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‘Eastern Promises’ Interview: Cronenberg and His Russian Underworld

[IMG:L]Critically acclaimed director David Cronenberg manifests his expertise in violence, horror and sexual exploitation in his latest criminal thriller Eastern Promises. The mastermind behind The Fly (1986), Dead Ringers (1988), Crash (1996) and A History of Violence (2005) reaffirms his legendary director status with this mesmerizing exploration of underground Eastern European organized crime families, infiltrating London neighborhoods.

A riveting and character-driven film, Eastern Promises illustrates the cruel violence and heavy sex-trafficking trade, predominantly controlled by the Russian mob. Cronenberg’s remarkable attention to detail and authenticity generates a daunting, hypnotic reality on screen. In collaborating with uber-talented stars Viggo MortensenNaomi Watts and Vincent Cassel, he conceives nothing short of a captivating masterpiece.

While in Toronto, the iconic director revealed important aspects of making his latest opus: the adaptation process, collaborating with Mortensen, and working with a talented cast and crew to bring a compelling story to life.

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[IMG:R]Hollywood.com: If a script incorporates a “sex scene” or “fight scene,” how much detail do want to see–if any at all?
David Cronenberg: I don’t mind how ever much detail anybody wants to put in the script, but really, it would be an 800-page script…a novel…if you really described enough that you could make the movie from the script with out any discussion. A script is not a blue print. You can build a house from a blue print. You cannot build a movie from a script; [ironic smile] I think those rascally lazy writers–of course Steve [Knight] being one of them–they know that. The research, for example, that Steve did is not that deep. I don’t say that as a flaw, because he doesn’t want to interrupt his [writing] flow to do that.

HW: So Knight‘s screenplay writing is vastly different than novel writing?
DC: If he were a novelist, he’d either do the research himself, or have researchers; and it’d take him five years to write the novel. You’re not going to do that with a script because he [Knight] knows that once we start making the movie we’ll have 150 crew members who are dedicated, obsessive and very talented and go and dig into all of those things that are mentioned in the movie.

HW: So how were some of the “fight scenes” written into Eastern Promises?
DC: The fight scene. I mean, two guys with knives come in and they fight. In fact in Knight’s original script they weren’t killed and I was like, “No, they have to die!” I thought: there’s no way they can just punch each other. The script changed a lot in the work that we did. He was a wonderful collaborator and he was very excited about the stuff I came up with, and in fact what Viggo came up with too, about the tattooing for example, that was in the script but it wasn’t as deep or as central a metaphor as it became.

[IMG:L]HW: What else did Viggo bring to the table?
DC: It was Viggo who found these books called Russian Criminal Tattoo, which are fantastic, and a documentary called The Mark of King, that we really understood this subculture of tattooing in Russian prisons–and how it went back to Czarist days before Russia and how it evolved…and how it emerges…and how it shifted. I sent it to Steven and said, “When you see this, when we do our next rewrite, you’re going to want to incorporate this.” No writer could not [sic] be excited by that, and he was.

HW: So with input from a range of collaborators, from script to screen, what’s the journey of adapting a big scene?
DC: The fight scene took weeks to choreograph, two days to shoot–and it took him 10 minutes to write.

HW: Did you always certain actors in mind for the part?
: Well, it doesn’t always happen this way, but when I was reading the script several actors began to emerge in my mind. Viggo was the first one. Armin Mueller-Stahl and Vincent Cassel–they started to float up. It’s all intuition. I think of all the aspects of directing that people don’t understand, casting as the most crucial one. I’ll have people say, “Did you choose any of these actors?” And I’ll say, “All of them! How about that?”

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[IMG:R]HW: What was the onset vibe like working with Naomi Watts?
The thing about Naomi Watts is that she’s so real. She is stunning on set. She is effortlessly real. That’s the hardest trick for an actor–to be real. It sounds like an obvious thing, but if you’ve ever tried it you’d know [abruptly laughing]. She loved this character. For us, we are introduced to this insular world through her eyes. There’s a contrast there between her English life that is very white bread and very drab–and kind of dull…and she sort of comes into this world which is represented by the restaurant that’s very full of color, vivacity, children, music and exotic food.

HW: Did Viggo’s multi-cultural upbringing impact your storytelling?
A director has a relationship with actors that’s quite strange. In the sense that after they’re gone from the set you’re still with them because you’re editing them and you’re watching their face every day for hours macroscopically. I really thought, “He looks so Russian. He looked very Slavic. The cheek bones.” That was before I even read the script. Viggo has a great ear and speaks several languages and he did wonderful subtle accents in History of Violence. So, I was confident that he could do what was needed which was I didn’t want this to be a real fake-y Russian accent with someone fumbling through the Russian. I wanted somebody who could really do it. We’ve all seen wonderful actors do terrible accents.

HW: What was your relationship like working with Viggo, with this being your second film collaboration?
DC: It’s like working with the crew…some of them I’ve worked with for literally over 30 years. You can start at such a higher level because you know each other and there’s none of that figuring each other out and understanding each other and getting the signals right because now you know all that. You have the respect for each other. You know what you can do. You know what’s asking too much and not too much. I feel that we started on a much higher platform and could leap from that, even further than we had gone before. It was just as much fun. It was a great shoot. It was hard but it was great.

[IMG:R]HW: Viggo’s performance was incredibly sublime–it wasn’t a caricature at all.
I think Viggo is a very underrated actor. He’s a star because of one of his least interesting roles really. It was very visual but in terms of acting it wasn’t the most challenging roles. In Lord of the Rings I mean. He’s extremely subtle. In these days, when Jack Nicholson is over-the-top and everybody raves [for the role], a subtle performer like Viggo can get lost in the shuffle. Like I said, I knew he was good when he did History of Violence. But, by the end I knew he was great.

HW: There’s a certain timelessness to this story, where there’s no indication of what’s going on in the rest of the world outside of these characters. Is this purposeful?
Yes, it’s very insular. It’s a very existentialist exercise. How do you create your own reality? Because there is no one reality that holds for every person or every culture. It’s all different and suddenly you get these multiple realities represented by these multiple cultures. London is a multi-cultural city. Very different from the American melting pot theory where everybody gives up their own values to become an American. That’s not the way it works there, or in America, but that was the theory.

HW: So you’re drawn to these cultural divides?
You have all these cultures that are very insular. They’re bringing with them animosities and hostilities from their own countries that go back thousands of years. So, there’s a weird desire to encapsulate yourself–to cocoon yourself–but it’s like criminal globalization; and they [these cultures] have to collaborate with each other to do business, but they never trust each other and there’s always the possibility of violence hovering on the edge.

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