Capone talks weird science with SPLICE director Vincenzo Natali!!!
Published at: June 1, 2010, 8:09 a.m. CST by Capone
Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.
First off, allow me to guide you to Quint's extremely excellent and thorough interview with Detroit-born SPLICE director Vincenzo Natali from earlier this year. Knowing that this interview was out there for everyone to read allowed me to talk to Natali about different, more theoretical aspect of both SPLICE and his previous works, such as the masterpiece in minimalist science fiction CUBE, CYPHER, the TIDELAND documentary GETTING GILLIAM, and the superb vampire short he made for PARIS, JE T'AIME, starring Elijah Wood and Olga Kurylenko.
But SPLICE is something altogether twisted. It's also deviously fun and, if you occasionally like a little brain food with your horror/monster movies, thought provoking--with an emphasis on provocation. This is a movie that demands a response and a reaction. It's also a movie that acknowledges that if/when monsters join us on the earth, they won't come from outer space or deep under the sea; they'll came from corporate laboratories, working without any supervision or oversight. It's as good a theory as any other out there. You are officially not allowed to complain any longer about all horror being nothing my sequels and remakes. SPLICE is an original screenplay from Natali, Antoinette Terry Bryant, and Doug Taylor, and it's a damn good movie.
We also go into a great deal of spoilery material, so this may be the interview you read after seeing SPLICE this weekend, which I know you all are going to do by the millions.
So when you get to it, please enjoy my companion interview to Quint conducted a couple weeks ago, the morning after Natali and I did a great post-screening Q&A, with audiences delivering some of the best questions I've had at a Q&A in quite a while. Hopefully, there isn't too much overlap between my interview and Quint's. Enjoy Vincenzo Natali…
Capone: So I know you talked to Quint not too long ago, and I’m going to try to ask slightly different questions than what he covered, which I think covered pretty much everything…
Vincenzo Natali: Yeah, he did a great job, but yeah absolutely.
Capone: I like your dismissal of the old-school movie monster idea of this sort of gothic laboratory in a castle versus where a creature like this might come from versus the cold, sterile lab at a corporation or a pharmaceutical company. You said last night, you weren’t someone who was sort of naturally paranoid of things like that. This movie certainly could instill that paranoia in people, I think.
VN: Oh no, I have a healthy dose of paranoia for sure. In fact, I think the thing that I find most disturbing about this work isn’t really the science itself. I personally don’t have any moral issues with stem cell research or potentially even creating animal human hybrids, as long as they are not carried to term. However, what does disturb me is the notion that a corporation could take a patent out on a portion of the human genome, which they have done, or create an animal and patent that animal. I think, there’s something inherently wrong with that and I am afraid of large corporations, not because I think they are inherently evil, but because I don’t think they have any morality, they’re not guided by anything but money. Actually, this is the case in SPLICE, Newstead [it might actually be NeStead in the film], the corporation that Clive and Elsa work for, they are opposed to creating human animal hybrid, but not because they think it’s wrong, it’s just because it doesn’t satisfy the bottom line, and actually I should point out that NuStead is named after Lord Byron’s estate where Mary Shelley wrote FRANKENSTEIN.
Capone: Ah, okay I missed that one, okay.
VN: Yeah, that’s an obscure one.
Capone: Not to get into a huge ethical discussion, but you do bring up the stem cell issue, in that what they are working on is essentially something that will take the place of some of these cures that stem cells supposedly can be a part of, so that is definitely what you are gearing us to thinking about. The creation of this other life form in the Fred and Ginger creatures. You are getting into some of that moral debate about stem cells--quite a few moral and ethical debates, actually.
VN: You just can’t avoid it, you know, it just comes part in parcel with the subject matter. But yes, Ginger and Fred are absolutely little chemical factories. This was actually an idea that was suggested to me by a geneticist, because I think in essence that’s what a lot of pharmaceutical companies do in terms of their frontier research. They literally send people into the Amazon just pulling up roots and just grabbing things with no particular agenda, just to see if they can stumble upon something that could be used for medicinal purposes. So Clive and Elsa are basically doing the same thing, but just in their lab. They are just creating organism in the hopes that maybe by combining certain things, they will get something useful from it, but they don’t even know exactly what they are going to do. It’s really called “frontier research.” It’s just sort of on the edge, the bleeding edge, of what these people do. Yeah, it’s just a fascinating subject matter. It really didn’t require much invention on my part; I mean I really took a lot of inspiration from life.
Capone: You mentioned last night that your original inspiration was that ear-mouse photo. Can you just talk about that a little bit?
VN: Oh sure. Well the photo you are referring to, of course, is of this thing called The Vacanti Mouse, which was a mouse that looked like it had a human ear growing out of it’s back. It wasn’t actually a real ear, it was just a plastic armature that had been surgically implanted in the mouse and then they had grown cartilage cells around that armature taken from a cow, and so the idea was if you lost an ear, we could basically reconstruct it. But it looked like a mouse with a fucking ear on it’s back. And it was really a freaky image and not only that, the mouse is a nude mouse, so it didn’t have any hair on it.
Capone: That’s right, I remember that.
VN: And so there was just something inherently vulnerable about this mouse. I instantly empathized with it and felt sorry for it and was horrified by it at the same time. I think that sort of formulated the core impression or seed that became SPLICE. A mouse didn’t make into the picture, unfortunately.
Capone: And that’s the interesting thing, with Dren, we know that it’s several different animals are spliced with this human DNA, but you are never specific about what all of those are, so we are not 100 percent sure. Wings suddenly pop out of nowhere, and we are like “What the hell is that?” So we don’t know the extent of her abilities or what she's evolving into.
VN: No and the idea actually is that even Clive and Elsa don’t know, because somewhere in the voodoo of their splicing, they have accidentally triggered all of these dormant genes, which are sometimes commonly referred to as “junk genes,” which everybody has within then, just stuff that’s left over from evolution, so that’s sort of my explanation as to why Clive and Elsa really don’t know what they’ve got, and why Dren is constantly surprising them in the way she evolves.
Capone: I won’t ruin it, but Fred and Ginger have a really great scene, well, their last scene together. That just cracked me up, because I just thought “That’s just a great excuse to just throw blood on people.” It’s not a particularly gory, graphic film, but that scene is just like the big Gallagher moment to just throw chunks on the audience, literally.
VN: I will blame Howard Berger from KNB for that, because to be perfectly honest, when we shot that scene--just before we shot it--I said to Howard “Now, I don’t want too much blood,” and he even gave me a demonstration. I was like, “Okay, perfect!” Of course when it came time to shoot it, all of a sudden it was just like the audience was being hosed with blood. And with this being a low-budget film, I really didn’t have time to reshoot, so that’s what I was left with.
Capone: If you'd had to reshoot, the dry cleaning alone would have taken days.
VN: [laughs] That’s right!
Capone: I like the idea that Elsa is this sort of emotionally complex/damaged woman from her upbringing and has these mother issues. Sarah Polley is absolutely the right person to play a character with those kinds of complexities that isn’t just a screaming female character in a horror film. I’ve talked to her before and she is like the smartest person that I have ever talked to in my life, but she is also, in terms of some of the movies she has picked, she’s got a little freak in her, because she is not afraid to be in a Cronenberg film or in DAWN OF THE DEAD or this. What did you sort of discover about her making this film?
VN: Gosh, well I think Sarah is just a fascinating person and beyond being an actress, she’s a writer director, of much greater note than myself actually. She’s been nominated for an Academy Award…
Capone: AWAY FROM HER just tore me apart. That's the film that I got to talk to her about, actually.
VN: Oh really? Wow, so yeah as you can tell she’s just brilliant. And she’s about to make another film that apparently the script is just incredible for it that she wrote. Anyway, needless to say, she is absolutely brilliant, and I think that was essential for casting Elsa, because Elsa herself is a brilliant geneticist. It wasn’t going to be Jessica Alba…let me put that that way. No offense to Jessica, but I think Sarah, as an actor, what is so wonderful about Sarah is that everything she does is understated. Nothing is on the surface. It’s all going on underneath, and I think that’s sort of true of Elsa who is somebody who we learn through the course of the story has a very complicated and sad past, but at first blanche we would never know. But in spite of that, I think Sarah also has a quality to her that really humanized the character. Elsa does some highly questionable things in this movie, things that would normally completely alienate an audience, but I think you still are connected because of Sarah. You are still connected enough with her that you follow her through her whole journey, and she is the protagonist of the film. She is basically the one we are following.
Capone: Yeah and then Adrien Brody has certainly done about as wide a variety of kinds of roles as possible. Seeing him in something like this or later this summer in PREDATORS is not that out of the ordinary. We kind of have to fall in love with Dren through him, as much as we are through Sarah as well. But for her, it’s a mothering thing and for him it becomes something much different. When Adrien read to what extent he falls in love with this creature, what did he say? Was he okay with that?
VN: [laughs] He was totally fine with it and when it came time to shoot, there was no problem whatsoever. Adrien and Delphine just got right to it, like pros and they were great. And I make light of it, but actually that’s a very hard thing to do for anyone, and I think for someone especially like Adrien who is an Academy Award-winning actor who has a reputation to protect, doing this kind of movie, if it were to backfire, could be very harmful to his career. So I think it speaks of his courageousness and his willingness to take chances as an actor, and honestly, I think if I didn’t have say an Adrien Brody, the scene wouldn’t be as effective. I think that because we have, as an audience, a shared relationship with Adrien from other movies, watching him be the one to have sex with Dren makes it doubly more shocking. I think Adrien’s a very likeable personality and I think people like him, so when you see somebody you like doing something that’s so outrageous and so beyond the pale of what would ever be considered acceptable, it makes it even more shocking.
Capone: You mentioned earlier about Elsa doing some things that audience members, if it were somebody else, might dislike her for, but the truth is Adrien Brody has a line at the end of the film where he’s sort of excusing his behavior where he says, “We changed the rules.” This is a whole movie about people changing the rules, and we don’t hate either one of them really, because we don’t know what the right thing is in this circumstance. W have no frame of reference. That’s an important line.
VN: I think that’s an amazing observation, and we were very aware of that actually when we were writing it, because the film is very hermetic. There are only five speaking parts. There are only a few locations. We don’t really ever go out into the real world so to say. Clive and Elsa are truly nerds, because they just don’t leave their basement or their apartment. They create their own reality. I think morality is a very elastic thing. You see it in societies all of the time where certain conditions arise, and the line of what is morally acceptable shifts and sometimes shifts very dramatically, and I think that’s what happens with Clive and Elsa in this kind of very weird insular family dynamic that they get into with Dren. They get so cut off from everybody else by necessity of course, because no one can know about Dren. They really lose perspective, and it just gets worse and worse and worse.
Capone: It is interesting the path that Dren takes, because she starts out as a sort of pet and goes on to child to prisoner to this sexual thing to then, I guess, to predator.
VN: It’s a normal coming of age story. [laughs]
Capone: It is. That’s kind of what it is in a very tight little timeframe. But yeah, that’s such a great story where this thing that they raised over the course of however many weeks ends up doing all sorts of terrible things.
VN: Absolutely. I think that’s what excited me about this. That’s where I hope the movie transcends its FRANKENSTEIN roots or what we expect from this kind of movie. It really goes into deeper psychological terrain, which is frankly fascinating. It really becomes very Freudian. It becomes very Oedipal. It’s much more about the relationship between the creator and the creation rather than about the monster breaking out of containment and wreaking havoc in the world. It just very consciously decides not to follow that avenue.
Capone: It does actually literally become incestuous at one point. If Elsa put some of her DNA in there, then yeah it’s a little bit freakier than before. You mentioned last night about how tough it is to get an indie film sold or distributed in theaters at this time and I think almost equally as difficult is to get an original horror idea out there, because it seems like the horror field is so dominated with remakes and sequels, and to get and original film out there is a wonderful thing. I applaud this film, if for no other reason, although there are certainly many other reasons, but for that alone, just getting some original thought out there and some new ideas.
VN: You know whom you have to thank for that? Joel Silver. None of this would have happened if not for him. We were in a very bad place when we came to Sundance, because the film had actually been finished for a year before that or almost a year, and two of our potential distributors had gone out of business. There were like a few possibilities, but there really wasn’t any option on the table for a big release. It was always going to be a very small, so it’s Joel. He’s quite visionary. I really have nothing but praise for him in fact, and he really embraced everything that’s crazy about the movie. Had he chosen to, he could have changed the film. He could have done things to it. I didn’t have legal control over it. Legally, I didn’t have final cut over the film, but he didn’t want to. He really stood up, and actually the studio as well stood up for everything that you would expect a studio to be frightened of. They kind of embraced it.
If I can get on my soap box for a moment, I think that’s what is so frustrating for me personally and I think for a lot of filmmakers who operate in this zone or in these genres, that they are very conservative--the genres aren’t--but the studio mentality about it is very conservative, like more so than I think if you were doing a drama or a comedy. I think that they trust the formula and they are very afraid to deviate from it, so if you are making a slasher film, you are not going to be allowed to mutate the slasher movie and do something different with it. You have to follow all of the expected beats and so I think that’s why I think you see a lot of stuff in the horror genre that just feels a bit repetitious.
Capone: There’s almost no risk whatsoever.
VN: Right, they are just afraid. You know why it is, because it’s a formula that works. That's why.
Capone: That’s why all of the best stuff is coming out of Europe and before that Asia, because they are tired of the formula, I guess. Or at least they go through the process of inventing their own formulas.
VN: Exactly. They are just not as restricted in the same way.
Capone: Last night you also brought up something interesting about the sounds that Dren makes. Can you just talk a little bit about the speech and the sounds she emits?
VN: First of all, I should mention I had wonderful sound editors on this movie who were really dedicated, and in fact they started working on Dren’s sounds before we even started shooting the movie, because we sort of felt like we needed to get an idea of what she would sound like, so we would know what to do when we were shooting the film. But it became clear very early on that we wouldn’t be able to go down the conventional road with a creature, where you take sounds from existing animals and combine them, because Dren is really a character in the movie. She has such a wide range of emotions, and it was going to have to be much more of a performance kind of thing, so what we did was actually bring in people, so all of Dren’s sounds are created by human beings, albeit with some electronic manipulation. But she is composed of somewhere in the area of 15 different people. It’s just an incredible mash up of different sounds that different people made and two of the key people were actually musicians or vocalists. They could do really extraordinary stuff.
Capone: You mentioned the singer Mary Margaret O'Hara being one of them. I actually know who that is.
VN: Oh do you? Oh wow. Yeah, Catherine O’Hara’s sister.
Capone: Right, right. And I don’t want to ruin the actual scene, but you mentioned Adrien Brody does Dren's voice in a key speaking part. But is the actress who plays Dren [Delphine Chanéac] actually one of the voices? Does she do a voice?
VN: Yeah, yeah she’s one of them, but we really found that we needed specialists, vocal specialists to do this kind of stuff, because there are some pretty weird contortions that are going on.
Capone: Yeah, I thought they were all animal sounds just somehow distorted.
VN: No. There might have been like a little bit of something here and there. Also, I thought--especially in the early stages when she’s a child--I wanted a real child crying. There’s just something where we feel so viscerally when we hear a child cry and especially when you see that the child isn’t a normal one.
Capone: Would we know Delphine from anywhere?
VN: Well if you were French you might. As I understand it, Delphine used to be a on a very popular French TV show about high school students. But even in France she’s not like Marion Cotillard or somebody like that. She’s not that famous. I think she’s becoming better known and she’s just a spectacular discovery, I have to say. She has a very unique look to her, even without the augmentation. She’s just very beautiful, but in a really original, interesting way.
Capone: I deliberately did not go looking for images of what she looks like until after this is all I saw the film. I wanted to just wait and see how different you guys actually made her, even in small subtle ways.
VN: It’s worth checking out, because even in just seeing her with hair is different. We did augmentation to her face as well. What was funny…I think I was saying this last night was that I became so accustomed to looking at the altered version of Delphine that when in postproduction they would switch back to the normal one, I thought she looked deformed. I was like “Oh my God!”
Capone: I wondered if you had found someone who’s eyes maybe are a tiny bit further apart.
VN: No, but there are some people out there. There is a model… What’s her name? She’s Australian. But when we were sort of kind of looking for types, she was once that we were using as an example, but she was like a living doll. What’s her name? Gemma something. [I believe he's referring to Gemma Ward.] Anyway, but really I think we found the one and only Dren out there with Delphine. She is just perfect and she was so great to work with. She physically endured a lot for that role. Except for one shot, she does all of the stunts and she’s not a gymnast or a stunt person; she’s an actress. And she’s written two books. She’s written two novels and she’s a musician. She’s a super talented person.
Capone: Cool. I see you are going down to Austin for a screening. They just put up something on the site.
VN: Yeah, I’ve never been to Austin either.
Capone: That crowd will seriously spoil you for all other.
VN: Oh, it’s so great. You guys have been great. Of course, I’ve been reading Ain’t It Cool forever, and it’s very exciting for me to be included. I really love the work that you guys do.
Capone: Thanks. I’ve been hearing about this movie it seems like for a couple of years. I remember seeing the initial concept drawings…
VN: They slipped out three years ago.
Capone: That long ago, wow.
VN: Some production art was kind of stolen.
Capone: But I knew just looking at that artwork and seeing the actors you had enlisted for the film, I wanted to do screening of that movie, because it was going to be demented and it is. Great to meet you.
VN: Thanks. It was a pleasure talking with you and thanks for last night too, that was a great night. The audience was really smart. It was terrific. I actually have to admit all of the screenings have been like that; people have been really observant and kind of pointing things out to me that I didn’t notice.
Capone: Good luck with the film, and have fun in Austin.
VN: Thank you. See you next time!
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