"It's impossible to calculate the sensibility of every member of the audience," says the nattily attired, enjoyably serene and ever eloquent David Cronenberg at the Toronto Film Festival. "For some people the violence will be nothing. I can't really accommodate every sensibility, so I have to go with what I think the movie demands".
Eastern Promises is indeed a film that demands violence. And David Cronenberg is more than happy to deliver it. It takes place within a horrific and horribly violent world, and to drain any of that savagery out of the film would go against everything that Cronenberg stands for. After decades of making kinky, twisted films that sat happily outside the mainstream, Cronenberg has lately wedged his way into Hollywood proper, and he's bought his off-kilter sensibilities with him. While films like Dead Ringers, Crash, Spider, eXistenz, The Fly and his earlier film Scanners, The Brood, Videodrome and Rabid have distinctly cult audiences, the success of Cronenberg's last film, A History of Violence, has taken him into a bigger, decidedly more commercial arena. But like that highly adrenalized, beautifully constructed film, his latest effort, Eastern Promises, sees the director well and truly sticking to his guns.
Set amongst the grey, oppressive surrounds of modern London, the film follows young midwife Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts) into a criminal underworld that she never knew existed. When a pregnant teenage girl dies in her arms after being caught up in a brutal attack, the inherently decent Anna is determined to protect the girls surviving child. With the help of her Russian-born mother and uncle (Sinead Cusack and Jerzy Skolimowski), Anna starts to translate the dead girl's diary in a desperate search for answers, and eventually finds a business card stuck inside for a local Russian restaurant, which she visits in the hope of learning more about the girl. The restaurant is run by Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a seemingly genial old man who is soon revealed to be the head of a ruthless Russian mafia family. As Anna continues to dig away at the truth behind the young girl's death and the heritage of the baby, she will collide with Semyon's vicious son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) and develop a tentative relationship with Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), a driver and clean-up man for the family whose measured attitude hides a capacity for extreme unforgiving violence. As Semyon becomes increasingly concerned about the potentially explosive contents of the dead girl's diaries, Anna and Nikolai will be caught dangerously in the crosshairs.
"In Russia today we are seeing the most primitive form of capitalism you can imagine", Cronenberg replies when I ask him whether the film's extreme violence is absolutely necessary. "Overnight it's switched from a communist structure to a capitalist structure, so for the criminals there it's just business. In some respect, I'm taking you into this world through Naomi's character, who has her own dealings with violence. When you see somebody sliced open with a scalpel, that is fairly shocking. For a surgeon though, it happens twenty times a day. I'm trying to find my own register relative to these things. I am not used to violence. I am a totally non-violent person. I've never even punched anybody! I'm amazed at people that can do that. But for these people, it's a huge part of their life. For Viggo's character, it's no big deal, and yet he's a sensitive person. He has a whole undercurrent of sensitivity, but he has learned to do that. He's like a soldier, where every day he's expected to kill somebody. For a normal person, that's madness. And that's part of what the movie is about".
Is he able to watch those violent scenes dispassionately? "The first act of human experience is the human body," the director replies. "I don't believe in an afterlife, so when you kill somebody, it's an act of absolute destruction. They're not going to heaven, and they're not going to be recycled through karma. Therefore I take it very seriously. When I show violence in my films, I want it to be real. I want the full weight of what it is to be felt by the audience and not have it as an abstract thing. And I think it comes out that way in my movies."
One man more than familiar with Cronenberg's movies is actor Viggo Mortensen, ho reteams with the director after their impressive creative and box office success with A History of Violence, and delivers one of his finest performances yet as the permanently coiled, ruthlessly effective Nikolai. Viggo Mortensen has always been the most unassuming of actors, and while doing press for Eastern Promises at the Toronto Film Festival, he mystically sips away on an Argentinean beverage, and then drapes himself in the Argentinean flag when asked to pose for pictures!
After A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, it's a director/actor relationship on a par with the one currently being enjoyed by Martin Scorcese and Leonardo di Caprio, and may hopefully in the future even approach that filmmaker's work with Robert De Nero. "I feel very fortunate to have worked with David a second time because I believe he's a great artist," Mortensen says of Cronenberg. "He's very well prepared. He makes everyone feel comfortable. He's intelligent enough, big enough and secure enough as a person that he welcomes contributions from everyone, and he makes sure that everyone enjoys themselves as much as possible."
Naomi Watts, who also offers a superbly restrained and compelling performance, and has worked with her fair share of idiosyncratic directors (David Lynch, Peter Jackson, David O. Russell, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, John Curran), rates Cronenberg equally highly. "His work is so unique," Watts says of her director. "I read the script and thought it was a page turner. I loved the characters, and then I found out that David and Viggo were involved, so it was an instant decision. But David's an incredible man and very different from what I expected. The body of his work seems to be so unique, yet he's just this bright, cheerful, humorous guy. He's very uncomplicated, and so precise with his work. Often we were doing two takes, and that was it. I like directors who move fast; the energy is good on the set. You're not sitting around trying things different ways. David knows just what he wants. He's editing as he goes. It was a great working experience."
For dynamic French actor Vincent Cassel, who is characteristically menacing yet charming and oddly sympathetic as creepy Kirill, much of the appeal came with the film's surface elements. "I liked that it's a gangster movie," he says "and with David, things are always larger than life. It's been like that with every movie of his since the beginning. That's his style, and it's fun for an actor to be part of his imagination."
For the actors and director, that experience involved extensive research into the Russian criminal underworld. The driving force behind the digging, however was Mortensen. One of the most visually arresting aspects of the film is his characters vivid and strangely beautiful tattoos. Carved across the entirety of his body, they tell the story of his character Nikolai's life, and make for a stunning visually motif in the film. "It was alluded to in the original script," says Cronenberg of Mortensen's vital contribution. "There was a mention that t his man had tattoos, but we didn't get very deeply into the meaning of the tattoos or the whole sub-culture of tattooing in Russian prison. Viggo found a couple of books about Russian criminal tattooing, and then he found a documentary called The Mark of Cain, which was also about this subculture. I sent these to the screenwriter Steve Knight, and I said 'Steve, when we do a re-write of the script, we're going to want to incorporate this stuff because it's fantastic.' A lot of the tattooing scenes were not in the original script, but came after Viggo did the digging that he usually does."
Mortensen - who had previously been tattooed up on screen in Sean Penn's The Indian Runner (he'd done similar research for that character's ink) - actually picked the work that Nikolai had done on his skin. "I found phrases, and they were very specific in the movie, and we applied them to unmistakably old-school Russian prison tattoos," he explains, while also giving due credit to makeup artist Stephan Dupuis for his extraordinarily detailed work. "Even the ones used on the film's poster, there are clues as to where Nikolai is from: his race, his geography, the fact that he's been in really tough prison and so in. It's like a curriculum vitae - it's his resume on his body."
Mortensen's research however, went several steps beyond what is normally required of an actor he actually went to Russia to tap details for his character's background and nuances. "I spent time in Ulenska, in the villages and the country side. I didn't have anything specific in mind other than to observe where my character was supposed to be from, and fortunately I had enough time to do it. Two weeks is long enough if you're paying attention all the time; listening to people, travelling on the subways, trains, buses and walking. I usually do what I can to research a part; sometimes I have to keep moving because people recognize me. The only time I was as I was leaving when a boy at the airport pointed to me and said, 'Aragorn'."
Mortensen, however, wasn't the only one to visit Russia. Vincent Cassel was also there, though his trip was a little more fortuitous. "It's fun," the Frenchman says. "When I first met David Cronenberg for this movie, it was at the Cannes Film Festival, and I was just back from Russia. I was there for the release of a movie, and it was so incredible that I decided to stay on for 15 days with some friends, and we saw a lot of things. We went out and met people, though they weren't as mean as those in the movie! But it it's still the far west over there nowadays, so things are pretty wild. We really liked it, and we even talked about wanting to make a movie there. And then when I was in Cannes, somebody called me and said that David wanted to talk to me. I was actually at a Russian party with the Russian friends that I'd made in Moscow, so I did my research but I didn't know it was for that movie in particular! Plus, years ago I did a movie called Birthday Girl where I played a Russian guy, and I had to speak Russian for the whole movie so I was already a little familiar with the language. I was pretty comfortable with it."
In terms of research, the work done by Mortensen ultimately made things a little easier for the director too. "Mostly I relied on Viggo's research," Cronenberg laughs. "I read a book called Demons. It used to be called The Possessed in some translations. I said, 'Viggo, I'm reading this Dostoyevsky Book. You really should read this new translation", and he said, 'I just finished it'. We were totally in sync that way".
Naomi Watts, whose trip to Toronto (where she pleasingly hasn't bothered with hair and makeup) represents her first press duties since the birth of her son to fellow actor Live Schreiber, also did her fair share of research, though it was a little closer to home. "It was really ironic, because I started working on the film and after two weeks I found out that I was pregnant," she says with regards to the coincidence of playing a midwife in the film. "In preparation for the part I'd spoken to a midwife in Los Angeles and had read a lot about midwifery. Then in London I went to Whittington Hospital and watched some births, hung out with midwives for three days, talked to mothers who were going into labor, and I saw a caesarian, but I didn't know that it would be so meaningful to me. I always wanted to have a baby, and it was something we were definitely getting close to, but we had no idea that it was so imminent."
Like all of Cronenberg's work, Eastern Promises freely pushes the boundaries in terms of style. While the director struggled for realism and verisimilitude, he refused to be bound by it. "In terms of the mob connections, we invented things," Cronenberg says. "But we had a lot of Russian extras on the set, and some were bodyguards, they worked as bodyguards, but they wore Armani and drove Mercedes. Thay really approved of what we were doing. We got a subliminal consultation without going deep into the Mob. It's the tone, and maybe not the details that is quite accurate. I read a book in preparation for the movie called Violent Entrepreneurs, which is about the use of force in the rise of Russian capitalism after the fall of the Soviet Union. Many of the criminal gangs were military, ex-military and ex-police; a lot of them were on sports teams - karate teams, fencing teams and boxing teams - that had been supported by the Soviet government for the Olympics. Suddenly all their support was gone, and because they were highly disciplined men who were used to violence and had a great sense of camaraderie, they turned to crime and used their discipline in a criminal way; hat was the only thing they could do."
One of the film's most extraordinary sequences has Mortensen's Nikolai taking on three assassins in a bathhouse - allegedly a favored spot of Russian mobsters because they can see each other's tattoos and instantly size up who they are talking to - while completely naked. It's a scene that shocks not just because of the slashing brutality and realism of its violence, but also because Hollywood star Mortensen goes full frontal for over three minutes while caught in a gruesome fight to the death. "With Viggo, it was a very simple conversation," Cronenberg explains of the controversial, show stopping scene. "Viggo said, 'Well, obviously I'm going to have to do this naked.' I said 'Great'. And that was it. That was really the discussion, because if he had the towel wrapped around him for the whole fight, that would be silly and not realistic. I couldn't worry about showing things or not showing things that would restrict the way we could flow the scene, because I wanted it to be very grueling and very physical. I wanted it to be very realistic in terms of the physiology. It's very different kind of thing that I'm trying to do with these scenes than the Bourne movies for instance, where it's all about very quick, impressionistic cutting, and you don't really see anything. You don't really know what you see. I had a different purpose."
Says Viggo Mortensen: "Obviously with the bath house scene, I was going to feel awkward and vulnerable, but I didn't have any question about it because I was happy to be in David's hands. Trust is the most important thing. Without it you can't relax. You don't feel secure that you're going to be safe, not just in that scene but in many others."
Despite the confrontational brutality typified by what will surely come to be known as simply "the bath house scene", Cronenberg is quick to point out that his film is not without levity. "The movie's very funny," says the director. "There's a lot of humour in the film. I don't think I've ever made a movie that wasn't funny. Maybe not in the sense that it is a comedy, but there are a lot of very sly and humorous things that go on with Viggo and Vincent Cassel in the film. We were joking all the time on the set. Constantly! For example, Naomi said 'Vincent and Viggo are the hot couple in the movie'. There would be times when I'd say to Naomi, 'What do you think you're doing in that scene?' and she'd say, 'I'm just watching them make out.' We know that Kirill is in love with Nikolai, but he can't admit that he's gay, because in that environment it's like a death sentence. Viggo's character knows it and flirts with him. That was the kind of humour going on all the time."
Vincent Cassel for one, did not see this on-set humour coming. "I thought it was going to be really hard because it's London, it's the winter, it's the mafia, it's the rain, it's dark," says the actor. "I had this feeling that I'd suffer on set. And I didn't suffer at all! It was really easygoing, maybe because David has worked with the same people for 25 years, and the crew is really clicked in to what he wants and they're really fast. Plus David is full of humour and he doesn't like to confront people on the set. He doesn't really tell you what to do, apart from the basics. So I never had the feeling that I had to hold or push. We were just doing it and it was flowing."
Brief flashes of humour aside, the intensity of the film - and particularly the intensity of its characterizations - had a profound effect on all concerned. Eastern Promises is a film about heritage - where you come from, and how it affects where you are going - and it bought up the issue for all its major players. Like the characters in the film, Cronenberg, Mortensen and Watts all have their own complex ancestry. The director's however is probably the closest to that of the characters in the film. "My background is actually Lithuanian Jewish," explains Cronenberg. "My grandparents on both sides all came from the same town in Lithuania. My father, however was born in Baltimore. His family came to America first. My mother was born in Toronto. And somehow found each other, despite their ancestors having come from the same town, which is a classic New World romance. But I've always felt very Canadian; the Lithuanian part was not prevalent. But my mother was a musician, and she played piano for many choirs, and a lot of them were Russian and Ukranian. But we didn't speak Russian. I heard a lot of Russian music, and many different languages, often Eastern European."
Though more distinctly Anglo-centric, Naomi Watts' background is also "pretty eclectic," says the actress. "I have a Welsh side, and I actually went to school in Wales for a portion of my primary education. When my father died and my mother was struggling, we moved in with my grandparents. I was speaking fluent Welsh, none of which I can remember now. So I feel really connected with Anna in the film. What I love about her is that she is almost ashamed of her family, but through the course of the film she becomes fascinated by the Russian culture and connects in a way that she hadn't allowed herself to do so before." Later when reminded of her Australian nationality, Watts apologises good naturedly. "I feel incredibly guilty and unpatriotic."
That's no such problem for Viggo Mortensen, who is deeply proud of his roots, but also picks things up wherever he goes. "If I go to Denmark or hear Danish being spoken, there's always a connection," he says. "I can't deny that. I can be pretty sentimental and nostalgic, it's something that I've grown up with. It's the same with Argentinean Spanish. IF I hear it, it awakens something in me. But I must confess that I'm interested in collecting as much experience as I can from wherever I go because I don't know what happens in the next world. I'm not counting on anything happening, that's one of the great things about making movies - you get to explore these things. I didn't have to go to Russia, but it was helpful to me. There were many things I picked up. Now if I hear someone speaking Russian or if there is something connected to Russia, I have a different feeling about it, and a greater attachment. It's the same with New Zealand. I have a strong connection to that country which will always endure. Fifty years from now people will look at the Lord of the Rings films. Certainly if I see those movies, what you see is not digitally created; what stays with me is that experience. I even have a strong connection with Toronto after having shot A History of Violence here and attended the festival many times.
Though it will undoubtedly get the most attention for its violence - and in particular that "bath house scene" - Eastern Promises is a singularly rich film, and one that bristles with thematic undercurrents. What should we take away from the film? "I don't know that we should take anything away," replies Viggo Mortensen. "That's why I get along so well with David. Neither of us thinks in terms of a conceptual approach to the job. You try to tell a believable story about people who seem real, but people that you never get to know fully because in life you never know anybody fully. What I love most about David - which I experienced both in working on A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, as well as watching his other movies - more so than with any director alive, is that he asks many, many questions, and with each subsequent viewing you find that there are more and more questions, but he doesn't give you any answers. He respects you enough to let you think for yourself and form your own opinions. The poet Rilke put it this way, 'There are quantities of human beings, but there are many more faces for each person'. That's what you get from David's movies. As weird as it might be, and as disturbing as it is, maybe what you're supposed to get is that you don't know what to make of it. If that's all you get, and if you don't find any value in it, certainly David is not going to be the one to tell you - anymore than I am - that you're wrong. It's an interesting story with interesting characters. It's a story about a subculture that I personally didn't know much about. What I learned was worthwhile, and to me that's enough."
It's enough for David Cronenberg too. "The movie tells you what it wants," says the director simply. "Violence is a way of life for these people. It's a business for them, it's not serial killer craziness or psychosis - they're not doing it for pleasure - it's calculated business. I'm merely presenting this world from their point of view."
And what a strange and unsettling world it is.....