David Cronenberg discusses “Eastern Promises” with Jennifer Merin

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Those who appreciate David CRONENBERG’s slyly provocative way with film, will be blown away by “Eastern Promises,” a profoundly disturbing opus about the Russian mob’s 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 he’s 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 nurse‘s urgent need to find her own cultural roots and the surviving baby‘s rightful family, and other intricate twists surrounding London’s Russian community.

“Why I’m 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. It’s a discussion about how we create realty. I mean reality is not an absolute in any way. And it’s 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 wouldn’t be required to end their life. I find those beliefs and behaviors very compelling,” says CRONENBERG.

MERIN: Have people from London’s 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 that‘s not really fair. But I think they’ll 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 film’s 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, there’s incredible sadness in the movie, as well. Even the music–that violin–is mournful and elegiac. It’s not just about death, but about the way relationships can slide by each other, miss each other and mistake each other. There’s a lot of that in the movie, and it‘s 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 what’s so disturbing about them?

CRONENBERG: That’s an interesting question that nobody’s asked me before. Yes, that’s the existentialist basis. And it’s true that I always seek a subject that will always allow me to express that in various forms–because I do think it’s there in my movies. I’m sure that’s true. And it’s funny–or not really funny, but it probably stems from the fact that I’m not a very anguished person. But, you see, the more you like life, it becomes difficult to accept that it ends. If you’re an anguished person and are in pain, there’s relief to be had in death. Perhaps there isn’t that relief if you’re 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….

CRONENBERG: Yes.

MERIN: So if you’re doing what you think to be the right thing, how do you become anguished?

CRONENBERG: Well, I don’t think the two are necessarily related. Krill (Vincent Cassell) in “Eastern Promises,“ for example, has so many things going on: he’s in love with Nikolai, although he can never admit it, he wants his father’s love and he’s not getting that, he wants Nikolai’s love and he’s not really getting that, although Nikolai will flirt with him to manipulate him. So much of his behavior comes out of that. So, he’s a very sad and desperate character.

MERIN: And very evil…

CRONENBERG: Yes, but he doesn’t see the evil because he’s in that context, and within the context of his life, that’s just business as usual, and he can justify it in many, many ways.

MERIN: That’s what’s so disturbing. What do you want people to learn from the film?

CRONENBERG: Well, I don’t make big demands. It’s hard to articulate. I don’t really have a learning goal. It’s more a tone that I’m delivering, a complex of feelings. It’s more about realizations, for each person it’s a different thing. You want your movie to have an impact, but you’re not sure what that impact should be. You’ve 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. It’s like saying how do you want your audience to feel when they leave. And I say I just want them to feel. Period. I don’t have any rules about how they should feel. If they’re 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 can’t really ask what’s 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 can’t work out of that. You have to work out of what’s there.

Directing is really a strange act. You’ve 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 you‘re creating. All that matters is what‘s in that little rectangle–because that‘s all you‘re left with in the editing room.

You divest yourself of everything else. It’s 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. It’s very Buddhist in a way. You open all your pores to everything that’s going on in that rectangle. You have to have incredibly thick skin and incredibly porous skin at the same time. It’s a difficult trick–like juggling many different kinds of shapes at the same time.

It’s a philosophical endeavor: I’m trying to understand what it is be a human who exists in this time and place and, then, what it’s like for me to be them.

It’s no accident I often dream I’m 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 they’re physically gone–because you’re editing them, you’re watching every physical tic and nuance, listening to every subtle tone. So they’re embodying you or you’re embodying them.

MERIN: So, do when you work with Viggo, is it like being in his skin the whole time?

CRONENBERG: That’s another question nobody has ever asked me. And, yes, that‘s true. I can tell you that one time the props guy came to me and said, “I’m am going to ask you about this because you are Viggo, and Viggo is you–so it doesn’t matter which of you I ask.” He saw it.

It’s wonderful when that happens. The vulnerability Viggo’s able to display comes from that trust. We’re very close. He‘s not innately gregarious, neither am I. Open, but not gregarious. So, we’re alike and we understand each other. We’re incredibly honest when we’re working together. But funny, too. Viggo’s got a very good sense of humor. We laugh a lot, and that’s 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. They’re always half product because you’re spending somebody else’s money to make them, so it’s 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. We’d never dream of saying that about ourselves.”

MERIN: That’s sad.

CRONENBERG: Yes. It’s what happens when you’re living in Hollywood. For me, of course, coming from Toronto and thinking more about European films, it’s 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 you’re working with–trying to find solutions all the time. In editing, the questioning must become particularly intense–while you’re 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: That’s a question nobody has asked me before…. I’d say that they’re totally different. First of all we edited this film in three weeks, and I’ll be doing a lot more weeks worth of interviews. If it could only be as fast!

But I’ll have months or maybe a maybe a year talking about the movie. I start to have to be articulate about the film, and I don’t mind that process at all. I mean, there are some people who don’t like to do it, or can’t do it. But I don’t mind it at all. I like being provoked into thinking about things in ways in which I normally wouldn’t think of them.

People ask about the same things and then they don’t–when I go to France, when I go to England, the questions will probably be quite different. It’s culturally interesting for me to see how things change.

And, it’s 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 wasn’t really being cerebral about them, because so much of moviemaking for me is intuitive. You don’t know why you’re doing something, but it feels right, and that’s because you’ve 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 90’s when the Soviet Union ended, so, now, you’ve done your research and got your backing, but then it’s all intuition, all intuition.

So being questioned puts you to the task of articulating what you’ve done intuitively–and it goes on for quite a while, maybe forever. With editing, it’s quite quick. Now, it’s true that some people spend a year editing, but I’m not one of them. I always edit in my head while I’m shooting. I don’t use storyboards, it’s not that exact–but I have a very good idea of what I need and what I don’t need. And I’ve become more like that. Even as my budgets have gotten a little bigger, and I could probably shoot a little more, I don’t. I’d rather spend the time getting everything right and then not shooting so much.

But what you’re asking yourself in the editing room and, yes, you are doing it with every cut, is quite different. It’s all very pragmatic, it’s not abstract. It’s not a discussion, not articulation of abstract ideas. I’m left with what my relationship with Viggo was, as a director to an actor, while we were shooting. Certainly I’m 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 wasn’t–well, maybe we can do some ADR, additional dialog recording, or not. But, I don’t 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 I’m not there. I don’t want to see anything cut while I’m shooting. A lot of directors are not like that–they really want to be seeing it while they’re 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 that’s maybe two weeks after we’re finished shooting, when I see the whole movie put together by my editor. If I’m involved with every cut, I have no objectivity whatsoever, I’m 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 I’m 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 you’d go with them didn’t work because of whatever. There’s no use crying over spilt actors. (We laugh). And, I’ve 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, that’s 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 don’t know if he still does, actually scheduled reshoots, which can become quite pathological, I think, because after a while, if you think there’s a safety net–I like there to be no safety net. I like to work the wire with no net and think that what I‘m doing, that‘s it–so it better be good.

You do sometimes if you have a problem or if there’s one moment that you blew, you might come back and shoot he scene again, but I don’t like doing that. So, basically in editing, what you’re asking is very pragmatic within the film. It’s just really getting the juice out of the scene. Are we understanding their relationship? Is there that look of Naomi’s that would illuminate the reaction of Viggo‘s? So there are obsessive macroscopic questions you ask yourself and you’re looking at every take and you’re 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 it’s bad because you’re editing too fast and you’re not giving yourself time to think. But I couldn’t wait. Just like I couldn’t wait for word processing so I could get away from a typewriter–because these things work the way your mind works. In other words, they’re not linear. It‘s 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, that’s great. And if I need to take a break, I finish early and say let’s take tomorrow off. It’s very easy. You know, in the old days you’d say can we look at the scene the way it was before, and you’d go away for an hour because they’d have to take that scene apart with the splices and they’d 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 it’s 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, you’d forgotten what was wrong with it in the first place. So I think it’s only good.

There’s no downside at all to electronic editing–the only thing that’s missing is the smell of the film, which now, I opened a box of Kodak, a roll, and it doesn’t smell the same anyway. It’s different. They’re using different chemicals. I used to think they should have an air freshener that’s Eastman Kodak smell. But it doesn’t smell good anymore. The new film stock is made in a different way and it doesn’t smell like the good old film–so even if you were working with film, you wouldn‘t 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 don’t 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 doesn’t 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 we’re in a scene and my photographer says that window’s too bright, I wish I could have gelled it down but we didn’t 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. He’s very hands on and intuitive, and not a big techno freak, but even he couldn’t 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 couldn’t 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, it’s 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 don’t do a lot of changing to get it. Because you do it in the right way from the start. You’ve got to get it right.

Because it’s 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–who’s working on it, and he doesn’t know what you want, and he can do anything with it–make a day scene of a night scene or vice versa.

So, it’s 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. It’s 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 you’ve 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 won’t do a commentary–because sometimes they’re being color corrected by guys who’ve never seen the movie in a theater, so they don’t know what it looks like, what it’s supposed to look like, and they can really ruin it–when they’ve got something that has a very subtle, potent mood and make it coarse, or just make it wrong. An it’s totally heartbreaking when that happens. I mean it makes you totally crazy.

MERIN: We would not want that!

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is also a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).