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A Brotherhood of Thieves

David Cronenberg Avoids Sentimentality In His New Movie About Family, Justice, And The Russian Mob In Modern-Day London

Cronenberg on the set of Eastern Promises

By Marc Masters | Posted 9/19/2007

"I don't think there's anything sentimental about it," David Cronenberg insists about his new movie. "I hate sentimentality. I think it was Oscar Wilde who said sentiment is the death of true emotion."

Cronenberg's aversion served him well while making Eastern Promises, perhaps the closest the Canadian director has come to a bona fide tearjerker. The movie follows Anna (Naomi Watts), a midwife living with her mother and uncle in London. After watching a young, anonymous patient die while giving birth, Anna begins an emotional quest to locate the girl's relatives. Her journey leads into the stark underworld of the Russian mob, where issues of family and loyalty weigh just as heavily as they do for Anna.

"There is real emotion in it, and it has to do with mothers and babies and fathers and sons," Cronenberg explains during a press tour in Washington. "So of course there were potential pitfalls. Frankly--and I think [screenwriter] Steve Knight would happily admit this--in the first draft there were some things that were sentimental. It comes from an honest place, because Steve falls in love with his characters, and he doesn't want to hurt them, so he goes too far the other way. My job as the bullshit detector is to say, `No, this is sweet, but it's too sweet.' At least that's my mythology of myself. You can show me if you think I'm wrong."

He's not. In Eastern Promises, Cronenberg deftly avoids melodrama by creating a dark, nervous atmosphere, with every character's fate continually uncertain. Tensions between family ties and mob codes inject even the most emotional scenes with palpable danger. "Vory V Zakone literally means `Thieves-in-Law'--it's a brotherhood of thieves," Cronenberg says, referring to the name of the mob in the film. "That brotherhood supplants your real family. You have no mother, you have no father--you shouldn't even have a job, you should just be a thief. Your job is the brotherhood. So it becomes a sort of über-family that supersedes all other family ties."

Such pressures inevitably lead to violence, and Cronenberg doesn't shy away from the graphic blood-spilling for which he is known. Yet the effect this time is one of intensity rather than volume. "There are really only three scenes of violence," the director notes. "Think of The Departed--how many wall-splatterings did it have? The body count was much higher. Each project demands its own unique things, and I think of it like a little world with its own ecosystem. I'll do whatever the movie demands, and I will go to the furthest extreme if it works. But I won't impose anything on it. You can't make rules, and you can't get trapped in your own mythology."

Cronenberg's mythology widened with his last movie, A History of Violence, which also dealt with the crossed tensions of family and the underworld, and also starred Viggo Mortensen. As a Russian gangster in Eastern Promises, Mortensen looks, talks, and acts radically different, yet his character shares similar motivations and conflicts with his previous role.

"We definitely discussed whether this role was too much like the last character," Cronenberg says. "I don't like to repeat myself--it takes a long time to make a movie, and if you bore yourself, then you're dead. But we decided that this was such a different character, such a different culture. The challenge was going to be so different."

One way Cronenberg avoided repetition was by using voice-over, a technique he normally eschews. Throughout the movie, the dead girl reads from a diary she left behind. "I really don't like voice-over, and I've avoided it," Cronenberg says. "Normally, I think it's a cop-out. I thought it was a cop-out in Apocalypse Now, but I thought it worked in Badlands. And in this case, instead of it being a book outside the movie that you're having somebody read from, the diary is actually in the movie, physically. You see it, and you briefly see the girl who wrote it, so I think you want to hear her voice. So I didn't fight it, to my surprise. But then it's not really voice-over. It's like, voice-in-over, somehow. Or voice-in-under."

The voice-over idea was Knight's, and Eastern Promises is the third consecutive movie in which Cronenberg has worked from a script he didn't write himself. "It's exciting to mix your sensibility with somebody else's, and do something that you would never do yourself, but that you can become part of," says the director, who penned nearly all of his own early movies. "You mix your blood with it, and it becomes something else. It's like having a kid--you don't do it yourself. You have to have somebody else, and then you create something that's not like either one of you.

"[As a director], the experience is pretty much the same. Because once the script is written, even if it's your own, when you're on the set you're cursing that damn screenwriter. And ultimately, everything filters through your sensibility. You're making two or three thousand decisions a day, and they're unique to you. It's going to be part of you whether you write it or not. It won't help you if you wrote it but it's bad, let's put it that way. You're better off doing it with someone else's script that's good."

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