Terror watch: David Cronenberg on "Eastern Promises" Part I

Terror can be good for you, or so might argue David Cronenberg. He should know, having made some of the most terrifying films of the last thirty years or so, such as “Shivers/They Came From Within” (1975), “Rabid” (1977) , “Scanners” (1981), “Videodrome” (1983), "The Fly"(1986), "eXistenZ" (1999). He’s moonlighted lately in the gangster genre with his last two films, "A History of Violence "(2005) and "Eastern Promises," in the gangster genre (though Cronenberg has said the former is more of a Western). But these too are unsparing as they force the audience to stare at the cold blade of personal extinction.

I talked with him on the phone last week while he was in Toronto for the world premiere of Eastern Promises at the Film Festival. Here’s some of our conversation.

PK: I guess the most squirm-inducing scene is the infamous bathhouse scene.

DC: Well, I don’t know.

PK: I’ve seen it with an audience, and oddly that scene seems to disturb women more than men. I’m not sure why.

DC: That scene?

PK: Yeah.

DC: Well, I guess it is like that shower scene in “Psycho.” You’re naked, you’re wet, and there are guys with knives who don’t like you. You can’t be more vulnerable than that, I suppose.

PK: But the other scenes of violence, I mean, there are only three or four real nasty moments, and they’re all with edged weapons too — there’s no gunfire or anything. But the first moment, the first scene of that type, I said, “I’ve seen this somewhere before.” And I realized, we had shown at our website the killing of Daniel Pearl, and you must have seen that…

DC: Well, I haven’t seen that particular video, but I have seen some--one, it was a guy named Berg. And it was definitely in my mind when I did that scene. There is now snuff on the web for anybody to see anytime, and this is a pretty new development. And it’s obviously very disturbing and I definitely had that in mine when I was doing those scenes.

PK: It’s harder to shock people now.

DC: Well, see, I don’t think that’s true. And you were saying, “people were squirming.” I think they’re more sensitized, because I think it’s come much closer to home; I mean, it’s come into your home on your computer. In the old days, it was all stuff that happened far away, and you heard about it, or maybe you saw a gruesome photograph, but usually not. And now, you can look at it at three in the morning if you want, in your house. And it’s American citizens often, in countries that seem to be unfathomable in some ways, the mentality that’s involved. And you have people doing these things thinking that they’re committing holy, sacred acts, and to you it’s like a heinous, hideous atrocity. And where do those cultures come together? So I actually think people are more sensitive to violence onscreen now, not less.

PK: But then you have the phenomenon of films like “Saw” and “Hostel” that people, at least up to a little while ago, have been going to, to sort of indulge in that kind of sadistic…

DC: Well I wonder — and I haven’t seen them, so I can’t get too specific — I wonder if that’s not a reaction to that. That you want to confront what scares you in a controlled environment, which is a movie theater. Certainly, that’s always been an aspect of horror films. Why do people want to be scared? Well, there is a need to confront things that scare you, but you want to walk away from it. Even just scenes of violence on the street, for example: people read about it all the time and they worry about it, and they wonder what it would be like and how they would react, if they were in a situation where a couple of guys came up to them at night on the street and so on and so on. And the way of exercising that — exercising and exorcising that — is to see a movie in which there are scenes like that. And you get a chance to experience it at a distance in a safe way. I think the main reason, really, that people go to see a movie is to live another life for a moment — not necessarily a life that you’d want to be your own, but that you’re curious about. So you become, say, Nikolai this mobster. I mean, to me that’s why I showed that bath scene, not in a Bourne-movie kind of impressionistic, quick-cutting way where you don’t really see what’s going on, but where you saw everything that was going on. Because if you’re going to be Nikolai for the time of this movie, following this character, or in fact inhabiting him, or as we used to say identifying with him, I want you to have his experiences. So I feel like I would be cheating my audience to do it off camera or out the window or some other way.

PK: So is Viggo Mortensen [star of both “A History of Violence” and “Eastern Promises”] turning into your alter ego?

DC: Well, we are very close buddies. I have to say we’ve become quite close friends since working on “A History of Violence.” We do hit it off rather well. But when you’re making a movie, in a way, you are all of your actors. Not just the lead ones but all of them, in a way. And I think the better directors feel that, and the actors appreciate that; they want you to be them while they’re acting.

PK: So he’s not quite the John Wayne to your John Ford yet.

DC: Well, we’d have to make a few more movies I think. I would love to — I mean, I’d love if he could be in all my movies, frankly.

PK: He also is kind of your chief researcher. He did a lot of research on this movie.

DC: Well, he turns out to do that, yeah. He’s incredible that way, and he does it in such a kind of off-handed, not, there’s no imposition, he just goes and does it. And it’s there for you to use it if you want or not; he has no ego involved in it. It’s really lovely research. And the thing is, he always brings back such great stuff that everybody wants to use it — not just me as a director but my production designer and the screenwriter as well. Viggo’s input was very important to shaping this script as we were doing rewrites.  

PK: Was he the first one into the tattoos, or were you already going in that direction?

DC: Well, they were alluded to in the first draft, but an actor, his instrument is his body. And so any actor is obsessed with what he puts on his body or his hair or his shoes, his feet. And normal people think that this is vanity, but they don’t understand that that is what an actor acts with, is his body. So anything that’s on it, clothes that cover it, is of great interest to him. So naturally, an actor who is going to be tattooed for a movie starts to think about, well, what tattoos? Why? And where? And where do they come from, and what do they mean? It didn’t take long for Viggo to find these books, called “Russian Criminal Tattoos”, that were fantastic. They outlined the history of the subculture of tattooing in Russian prisons. And he also found a documentary made by a friend of his, Alix Lambert, called “The Mark of Cain,” which was a fantastic documentary shot in Russian prisons, with the prisoners talking about their tattoos and what they mean. Really fantastic, and it puts you in such a different world, such a strange and different but well-formed world, because this subculture has been developing since the czarist days in Russia. It predates the Soviets by a long time, and continued through the Soviet era and continues now.   

PK: It kind of fits into one of your themes, the intersection between technology, the media and human flesh.

DC: It does, but as I say, ironically enough, I was working on the movie, had agreed to do it before tattooing had that sort of central place in the movie. So it’s kind of interesting how those things just come together. It was really not preordained, because as I say, the fact that Nikolai’s character was tattooed was certainly in the script, but it didn’t get much more detail than that.

 Next: mob rule, Martin Scorsese, birth, death and money.

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