Those who appreciate David CRONENBERGs slyly provocative way with film, will be blown away by Eastern Promises, a profoundly disturbing opus about the Russian mobs doings in London.
Viggo Mortensen plays Nikolai Luzhin, a dangerous man with deep dark dimensions. In an Oscar-worthy performance, Mortensen gradually reveals all (physically, too–in a fight seen in which hes clad only in numerous tattoos that mark him as a scar-carrying member of the Vory V Zakone), propelling the plot through the murder of a pregnant woman, a nurses urgent need to find her own cultural roots and the surviving babys rightful family, and other intricate twists surrounding Londons Russian community.
Why Im interested in hermetically sealed subcultures that have intense protocols and rules of engagement that have the potential for violence is, for me, an existential thing. Its a discussion about how we create realty. I mean reality is not an absolute in any way. And its obvious that what is reality for us is different for a snake or a dog, but it also differs from human to human. That cultural reality is important to the extent that people are willing to die for that reality, to end their bodily life for it, is for me the major thing. Yet, if they were in some other culture, they wouldnt be required to end their life. I find those beliefs and behaviors very compelling, says CRONENBERG.
MERIN: Have people from Londons Russian community seen the film?
CRONENBERG: Yes, but not from mob culture. But Russians who understand all of that have–but mostly people who worked on the movie, so thats not really fair. But I think theyll love it. I think Putin will love it, if he sees it. Not that I want to give away too much, but the story has elements that are positive in unusual ways.
And what weirdly happened half way during the shoot was the Litvinenko poisoning episode. We started making a movie about a relatively obscure subject, and by the end of the shoot, it was in the news every day. A block from where I was staying, where Viggo was staying, a forensic van was parked on the street. We passed it every day and, sure enough, they found traces of radiation there. Not that the films exactly about that subject, but suddenly the long reach of Russia into another culture was in the news, and what we were doing became more relevant.
For me, theres incredible sadness in the movie, as well. Even the music–that violin–is mournful and elegiac. Its not just about death, but about the way relationships can slide by each other, miss each other and mistake each other. Theres a lot of that in the movie, and its terribly sad.
MERIN: You seem to tap into and release the most profound human pain in your films–the angst we feel about the contradictions of our existence. Is that whats so disturbing about them?
CRONENBERG: Thats an interesting question that nobodys asked me before. Yes, thats the existentialist basis. And its true that I always seek a subject that will always allow me to express that in various forms–because I do think its there in my movies. Im sure thats true. And its funny–or not really funny, but it probably stems from the fact that Im not a very anguished person. But, you see, the more you like life, it becomes difficult to accept that it ends. If youre an anguished person and are in pain, theres relief to be had in death. Perhaps there isnt that relief if youre not that kind of person.
MERIN: Your characters–even the vicious ones– always want to do the right thing, or whatever they think the right thing is, based on their limitations .
MERIN: So if youre doing what you think to be the right thing, how do you become anguished?
CRONENBERG: Well, I dont think the two are necessarily related. Krill (Vincent Cassell) in Eastern Promises, for example, has so many things going on: hes in love with Nikolai, although he can never admit it, he wants his fathers love and hes not getting that, he wants Nikolais love and hes not really getting that, although Nikolai will flirt with him to manipulate him. So much of his behavior comes out of that. So, hes a very sad and desperate character.
MERIN: And very evil
CRONENBERG: Yes, but he doesnt see the evil because hes in that context, and within the context of his life, thats just business as usual, and he can justify it in many, many ways.
MERIN: Thats whats so disturbing. What do you want people to learn from the film?
CRONENBERG: Well, I dont make big demands. Its hard to articulate. I dont really have a learning goal. Its more a tone that Im delivering, a complex of feelings. Its more about realizations, for each person its a different thing. You want your movie to have an impact, but youre not sure what that impact should be. Youve conducted the film like a symphony with what you hope is intelligence and insight and depth, and on many levels–visual, oral, whatever–then the rest is up to the audience. Its like saying how do you want your audience to feel when they leave. And I say I just want them to feel. Period. I dont have any rules about how they should feel. If theyre indifferent, that would be bad.
Everyone working on this film, including Viggo, were dedicated to giving nuance and depth to everything. Nothing that happened was just a gesture. Everything has many layers of reality to it–the design, colors, lighting, sound, dialog and actors. Everything had integrity and sense of purpose.
With the actor, you cant really ask whats the meaning of your performance. An actor cannot act an abstract concept, and I cannot photograph an abstract concept. So we have to get into the flesh. The actor has to get into the character. He knows his character will provoke abstract thought, just like I know how I direct will do the same. But you cant work out of that. You have to work out of whats there.
Directing is really a strange act. Youve got a lot of people and technology around, a lot of budget considerations. Pragmatic stuff. Yet, you want never to have any hint of that in what youre creating. All that matters is whats in that little rectangle–because thats all youre left with in the editing room.
You divest yourself of everything else. Its monk-like, monastic, self effacing. You have to get rid of your ego–you need your ego, but you have to get rid of it. Its very Buddhist in a way. You open all your pores to everything thats going on in that rectangle. You have to have incredibly thick skin and incredibly porous skin at the same time. Its a difficult trick–like juggling many different kinds of shapes at the same time.
Its a philosophical endeavor: Im trying to understand what it is be a human who exists in this time and place and, then, what its like for me to be them.
Its no accident I often dream Im my leading actor or actress. I remember when I was first aware of it–working on The fly–I awoke, swung my legs over the edge of the bed, and was Jeff Goldblum. I literally thought I was him. I was spending so much time looking at him, listening to him. As a director you have an obsession with your actors even after theyre physically gone–because youre editing them, youre watching every physical tic and nuance, listening to every subtle tone. So theyre embodying you or youre embodying them.
MERIN: So, do when you work with Viggo, is it like being in his skin the whole time?
CRONENBERG: Thats another question nobody has ever asked me. And, yes, thats true. I can tell you that one time the props guy came to me and said, Im am going to ask you about this because you are Viggo, and Viggo is you–so it doesnt matter which of you I ask. He saw it.
Its wonderful when that happens. The vulnerability Viggos able to display comes from that trust. Were very close. Hes not innately gregarious, neither am I. Open, but not gregarious. So, were alike and we understand each other. Were incredibly honest when were working together. But funny, too. Viggos got a very good sense of humor. We laugh a lot, and thats important.
MERIN: Eastern Promises gets you to thinking about the nature of art, as opposed to the nature of product
CRONENBERG: We who make movies seriously deal with that. Theyre always half product because youre spending somebody elses money to make them, so its not like writing poetry in your garret. But, you aspire to art.
Many years ago, Mick Garris, the sci-fi writer and director, was interviewing me, along with John Landis and John Carpenter for TV. When we stopped taping, they looked at me quizzically, and I said, What? And they said, You called yourself an artist. Wed never dream of saying that about ourselves.
MERIN: Thats sad.
CRONENBERG: Yes. Its what happens when youre living in Hollywood. For me, of course, coming from Toronto and thinking more about European films, its different–and of course, whether I was a good artist or bad, making art was what I aspired to. And for them, being Hollywood guys–especially working in a genre that was considered a lesser genre–it would be considered totally bad form and pretension–and seem almost incomprehensible–to talk about your art or working as an artist. When questioned, you had to just say it was fun, like going to the movies when you were a kid, and it was neat playing with special effects–you could say all that stuff, but you could not say you were an artist.
MERIN: I suppose part of the art is learning how to and having the discipline to balance intuition with an incessant questioning of yourself and what youre working with–trying to find solutions all the time. In editing, the questioning must become particularly intense–while youre absorbing every nuance in every frame and deciding which frames most fully serve your overall vision. How does the self-questioning process of editing compare with the process of being asked questions about the film by interviewers?
CRONENBERG: Thats a question nobody has asked me before . Id say that theyre totally different. First of all we edited this film in three weeks, and Ill be doing a lot more weeks worth of interviews. If it could only be as fast!
But Ill have months or maybe a maybe a year talking about the movie. I start to have to be articulate about the film, and I dont mind that process at all. I mean, there are some people who dont like to do it, or cant do it. But I dont mind it at all. I like being provoked into thinking about things in ways in which I normally wouldnt think of them.
People ask about the same things and then they dont–when I go to France, when I go to England, the questions will probably be quite different. Its culturally interesting for me to see how things change.
And, its an interesting process because–after the fact–I have to start to be articulate about things that I was only intuitive about when I was doing them. I wasnt really being cerebral about them, because so much of moviemaking for me is intuitive. You dont know why youre doing something, but it feels right, and thats because youve steeped yourself in the Russian subculture and these characters and in Russian food and music, and in their entrepreneurial capitalism that begins with criminal activities in the early 90s when the Soviet Union ended, so, now, youve done your research and got your backing, but then its all intuition, all intuition.
So being questioned puts you to the task of articulating what youve done intuitively–and it goes on for quite a while, maybe forever. With editing, its quite quick. Now, its true that some people spend a year editing, but Im not one of them. I always edit in my head while Im shooting. I dont use storyboards, its not that exact–but I have a very good idea of what I need and what I dont need. And Ive become more like that. Even as my budgets have gotten a little bigger, and I could probably shoot a little more, I dont. Id rather spend the time getting everything right and then not shooting so much.
But what youre asking yourself in the editing room and, yes, you are doing it with every cut, is quite different. Its all very pragmatic, its not abstract. Its not a discussion, not articulation of abstract ideas. Im left with what my relationship with Viggo was, as a director to an actor, while we were shooting. Certainly Im left with the results of that, and if there was a take, a moment where we let something go, then I have to deal with that. The thing that could have been realized but wasnt–well, maybe we can do some ADR, additional dialog recording, or not. But, I dont ask why did I blow that? I just ask myself how can I fix it. So it feels quite different.
And with editing–well, it is a questioning, and the way it works is that my editor puts together an assembly when Im not there. I dont want to see anything cut while Im shooting. A lot of directors are not like that–they really want to be seeing it while theyre shooting. But I want to be surprised by the movie, and I only have one shot to see it like a civilian who knows nothing about it and thats maybe two weeks after were finished shooting, when I see the whole movie put together by my editor. If Im involved with every cut, I have no objectivity whatsoever, Im just thinking about the cut. So I have that one moment to get an idea of the movie as a movie.
So, as a result, what Im doing in the editing room is quite different from the post analysis because all of those things are past–the relationship with the actors, actors who were more difficult to work with than you thought, who maybe you had to go a slightly different way with because the way you thought youd go with them didnt work because of whatever. Theres no use crying over spilt actors. (We laugh). And, Ive never said that before–but it will become a mantra for me
MERIN: Or spent actors .(He laughs).
CRONENBERG: Yes, but spilt is a little more .
MERIN: Yeah, thats true .(We laugh).
CRONENBERG: And, I hate reshooting. I hate doing reshoots. Some directors–Woody Allen, it think, at least for a while, but I dont know if he still does, actually scheduled reshoots, which can become quite pathological, I think, because after a while, if you think theres a safety net–I like there to be no safety net. I like to work the wire with no net and think that what Im doing, thats it–so it better be good.
You do sometimes if you have a problem or if theres one moment that you blew, you might come back and shoot he scene again, but I dont like doing that. So, basically in editing, what youre asking is very pragmatic within the film. Its just really getting the juice out of the scene. Are we understanding their relationship? Is there that look of Naomis that would illuminate the reaction of Viggos? So there are obsessive macroscopic questions you ask yourself and youre looking at every take and youre asking: you know that in take six, where Naomi was distracted by that sound off camera, do you think if we use that it would? you know, just stuff like that.
MERIN: So you play with it, move things around?
CRONENBERG: Oh yeah. But not a lot.
MERIN: All in three weeks?
CRONENBERG: Well, with electronic editing, yeah. You know, when it started people were saying its bad because youre editing too fast and youre not giving yourself time to think. But I couldnt wait. Just like I couldnt wait for word processing so I could get away from a typewriter–because these things work the way your mind works. In other words, theyre not linear. Its mosaic thinking. Go here, go there, go there, go there. Do the last scene like that, or this. And, these machines allow you to do it the way you think, and, to me, thats great. And if I need to take a break, I finish early and say lets take tomorrow off. Its very easy. You know, in the old days youd say can we look at the scene the way it was before, and youd go away for an hour because theyd have to take that scene apart with the splices and theyd have to find the other take and reconstruct it–ad it took for ever. And I remember reading those piles of Auto magazines my editor had there. Well, you can still get that time away, if you want it. But now its much better because you can have that version and that version and that other version side by side and compare them. You could never do that before. Because by the time they stuck it back together, youd forgotten what was wrong with it in the first place. So I think its only good.
Theres no downside at all to electronic editing–the only thing thats missing is the smell of the film, which now, I opened a box of Kodak, a roll, and it doesnt smell the same anyway. Its different. Theyre using different chemicals. I used to think they should have an air freshener thats Eastman Kodak smell. But it doesnt smell good anymore. The new film stock is made in a different way and it doesnt smell like the good old film–so even if you were working with film, you wouldnt get that nice smell.
MERIN: How do you feel about using the bleach bypass process to desaturate color–which seems to be so in fashion these days?
CRONENBERG: Well, they dont do bleach bypass much anymore, because now you can do it digitally–with a digital intermediate phase, which is what everyone does–to correct color digitally. So even a film that doesnt have any CG or special effects is very likely to have gone into and out of a computer anyway. Because now you do all the color correction in the computer–because you can change the color in a part of the frame–like Photoshop–for each frame. Like. if were in a scene and my photographer says that windows too bright, I wish I could have gelled it down but we didnt have time, you just put a little square around it and you bring the brightness down. And it duplicates wherever that frame is. So you can relight the film in a way–not totally, but in a major, major way. My director of photography is very low tech. Hes very hands on and intuitive, and not a big techno freak, but even he couldnt resist that.
MERIN: How much did you do that on Eastern Promises?
CRONENBERG: Well, for three days. Color timing took us three, four days. In the old days you did it photo-chemically and you would watch it on a color analyzer, but you could only change the whole shot. In other words, if you thought the scene was too red, you could make the whole scene less red, but you couldnt make just one part of it less red. In History of Violence, the sheriff, for some reason in one scene, his face was quite red, he was very flushed. If I tried to correct for his face using the old method, the other people would have been very yellow. But we could just put a tracking around his face and just take the red out of him.
MERIN: Color is so important in your films, its almost symbolic. It vibrates. Is it the color vibration that you want? Did you do a lot of changing to get it?
CRONENBERG: Yes, I want the specific vibration, but no I dont do a lot of changing to get it. Because you do it in the right way from the start. Youve got to get it right.
Because its very slippery and slidey. Because every frame is like your TV set–you know, you can make it more red, less red, darker, brighter, add more contrast. The subtleties of the colors that can be changed is unbelievable.
But you have that person–the color timer–whos working on it, and he doesnt know what you want, and he can do anything with it–make a day scene of a night scene or vice versa.
So, its a matter of communication, and the only way it works is if you, your photographer and color timer sit together and go over every single shot. Its like reshooting the movie. Not only that, you have to do it differently for the high definition video release which will become your DVD and for your digital cinema release–which will be projected in digital cinemas. They all have different color spaces. And you have to be there for every single one to make sure that they get it the right way–the way you want it.
But the upside is that youve got incredible flexibility. And the downside is the same thing. And now when they want to release some of my old films on DVD, I insist on doing the color correction for them or I wont do a commentary–because sometimes theyre being color corrected by guys whove never seen the movie in a theater, so they dont know what it looks like, what its supposed to look like, and they can really ruin it–when theyve got something that has a very subtle, potent mood and make it coarse, or just make it wrong. An its totally heartbreaking when that happens. I mean it makes you totally crazy.
MERIN: We would not want that!