Interview: Cube and Splice Director/Writer - Vincenzo Natali!
by Alex Billington
June 6, 2010
Last week I finally got to talk with Vincenzo Natali, the fantastic writer/director of Splice, the new sci-fi monster movie out in theaters nationwide this weekend. I was a fan of Natali before Splice (he also directed Cube, Cypher and Nothing), but after catching the film at Sundance and watching a Q&A at the premiere, he became one of those directors that I knew I needed to talk to, especially because his film brings up so many interesting questions. I talked with Vincenzo on the phone about things like: crafting the film's story, how involved Guillermo del Toro was, and his thoughts on independent filmmaking. Read on for my interview!
Although I know Splice is getting a very polarized response (refer to our Sound Off for the movie), I loved it and appreciate it more than anything, simply because it's an original and unique concept that we really don't see often nowadays. I didn't expect it to have this wide of a release this quickly, but it's now out everywhere and not everyone is enjoying it as much as I did. That said, I hope those that have seen it can still appreciate everything that went into to crafting and creating this film. With that said, let's dive right into the interview.
Glad I could finally talk with you. I saw the film at Sundance. I loved it. I'm a big fan of your other films as well. I just really wanted to talk with you, so I'm glad we could connect up.
Vincenzo Natali: Oh wow, thank you. Gosh, so you saw it at Sundance?
Natali: That's amazing.
I saw it at the premiere at midnight in the Egyptian, which was quite an experience, and unforgettable, for me at least.
Natali: Oh my goodness. Oh, so you were there at the moment of birth. [laughs]
Natali: That's great.
I wanted to start at the top with your own history. Did you go to film school?
Natali: I did. I went to a polytechnical institution in Toronto called Ryerson. I didn't actually complete the program there, but I went for a year and a half. And then later on, I went to a wonderful institution down there, the Canadian Film Centre, which is a film school that Norman Jewison started in Canada, in Toronto. That's where I made Cube, my first film.
And have you always wanted to be a director from the beginning? Were you interested in some other industry or some other filmmaking side and ended up in directing, or has it always been your passion from the start?
Natali: Yeah, I'm afraid I haven't really evolved all that much. I mean, there was a time when I was very young that I wanted to be a comic book artist. Then eventually that was sort of eclipsed by my movies. No, from a very young age, I've always known that this is what I would like to do, and I've always wanted to make monster movies.
Well I think you're definitely defining a place for yourself in this industry in terms of monster movies and the horror genre, at least.
Natali: Well, thank you.
With Splice, I wanted to ask how it came together, specifically starting with where the idea first came from.
Natali: Weirdly enough, it was inspired by a mouse, but it was a very special mouse, because it appeared to have a human ear growing out of its back. It was this thing known as the Vacanti mouse. It was an MIT experiment. While it wasn't strictly a genetic experiment, it really looked like one. It's just an incredibly shocking image, and I knew instantly that there was a movie in that mouse.
In putting the script together, I assume you did some research in genetics? How did it go from that mouse to a creature that has the human gene spliced in and becomes what it becomes, and the story with the two geneticists? How did it develop in the scripting stage?
Natali: You know, it's funny, with my writing partner, Antoinette [Terry Bryant], we wrote a short film, which I never actually made. But it had all of the components that are in the feature. It had Clive and Elsa. It had the hybrid and it had a kind of love theme between Clive and the creature. And to me, that really constitutes the essence of this film, because what I was fascinated by was the notion of a creature film spliced with a relationship story. I really wanted this to be an emotional film, as much as it is a horror film. And it's the dynamic, it's that bizarre family dynamic that mutates into a love triangle that I just thought was so potent and fascinating. That's really what constitutes, I think, the essence of Splice.
It's obviously known that Guillermo del Toro was involved - I'm curious how much he was involved and how exactly he was integral in helping with the production?
Natali: Guillermo was really Dren's godfather. He was there to help in whatever way he could. In the best possible way, he gave me maximum freedom and really only became involved when we needed him. But he was always there for us when we needed him. I think that, more than anything, just lending his name to this project legitimized it, and did a tremendous amount to kick start it, because by the time I had met Guillermo, I had already been trying to get Splice made for easily five years. It was just a very challenging film. Because of Dren, it was always going to be costly for an independent film, but it also had the sexual side, which made it quite controversial and potentially dangerous. And I think that Guillermo's seal of approval kind of legitimized it and made it, in the eyes of investors, something that could be commercial.
Talking a little bit about Dren and Guillermo's involvement, how did you know where to use CGI and when to use practical effects? Obviously when you're using an actress to play her, you can use makeup and so on. But before that, there seemed to be a lot of moments where I couldn't tell what was CG and what was practical. I imagine there was a good amount of both, right?
Natali: Yeah. As much as I could, I tried to use real things. I tried to use physical things, because in my mind, the best digital effects begin at something physical.
Yeah, of course.
Natali: I also felt very strongly that Dren should be played by a real actor, because Dren is a character in the story. She's as much as player on screen as Sarah [Polley] and Adrien [Brody], and there's a tremendous amount of subtlety that's required in defining that relationship between creature and creators. And so I never thought she could -- even if I had the money, which I didn't -- I never thought I could or should do Dren as a fully digital character.
How did you find Delphine Chanéac to play her? She's obviously incredible and that's seems to have been almost one of the biggest finds - to find someone who, as you were saying, had the abilities and the subtleties to pull off that kind of performance.
Natali: You know, I think it was just meant to be, because Delphine was literally the very first person to walk into the room. We were auditioning and I knew right away it was her. I just thought it was like she stepped out of my head and into the room. She was just that close to what I had imagined Dren to be. As it turned out, she's just such a tremendous actor. She really defines this character without the benefit of a single word spoken, except for the very, very end of the film. So she's really a wonderful, unique presence. I think that she has all that was required. She could be innocent on one hand and then quite frightening on the other. Then she has this strange alien, almost androgynous beauty. It really defined Dren.
Once we had attached her, we made a point of really reverse engineering Delphine into all the early stages of Dren. So it's Delphine's eyes that you see on every stage of Dren. It was Delphine who worked with Abigail [Chu], the little girl who plays child Dren. I even had Delphine perform the baby and toddler scenes as reference for the animators. So she is Dren.
I've heard there were some changes from the Sundance cut and the final cut that's coming out this weekend. I'm wondering if you can explain what they are?
Natali: They're really cosmetic, and in my opinion, they're all very good. They don't change the content of the film whatsoever. They just move some things out. Most of them are like little filmmaker things that, given more time and money, I was allowed to do and tinker with. But I think having seen the Sundance version, I think you'd be hard pressed to know exactly what they were, if you were to see the new version. But we also spent time in the mix and I think we did some really great work on the sound and sweetening the sound and some color grade things. But really, it's the same movie.
I only ask because it's always a concern when we hear that a film has been changed from a festival version that people loved, but it sounds like everything you've done has only improved the film even further, which is just fantastic.
Natali: Yeah, I can say that pretty definitively. A lot of people have come up to me who are very familiar with the old version and saw the new one and said, "Oh, it's better."
Natali: Yeah, it's great. I mean, Warner Brothers and Joel Silver have embraced everything that's weird and crazy and dangerous about this film. They liked that stuff and I was never once approached to change anything that I didn't want to change. It was great.
I'm wondering if you can talk a bit about what your thoughts are in terms of Dren and sexuality in the film? Those sort of elements of the film, beyond the genetic elements of it -- I think there's a very strong message, or at least a lot it says about sexuality.
Natali: I always felt that Dren, the roots of Dren, lay in this: that she is in some ways a kind of genetically engineered angel. I was fascinated by the possibility that these archetypal, mythic notions perhaps exist as a prelude to what we're really going to do, courtesy of new science. And so, the idea of falling in love or being sexually drawn to something that's not entirely human is really a concept that's existed for thousands of years, and that crosses all borders and cultures. It's very deeply woven into the fabric of our collective consciousness. And so I think that's why the film needed to go to that place. I think that's what makes Dren so provocative as a creation, because she, like all species, needs to procreate. And in that, I think most movies of this kind rarely go to that place. They certainly don't treat that idea with much seriousness when they do, I think, when it gets into the sexual part of the human monster relationship in a mature way.
I definitely think Splice did. I think that's one of the reasons why I loved it. I guess I'd even say that it was refreshing to see that, to see you go to those lengths with this film, and as you said, just do it when other films aren't.
Natali: Oh, thank you so much. That was always the intent and if somebody had said, "You can't have those scenes in the film," then I would not have made the movie. That in my mind is the raison d'être for Splice.
It seems like there's a lot of strong messages and ideas that this film presents. Has there been a backlash from religious organizations or anything like that?
Natali: [laughs] You know, I keep waiting for something like that, but no, I don't know. Maybe it's because the movie doesn't take a very clear stand on this stuff. I think maybe if you were a right wing, anti-stem cell research person, you might look at this film and approve. Equally, I know that the geneticist I worked with who consulted on the film really loved the story. So I think the movie is in some ways a kind of litmus test. I think that it really -- it's a very provocative film, and it brings out different things in different people, but it doesn't really give you a clear moral point of view.
I'm wondering if you could talk about the independent filmmaking world, and how you were able to achieve so much in all of your films with a minimal amount of money, and what it's like working in that sort of atmosphere.
Natali: Sure. Thanks for saying those very nice things. Yeah, I've been lucky. On all of my films I've had final cut, and that would never have happened in a studio environment. In a sense, it didn't really happen in an independent environment, but I think I'm the beneficiary of indifference. [laughs] Both of my movies were made in a way where the people financing them didn't really know or care to get involved, which is also partly why some of them have disappeared into the mists of time. But it really has been great. There's not a single thing in any one of my movies that I did not approve of. So you can thank or you can blame me for them; I'm entirely responsible. And I do believe that's what independent filmmaking gives you.
Where it's hard, of course, is if you're especially trying make those sort of films that have some pretty cutting edge visual effects work in it. It's scary, because there's no safety net. And visual effects movies inevitably go over budget. It's just the way it works. There's no escaping that, and yet I couldn't go over budget, because by definition, as an independent film, I had a finite amount of money to work with. So I got a lot of gray hairs making this movie. But I think I've been able to do these things because I've had a great team. I really think it boils down to the artists that I work with, in particular Bob Monroe on Splice, who was the visual effects supervisor. He's the reason that Dren works. He is the engineer behind this whole thing, and that's how it's possible. But it's very hard. I really don't frankly want to continue working as an independent filmmaker. I'd go back to it again, but I don't know if I could survive another one. [laughs] I might not be so lucky the next time out, you know.
Speaking of which, I know you have a couple of other projects coming up that we've been hearing about recently: Neuromancer and Swamp Thing and High Rise and Tunnels. Do you know what you're doing next? Do you have another film already lined up?
Natali: No. I mean, I'm working on everything at once, and I don't have anything financed yet. So actually, as usual, it's really not up to me. It will be whoever can write the check first… If anyone does actually write the check. So I wish I knew, but they're all really good projects. They're just incredible. Swamp Thing, incidentally, is not one of them, because it's just not available right now. It's stuck in a lot of legal issues. I don't think anyone really has that project at the moment.
Thank you to Vincenzo Natali and Warner Bros for putting together this interview. Splice is currently playing in theaters nationwide now - so go check it out if you haven't seen it yet!