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OWF Exclusive Interview: Vincenzo Natali on SPLICE

Talks intentions with his new sci-fi/horror thriller and how it's not a polemic against science.

Early Friday evening and OWF places a call to director Vincenzo Natali in L.A. to chat about his latest sci-fi horror, Splice - a movie I reviewed last week, and would recommend to everyone who is turned off by the usual summer fare. OWF: First off, I should say that I really enjoyed the film. It was a welcome surprise in the usual summer season. VINCENZO NATALI (VN):
Oh, thank you€ Well you know by all rights we shouldn€™t be a part of the summer movie season. Our weird little movie that kind of infected the blockbuster season. I don€™t quite know what we€™re doing there.
OWF: You€™ve mentioned that you sometimes found it challenging to outpace the science that Splice is based around. How difficult was that in reality, and did you ever think it was actually too problematic? VN:
(laughs) That was actually encouraging because I felt that meant I was on the right track and in fact it was sort of exciting to see. When I started working on Splice we had maybe just cloned Dolly the sheep, so it was quite a while ago. And in that time there€™s been just one incredible stride made after another in the real world of genetic engineering, to the point where 2 weeks before the film was released in America - Craig Venter the geneticist - announced he€™d created the first synthetic life-form, and by using techniques rather similar to those used by Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley) in the movie. So it was almost like free advertising; I wondered how Craig Venter knew my movie was opening. But it€™s fascinating, in the real world I think we€™re on the cusp of a very significant transition in the way we perceive life and the way we deal with it. I think part of the reason why it took so long to get Splice made was because when I started it wasn€™t part of the popular consciousness, and now it seems like every week there€™s a major breathrough so it€™s very much on people€™s minds.
OWF: One of the things I liked about the film was its ambiguity, in that Clive and Elsa are trying to balance the desire to create something for humanity, but also for their own success. I think Clive says €˜Wired don€™t interview losers.€™ - It€™s an aspect of research that the wider public sometimes don€™t fully understand€ VN:
Yeah, I think with Clive and Elsa, they were fascinating characters because I think that while they€™re slightly exaggerated, I think they are an example of the kind of people that we see in that field right now, and will see a lot more in the future. They really are engineers and they€™re view of what life is and what is means is quite different from the average person. I mean they really have reduced life to a chemical formula, and in their minds it€™s really no different than putting together a computer. So I thought it was important to show, and it think it informs a lot of what€™s done out there. And I don€™t think that€™s necessarily how €˜normal€™ people view life. Because we€™re living beings we don€™t want to be reduced to a chemical formula, and there€™s something inherently disturbing in thinking that perhaps it is just atoms and proteins and particles. So yeah it€™s such a loaded issue€ Sorry I could ramble on about it for hours. One of the challenges in writing the script in fact was honing the film thematically, wrestling it into being just about one or two things because it€™s so loaded you could go off in so many different directions. And to me Splice is one in what, I€™m sure, will be a whole genre related to this technology. Just as the internet spawned all kinds of movies about the information age, genetics and bio-chemistry will spawn all kinds of stories.
OWF: I think that€™s why the personal and painful parts of Elsa€™s character worked well because amidst all the science, and the commercial desires, you have got this person with all her baggage, who€™s almost running from reality to a sort of alternate reality. VN:
Yeah, well I think that€™s it. I think whether it€™s based in real science or pure fantasy it€™s having an emotional reality grounding the film. In making it about human concerns. So what attracted me to this particular concept was that it was always going to be a creature film, but like a relationship story. And I found Elsa to be such a fascinating character. She€™s so complicated, and I think inevitably if you look at any scientific innovation there is a human story behind it. The motivations are partly related to the fascination with pure science but then there€™s something else. As long as you€™re dealing with people there€™s going to be an emotional ride and the psychological drive behind why people do the things they do. And in the case of Elsa there€™s clearly issues relating to her mother and to her past.
OWF: Right, and Clive, who appears at the beginning to be the moral centre, almost gratifyingly, falls from grace and becomes part of the sort of abusive €˜parents€™€ VN:
(Laughs) Yeah, the characters are kind of on divergent trajectories; Elsa starts off as the one who has this emotional bond with the creature Dren and discovers her latent maternal instincts, while Clive as absolutely horrified and thinks they should destroy it. But then when the child grows and becomes an adolescent, and becomes a difficult child, she becomes estranged from it, and in turn Clive starts to sympathise with it€ and then emotionally/sexually attracted to it. They kind of reverse roles, and then they kind of end up in the same place. You know, they€™re just disastrous parents.
OWF: There€™s an almost greek tragedy quality to it€ VN:
(Laughs) Yeah, there€™s Oedipus, and Electra etc.
OWF: Taking it wider, can Splice be viewed as explicit warning against tampering with certain areas of science, or is it really saying €˜just be more careful€™? VN:
I think it€™s saying just be more careful. My personal feelings about it are that for good, or for ill, we are going down this road. We€™ve opened up Pandora€™s box, and it cannot be closed. And I think that a lot of good can and will come from it. But it is so dangerous, and has to be approached with tremendous caution because there are any number of scenarios that I can imagine where things could go awry. I don€™t think anything could happen like this, in Splice, (laughs) - it is a work of fiction€ But I can envision other things, so yes, it absolutely must be approached with caution. But I have to say, I worked with real geneticists in the writing and the making of the movie, and I was thoroughly impressed by them. I mean these are amazing people who doing this work because they are impassioned about it. They don€™t make much money, and they really want to help people. What I€™m more frightened of are not the scientists, but the people that exploit the technology. I€™m frightened of the commodification of life and all that implies. Where there€™s no moral compass and the bottom line is driving things.
OWF: Which is why the corporate head, almost in the background during the course of the film and who at the end takes full advantage of Elsa€™s mental and physical condition, is pretty much the most evil character in it. VN:
Right, it€™s the banality of evil. The corporation doesn€™t have any moral opinion whatsoever, and that€™s much more frightening than the villain twirling his moustache and tying the heroine to the train tracks. It€™s a kind of headless monster.
OWF: Turning to the actual SFX in the film, what I really like is the integration between a healthy reliance of the physical, combined with the computer generated. Was that an important aspect of the production for you? VN:
Oh yeah, I got to be a mad scientist. I got to design and make my own monster, with the help of great artists and technicians, and actors. That was one of the reasons I wanted to make this film, and I always felt the challenge of Dren was to make her real. We weren€™t going to engineer a larger than life creature, but something that was true to life and that exists on a very human-sized scale. To that end I tried as much as I could to use real performers and real things, and even though at times we had to go digital we still had a physical reference for her on the set.
OWF: It€™s a case of you can€™t beat the reality of reality. VN:
No, right, when you look back at the last ten to fifteen years of digital effects technology, I think that while there€™s been amazing stuff, when it doesn€™t work it€™s becomes detached from what€™s real. And there€™s a lot to be said for the old school, you know use real objects, real lighting, real interactivity with the actors. So yeah even I could€™ve afforded to take the Avatar route I would not have done that with this movie. Also, there was a performance issue as well. Dren is a character in the movie and needs to give a performance that I don€™t think even a highly rendered digital character could have done. And also it lifted the performance of the other actors, both Adrien and Sarah.
OWF: Talking of Dren, Delphine Chanéac, who plays her, is pretty extraordinary. Did you know of her before casting? VN:
We came across in the traditional casting process, but what€™s amazing about it is that she was the very first person to walk in the room, and so it was meant to be. When I saw her I thought she€™d walked out of my head, she was so close to what I had in mind for Dren. If you saw some of the early drawings they look like Delphine. And more than just looking like Dren she intuitively understood the character. Dren is as much her invention as mine.
OWF: It€™s one of the best integrations of character and performer I€™ve seen for a while. VN:
Oh thank you, she€™s a great find. I€™m looking forward to seeing where her career goes from here; she€™s a very talented actress.
(At a couple of minutes over our allocated time PR man intervenes and Vincenzo apologises for having to end the interview as the next interviewer is on the line €) VN:
Hey Mark, I€™ve got to wrap it up unfortunately.
OWF: No problem, it was great talking to you. VN:
Oh thank you€ I really enjoyed speaking with you as well. Have a good rest of the night.
Call ends, typing starts€
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Film writer, drinker of Guinness. Part-time astronaut. Man who thinks there are only two real Indiana Jones movies, writing loglines should be an Olympic event, and that science fiction, comic book movies, 007, and Hal Hartley's Simple Men are the cures for most evils. Currently scripting.