NOTE: This is NOT a real Rolling Stone interview. In the original draft of my novel, Angel of Mercy, protagonist Matthew Cruze was a freelance writer for Rolling Stone Magazine. As the story progressed, it made sense to take Cruze down a different career path. He became an investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times. That left me with 20-some pages of what I thought was great background on antagonist Marc Cronenburg, the reality TV producer who creates the show, Angel of Mercy, written in the style of a Rolling Stone article, that I couldn’t use in the book.
So, I thought it would be fun to share this with you. This is part one of the mock Rolling Stone article written by Matthew Cruze entitled: When Reality Television Becomes Real Life: How a renegade talent agent, a dedicated cancer doctor, and a notorious Los Angeles gang leader became the new Kings of Reality TV…
When Reality Television Becomes Real Life
How a Hollywood super producer, a dedicated cancer doctor, and a notorious Los Angeles gang leader became the new Kings of Reality TV
By Matthew Cruze
Reprinted with permission from Rolling Stone Magazine (not really)
“When our own real lives become less meaningful, less interesting, less exciting, and less livable than those supposed real lives we watch on television every day, then God help us all. When reality TV becomes preferable to our own reality it is truly the beginning of our end as a civilized society and as an independently-minded species. If Hitler had reality TV to help him program the masses during World War II we would all be speaking German today.”
Dr. Irwin Moss-Moseley, Dean of Anthropology, University of South Carolina, speaking at the National Association of Television Programmers Conference, State of Reality Television Session, Las Vegas, Nevada, February 19, 2011.
I was sitting tenth row center the afternoon Dr. Moss-Moseley, the 79-year-old Pulitzer Prize winning anthropologist and author of the 1974 bestseller If God Created Man You Can Send Me To Hell, preached his sermon to a large audience of mostly nonbelievers. He spoke urgently into the podium microphone, leaned in to it, as if he were afraid his time would run out before he could finish the message he felt this crowd so desperately needed to hear.
He sweated through the armpits of his gingham jacket during his talk. He tugged his tie loose early on and opened his collar button. He paused every few minutes to mop his neck and face with a dingy handkerchief he kept balled in his right fist. His demeanor was more that of an old country preacher rather than one of the world’s foremost authorities on human behavior. His look and his speech belied his message. Perhaps that’s why no one – other than me — seemed to be taking him too seriously.
His words were met with relative silence from the audience of television programmers, producers, directors, advertisers, reality stars, wannabe stars, reporters, journalists, and bloggers; most of whom relied heavily on the reality television industry for their bread and butter. A few people chuckled out loud and someone in the back yelled, “Reality rules, bitch!” which started a wave of laughter that spread across the room like a sarcastic tsunami. Dr. Moss-Moseley squeezed the sides of the podium with his gnarled fingers and stared narrow-eyed in the direction of the heckler. The poor, hopeless fools, he must have thought, too ignorant, too greedy to heed his warning. He truly was Jesus in the marketplace and they were the money changers. And we all know how that story ended.
He looked like he was about to tell them all to go to hell, then he closed his eyes and shook his head, like a sad old prophet who knew the laughter of the non-believers was the signal of their own doom. He turned and with the help of a cane in each hand, made his way slowly back to his seat at the end of the dais. He collapsed in the chair and sat with his head bowed and eyes closed.
The moron sitting next to me, a pasty-skinned twenty-something with unnaturally black hair hanging over one eye and scraggly whiskers hanging from his chin, laughed and jabbed my arm with a boney elbow like we were old pals. His ID badge identified him as the online editor at Reality World Magazine. He leaned into me and said, “Dude, I didn’t know reality television was one of the signs of the Apocalypse. Did you? What an idiot.”
He reeked of cigarettes and Red Bull and B.O. and he sprayed my shirt with spit when he talked. If we had been reality TV stars ourselves I probably would have slammed my elbow into his nose so hard it would have knocked some of the stink off him, but we weren’t, so I didn’t. We were civilized men in a civilized age at a civilized industry conference and we should behave as such. So I just glanced at him sideways and politely told him that his breath and body smelled like crap. His grin faded. He blinked at me for a moment, then glanced down at the badge that identified me as a writer for Rolling Stone. He was not impressed. I was musty old media, he was cool new media. He gave me a smirk and gathered his things without further comment and filed out of the room with everyone else, leaving me alone to appreciate and ponder Dr. Moss-Moseley’s words.
As with most things that grab society’s fractured attention then consumes it like fire, reality television started off innocently enough. Charles Slocum, an executive director of the Writers Guild of America, summed up our fascination with what was then relatively-tame reality TV faire this way, “Reality television is the ultimate peek into the neighbor’s kitchen window.” Innocent flies on the wall, little children peaking under the carnival tent, that’s all we are.
Slocum’s observations came in 2010, eons ago in television years and well before the current state of reality programming that new media expert Jeff Jarvis coined as our “Society of Reality”, which means we are all stars of our own reality show; televised or not. Andy Warhol would be proud. Congratulations, your fifteen minutes of fame has been extended indefinitely. Live like you have something worth filming — something the rest of us starving-to-be-entertained souls would be interested in watching. Your life may be a comedy, a drama, a tragedy, or a drudge. Live it, film it, share it; it’s your right as a member of the new age of reality television. That’s why some 40% of current YouTube videos are of the homemade reality show variety. It’s the fastest growing category of the service.
“Watch me damn it!” was becoming the new mantra of the digital age.
I felt very much in the minority as I sat there pondering my own lack of YouTube videos that chronicled my every thought and whim. What was wrong with me? Why didn’t I want viewers tuning in every Sunday night at nine to see what wacky things were happening in Matthew Cruze’s humdrum life? Because I couldn’t fathom anyone with half a brain being entertained by a life as mundane as mine. Too bad more people didn’t feel the same.
In Slocum’s day – which really wasn’t as long ago as it feels — reality television was nothing more than programmed voyeurism, like looking through the knothole in your back fence to see what your neighbors had on the grill that night. We were flies on the wall, ants at the picnic. As fat, lazy and unhappy humans our lives were so damned screwed up that we couldn’t wait to tune in every week to watch other fat, lazy and unhappy humans with lives even more screwed up than our own. It somehow gave us solace. You think my life’s a mess? Well take a look at this guy…
I caught up with Dr. Moss-Moseley an hour after the session ended. He was sitting on a bench outside the Las Vegas Convention Center packing tobacco into an old briarwood pipe (exactly the kind you’d expect him to smoke). He was wiping sweat from his forehead with his sleeve and muttering to himself as I approached. I told him I was from Rolling Stone and was working on a series about the long term effects of reality television on the viewing public. I told him I found his talk to be highly insightful and that I agreed with much of what he had to say. He told me to stop blowing smoke up his ass and get on with it.
“I was hoping to get a comment,” I said. I hit the record button on my phone and held it out to him. “Maybe get your thoughts on how the audience reacted to your talk?”
“You want a sound bite,” he grumbled, waving at me. “Why am I not surprised? That’s all you people ever want.”
“No, sir, I work for a magazine that’s still printed on real paper,” I said with a smile. “I don’t want a sound bite. I want a quote. The recorder is just so I get it right.”
He thought about it as he lit the pipe and tossed the match toward a pigeon that was pecking at the ground near his feet.
“That audience thought I was an old fool,” he said. He closed his eyes and raised his face to the sky as spoke. “They’ll understand one day, when it’s too late. For now, it’s all about the money and the high.”
He kept his eyes closed, face to the sun. “Reality television is a drug. It makes us feel better about ourselves. That’s what draws us to it; like moths to a flame. No matter how much of a nag your wife is or how much of a loser your husband is or how screwed up your kids are or how miserable your life is or how hooked on drugs you are, there are always other people who have problems that make your problems seem small. Watch their lives play out on television and you’ll feel better about your own. It’s the nature of the human beast. I don’t have to worry about bettering myself. All I have to do is find someone with a life worse than my own and my troubles all just disappear – for a little while at least.”
He tried to snap his fingers, but couldn’t do it, so he put the pipe between his teeth and gave a loud clap of his hands to accentuate his point. He wiggled his fingers as if the dust of humanity was falling from them.
“So you really believe that the rise of reality television will lead to the downfall of society? Or was that said just to get a rise out of the crowd.”
For a moment I thought he was going to hit me with his canes. He scowled at me. “You’re as stupid as the rest of them,” he said, waving the smoking pipe at me. “In the beginning reality television was an innocent pull back of the curtain, a way to escape our own troubles, if only for an hour or two. Today there is nothing innocent about reality TV. It is violent and ugly and dangerous and pervades every pore in the skin of society like the black plague that it is. As goes television, so goes society. Reality TV is a black hole that will one day swallow society whole. You cannot escape it, boy, no matter how hard you try.”
And there would be the moral of the story. As goes television, so goes society. It’s all about the money and the high. Reality TV is digital crystal meth: it’s cheap to produce, easy to distribute, and doesn’t take much to get users addicted. Slocum said it best, to paraphrase, “The entertainment industry has found a way to make televised life a business, so now there is a lot of it.” And much, much more to come.
With that Dr. Moss-Moseley tapped the pipe out on the heel of his shoe and wrestled himself off the bench. He moved to the curb and steadied himself on one cane while he waved down a passing taxi with the other. I thanked him for his time and opened the car door for him. He grunted at me and I shut the door.
I watched him drive away; knowing that if the words he spoke at the conference had come from a younger, hipper, better looking television prophet – say Anderson Cooper or John Stewart or Stephen Colbert – the world would be scrambling to prepare itself for the end of days to come. The messenger overshadowed the message. If Jesus had been a cantankerous, sweaty old man in a dirty gingham suit who spoke with the twang of Big Daddy from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof nobody would have taken him seriously either.
Charles Slocum made his observations when reality television was in its relative infancy. It had not yet permeated our daily lives like so many brain-burrowing insects (wow, I just channeled Dr. Moseley), but the eggs were being laid all the same. Today reality television not only accounts for 90% of all cable television programming (predicted to be almost 95% by 2016), but constitutes 87% of content produced for the web, smart phones, and mobile devices, even surpassing old favorites like pornography, online dating, and gambling.
“People don’t care about gambling or watching pornography anymore,” Moss-Moseley told the audience. “Why should they. Such things are boring as hell compared to the carnage they can see on reality TV every night for free.”
Cut to today. The undisputed king of reality TV is Marc Cronenburg, the creator and executive producer of hit reality shows like Angel of Mercy, Redneck Gator Killers, Cage Death Match, American Hitman, Gang Wars, Last Man Standing, American Vigilante Justice, Drug Cartel Housewives and the pioneering Real Boys in the Hood.
No one in the entertainment industry has more strings available for pulling than Marc Cronenburg. And no one is known for pulling any harder on those strings when the time for string pulling comes. If you owe Marc Cronenburg a favor – as most people who know him do – you can be damn sure that one day you’ll feel that old string start to tug and his smiling face will show up at your door.
I felt just a hint of Cronenburg’s influence when I wrote a profile of him for Esquire in 2008. The editor titled the piece The Puppet Master: The Man Behind The Money because I identified Cronenburg as the single largest contributor, via a variety of Political Action Committees and special interest groups, to the campaigns of practically every candidate running in the 2008 election for the offices of senate, congress, and the governorship in the state of California; regardless of political affiliation. He backed Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, and Independents. If a clown wearing a tutu had been on the ballot, his coffers would have felt the weight of Cronenburg’s coins. He played all sides against the middle and it meant that he had friends with influence indebted to him no matter who landed in office.
He pretended to be highly offended by the piece and threatened to sue me as the writer and Esquire as the publisher for the mental anguish it caused him. In truth, friends said he loved being called The Puppet Master and reveled in its connotation. I’d heard the stories. He’d wiggle his fingers and do a little dance and cackle at the top of his lungs. And everyone laughed along. If he hadn’t found it amusing I’m sure I would have paid some price; or at the very least never worked for Esquire again. Yes, Marc Cronenburg has that much juice.
It’s not just every politician in California and every California politician in Washington that’s indebted to Marc Cronenburg. He’s one of the most powerful men in Hollywood and rules his kingdom with a firm, but friendly hand.
“He’s the kind of guy who smiles at you as he’s slitting your throat,” said a former executive at Cronenburg’s Medusa Studios, who not-surprisingly spoke only on the guarantee of anonymity. “You’ll never be screwed by a nicer guy.”
Cronenburg is the creator and executive producer of a dozen top-rated reality shows currently on the air and reportedly has more in the can, just waiting for one of the networks or better cable channels to give him prime time to launch his next mega-hit.
Several producers I spoke with (off the record, of course) told me that they live in fear that their network might someday jerk their prime spot out from under them to make way for a Cronenburg production. He rarely has to wait long to get his way because, as he told the ladies of The View; “A Cronenburg production is like money in the bank.”
The ladies fawned over him as if he held the cure for cancer in his well-manicured hands. I expect they were all just praying that he’d never launch a daytime talk show in the same time slot with four irritating women gathered around a table all clucking at the same time like a bunch of mad hens.
If Cronenburg wanted to imitate and ultimately annihilate The View — or any other program on the air for that matter — he could so with relative ease. He is known to be highly persuasive; subtly at first, then ruthlessly if things don’t go his way. A skilled negotiator who leaves his conscience at the door, he has no problem pulling skeletons from closets or digging up bodies that have been long buried or using whatever means necessary to make sure he, his company, and his stars come out on top.
Still, when I was digging into Cronenburg’s involvement in the Dr. Adrian Zoebel mercy killing case for my book Angel of Mercy (Harbinger Press, 2009) I could find very few people willing to say a bad word about the man, either publicly, anonymously, or off the record. To the contrary, most of those I talked to seemed to genuinely like and respect him and I could understand why. Despite his often less-than-honorable business practices and take-no-prisoners attitude Marc Cronenburg is one of the most well-liked people in the business. He is witty and charming and handsome and funny and contributes millions to charities. He personally pays for and dishes out thousands of turkey dinners to the homeless at Thanksgiving and donates a hundred bicycles to Toys-For-Tots every Christmas. The guy’s a saint and probably spends a million dollars a year making sure the whole world knows it.
If he is on your side, you thank God daily for putting him there. If he is your opponent, you somehow come to like and respect him even as he mashes your dick in the dirt. You’ll even brag to your friends that you went up against The Marc Cronenburg and he kicked your ass till it was black and blue, but that’s OK because he was such a goddamn great guy while he was doing it.
Cronenburg graduated at the top of his class with an MBA from Wharton and was blessed with devilish good looks, a contagious laugh, and a wealthy family who could fund whatever dreams may come. Marc’s father was notorious New York real estate developer and alleged former Russian mobster Yuri Andreas Ivanov — a man so ruthless in business and so despicable in person that he was called, “The largest turd ever shat from Satan’s ass” by Donald Trump’s father Fred. The quote was printed in a now-famous New Yorker interview that started a feud between the two families that lasted for decades, until both men passed away. The doctor present when Ivanov died of heart failure (some said he died of meanness) at the age of 89 swore the old man’s last heavily-accented words were, “Fuck you, Fred Trump.”
Rather than join the family business after college, 23-year-old Marcus Andreas Ivanov legally changed his name to Marc Cronenburg (his mother’s maiden name), packed his bags, and headed west to make his fortune in the entertainment industry. His father never forgave or spoke to his son again. And when the old man died his $4.3 billion dollar fortune was fought over by his other twelve legitimate children, eight illegitimate children, five ex-wives, and six former and current mistresses.
Marc’s mother, Ariella, was killed in a boating accident when he was 12, so she wasn’t around for the melee that ensued after the reading of the old man’s will, which left the bulk of his estate to distant relatives he hadn’t seen for decades in Mother Russia. His oldest son and heir apparent, Yuri Jr., called it his father’s “final fuck you” to the family that had disappointed him so greatly and so many times over the years.
Marc didn’t join in the fight. He was thousands of miles away, making his own money by the time the old man died, lots of it. When asked to comment on his father’s death he told Matt Lauer on the Today Show, “He was the most ruthless son of a bitch ever to walk the planet. I’m sure someone will miss him, but it won’t be me.” This was a relationship not even Dr. Phil could mend.
Marc’s first job in Hollywood was as a gopher at Creative Artists Agency, running errands and grabbing coffee and taking crap from people who would one day wish that they had been nicer to him. One of the fledgling areas of talent management in those days was with reality television stars; though very few in the industry considered them stars and even fewer considered them talent worth managing. No one at CAA saw the long-range potential in slutty, drunk Jersey girls or Botox-filled housewives or crusty lobster fishermen or Jesus freak bounty hunters or white trash teenage baby mamas or redneck storage unit buyers, but Marc Cronenburg did. He was fascinated by reality television and the people who populated it and unlike the other agents at CAA, saw great potential in the representation and promotion of what he called “a very special kind of star”.
Armed with a head full of business school smarts, a considerable helping of charm, and a sizable set of balls, Marc Cronenburg marched into CAA’s executive management offices one afternoon during a senior staff meeting and somehow convinced the powers that be that he should be reassigned to the agency’s Reality Television Division. When it was pointed out that CAA had no Reality Television Division, which Cronenburg knew of course, he offered to start one. He offered to work free for one year, then be compensated by the usual agency commissions for any reality television clients he brought into the fold. He wouldn’t ask for a dime until the division was built and generating revenue. It was a gamble that would pay Cronenburg a reported $100 million when CAA bought out his contract five years later.
Less than an hour after walking into the meeting 25-year-old Marc Cronenburg, who was filling coffee cups and picking up laundry the day before, was named the head of CAA’s new Reality Television Division. He emerged from the conference room with an impressive title and a signed employment contract — an employment contract his personal attorney had drafted the day before, Cronenburg had carried into the meeting, and CAA signed without negotiation. And why would they negotiate? The contract was commission only with no compensation at all for at least a year. If CAA didn’t make money, Cronenburg didn’t make money. And no one in the room believed he could hit the kind of numbers he was projecting, so what the hell. Give him some rope, see if he hangs himself. According to a senior CAA executive who was in the room that day, “We had nothing to lose and everything to gain. And nobody believed the cocky bastard would pull it off. Nobody.”
His first client was a 57-year-old shrimp fisherman and alligator hunter from Bayou la Batre, Alabama by the name of Aaron Thibodeaux. Cronenburg had seen Thibodeaux in a rerun of an old National Geographic documentary on what was left of the shrimping industry after Hurricane Katrina wiped out the Gulf coast in 2005. He was immediately fascinated by the man and knew others would be, too.
Ay-ron, his wife of forty years Mary called him. Thibodeaux called her May-ree. She was a boney little woman, with dirty-blonde frizzy hair, deep-set eyes that didn’t look in the same direction at the same time, and a home-made tattoo on her right shoulder that proclaimed her to be “Aaron’s Girl.” She had a shrimp boat tan and skin that looked tough as leather. She was missing her front teeth and snorted every time she laughed. To Cronenburg she would prove to be worth more than the most beautiful film starlet in Hollywood. His suitcase was packed before the next commercial break was over.
Thibodeaux himself was a great bear of a man with broad shoulders and a linebacker’s neck. His belly was large and hard, his back was broad and muscled. His arms hung away from his body when he walked, like a gunslinger’s. He crossed them over his belly when he stood still or sat down. He claimed to have killed over 3,000 gators in his day, though it was doubtful that he could actually count that high. He showed off dozens of scars on his hands and arms and neck to the National Geographic camera.
“Big old sumbitch, fo’teen footer, bit off dese two fangers right here on dis hand back in ‘78,” he said as the camera zoomed in to his outstretched hands, remaining fingers thick and cracked from wear. “Den duh sumbitch got part of duh little fanger on dis hand and part of duh midda fanger on dis one.” He turned his hands over and over, held them up and touched his face gently with them. “He chew on my face a little bit, right here and here. Thought he was gon’ get my ear, but he didn’t. He didn’t like the way I taste, I reckon. I still got his ass in duh boat doh, kilt him dead as a goddamn door nail with a twelve inch Bowie knife.”
Thibodeaux had such a thick Cajun accent that his every word was captioned on screen so viewers could understand him. Like his beloved wife, he was missing his front teeth and he stuck his tongue through the gap when he grinned. He was prone to deep belly laughs that sometimes ended in a hacking cough. He was never without a nub of a cheap cigar in the corner of his mouth and a fifth of some kind of dark liquid in his back pocket. He wore overalls with sleeveless t-shirts and a raggedy LSU cap on his balding head, though he admitted he had no clue what the letters “LSU” stood for. He was what Cronenburg called “a character” — not someone you’d meet on the streets of Los Angeles or New York City or Miami or most places in America; but someone every person in those cities might tune in to see.
“Good reality television is like a terrible train wreck,” Cronenburg told Jimmy Fallon. “You don’t want to look, but you just can’t help yourself.”
Cronenburg didn’t plan on putting a camera crew on Thibodeaux’s weather-beaten shrimp boat. There were already enough fishing and crabbing and lobster catching shows on the air that Cronenburg thought were about as entertaining as, well, watching someone fish. He wanted something different, something new. When he learned that Thibodeaux killed the gators by jumping into the water with them, stabbing them to death with a long knife, and dragging them into a small motor boat, he knew he had a potential star on his hands. Anybody can shoot a gator in the head and drag its carcass into a boat. Aaron Thibodeaux was the only one with the balls to jump in the water with the damn thing and kill it with his bare hands and a knife.
Cronenburg flew to Mobile, Alabama, the closest airport, and drove an hour and a half into the swamp to find Aaron Thibodeaux’s Bayou la Batre home, which turned out to be an old shell of a houseboat tied to the end of a dock so rickety that Cronenburg feared it would collapse from beneath his feet. He found Aaron and Mary sitting in lawn chairs on the roof of the boat, bare feet resting on a Styrofoam cooler, drinking beer, and listening to country music on an old transistor radio.
Cronenburg has recounted the story many times over the years; how the next day he found himself in the back of Thibodeaux’s tiny pirogue, trying to keep a small handheld video camera steady as the crazy Cajun leaned over the side of the boat and put his ear close to the water.
“He be down there, alright. I can hear him fartin’ and swishin’ his big ol’ tail. Big ol’sumbitch, he is.” Thibodeaux sat up and took off his cap. He set the cap on Cronenburg’s head and shucked off his t-shirt. Cronenburg would later say that just the smell of the cap almost made him puke, but he didn’t dare take it off his head. The hair on Thibodeaux’s shoulders and back made it look like he was wearing a sweater vest of red wool in the summer heat. The camera rolled as Thibodeaux picked up a long hunting knife, clenched it between his teeth, stood up in the boat, and jumped into the murky water head-first.
The water frothed violently for several minutes and the little boat bobbed up and down on the waves. Cronenburg held on to the camera with one hand and the side of the boat with the other. It was clear that a great battle was being waged beneath the surface. The gator’s tail came up several times and slammed into the side of the boat, rocking it almost to the point of tipping over, scaring the hell out of Cronenburg, but he held the camera true. Thibodeaux’s hand holding the knife suddenly broke the surface, then his head, then the gator’s snout, then nothing. The water went dead calm. Cronenburg prayed he wasn’t filming the death of his future star. Half a minute crept by. Finally, Thibodeaux’s smiling face broke the water. He sprayed water through the gap in his teeth like a Grecian fountain and batted the water from his eyes. He grabbed onto the side of the boat and pulled himself up with one hand. When his other hand appeared it was holding the dead gator’s tail.
“I gots dat mudda fugger,” Thibodeaux said proudly. “I gots dat mudda fugger good.”
When Thibodaux let out a loud whoop and grinned at the camera Cronenburg knew his fortune was made.
Within two years Marc Cronenburg was managing a stable of reality stars and was one of the most powerful agents at CAA. Within three years he was firmly entrenched as the king of reality television, having branched out into production with his own company, Medusa Entertainment Group, later renamed simply Medusa Studios. He somehow convinced CAA to buy-out of his contract and, flush with cash, started looking for another potential star to build a show around. He found that star in the guise of a notorious L.A. gang leader who went by the handle of Crazy Mofo. Together, he and Cronenburg would create the genre of reality television now known as Violent Reality or VR-TV.
Violent reality was a favorite plotline on the big screen long before Cronenburg made it regular household viewing faire. Stephen King and Arnold Schwarzenegger were among the first to make money off the violent reality genre. The 1987 movie The Running Man, based on a King short story, was a huge hit and established Schwarzenegger as a bona-fide sci-fi action star. The movie was about a television game show (hosted by an evil emcee played by former Family Feud host Richard Dawson) that pitted unarmed convicts against large, well armed killers (think professional wrestling with chainsaws and rocket launchers) who were determined to kill the convicts in creative, over the top ways to the delight of the viewing audience. It was a plot that would be rehashed many times over for years to come.
In 2007, professional wrestler Steve Austin starred in Condemned, in which an evil TV producer kidnaps and brings together a bunch of bad boys and girls to an island for a bloody game of “last man (or woman, not likely) standing.” Again, the murder and mayhem was broadcast via pay-per-view to a large eager audience.
Death Race, the 2008 Jason Statham flick about a prison in which cons race to the death in fast cars armed with missiles and machine guns did well at the box office. Overseen by an evil lady warden (Joan Allen) who was more concerned with ratings and revenue than clearing the body parts from the track, the three-day race was broadcast via the Web to millions of pay-per-viewers around the world. The movie was a sequel to the 1975 Roger Corman cult classic Death Race 2000, in which David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone competed to see who could overact the most and rack up the highest body count.
In 2009’s Gamer, another evil entrepreneur (do you have to be evil to be an entrepreneur in the movies?), this one played by Michael C. Hall (who also starred as the lovable serial killer next door Dexter on Showtime) created a virtual reality game in which gamers on the outside controlled prison inmates who fought bloody battles on the inside. Again, pay-per-view made the cash registers ring until the hero (Gerard Butler) managed to escape, kill the bad guy, and put the kibosh on the whole virtual reality shebang. Bummer.
Cronenburg was intrigued by such movies that depicted a world where the public clamored for — and was willing to pay big bucks for — violent entertainment, especially if it involved fast cars, big guns, bulging muscles, hot chicks, and blood and gore; lots of blood and gore.
Cronenburg believed the bloodthirsty viewers in the movies were not so different from the average viewers at home watching the sedate, nonviolent version of Family Feud. What if to win Family Feud, rather than answer silly survey questions, your family had to beat the pulp out of the other family with clubs and chains. Have a couple of preliminary rounds of “survey says”, jump up and down and clap like idiots, but instead of winning points you get your choice of weapons that will be used in the sudden death round.
What if final Jeopardy really was final Jeopardy? What if ultimate cage fighting was fought to the death and not the knock out? What if professional wrestling was real? What if executions were televised and states held a lottery giving away the chance to see it happen live? What if all rules governing violence were removed from hockey and football and soccer and every other sport? What if American Gladiators fought like the original gladiators did, to the death or bidding of the crowd? What if reality television programmers could do anything they damn well pleased without worrying about little things like censorship, government interference, legal ramifications, and the moral majority? How fantastic would that be? Those were the questions that fueled Marc Cronenburg’s dreams night and day.
Cronenburg’s thoughts were kept mainly to himself until the day a sociopath with gold teeth, dusty dreadlocks, and the fitting handle of Crazy Mofo walked into Medusa Studios and demanded an audience with the hottest reality show producer in town.
Read Part 2 of the Rolling Stone Interview
Matthew Cruze is a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles. He is the author of the bestselling book Angel of Mercy from Permanent Press.
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