Almost exactly two years after turning a new corner in his prestigious career with A History of Violence, director David Cronenberg is back with an equally violent look at similar themes in Eastern Promises. His “History” star, Viggo Mortensen, returns as Nikolai Luzhin, the driver for a Russian mobster in London, who must decide whether to help an innocent midwife (played by Naomi Watts) in her search for those responsible for beating a young girl who died while giving birth to a baby, even though her incriminating info might put his own rise through the ranks at risk.
ComingSoon.net had a chance to talk to Cronenberg in his native Toronto, where the film premiered at the < a href="torontointernationalfilmfestival.ca/" target=_blank>Toronto International Film Festival, much like many of Cronenberg’s past offerings.
ComingSoon.net: When you get a script like this one from Steven Knight, how much of the fight or sex scenes do you expect to be fleshed-out ahead of time in the script or is that stuff you like to be able to play with?
David Cronenberg: I don’t mind however much detail anybody wants to put in the script, but really, it would be an 800 page script. I mean it would be a novel if you really described enough that you could just make the movie from the script without any discussion. A script is actually not a blueprint. I mean you can build a house from a blueprint. You cannot build a movie from a script directly that way, and I think those rascally lazy writers–of course, Steve is one of them–they know that. The research, for example, that Steve did was not that deep. I don’t say that there was a flaw at all. He doesn’t want to interrupt his flow to do that. If he were a novelist, he’d either do the research himself or have researchers and it would take him 5 years to write the novel. You’re not going to do that with the script, because he knows that once we start making the movie, we’ll have 150 crew members who are dedicated, obsessive, and very talented and will go and dig into all of those things that are mentioned in the movie. One person will be obsessing about watches and one about clothes and “What will these guys drive?” He doesn’t have to do that, so he can do the broad strokes to get the idea out there and then he knows that later everybody else is going to do that other work. As a screenwriter myself, I’ve done the same thing. You do enough to seduce the reader into the world, so that he understands he gets the texture of it, the feel of it, but there’s a lot of work that has to go into it. Carol Spiers spent a lot of time building that restaurant, and that’s all her research. Yes, it filters through me because she asks me if I like the colors and if there’s this restaurant we could base it on? I’m involved in all of that, but it really is her talent and her diligence and her research and her crew. She has her own crew that goes and figures all that stuff out. The same with the fight scene. You know, two guys with knives comes in, they fight and in fact in the original script, they weren’t killed and I said, “You know, they have to die, because there’s no way that he could just punch them.” It didn’t feel realistic to me the way he had it. I don’t know if he’s confessed these things to you, but the script changed a lot in the work that we did, but he was great. I mean he’s a wonderful collaborator and he was very excited about the stuff that I came up with, and in fact, that Viggo came up with, too. About the tattooing, for example, that was in the script, but it wasn’t as deep and it wasn’t as central a metaphor as it later became. It was Viggo finding these books called “Russian Criminal Tattoo” which are fantastic and a documentary called “The Mark of Caïn” which was made by a friend of his named Alix Lambert that we really understood this sub-culture of tattooing and Russian prisons and how it went back to Czarist days before the Soviet Union and how it evolved and how it emerges and how it shifted, fantastic stuff and very exciting and I sent this to Steve and said, “When you see this, when we do our next re-write, you’re going to want to incorporate this, big time, into the script because it’s fantastic material.” No writer could not be excited by that, and he was. I could go on, but the fight scene took weeks to choreograph, took two days to shoot and took him 10 minutes to write.
CS: How long ago did you actually find the script, and at what point did you know that you wanted Viggo to play the part of Nikolai?
Cronenberg: Well, it doesn’t always happen this way, but when I was reading the script, several actors started to emerge in my mind. Viggo was the first one, Armin Mueller-Stahl and Vincent Cassell, they started to float up and it’s all intuition. I think of all the aspects of directing that people don’t quite understand, casting is the most crucial one. I’ve even had people say, “Did you choose any of these actors?” and I say, “Yeah, all of them.” Yes, you can have a script come to you with an actor so called “attached”, as Ralph Fiennes was attached to “Spider” but then at that point, you say, “No, I can’t do this movie with him because he’s wrong” or you say “Well, that’s great. Saves me the trouble of thinking of Ralph for this because I thought he was perfect.” So, Viggo a director has a relationship with actors that’s quite strange in the sense that after they’re gone from the set, you’re still with them, because you’re editing them and you’re watching their face everyday for hours, macroscopically. You’re observing every little gesture, and every facial gesture and every intonation of their voice and choosing the right takes. Sometimes, you take sound from one take and put it to the mouth of the visual other take. I really thought he looked so Russian, he looks very Slavic the cheekbones and everything. That was even before I ever even had the script. Those things plus the fact that I know that Viggo has a wonderful musical ear, as a musician and composer himself, but also for languages, because he speaks several languages as you know, and he did wonderful subtle accent stuff in “History of Violence”, very subtle. I was confident too that he could do what was needed, which was I didn’t want this to be a really fake-y Russian accent with somebody fumbling through the Russian. I wanted somebody who could really do it. We’ve all seen wonderful actors do terrible accents. It’s a separate skill from acting in a way. You need a musical ear to do accents, and I was really sure Viggo could do that.
CS: You read the script while you were editing “A History of Violence”?
Cronenberg: No, no it was after, well after. I think. I’m pretty sure.
CS: How does the collaboration differ with you and Viggo this time compared to the last? Did it evolve in a different way because this is the second film you’ve done together
Cronenberg: It’s like working with the crew I’ve worked with. Some of my crew members that I work with have been for literally 30 years. You can start at such a higher level, because you know each other. There’s none of that figuring each other out, and understanding each other and getting the signals right and all of that. Now you know all that and you have that respect for each other, and you know what you can do. You know what’s asking too much and not too much, and so I felt that we start just at a much higher platform and could leap from that even further than we had gone before. But it was just as much fun, it was a really great shoot. It was hard, but it was great.
CS: His performance is incredible because it’s not caricature at all.
Cronenberg: Yeah, I think Viggo is a very underrated actor. He’s a star, because of one of his least interesting roles really, which was very visual, but in acting terms not the most challenging role. In “Lord of the Rings” I mean. He’s extremely subtle and in the days where Jack Nicolson (going) over the top everybody raves, a subtle performer like Viggo can get lost in the shuffle. As I said, I knew he was good when I did “History of Violence” but then at the end of it, I thought he was great. To me, that’s a big difference.
CS: Can you talk about working with Naomi on her character?
Cronenberg: Yeah, I mean the thing about Naomi, is she is so real. She’s stunning on set. She’s effortlessly real which is the hardest trick for an actor is to be real. It sounds like an obvious thing, but if you’d ever tried it, you know it’s not. And she loved this character who was really, she is us. We are introduced to this sort of insular world through her eyes and there is a contrast there between her English life, which is very white bread and very drab and kind of dull, and then she suddenly comes into this world represented by the restaurant that’s full of color and vivacity and children and music and exotic food. We spent a lot of time getting the food exactly right, I can tell you. That’s supposed to be us, so she really brings us into the movie but then of course, she’s discovering her own heritage as well, because she’s kind of put that on the back burner for various reasons. Her father has died, and she still rides his motorcycle. That’s another thing about this Steve Knight script. He had the bike being a Royal Enfield, which is an English bike. I said, “Steve, that’s wrong. It’s the Russian father’s bike. It represents him, it’s got to be a Russian bike.” But he’s not a biker and I am, so I knew about that.
CS: Both of your last two films seem to be about the effect of violence on the notion of family, so why is that an interesting theme to you?
Cronenberg: Well, I don’t really think in terms of themes. I can suddenly play the role of critic of my own work–I mean, analyst–and make those connections and so on, but creatively, you don’t work from that. I don’t really think of that theme, for example. I’m thinking of these characters and the narrative that’s happening and I’m either finding it very provocative and interesting and absorbing and maybe disturbing, but I’m not really connecting it cerebrally in that way. I can give you an answer, but I’m totally faking it, you know? Your answer to that question would be absolutely as valid as mine. I don’t think that I’m particularly thinking about families threatened by violence abstracted from the general discussion of violence that is very ongoing. I lived through the Vietnam era too. I was a kid then, but it’s all seems horribly familiar to me in many ways and what’s happening in the world. You incorporate those things. You feel the vibes. It’s not really analytical because at the same time, you’re making an entertainment. I mean this isn’t a lecture on violence, but it’s a very powerful way of exploring it. For me, making a movie is a voyage of discovery. I’m still constantly trying to figure out what existence is and what it means and the sense of meaning that one has or doesn’t have and how is it created and all of those things, and also, you never make a movie in a vacuum. In a way, filmmakers, we’re like the amphibians of the world, we’re like the frogs with the thin skin that takes in everything, every pollutant in the atmosphere goes right through the skin of a frog because they breathe through their skin, and that’s what we do, so whatever’s around and even in terms of global economy, I mean movies live and die by financing and then suddenly something happens to the market in Germany, it goes belly up, and suddenly you can’t get your movie financed anymore even though you’re not directly connected with it. There is the vibe ya know, but you can’t creatively use it analytically, let’s put it that way.
CS: There seems to be a sense of timelessness to the movie where we really don’t know when it is or what else is going on in the world. Was that a conscience decision?
Cronenberg: Although, you certainly hear Kiril say, “I’ve got a shipment coming from Kabul.” Yes, it’s very insular. It’s a very existentialist exercise. How do you create your own reality? Because there is no one reality that holds for every person or every culture. It’s all different and suddenly you get these multiple realities represented by these multiple cultures because London is a multi-cultural city. Toronto considers itself the same, very different from the American melting pot theory where everybody comes, gives up their own values to become an American, that’s not the way it works there or here. Probably not in America either, but that was the theory. You have all these cultures that are very insular, they’re bringing with them animosities and hostilities from there own countries that go back thousands of years and that’s pretty insular. There’s a weird desire to encapsulate and to cocoon yourself and yet, it’s like criminal globalization. They have to collaborate with each other to do business, but they never trust each other and there’s always the possibility of violence hovering just on the edge.
CS: When we spoke two years ago, I asked you about remakes, because at the time there were a lot of horror remakes, and you had made “The Fly,” which was a beloved horror remake. How do you feel about them remaking your old movies like “Scanners”?
Cronenberg:I don’t know if they’ve really done it yet.
CS: I know there’s a writer working on a script.
Cronenberg: It doesn’t mean it’s gotten made though.
CS: The reason I asked was because I wondered whether you’d be interested in revisiting a movie you had done previously with the experience you’ve gained since making it?
Cronenberg: Yeah, but to do a remake of your own movie seems to me the most bizarre thing. In fact, speaking of Naomi, she had just done that with (Michael) Haneke. She just made “Funny Games,” which is a film he had done before and he’s remade it in English. It’s weird to me, remade his own movie recently, shot for shot which is very strange I think. But no, I would never want to go back and do my own stuff. I often get scripts, and I sent my agent an email recently saying, “This script you sent me. I did this 35 years ago and when I did it, it was the first time, so why would l want to do it again?” No, I’d be horribly bored. It’s not interesting to me.
CS: Nothing you’d want to change or stuff in the past you’d look back at now, “Ya know if I did this way
Cronenberg: I don’t look at it.
CS: But then redoing “The Fly” as an opera
Cronenberg: But that’s very different, because opera is not a director’s medium. I mean for me that’s really a Howard Shore project. Howard has already written the music and David Henry Hwang, who wrote “M Butterfly” has written the libretto, and I’m just there to try and mess it up. But really, opera is a composer’s medium as far as I’m concerned, and so I’m really just there to help get that happening and it’s such a different act for me. It’s very different from movies as you can imagine, very different, so you don’t have the control. I mean for example, speaking of casting, I can’t cast an opera. I can cast the way they look, but they all sound amazing to me and I don’t have the sensitivity for operatic voices that they say, “Well, he’s okay for one or two performances, but he could never do eight performances a week.” That’s not acting that’s singing, that’s really very different, so it’s completely different from doing a movie remake.
CS: Where is that premiering?
Cronenberg: It’s at Le Chatelet in Paris July 2008, and then it should be at L.A. Opera September ’08.
Eastern Promises is now playing in select cities and opens nationwide on Friday, September 21.