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A Literary High – Burroughs, Cronenberg and the Writing of Naked Lunch

‘I can feel the heat closing in, feel them out there making their moves, setting up their devil doll stool pigeons, crooning over my spoon and dropper I throw away at Washington Square Station, vault a turnstile and two flights down the iron stairs, catch an uptown A train…Young, good-looking, crew-cut, Ivy League, advertising exec-type fruit holds the door back for me. I am evidently his idea of a character. You know the type comes on with bartenders and cab drivers, talking about right hooks and the Dodgers, call the counterman in Dedlick’s by his first name. A real asshole.’ And so began Naked Lunch.

They said it was unfilmable, that it couldn’t be done. That it had so little of a narrative or character development, that it lacked any of the qualities that would lend itself to a visual medium, that it was merely a collage of subconscious thoughts spewing from the mind of a drug addict. How could such a random collection of fantasies and broken memories form the basis for a commercial horror movie? And with a despicable and unsympathetic hero, denying the viewer something that every good motion picture relies on, who would cinemagoers cheer for as the action unfolded, who has the audience invested in? And if the story’s hero is morally ambiguous and devoid of merit, how could a villain be clearly established? They said it couldn’t be done, but in 1991 David Cronenberg proved them wrong.

Exterminate all rational thought…Naked Lunch was born from the fractured mind of self-proclaimed heroin user and Beat poet William Burroughs, who had first made his mark on the literary world with the appropriately-titled Junky, a semi-autobiographical account of his struggles with addiction. He had never fancied himself as an author but at the behest of his friend and contemporary Allen Ginsberg put his random musings and anecdotes to paper to unexpected acclaim. Following the completion of the equally notorious Queer, Naked Lunch saw the writer transferring his own demons and vices into its amoral protagonist who wanders through the ominous Interzone, in search of his next clinical or sexual indulgence.

‘I was in Tangier in 1954, writing letters to my friends Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac and trying to work on my third novel,’ recalled Burroughs prior to the release of the big screen adaptation Naked Lunch almost four decades later. ‘My first novel Junky had been published the previous year and my second novel Queer had been put aside as unpublishable. At that time I had no idea that the novel I was writing, then called Interzone, would ever be published and much less could I have imagined that it would be interpreted by an acclaimed film director some thirty-five years later. Such are the things that can happen if you live long enough.’

By the dawn of the 1990s David Cronenberg had become one of the most controversial-yet-acclaimed filmmakers working within the horror industry, having first emerged on the scene fifteen years earlier with a brand of storytelling that critics would come to refer to as ‘body horror.’ Often exploring the relationship between flesh and disease, whether it be the infection of an aphrodisiac parasite in his low budget debut Shivers or the marriage of human and insect DNA in his ground-breaking reworking of The Fly, Cronenberg has often detailed the slow degeneration of the body through works of fantasy, themes he had explored since his time as a student at the University of Toronto. Dead Ringers, his most recent project prior to the filming of Naked Lunch, had explored the true story of twin gynaecologists who, much like Burroughs, had struggled through addiction but, in keeping with the filmmaker’s prior work, would see the siblings indulging in more extreme sexual desires that would ultimately mark their ultimately fate.

Cronenberg had often explored sexuality from a more clinical approach than many other directors who had incorporated erotic themes in their work, with the likes of Rabid far-removed from such titillating mainstream pictures as Body Heat and Fatal Attraction. His concern was less with providing audiences with close-up shots of heaving breasts and bare buttocks and more with observing how outside elements such as infection can affect the human flesh. His view as a storyteller would be non-bias when it came to sexual exploration, with the victims of Shivers molesting each other without any kind of preference or judgement, regardless of race or gender. As one character would claim, ‘…he tells me that everything is erotic, that everything is sexual…He tells me that even old flesh is erotic flesh. That disease is the love of two kinds of creatures for each other. Even dying is an act of eroticism.’

Perhaps it was inevitable that if a filmmaker was going to attempt to bring the works of Burroughs to the big screen it would be one such as Cronenberg, whose approach to horror storytelling has always been fearless and unapologetic. Indeed, he had first expressed an interest in adapting Naked Lunch in the early 1980s while promoting the release of his latest film Scanners. ‘Some part of me would love to make a movie of William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch,’ he had confessed to the American science fiction magazine Omni. ‘Not being an especially avid filmgoer I was unaware of his work, but as I learned about his films I began to understand his attraction to my novel and to appreciate his considerable accomplishments as a filmmaker,’ the author would later claim.

With protagonist perhaps not being the most apt description, the narrator of Naked Lunch is a drug addict and dealer called William Lee who desperately attempts to escape from the police while disposing of his paraphernalia as he makes his way to an automat, where his fellow degenerates often congregate for their latest fix safe from the judgment of the law. With the inevitability of his arrest drawing ever near Lee decides that the only way to remain free is to leave town and so, along with a group of fellow addicts, embark on a cross-country journey in search of new erotic, drug-fuelled adventures, indulging in all manner of depravity. With one of his associates, known locally as the Vigilante, having been committed due to his erratic, drug-induced behaviour, Lee and his collection of fellow users travel through Chicago and New Orleans to Mexico City, where they continue to binge as many narcotics as they can find while enjoying the celebrations of the Day of the Dead.

With Burroughs having first begun to experiment with opiates shortly after the Second World War, by the time that he had commenced work on Naked Lunch he had been struggling with his addiction for over a decade. ‘The sickness is a drug addiction and I was an addict for fifteen years,’ he would explain. ‘I have used junk in many forms: morphine, heroin, dilaudid, eukodal, pantopon, diocodid, diosane, opium, demerol, dolophine, palfium. I have smoked junk, eaten it, sniffed it, injected it in vein-skin muscle, inserted it in rectal suppositories. The needle is not important. When I speak of drug addiction I do not refer to keif, marijuana or any preparation of hashish, mescaline, Bannisteria Caapi, LSD6, Sacred Mushrooms or any other drug of the hallucinogen groups…There is no evidence that the use of any hallucinogen results in physical dependency.’

Arriving in a state referred to as the Freeland Republic, Lee is placed under the care of Doctor Benway, a psychiatrist working under the employment of an entity known as Islam Inc. who seems to harbour a hidden inner sadism through his barbaric approach to conditioning with the use of experimental torture. Subjecting his patients to a method he refers to as Irreversible Neurological Damage, with some of his atrocious acts somewhat reminiscent of those conducted by Nazi scientists in concentration camps during the Second World War, Benway is soon established as the antagonist of Naked Lunch, his desire to inflict pain almost coming close to some kind of gratification, as if the horrific spectacle that he gets to observe is akin to a live sex show.

‘Certain passages in the book that have been called pornographic were written as a tract against capital punishment in the manner of Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal,’ Burroughs explained on the subtext that would permeated throughout the novel. ‘These sections are intended to reveal capital punishment as the obscene, barbaric and disgusting anachronism that it is. As always the lunch is naked. If civilised countries want to return to druid hanging rites in the Sacred Grove or to drink blood with the Aztecs and feed their Gods with blood of human sacrifice, let them see what they actually eat and drink. Let them see what is on the end of that long newspaper spoon.’

Lee finally leaves the Freeland and heads to the Interzone – its name and inspiration having been derived from an area in Tangier populated by artists – where he hears about a special delicacy called the black meat which, as Burroughs described, was the ‘flesh of the giant aquatic black centipede – sometimes attaining a length of six feet – found in a lane of black rocks and iridescent, brown lagoons, exhibit paralysed crustaceans in camouflage pockets of the plaza visible only to the meat eaters.’ From there he crosses paths with the sexually liberated Hassan who holds orgies in what is known as the rumpus room, from where Lee admires the naked form of a man nearby before observing as he has sex with a younger male as the crowd watches on with excitement. The evening continues with an array of ejaculations until one of the patrons begins decapitating a group of American women who have recently arrived, causing the perpetrator to be banished from the party.

The remainder of Naked Lunch would consist of an array of seemingly unrelated vignettes which explore the debauchery of Interzone and the sexual fetishes of the citizens within, while introducing a surreal creature known as the Mugwump. By the time that the novel was first published, initially making its debut in Paris in 1959, Burroughs had spent the previous fifteen years trapped inside his own drugged-out hell, having shot his partner several years earlier. Burroughs had made the acquaintance of Joan Vollmer Adams through Kerouac, whom she had shared an apartment with and the two soon became inseparable but, in 1951, five years after he had first started taking heroin and two years before the publication of his first novel, Burroughs shot Vollmer Adams in what has long been considered a rendition of William Tell that went awry.

By the time that Naked Lunch was published Burroughs had overcome the worst of his demons but had been left with years of disjointed memories that would both plague and inspire his work throughout the remainder of his life. ‘I awoke from the sickness at the age of forty-five, calm and sane and in reasonably good health, except for a weakened liver and the look of borrowed flesh common to all who survive…Most survivors do not remember the delirium in detail. I have no precise memory of writing the notes which have now been published under the title Naked Lunch,’ recalled Burroughs. ‘When I say I have no memory of writing Naked Lunch, this is of course an exaggeration and it is to be kept in mind that there are various areas of memory. Junk is a pain killer, it also kills the pain and pleasure implicit in awareness. While the factual memory of an addict may be quite accurate and extensive, his emotional memory may be scanty and, in the case of heavy addiction, approaching affective zero.’

It would be three years after Cronenberg’s declaration of his desire to adapt the work of Burroughs that the wheels would first start turning on what would eventually become the motion picture Naked Lunch. While attending the Toronto Film Festival in September 1984 the director would cross paths with Jeremy Thomas, an up-and-coming producer who was showcasing his latest product, The Hit. Thomas had heard of Cronenberg’s wish to film the story of William Lee and so the two began to discuss the possibility of Burroughs’ weird and wonderful novel making the transition to the big screen. To help absorb the world in which the author had created his surreal classic, Thomas arranged for Cronenberg and Burroughs to accompany him on a visit to Tangier, arriving in January 1985, over a half a century after the publication of Naked Lunch.

James Grauerholz, Burroughs’ long-suffering secretary, had arranged for the writer to view several of Cronenberg’s features and yet despite the enthusiasm the filmmaker had for the project he would find adapting the source material an arduous task. ‘I went to Burroughs’ seventieth birthday party in New York City, a raucous, star-studded affair at the Limelight. I went to his more subdued seventy-fifth at his home in Lawrence, Kansas,’ said Cronenberg. ‘Five years visibly, palpably gone by and I still hadn’t written the script. I was probably afraid to. It was a book that was acknowledged by all, myself included, to be impossible to translate to the screen. Maybe the key word was translate. Yes: I was too arrogant to be a mere translator. I was not born to be a translator. What was I doing with Burroughs’ book, then? one might ask.’

After numerous failed attempts at capturing the right tone of the novel, Cronenberg finally decided to take certain key elements from the text and, along with aspects of Queer and Burroughs’ only personal experiences, including the accidental shooting of Vollmer Adams, the screenplay for Naked Lunch slowly began to take shape. Much of the writing would take place at Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire, England where Cronenberg had been cast as a deranged psychiatrist in Clive Barker’s horror fantasy Nightbreed and by December 1989 had completed the first draft. With the author impressed by the filmmaker’s vision, Cronenberg continued to develop the story while remaining in touch with Burroughs, debating all aspects of life and death without ever asking for direct input. For while the novel may have been the creation of William Burroughs, the film of Naked Lunch would bear the artistic signature of David Cronenberg.

Even as the screenplay slowly came to fruition Thomas was preoccupied with attempting to raise the budget for a project that many considered too much of a financial risk. It was necessary that the filmmakers convince any potential investors that this would only be a loose adaptation of the novel and would have a certain commercial appeal that the text may have lacked. ‘It’s impossible to make a movie out of Naked Lunch. A literal translation just wouldn’t work,’ insisted Cronenberg. ‘It would cost $400m to make and would be banned in every country in the world; not an attractive proposition for a producer. It was obvious, for both artistic and practical reasons, I was going to have to do my own version of Naked Lunch; a fusion of my own writing with Burroughs…I moved back from the page itself to include the process of writing the book. I could just then let it flow and to my surprise, when I sat down to write, it was there. The primal act of creation is the writing of the script.’

The homosexual aspect of the novel would be something else that Cronenberg would refuse to shy away from, although this element would be toned down significantly, particularly with regards to sexual violence, opting to add a more fantastic element than the sadomasochistic rape depicted in the book. The sexuality of Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch is shown in a rather surreal fashion, particularly with the introduction of the bug-like typewriter that first lures Lee into the nightmarish world of Interzone. Introducing itself as his case officer, Lee is convinced by the large beetle to rub bug powder into the anus-like orifice that the creature communicates from. This is not the first time that the filmmaker has used intimate body parts as a way to disgust his audience, with the antihero of Videodrome inserting a handgun into a gash on his abdomen that resembles a large vagina.

‘Initially the screenplay was astounding in that I thought to myself, ‘You cannot make a screenplay of Naked Lunch unless you’re going to make some $50m animated film,’ because it’s a surrealist book,’ explained Peter Weller, the actor that Cronenberg would eventually cast to portray his antihero, William Lee. ‘It’s like Gulliver’s Travels; it’s like Lilliputians, except it’s not Lilliputians, it’s Mugwumps and highly sexual, overtly sexual and really graphic in its moral depiction of social horror. How you going to make a movie about this? Cronenberg hadn’t intended to make a movie about it. He intended to make a movie about how Burroughs as Bill Lee, using Burroughs as a character in a couple of his short stories and Naked Lunch, came to write Naked Lunch; the horror of the man, using images from the book, thus telling a story about the prison, the self-exile called expression.’

Cronenberg would take inspiration from the visual aesthetic and narrative structure of film noir for both the style and story of Naked Lunch, with the appearance of Lee resembling that of a hardboiled detective, while the moral ambiguity of not only the villains but also the protagonist was a key staple of many thrillers shot during the Second World War. The cinematic adaptation of Naked Lunch would open in New York in 1953 where reformed drug addict William Lee now works as a pest exterminator, yet due to his wife Joan’s taste for his bug powder he is often left in short supply while on call-out. In between his shifts and time with his strung-out wife Joan in their rundown apartment he meets two fellow aspiring writers at a local diner where they discuss their approach to creativity and a lack of a readership. It is clear that this trio of writers represent the close friendship between Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac, with the latter bearing a close physical resemblance to the character of Hank.

Lee is soon apprehended by two detectives who due to his troubled past arrest him on suspicion of possession of a dangerous substance. When he insists that the powder he is carrying is for exterminating cockroaches he is introduced to a giant beetle that insists that Lee is a spy and the bug is his case officer. Claiming to have instructions from Control, the entity they are both supposedly under the employment of, Lee is warned that Joan is not who she appears to be and that he must murder her, the beetle insinuating that she may in fact not really be human. Fearing for his sanity Lee takes off one of his shoes and beats the insect to death before escaping from the station and running for his life. He returns home and pleads with Joan for them to leave the city but she begins to obsess over obtaining more bug powder, prompting him to visit a local doctor, Benway, who offers an antidote made from crushed black centipedes that will serve as a suppressant for anyone with addiction to the powder. The doctor compares the cure to that of an agent, one who remains hidden and ready to be activated, further enforcing the beetle’s earlier claims of spies in the midst.

Lee returns home to find his two friends engaged in sexual activity with his wife, one exploring her body while the other reads literature in a provocative manner, prompting Lee to relocate to another room. When Joan finally joins him they get high together and, his growing suspicion of her clouding his judgment, the two engage in an ill-fated rendition of William Tell. Fleeing from the scene he crosses paths with a young homosexual called Kiki who introduces him to a Mugwump, a giant reptile that resembles an alien humanoid that reveals itself to be another member of the spy underworld, offering him a pass to the mysterious city of Interzone, where he will await further instructions. After pawning his gun for a typewriter so he can resume his former passion of writing he discovers that it is another case officer, transforming into a giant bug to issue a new set of orders.

Along with Hans, a sleazy dealer that Lee has attracted the unwanted attention of, his exchange with the bug is one of the key homosexual aspects of the film, with the insect stating that, ‘Homosexuality is the best all-around cover an agent ever had.’ His mind becomes disjoined and fractured through a growing dependency to narcotics and soon he struggles to differentiate between the real world and the illusion he has created inside his own head. Both disgusted and enticed by Kiki and Hans, Lee is invited to a party hosted by an associate called O’Leary while also crossing paths with a fellow writer, a mysterious man called Tom Frost. Obsessing over his typewriter as he continues to write up his case reports, Lee slowly composes an erratic and surreal text from his twisted subconscious that would come to be known as Naked Lunch.

‘As an artist, one is not a citizen of society. An artist is bound to explore every aspect of human experience, the darkest concerns – not necessarily – but if that is where one is led, that’s where one must go,’ claimed Cronenberg on refusing to concern himself with the reaction that his work may receive from those that fail to understand or are offended by the themes that he explores in his work. ‘When I write, I must not censor my own imagery or connections. I must not worry about what critics will say, what leftists will say, what environmentalists will say. I must ignore all that. If I listen to all those voices I will be paralysed, because none of this can be resolved. I have to go back to the voice that spoke before all these structures were imposed on it and let it speak these terrible truths. By being irresponsible I will be responsible.’

One real-world situation would force Cronenberg to rethink the overall concept of Naked Lunch. On 2 August 1990, following the invasion of Kuwait by the Iraq army, the United Nations Security Council demanded the immediate withdrawal of troops but as its president Saddam Hussein defied the orders and announced that Kuwait had now become part of Iraq the United States, along with a coalition of over thirty countries, launched Operation Desert Shield and what would become known as the Persian Gulf War had begun. With Tangier having provided inspiration for Burroughs during the writing of Naked Lunch, the Moroccan city was the obvious choice to film the big screen adaptation and Thomas had already begun to scout suitable locations. But following the outbreak of war in the Middle East the filmmakers were forced to abandon the shoot and Cronenberg hastily rewrote the script in order to accommodate a new schedule, one that would take place far from their intended location, in Cronenberg’s hometown of Toronto.

Despite the disappointment with not being able to film in Tangier, the filmmakers made the most of the opportunity of working in a studio and even allowed its director to add another aspect to the story. ‘Initially we were seduced by the fact that Burroughs wrote most of Naked Lunch in Tangier. The war forced me to come to terms with the fact that Interzone is really an hallucinatory state of mind,’ admitted Cronenberg on the new approach he took. ‘The film became more internalised and hallucinatory, so that one understands by the end of the film that Lee never really leaves New York City. He has hallucinated a quasi-exotic kind of North Africa where he’s gone to escape to write his book. It clarified the script and brought out a lot of interconnections that were hidden before.’

With no recollection of the events that took place at O’Leary’s party, Lee is found on the street the following morning by Yves Cloquet, an ominous individual who seems obsessed with Lee’s sexuality and eager to exploit his taste for experimentation. Upon another meeting with Frost he is offered to borrow the man’s typewriter and while withdrawing from his latest fix in his rundown apartment he watches on in horror as his own typewriter tears it to pieces, claiming that Frost’s apparatus was an agent of Interzone. With the enemy bug having been destroyed, Lee is ordered to infiltrate Frost’s inner circle by engaging in a relationship with his wife, Joan. Arriving at their house while Tom is out with friends, Lee tries to seduce Joan in an effort to uncover the truth but as he observes her home it begins to remind him of a restaurant he once frequented back in New York, further reinforcing the fact that all the events that are unfolding are merely taking place inside his mind.

‘The main character of William Lee is learning what it is to be a writer from all these other writers and he’s doing it almost unconsciously. If he’s aware of himself as a writer, he’ll freeze,’ stated Cronenberg on his depiction of Burroughs’ deviant protagonist. ‘Somehow he manages to hallucinate himself a world in which he’s been involved in an arcane spy plot; he’s been suborned to be an agent and is actually writing reports for his masters, whose political position he’s not really very certain of. By the end of the movie he’s still denying that he’s written the novel Naked Lunch…The film has to be something that still deserves to be called Naked Lunch, accurately reflecting some of the tone of Burroughs, what his life stands for and what his work has been – a combination of Burroughsian material but put into a structure that’s not very Burroughsian. That was basically my approach.’

With his case officer once again emerging from the typewriter he is informed that his wife Joan was really a centipede, an agent of Interzone who was inserted into his life to observe his actions, unaware that he would be the spy that would eventually be ordered to kill her. Thus, his actions on the night of her death were less free will and more the desire of his superiors. Determined to retrieve his own typewriter, Tom Frost breaks into Lee’s apartment to discover its remains and so kidnaps Lee’s, leaving him without a means to write his reports, something that he has come to be as addicted to as the bug powder dust that Joan would indulge in. Gathering the remains of the murdered typewriter, his two writer friends from New York find him sleeping rough on the street, one them confessing that they have sent a passage from Naked Lunch to their publisher in the hope of attracting attention to the text. After offering their reassurance of the importance of his writing, his friends leave him alone in Interzone to complete Naked Lunch but advise that once his work is done he must to return home to them.

‘David’s substitution of imaginary drugs – such as bug powder, the black meat and Mugwump jissom – for the rather mundane heroin and marijuana depicted in the novel is a masterstroke,’ claimed Burroughs on the director’s approach to addiction in the movie adaptation. ‘One of the novel’s central ideas is that addiction can be metaphorical and what could underscore this better than the film’s avoidance of actual narcotics? Clearly what interested David about Naked Lunch was the idea that the protagonist finds himself conscripted as an agent or operative of forces whose identity and purposes are anything but clear to him. Lee’s escalating addiction to these fictional substances is merely part of a larger scenario in which he is unwittingly and unwillingly enlisted by these unseen forces.’

With the help of Kiki, Lee manages to repair Frost’s typewriter which now resembles the face of a Mugwump and which reveals itself to be his new case officer, with its predecessor ‘still in the hands of our enemy.’ Having finally revealed his talents as both a writer and a spy, he is issued his new orders, to get close to Cloquet in order to gain access to the elusive Doctor Benway. Excited at the opportunity to further demonstrate his skills, he uses his close relationship with Kiki to spend time with Cloquet, who has a strong sexual attraction towards Lee’s shy younger friend. Using Cloquet’s desires for Kiki as a way to extract information on the doctor, Lee leaves the two men alone, only to return a few minutes later to discover Cloquet and Kiki engaged in an inhumane sexual act, with Cloquet having transformed into a giant bug and inserting himself into Kiki, literally devouring his body before Lee’s horrified eyes.

‘For reasons best known to himself, David chose to treat Lee’s homosexuality as a somewhat unwelcome accident of circumstance and plot, rather than as an innate characteristic,’ said Burroughs in his only criticism of Cronenberg’s interpretation of Naked Lunch. ‘Whether this is because of David’s own heterosexuality, or his assessment of the realities of making and releasing a multi-million dollar movie, or to other factors, I cannot say. Probably he simply did not, as an artist, find that aspect of Lee to be significant to the story he wanted to tell in the film.’ Regardless of his motivation, it is evident that in the context of the world that has been created within the motion picture Naked Lunch, Cronenberg displayed homosexuality as something monstrous and alien-like. That is not to say that this reflects his own outlook on sexuality but merely how he chose to depict it in this particularly story; as surreal as every other aspect of Interzone.

Lee makes a trade with Frost, his typewriter in return for the one that had been stolen, but upon returning to his apartment it finally succumbs to the wounds inflicted while during its time as a prisoner. Making his way deep into the belly of the beast, Lee rescues Joan Frost and attempts to track down Benway by facing Frost’s former housekeeper Fadela, who tears off her prosthetic mask to reveal herself to be the doctor that Lee has been tasked to eliminate. Failing to recognise that the doctor was the one that had prescribed him the bug powder remedy in New York, Benway reveals that he was forced to recruit Lee and that everything that transpired afterwards was created by design in order to lure the writer into the world of fantasy and addiction. With Benway having issued him with a gun and releasing Joan Frost into his care, Lee is stopped by the border patrol while attempting to leave Interzone. Struggling to prove that he is a writer he offers to perform the William Tell routine with Joan, but once again he takes another life as his concept of reality begins to crumble. Having observed the senseless death, the two guards bid Lee welcome to his new home of Annexia.

‘The desire to make a movie out of a book that you loved or that had a big influence on you. To return to that influence and sort of dive to the depths of it and to reveal things about yourself. Why was I attracted to that material in the first place?’ posed Cronenberg on his determination to bring Naked Lunch to the big screen. ‘Burroughs, of course, lived a totally different life from me. I mean, given that we’re both North American white males, we couldn’t have been more different, but something about his writing, aside from its brilliance, was very attractive to me…I became very fascinated by him and, gradually, the idea that I should make Naked Lunch became inevitable. You know, it wasn’t even a decision. At a certain point, I was doing it. I wanted, once again, to establish the rules of engagement with Burroughs. I wanted to use others of his writing, besides just Naked Lunch. Not in a literal way but incidences, metaphors, images. Burroughs was totally agreeable to all of that. He was very not-protective of the details of the work.’

In retrospect the marriage of Burroughs and Cronenberg not only seemed to make sense but was almost inevitable. After all, both were obsessed with the consumption of flesh, sexual or otherwise, both would explore the darker aspects of the subconscious mind and both revelled in the possibilities of surrealist fantasy. How audiences and critics would react to the movie that resulted from this marriage would depend on what they expected from a cinematic interpretation of Naked Lunch. A film that was faithful to the themes of the novel, even if it took liberties with the narrative, must explore drug use, sexual exploration and a hero’s descent into madness and with the author of this motion picture being the filmmaker that brought audiences the body horror classics Shivers, Scanners and Videodrome, one could only expect an experience that refused to shy away from shocking and uncomfortable themes in the context of an explicit horror movie.

‘I was doing M. Butterfly when a lot of the awards were happening for Naked Lunch. So I was happily cocooned in another film project, which is something I like because no matter how many nice things people say about your movies, it’s never nice enough. I don’t want to sound like a curmudgeon or an ungrateful filmmaker but I have a very strange relationship with film criticism in general and with film criticism of my own movies in particular. If it’s bad, I hate it and if it’s good, it’s not good in the right way,’ claimed Cronenberg on how he closes himself off from the critical reaction to his work. ‘It was, however, very cathartic for me to write the script of Naked Lunch, because I started to write Burroughsian stuff and almost felt for a moment, ‘Well, if Burroughs dies, I’ll write his next book.’ Really not possible or true. But for that heady moment, when I transcribed word-for-word a sentence of description of the giant centipede and then continued on with the next sentence to describe the scene in which I felt was a sentence Burroughs himself could have written, that was a fusion.’

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