Interviewed here, Brown director Vincenzo Natali speaks about his new feature length sci-fi thriller, Splice. The recently released film follows superstar genetic engineers and couple Clive Nicoli (Adrien Brody) and Else Kast (Sarah Polley) through their research splicing DNA to create new hybrids. The ambitious pair put their career on the line as curiousity pushes them into their boldest experiment yet, to splice human and animal DNA. The result is Dren, an amazing strangely beautiful creature of uncommon intelligence and an array of unexpected physical developments. At first, Dren exceeds their wildest dreams but as she grows and learns at an excellerated rate, her existence threatens to become their worst nightmare. The film questions our relationship to technology and science’s ambiguous moral territory.
Natali discusses the film’s context in contemporary culture, the creative process and how it fits into his directorial career.
Interviewer: Congratulations on Splice. Do you want to talk a little bit about the film starting at the beginning? I’m curious, what inspired you to do the movie?
Vincenzo Natali: Well, Splice was inspired by a mouse.
I: A mouse?
VN: It was a very special mouse because it appeared to have a human ear growing out of its back. It was, an MIT experiment and while it not a genetic experiment in the strictest sense, it looked like one. It was a very shocking image. I immediately felt there was a movie to be found in this mouse. That’s where it began.
That was fifteen years ago. Since then, the amazing thing is that the real science has caught up with my fiction. A lot of the ideas that were pure fantasy when I started writing the script with Antoinette -- Terry Bryant, my co-writer, were just things that we were inventing. And then to our shock and delight, some of those things actually came to pass. It's been a long journey for a variety of reasons.
I: Does it feel like the film fits into today -- I mean, as it kind of catches up with the times. Would you say it taps into our cultural political zeitgeist right now as it relates to gene mapping and DNA splicing?
VN: Oh yes. Totally. That's why it happened now. I think when I first tried to make the film ten years ago, it just was not in the popular consciousness. I don't think it felt as relevant. By the time we actually came to shooting the film, they had in fact legalized the creation of animal-human hybrids in the UK. So it was very much in the air and I think that the ideas are much more poignant because of it.
It was a confluence of things including that the film technology had evolved in such a way that I was finally able to make the movie for an independent movie price and do it really well.
I: Yeah, to that point about the kind of CG and visual effects. It’s pretty stunning stuff and all the evolution growth sequences look impressive, expensive. Do you want to talk a little bit about the visual effects or CG?
VN: I’m a wannabe visual effects artist really. I have always been fascinated by effects and have a very close relationship with CORE Digital Pictures, which is the Canadian company that did the majority of the effects work. Part of the joy of making this film was always going to be creating the creature, Dren, and doing it in a way that hopefully yielded something that you really haven't seen before.
VN: To that end, we surprisingly didn't use any or invent any technology. We didn't do what James Cameron did with Avatar. We were using off-the-shelf stuff, but I think hopefully where we were clever was that we applied it in an unusual way. We made our prime directive be for Dren to be always real, a creature that you could believe in rather than a movie monster.
So yeah, that was really one of the reasons I wanted to make the film in the first place. In a sort of art-imitating-life or life-imitating-art way, it allowed me to be the mad scientist and make my own monster.
I: I love that. Director as mad scientist.
VN: There is really a fine line.
I: I wanted to know what your favorite moment in the film is, that what makes it particularly cool or notable to you?
VN: I think what makes a movie notable is the sex. Pure and simple. And I think that was for me, in many respects, the raison d’être for making the film in the first place. Because we have seen Frankenstein movie stories many, many times before.
What I felt we had never seen was a bizarre love triangle with the creature, and that's what Splice evolves into. And I felt that far being it from just a shocking idea, it weds into the whole notion of what Dren is, as a kind of genetic utilization of the mythical chimera. She reminds us of an angel or of a siren, some sort of mythical creature that thousands of years in the past, men would have fallen in love with. That's, of course, precisely what happens to Clive, Adrien Brody.
So I just felt that there was something very shocking and new, yet simultaneously archetypal and resonant about that whole idea. I truly believe that that's what people talk about after they've seen the film.
I mean, that's kind of the scene that separates the men from the boys, if you will. There is a certain segment of the audience that just won't go there. In that moment, the movie becomes untenable for some, just grotesque or ridiculous. But for another segment of the audience, I think it's just magical because you are shown something that truly no reasonable, mainstream film would ever be allowed to show you.
I: For sure. It's true. Which is what kind of makes it lovely.
VN: Oh thank you.
I: Earlier in your career I know you directed the film Cube. Can you tell me about your other films in between these two. And talking about yourself as a director, is there anything about Splice that represents your evolution as a director?
VN: Yeah, absolutely. I really think my other films are very situational, they're about characters who are basically normal people who find themselves in extraordinary, bizarre circumstances and have to somehow find a way out. In Splice the characters create their situation, create their own bizarre circumstances. And in that regard, I think the story grows from the characters, it's more of a character relationship-based film, while also a science fiction movie.
I hope that's kind of a sign of maturity.
I: Yeah. That comes through.
Any behind-the-scenes stories from the movie that you might want to talk about?
VN: You know, I get that question once in a while and I’m always embarrassed because I can never think of like some clever anecdote about what happens as it’s not like there was an incident. Every day has sort of a series of disasters, misfortunate and good fortune, but no single event that is especially exciting. It's more like the whole idea that was just so outrageous. The fact that it got made that is in itself a kind of extraordinary event.
I: Why is that? Because you felt like people weren't really willing to understand your vision or it just felt like too much of a risk?
VN: Yeah. This film should never have been made. I mean, for an independent film, it's a higher-end budget and has this crazy stuff in it. It’s a transgressive, subversive movie with really has no right being on 3,000 screens. Based on our box office, it probably shouldn’t have happened but that is why I feel so lucky. It’s outrageous that I actually got to make the movie, and that on top of that it got mainstream exposure through a major studio. This just doesn't happen very much anymore, and sadly I think it will happen less and less in the future, so I feel, you know, blessed to have been able to have that opportunity.
If you were sitting where I am right now and you're seeing how the film industry is, it is clearly changing and in many ways being ghettoized, the middle is disappearing. They either have these gargantuan tent-pole films which are, four-quadrant movies made to reach every man, woman and child on the planet.
I: Yeah, the lowest common denominator.
VN: I don't actually even mean to put these films down because I think when it's done well, like if you look at a Pixar film, it's kind of high art.
I: True. True.
VN: But on the other hand, that does sort of limit what is available out there. And then you have independent films, which I think are still very much alive, but in terms of their scope, scale and distribution rapidly shrinking. So sadly, it's in the kind of middle that Splice belongs, but that is just vanishing. I just feel lucky, because Splice is probably one of the last movies of that kind that you're going to see for a while.
The days of like finding a Crying Game or even a Slumdog Millionaire are kind of over. We’re kind of entering into a flashback moment – like during the Great Depression when people just wanted to see Ginger Rodgers and Fred Astaire dancing around and everyone being rich and happy, you know, while they were miserable and poor and destitute. That's what we're faced with for the next little while but it will pass.
I: Yeah, it's kind of true. Sadly it's true. There was an interesting article in The New York Times section a couple of weeks ago about how advertisers are co-opting all of this kind of music from the 50s and 60s that are like show tunes, feel-good music. The point was just kind of to your point, that, it's been miserable the last 24 months, 30 months or whatever, and people like these kind of comforting sounds, you know like comfort food sounds.
VN: Right, so true.
I: We need more guys like you willing to take some risks, to keep things interesting.
VN: Thank you. Yeah, unfortunately, it's just that I’m right in the epicenter of it, right in Hollywood.
I can see which way the wind is blowing.
I: Yeah. Well, blow the other way if you can.
I: Is there anything creatively that you bring to bear on your advertising campaigns from a film like Splice.
VN: Well, what excites me about doing spots is that I have total control, more so than I do even when I'm making a feature film. I think that's where I excel as a director because I come from a very technical background and being a storyboard artist for animation, I am good at pre-visualizing. What I like about the commercial world is being able to create something from the ground up and execute it with absolute precision, which frankly in the independent film world is not always the case because you have very limited time and money. I think also commercials afford me an opportunity to really push my abilities to their very limits. I think what I'd be offering somebody who I am doing the work for is a very distinct style which you can see in all my films and a perspective that is very much in the the cutting, bleeding edge kind of contemporary technological view of our world and I use bleeding edge technology to then put it on screen.
That’s where I come from and anyone who sees one of my films will, I think, very quickly identify the kind of work I could do. It’s not that it’s my desire to do commercials in order to do just anything. I have very specific tastes and I think anyone who would want to work with me would have very specific designs that they're looking for.
For more information on Vincenzo or Brown please visit Brown25.com.