Ask people their impressions of David Cronenberg, and most will still conjure up lingering, disturbing imagery from body-horror classics like The Fly, Dead Ringers or, perhaps most notoriously, Videodrome, wherein James Wood's abdomen sprouts a vaginal VCR slot. Cronenberg's fascination with both the fragility and vigor of the human body hasn't diminished with time, but he's now funnelling his transgressive obsessions into masterfully orchestrated crime thrillers, resulting in the most mature work of his career and propelling the silver-maned Canadian director from cultdom into the mainstream. Following its predecessor A History of Violence, with which it shares many connections, Cronenberg's latest, Eastern Promises, also stars Viggo Mortensen as a man who suppresses the ultra-violence within, only to summon it when he needs it most.
As chauffeur to a gangland boss's unhinged son (Vincent Cassel), Mortensen's Nikolai is a lowly cog in a brutal Russian crime machine operating in London, led by the seemingly benevolent restaurant owner Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl). This dark, concealed world of sex-slave rings and abject cruelty exported from post-Soviet Russia to a London you don't see on postcards intrigued Cronenberg, and he latched onto Steven Knight's inspired script as soon as it crossed his desk, working with the screenwriter to put his own, distinctive stamp on the final film.
At the Toronto Film Festival, where Eastern Promises won the People's Choice Award, the native son (he was born in the city and graduated from the University of Toronto with a degree in Literature) settles down with Premiere to reveal his reasons behind making the film, casting Viggo Mortensen, and how he crafted the most phenomenal and brutal fight scene you'll see this year.
What were your thoughts behind who you cast as your Russian gangsters?
When I was reading this script, there were three faces I thought of right away — and it doesn't always happen that way: I thought of Viggo, I did think about Vincent Cassel, and I did think of Armin Mueller-Stahl. I didn't think of Naomi Watts right away because the character in the first draft I read was somewhat different. And that was before I'd even anticipated what the problems might be getting real Russians to play Russians, because it was a consideration. And there are some very good Russian actors around but they don't speak English very well, and to find the right actor who's Russian who's English is also good enough to act in English — that was tricky.
You ended up with quite a mixed bag of nationalities playing Russians.
Well, as soon as I started to think about European actors, it immediately made me come back to my initial feelings about Armin and Vincent. I had suppressed them a bit only because the idea of having an American, a German, and a Frenchman all playing Russians, and having to bring them to Russian accents that sounded alike, that was a little daunting, and it was something to worry about. But if you get actors who are really good… I mean I've said it many times, but I'm relatively lazy, so if I can get brilliant actors, that takes a lot of pressure off you.
Eastern Promises feels like a companion piece to A History of Violence. Did you feel that making it?
I can certainly see, after the fact, connections, and also, when I first approached Viggo… you know, we're very close, but he's difficult to pin down; you can't get him easily. And we did discuss whether the role was too similar. But it didn't take long for us to realise that it was very different from an actor's perspective, playing a Russian with a Russian accent and having to change the body language and everything else to be convincing. It's a very different story, too, in that there are no American characters in it, there are no guns in it. So in terms of actual filmmaking, it was very different from History.
Why did Eastern Promises appeal to you as a director?
I've often said you make the movie to find out why you wanted to make the movie. It's all intuitive, I don't have a list of things. People sometimes think I have a list of things — you know, body transformation, identity — but I don't think that way at all. I really am, when I read the script, just watching the movie in my head, and I'm getting excited about it, or I'm already bored. You make the movie to know what drew you to the material. It's not just intellectual because it can be emotional or something else. And I can say now — but I'm only guessing really — that London, for example, prides itself on being a multi-cultural city, and that's very different from the melting pot idea of America where you come and you give up the values of where you came from to become an American. But London has all these different cultures, and I loved the different languages, the different textures, the different way of living, and also the different look at London.
It's a darker side of London you're showing, a side very few tourists would ever get to — or even want to — see…
Once again, when you're a director, finding the location to shoot or building the set is hugely important because, for me, making a movie is not cerebral, it's very sculptural and very physical. So the idea of shooting in London, an unknown London, was very appealing. The crew on Eastern Promises was very excited about where we were shooting because they said, “Nobody ever shoots here. They want to shoot in Notting Hill and Mayfair and make cute comedies and see Big Ben, and where we're shooting is to us the real London. That's where we live, that's where the immigrants live.” It's gritty; it's Hackney and north Harlesden.
The fight scene in the bathhouse between Viggo and his attempted assassins is pretty extraordinary. How did you pull it off?
It only took two days to shoot, three days if you include the scene that precedes it, which is a long, single Steadicam shot. It is a long process, though I don't use storyboards. This is a kind of scene that perhaps some directors would do storyboards for, but I never use them because I like the collaboration of my actors. If you're storyboarding, you're fixing everything before you even have your actors, and you are therefore cutting out their collaboration. On the other hand, it takes a lot of preparation to do a scene like that. The first thing is for me the arena, the playground: Where is this all happening? Carole Spier, my production designer, and I found a great bathhouse in London that looked like what you saw. But two days after we left they started to renovate it, and when we went back they had destroyed everything we loved about it. They were putting in very bland tiles, and they'd taken down all the old ceramics and lit it and cleaned everything. So we looked at each other and said, “Okay, we have to build this.” And when you build it, of course, it gives you a chance to shape it differently. So that was basically, “What's my playground? What's the arena?” I loved the fact that it had small rooms linked by hallways and that opened up into bigger rooms; quite strange.
Some of the fight choreography is based on real Russian special forces techniques, apparently…
Yes, it's all part of their character. Where did they learn to fight, these three guys? Were they in the army, did they learn it on the streets, were they in some special forces, were they police? And that's part of their character is how they fight. So this was all a discussion.
Was it difficult convincing Viggo Mortensen to play the sauna knife-fight scene naked?
At a certain point, when we were starting, I said, “I want the action to start in this room and then open out and go over this barrier, and then there should be some other people in the steam bath who get in the way of the fight...” At that point, Viggo said, “It's obvious I'm going to have to play this naked.” And I said, “Yeah, great.” And that was really that discussion. He knew that, in terms of the level of reality in the movie that we were establishing, that if he had to wear this towel it would be silly, and if I were restricted in terms of what coverage I could do of the scene, it would be a big restriction in terms of what we could do and how I could edit it. So that didn't take very long.
You've said you shot the violence in Eastern Promises to be like the anti-Bourne: no quick cutting, you see, hear, and feel every blow…
For me, this is realism. My understanding of violence is that it's all body, it's all physical. When we talk about violence, we're not talking really about a building blowing up, we're talking about bodies being destroyed. And I take that very seriously because, you know, I'm an atheist, and I think your body is you. That's the first fact of human existence, and, really, the only fact. So if you kill somebody, to me that's an absolute act of destruction. There's no heaven to go to afterwards.
Do you think there is hypocrisy in the American ratings system when Ang Lee's Lust, Caution gets an NC-17 for sexual content whereas even extreme violence lands you an R?
Well, Lust, Caution has hardcore sex in it, and that's going to get you an NC-17. I don't think that's the issue in this case. It's not that cut and dry. They didn't see anything censorable in our movie. We knew we'd get an R.
What's your reaction when people tell you your violence is too graphic?
Well, as I said, I take this seriously. I think if you do it fast, and it's all aesthetic, and suddenly they're all lying there, you're letting your audience off the hook. They're not really having to experience this destruction of the human body that I'm talking about, and so it lets you off the hook in terms of violence; it turns it into an aesthetic event rather than into what, I think, is a purely physical event. I'm not saying that that's bad in terms of moviemaking. If you're making a big entertainment movie only, and you don't want your audience to get too nervous or too involved… I mean, those car chases in Bourne are actually physically impossible. Everybody knows that that's not for real, so I'd say that there's a larger fantasy quotient in a Bourne movie than in this movie. That's the difference.
Viggo seems like a pretty sensitive and poetic guy, and yet you've cast him twice as very violent men.
He's actually a hideous monster. Let me just put it this way: Don't cross him, okay?