For David Cronenberg, who in the past has nurtured his projects from their very beginnings, “Spider” was a very different case. “It was kind of an unusual circumstance for me,” the Canadian director said during a recent Dallas interview. “I got the script–and it was, of course, written by the same guy who wrote the book, Patrick McGrath…and it came from a guy I didn’t know. He phoned me up out of the blue–he was in Toronto, a fellow named Sanjay Burman. He said he was an agent, and so on. There was something I wasn’t sure about him, and it proved to be the case. He had delusions of grandeur. I bless him, though, because he did get me the script. I wouldn’t normally have read the script under those circumstances, not knowing who the guy was…but he said that it came with a letter from Ralph Fiennes’ agent saying that Ralph wanted to play this role. And that really legitimized it for me. I thought, he must really want to do this movie. I normally resist thinking about an actor in a role, but in this case it was so perfect, by page two I just thought Ralph has really cast himself beautifully in this movie. He’d be fantastic.”

“Spider” centers on a man recently released from a mental institution who, while living in a seedy half-way house, tries to reconstruct his past, acting under his belief that his father had killed his mother. In the book–and the original script–his effort, which melds reality, imagination, memory, and what Cronenberg refers to as “infected” or delusional memory, was given in the form of a narration kept in a secret journal. “That was one of the first and major changes I made to the script,” Cronenberg said. “[McGrath] had Spider in the movie writing in his notebook, as you see, but in English, and we could read it, and then he had voiceover…which is often what novelists do. They can’t let go of the novel completely. And I said to Patrick immediately, you’ve been so successful at transferring your novel into a screenplay that you’ve created two separate Spiders, because there’s no way that your screen Spider could even think these thoughts, much less express them so beautifully and in such a literary way. It just won’t work. So I took away the voiceover. But I did want him to write. You can’t photograph an abstract concept–you have to photograph things, you have to photograph people doing things with other people. And I wanted the notebook to show that Spider was obsessed with his past, that he was trying to organize his past, trying to collect his thoughts, trying to integrate it into making some kind of sense. And also he is, in a way, gathering evidence of a crime that he thinks has been committed. So that’s why he’s paranoid, like the Spider in the book. What he does on screen is that he writes it in his own hieroglyphics so that no one can read it. I asked Ralph to develop his own hieroglyphics.”

Despite these sorts of changes in “Spider” for which he was largely responsible, Cronenberg said he enjoyed working from scripts written by others. “I’ll do anything to avoid writing,” he remarked, calling himself “lazy” and dismissing what he described as “my youthful intolerance of anybody that didn’t write his own scripts. It was obvious, anyway, that there were wonderful directors who just happened not to be able to write. Most of them can’t because the two things are quite different. And if you happen to be able to do both, it’s just by accident. I would never have written ‘Spider.’ I would never have written ‘The Dead Zone’ originally. I would never have done ‘Naked Lunch’ or ‘Crash’ either. But those movies wouldn’t have happened without me, either. So the two of you combine to make this third thing. And it’s like having a child with somebody–you want to be sure you choose the right partner, for the same reasons as when you’re having a child. You want the child to be healthy.”

Some have said that “Spider,” which lacks any grisly special effects, is a departure for Cronenberg, but the director blanches at the very idea. “I don’t normally think of my work as a whole,” he said. “It’s not something that I think about a lot. However, nonetheless, I can say that ‘Spider’ feels like one [of my movies] to me. It feels like business as usual–the sort of special effects stuff, or not, is pretty irrelevant to me. Special effects is not an obsession of mine. To me it’s just another tool that you use, if you need it, or don’t use. It’s no different from costumes or makeup or editing or lighting. It’s all artifice. My reason for doing a movie is still the same in each movie–which is, it’s kind of me talking to myself through the movies philosophically about what life is, what my life is, what the human condition is, what language is, what culture is, what art is. It’s all these discussions that I’m having with myself through the movies. It’s like a big crystal with different facets, and each movie is maybe a different facet. So they all connect to me because they all filter through me. It’s very personal, in other words. To that extent, ‘Spider’ feels like all my other movies.”