Last week we posted the first part of our interview with Splice director Vincenzo Natali in which he discussed how he would adapt a few of his future projects, mainly William Gibson's Neuromancer and J.G. Ballard's High Rise. This week, however, the interview is all about his wonderfully twisted and brave creature feature opening everywhere this Friday (that's June 4th if you don't have a calendar handy).
Cinematical: After Sundance, when Warner Brothers picked Splice up and gave it to Dark Castle, there was a lot of talk of it getting re-edited, what exactly is the difference between this cut and the Sundance/Sitges cuts? I'm assuming those two were identical.
Vincenzo Natali: That's right. This is a new version. It's marginally different. It's two minutes and eleven seconds shorter. It's really cosmetic kind of stuff that we did to the film with a few small exceptions. I cut out a short scene at the end of the movie where Adrien Brody finds something just because it was slowing action down when it should have been moving. And we added one shot to help clarify the final reveal of Dren. Other than that, it's basically the same film. We cleaned up the dialogue a bit in the mix and we did some work on the color grade, too.
I was terrified, believe me. I was elated and terrified at the same time when Joel Silver picked up the film, because it was obviously such a wonderful opportunity but at the same time I didn't know him, except by reputation, and I didn't know what he was going to do to the film. And I didn't have control over it, either.
Cinematical: You have been kind of burned in the past by big studio pick ups.
Natali: It's just a classic story, right? But in this case, ironically, Joel was more afraid of me. He thought I would do too much. It was a wonderful experience, actually.
Cinematical: It's a daring pickup for them. When I saw it yesterday, one of my first reactions was, "Dark Castle, really? They've got some balls."
Natali: Yeah, it says everything about Joel. I've got to tell you, I'm very impressed. It's kind of visionary for him to go in and pick up something like this. Only he could have done it. If not for him, it would never have happened. It's a one in a million kind of situation here, we were extremely lucky. Even moreso because he was so respectful of the film.
Cinematical: Where did you begin your research for the script? And once that was done, where did you begin research on production design?
Natali: It was all about staying pretty close to the truth, pretty close to reality. When co-writing the script it was all done in close consultation with a real geneticist. And I was consistently amazed when I would propose something I wanted to do in the script and whether or not it was possible and invariably he would say yes. I was really amazed how my fiction was so potentially close to reality. That was affirmed even more as time passed on and the real science evolved exponentially to the point where when we started to shoot the film they had legalized the creation of animal hybrids in the UK.
So I really didn't feel the need to exaggerate too much. In no way is this a documentary, it is larger than life. At the time I tried not to go over the top, particularly in the design of the labs and the design of Dren herself. We just tried to stay close to what is possible and what is real and I'm glad that came through. It was a little bit of a scary choice for me as a filmmaker, you know, because genetic labs are actually kind of boring. They're very industrial and not particularly photogenic.
Cinematical: One of the reasons the design stuck with me is I actually used to build datacenters in labs for a living.
Natali: Oh, you're kidding.
Cinematical. Nope, and you really got a lot of the little touches down, of giving everything an air of functionality.
Natali: Well we had a really great production designer, Todd Cherniawsky, who has been an art director on huge movies like Avatar and Alice and Wonderland. He's really good with the tech, he knows his stuff.
Cinematical: Have you screened Splice for any bio-chemists?
Natali: No, we should do it. We've stayed in touch with the geneticist that I worked with and we'll be seeing him there in Toronto when we present it. I'd be curious to see how they respond. Most of the people I was in contact with were very supportive of the project, of the idea of it. None of them took it too seriously, I don't think they took it to heart. They saw the humor in it.
I'd love to screen it for a room full of geneticists. I hope we don't inspire them too much.
Cinematical: You totally should. I know that Duncan Jones screened Moon at the NASA Johnson Space Center and did a Q&A after. You should do the same somewhere like Johns Hopkins.
Natali: Yeah, that's a great idea, it really is. I've found that working in the film business doors will open for you because there's this misguided belief that it's a glamorous business. And the geneticists are as interested in us as we are in them. Consistently I've met amazing people.
(---SPOILER ALERT! Skip to the next question if you like!)
Cinematical: One of the things I loved most about the film was the evolution of all three characters, not just Dren, and their emotional evolution, the cycles that they go through. Did you have an endgame in mind for each character and write toward that? Or did it all just blossom from, "This is my story, these are my people."?
Natali: You know, it's almost hard to remember because it was so long ago we started working on this, but I'm pretty sure we knew how it was going to go. I will say this, until the later drafts of the script, but in previous versions Clive had survived. He and Elsa end up going to lab together to start a new project and I ultimately felt that wasn't written, that Clive had to be punished. He crossed a line and there was no way we could allow him to survive. Somehow with Elsa I was a little more forgiving.
The real underlying structure of the film has always been the same from the beginning. I think the things that were tough about it were all the boring things, the B-plot, everything related to the pharmaceutical corporation. Honestly, that took the most time to figure out because it's the least exciting part of the story but it's necessary to hold all the pieces together.
Cinematical: One of the great things about the script are the cycles of abuse. Was that something specifically you wanted to flesh out?
Natali: This was an ongoing debate of how much of Elsa's past we should give out. I was always reticent and my co-writers were as well because it's such a maudlin, melodramatic thing and ultimately we decided that less is more. But we felt it was necessary to have it because this is a kind of mother-daughter story and it makes sense that Elsa's relationship to her mother should come into play. I think it says a lot of about Else and why things don't go so well with her artificially made child. And at the end of the day hopefully that's what elevates the movie above being just another Frankenstein story.
Cinematical. Oh, it does. Most creature features don't have much subtext beyond the God complex, but Splice has far more going on with its characters, which is why I think it's such an interesting entry to that genre. Now, as a tangent to that, how involved have you been with the marketing of the film?
Natali: Let me put it this way, I've been consulted and I didn't expect that. I assume it's unusual with the studio, but I don't know, this is my first studio experience. But Warner Brothers have been so cool, they've let me set in on a lot of the stuff. But, I had nothing to do with the actual creation of it, I was just there to kind of lend my comments. I'm curious to know how it works because they're definitely selling a different kind of film.
Cinematical: Exactly. It's all very curious to me. Tracing it back, did Senator [the now-bankrupt former distributor of Splice] finance the film from the beginning or were they solely distributors?
Natali: It's such a long story, but everything to go right everything had to go wrong. Senator, which is a German company, branched out to the US in hopes of starting a distribution arm here. Splice was one of their first acquisitions and their interest in the film was partly what allowed it to get the green light from the French company that financed it. But by the time the film was finished, Senator was not in great financial condition and they collapsed shortly after the film was completed.
Cinematical: Well my curiosity is, early on in the production a lot of concept art found its way online. Sites like Twitch became huge supporters of the film and early on it seemed like there was no huge campaign of secrecy. We saw Dren early on. I don't know if that was accidental or not.
Natali: Oh, it was totally accidental! It's the Internet. It's amazing.
Cinematical: Well what fascinates me about that is a lot of other creature features bank on hiding their creature because that's all they've got. That was not the case with Splice. Early on, at least. So having seen the film, the shock and the intrigue of what's going on are just as much the feature as the creature is. However, Warner Brothers seems to have pretended that early stuff, which I now know wasn't online as part of your plan, doesn't exist. And they're marketing a very different kind of movie.
Natali: Right, right. I think you could almost write a book about the making and selling of the film because that's its own unique and interesting story that is very much related to the whole condition of the independent film industry which has, frankly, gotten worse and worse and worse over the last few years. The fact that all that information got onto the Internet is because no one was in control. There was no central brain that was coordinating everything. When materials were created for the marketplace to sell the film they inevitably ended up online. But in a weird way, I don't think it hurt us. In some ways it couldn't have been planned better.
When Warner Brothers came on...they're such a beast, such a monster that they figured they could, and quite rightly, that they could rebrand the film any way the want. And I think they've deliberately chosen to sell the horror element of the movie and sidestep some of the more emotional aspects of the story. It's very scientific, let me tell you. It actually freaks me out when I see how they market test all their materials. It is done like they're geneticists, like they're doing an experiment.
I trust that they know what they're doing and that they're doing it the right way, but it isn't the movie. It'll be interesting to see how people responded. But I guess they're used to it, to a slightly different kind of product being marketed than what we really have.
Cinematical: It was sort of a shock to me yesterday at the screening, I will admit. The film on screen is not the film that's in the trailer.
Natali: Hah, that's interesting. And how was that for you? Was it disappointing in any way?
Cinematical: Not not in the least, though I will admit that there were people at the press screening who I could not understand their reaction to it. I'm not sure how much of that is them not "getting it" and how much is fallout from the marketing.
Natali: I don't know, it could be fallout. That's very interesting.
Cinematical: Well, pulling back from the marketing to get back to the characters, in your opinion, how much of Dren's behavior is do to nature versus nurture?
Natali: I side more on the nurture end of the spectrum, which may be a little surprising given the subject matter of the film. I think that under the right conditions Dren would have had a happier childhood, no question about it. Clive and Elsa weren't prepared for it, the world wasn't prepared for it, so she becomes their prisoner.
My opinion about Dren is that perhaps she's a step up on the evolutionary later. There's nothing wrong with her per se, she's not like Frankenstein's monster in the James Whale movies who gets the abnormal brain; her brain is fine. Physically she's in very good shape, very good condition. There's no reason it couldn't have worked if the conditions had been better.
Cinematical: To me this is such a genre chimera. It's sci-fi and horror, but it's also an emotional drama and, this one of the things I was very surprised by, is the comedy.
Natali: Oh right, definitely.
Cinematical: What was your philosophy in striking the balance between all those different elements?
Natali: You know, maybe that's my problem as a filmmaker, but I don't think I had a philosophy. Part of it comes from the simple fact that I don't get to make movies very often, so when I do I want to put everything in it. I have such a pent up energy.
Cinematical: Well all those contributions are what I think make Splice so great. It's not like normal creature features that simply go "Okay, we're going to make a creature feature" and out comes Species.
Natali: I couldn't agree more and that's what's so frustrating in this industry. Particularly when it comes to genre films, there is a very conservative mentality. What it really boils down to is that formula works. If it didn't work, people would start to experiment. But it works so they don't want to try something like Splice, because maybe Splice won't work. Although, I personally take the perspective that the things that work the best are new, original concepts. But I completely agree, it's very hard to find – and I'm a great lover of monster movies – but it's hard to find things that are new.
What was the last one that felt totally fresh? I guess District 9, though to me that's less a monster movie and more pure science fiction.
Cinematical: To me, one of my favorite – and other people haven't agreed with me that it is one – but my favorite creature feature of the last few years is Teeth.
Natali: Oh! I haven't seen that! I wanted to see that. I'll definitely have to see it now.
Cinematical: This is sort of an obligatory question, but do you have any plans for a Splice sequel?
Natali: Let me put it this way, if Warner Brothers said they were making a Splice sequel, then I would not let the film be made without my involvement. I would stay involved. Once again, though, I don't really control these things. I don't have a burning desire to do a sequel. Even though the film seems like it's inviting a sequel, that really wasn't my intention, I just felt it was the right way to finish the story.
I had an experience with the Cube movies where I intentionally divorced myself from them but invariably people assumed I was involved with them.
Cinematical: Well that's because they're almost identical.
Natali: Yeah, well, that's part of the reason I didn't want to do a sequel. I think at least with Splice that could become something else. The best sequels for me are ones that don't repeat the story from the first one, that expand it somehow. Either way, that won't be up to me, it will be up to how much money it makes and what the studio wants to do.