Cronenberg and the Russian Godfather

Source: Studio

While shooting in London his next thriller about the Russian mafia , Eastern Promises, with Viggo Mortensen and Vincent Cassel, David Cronenberg opened the doors of his film set only to Studio's special correspondent who is a specialist in the world of "The Master of Horror".

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David Cronenberg is about to become a true London film-maker. After Spider shot in the different suburbs of the London capital the Canadian master came back to London for his latest opus. The director is faithful to his team and all his collaborators are there: Peter Suschitzky (his director of photography), Carol Spier who's built the sets of almost all his films, Ronald Sander his editor, Denise Cronenberg his costume designer and his favourite composer, Howard Shore.

But the one we notice first and foremost is of course Viggo Mortensen, who is starting his second film with David Cronenberg, after A History Of Violence, (which was a thundering entry in the thriller genre by the master of intelligent gore.) When he appears, getting out of a black limo, in front of a Russian bath situated in a small London street, I can't recognise him. The actor is one those perfectionists who works on his roles to obsession. In order to immerse himself in his character, a fearsome mafioso, he spent his summer holiday in Russia. He came back slimmer and transformed. He is so scary that all the clients from a bar ran away in a panic the minute they noticed the tattoos on his hands. These tattoos are the work of another old "gang member", Stephan Dupuis , the special effect make up artist.

Vincent Cassel as a Tormented Soul

Co-written by the film-maker and Steven Knight (Stephen Frears' Dirty Pretty Things) and produced by Paul Webster (notable for discovering James Grey with Little Odessa and the Yard), the film describes the confrontation between a midwife (played by the superb Naomi Watts) and a gang from the London Russian underworld run by a frightening godfather (played by the great German actor Armin Mueller-Stahl), his son (Vincent Cassel), and a "rising" henchman (played by Viggo Mortensen.)

Cronenberg really loved Irreversible by Gaspard Noe, (he rang me so I could congratulate Gaspard in his name), which must have influenced his choice in casting Vincent Cassel. The latter who was helped with the dialogues by a Russian coach (all protagonists speak Pouchkine language or a "slavised" English) totally immersed himself in his character, a tormented soul whose rage can at anytime turn into a criminal folly. Between takes his perfect bilingualism made him the perfect life and soul of the set.

As in every one of Cronenberg's films none of the characters are simple or appear what they seem to be. They all experience some metamorphosis and mutation. This old "Cronenbergian" practice of horror and terror irrevocably rubs off the heroes' actions and destiny. We are talking here about the Vor v zakone; these Russian gangsters, set up against an infinitely cruel society, have generally lived through the gulag atrocities and have built for themselves an implacable survival mentality.

Unlike the yakuzas in Japan, they have a "Crime code" that expresses its hierarchies and degrees of violence with tattoos. On the writers' advice Stephan Dupuis mainly got his inspiration from the Russian Criminals Tattoos Encyclopedia by Dansig Baldaev, which is a true museum of horrors from the prison population.

These tattoos condemn the bearers not only in the eyes of the authorities but also in the eyes of their peers. Everybody can read here a personal story with its "specialties", and accidents in an extremely hieroglyphic coded language.

This voluntary body mutilation asserts the heroic deeds of its bearer as much as it isolates him for life. We remember Vaughan's words in Crash , this character obsessed with car crashes (who ends up voluntarily meeting his own death in the Continental in which John Kennedy lost his life): "Tattoos are fate."

In Quest of Perfection

The team is shooting in the huge kitchen of the restaurant that the Godfather uses as a front. Armin Mueller-Stahl is preparing a borsch. Just like the other dozens of wonders cluttering the tables, this dish is the work of Silvena Rowe, the high priestess of Russian culinary art, whose TV shows and books fascinate the English public. There must be fifty people on the set, but everything is like a well-orchestrated ballet in which each movement is minutely calculated.

About Cronenberg, all the actors say roughly the same thing as Vincent Cassel: "He allows us to suggest how to play a scene, to re-shoot a scene or a line. But it is reassuring to be certain that at all times he knows exactly where he is going." As for Peter Suschitzky, he admits to me: "David and I are the same. We don't like to decide beforehand. Even the editing. We study the set and we discuss, then we prepare the scene."

All the actors present, Naomi Watts, Armin Mueller-Stahl, and Vincent Cassel are looking for perfection under the watchful eye of the director, whether they may be shooting a group scene or on their own for a close up. "We talk but we work hard and the miracle happens: the scene takes shape and life in front of my eyes . I discover that the scenario I read a month before has been transformed by a passion everyone shares."

Shooting in Winter

In this dark Russian tale where prostitutes are traded like cattle, where thugs have their throats slit at the barber's, where succession crises are solved with murder, where no one seems to be what they are, passions flare up and reach boiling point. Sometimes, like when I saw Viggo Mortensen with his dark shades and dark suit, as sharp as a knife, the snow on the East End cobbled stone alleyway wouldn't melt. A kind of Moscow cold for a tragedy full of noise and fury.
Last edited: 20 April 2007 11:10:25
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