David Cronenberg makes movies that roil the gut as much as they pique the mind, and, a half century into his career, he continues to flex a distinctive, alienating vision that continues to intrigue (see: 2014's very, very strange Maps To The Stars). One wonders, however, how his career may have unspooled had he heeded the call of mainstream studios early in his career. Because he definitely had the chance.
In an interview with Entertainment Weekly pegged to Beyond Fest’s current Cronenberg retrospective, the filmmaker reflects on what’s likely the biggest gig he ever turned down: The Return Of The Jedi. When Lucasfilm reached out to him in the early ‘80s, Cronenberg had already built a cult following with films like 1975's Shivers, 1977's Rabid, and, especially, 1979's transcendent The Brood.
“I still recall getting a phone call,” he said. “I was asked if I would be interested in considering that, and meeting with everybody, and I said, with the arrogance of youth — relative youth, anyway — I said, ‘Well, I’m not used to doing other people’s material.’ And there was like a stunned silence and then ‘Click’ — hang up. Basically, that was as close as I came to that.”
It’s not hard to imagine why Lucasfilm would’ve considered Cronenberg; Jedi, after all, is brimming with grotesqueries, from the gooey rancor to Jabba the Hut himself, whose viscous discharges would likely have been heavily on display under Cronenberg’s eye. And what are the Ewoks if not lawful good versions of The Brood’s chaotic mutant children?
When asked if he’d ever given thought to what his version might look like, he replied thusly:
“No, not really, because, in a way that’s like doing one episode in a well-established TV series,” says the director. “The casting is fixed of the main characters — the look of it, the tone of it, people’s expectations for it, are all fixed. You are not involved in the creating of that. And therefore you’re a little bit more like a traffic cop than you are like, for me, what a creative director can be. So that’s why it wouldn’t have interested me, really. I mean, you have Alfonso Cuarón doing a Harry Potter episode, and he did his best to try to make it stand out from the others, but basically, it’s a Harry Potter episode. And if you didn’t know that Alfonso directed it, you wouldn’t be able to tell. So, these are not attractive options for me. I mean, there’s the lure of money, and having a big budget, and having excitement around the film you’re making — but on the deep creative level, it would for me be frustrating, I think. Just frustrating.”
Return Of The Jedi, directed by Richard Marquand, opened in 1983, the same year as the movies many consider to be two of Cronenberg’s masterpieces: Videodrome and The Dead Zone.
He made the right call.