Vincenzo Natali has spent his career on the line between “acclaimed” and “notorious”. His first film Cube became an international cult classic and even though he hasn’t officially been given the title of “the new David Cronenberg” it can’t be denied that his latest film fits the term “Cronenbergian”. Splice follows two brilliant scientists whose experiments with genetics result in a super-secret human-animal hybrid, Dren, who they watch grow from an embryo, to a baby, to a girl, to a woman, to a- let’s not give too much away. Totally Dublin spoke to Vincenzo Natali about Splice and his fascinating adventures in the screen trade.
In today’s world of receding economies, if a film isn’t a sequel or a remake it is almost impossible to get funding. Natali’s Splice with all it’s mad science, body horror and corruption of basic human nature must have been a challenge: “It’s a miracle that it got made. And it’s an even greater miracle that it’s received the release that it’s had. I had the first draft written twelve years ago. It has been this very long, fortuitous, process and numerous moments along the way I just thought there’s just no way this is going to happen but somehow it’s like this film just sort of willed itself into existence, despite my best efforts. The good side of a long development is that it becomes very rich, very layered. And I do feel that the film has that quality. There’s a lot of things going on below the surface.”
The film incited major festival buzz when it screened at Sundance earlier this year, however it was not without its detractors who were put off by the film’s mischievous treading of the line between exploration and exploitation. “It’s a very divisive film. There’s one particular moment in the film...I can’t say what it is here...but it’s kind of a litmus test. Some people can take that leap and others simply cannot. That was always part of the design. I was very aware from the beginning that this was going to shock everyone but I also felt that the people who do respond to it will respond to it in a big way. Audience reaction has been amazing and to be perfectly honest I don’t even mind the negative responses.” His lead actors Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley had a lot on their hands in exploring the dark places their characters Elsa and Clive go to. “A lot of aspects of the making of this film were very difficult but the casting of the film went extremely well. I always had Adrian and Sarah at the top of my list. I just thought they would be great and they responded to the script so it was actually a very straightforward process. I didn’t know either of them personally before making this movie but I really enjoyed working with them.”
He admits: “I personally have great affection for Clive and Elsa. When they start off, they’re kind of heroic because they’re risking everything for what they believe. They’re putting it all on the line. They’re genuine. I kind of related to them too because as an independent filmmaker, I’ve been in a similar place. I have these crazy things that I want to do, like Splice and it takes a lot of money and I need the approval of the powers that be and that can be a very frustrating process. That was kind of my emotional entry point for their story. That’s where we meet them at the beginning of the movie. They want to invest in this very progressive experiment but their corporate handlers say “no”. Believe me, I’ve lived that many times before.”
One of the many things that makes Splice such a joy to watch is that it is an effects-heavy film that never forces the audience out of the film’s world because of heavy-handed effects; the creature Dren is a human/CGI hybrid and the subtle adjustments to a brilliant physical performance makes for a very believable monster. Natali calls it; “a great compliment to me, and to the great artists and technicians who made Dren a reality and of course a great compliment to Delphine (Chaneac) and Abigail (Chu) who played Dren as a child. Not to make the comparison too strongly but designing Dren was allowing me to be a mad scientist. It was one of the reasons I wanted to make the movie; I wanted to be able to make this creature. But I wanted to do it in a way that’s very realistic. That was always the prime directive; let’s make this biologically possible. Let’s not just make a movie monster. And so, to that end, we really tried to portray a real physical persona to Dren, even though Dren always has some level of digital augmentation, I felt it was critical to have a real performer. I think the level of believability was really because of that and I really had an amazing effects department.”
Another fascinating project that Vincenzo Natali has on his CV is the group effort Paris Je T’Aime, a film made up of short films about Paris. Some of the world’s most acclaimed filmmakers worked on the project such as the Coen Brothers, Gus Van Sant and Wes Craven to name but a few. Natali’s film stood out from the others because instead of a quirky tale of true love it was a highly stylised, very dark film starring Elijah Wood as a tourist who falls in love with a sexy female vampire. When I asked him what it was like to work on such an adventurous project, he replied; “It was a wonderful experience. The way they structured it. The films were shot back-to-back with mostly the same crews. So, in that sense, it was almost like film school. I was there working on my film at the same time Alexander Payne was working on his film and Wes Craven was working on his film. There was a very congenial attitude but I felt very much like I didn’t belong there amongst all that exceptional talent but professionally it was exciting experience. Being a French production, we had complete creative control. The only boundaries we had was that it had to be a film about love and it had to be five minutes. And you could do whatever you wanted in those 5 minutes.”
Most of Natali’s fame and notoriety rests on his classic sci-fi mind-melter Cube, a film that is so high-concept that sci-fi fans get giddy at the set-up alone. Six people wake up in a cube-shaped room and soon find that outside the room there are more cubes, set with booby traps and they must solve complex mathematical problems in order to finally escape. Despite its seemingly simple setup Cube is not merely a cheap thriller. It has stood the test of time and is still a respected genre piece some thirteen years later, having spawned a sequel and a prequel. Natali explains why the film has survived in a sea of low-budget horror/sci-fi films; “I think these things, when they work, they tap into these very archetypal contexts that are universal and very profound. It uses very mythological archetypes but it is re-cast into a science fiction context so it becomes something new. But basically it is about existence. We’re just dropped into this life. No rules, no concept of why we’re here and yet we have to figure it out. And it is a dangerous road. I think that resonates because it’s about the human condition. He goes on to explain his mistrust of human nature. “I always believe that the greatest enemy lies within. If you want to face the enemy, first look in the mirror. I think that’s where it comes from. I have a lot of faith in people by the way. If anything it’s myself I don’t trust.”
Although his twelve year journey of Splice is coming to an end, he has recently confirmed that he is currently adapting the previously condemned as “unfilmable” cyberpunk classic Neuromancer. “Yes, it’s confirmed, it’s real, I’m writing it. I don’t have any money yet but I do think it is filmable. I think it’s a very adaptable book. I think any book comes with challenges. I think that comment comes from the fact that William Gibson’s prose is not easily digested. But if you really look at it, Neuromancer is a fairly conventional story. Maybe conventional isn’t the right way to put it but it does have a story and it is quite film friendly. I think the key is not to be too reductive. If you want to turn the book into a film that’s like Star Wars, then you’re going to have a problem because you’re not going to be able to be faithful to the book. But if you believe that Blade Runner for example is a commercial film and a good film then I think Neuromancer is very adaptable. I think you just have to take a more literary approach to the writing. I’ve actually been surprised myself by how easily the adaptation has been going. There only thing that’s challenging is the ending. It doesn’t end in a film-friendly way so that will need some invention.” Let’s hope that this one doesn’t take him another twelve years in the making!
Splice oozes into a cinema near you on Friday 23rd July. You can read this article in Totally Dublin hitting shelves on 3/8/10