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Vincenzo Natali

Splice director Vincenzo Natali talks about earmouse and the uncanny valley

Vincenzo Natali (right) directs Delphine Chanéac.

By Bret McCabe | Posted 6/2/2010

Back in 1997, the modestly budgeted Canadian movie Cube plunged moviegoers into a claustrophobic, mathematics-obsessed, psychologically tense world where a group of people are trapaped inside a single room. It was Huis Clos through a futurist prism, and it announced an intelligent young horror/sci-fi genre auteur in Vincenzo Natali.

Now, Natali returns with another genre hybrid, in more ways than one. Splice came out of this past Sundance Film Festival with a healthy amount of buzz, getting picked up by WarnerBros. and hitting theaters with a full publicity tour behind hit. The story of genetic researcher couple (Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley) who create a hybrid life form using some human DNA which they name Dren, Splice starts out like a creature-feature before plunging headlong into a frequently rough relationship dissection. As expected in a creature flick, all hell does break loose—only not in conventional ways. Model handsome with close cut dark hair and clad in jeans, shirt, and casual sport coat, Natali stopped by Washington D.C.'s Mandarin Oriental Hotel on the morning of May 13 to talk about Splice, science labs, monster movies, and the imaginative possibilities of sci-fiction in general.

City Paper: I understand from reading some other interviews with you that the original idea for Splice started with earmouse, just using genetically modified organisms for biomedical research. But that was more than a decade ago.

Vincenzo Natali: Almost 15 years ago.

CP: Could you talk a little bit about that, from idea to the storyline? Were you working out the story you wanted to explore with it? Were you waiting for genetic engineering to enter the popular consciousness more? Was it a matter of funding?

VN: It really began with my writing partner, Antoinette [Terry Bryant] and I. I had seen this photo [of earmouse], and I said, 'Let's write a short film.' So it actually began as a short, and there's a lot of the short that ended up in the movie, and I think the essence of it is the same. That was very simply, 'Let's make a creature film but let's splice it with a relationship story.' That was always the raison d'être in all of its incarnations. It took a long time to write. The hard part, I think, with this film was honing it down because it's such a loaded topic—and it could go off in so many different directions—but to thematically lock it into one thing took awhile. In the end, I jokingly call it my 'family picture' because it ends up being about parenting.

CP: Well, in watching it, and I don't mean this offensively, but it's like a creature melodrama, and reminded me in many ways of Joon-ho Bong's The Host, in which there's a creature and all the usual tropes and trappings of the monster movie, but it's more about the people around the monster. Was that sort of the intention—to explore these more human relationships given this hybrid creature?

VN: That's right—the creature becomes a catalyst for bringing out the darker side of Clive and Elsa, and the movie really focuses on their relationship to the creature. I mean, normally in this kind of story, about halfway through the creature escapes and it wreaks havoc in the world and it becomes an action film at that point. And from the very beginning, I always felt the creature should just be contained—it should never escape, and it should be about how the monster emerges from within, from within the scientists. And even though they are kind of fun, sweet people in the beginning, they begin to metamorphosize into something else. And I think that's where the movie goes and hopefully where it feels fresh and kind of mutates the genre into something a little different.

CP: What was it about earmouse that originally intrigued you? Was it just the visual look of that human-looking ear on the back of this poor mouse?

VN: I mean, it was just such a shock—I think everyone reacted to it in a very visceral way. It was so shocking and surrealistic. And I've always been fascinated by ideas or pictures or whatever that feel like they're surrealist in origins, but are actually real. To me, Cube is a surrealist movie, it has surrealist aspects to it, but it's completely mathematically based. And it's that kind of dichotomy that really excites me and I think, in a way, Splice is the same. Certainly when I saw the Vacanti mouse, I felt like I was looking at a Salvador Dali painting. And more than that, I think I instantly empathized with the mouse, I felt sorry for it, because it was so vulnerable. It was a nude mouse, it didn't have any hair on it, it just looked like it was in pain. So the combination of all of those things really affected me.

CP: Did that surreality based on reality guide the visual look of Splice and its creatures? I mean, watching the movie, I'm guessing whatever effects were used were used only for the creatures, because the rest of this world is very, very mundane—this accessibly familiar place.

VN: Totally. That's exactly what it is—and a function of budget. [laughs] I had to put all my money into the creature. And that partly came out of the research I had done for the film. It came from spending time with real geneticists in real labs and beginning to realize how mundane this work is, in a sense. You know, when you see a Hollywood version of a genetic lab, it's usually very sexy, very high-tech, very sleek.

CP: And this lab looks like the labs I've seen at Hopkins—just an ordinary space where they happen to do cutting-edge research. It might as well be a motorcycle garage.

VN: It could totally be a motorcycle garage, although it's a little bit cleaner than that, not a lot. And even the equipment is not that much more dense than what you would find in your kitchen. Basically, genetic splicing is kind of like cooking.

And it was a little bit scary for a filmmaker to go down that road because your inclination—especially if you're in the science-fiction genre—is to do something that's spectacular. And it was a little frightening, for me anyway, to shoot in spaces that weren't visually that arresting. But my crutch, of course, was that I knew there was going to be this extraordinary creature in the middle of it, and maybe there would be an interesting contrast between those two things.

So that was the approach, and in the terms of the design of Dren, the prime directive was just make her real. Just make her as real as possible and I think the temptation, once again, in movies is to do something very baroque, something kind of flamboyant and outrageous. And I felt, you know what, what's going to be more shocking than that is if we make small changes to the human form. If we do little things it might actually be more disturbing than if you completely altered the human form because then you wouldn't relate to it.

There's this term called the uncanny valley which is used in a variety of ways, but it was coined by a Japanese roboticist to explain the discomfort people feel when they see an artificial person who is very similar to a human being but not quite. Whereas they'll be comfortable with something that looks 70 percent human, but they won't be comfortable with something that's 97 percent human. And so we were going for the 97 percent in a sense.

CP: Did that inform Dren's entire evolution? Because that first creature is not exactly cute or something you can relate to, and through subtle changes it becomes more and more anthropomorphic.

VN: [laughing] Yes.

CP: Did you intentionally make Fred and Ginger to be these amorphous things that you weren't going to project anything onto as hybrid creatures?

VN: I should just nod my head and say yes but, in fact, the way we designed Fred and Ginger was, basically—this is an independent film with a very limited budget—we put all of our money into Dren. Dren has to be a certain thing and she has to be perfect. And whatever is left over, is Ginger and Fred. So Ginger and Fred ended up being a couple of blobs, because blobs are easy and cheap. But, in the end—and this is funny, because I find this happens a great deal when you don't have a lot of money—you make a decision that is purely based on practical means and it actually ends up being the best artistic choice. And I think with Ginger and Fred, who are the first creatures that Clive and Elsa make, it makes sense that they're blobs because they're actually like little chemical factories. That's what they've been designed to do, produce proteins for medicinal use. And so they're big gall bladders of pancreases.

CP: I thought large intestines.

VN: [laughs] But you've made a great observation in that also you don't necessarily relate to them.

CP: Well, you hear what Clive and Elsa put into them, but you don't visually recognize bird or amphibian or something like that, so you're not relating to them in any predisposed way and it sort of makes the science that makes them feel a bit alchemical, too. You just see some very large multi-cellular organism that's been manufactured. So when they do do things, it's surprising because you're not expecting them to behave in any certain way.

VN: That's very true. And, once again, just spending a little bit of time in these labs and seeing the work that's done and understanding what can be done is so mind blowing. I mean, life is strange—you don't need to make anything up. I mean, for example, the first scene with Ginger and Fred, where they meet and they grow these sort of glassy appendages. That's just stolen from mother nature.

CP: Really?

VN: Yeah. That's basically how slugs have sex, which is spectacular. Have you seen the YouTube video?

CP: Not at all.

VN: It's incredible. Slugs are hermaphrodites, and their sex organs come out of their heads and they're like these like these clear, translucent flowers, and they intertwine.

CP: Like RNA molecules coming together?

VN: Yeah. It's really wild and really quite beautiful. And afterward they just kind of plop on the ground and they're slugs again.

CP: I also appreciated the, I think it's Clive looking at the fridge or cabinets of previous generations of Fred and Ginger, and their names are Bonnie and Clyde and Sid and Nancy—and it wasn't until later in the movie that it hit me that these are some rather star-crossed couples.

VN: Yes, exactly. Usually tragic, most of those couples didn't end too well. And that detail of the champagne bottles in the fridge, that's taken from real labs. That's what they would do. They would have champagne bottles with something written on it to celebrate each experiment. I had a wonderful geneticist named George Charames, who was kind of the main guy on set consulting us—he even wrote some of the dialogue. The movie is in no way a documentary—there is technology and things going on in the film that don't exist yet—but by and large I tried to keep it within the zone of what's real.

CP: I appreciate that, because in science fiction, I like when there's just as much attention paid to the science as the fiction. You know, as a moviegoer I will believe something if you sell it to me. It might not be factually possible, but there's enough in there to make me want to believe it's entirely within the realm of the probable.

VN: I think you feel it. I think it's kind of a gut thing—I'll say that's one of the reasons why 2001: A Space Odyssey holds up so well. As much as they could, they were true to the physics of space travel. And you feel it—and I have nothing against fantasy, it's just in this context it just didn't seem necessary. There was no pint in exaggerating in this case.

CP: And it reinforced the everyday aspect of their lives really well.

VN: Yeah—they live in a kind of crappy apartment. They're hipsters, they have cool toys and stuff. But they don't have that much money. They drive a Gremlin.

CP: Which was another touch, because I've never known of a Ph.D. doing basic science research who drove a Mercedes or something.

VN: Except in a Joel Schumacher film. It's just not generally the way it works. I guess there's a few rich geneticists, but most of them—especially if they're in frontier R&D work, which is what Clive and Elsa are doing—they're not making much money.

CP: And any money they're making is going right into their research.

VN: And that's how I related to them, actually, they're like independent filmmakers.

CP: So Dren—how was it working with the actresses who played her during these transformations because it's asking a great deal of them because it's almost entirely physical.

VN: It's absolutely physical. It was a great process because I had a great actor named Delphine Chanéac, who is French. She shaved her head—which not a lot of actresses will do. She went through tremendous physical training and physical punishment shooting the film—because she's not a stunt person or gymnast or anything, she's just an actor—without complaint. She was just great and, on top of that, gave a great performance. And if Dren works for you, it's because of Delphine. She's this quality that's both alluring and child-like and at the same time can be dangerous and androgynous. There's a wonderful alchemy of different things going on in her that I knew, the instant I saw her, was Dren.

In fact, the famous story about this is my producer, Steve Hoban, and I were walking down this Paris street heading to the first audition of Dren and we saw this girl and Steve said, 'Oh, there's a Dren.' And that was Delphine and she was the first person to audition. So we had Delphine really early in the process and to some degree we reversed engineered the other stages from her. She was always the endpoint, and she worked with Abigail Chu who plays child Dren, who is an amazing, incredible kid. She's actually a martial arts champion. She could easily kick my ass without even blinking. And, actually, we used Delphine's eyes for child Dren and for the toddler Dren—we kind of did what we called "eye ADR," you know, ADR refers to re-voicing after the film's been shot. We re-eyed Dren after the film had been shot. So Delphine is kind of infused throughout Dren's entire evolution.

CP: You said you didn't want to do anything traditionally sci-fi, nothing spectacular, and what I appreciate about that approach is that how you've chosen to realize this subject actually does sort of get back to what a more traditional sci-fi movie about this might have been about. I mean, if this was a more conventional movie it would probably have to have a message, it would probably have to talk about the morality of creating a part human being and hit the usual marks. Splice, I think, actually speaks more resonantly to the issue: What makes Dren Dren?—Is it genetics or culture? Nature or nurture?—without becoming preachy.

VN: I think the tendency in these kinds of stories is for somebody to stand up and deliver a speech about the morality of what's being done. And there's an element of that in this, but it kind of comes more out of the action, and I think we're always liberated from that by the fact that Clive and Elsa are radical. They have no moral qualms. To a limited extent, they're not debating whether they should do this or not. They're debating about doing it because Clive is afraid of going to jail, but from the moral standpoint the real argument is for it because they do this with the intent of creating medicines that would be tremendously helpful to humanity.

Someone else pointed that out to me and I sort of forgot about it, but in the early stages it was something that we were really dealing with—how do we contextualize this or do we contextualize this? And I think the answer is that you don't need to too much because the audience brings their own assumptions. I think the movie walks a gray moral line where it doesn't seem obvious, at the end of the film, what's the moral of the story. I think you can kind of derive a number of different interpretations from it, hopefully. And I think that's the more interesting way to go. And I think that's why we were lucky to do the film independently because had it gone through the usual system I suspect that we would have been pushed in that direction. I could be wrong, but I suspect that there would have been the need for somebody to take a moral stand. I think there would have been a desire to be more clear cut right and wrong. In fact, I don't think Clive and Elsa would have been allowed to transgress as far they do because the fear would be that the audience would lose their emotional connection to the characters

CP: I think we're able to go through those transgression because we've been allowed to get to know who these people are and with Dren and their relationships to her. I mean, it's not always pleasant, but I'm not sure it'd work without that.

VN: Oh, good.

CP: Is science-fiction something you've always been into?

VN: Yes.

CP: I ask primarily because I was not a science-fiction fan at all growing up, it just never connected with me for whatever reason, but Cube was something that got me to realize that a sci-fi of ideas exists, and shortly after that I saw Pi, and these were movies that got me to thinking about sci-fi as genre and other things I was probably into but not thinking about as sci-fi. Sure, I saw Star Wars but even being young I kinda knew that was just an old fashioned adventure movie, but David Cronenberg is certainly sci-fi, just not conventional. So while I wasn't reading Frank Herbert books or whatever else, that also meant I wasn't reading, like, Philip K. Dick and Samuel Delany. Was sci-fi as this almost literary springboard from which to consider who we are something you alighted to pretty early on?

VN: Yes, to me, that's what real science fiction should be. I guess there's two kinds of science fiction—there's outer space and then there's inner space, and I definitely belong to the latter category. I like the internal exploration. I like it when science fiction is used as a mirror to the present. But also, I like monsters.

CP: Is that where Clive's and Elsa's name comes from? As in, Elsa Lanchester?

VN: Yes. Elsa Lanchester and Colin Clive, named after the actors in the James Whale movies. So I have great affection for them and movie sci-fi and horror and so on. But there's no reason within those genres you can't do something that's not just eye candy. In my mind, I want everything—I want to be shocked and startled by the visuals, but then I want to leave the film with something, some intellectual meat to chew on at the end of whole process. I'm greedy.

CP: One last thing since we're short on-time—could you tell me a little bit about the opening credits sequence since I thought it was a wonderful calibration for what's about to come.

VN: Oh, thank you. I knew I wanted to start with a birth—the ideas was always start with a birth and end with a pregnancy, and might as well start at the beginning. And the title sequence, I have to say, came after I finished the film and I thought, I hadn't been planning on it, but I thought the movie started too abruptly. And I realized we needed to have an overture, and in a non-verbal way express what Clive and Elsa are doing. So there's long, sort of like an osteoscope POV of something—you can tell it has different kinds of skins and so on and the titles are interwoven into the tissue. We had an amazing French company called ChezEddy that executed that over a 6 to 8 month period. And I just think it helps set the mood, and Cyrille Aufort's score is so beautiful.

And I have to confess that I miss title sequences. There's a tendency now to put them at the end of a movie. And I think that defeats the purpose. The whole point of a title sequence is to prepare you, to give you a prelude to what's about to come. And I suspect that this shift is because of the fear that it will lose an audience, their attention span's are too short and they'll lose interest. But if a title sequence is well done, the effect is the opposite—I mean, who wants to see the James Bond titles at the end of the movie? It's what gets you excited.

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