Combustible Celluloid

Interview: David Cronenberg & Viggo Mortensen

From Russia with Lugs

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

August 24, 2007—David Cronenberg and Viggo Mortensen have re-united after their hit A History of Violence (2005) for the extraordinary new gangster film Eastern Promises. It continues on a new, mature path for Cronenberg, exploring the connections between the human body and the world around it, but this time through a tiny Russian community tucked away in London. A midwife, Anna (Naomi Watts), delivers a baby, but the 14 year-old mother dies before she can get any identification. Her only clue leads her to a Russian restaurant, which fronts a vicious criminal family. Mortensen plays a chauffeur -- and also a hired killer -- who exists in a kind of netherworld just outside the family, but not anywhere near Anna's world. As with A History of Violence, outward appearances have little to do with who a person actually is. Mr. Cronenberg and Mr. Mortensen recently sat down with the Las Vegas Weekly to discuss the film further.

Jeffrey M. Anderson: I noticed several mentions of angels in the film, both to describe sweet children, but also to describe more damaged characters ("he was touched by angels").

David Cronenberg: It's basically I think, these Russians, post-Soviet Union, probably have reverted to Eastern Orthodoxy, in a big way. The church has come back. All those years of Communist atheism, and the destruction of churches, which have not eradicated religion, unfortunately. That moment when Nikolai gives the money to the prostitute and then he puts down a little icon, it's almost an angel reference. That's something that Viggo came up with and brought back from Russia. But I would believe that Nikolai probably was a church-going Christian now and expected this prostitute to also be that, or ought to be, and this would help her out of the misery that she found herself in. So the angel lines were not meant to be more significant than that, but I think there is that significance.

JMA: In any case, they cross-connected the two different worlds, the midwife character with the gangsters. The other connection I saw was the hair dryer. (Nikolai uses one to defrost a frozen corpse, while Anna uses one to dry her hair.)

Viggo Mortensen: I laughed out loud the first time I saw that because I hadn't seen that being shot.

DC: The idea really is to suggest is that they are two parallel universes, and even if they're not connected this way, they're connected that way.

VM: It's the exact same hair dryer too.

DC: It's not. I wouldn't do that.

JMA: I didn't even know what city we were in for a long time because we're so deeply immersed.

DC: Our crew, which was mostly English, loved where we were shooting because they'd been on many shoots and they were bored because everybody's shooting in Mayfair or Notting Hill, doing cute stuff. And we were shooting where they feel the real London is, where they live and where working class people live and where immigrants of all kinds live and where subcultures are rubbing up against one another, collaborating in an uneasy alliance, and in this case criminal. It's sort of globalization at its finest.

JMA: I believe this is your first real food movie, in which characters cook and eat and gather for meals, which I think is a great Cronenbergian theme. You've got Armin Mueller-Stahl sprinkling flower petals on the cake...

DC: The cake that was for the birthday of the 100 year old lady, and he's going to give a slice of cake to each one of those ladies and because they're women, he's putting in those rose petals with the cake.

JMA: Then there's that fruit bowl.

DC: That's right, but they're marzipan fruits. It's even more exotic. They're little fake fruit made out of marzipan, miniature apples and pears and stuff like that.

VM: Then there's Uncle Stefan devouring the Wimpy burger.

DC: There's a lot of food in the movie: Russian vs. English food, fast food vs. voluptuous, expensive Russian food, caviar, sturgeon and all that stuff. It was part of the sensuality of the Russian subculture, the culture that has been imported to England, contrasting with Naomi's character Anna living in a drab little place, eating English-type food and suddenly discovering her roots and being very seduced by the voluptuousness of this Russian-ness.

JMA: I'm not a big borscht fan, but that stuff looked good.

DC: Well, you should try some real borscht made by a real Russian. That was fantastic. We got to eat well on that set. The woman who was in charge of the food was incredibly passionate about the food. She's written cookbooks. She's actually Bulgarian. She was literally weeping when she saw the close-ups of the goose, because it was her art. She would bring caviar, but when we did the caviar for the table that nobody was going to eat, it wouldn't be very expensive caviar, but the caviar she brought to me was phenomenal. She was around just when there was food on the set. Otherwise we had normal English catering which I will say no more about.

JMA: The other Cronenbergian element is the tattoos, which here don't necessarily mean what they seem to mean.

DC: The movie is about identity and language and the language of tattoos is another language. And with any language, you can be deceptive or honest. And literally some of the tattoos Viggo had are words that mean things. Like one of them meant "north," but it doesn't just mean "north," it means "white supremacy." Because it's saying "north" and not "south." Not Europeans, but Russians. Real Russians. The northern Russians. It's actually a white supremacists symbol, which you wouldn't understand to be that unless you knew. Everybody in prison would know that that was then part of your personal philosophy.

VM: It is complex. Some of the symbols seem to be one thing but mean another. Some of them seem to be religious but they don't have anything to do with religion. But on another part of your body it might mean something different, and it might have some religious undertones. It just depends where they are. The phrases are kind of literate sometimes. They come from poems or songs. But sometimes there's a twist to them. There's one that's on my back that translates to: "The important thing is to remain human." Sounds good, to remember to have some trace of kindness or compassion. But to prisoners, to remain human means to be a man, take it like a man, respect no one, keep your dignity. Basically be a sonofabitch.

JMA: Viggo, what is it about this guy that you wanted to work with him again?

DC: I pay him.

VM: I have a masochistic streak: corporeal and mental and emotional. No, I like the way he works and I identify with it. I pay him.

DC: I am self-pitying and so it works well.

VM: I was looking forward to meeting Naomi and I didn't meet her until just before we started.

JMA: Your co-star Vincent Cassel seems like a real loon.

DC: But he's not. He's a very technically adept actor. Look at the scene where he's watching Nikoli have sex with the prostitute. It's a very quiet, beautifully observed, very unflashy. You see all kinds of subtle vulnerabilities and regrets and melancholy.

VM: From take to take he's in control of where he's going and he's freeing himself because it's right for the character. It's very smart. It's in perfect contrast. He came and he saw how I was playing Nikolai and he evolved his style as I evolved mine to his. It was a nice dance. You can see that probably every night I have to go where he wants to go, and my job is to get him home and in bed every dawn. Take his vomit-covered clothes off and keep him out of jail and hopefully keep him from seriously injuring someone or killing someone. And get the car home without a scratch on it. Like when we're getting out of the car, he was just all over, and it was great. Because if an actor was just half-doing it, I would have had to push him and make him seem like it. I had to really restrain him. I couldn't have predicted that Vincent would become as I sometimes fondly call "the octopus."

JMA: I was curious about how far you went to learn about the tattoos and the accent and the culture.

VM: I found some materials, some books and also a documentary a friend of mine made called The Mark of Cain [2000, Alix Lambert]. It's a hard thing to do but she went into maximum-security prisons in Russia and spoke to people like Nikolai. And I went to Russia as well. I read and listened to and looked up anything I could that had to do with Russians even loosely connected with this story. The more Russian I could be and seem authentically, the better it would be.

JMA: I loved, Jerzy Skolimowski, who plays uncle Stefan, but I didn't know who he was until I got home and looked him up. There was just something about him.

DC: Also a face you don't see. I remembered him as a director when I was starting to be a director. He was this sort of Polanski Polish school; I think they went to school together. He directed Moonlighting (1982), with Jeremy Irons, which was the movie that convinced me that Jeremy Irons was the right guy for Dead Ringers. Because in that he shows sweetness and vulnerability that he hadn't shown in other movies. And I also remember White Nights (1985) in which Jerzy played a KGB agent. I would love to have had more Russians and Eastern Europeans in those roles, but it's very hard to find Russian actors who speak English well enough to act in English. Out of the blue I somehow thought of Jerzy I didn't know if he was still alive, still acting. He hadn't made a movie in a long time. Sure enough he was still alive, and he knew my Director of Photography, Peter [Suschitzky].

JMA: I would love to ask you about the bathroom fight sequence, which was just phenomenal. You've got Viggo naked, being slammed around in a hard, white-tiled bathroom, by two guys in black leather and boots. I imagine it was difficult to choreograph.

DC: Any fight scene has to be choreographed, because you don't want to hurt anyone. Except I like to hurt him a bit.

VM: and he knows I liked it.

DC: And the camera has to see it, it has to be lit, the actors have to land where the camera is or there's no point in doing it. However free flowing it might seem, and that's what you want, but it all has to be pretty well controlled, or you're going to see lights that you shouldn't see. It took a lot of work, but no more than any fight scene. The unique thing about this is that Viggo is naked in the scene. It's an important part of the scene. But in terms of how we choreographed it and how we shot it, it was as if he had clothes on. We didn't worry about it. And the fact that Viggo was willing to do that really freed me. Not all actors would have the nerve to do that.

Partial David Cronenberg Filmography:
Stereo (1969)
Crimes of the Future (1970)
Shivers (1975)
Rabid (1977)
Fast Company (1979)
The Brood (1979)
Scanners (1980)
Videodrome (1983)
The Dead Zone (1983)
The Fly (1986)
Dead Ringers (1988)
Naked Lunch (1991)
M. Butterfly (1993)
Crash (1996)
eXistenZ (1999)
Spider (2002)
A History of Violence (2005)
Eastern Promises (2007)
A Dangerous Method (2011)
Cosmopolis (2012)

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