David Cronenberg and Viggo Mortensen agree there are certain similarities between A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, but it was the differences that ultimately made it an irresistible proposition.
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David Cronenberg jokes that he had to resort to extreme methods to talk his A History of Violence star Viggo Mortensen into signing on to their new project Eastern Promises. There are certain similar points in the two movies that gave the actor pause, but the director ultimately prevailed.
"We did talk about it and finally, as I tried to seduce Viggo into doing the movie, I managed to convince him by the use of drugs and other means and electric shock and waterboarding that it was so different," he laughs while speaking to FilmStew during a recent pre-Toronto visit along with Mortensen to San Francisco. Both films are mob movies, but A History of Violence is distinctly American and Mortensen's character Tom is an all-American archetype, the guy who comes to a new place and completely reinvents himself.
In the London-set Eastern Promises, Mortensen plays Nikolai, a man who has also had to begin life anew far from home. But for this driver employed by Russian mob scion Kirill (Vincent Cassel), trying to erase his past to create a different persona is not an option. Tattoos that decorate the ex-con's ripped body tell the story of his life, a past that cannot be denied. But the tats only reveal a part of the tale, forming a narrative of what the man has done, but not who he is.
"He's very mysterious. We ultimately don't know Nikolai," Cronenberg suggests.
Even with the differences between the two films, there was reluctance on Mortensen's part that Cronenberg had to overcome. "When we were first discussing it, it was, OK, the milieu is completely different," Cronenberg remembers. "All of these things were pretty attractive and interesting for an actor, but there is that similarity. It is a mob movie, [but] basically, experientially, the act of playing that role would be so different from playing Tom that it would be very exciting and challenging to play this character. It would not feel like a repeat."
"I felt the same about what I was doing, that it was different enough," he adds. "We knew that people would probably look at these movies as a kind of matched pair and I did think it would be a pretty interesting double bill."
In the end, it was probably a role that Mortensen could not turn down; there was too much meat on it to resist, especially for an actor who immerses himself in research to the extent that he does. He did not just work with a dialect coach, learn some Russian and immerse himself in Russian literature. He traveled to Russia, spending weeks there, getting to know the country and its people, including some of the disreputable types that no doubt someone like Nikolai would count as associates.
Mortensen researched the Vory V Zakone, the Russian mob, as well as the sex trade that is bread-and-butter for Kirill and his family. The tattoos that figure so prominently in the movie were not part of Dirty Pretty Things screenwriter Steve Knight's original script, but added after Mortensen came across them as part of his prep work.
All that homework led Mortensen to conclude that Nikolai does share something with Tom. There is a reinvention that has taken place, but Nikolai's transformation is not self-conscious like Tom's and his motivation is not the same. He is not hiding from anything; he is ambitious.
"There is an aspect to Nikolai, which is if he's just a driver, the fact that he made his way from a hardcore prison guy to be able to be trusted by guys like that and drive, even with those tattoos, he's already sort of worked hard and been clever enough to get there, that's two lives already in some sense," observes Mortensen.
The actor admits there was another incentive to signing on for a second movie with Cronenberg: making movies with Cronenberg is fun. To the director, making movies is play, kind of like a weeks-long recess. "You have to remember that basically you're children. Talk about innocence, you have to allow yourself to be innocent when you're making a movie," Mortensen explains. "You have to be like children, because after all, you're putting on funny mustaches that aren't real. You're putting on clothes; you're calling each other by names that you are not. It's like playing in a sandbox and you don't want to lose that naivet and that innocence. You want to create a reality. You can't be cynical and you can't be too adult.
"Most directors who have anywhere near the technical know-how and the preparation that David has kind of stay in that adult serious business area as they're shooting," the actor continues. "Partly because they don't know how to loosen up and have fun and because they're not secure enough in themselves to sort of let things come to them on the day or some strange idea from an actor or a crew member or the weather, whatever, just so something goes wrong.
[With David], there is no wrong, just use it, and his being that way makes it fun and allows quirky things to happen and makes people like me feel comfortable enough to relax and see what happens to us, without thinking, 'Oh, he's not going to like this.' Anything goes to an extent, as long as you're focused and prepared for the day's work."
Mortensen also appreciates that Cronenberg understands the kind of direction actors need to deliver a performance. One of the themes of Eastern Promises is a loss of innocence as Naomi Watts plays a midwife who is trying to find the family of an anonymous immigrant teenager who died during childbirth. She takes the girl's Russian-language diary to restaurateur Armin Mueller-Stahl and asks him to translate it. The man is grandfatherly, sweet, so she does not realize at first that she has stumbled into a viper's nest. Anna plunges into a netherworld where she gets an education that she really could have done without.
But when it came to making the movie, that theme played no part. It is of no use to Cronenberg as a filmmaker and even less use to the actors. "I can't make a movie about abstractions," he says. "I don't think in terms of themes. When I'm thinking about doing a movie, when I'm making a movie, I don't think about themes.
"Imagine it this way; you cannot photograph an abstract concept like innocence," he insists. "Likewise, an actor cannot play an abstract concept either. I can't say, 'I want you to embody innocence in your performance.' That's a sure way to make an actor break down and cry, because there's no way to do that."
Mortensen agrees. "When you're doing it, it doesn't serve any purpose other than to distract you and kill the spontaneity of what's happening, because really when the train starts moving and you've done all this preparation, then it has its own life, the shoot," he says. "It's just a struggle to tell a story.
"I knew that I was playing a character, who even in complicated and savage circumstances is for whatever reason trying to do, according to his own code of ethics, the right thing," Mortensen adds. "It's very complicated and it's actually a threat to your personal safety in some cases, hers, mine, several people where people seem one thing bad, cold, or crazy maybe what are they doing? It's of no use to you to try to help someone you don't know.
"It may endanger you; you're not going to get anything out of it. Why are you doing it? That inexplicable thing that happens with humans called compassion. That's in a way this story, it's as savage as it can be, it's a movie about an unexpected kind of a kindness in the face of all the harshness and savagery."
Mortensen is still outraged that in spite of A History of Violence's sterling reviews, the Academy and all the other awards organizations ignored Cronenberg. The director is just as miffed that his regular collaborators, including production designer Carol Spier and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, are routinely passed over for prizes except in Canada. They are not even nominated. Mortensen, too, he thought should have received at least an Oscar nomination for A History of Violence.
"Frankly I think what Viggo did was too subtle for him to get an Oscar, but it was fantastic what he did," the director suggests. "For me, it was the best performance of the year and of course I'm prejudiced but I saw what was going into that. It was a very beautifully, finely crafted performance, but it's just not flamboyant or flashy in the sort of obvious ways."
But Cronenberg also realizes that when it comes to movies like A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, there is a prejudice against genre pictures, in spite of the fact that those are the type of movies that tend to eventually emerge as classics. "At the Cannes Film Festival, History of Violence was in the festival and people loved it there and then later they asked the President of the Jury and he said, 'Well, if there were more people on the jury who liked genre films then it would have won the Palm d'Or.' He actually said that," sighs Cronenberg.
"These movies have a soul," insists Mortensen. "There's a reason you want to go see it again. It's not just because, 'Oh now that I know that, I want to see the initial part of the story.' There's something that stays with you. There's a residue of something very human and it's hard to put your finger on that we all have. And what I love about him as a storyteller is that he doesn't tell you everything. What's going to happen to them now? I really think about that. I gotta see that again. That's a good story. And you don't really feel that way, I don't anyway, with most movies, even by good directors. I just don't get that feeling afterwards."