Your new film is based on a graphic novel. Did you read comics as a kid?
Oh, I had the classic collection in the basement in cardboard boxes, but I was very eclectic: I liked Tarzan, Little Lulu, Uncle Scrooge, Black Hawk, Plastic Man, Superman, Captain Marvel. And E.C. Comics, scary and bizarre and violent and nasty—the ones your mother didn’t want you to have.
Science-fiction magazines: The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Galaxy, Astounding. I didn’t encounter Philip Dick until much later. But there was Ray Bradbury, and Isaac Asimov. He was important, a legitimate scientist and an artist—a writer—at the same time. I actually submitted a story to Fantasy & Science Fiction and got a rejection slip, handwritten, that said, “This came quite close.”
Your father was a journalist and your mother was a musician—what did they introduce you to?
They were both very artsy without ever being pretentious. We had a huge collection of books—other kids were amazed. They had maybe one book at their house, the Bible or something, and we had walls of books. My father was very eclectic: He wrote a column about stamps for the Toronto Tribune, and about finances, which was odd because he never had any money. I remember him talking about movies a lot. He’d tell me the plot of The Seventh Seal. But I was interested in Westerns and pirate movies, particularly with Burt Lancaster, because he was a trapeze artist, and I thought that was fascinating.
And your mom?
Well, my mother was a pianist who played for choirs and ballets. Music was always playing, when I was awake, when I was asleep. There are classics of Beethoven and Mozart and Bach I can hum—I can hear the whole complexity in my head—but it was never something I had to learn, so I can’t tell you the names.
How about contemporary music?
Rock and roll was a real revelation. Pre-Elvis, I was listening to pop. The Andrews Sisters, the McGuire Sisters—a lot of sisters. I listened to the radio all the time. My first was a little pink transistor radio. Jerry Lee Lewis’s Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On might have been the first song I ever heard on that pink transistor radio.
You seem to remember the radio as much as the music—were you particularly keen on technology?
Yes. In high school, my interest was organic science, biology, and botany, rather than physics and abstract stuff. But my first year at the University of Toronto, I found that the people were not a lot like me, so I went into this brilliantly constructed honors English course. We learned Latin, Anglo-Saxon literature, Old English, Chaucer … It came apart in the sixties, from that do-your-own-thing approach.
What did you want to do with your life back then?
I did aspire to be an obscure novelist. I thought you could probably do your best work outside of fame, because you’d be following your integrity. [Like] Kafka, who barely published in his own lifetime. I loved finding people like Djuna Barnes. I figured someone like me would discover me years from then.
What were you writing?
Sci-fi, mostly, but some stuff like Thomas Pynchon. There was that hallucinogenic view of the world, and V. was such a wonderful novel. I read it in the sixties in France, and also Journey to the End of the Night, by Céline, a little later that year. There was a clarity to it, a weird and exuberant cruelty. He was seeing war in the coldest, most revealing light. You would not read that book and think that you wanted to be a soldier. No romanticism.
Then you went back to Canada and got into cinema.
The New York underground was completely important to me. Ivan Reitman and I formed the Toronto Film Co-op, based on Jonas Mekas’s group in New York. We’d do 24-hour screenings. I had my first films in that festival. And I saw Scorpio Rising, Kenneth Anger’s film, which was a landmark. I loved the gayness of it, the outrageousness of it. And [Ed] Emshwiller’s Relativity, which was a pretty amazing intellectual thing with naked women, in extreme slow motion, breasts and bodies moving, incredibly liquid and abstract. The Kuchar brothers did really funny Hollywood parodies, and they were my first encounter with nerds, exulting in the nerdiness of the guy who couldn’t get the girl. And there was a film called Schmeerguntz that was the most gross film you could imagine—just disgusting stuff from everyday life, diapers, cleaning out the drain, cleaning the toilet.
Speaking of disgusting everyday life, how has New York affected you? Dead Ringers came from the story of two bodies found on East 63rd Street …
New York is a huge presence in the mind of Torontonians. I had an uncle who lived there, and we’d visit in the fifties. I’d go walking, and to see Brigitte Bardot movies. You couldn’t see them until you were 16 in Canada, and I was 13. I was totally in love with her.
You’ve adapted novels by J.G. Ballard, William S. Burroughs, and others. Whose are you reading now?
Martin Amis. He’s fantastic, so funny, and Experience is just beautiful. Now I’m reading Yellow Dog, which had gotten some good reviews and some scathing reviews. I relate to that—it’s always hideous when a critic who loves your stuff turns on you and says, This is a betrayal of everything I love about you.
A History of Violence
In theaters now