Here is the second interview to coincide with the release of Eastern Promises out on DVD and HD DVD this week. If you haven’t read the in-depth Viggo Mortensen interview, be sure to right here. Next I was able to hit out a one-on-one with director David Cronenberg. To be honest, I was a little cheated. There was a lot I wanted to ask David about his movie but there just wasn’t enough time. You can tell, however, this is a guy who knows his shit and is a thinker and approaches every movie trying to do something different.
Let me warn you, there are MAJOR SPOILERS inside this interview. I suggest you read with caution if you have not seen the film. However, those that have seen the film will particularly enjoy the end in which Cronenberg talks about the film’s original scripted ending. It is dramatically different.
The look of Eastern Promises is drastically different from History of Violence. One of the sets you guys use and I don’t know if it was a practical or not but, Semyon’s restaurant-
David Cronenberg (DC): Yeah…
There’s something about it. It’s almost cozy but it just feels like a place where bad things happen.
DC: Sure, well, it was meant to be a compressed mini-version of Russia itself, you know? The idea of Semyon’s would be to create a restaurant – and it was a set by the way –
DC: There was no restaurants remotely like that. In fact, there were really only a couple of restaurants up there and they were much smaller in scale. Not at all like that. But [Semyon’s] idea … you begin with the designer talking about what the restaurant should look like. You say, okay, he’s trying to create a mythological Russia for Russian immigrants who will come there missing Russia and want to feel like they’re almost back in Russia, but they don’t want to feel like they’re in the streets of Russia, which isn’t that cozy.
They want feel like they’re in some mythological Russia probably before the Soviet Union so he’s creating that for them. But of course, inevitably, he’s injecting it with his own personality which is rather sinister. It can be rather cozy but then it can turn on you. So in a way the restaurant really perfectly reflects what Semyon is and you’ve obviously spotted that.
Ridley Scott said he was interested in genre-busting. That he was interested in attacking certain genres and putting his own sort of stamp on it. Midway through Eastern Promises I remember thinking, Man, this is a pretty damn good mob movie. Does that interest you? Genre-busting? Would you define this movie that way?
DC: No, I mean, in theory I don’t really come with too much concept to a movie. I really try to divest myself of any preconceived ideas of what I should do, what people expect me to do or what has been done before, you know? It’s a weird balancing act, of course. You can’t pretend you’ve never seen a mob movie nor should you. We’ve got 100 years of cinema and 100 years of gangster movies going back to Dr. Mebuse and of course The Godfather and The Sopranos and everything else. At the same time, you’ve got your own unique movie that you’re making that is different from that and it’s, as I say, a strange balancing act because you know you’re making a genre picture. It’s a gangster movie on one level and you can use those conventions to give you structure and strength. You can also, it’s a shorthand with the audience. There’s a lot you don’t have to explain to the audience if they know that this is a mob movie. But at the same time if you only follow the conventions, then you’re boring them.
So you’re in a weird position of using the conventions and subverting them at the same time. See, and I don’t think of myself as you know, “genre busting” necessarily but I suppose it does amount to the same thing. You can’t just do the genre. Because if you do, it’s going to be a very conventional movie, but you have to acknowledge them and use them for what they’re good for at the same time.
So obviously it’s not the themes and it’s not necessarily the genre busting that attracted you to the material. I assume it’s just the story, you just liked the story.
DC: Well, the story by which we don’t just mean the narrative. We mean the characters, the dialogue, we mean the sort of multicultural aspect of it which I respond to very strongly because Toronto considers itself a multicultural city just as London does and that brings with it lots of good and lots of bad things and tensions and drama and friction between the cultures and the idea that you have so many languages spoken in the movie. That’s very intriguing. I like that ambience and volatility, you know? And it’s kind of interesting, it’s set in London but there’s almost no English people in the movie (laughs). I really like that aspect of it, and of course Steve Knight has done a bit of that before with [Dirty Pretty Things]. I thought it would be very interesting to dig into that and explore that.
You’re going to live with a movie for a couple of years. It better constantly kind of challenge you and intrigue you and surprise you. So when you say “story”, to me it means all of those things as well. If it’s a movie that you have such a great handle on that you can almost see the entire movie then to me that’s not a good thing because then you’re going to be bored.
Speaking of the narrative, the film has a very interesting structure that I really, really responded to. The first act kind of belongs to Naomi Watt’s character and the baby, you know, is obviously the catalyst for everything that goes on in the movie and we slowly find ourselves immersed in this other world, Nikolai’s world. But who’s tale do you ultimately see this as? Is this Naomi Watt’s tale? The baby’s tale? Nikolai’s?
DC: Well, I don’t actually need to know (laughs). It actually … it’s all their stories and each one has moments of emerging as the point of view in a way and then submerging again. You get that very strongly on the set when you’re suddenly working for three days and Viggo hasn’t been around and you’re like, “Well, that’s strange, we haven’t been doing that for a very long time.” You realize at that moment that you’re telling a story of Anna and her family. It’s quite novelistic in a way. It’s not a single-person story. Several characters have strengths in the movie.
Viggo said there’s a seductive quality when you’re getting immersed in Nikolai’s world. I know some critics were a little disappointed that Nikolai’s story wasn’t completely resolved. He phrased it as “perfectly incomplete”. I was wondering what your thoughts were on that.
DC: Sure. Well, that’s the thing. I mean, speaking of genre, people were saying to me “Oh, I’m sorry I didn’t see Semyon being taken out in handcuffs and sent to jail.” I say, the very reason that you imagine that means I don’t have to do it. So why waste time doing it. Let’s spend time doing something else or you go and go have dinner now because you don’t need to see that. You knew that it happened so you can imagine it.
Also, when is everything completely tied up? The world doesn’t work that way, and if you’re making a movie that is trying to represent, in a way some kind of reality of the way things are lived, you can’t be too neat because life isn’t neat. I suppose if you’re doing a sweet comedy, the convention there is that everything is tied up and all the relationships are resolved and that’s part of the particular genre’s strength, but this is different. This is kind of a realistic gangster movie and things just don’t resolve neatly. I think people understand that Nikolai is in an unresolvable position. There’s no way to resolve it, you know? He doesn’t get the girl and have her. His success is also his downfall. The fact that he’s successfully taking over the mob means he can’t live any other kind of life. He’s trapped by his own success. It’s not really resolvable but that is the resolution.
You’re kind of bringing me to my next question. That last shot that ends the film with Nikolai at the table. To me, his character, his defining moment really is the scene with the prostitute where he tells her to stay alive a little longer. But having said that, that shot I think brings up some question as to not only his future but maybe a little about his character. It’s a little ambiguous. He’s someone who’s forced into a situation where he must be a master manipulator so, reading the script, did you have any questions regarding the authenticity of some of his emotions?
DC: Well, the original script was very different and I have a lot of input into the rewrites and the original script did not end that way. So …
How did it end originally?
DC: Well, Viggo’s cover is blown halfway through the movie. He’s no longer part of the mob because they know who he is. He and Anna are on the run. He and Anna end up together. The baby is sent to the dead girl’s grandmother in Siberia.
Wow. Yeah, that’s pretty different
DC: It’s pretty different. So, uh, in working through with Steve Knight. And I have to say he was more than eager to change things because he had only done a first draft and was really happy to get at it again. But obviously, in doing that a lot of my sensibility and ideas about the characters came through more in just directing a script that was presented to you. I always thought his character … in a way I was bringing out things that I thought were already there in the script but maybe Steve hadn’t quite realized yet. And as a screenwriter myself I now that that can definitely happen, especially on a first draft. I thought that we never quite know why Nikolai is willing to do this, you know? And he doesn’t have the usual Hollywood back story like “Semyon murdered my wife and children”. I wanted it to be ambiguous but I also felt it, uh, it suits him. I mean, there’s something about that that he likes. It’s very Russian too; to be fatalistic. The agony of your fate.
There’s Dostoevsky, right?
DC: It’s very Dostoevksy and Viggo and I found ourselves reading the same Dostoevsky book (laughs) without talking to each other. Which was “Demons” (buy it here) formally called The Possessed and um, it’s exactly that. There’s a part of him that … you know, in order to be good at it, there’s a part of him that has to enjoy it on some weird level. And that’s the paradox of Nikolai, you know? He’s too good at it to just be trapped. There’s something in him that’s enjoying it as well.
And that about wraps up our coverage of this superior 2007 entry. The film is out on DVD this week (I’ve actually seen a couple stores release it early this weekend) so be sure to check it out. It’d actually make a pretty damn good stocking stuffer. Happy holidays, everyone.
Eastern Promises hits DVD and HD DVD on December 26, for more information click here.