In September 2015, Lee Gambin and the wonderful team at Cinemaniacs in Melbourne, Australia, asked me if I would be interested in introducing their screening of David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986)…
I was – but little did I know my commitment to presenting this screening would kick off a new project for me: a monograph solely dedicated to The Fly. As of typing this post, I can confirm this thing is happening, thanks to Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, John Atkinson and Auteur’s imprint, Devil’s Advocates.
Coincidentally, The Fly was the first film I wrote about (out of the 75-plus films) in my Monster Movies book. I kid you not. It’s my destiny.
In celebration of my sophomore book, I’ve posted a transcript of my presentation on The Fly at Cinemaniacs, which is by no means indicative of the book’s content but may reignite in you an interest in this film – which is turning 30 years old on 15th August 2016 – if you have not been familiarised with The Fly before. All I can say is: be afraid, be very afraid. Read on…
The Fly forms part of my personal sci-fi horror ‘holy trinity’ – holy trinity being a good thing, by the way. The other films are Ridley Scott’s Alien and John Carpenter’s The Thing.
These films are so good, in my view, because:
a. they are simple & elegant, while also being high concept;
b. every single element of the filmmaking is excellent – from cast to costumes, to script to sound – which adds up to a sum greater than its parts; and
c. they all use prosthetics and puppetry – the only way to do SFX, in my opinion. And the reason why The Fly has been programmed tonight as part of a Cinemaniacs’ season on Oscar winning makeup. So we’ll talk a little bit more about the makeup and SFX shortly.
Within that holy trinity of films – The Fly, Alien and The Thing – The Fly is distinctive for one main reason: it is a romance. It is also a mad-scientist/man–with-god-complex movie. The scientist accidentally fuses himself with a housefly during an experiment in teleportation and slowly turns into a human fly across the course of the film. But the romance really overrides everything else.
The horror elements, while significant, are there to create drama, as is the love triangle that gets played out between the scientist, Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum); the journalist, Veronica (Geena Davis); and Veronica’s editor/former love interest, Stathis (John Getz) who has a remarkable character arc that goes from sleazebag to tragic hero.
In his rewrite of the screenplay, director David Cronenberg made sure none of the characters had any family or friends so this love triangle is even more pronounced because, in the characters’ times of need, they have no one to turn to but each other.
It is classic, classic storytelling. Rather than Alien or The Thing, the closest stories thematically to The Fly are those most romantic at heart: think Beauty and the Beast, Phantom of the Opera and even King Kong and The Bride of Frankenstein.
To give The Fly even greater gravitas, the two lovers – Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis – were dating at the time the film was made (1986). That was something of a happy coincidence and also problematic. Apparently, Davis is a very good mimic and subconsciously took on Goldblum’s mannerisms as part of their relationship. This affected the delivery of her lines on set ie. she was actually playing Goldblum. They also needed to be separated in order to create the seduction that’s central to the film.
When talking to people about The Fly, most will say ‘do you mean the original?’ and, when they say ‘original’, they think this 1986 version IS the original. But The Fly was actually first adapted for the screen in 1958 by director Kurt Neumann. It came from a short story by Belgian writer George Langelaan, which was published in Playboy magazine and, by all accounts (or at least by director David Cronenberg) is not a great story except for its central concept.
Writer Charles Edward Pogue had scripted a remake of the 1958 version and, through a series of events, it found its way onto the desk of Mel Brooks as producer (yes – the Mel Brooks who created Get Smart, Blazing Saddles, etc, but also produced David Lynch’s Elephant Man before The Fly so not that strange a pairing after all). In fact, Brooks coined the phrase ‘be afraid, be very afraid’, which became a line delivered by Geena Davis in the film, then the tagline of the film and has now made its way into popular vernacular.
David Cronenberg was the first choice as director of The Fly due to his reputation as one of the filmmaking community’s principal proponents of ‘body horror’ – which is essentially horror from within or ‘venereal horror’ that diseases, decays, mutilates and transforms the body (and not for the better).
I suggest, if you haven’t seen Cronenberg’s 1979 film The Brood, starring Oliver Reed and Samantha Eggar, please make that the next film you watch. It’s truly excellent.
The Brood was also the first film in which Cronenberg collaborated with composer Howard Shore, who provides a beautifully dramatic, over-the-top operatic score for The Fly, which somehow works in what would otherwise be a fairly intimate film in terms of having very few sets, very few characters – you can actually imagine The Fly working well as a stage play. Interestingly, Cronenberg ended up helping composer Howard Shore create an opera of The Fly that was first performed in 2008.
Something to note when watching The Fly: this is one of the first films to use a reclaimed warehouse as a home/office/workshop for one of the characters, something that would become the cool thing to do in many movies post-1986.
So, Cronenberg was the first choice of director (keep an eye out for him in the movie in a cameo role as a surgeon/gynaecologist). But he was making Total Recall instead. Another director was brought on – first time feature director Robert Bierman – but that director’s daughter died tragically and he left before pre-production had really commenced. Incidentally, Bierman would go on to make that rather kooky Nicholas Cage film from 1989, Vampire’s Kiss – the one where he famously ate cockroaches, if I’m not mistaken.
Then Cronenberg had creative differences with the producers of Total Recall and that film was handed over to PAUL Verhoeven. It would have been interesting to see what a Cronenberg version of Total Recall would have been like, although I do confess to having a soft spot myself for Verhoeven given he made one of the best films ever made: Starship Troopers.
Cronenberg is a self-professed science geek, so his version of The Fly was always going to be more scientifically accurate, within reason. And the heightened romance was also very important to him too.
The main scientific differences to the first version of the film were that the scientist (Seth Brundle – by the way, named after Formula 1 driver ‘Martin Brundle’ because Cronenberg is a huge motorsport enthusiast) – Seth Brundle would not lose his voice so he could remain articulate and explain what was happening to him. Cronenberg saw this as very important in creating the emotional push of the film.
He also wanted Brundle to turn into ‘Brundlefly’ gradually as a process of his DNA synthesising with the fly. DNA was something that had not been discovered at the time when the Langelaan story had been written or the first film made.
The Fly is quintessentially a David Cronenberg film, and one of his masterworks (alongside Dead Ringers). It is also Jeff Goldblum’s movie. It would have been a lesser film in the hands of another actor. Cronenberg said that Goldblum presented the right mix of geekiness and physicality that really made him work in the role. He was also not afraid of the heavy makeup he would need to wear – many other actors who considered the role were fearful their acting would not be seen through the layers of grease and rubber.
Just like his character of Brundlefly, Goldblum transformed himself physically for the movie, but through excessive weight training. He even managed to complete part of the gymnastics routines you’ll see his character just randomly do. However, at 6 foot 5, he was never going to be able perform the routines fully. Apparently, a tall male gymnast is no more than five foot 8.
Cronenberg actually calls Jeff Goldblum ‘fearless’ when talking about his work on The Fly. He said Goldblum would have done anything if it was required for the movie. He had no fear of appearing naked, he had no fear of excessive hard work, and he had no fear of the baboon that was on set much of the time – the baboon plays a kind of fourth character in the film – in fact, the baboon saw Goldblum as the alpha male monkey on-set so Goldblum was able to prevent him from ripping the cast and crew apart.
So, to the makeup and SFX, which is why we’re here watching The Fly tonight…
There are A LOT of SFX in this movie. A LOT. And a lot more made it onto the cutting room floor. If you get to see any of the deleted scenes from The Fly, which I know are on the special edition of the DVD release, you’ll see the huge amount of effects work that was literally slashed from the final edit for pacing reasons or the reaction of test audiences
One such scene was a ‘monkeycat’ scene where Brundle attempts to, as it sounds, fuse a cat with a monkey. The scene was conceptualised, all the puppetry and effects completed and then shot before being trashed. Perfect example of how filmmakers often have to ‘kill their darlings’.
The 1987 Oscar for Best Makeup for The Fly went to Chris Walas (SFX Supervisor, who would go on to direct The Fly 2, which released to dubious response) and Stephan Dupuis (Makeup Supervisor).
Their work on this film is nothing short of astonishing and required the creation of, not just one monster, but several monsters as Brundlefly changed many times before reaching his final state. Goldblum would spend five hours a day in the makeup chair undertaking his ‘Frankenstein-like’ transformation and Geena Davis would read him stories or sing him songs to keep him entertained.
The physicality of the effects in The Fly – this is what sells the emotion. They are real props and things/stuff that the actors interact with, not green screens or after effects. And this is quite a harrowing film. The finale of the film, and therefore the film itself, would not have worked if the effects had not sold themselves. As such, a lot of detail went into creating Brundlefly’s eyes so there was always a human attachment to the character, no matter how monstrous he had become.
Cronenberg disputes the fact that the film was a comment on the AIDS epidemic, which is what many people read into it at the time. He says the film is about our natural deterioration as human beings, that eventually leads to all our deaths. It’s about all of us, really.
He also says that horror tales should go further than your worst nightmare, which makes them strangely comforting. He says, that is what makes a good horror story.
I’m not sure if you’ll find The Fly comforting but hopefully you’ll enjoy it. Thanks very much.
To keep abreast of Cinemaniacs’ screenings, visit www.cinemaniacs.net.