenberg’s archive for the past two decades and marks his return to body horror after a run of psychological thrillers. Starring Viggo Mortensen as Saul Tenser and Léa Seydoux as Caprice, the duo take on the roles of celebrity performance artists publicly showcasing the metamorphosis of organs in an avant-garde act. Kristen Stewart stars alongside them as an investigator from the National Organ Registry obsessively tracking their movements in an attempt to shed light on the next phase in human evolution. 

Monica Pavez and Alexandra Anger are the dynamic team behind the incredible, macabre prosthetics and VFX that brought Cronenberg’s film to life. Taking the body in all its glory and turning it into something both recognisable yet disarming to articulate the Canadian auteur’s daring vision. In the conversation below, we speak to the duo about the art of trial and error, working with the cast and why now is the perfect time for Crimes of the Future to hit cinemas.

Ella Joyce: When you first received the script, were you able to immediately visualise what this film would look like from your perspective?
Monica Pavez: I think largely we could because so much of it was very explicitly stated in the script, but there were a few things that required a lot of design back and forth with David. It was one of those situations of him saying, “I have an idea or a feeling of what this is,” but he didn’t quite know until he saw it, so there was a lot of coming up with different versions. For example, the ports on Viggo that various cameras and whatnot went into in his stomach, we probably made twenty versions of what those looked like. You could sort of envision it, but because there are so many callbacks to earlier works of David’s, there was a vast library to call upon from a visual standpoint.
Alexandra Anger: He’s also such a rarity in truly being an open book, he’s not precious in any way, he wants to collaborate and wanted our input as to what we think is cool and what we thought made sense. Even though probably none of it makes sense within this world that we’re building. [laughs] It very much felt like a true collaboration, which is rare and amazing. 

EJ: I was going to ask what was it like working alongside him and how collaborative it was to realise that vision, but it sounds like it was a dream.
AA: He is a dream, he’s an absolute dream. Not only is he as a human being just so lovely and brilliant, being on set with him is a calm, nice, collaborative environment.
MP: Also we’d worked with him as an actor first on a Canadian horror show he had a role in and we got to put a prosthetic on him, so we had an initial introduction to working together in a different setting. Again it was that same thing of, “Well he was so lovely to work with but who knows what he’s like as a director,” and it was exactly the same, he’s just the one making the decisions.

Still, ‘Crimes of the Future’ by David Cronenberg, 2022

EJ: Crimes of the Future itself is set to mark Cronenberg’s return to body-horror after a series of psychological works, how did it feel taking on such a monumental project?
AA: Everything happened so quickly. You want to have as much time as possible to prepare but in hindsight, it was the right situation because there wasn’t even time to think about that. We had to hit the ground running, make sure everything happened on time. For myself and all of my own insecurities, I’m sort of glad I didn’t have the time to think about it too much because then it becomes this big scary thing.
MP: We’ve talked before about how both Alex and I don’t particularly come from a horror background in terms of our interests and relationship with film. There was awareness of who David was obviously, especially being a very successful and well-known Canadian director, but because we met him first as an actor there was a comfort that developed. Then after that, we delved further into his body of work and it wasn’t really until we were going to Greece and saw other people’s reactions when we told them what we were doing being, “Oh my god, that’s insane, that’s crazy!” We were like, “Is it crazy? Oh wait… it is kind of crazy.” [laughs] But there wasn’t time to build up the apprehension that maybe we should have felt.
AA: Not to put words in his mouth either, but I feel like that was a two-way street. It was definitely refreshing for us because it was just lovely, no one was on any pedestal, it was just a really lovely creative moment for everyone. As much as this has been in the works for a very long time for him, he also does a million other things, so it all came together. I honestly feel like it’s only now I’m sort of processing it and being like, “Wow that was really crazy.” [both laugh]

EJ: Sometimes that initial ignorance is bliss. [all laugh] In terms of the cast, how did they interact with having such elaborate prosthetics and visual effects throughout filming? Was that also very collaborative?
MP: As Alex mentioned, the timeline for everything was very tight so there wasn’t a lot of time for testing, you would normally be able to test a bunch of things and fit everything but we didn’t have that. We tried to do as much of the work here in Toronto as we could before going to Athens, but there was a lot of work done there. So a lot of the time when we would put prosthetics on people, it was the first time anything was being done and before going we were just thinking, “Fingers crossed everyone is just very happy to be in prosthetics and we’re not going to make everyone’s lives miserable,” and they were phenomenal.
AA: Unbelievable.
MP: Viggo [Mortensen], in particular, was just so conscientious of everyone else at all times despite insane heat on some days, he was so lovely even though we were covering him in a silicone vest underneath his wardrobe. Same with Léa [Seydoux], she had to have multiple days of having silicone pieces on her head. Also Tassos [Karahalios], who played Ear Man, as I’m sure people are aware had an intense process to go through but he was just so game for it. Everyone was very much on board to just be like, “I just really want this to go well and let’s all just work together.”

“We did look at some reference images of the organs of marine animals because it’s so different from the human system… the whole point of it was being an entirely new thing, none of this is recognisable as it’s a created system.”

Still, ‘Crimes of the Future’ by David Cronenberg, 2022

EJ: With a plot analysing the concept of human evolution, the body plays a role in its own right. What kind of research went into your creative process, are there certain sources you reference?
AA: Carol Spier, the production designer, had some digital mock-ups of thoughts as to what Brecken’s [Sotiris Siozos] entire neo-organ system might look like. So there was a basis visually, then it was sculpting multiple versions of those things going back and forth. Luckily they were understanding of our short timeline, but in terms of any of the structures on Viggo, his system is a regular system apart from the singular organs he is creating. We get asked to do surgery stuff all the time in our world but it’s always blood and more blood, which is great, we love making things bloody. [laughs] But surgery, unless something is going poorly, is not a bloody endeavour, you don’t want to see blood in surgery because it means something is going very wrong. It was an interesting balance with David wanting things to look wet and have an interaction there, it wasn’t pumping things out of every orifice.
MP: It was pretty clean. [In terms of Brecken’s system, there] was this overall feel we were going for, because it’s concept art it’s not detailed. When we were looking at that we did look at some reference images of the organs of marine animals because it’s so different from the human system and anything that would be considered recognisable from an audience standpoint. The whole point was it being an entirely new thing, none of this is recognisable as it’s a created system. So it was trying to find things you could look at and say, “Oh that looks organ-y,” but it’s not recognisable as a spleen, a liver or lungs. It’s something maybe from a size perspective is similar to other organs, you could say something might be a gland but certainly not a human one.
AA: We did end up referencing one piece of his system as ‘lungs’ but there was nothing lung-like about them, just in our minds we were thinking “This makes sense for where it’s placed,” but if you were to look at it you’d know they weren’t lungs.
MP: That and also tumour things because there was the idea these were referred to almost as growths rather than organs, so tumours were a sad thing to look at but helpful in the end.

EJ: The setting of the film is another thing that remains incredibly ambiguous in terms of time, place and the diversity of people. Creatively, did those elements give you a lot of freedom?
MP: Yeah it really did, because there is no reference in the film about the time or year it’s taking place, it didn’t give you the expectation that having a set anything would give you. You’re not going in with preconceived notions of what someone might want or look like, if it’s the future and we’re talking futuristic things there isn’t that notion in your head of thinking they need to look drastically different. Because so much of our work was the organic portion of this, the mechanical aspects of the film were built by other very talented people it also gave us the freedom to think, “Okay it’s the body in the future but what that body is in or the tools that are interacting with it are unknown.”
AA: I think because it was such a long runway for David and Carol I’m sure there were many evolutions as to where this film was, what it looked like, I know for sure at some point in time David anticipated shooting it in Toronto. Even the photos they were sending of Athens, it was just the excitement of being like “Look at this amazing space we’ve found!” That is what created the bubble for everyone and it just came to life, I cannot envision it existing elsewhere. It had to be in Athens, it was perfect for what this version of Crimes of the Future now is.
MP: It’s a world where people aren’t experiencing pain or sickness or infection in the same way so there was a lot of talk about,”Okay if we’re cutting into somebody, should this be an irritating thing? Is healing a factor?” I do remember there was some back and forth about how people were healing and we realised it wasn’t something we needed to concern ourselves with, it’s almost like a stand-alone thing.

EJ: The ambiguity makes you question things.
AA: It really does, there is also this sort of looming sense of the unknown. We’re so used to futuristic things being like The Jetsons where everything is automated but here we are now in 2022 and we’re like, “Is that working for us?” It almost just feels like an alternate version of right now in a very different light.

Still, ‘Crimes of the Future’ by David Cronenberg, 2022

“I think the little seeds that get planted, depending on how your mind works and what you’re interpreting, are so relevant right now…”

EJ: Speaking on that time element of things, the script was first written by Cronenberg in 1998. As the people who are responsible for creating the ‘shock factor’, what do you think the reception would have been like if this film was released twenty years ago compared to the audience reception now?
MP: That is a great question. I think a perfect example of stuff like that is thinking about Crash when it came out. It was such a shock to people and was so controversial, fast forward to now and everyone is so used to seeing shocking things. Even just from an internet standpoint, the immediacy people have to very violent and shocking images, it’s right there and you’re exposed to that from such an early age. It seems like everyone’s tolerance level is much higher than it was twenty years ago. It’s interesting because there is an expectation, especially with a Cronenberg film of what you’re going to see. For something to have the same reaction Crash had in ’96, it feels like something would have to be so over the top now for it to elicit that same reaction. If someone is not a fan of Cronenberg’s work and happens to just go see this movie they’re going to have a very different reaction than someone who has an awareness of his catalogue and going in with an expectation.
AA: I think we’re all, whether it’s good or bad, very desensitised. At this point in time you’ll be like “Oh that’s…interesting,” but you’re not going to lose sleep over it. I think that’s probably the shift that has happened over the past two decades.
MP: Yeah I feel like it becomes more of an unnerving thing as opposed to shock, it’s more of a cerebral, “Ew I’m not sure why I’m put off.” Then you sort of think about it and analyse what it was that irked you.
AA: As much as I wish David could make every movie he wants to make the moment he dreamt it up, I think it’s a perfect time for this to be happening. The little seeds that get planted, depending on how your mind works and what you’re interpreting, are so relevant right now in ways that surely would have been relevant twenty plus years ago but I think we’re just hitting a different mark now. Or maybe a more reality-based mark now than how it would have felt at that point in time.

EJ: Obviously some people are more squeamish than others and I think it’s fair to say some people may turn away from parts of the film. [all laugh] Even though you both must be used to working with some very extreme concepts, do you ever find it difficult to stomach?
MP: Usually for me, it’s anything to do with people’s eyes. Stuff with eyes just always makes me shiver, I’m like “Ew!” [laughs] I don’t love having to interact with that but the rest of it is probably sadly very unaffecting at this point. We have forensic pathology books we’ll look at for reference and honestly some of the images you come across you’re like, “This looks fake.” Even though you know it’s real because it’s a photo of a real thing but it’s unreal sometimes what the human body is capable of in various ways.
AA: Within the horror genre there are disgusting things that happen and you go, “Ew,” unless you are a very squeamish person, in which case don’t watch any of those things – it’s not good for your brain. [laughs] We’ve found it’s the tiny things, it’s a fingernail being pulled off, it’s the things you can envision actually happening and your brain can process it in a different way. You’re not awake during surgery and conscious of what that would feel like for your innards, I hope nobody is awake during surgery! But for me it’s the tinier things somehow my brain can connect with how that could happen to you and I don’t like it.

Still, ‘Crimes of the Future’ by David Cronenberg, 2022

EJ: Finally, watching the finished product did the film materialise in the way you originally envisioned it?
MP: I think so, you always want to improve on whatever the last thing was you did but we shot it all and we left Greece feeling pretty good but you never know how things are going to cut together. But I would say overall, we’re thrilled with how everything came together because you might be happy with a thing but you never know, sometimes they’re like “Oh it’s great,” but you watch it and you’re like “Oh they cut it.” [laughs]
AA: Honestly, even just in terms of other departments, you hope everyone is bringing their A-game and putting their best foot forward but there are a million situations you have nothing to do with. This is the world we live in and we’re not in charge of making this portion of the world but we really lucked out with every person who was involved in this who just brought their excitement and dedication. Carol again is mind-blowing on every front, the worlds she is able to create seemingly by snapping her fingers while also being so kind. You’re walking into an amazing universe.

Crimes Of The Future is out now in UK and Irish cinemas. For more information and tickets, click here

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