Interview: Filmmaker Vincenzo Natali
Video Feature on the New Film ‘Splice’
Thursday, June 3, 2010
Last month, filmmaker Vincenzo Natali came to the KPBS studios to talk about his new film "Splice" (opening June 4 in select theaters). I had interviewed him more than ten years ago when his first film "Cube" was opening. You can watch the video feature or read the full interview.
"Splice" is a film that embraces the horror genre and transcends it. Vincenzo Natali serves up a story about a pair of scientists whose experiment leads to the creation of a creature that's not quite human. The film begins in the lab with moral and ethical questions about what the scientists are doing. But then the film takes a surprising turn and moves out of the lab and -- in a manner of speaking -- into the scientists' home. Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley) quickly lose their professional distance as their "experiment" -- which they name Dren -- becomes a part of their dysfunctional family.
Natali creates an elegant horror film that doesn't look to gore or big effects but rather to an intimate psychodrama about the dangers of bad parenting. Natali doesn't keep his "monster" under wraps. Images of the creature Dren are readily available and this means that Dren becomes a real character and not some horror gimmick to jump out from the dark for a knee jerk scare. Natali, like his executive producer Guillermo Del Toro, creates a film in which we can feel sympathy for the monster. And like Del Toro he creates horror with a heart and soul.
"Splice" is my favorite horror film of the year and will probably nab a spot on my top ten. But it is a horror film more for fans of old Universal horror as opposed to the recent cycle of torture porn. Here's what Natali had to say about his film and about the horror genre.
BETH ACCOMANDO: First of all I understand this idea had been gestating for awhile, it was suppose to follow your first film "Cube," so tell me the evolution it went through.
VINCENZO NATALI: Surprisingly we have been very faithful to the original script that we wrote which was in fact a short film script. So the essence of "Splice" has always been the same. I think what was challenging about the re-writing process was kind of containing the beast, caging the beast because it could have flown off in so many different directions because the subject matter is so loaded. So it was really just about honing it and the reason it has taken so long is it hasn’t had as much to do with the script as just the fact that it was a hard film to finance.
BA: But in terms of how science has changed in the past ten years did the story change in reaction to that?
VN: You know it was more like the science caught up with our fiction. And I mean I co-wrote this script and in writing it I consulted with a geneticist so I would run ideas past him and I was always shocked when he would say oh no you could do that. Almost without exception. And what I realized is the bandwidth of what’s available is, what’s possible in the real world is pretty wide. The principle, the basic idea behind the science in the film is actually I think quite faithful to reality.
BA: What was the core of that story that stayed the same throughout the process?
VN: I think the core was the love affair with the creature. It was the idea that somebody could be attracted to something that’s not entirely human and that’s really a mythological concept. That’s been with us for thousands of years and I was fascinated by the notion that now that could really happen in reality, that those mythical creatures could come into being through modern technology and in fact when scientists do this kind of work they refer to them as Chimeras which is of course a mythological beast.
BA: Your film does give us a creature that is at times very sympathetic and Guillermo Del Toro has come on board as a producer for you which seems very appropriate so could you talk a little about his involvement with the project.
VN: Well I met Guillermo [Del Toro, who served as a producer on the film] at a film festival easily six years ago and he expressed a desire to produce a film for me which was very exciting cause I am a huge fan of his work and I immediately thought of "Splice" for exactly that reason because our film is very much about finding the humanity in the monster and finding the monster in the humans, and I think those are themes that are quite common to Guillermo’s work. And sure enough he really liked the script and he’s been Dren’s godfather ever since. He really helped us and I think his name more than anything is what legitimizes the project and kind of branded it in a way if I can use that word that made it appeal to the buyers and the people who would finance our film.
BA: Dren is the creature created in the film, talk about how you wanted her to look and the way that she evolves through the film.
VN: With Dren my overriding direction to everyone was make her real. It just seemed given the nature of the real science and the fact that we weren’t straying too far from reality that our creature should be biologically plausible as possible and so in designing Dren we were actually quite subtle. My feeling was that small changes to the human form are much more shocking than big ones. And so we were quite subtractive , we took things away from our performers body rather than adding things on which I think is the more common approach in these sort of movies. So I think what we end up with in Dren is a creature that is very lithe, that is very natural, that is in some respects quite beautiful. Although at the same time maybe a little bit repulsive and that is the other aspect of her that makes her an engaging creation that throughout her evolution, and it is a very dramatic evolution from being an infant to being an adult, there’s an aspect of her that is very sympathetic but there’s also an aspect of her that’s kind of horrifying and repulsive and that’s sort of attraction-repulsion makes her sort of intriguing.
BA: It also pulls you into the film and you also resist using a lot of CGI
VN: Well actually there is a lot of CGI but it’s generally wed to something that’s physical and in my mind the best digital effects begin with something real, it’s a great tool for enhancing things and sometimes when digital effects don’t work so well I think it’s because the work is being done in a very artificial kind of environment and it requires having real world references like even if at certain points Dren is a fully digital character I always had an actual model of Dren on the set as reference for the animators and for the texture artists and so on and as much as possible I used real actors and when I couldn’t use them I tried to use puppets. So our hybrid organism is a hybrid of many different effects techniques.
BA: Describe the visual style of the film, it goes through a transformation. It starts in the scientific world with all this high tech stuff but during the process of the film you end up in this barn and it’s more retro, explain how you wanted it to look.
VN: Well the film is bifurcated really. The first half takes place in this lab environment and it’s much more in the mold of the creature film you might be familiar with, that it’s about the scientist creating this thing and it getting out of control albeit within the confines of a lab. Where I think "Splice" diverges from that model is that usually halfway through the film, halfway through these kinds of stories, the creature escapes and it wreaks havoc in the outside world and in this case I decided I wanted to do exactly the opposite of that. And what ends up happening is that Dren, the creature, ends up being kind of a prisoner to the scientists and they have to because the world is not prepared for her, because her creation was sort of an accident and in a sense threatens their careers and their reputations they have to cloister her away and then the movie becomes much more of a psycho drama and that takes place in this barn kind of natural environment. So the film is visually bisected as well, the first part of the movie is quite antiseptic and cool and the latter part becomes a little more Gothic and a little truer to its "Frankenstein" roots.
BA: Your film is in some ways like a journey through horror cinema, starting with more recent films like Alien and then some 70s and 80s horror like “It’s Alive, working its way back to the old Universal horror films like Frankenstein. Talk a little bit about the influences you’ve had.
VN: Yes "Splice" is spliced form many different influences. Definitely there’s Mary Shelley in there and James Whale who made the original "Frankenstein" films at Universal, that’s part of it. There’s clearly some David Cronenberg DNA spliced into the mix and then a lot of other things. I mean one film I looked at while I was writing the script was “L'Enfant Sauvage,” the Francois Truffaut film. And then I think there are a lot of things that just got into the mix by osmosis because I’m a child of these kinds of movies. I grew up with them and I love them and people point out references to me all the time that were actually quite unintentional but at the same time, while this film is absolutely a creature film and an homage to creature films of the past it is a creature film spliced with a relationship story and I always felt that it was the personal side of the movie and believe me there really is some of my own life in this film amazingly enough and that makes it special and hopefully it is a movie that is greater than the sum of its parts.
BA: What’s interesting is that it starts out in this scientific world with the questions seeming to be directed more at moral questions about what you can do in the lab but then it really moves into this focus on a dysfunctional family, which I thought was really interesting.
VN: Yeah that’s sort of the guiding metaphor for the whole movie, it is about a family, albeit as you say a highly dysfunctional family to the point where it really goes to the worst possible Freudian, Oedipal place but I feel often with fantasy films and specifically horror films that very often they function well when they are metaphorical and frequently when you think about films like "Godzilla" being a sort of metaphor for the H-bomb, where you think about "The Fly" being a metaphor for disease, these films are tapping into real world fears. But bending them through the lens of fantasy. And so I was very conscious of that with "Splice" that this is exactly what we should be doing and in this case about familial relationships.
BA: Yeah it really seems to be about parenting on a certain level.
VN: It is. It is about all my fears of parenting.
BA: Elsa is an interesting character and you get a tiny bit of her back story and her relationship with her mother and in a sense of the horrors possibly from childhood that may have affected her so it’s a real interesting development in that respect.
VN: I’ll never forget when I was a kid I was fascinated of course with monsters and monster movies and I’ll never forget my dad saying to me the real monsters are human beings. And it really affected me. And of course I knew that was true and so Elsa has some real horror in her life and it has to do with her mother and we don’t know exactly what transpired but we know it was bad. And it inevitably comes back to haunt her when she creates Dren. So I think there is a certain self-reflective element to this film it really is about human relationships and I hope that’s what makes the film sort of transcend what the expectations might be for this kind of movie because it really delves into the psychological and personal aspects of the relationship between creature and creators. And then hopefully takes it beyond what any audience expectations might be for what is permissible in a mainstream movie.
BA: The scientists talk about crossing the line in their experiments and it crosses a line in a variety of different ways. I don’t want to give away too much but there’s an implication that maybe the DNA Dren got comes from someone who might have been mentally unbalanced. So talk about how that gets thrown into the mix of what’s going on with this gene splicing.
VN: There’s definitely some nature versus nurture discussion to be had based on this film, I mean my underlying feelings about Dren, the creature, is that she is quite beautiful and quite perfect in her design that unlike the James Whale Frankenstein, who received an abnormal brain, Dren’s brain is just fine. And so is her body and really what she’s suffering from is a case of very bad parenting. And the fact that she’s being brought into a world that, where there’s just no place for her. So inevitably she can’t really survive as she should be able to and that’s where things go terribly, terribly wrong. It’s a real tragedy, I mean in a sense it is very Oedipal because it has elements of a Greek tragedy to it it’s quite sad.
BA: You said you liked horror films, can you remember the first horror film that scared you?
VN: Well I’ll tell you the film that scared me the most as a child and that was Philip Kaufman’s version of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." That film just stayed with me for years. And it gave me many sleepless nights. I can tell you for a fact that the very first night after I saw that film I really thought that there was a pod in my bed and I ran screaming out into the living room of my mom’s apartment and turned on all the lights. There are just so many films that have influenced me I think that, horror, it’s very hard for me to define why I am attracted to it, But it’s always been with me I think that the reason it is so relevant right now is that there’s a lot to be afraid of in the world. And this is a very uncertain time, we really don’t know what’s around the corner. I mean the only thing that’s clear is that things are gonna change. And we’re not quite sure if it will be for the better or the worse and I don’t think there’s any genres that’s more equipped to tackle that than Horror. I mean if you think about how horror films have evolved over the years they really evolved in parallel with the issues that were facing the world whether is was the atomic bomb, or fear of communism, or the sexual revolution all those things found their tendrils into the horror genre and were expressed in various ways they were very much tied to what society’s fears were at the time.
BA: The project you have coming up, "Neuromancer," one of the things that you mentioned about that book was that seemed to pre-date a lot of other films and was very prescient in terms of what it was predicting.
VN: Absolutely. With "Neuromancer," a book that I hope to make into a movie, it anticipated the Internet, it anticipated and in fact in some regards it suggested the whole concept of Cyberspace and what was amazing to me when I re-read the book recently was reflecting on how people must have tried to understand it in 1984 I don’t even know how they could have because it was dealing with concepts that were so abstract and so outside the pale of what people understood at the time and to some degree remains so. I think if 'Splice" is a movie about how we are evolving our bodies; "Neuromancer" is a book about how we are going to evolve our minds. It’s very much about the relationship between humans and machine consciousness and how the two things are going to intermingle. And while the book has been pillaged by many other writers and filmmakers I don’t think anyone has really tapped into that aspect of it. I think that’s what’s really interesting about the book and about what remains very relevant. I think William Gibson in some way was tied into the current of where society is going and how we’re evolving and I mean clearly much of what he predicted has come to pass. And within a span of about 25 years. Within living memory. I think that’s what’s amazing how fast this is going. It really is, it feels like we’re in some sort of situation where we are evolving at an accelerated rate and for that reason it seems like it’s going to be very difficult to stop it from evolving. One thing’s for sure. Things are going to change. That’s the one thing we can be very certain of.
BA: Your film is labeled as horror but it transcends the genre so do you mind that kind of label?
VN: No not at all. One of my great fears I think is that horror films will become too legitimate, that they’ve become so popular in recent years that they might receive too much respect. And I think what’s special about the horror genre is that it operates kind of on the sidelines, on the margins of what’s acceptable. And my fear would be if it becomes too much a part of the mainstream culture it will lose its edge.
BA: Do you really think it can become a part of the mainstream culture? The very nature of horror seems to be about pushing boundaries so it seems it would be hard for it to be completely absorbed into the mainstream.
VN: Hopefully it will remain perverse enough and weird enough, at least a segment of it to survive. I mean it’s a little bit like punk right? Punk was pretty shocking when it first arrived on the scene and now it’s as commoditized as McDonalds as anything and I don’t think it is as it once was. But maybe in some other form the punk spirit lives on.
BA: Maybe we should say good horror will always remain outside of the mainstream.
BA: What was the biggest challenge in bringing it to the big screen and do you think you benefited in some way from the delay?
VN: It was enormously frustrating to me to work on a film for 12 years. This was supposed to be my follow up to my first film "Cube." It didn’t work out quite the way I had planned. At the end of the day I do think it’s probably for the better because I’m older now and hopefully a little bit wiser, at least a little bit more mature and I think given the subject matter of "Splice" it is probably better that I’m doing it now than when I was younger because I wouldn’t have approached it in as realistic a fashion. And I don’t think the film would have quite the degree of subtlety as it has now… not that it is entirely subtle. But it would have been less so had I done it years ago. And clearly the film technology has evolved so that a creature like Dren can be rendered on screen more realistically and less expensively than she would have in the past. And the final reason I think that it’s good that it’s happening now is people can understand it. Once again the technology has gotten to a point where the real world technology has gotten to a point where this is part of the pop culture and I think ten years ago Dolly the sheep had been cloned but that was about it it wasn’t, I don’t think it was in the mainstream and quite as relevant to a general audience as it was now. So this is definitely the right time for Dren.
BA: The influence of "Frankenstein" seems very obvious but you also have going on in the background a lot of Japanese toys and some anime images, so did you feel influenced by Japanese horror as well?
VN: Absolutely. I feel that Japanese culture is ahead of us anyway, if you want to look at the future just go to Tokyo. And you’ll feel a little bit like you’ve stepped into the future. For a variety of reasons, not the least of which being that Japan is dealing with issues now that we’re probably going to have to deal with in the future like overcrowding and such and also it’s a culture that really embraces new technology and actually I think because of its Buddhist and Shintoist belief system or background it is more comfortable with technology. I think to some extent to the western eye technology is a thing to be feared. We still are very connected to the Promethean myth which of course was the subtitle to Mary Shelley’s "Frankenstein" was the modern Prometheus. We are afraid of stealing fire from the gods. I think the eastern society in particular the Japanese society is much more comfortable with doing this kind of work, much more comfortable with the idea of living with robots and so forth. Because if you look at their early belief system, their religious background, everything has life a stone has life so therefore a robot can have life and so to them it’s very cute. It’s just a different way of looking at things. So intuitively I felt that Clive and Elsa [named after the actors in "Bride of Frankenstein"] are scientists that are much more of that mindset. They are quite Utopian in their thinking, they really embrace the technology they are in fact voracious and fearless when it comes to this stuff they just want to jump in with both feet. That’s kind of Japanese.
BA: So how would you pitch the film to an audience, how would you sell it to them?
VN: Well I’m always the worst person to pitch my own movies, unfortunately, which is probably the reason it takes so long to get them made. In my mind this is a creature film spliced with a relationship story. This is a story about two scientists who create something that while it begins as an experiment it really becomes their child and as it grows and it grows very quickly, that relationship becomes complicated because the child becomes something that is quite beautiful. And ultimately what they are faced with is a very bizarre love triangle.
BA: Kind of a filmmaker’s relationship to his movie?
VN: There are way too many parallels.