Patrick McGrath on David Cronenberg's Spider

Novelist Patrick McGrath recalls the lessons he learned from David Cronenberg on their movie Spider.

Novelist and screenwriter Patrick McGrath was born in London and grew up near Broadmoor Hospital, where his father was a medical superintendent. His novels include Dr. Haggard's Disease, Martha Peake and Port Mungo. He has adapted three of his novels into screenplays: The Grotesque (1994), Asylum (2004) and Spider (2002), the latter directed by David Cronenberg.


Spider is set in East London, between the 1960s and 1980s. 'Spider', a deeply disturbed boy, 'sees' his father brutally murder his mother and replace her with a prostitute, Yvonne. Convinced that they plan to murder him next, Spider hatches an insane plan, which he carries through to tragic effect. The adult Spider (Ralph Fiennes) is released into a halfway house. Unsupervised, he stops taking his medication and starts revisiting his childhood haunts. His attempts to sustain his delusional account of his past begin to unravel, and Spider spirals into madness.

In these extracts from an interview with Patrick McGrath conducted by Kevin Conroy Scott for his book Screenwriters Masterclass (UK: Faber and Faber, US: Newmarket, 2005), the writer describes what he learned from the vital process of collaboration with Cronenberg.

KEVIN CONROY SCOTT: Several directors were attached to Spider over the course of several years

PATRICK McGRATH: For the longest time we didn't seem to be able to get anywhere with it. Then David Cronenberg suddenly appeared on the scene like an angel and everything is light and progress, and then we moved very quickly.

How did you and Cronenberg first get together?

After he got the script in Toronto he came over almost immediately to meet the producer, Cathy Bailey, and Ralph [Fiennes], myself and my wife Maria. And the crucial meeting really was between David and Ralph, because Ralph had been waiting for years to attach a director so that chemistry had to be right. I was there, and it was clear in two minutes that Ralph liked David, and David liked Ralph, it was a great relief to everybody when we saw them chatting away . . .

One of the great things I learned from Cronenberg was he was very good at saying, 'Take that out, it's superfluous, we've already had that.' He was very economical, he'd say, 'We know that so we can cut that.' The result of which was that the script was down to seventy-eight pages and I said, 'It's not long enough.' So he then said, 'I'll film slow!'

During the course of Spider's long development process I am sure you got some notes from producers on how to improve the script. How you feel about notes, how do you deal with them?

. . . You tend to walk away and the minute you're out of the executive suite you turn to the producer and say, 'What the fuck's that all about?' And they say 'Don't worry, it's OK, you did good.' So it's a farce, Hollywood is supposed to be a profession, they make all these movies and yet you've just been through this farcical event. On the other hand you then have the situation where a David Cronenberg comes in and tells you what he wants done to your script and you listen with deference and respect, thinking, 'I'm learning something here.'

One of Cronenberg's notes being to get rid of the voiceover . . .

Which didn't take very long.

In your novel, Spider writes beautifully. Were you upset at losing that aspect of his personality, because the prose inside is head is so well-structured, so pretty?

Well no, I totally agreed with Cronenberg when he said the articulate, literate Spider is incompatible with this shambling, mumbling, confused man that we see wandering through the streets. And whereas I had to give Spider a voice in the book, that simply would not have worked in the film. You know the way Ralph shuffles about, the mumbling and the eyes–if you'd had a voiceover where he'd be articulating in nice, well-rounded sentences then I think you would have undercut the power of this almost mute figure. So I though Cronenberg was absolutely right to say, 'Let's get rid of the language.'

Surely you must have been nervous, as it's a lot to ask of the audience, to not have a very clear idea of where he's coming from or why he's doing what he does?

Yeah, it worried me but it never worried Cronenberg, he knew exactly what he was doing. And I would ask him exactly that kind of question: 'How are you going to let them know that Spider is getting things wrong here, that his father isn't having an affair with this woman?' And he'd say, 'Well, I don't ask you how you do your stuff!' And I'd ask. 'How are we going to know what's going on inside Spider's head?', and he'd say just, 'Leave it to Ralph, that's his job.' So he pacified me and then he'd get on with it; he knew what he was doing...

There was another brilliant suggestion which really made a large impact on the film, which was the notion that Spider could actually be present in one of his memories. So we put this in one scene and it seemed to work quite well. In fact, it worked so well as far as Cronenberg was concerned that he told me to put the adult Spider in all of the scenes of his own childhood. And so that was, again, a simple thing to do; every time the little boy's having dinner with his parents, going down to the pub to get his dad out, whatever–Spider is there somewhere, watching and reacting. It had the great advantage of very vividly depicting a man remembering his own childhood, and it also gave us the opportunity to use Ralph in practically every scene in the movie.

What was your internal barometer as far as trying to gauge how far the audience was going to go in being able to pick through these narrative clues?

In terms of the audience I really couldn't gauge it, and I gave that problem all to Cronenberg–or rather, Cronenberg assumed that problem. When I first saw the film I simply couldn't gauge whether somebody who didn't know the story was going to get it. I just had to trust that David knew what he was doing and got it right.

I remember there was a screening in Cambridge where my cousin lives and I asked her whether she finally understood what was going on in Spider's psyche. My cousin's not a 'film person' in particular, but she's smart, and she said, 'Yes, at this point we realize that the mother and the broad are the same one.' She went on and laid it out beautifully and I thought, 'Yes, Cronenberg got it right.' The alert audience is getting the information at exactly the right moments. I hadn't been able to gauge that.

In addition to economy, I also learned about subtlety from Cronenberg. In one scene David shot Spider's mother just trying on her slip. It's enough to indicate Spider's panic over his mother's sexuality. I'd written a scene in which he sees his parents having sex and I wanted to hit it squarely on the head, but Cronenberg thought we could just do it with the slip...

You were on the set during production. What was your role?

Nuisance, really, but I was made to feel welcome. Cronenberg is unflappable. I know some directors don't like the writer around but he was always happy to see me and there'd always be jokey stuff going on and I just wanted to watch him work. I liked the man enormously so it was just neat to be around him.