June 6, 2010|I had been invited to interview Vincenzo Natali, and although I immediately acquainted myself with his previous work, nothing could prepare me for the film he was coming to Boston to promote. Indeed, anyone who's seen the trailers for Natali's latest, the Frankenstein-ian family drama Splice, is certain to be surprised by what the final product has in store. You didn't see that one comin', did ya? I know I didn't.
Natali's career has taken an appropriately unpredictable trajectory: he began work as a storyboard artist for Saturday morning cartoons and later went on to direct a popular little sci-fi/horror picture called Cube. In between the low-budget flicks that followed, he helmed a segment of the anthology film Paris, je t'aime, as well as a documentary about Terry Gilliam for the Tideland DVD. Natali clearly regards Splice, his fourth and most widely-released theatrical feature (it opened on 2500 screens this past Friday), as an important turning point in his life--and I got the distinct impression that its mainstream attention has left him somewhat bewildered. There's nothing meek or insecure about him, but he's not entirely sure how this movie will be received by the public-at-large; he greets discussions about its thematic arc with loud, boisterous laughter and struggles to locate the right metaphors without revealing too much of his thought process. (He also expresses legitimate surprise upon learning that I had taken the time to watch his other films.) Ultimately, such concerns seem outweighed by an unfaded enthusiasm for his craft. There are extensive plans for future projects (including an adaptation of Neuromancer and maybe even an interpretation of Alan Moore's run on "Swamp Thing"), though at this very moment, Natali just looks happy to have come this far. He knows he's made a strange and demanding film, and he couldn't be prouder.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: Where do science and the supernatural intersect for you?
VINCENZO NATALI: Well, I have a project I've been working on for years that deals exactly with that question, and it's a thorny issue. I mean, I don't think they do intersect, actually. I just think that--that's the problem. (laughs) But I do feel like--and I can say this from my experience doing the research I did on Splice--that when you see something like...a pig fetus. I'll give you my personal example: I once saw a pig fetus that was composed of a hundred cells. And it had a heart--or the beginnings of a heart. No blood, but it had a heart. And that heart was beating. And to me, that was kind of a spiritual experience. Because I felt that that was like the most raw expression of life, or the life force, that I had ever experienced, and it made me feel like there was something driving that organism to exist that no scientific formula could ever define. So in that regard, I think that's where science meets spirituality. But I don't really believe in, y'know, (quietly) magic or, y'know, I don't believe in God or anything in that sense. So I think it's just more of a human reaction to a scientific phenomenon.
In that case, do you think that science oversteps boundaries? Just the way that you present the scientists in Splice, they seem like college students, really--even before we talk about these extreme moral boundaries, they don't seem to know what they're doing.
No, they don't think about those things, and I think it's the folly of youth, and sort of what's really what's so wonderful about Clive and Elsa. They really are very pure in their intentions. They're driven by the pure desire to plow untouched fields of--ah, skip that metaphor, don't use that! (laughs) But they're really courageous in their pursuit of pure science, and they operate with the best of intentions. And in a sense, I think you [can] say that's sort of a naïve perspective, but it's also inspiring and charming. And I think where they go wrong is simply that, while they have a complete grasp of the chemical makeup of life, they don't really understand truly what the meaning of life is, or the essence of life is. And so when they make Dren, they're not really prepared for her. They don't really know with her, and then problems arise.
Believe me, from having spent some time in real labs, I can tell you that there are Clives and Elsas out there--I mean, it's a young crowd of people working in that field. I would say the mean age of the places I went to was probably somewhere around thirty. A lot of people were doing undergraduate studies, and doing work in a lab on the side. So, it's a very youthful kind of field. [T]his being the next major industrial revolution, after the Information Age, I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if we see a couple punks splicing together new organisms. If you look at what's required to do this work, it's not terribly sophisticated equipment. A lot of what you find in the average lab can be found in your kitchen. It's really just a very sophisticated form of cooking--or [an] eccentric form of cooking. So the idea that these punks would get their hands on the building blocks of life is a very exciting and, I suppose, terrifying proposition, but it really is based in fact.
How do those ideas clash with how you present the emotional connections--and the emotional disconnect--that these characters eventually feel for their children/experiments?
I half-jokingly refer to [Splice] as my family film, and it really does develop into a familial relationship between creators and creation. Clive and Elsa are complicated characters. Elsa has a bit of a history: she comes from an abusive background. Clive wants children, but she doesn't, probably because she's a little afraid of becoming like her mother or what that would mean for her, personally. So she inadvertently builds her child in the lab, and discovers all these latent maternal instincts. I think that was really what was really enticing to me about the whole idea of Splice, was that it was going to be a creature film, but a creature film spliced with a relationship story. We would truly see how these scientists develop a very deep and complex relationship with the thing that they've made ...So it is very much an emotional connection--I mean, they very quickly stop being scientists and start becoming parents--and it makes perfect sense, because they've made something that's sentient, and that can feel. You know, the very kernel of the movie came from a photo I saw of this mouse, this experimental mouse that appeared to have a human ear growing out of its back. I don't know if you know this thing, but it was called the "Vacanti mouse," and it was done at MIT. It wasn't a genetic experiment, but still--it looked like one. And I was really struck by the vulnerability of this little creature, and I think that's sort of the essence of the movie. Dren is very much a victim, and I think the true monsters in this film, ultimately, are revealed to be the human beings.
So this schism between creator and creation--how do you feel about that as an artist? You name these characters Clive and Elsa, who name their own creations Ginger and Fred...
...Well, I think the movie is, on one level, about being responsible for what you make, and how, when you make things, they have a life of their own. And you can apply that to a movie as much as to [an] organism. This movie is, very shortly, going to be out in the world, and I won't have control over it. But in the making of it, I found myself really becoming beholden to it. This was a very demanding child, and it took a lot of my life. At certain points, it felt like it was killing me. Making anything, whether you're making a baby, or you're making a drawing, or a computer program, it takes something from you. There's a very active relationship between you and the things you create, so that's absolutely what this film is about. I consistently find that art imitates life and vice versa.
What is your fascination with videogames? I noticed it with Nothing, that whole subplot there [in which the characters' fates hang on a "Dead or Alive" tournament]...and how you used the "Joystix" font [used by arcade and console games in the mid-to-late-'80s] for the onscreen "day" counter [in Splice].
I don't know. I guess I'm the first generation to grow up with videogames. I'm dating myself, but I remember "Pong". I'll never forget, I had an experience once where--I was quite young, I was maybe seven or eight years old--and I was playing a videogame, but it was incredible, because this game... I didn't have to put any quarters in it. I could just play it without putting any money in the machine. I was so excited, and then I realized--oh no, I'm not playing the game, it's just running a program. It's just playing back a game, and I'm not actually controlling it. And in a way, that was quite a profound realization, because in the moment when I thought I was playing it, I was just as engaged as if the game were really happening. But in truth, it was happening all by itself--it didn't matter what I did. And I think you could extend that metaphor to life. There are moments in your life when you're living this videogame that is life--where every moment counts, and you're on the edge of your seat, waiting to see what happens next, and desperately trying to steer the thing one way or the other. I'm sure everyone at some point feels like, It really doesn't matter what we do. Life is just gonna take whatever course it decides to take. It becomes about determinism and fate and all of those things. So I really see in these old Atari videogames some pretty profound metaphors for everyday life.
And in those early games, no matter how long you play, the house always wins.
Exactly. You know, Harlan Ellison wrote a whole essay about that, condemning videogames because he felt that that's what they were teaching children, was that you could never win.
So that extends into your work, obviously, this lack of control. Cube, especially, and even in Nothing, they can't control their own powers.
Absolutely. I try not to be too self-conscious about these things, but I'm a big fan of Kafka. I always feel like the most frightening thing in the world is something that you can't define...[A] force that is greater than yourself, that you can't fully comprehend. I think we're living in a time that's very hard to simulate. There's just so much going on, so fast, and no one knows where it's going, and it all feels out of control--and I think for most people, that's precisely what we feel like. We're trapped in some giant videogame and someone else is at the controls.
I know you'd mentioned what you thought about the Cube sequels at the Q & A, but just as a matter of curiosity, what's it like to have someone sequelize your own work and take it in a direction that you didn't intend?
It's kind of exciting, actually. What I failed to mention at the Q & A--because I was speaking somewhat disparagingly about the idea of the Cube sequels--but on one hand, it's very flattering that anyone would want to make a sequel. It's so hard making a movie, and frequently they don't work out. They don't get distributed. It's very difficult just to get a movie seen. So if somebody makes a sequel, it means that your film had value, and it's a very affirming feeling. So on some level, it's kinda great, and it's interesting to see what other people will do with your idea. I think my discomfort with the Cube sequels simply comes from the fact that people think I had something to do with them, and I truly didn't, for better or worse. I can't claim ownership of them, and I don't want to. It's just not my work. So that's really the only issue.
Sarah Polley meets her daughter in Splice
|"I want to be left with the responsibility of interpreting a film myself, and hopefully all my films offer you that opportunity."|
Growing up in the '70s, do you have a strong connection to that [decade of] cinema? I know that you had talked about Eraserhead as a precursor to Splice, but I also thought maybe there was some connection to domestic drama of that era.
(contemplative pause) Ah, not really. I was pretty young--I was born in 1969, so the really great cinema of the '70s, I wasn't really privy to, because it was very adult. I discovered it later. But I see what you're saying, because Splice [attempts to] create the relationship quite seriously. But that's something I really discovered later, the real great cinema of the '70s. I wasn't in movie theatres watching it, I was watching it on video later in life. But yeah, like anything after 1977, I know. That was kind of when my film consciousness got turned on.
Talking about serious drama... In this [postmodern, ironic] landscape that we live in, it's so easy to descend into self-parody. What are the challenges there?
I guess what's challenging is when you have a relationship story and then you splice it with a creature movie, and there's an inherent danger of it becoming ridiculous. When you really think about it, the whole idea of Splice seems completely absurd. And I sort of embraced that to some degree, but I never wanted it to become campy. I never wanted to be self-referentially funny or winking at the audience or anything like that. That was the risk. I didn't really think about it that much, I just sort of went for it--but that's the danger. I was very cognizant of the fact that the scene where Clive dances with Dren could elicit laughs--bad laughs--and it could be seen [as] ridiculous. And if it works in the movie, it really works because of the actors. I think they give great, great performances and you believe them, and care about them. But there was just nothing to be done about it. I just tried to do my best, and I just went for it.
The film really deals with not just familial relationships, but how they shift. How does that come across to you--how familial relationships shift between mother and child, experiment and parent... Parent and rapist?
(laughs) Well, you know, Dren is a unique situation, of course, because she grows at an accelerated rate. Clive and Elsa, the span of several months, go through what most parents go through in the course of twenty years. So they run the gamut, and there's an inevitable power shift that occurs between Clive and Elsa, because in the beginning, Elsa has a very strong connection with Dren, when Dren is really like a young child--but as Dren grows into adolescence, she starts to be drawn towards Clive. Elsa, as a result, becomes alienated from Dren, [and] we really begin to see that Clive is the one developing a strong bond with Dren. There's just a dynamic there that probably happens in a lot of families--kids, at one point they favour the mother and at another they favour the father, and that creates tension. At the end of the day, it's really a love triangle. A really complicated one, but it is a triangle. And given that the movie is very hermetic, and there's not a lot going on outside of those three characters--that's where the action is. It kind of has to be about the development of the characters. And both Clive and Elsa are on these sort of opposing trajectories, and there's a brief moment in the middle of the film where they meet, where everyone seems to be on the same side--and then they kind of drift apart again.
But you say a "love triangle"--that in itself presents loads of problems. Not just within a familial power shift, but between a platonic love, a genuine love, and a much more horrible kind of love. How do you deal with those shifts?
Well, as I say, you just sort of hold your breath and you jump. I think that's how you have to make this kind of movie. But that's what's so exciting about it. It's so hard making a film--it takes a lot of effort and time, and... I'm lazy. I can't devote that much energy to something that I'm not impassioned about. With the case of Splice, I always believed in it, I firmly believed it was a film that should be made. And I partly believed in it because--I have to be honest--I believe it has things in it that no other movie has. But because it's something new, and a little outrageous, it is risky. There was every possibility that the thing would just fall on its face. But, y'know, that's the thrill of it.
Your films have very strong themes, and [it's obvious that] you want to convey them... How do you avoid didacticism?
Oh, do I avoid it? (laughs) I hope I do! Well, I think ambiguity is what saves you. I think at the end of Splice, you don't know a hundred percent what the filmmaker thinks about all of this. There is definitely a school of filmmaking where you don't want there to be any question at the end of a movie what people should think. For me, personally, I like...to walk away from the movie not a hundred percent sure entirely what's transpired. I want to be left with the responsibility of interpreting a film myself, and hopefully all my films offer you that opportunity. They all end with a question, they're all somewhat open-ended. And that way, I think, you avoid making it into a diatribe. [Hopefully not] coming across like somebody on a soapbox condemning genetic engineering. Not at all--I have very good feelings towards science, and in many ways think it's the only, inevitable direction that we'll go in.