As is so often often the case the man behind the sick, perverse, weird and disturbed movie Splice is actually a very sweet, soft-spoken and smart guy. Vincenzo Natali is probably best known for his scifi indie breakout hit Cube, but Splice is head and shoulders above that original effort. A modern take on the Frankenstein myth, Splice sees geneticist couple Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley splicing human and animal DNA to make a brand new life form. The creature, called Dren, goes through many stages of development, finally becoming a strangely beautiful monster – and then things get really weird.
I talked with Natali backstage at WonderCon this past weekend, right before he took the stage and transformed a skeptical, bored audience into a group that really wants to see his film. Splice began life as an independent film, but after Sundance Warner Bros unexpectedly picked it up and threw lots of money at it. Now, instead of being a niche release that most of you would have to see on DVD, it’s going to be getting a wide release this June. Unexpected and very, very awesome.
Read my Sundance review of Splice here.
I saw your film at Sundance and I loved it, but walking out of the screening of Splice at the Racquet Club I was hoping someone would pick the movie up. But the last thing I ever imagined was that Warner Bros would be the ones who did it – and then push it as they are pushing. Are you surprised that a weird, edgy, psychosexual film like this has found its way into the mainstream studio system?
Never in my wildest imaginings I thought this would happen. In fact they weren’t even on our list of places to go to, because they don’t usually pick up films. Joel Silver, the person who spearheaded it, has never acquired a film. It’s just one of those weird moments of serendipity, which is in keeping with the making of the film. Every step of the way it’s been really, really hard – it’s taken me 12 years to get the movie done – but somehow it always ends up in the best possible way. No one is more shocked than I am.
The first thing when I heard it was Warner Bros and Joel Silver getting the picture my concern was are they going to take it and neuter it? Is this going to be a shadow of the film I saw? What’s the final version of this movie going to look like?
It’s the opposite of that. They have embraced everything that’s weird and crazy about the movie. Again, I didn’t know what I was getting into, and at the end of the day I didn’t have a choice, although I was happy to be picked up by a major studio. I was really nervous, specifically because I had worked really hard on this movie that has things in it that normally would frighten a studio. As it turns out the person who was most afraid in the edit room was Joel Silver. He was afraid that I was going to go in and do more to the film than he wanted to. His reputation precedes him – he’s a very powerful man! – and I didn’t know what it would be like when I sat down next to him at the Avid. As it turns out he’s been incredibly respectful of the film, and any moment where he suggested something I wouldn’t agree with he always said ‘It’s your movie.’ We’re getting all of the benefits of working with a big studio without any of the issues one usually faces. I don’t know for sure, this being my first studio experience, but I think it’s because the movie exists already. I’m not sure it would be the same if we had walked in with the script.
Speaking of the script, one of the things I was thinking when watching the movie was ‘Man, what were Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley thinking when they got to this page of the script?’ It gets so weird! Delightfully so, but was it a struggle to cast this film because of the places it goes?
You would think it would be. As it turns out, Sarah and Adrien were very high on my list of actors that I wanted and, as it turns out, not only are they great actors but they like to do dangerous things. Sarah, in particular, for whatever reason really connected with Elsa and I think was delighted by how perverse the film is. She really embraced that. Adrien as well. There was never a moment where an actor came up to me – any of them, including Delphine Chaneac, who plays Dren, the creature – and said ‘I can’t do this.’ They fully embraced it, which was very courageous. A lot of people, especially in Adrien or Sarah’s position, would be afraid.
One of the interesting things in the film is how you handle tone. The film has a lot going on, has a lot of heaviness, but it can also be light. And sometimes it feels like you’re not taking it overly seriously – like you’re playful with some of the stuff you’re doing. It’s fun at the same time that it’s odd and disturbing.
I’ve made four films now, and every one has been like that, ending up a mixed bag. One of the struggles for me has been to find a tone, because I want everything in the movie. I’m greedy, and I don’t get to make a lot of movies, so I throw in the kitchen sink. Albeit with Splice I was very sensitive about the tone because I was aware that we were treading on ground that in the wrong context or presented the wrong way could be silly. I felt the core of the film, if it was going to be successful, had to be emotionally resonant. So as a director I made a point of stepping back and trying to remove myself a little and let the actors lead the action, and I just had an innate faith that it would work out. I’m aware of the potential issues, and I know that some people do have a problem with the tone. I’m glad to hear that you like it, and I think some people don’t make it through the whole journey, and I think that’s fine. I had to embrace it, and in fact if I had been too restrained somebody like you – or me – going to see the film would be disappointed.
But for all of its strangeness and all of its outrageousness, in the process of writing and shooting the film I found out that life – the real science – was stranger than fiction. I started this when they cloned Dolly the sheep, and in that time the real science has evolved exponentially to the point where when we were about to shoot the film in the UK they had legalized the creation of human/animal hybrids. I worked with geneticists along the way, and I was always aware that we weren’t making a documentary, but at the same time I felt like I wanted to remain as truthful as I could at least to the feel of the science of the general conceits of what is possible and at no point did I run into a barrier where the geneticist said ‘No no no, that could never happen.’ In fact sometimes they would trump me and go even further. Life is strange. Life is weirder than anything you can imagine, than anything you can see in a film. That extends to the design of the creature; we tried to stay with what was real and it took us to very interesting, exotic places.
You have an independently made film that I’m assuming is fairly low budget, and one of your main characters is this exotic creature that goes from a fully CGI creation to what I’m assuming is a mix of CG and practical effects. How hard is it to center your film around that kind of character when you’re doing it cheaply?
That’s the scary part. If at any moment watching the film you feel Dren is anything less than real, the film is a failure. And that was frightening because we didn’t know how we were going to do it with the money we had. Even when we were shooting we didn’t have enough money. In fact when I finished my first cut and we rebudgeted the effects – which is standard procedure with this sort of thing – we came in at about double our effects budget, and I had to find a way to remove half of my effects budget from the film, and that was scary. But somehow it worked out, and I think it’s a testament to the designers and the effects artists themselves that they were able to find a way to pull that off. It was really through their ingenuity and dedication… I don’t think anybody walked away with much money in their pockets when this was done!
You have a number of very pointed references to Frankenstein in the film. The leads are named Clive and Elsa, there’s the ‘It’s alive’ quote that’s made it into the trailer – was it important for you to reference Frankenstein and go back to it, or was it just a nod?
I think whenever you tell a story like this it just falls into the archetype. I think that it’s an archetype that is just there, and there was no need on my part to follow that archetype, it just flowed in that direction. If anything my acute awareness of it, because I love the James Whale films, meant I didn’t want to imitate it too much. I felt that if we were going to tell this kind of story we had to go in a different direction, we had to push it into the 21st century.
You’re releasing the film now, but are you already looking ahead to what’s next? And does your experience with Warner Bros mean that you’re open to doing more with the studios in the future?
Listen, I’ve been wanting to sell my soul for a long time. It was simply that no one wanted my soul before! I have a number of things I want to do, chief among them is an adaptation of a JG Ballard novel called High Rise, that I’ve been working on for a long time. Recently I became involved with a project called Tunnels, based on a series of books. I’d like to make another movie soon, but it’s hard. It’s a long, slow, brutal process, and my last film was made in 2003. So yeah, I’d love to jump into something, and having had the Warner Bros experience it’s a little like flying business class, and I don’t want to go back to coach!
Is it condescending of me to say that I think maybe Splice is more original, interesting and strange than the general audience is ready for?
Thank you for saying that about the film, but yes I think people want it. This is just my intuition, but I know there’s a hunger for something like this. Because it’s a hunger I have. I want to see this movie, and in fact I’m shocked that no one else has made this film yet. I kept waiting to read about the ‘genetic Frankenstein’ movie. Where the movie is interesting is taking that notion and dealing with some of the inevitable sexual issues that are related to creating a beautiful animal hybrid creature. There’s a lot of fiction out there that’s delved into these things, and if you think about it in mythology across the world this has been part of our collective unconsciousness for thousands of years.
Weird sexuality has been an important part of many of our myths.
Absolutely. I think it’s part of our popular consciousness, and I don’t see any reason why people wouldn’t embrace it. And if it does work it’ll be very vindicating for me, because it would potentially make it possible to do more things like this and to keep pushing the envelope.