Perhaps the most praised genre film to emerge from Sundance this year, director Vincenzo Natali's Splice deals with the hot-button topic of bioethics; as it tells the story of Dren, a creature born of splicing human and animal DNA. At this year's WonderCon in San Francisco, Natali – who also helmed Cube – told me, and a group of my fellow journos, about the challenges of making a brainy bio-horror film today. Read what Natali had to say after the jump.
On whether his job would be easier if it weren't for the internet:
[Laughs.] Well, I don't know. It's a double-edge sword, like any kind of technology is ,which sort of dovetails into what the film is about. Because of course this is a movie about genetic splicing and clearly, it being a horror film, it implies that we should be very cautious with this technology. But actually I'm in no way opposed to genetic splicing or perhaps even splicing human DNA. I think in fact we're sort of destined to go down that road anyway so we might as well embrace it. It's really what Splice is about – what do you do with that technology once you have it? What's the best way to deal with it? Sarah Polley and Adrian Brody, who play the scientists in the film, are two characters who are extremely bright. They understand the building blocks of life, they can manipulate them in any number of ways. But what they don't really understand is the essence of life, and so in that way this is a film that is a cautionary tale but truly is not opposed to what the wonderful geneticists do all around the world.
One whether the characters are 21st century Frankensteins:
In fact, their characters—Clive and Elsa—are named after Colin Clive and Elsa Lancaster from the original James Whale Frankenstein films so I was very aware of their lineage. But yes. In being a 21st century Frankenstein film I felt that we had to mutate that story and take it somewhere totally new. So while Frankenstein is very much a father-son story, this is very much a mother–daughter story. Sarah's character Elsa is truly the protagonist, and ultimately this becomes a bizarre love triangle. And so while it starts, I think, in a very familiar terrain, it kind of goes somewhere a little unexpected hopefully.
On whether the film will be more talked about than actually seen:
I've based my entire career on that. [Laughs.] In fact, most of my films are not talked about or seen. But they're talked about a little bit more than they're seen. I sincerely hope that Splice is not a victim of that trend. I always felt that this could be a movie that could be very commercial. It was a film that maybe might not [have been] perceived [as] commercial by the studio at the script stage, but by some sort of miracle twist of fate, they've embraced it after the film was completed. And they're really behind it. They, I think, like the film because it's dangerous. Because it's strange and weird. They're not afraid of those aspects of the film. The studio's been incredibly supportive of it.
On being inspired by Cronenberg's work:
I'm from Toronto – David Cronenberg's hometown – and there's no question some of his DNA is spliced into this. Absolutely no question. I think once you enter into the world of bio-horror it's trademarked David Cronenberg. But actually, in many ways, this is a creature film spliced with a relationship story, and it's a very personal movie to me. I mean, it really is. I half-jokingly call it my family film. Because it's about familial relationships and it definitely goes down that Freudian road. So in many ways, it's a creature movie but it's a very personal film at the same time.
On taking cues from H.R. Giger:
There's some Giger DNA in there as well, absolutely. I think where you can definitely credit Giger, or certainly the movie Alien, as an influence on this film is that was the first movie where we had, I thought, a biologically plausible creature film. We made that our prime directive in designing our creature and in telling our story. We wanted to make her believable. We wanted if in any way at any moment in this film you don't think that Dren, which is the name of the creature, exists, the film is a failure. And so that really was our number one goal in a way, maybe to kind of up the ante a little bit. Because as brilliant as Alien is, as seminal as that film is, the creature definitely remains in the shadows and its enigma is probably what makes it so fascinating. But Dren, in our film, is really just another character. In fact, in what is basically a chamber piece, there's Clive and Elsa and there's Dren and there's two other speaking parts and that's it. So Dren, while she is I think hopefully an amazing visual creation she's also very much a character I hope people fall in love with and in that way may be a bit of a mutation from the Alien, the Giger Alien that we know because she truly is a character.
On whether or not Dren is a CG character:
She's a little bit of everything. In the film she's a hybrid organism. In the making of the film she was a hybrid of many different effects, processes.
On the importance of practical effects in the film:
I think it's hugely important. Really, even if I had the money to do a fully CG Dren, for the whole film, I wouldn't have done that. Because, as I was saying, the film is very much a relationship story and I needed real actors. I think both Sarah and Adrian give great performances because they're responding to a real actor named Delphine Chanéac, who plays the creature in her adult form. As brilliant as Avatar is, for example, I still don't think you can replicate the subtly of that kind of performance with a fully digital character. So I always tried to keep it real. I also think that the best digital effects have a physical basis to them, so even when Dren is digital, and she is at certain points in the film, we would always have a real physical model. We would always have something physical on the set for the effects artists to work with.
On being a relative unknown:
I so badly want to sell my soul, because it's so hard. It's just so hard making film, especially these kinds of movies. I mean, independent films are difficult enough, but when you have incredibly complex special effects in them, they get exponentially more difficult. So for the sort of things I want to do, I kind of need the support of the studio and it's made my life very difficult. The problem is it's just so hard for me to do something I don't care about. I'm too lazy. Making movies is so hard that if I don't feel something for it, I just can't go there. That's why it's such a miracle to me that Splice is in the hands of the studio. Never in my wildest imaginings did I think I'd be at WonderCon talking to all of you under the auspices of Warner Brothers.
On his future with the studios:
I don't know. That's sort of…we'll find out on the next film, hopefully. Because I would really like to work with the studio on the next one and I'd love to work with Warner Brothers, but yeah, it's always a tightrope act, and I think, with a movie like Splice if you're going to see it, if you want to see it, it's because it's going to show you something that's not traditionally seen in a mainstream movie. That's what we're offering our audience. Some of the other things I'd like to do are along those lines. Whether I'd get through that process with the studio unscathed, I'm not sure. I don't know. But there's no question that once the studio saw it, they embraced it. Like they truly… I was afraid when they bought the film – and I didn't have a choice, frankly, if I had said no, it wasn't my choice whether or not to sell the film and believe me I was happy that they had bought it, but regardless they were going to buy it – and I didn't know what they were going to do with it. I mean, they could have gone in and changed the ending. I don't have control over that. But they chose not to. They really, you know it sounds insane, but they embraced what's crazy about this movie. So that gives me a tremendous amount of hope.
On whether cuts or alterations were made to the version that played at Sundance:
We have made cuts to them but cuts that I wanted. So it was just an opportunity, I mean the film was made with a very low budget, very quickly, and any filmmaker in the world if you give them the opportunity to go in and improve their movie I would say nine times out of ten, they will. So I went in and I cut two minutes and eleven seconds from the film and I added one shot to help clarify a story point. Because when I made my movie I was never able to show it in front of an audience ‘cause it had so much special effects work. I just had to finish the movie and then I didn't have the studio to say, "Okay, let's test the film, lets see how people react, let's work on it based on how they react." I had to finish the movie. That was it. And in seeing the film at Sundance and at other places I sort of felt a few things that we could do so it is an altered version but I'm pretty sure that had you seen the film at Sundance and you saw it again now, you wouldn't even notice it. You would hopefully just say, "Yeah, seems like a little bit better somehow, a little bit shorter."
In fact, when I was in the edit room with Joel Silver, who I did not know – I only knew him by reputation, so I was terrified – he was afraid of me. He was afraid I was going to do too many changes to it. Because he really, really liked the movie as it was. So it's a totally surreal experience for me. Believe me I did not expect to have this kind of experience, but it really is everything that I could ever hope for; and I think the film is being treated in the best possible way.
On how well he relates to his characters:
Obviously, I must have some parenting issues. If you ask my wife, who's probably here somewhere… [Laughs.] She's not laughing. But anyway, I think it's terrifying creating something. Even a movie, let alone a child, because your beholden to it, you're responsible to it and at some point you don't have control over it. Even a film eventually leaves the nest and then it becomes whatever it becomes. It kind of develops its own life so I think if there's a character in the film I think I relate to the Elsa character, Sarah's character, who kind of makes a child rather than has one naturally because she feels she can control it more in a scientific context. So maybe I relate to her a bit.