The Fly (1986)

Cronenberg’s ‘The Fly’ Commentary has Greatness in its Genes

(I doubt people would read a review of the commentary before seeing the movie itself, but just in case…. SPOILER ALERT!!)

The Fly has gone through a long metamorphosis. Originally a short story written by George Langelaan and published in Playboy Magazine in 1957, it was first adapted into a film in 1958 which spawned two sequels, 1959’s Return of the Fly and 1965’s The Curse of the Fly. In 1986, David Cronenberg released his darker, emotionally-driven remake, which led to its own sequel, The Fly II, released in 1989 without Cronenberg’s involvement. Cronenberg revisited the material in 2008 to create an opera in collaboration with composer Howard Shore. Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly won an Academy Award for Best Makeup and three Saturns, and has left a strong legacy among critics both as a horror film and as a film in its own right. Traces of its DNA can still be found over 20 years later in films such as 2010’s excellent Splice.

In some respects, Cronenberg’s version of The Fly began its evolution long before he knew he’d ever have the chance to direct the remake. He recounts his experience of seeing the original film as a boy. Although he seems to have enjoyed it, he remembers that certain elements of it–including the inaccurate portrayal of a fly’s vision in a point-of-view shot–conflicted with what he had learned about flies through his early interest in entomology. He was also disappointed by the unbalanced and illogical fusion of man and fly. It’s evident that Cronenberg’s critical eye was wide open even in his youth, and what he saw influenced his own approach to the material decades later.

Cronenberg shares many perceptive comments throughout the commentary, especially regarding the differences between previous versions of the story and his own. He speaks with the poise of a true craftsman, respectful even when discussing elements of earlier renditions that he found lacking. Especially evident is his appreciation for the draft of the remake written by Charles Edward Pogue; Cronenberg kept many of its key elements in his rewrite. Perhaps the most significant change was Cronenberg’s decision to move the point at which Brundle loses the capacity for speech. In Pogue’s version, this occurred very early on, whereas Cronenberg pushed it until the end of the film. He made this decision for two reasons: he wanted Brundle to be able to explain what he was feeling throughout his transformation, and the loss of speech is something that Cronenberg finds personally horrifying.

After listening to his articulate commentary, I’d have to agree that the silencing of Cronenberg is a scary thought indeed.

The Fly (1986), front cover

The Fly (1986), front cover

00:00:10 — The Fly came to Cronenberg from Mel Brooks. Cronenberg was interested, but distracted because he was working on Total Recall with Dino de Laurentiis.

00:00:35 — The title moment of the fluttering of the words “The Fly” was actually something that was in a teaser trailer. Cronenberg liked it so much that he incorporated it into the film.

According to Cronenberg, Pogue’s script had a lot of strong elements, including a genetic rethinking of the process of Brundle’s transformation that made use of our knowledge of DNA, but the characters didn’t satisfy Cronenberg — they were too similar to the characters in the original short story by George Langelaan.

00:02:00 — Cronenberg rewrote the characters and the dialogue, which sounds like a lot, but maybe not as much as you’d think. The script already had a lot of elements that Cronenberg liked.

00:02:45 — Goldblum and Davis were actually dating at the time the film was made. Their chemistry together worked well on screen.

00:03:30 — Geena was a good mimic and tended to mimic Goldblum, which made it necessary to establish some distance between the characters in terms of mannerisms, speech, etc. This was especially necessary early in the film, so that there was more of a “gradual seduction” between them, and their characters could grow closer throughout the film.

00:04:50 — After this scene, Davis and Goldblum did a duet for the crew.

00:05:10 — Early designs of the telepods looked like glass showers or telephone booths, which Cronenberg thought was boring. Eventually Cronenberg used the cylinder structure of the engine of his Ducati 450 Desmo single-cylinder motorcycle as a model.

Cronenberg liked Goldblum’s combination of geekiness, intelligence, and physical presence.

00:08:33 — Although Cronenberg didn’t think the original short story was well-written, the core concept was powerful.

00:09:25 — Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) was named after F1 racer Martin Brundle. A lot of Cronenberg’s character names come from motor racing.

00:10:05 — The idea of having Brundle live in his lab was actually a unique concept at the time the movie was made. It worked well in terms of the theatricality of the movie, and helped to make it more intimate and operatic. The music also has an operatic quality.

00:11:45 — Re-watching the film, Cronenberg was struck by how disturbing and emotional it is. He feels the emotional impact of the love-story is what attracted a lot of the audience.

00:13:50 — Cronenberg wanted Brundle to be really articulate about his work so that he could also be articulate about his transformation. In the original film and Pogue’s script, the scientist loses his voice early in the movie.

00:15:42 — Ronnie’s (Geena Davis) apartment is designed as a classic Toronto apartment. The movie does take place in Toronto, although it doesn’t “make a big deal of it.” Cronenberg feels comfortable and confident in Toronto; he’s not looking for the exotic, but for grounding and depth.

00:16:30 — Flushing the toilet wasn’t in the script; Davis came up with the idea while they were goofing around just before shooting the scene.

00:18:40 — Cronenberg wanted the computer to be voice-activated because it leads to some interesting possibilities later in the film.

00:18:50 — The was one of Cronenberg’s first-ever motion control shots.

00:20:10 — This scene illustrates Brundle’s ability to articulate what he’s feeling, which was so important to Cronenberg.

00:21:10 — Cronenberg feels that the film anticipates the modern trend of documenting our own lives (e.g. through social media, reality TV).

00:21:50 — Cronenberg says that he also sometimes has multiple sets of the same clothes so he doesn’t have to think about what he wants to wear, though this may be more about laziness than conserving brain power.

00:23:00 — For Cronenberg, this is the sexual awakening of a nerd, and the first of many changes that Brundle goes through in the film.

00:23:30 — Cronenberg normally gains 15-20 pounds while shooting a film, but during The Fly he became more fit, which he believes is because Goldblum was working out between takes for the role, inspired Cronenberg.

00:26:55 — Cronenberg has set a lot of scenes in abandoned or converted buildings. Cronenberg says, “The rethinking of the use of a structure has always been something that excited me architecturally and dramatically.”

00:28:35 — The baboon was a major cast member, and kind of fell in love with the script supervisor and accepted Goldblum as the alpha-male because of his size and strength.

00:34:10 — They actually attached a living fly to a tiny fishing line made out of filament from light bulbs, and dangled it from a fishing line in order to get the baboon to react.

00:37:20 — In the original, the scientist’s first teleportation was inspired by scientific curiosity, but in Cronenberg’s version it’s largely the result of emotional reasons (love, frustration and drunkenness).

00:38:00 — Cronenberg was always bothered by the transformation in the original: there was no logical reason for the man-fly’s head to be so large. Also, there was a point of view shot from the man-fly’s perspective which showed a hundred images of his wife screaming, but that’s not an accurate representation of a fly’s vision. Although flies have faceted eyes, each facet contributes to a whole image, rather than a repeated image. Fusing the fly and human DNA allowed Cronenberg to avoid those kinds of mistakes.

00:41:10 — Goldblum could do the beginnings of these gymnast moves, which was impressive to the gymnasts who were brought in to complete the moves. Cronenberg wanted Goldblum to show not just strength, but agility, as flies do.

00:43:30 — This scene was shot in Toronto’s Kensington Market.

00:44:20 — The rethinking of fly DNA as an amphetamine appealed to Cronenberg. Some dialogue was added to this scene so that Goldblum would have more to build with.

Cronenberg really wanted there to be some upsides to the transformation, which is why Goldblum has increased agility, intelligence, sexuality, etc. Having a strange seductiveness to the disease that’s transforming you is more like real life. It also makes it believable for Goldblum to want to share the experience with his girlfriend. If it were purely and immediately negative, he wouldn’t want to do that.

00:49:00 — Mel Brooks wondered if the music in this scene was too much for a guy just walking down the street, but Cronenberg explained that he was really going to meet his destiny.

00:49:40 — As a means of promoting the movie, a song called “Help Me” was written to be included in it. Although Cronenberg thought it was a good rock and roll song, it didn’t fit in the movie, not even in the end credits, because of the contrast with the operatic quality of the score. It’s playing in the background of this scene.

The Fly (1986), back cover

The Fly (1986), back cover

00:49:55 — The guy in red plaid is George Chuvalo, who was the Canadian boxing champion for many years and was never knocked out. Cronenberg is a big boxing fan and was really excited to have him in the film.

00:54:40 — The tagline for the movie, “Be afraid. Be very afraid”, came from this scene. It was actually suggested by Mel Brooks when he and Cronenberg were talking about the film.

00:56:10 — At this point, the relationship is more like that of a drug addict who refuses to acknowledge that they problem.

00:58:25 — This scene represents a common moment in the history of anyone’s disease. You’re taking a shower, or shaving, or getting dressed, and you notice something new–a lump, a bump, a lesion. Something small, but something definitely wrong.

00:58:52 — There was a lot of discussion about the movie being about AIDS, but for Cronenberg it was about aging, disease in general, or the inevitability of death.

01:00:00 — Cronenberg doesn’t usually react to his own movies as if they’re movies, but he was really disturbed when watching The Fly.

01:01:20 — Cronenberg believes that this movie wouldn’t have been made if it had been a straight drama. It’s really the story of someone who gets a terrible disease and wastes away while their lover watches, but because it’s protected by sci-fi genre conventions, it works.

01:06:20 — Cronenberg deliberately cut down the “human frames of reference” that the characters have, so Veronica has to go back to Stathis (John Getz), her ex-boyfriend and boss. Cronenberg wanted this to happen because of the sparks between them earlier, Stathis’s mixed feelings about the demise of his competitor for Veronica’s love, and because of the emotional motivation that Stathis would have to risk his life to help her.

01:07:55 — This scene required building a room that rotated like a Ferris wheel, so that when the camera was upside down, and as Brundle climbs down the walls, the room is rotating. It was lit using a system of lights and mirrors which rotated with the set. It was similar to an approach used for a scene in an old Fred Astaire movie.

01:10:30 — Cronenberg thinks people are compelled to document their lives, even the worst parts of it, because it distances themselves from it.

01:11:10 — The pregnancy was not in the original story or movie, but it’s the natural extension of a love affair.

01:12:15 — Cronenberg’s cameo in this scene wasn’t something that he wanted to do, but Davis asked him to do it because if anyone was going to be in that position “between the stirrups,” she wanted it to be him. He did it because he knew his face would be covered and he could have someone dub his lines if he wasn’t happy with them.

01:13:20 — There are a lot of potent fears touched on in this movie. For Cronenberg, that is the strength of the horror film. It cuts to the chase and deals with primal fears very directly. That’s the enduring popularity of the genre. If you can have something be even worse than it is in your life, it’s somehow comforting. That’s what good horror movies do.

01:14:30 — Brundle’s lost capacity for speech was a major moment of horror for Cronenberg.

01:15:05 — The museum of Brundle’s lost parts is even more relevant today, as more people are getting plastic surgery.

01:16:00 — Many actors said no to the role of Brundle because they were afraid they wouldn’t be able to act through the make-up, especially in the later scenes.

01:17:08 — The insect politics speech comes from Cronenberg’s early interest in entomology and the developed social structure of ants, despite the fact that they are very definitely not human.

01:19:40 — Cronenberg feels that there is a physicality and immediacy offered by a man in a rubber suit that isn’t there with CGI.

01:22:00 — This is the rooftop of the Bishop Strachen School in Toronto.

01:30:00 — The fusion of Brundle-fly and the telepod door intentionally had human eyes because they needed to be expressive since he could no longer speak.

01:31:45 — There were many attempts to have a coda after this scene. Nothing really worked because the audience was so blown away by this scene, so Cronenberg decided to just end it. The Dead Zone ends in a similar way.

01:34:30 — Although many of Cronenberg’s characters come to a bad end when they push the limits of science too far, that has more to do with dramatic structure than Cronenberg’s opinions on science. He’s not trying to promote a conservative approach to science.


Entertainment – 3.5/5

Filmmaking Tips – 4/5

Writing Tips – 4/5

Trivia – 4/5

The Fly (1986) | Directed by David Cronenberg | Written by Charles Edward Pogue and David Cronenberg | Based on a short story by George Langelaan | Starring Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis and John Getz | DVD Release Date: 2005 | Commentary by David Cronenberg


One thought on “Cronenberg’s ‘The Fly’ Commentary has Greatness in its Genes

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