Exclusive Interview by Brad Balfour
Every year at the Sundance Film Festival, the Sloan Foundation gives out special awards to filmmakers and screenwriters who craft a project with a science underpinning. Splice could have been one of those films with its forceful depiction of actual science at work.
Genetic modification scares the bejeezus out of people. They don’t want to allow such manipulation of humans, and least of all, cloning. But in Splice, the implications of such fiddling go beyond mere medical expediency. Such holding creates a being beyond human control.
Famed young scientists Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley) have a talent for splicing DNA from different animals into bizarre hybrids for medical purposes. But in this sf-horror film, they go a step too far; they splice in human DNA. Their corporate backers are aghast. So Clive and Elsa experiment in secret, and Dren (Delphine Chaneac) is the result.
She is an amazing creation whose rapid life cycle takes her from baby to adult in a matter of months. Clive and Elsa struggle to keep "her" a secret, but their connection to their "offspring" devolves from the scientific to the personal. Ultimately, Dren exceeds the couple’s wildest fantasies – and their most terrifying nightmares.
Best known for writing and directing his debut Cube in 1997, American-Canadian Vincenzo Natali masterminded Splice. Cube became a worldwide success, grossing $15 million in France, emptying wallets in Japan and breaking box office records for a Canadian film. It took Best Canadian First Feature at the Toronto International Film Festival, and Natali went on to direct Cypher (2002) and Nothing (2003).
Born in Detroit, Michigan, to a nursery school teacher/painter mother and a photographer father, Natali is a cultural hybrid (with Italian and English coding in his DNA). Raised in Toronto, Canada, he attended the Ryerson University ilm program before getting hired as a storyboardist at the Nelvana Animation Studios.
Following the release of Splice, Natali's next efforts are expected to be an adaptation of High Rise and a 3D remake of the Wes Craven natural horror film, Swamp Thing,for producer Joel Silver. A May 2010 item in The Hollywood Reporter, however, announced that Natali was to replace Joseph Khan as director of the highly anticipated adaptation of cyberpunk author William Gibson's 1984 masterwork, Neuromancer.
As a certified sci-fi geek, I was psyched for a verbal poke around Natali's past and future film lab.
Q: Rather than worrying about narrative implications, you err on the side of the fantastical, creating a creature that serves a science-fiction fan. Am I wrong or right?
VN: I always felt the most human character of this film was going to be Dren. And really, if there’s something special about the film, it’s the fact that it’s about how the monster emerges in the humans.
Unlike a lot of Frankenstein-type stories it’s not about the creature escaping into the world and wreaking havoc. It’s the opposite. It’s about how the scientists cage their creation and it becomes a catalyst for opening dark doors to dark places within themselves.
Q: Did it create dark places for the cast as well? Were there anguished debates?
VN: No, it was a surprisingly happy set actually. I was probably the only one who was anguished because it was such a tight shoot. But I had a lovely cast; they were very supportive of me and the making of this film. They have to do some pretty scary, transgressive things,
and never bat an eye. They were very much into it all the way through.
Q: I can imagine the debates between you and Sarah Polley, who is a political activist as well as an actor and director. Obviously you had to cast a Canadian for funding purposes. But besides that, Polley is the perfect person for a film with any kind of political implications.
VN: Right. Sarah was always on the top of my list, regardless of her nationality, because she’s so intelligent on the screen and I needed actors who we could believe are brilliant geneticists while still being attractive. Also you have make an emotional connection to the characters, even when they’re doing really transgressive, horrible things.
Sarah was just great to work with. I really respect the fact that, in spite of being an excellent writer/director, herself, she came to the film purely as an actor and treated me with tremendous respect. She’s a lovely person. They’re all great people.
Q: What was the discussion like?
VN: If you were in on some of the rehearsals, you would have thought we were making a Generation X romantic comedy because we were really talking about the characters and their relationship to one another and not so much about the morality of the science or anything like that. That kind of came along for the ride.
It was very important for me with Clive and Elsa that we believe this couple, that we like them, that we understand the dynamics of their relationship, because they’re fairly complicated. That was mostly where the discussion took place.
Other than that, Sarah and Adrien just got it. When Sarah read the script, to be perfectly honest, all modestly aside, she said there was no role she’s ever read for that she wanted more. She didn’t read for the role, we offered it to her, but there’s no role that she had read that she wanted more than Elsa. She just got it and I think the same was true of Adrien.
Q: Polley isn’t known for her science-fiction film roles but Adrien certainly is, having done King Kong. That must have been an interesting pair; that was another transgressive situation. Did he
appreciate the irony? Did that have an influence on your choice?
VN: No I don’t think so. I cast Adrien for exactly the same reason as Sarah in so much as I thought he comes across as highly intelligent, a little bit geeky, and really lovable, and kind of hip too. I’m willing to bet that Clive in the film is about as close to the real Adrien as
any part he’s ever played, minus sleeping with a mutant. But he’s a very affable, lovable person, much like Clive.
So that was really my motivation for casting him. It was good that he did King Kong because he understood the technology and understood what it means to work with creatures, real and imagined. And that was essential because Dren, much like Kong in the film, is a character,
she’s not hidden in the shadows, she’s part of the fabric of the story.
Q: I read that you found the actress who played Dren on the street, but
then she came in for an audition.
VN: It’s confusing.
Q: I would have gone to Cirque du Soleil to cast that person.
VN: We wanted to go to Cirque du Soleil, but they won’t share their performers. They wouldn’t let us. They wouldn’t share names or anything because they want to keep their talents. I met a girl from Cirque du Soleil once, and she took me to one of their secret performances, so that was interesting. That was years ago.
Q: Sounds pretty provocative.
VN: It was pretty provocative. But with Delphine, she was always coming into the audition.
Q: And this is Paris?
VN: This is in Paris. We were specifically casting Dren in Paris because this is a France-Canada co-production, so it made sense to cast Dren there because she’s a non-speaking role -- and of course it’s not that hard to find beautiful women in Paris who don’t have to speak
English. With Delphine, she was the very first person who came into the audition, so we happened to see her on the street, not knowing that she was going to be auditioning for us.
My producer Steve Hoban said to me, “Well that looks like a Dren,” and that turned out to be her. She’s very beautiful and a lovely person too. And very talented; she’s written two novels, she’s a musician as well as being an actor. She’s a very interesting person. I had a very
intelligent cast. I had a very bright group of people working with me.
Q: What did you do to research the science of it?
VN: I co-wrote Splice in quite close consultation with a geneticist. Then, when we went to make the film, we had several geneticists consulting with us. The amazing thing about those discussions was that whenever I would propose an idea I thought was ludicrous or beyond the
realms of possibility they’d always say, "Oh, no, you can do that."
The truth is stranger than fiction, especially when you’re talking about biotechnology. It’s fucking weird. It just gets bizarre. So in the process of writing the script, I began to realize we should make the lab environments real. We should scale everything down to a human, real level.
Q: And you made it contemporary.
VN: Contemporary, exactly. There’s no reason to set this in the future. There is some technology in the film that doesn’t currently exist, but it seems entirely plausible.
Q: Do you ever worry about the film -- not just the cast -- being too smart?
VN: No. Is it that smart?
Q: Couldn't you have just made a story about scientists debating over this issue without adding in the creature? Why do you need the science fiction at all?
VN: It’s interesting because there are aspects of the film that are quite pulpy, which I like. I’m a bit greedy as a filmmaker, or desperate, because I don’t get to make movies very often and so when I do I throw in the kitchen sink, like I want everything.
Tonally, the film definitely goes in a number of different directions. There’s quite a bit of comedy and outrageous behavior in it. And yet at the same time, some of the moral questions and I think the complexity of the relationships…(operate) at a fairly high level. I think maybe there could be some discontinuity between those two things, but no, I didn’t worry about it being too smart. I
just don’t think about those things.
Honestly, in all of my films, for better or worse, I’ve really tried to do something a bit different, and I’ve paid the price. All of these films have been really hard to make, and a number of them have languished in obscurity. I’ve made my bed so I’ll lie in it.
Q: At least you got to be buddies with director Guillermo del Toro, who served as your executive producer.
VN: Guillermo is truly a great impresario of the fantastic arts. I think he supported me -- he supported many other filmmakers and artists -- and I had met him at a film festival and he said, “I’d really like to produce a film for you,” which was extraordinary to me because I’m a huge admirer of his, and I immediately thought of Splice, which was a script that had been gathering dust.
Q: That was your script?
VN: I co-wrote it, yes. It had been gathering dust on a shelf simply for the reasons stated, which are it’s kind of a hard thing for a studio to digest, and yet it could never be a low-budgeted film
because the creature effects were always going to have a certain price tag and on camera all the time. So it was just kind of a bad combination in terms of trying to raise money.
When Guillermo came on board, a lot of doors opened. His name legitimized me and the film, and kind of contextualized it in a way that made people think this could be commercial. It’s been a very long and painful pregnancy and a difficult birth as well. Believe me, the metaphors are easy to come up with on this film because it questions life-imitates-art in the making of this movie, but it really felt like a pregnancy.
I had this movie inside me for a long time, and intuitively I felt if I don’t make this film someone else is going to do something very much like it. It was pregnant in the world, out there, just the real science seemed to be mimicking what we had written in the script, so I felt like this has got to be done. And it was.
In a way, the film has been imbued with this life force. And while at every step it’s been challenging it’s almost like it willed itself into existence; it sort of always found a way.
Q: Does a movie like this always get developed with the potential of a sequel?
VN: No. I know that the ending is open and it seems leading.
Q: It’s almost like a classic science-fiction trope.
VN: No, it really does and I kind of resisted it a bit for that reason. But it’s the right ending; I thought this is the right ending for our characters and it just seemed very appropriate. But truly, I swear to God, I did not write it with any intention of sequelizing the film. Although, having said that, now maybe there will be a sequel.
Q: You’re also interested in making a film of the late British writer J.G. Ballard's futuristic novel High Rise, and you’re working on William Gibson's Neuromancer. Which is coming first?
VN: High Rise is cheaper. It might be a little more dangerous commercially speaking, but I don’t know. I’ve been working on High Rise for a long time, so it’s at very advanced stage. I have a great producer, Jeremy Thomas.
Q: Given the films he's made, he's the guy who gets it.
VN: Exactly. He gets it and can make challenging films like High Rise. So I think High Rise is a distinct possibility. It’s shocking to me, talking about technology out of control, but it’s shocking to me how information travels now by the internet. I haven’t officially signed onto Neuromancer literally, but it’s all over the place.
Q: Does that make production companies more or less interested to see it done?
VN: I hope more interested. That’s why I think maybe the internet technology is great. Certainly it helped Splice. Splice was languishing for a year after I finished it looking for distribution in
North America, and it’s really thanks to the internet via Sundance that the film created a buzz.
Q: How did Sundance help you?
VN: It saved the film. And truly our guardian angel was Joel Silver; he came in and swooped us away and has been nothing but supportive and protective of us.