The director talks SPLICE, HIGH RISE, NEUROMANCER and SWAMP THING!
By Dave Campbell | May 24, 2010
Wednesday May 19th I sat down with writer/director Vincenzo Natali the morning after a special screening of his latest film SPLICE. You may know Natali for some of his previous films: Cube, Nothing and Cypher.
SPLICE follows superstar genetic engineers Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley) who specialize in splicing together DNA from different animals to create incredible new hybrids. Now they want to use human DNA in a hybrid that could revolutionize science and medicine. But when the pharmaceutical company that funds their research forbids it, Clive and Elsa secretly conduct their own experiments. The result is Dren, an amazing, strangely beautiful creature that exhibits uncommon intelligence and an array of unexpected physical developments. And though, at first, Dren exceeds their wildest dreams, she begins to grow and learn at an accelerated rate—and threatens to become their worst nightmare.
Natali is quite the gracious conversationalist, and it was very pleasant to be in his company.
Check out the interview below:
DC: At the Q&A after the Austin screening, you mentioned Alien being a strong influence and SPLICE being the new, genetic Frankenstein. When it comes to writing a story like this one, what other creative mediums influence you? For example, what music were you listening to at the time or what art really spoke to you?
VN: I think the influences come from all sorts of places but I definitely think that fine art especially was influential. There’s a lot of new stuff out there that I think is inspired by the bio-medical field. There’s an artist named, Patricia Piccinini who makes these animal-human hybrids that are pretty amazing.
Musically, I always knew that the film was going to be eclectic. I always felt that Clive & Elsa would be on the bleeding edge of what’s cool and that would sort of inform what they did.
DC: Speaking to that point, Clive and Elsa almost seem like reflections of yourself. I was thinking that maybe you’d created them in your own image–almost like they were the proverbial angel & demon on your shoulder at times. Perhaps the conflict the two main characters were having was the same internal one you had with the subject matter while writing the script?
VN: Absolutely! I think I relate to Clive & Elsa in all of their foibles. They’re very typical in their generation in so much as they are smarter than they are wise; they’re very erudite and connected to pop culture and fun, but there isn’t a lot of substance there. They haven’t really lived outside their lab.
DC: They definitely seemed like they were in this space and the rest of the outside world was alien to them.
VN: Absolutely. They are nerds. They are very self consciously nerds, and I think I relate to that. I think a lot of people of our age or younger relate to it. I wondered, what would happen if somebody who’s as immature as myself, got their hands on this kind of power? These tools are available. I think it’s very much like the IT industry, insomuch as it’s an industry that’s being led by young people who are capable of doing extraordinary things. One wonders though, what the maturity is of the minds behind those tools and what they’ll produce.
DC: Sci-fi writers have often been prophetic when it comes to the direction that science is headed, and what to expect from future technology. Fiction becomes reality at times, in North American culture at least. Star Trek is a great example of that. Some of the gadgets they had in the movies & series, we now have today in our households. Per the scientists you consulted with while making SPLICE, do you foresee your work becoming reality?
VN: It already has–it happened with SPLICE. Although I don’t feel at all prophetic; I think the technology was very much in the air and I wasn’t that far ahead of the curve. I really do feel though, like we’re living in the future. Anytime I iChat with somebody, I instantly feel like I’m very definitely in the 21st century. Many of the ideas that were classified as science fiction when I was young have since come to pass. I think now more than ever, there’s a dialogue between Science Fiction writers and scientists. I think there’s a real understanding that one influences the other. I find that absolutely fascinating. I think we’re living in a very interesting time. We should be very happy to be alive at this particular moment because clearly, we’re on the precipice of some kind of monumental change. I’m sure it’s something that happens in every new century; I’m sure it was the same at the beginning of the 20th century. One can sense that there’s some kind of seismic change on the horizon.
DC: Changing focus a bit, I’ve noticed that Canada [where SPLICE was shot] has a really strong support for the arts. How much easier is it to make a film there, and how does it differ from trying to produce one here in the States?
VN: Right. I think it just depends on what you’re doing. I think I was very fortunate. I do believe that Canada is a great place to start. It’s very hard to make your first film, but within Canada there are a number of incentives that exist to help young film makers and I’m not sure that that’s necessarily the case here. I’m definitely a product and beneficiary of that structure. The problem in Canada is that there is a ceiling. I think that in America, there isn’t at all. I truly believe though, that SPLICE couldn’t have been made in Hollywood unless I was James Cameron or someone else with that much power. Even then, it would’ve been tricky. It really could have only been done as a Canada-France co-production.
DC: While driving home from the SPLICE screening, my friend and I were discussing how much richer the film likely was because of the challenges it had in being made. We wondered if it had had a James Cameron-esque budget requiring less financial creativity, if the final outcome would’ve been as engaging.
VN: That’s interesting. Generally I tend to agree; I think I benefited from my limitations. I also think that because these films are made with financial limitations by complete creative freedom, there’s a lot of heart in them. I would never say that any of my films are perfect [laughs], to put it mildly. I see so many flaws in them. In a way though, I think you can forgive the flaws because the intent is so pure. What I can say is that every film I’ve made was done with absolute purity. There was no secondary agenda.
Having said that, I would happily accept a blank check.
However, I think that art almost always benefits by limitations.
DC: What do you consider your comfort zone to be as far as genres go? What genre do you feel your biggest challenge to be and do you ever plan on exploring that challenge?
VN: [Laughs] That’s something I’ve never even considered. I would be absolutely terrified if you stuck me in the middle of a romantic comedy. Clearly. I have great respect for a good romantic comedy. I think the hardest thing for anyone to do is screw-ball comedy. Really, there hasn’t been a good screw-ball comedy in probably 50 years. People have tried and failed. I would truly be frightened to be put in that kind of position.
My comfort zone is definitely in the world of fantasy. I think nothing frightens me more than reality.
DC: I have to mention this. My wife is actually a TV host, an author and a knitwear designer. One of the things I learned about Canada’s support of the arts is from when she went up there to be a guest on a TV show called, She’s Crafty. They had a whole week to shoot one episode–partially because of the support they get from the Canadian government– whereas my wife had to shoot 3 episodes a day of her US-based show Knitty Gritty in order to stay on budget.
Aside from all of that though she has a feature on her site called, Movie Mondays where she features screen shots of knit & crochet wear she spots in films. She has me conditioned, so I couldn’t help but notice all of the pieces [knit & crochet] included in both the costume and set design in SPLICE. Was that choice more influenced by location, your personal style, or was it someone else’s vision?
VN: That’s so fascinating! I have to confess: I didn’t think about the knitwear or crochet in the film. But there was definitely a lot of work put into what Clive & Elsa would wear.
The easy definition for them is that they’re “rock-and-roll scientists”, but there’s definitely a version of that that I think would be ridiculous. It was always a question of how far we could push that concept. How flashy would they be? They do degenerate as their condition gets worse and worse, and start to dress-down. Elsa gets kind of frumpy. I think the thing you’re referring to is this baggy sweater-dress thing she wears for the latter part of the film. Our feeling was that she was kind of turning in to her mother a little bit. I always envisioned her mother as being some sort of crazy, ex-hippy who had bought this farm and moved in with her daughter without ever knowing who the father was.
DC: I’m glad that you pulled back on that part of the back-story, giving the audience the license for our imaginations to run wild. I think that if you’d gone far into her [Elsa’s mother’s] background, that would’ve taken the film in another direction. You know it’s there; it’s just like when you become friends with someone and you know because of who they are now, that there must be a certain background there, but it’s never discussed. I really appreciated your choice there.
VN: Thank you for saying that. Some people don’t feel that way but I always defend it because I just don’t know how you’d even tell a story like that in any detail without it coming off as melodramatic.
DC: If you’re doing a TV series, then you have room to explore something like that. In a film setting though, you can’t really go off in both directions.
VN: Especially with a creature.
It’s funny, the film is very hermetic. There are only 5 speaking parts and two principal locations. There’s a lot going on though. It’s a very loaded subject. One of the challenges in the film was to keep it on track because in the writing process there were many moments where we went off into these tangents, as you could with Elsa’s backstory. It was always a question of where to draw the line; how much we should digress.
It’s interesting that you brought up the wardrobe. It’s funny with these movies, very often the thing that you expect to be the most difficult ends up being quite easy; the things you don’t expect to be difficult are a nightmare. In this case Dren, was actually quite easy. I mean, it was a lot of work but because we were all so focused on her the whole thing came across very nicely while we were shooting. The thing that kind of blind sided me was the wardrobe. I had a hard time getting exactly the right kind of wardrobe. We went through all kinds of variations. Throughout shooting, we were always one step ahead of finding the right wardrobe for each character. I’m glad to hear you think it works, because how far we pushed it was always a question.
DC: Wardrobe and music are two things that really affected me while watching the film. They were two characters in and of themselves that I think helped bring all of the pieces together to make the story believable. I was really taken in by the score and will definitely research the composer so I can hear more of his work.
VN: That’s so nice to hear! The composer is, Cyrille Aufort and he’s not well known, even in France where he’s from. He’s really brilliant, though. He’s actually best known as being an orchestrator for the French composer, Alexandre Desplat. I love his score. I felt like even though this is a horror film, the score should be romantic. I think what Cyrille came up with is a great combination of being very delicate and at points, quite powerful. There’s a little bit of Vogner in there.
DC: I’ve noticed in various theater screenings of sci-fi & horror movies like SPLICE, that there are sometimes people who nervously laugh instead of gasp when something disturbs or shocks them. I’m curious as a director, how you feel when you hear that type of unintended laughter?
VN: I feel good about it. I’ve sat through the film with a number of audiences and have found that the reactions are pretty consistent. When the Clive/Dren scene happens, people laugh. Somehow it doesn’t bother me because I intuitively feel like it’s a laugh that comes from just a sense of shock that this is actually happening–that the film has decided to take this step. Part of it I think comes from the fact that you anticipate that it might go there, but can’t believe that it will. When it does, it’s very gratifying. I have to say about that scene, I don’t think there is an appropriate reaction. Much of the film is like that–it pushes buttons.
I get most concerned when I don’t hear any [audience] reaction.
DC: In the Q&A after the screening, you mentioned Neuromancer and High Rise as being your two upcoming projects. You also have a relationship with Joel Silver though which has spawned a buzz about you being attached to Swamp Thing. Is there any weight to that and if so, can you talk a bit about it?
VN: Swamp Thing is a comic book that I grew up with in both of it’s incarnations. It’s the Alan Moore one though that I’d be most interested in turning into a film. Shortly after I started working with Joel [on SPLICE] I asked him about it. He essentially said he would give it to me the problem is, he doesn’t have it. He thought he did, but without pointing fingers, no one really understood that the film rights aren’t with Warner Brothers because of the Wes Craven film which I think was produced by AVCO Embassy, which I believe was swallowed up by MGM or UA. I don’t know for sure but what I do know, is that the films rights are somewhere else. Furthermore, the original contracts were destroyed in a fire so there’s no paper trail. It’s a legal quagmire so I’ve been told not to expect anything to happen with it, anytime soon.
I’m going to be unrelenting in my pursuit of it, though. I think it’s such a fantastic book, especially given the climate right now. There are so many super hero films but Swamp Thing stands alone as something completely different. I love the idea in the Alan Moore version that Swamp Thing was a vegetable that thought it was human. That he’s not human at all. The whole thing is fabulous so if I can do it, I absolutely will.
DC: It seems like it would be hard to not go with an environmental agenda–given the debate that’s happening in our society right now.
VN: I think the environmental issues have to be part of it. I like the idea though that Swamp Thing isn’t necessarily on the side of the humans, either. He’s a bit ambivalent.
DC: Let’s wrap up with you talking a bit about where you are with Neuromancer and High Rise.
VN: High Rise is at a fairly advanced stage; I’ve been working on it for a long time. That’s another crazy movie–it’s an insane film! If it’s ever made, it’ll be wonderful, but it’ll be a process.
Neuromancer is mine, pretty much. I feel pretty confident that I’ve got it. That one, I have a clear idea of what I want to do with it. People have been trying to make it for 15-20 years at least and I think they just never cracked the script. I believe though, that I know how it can be done and that now is the perfect time for it.
DC: Would you write it as well as direct?
VN: I would write the 1st draft and then bring someone else in if necessary. That’s generally how I approach projects so that I can find my way into them. At any rate, it’s such an incredible project. Neuromancer is arguably the most influential sci-fi novel of the past 25 years, while still remaining iconic and unique. I think it’s taken some time for popular culture to catch up with it, but now would be the right time.
For more information about SPLICE please visit: www.splicethefilm.com
Also be sure to check out my Splice | Review