© Focus Features.
Those who appreciate David Cronenberg's slyly provocative way with film will be blown away by Eastern Promises, a profoundly disturbing opus about the Russian mob's doings in London.
Viggo Mortensen plays Nikolai Luzhin, a dangerous man with deep dark dimensions. In an Oscar-worthy performance, Mortensen gradually reveals all (physically, too - in a fight seen in which he's clad only in numerous tattoos that mark him as a scar-carrying member of the Vory V Zakone), propelling the plot through the murder of a pregnant woman, a nurse's urgent need to find her own cultural roots and the surviving baby's rightful family and other intricate twists surrounding London's Russian community.
"Why I'm interested in hermetically sealed subcultures that have intense protocols and rules of engagement that have the potential for violence is, for me, an existential thing. It's a discussion about how we create reality. I mean reality is not an absolute in any way. And it's obvious that what is reality for us is different for a snake or a dog, but it also differs from human to human. That cultural reality is important to the extent that people are willing to die for that reality, to end their bodily life for it, is for me the major thing. Yet, if they were in some other culture, they wouldn't be required to end their life. I find those beliefs and behaviors very compelling," explains Cronenberg.
MERIN: Have people from London's Russian community seen the film?
CRONENBERG: Yes, but not from mob culture. But Russians who understand all of that have. But mostly people who worked on the movie, so that's not really fair. But I think they'll love it. I think Putin will love it - if he sees it. Not that I want to give away too much, but the story has elements that are positive in unusual ways.
And what weirdly happened half way during the shoot was the Litvinenko poisoning episode. We started making a movie about a relatively obscure subject, and by the end of the shoot, it was in the news every day. A block from where I was staying, where Viggo was staying, a forensic van was parked on the street. We passed it every day and, sure enough, they found traces of radiation there. Not that the film's exactly about that subject, but suddenly the long reach of Russia into another culture was in the news, and what we were doing became more relevant.
For me, there's incredible sadness in the movie, as well. Even the music - that violin - is mournful and elegiac. It's not just about death, but about the way relationships can slide by each other, miss each other and mistake each other. There's a lot of that in the movie, and it's terribly sad.
You seem to tap into and release the most profound human pain in your films - the angst we feel about the contradictions of our existence....
That's interesting. Yes, that's the existentialist basis. It's true that I seek subjects that allow me to express that in various forms. I'm sure it's in all my movies. And it's funny - or not really funny - but it probably stems from the fact that I'm not a very anguished person. But, you see, the more you like life, it becomes difficult to accept that it ends. If you're anguished and in pain, there's relief to be had in death. Perhaps there isn't that relief if you're not that kind of person.
Your characters - even the vicious ones - always want to do the right thing, or whatever they think the right thing is, based on their limitations...
So if you're doing what you think to be the right thing, how do you become anguished?
Well, I don't think the two are necessarily related. Krill (Vincent Cassell) in Eastern Promises, for example, has so many things going on: he's in love with Nikolai, although he can never admit it, he wants his father's love and he's not getting that, he wants Nikolai's love and he's not really getting that, although Nikolai will flirt with him to manipulate him. So much of his behavior comes out of that. So, he's a very sad and desperate character.
And very evil...
Yes, but he doesn't see the evil because he's in that context, and within the context of his life, that's just business as usual, and he can justify it in many, many ways.
That's what's so disturbing. What do you want people to learn from the film?
Well, I don't make big demands. It's hard to articulate. I don't really have a learning goal. It's more a tone that I'm delivering, a complex of feelings. It's more about realizations, for each person it's a different thing. You want your movie to have an impact, but you're not sure what that impact should be. You've conducted the film like a symphony with what you hope is intelligence and insight and depth, and on many levels - visual, oral, whatever - then the rest is up to the audience. It's like saying how do you want your audience to feel when they leave. And I say I just want them to feel. Period. I don't have any rules about how they should feel. If they're indifferent, that would be bad.
Everyone working on this film, including Viggo, was dedicated to giving nuance and depth to everything. Nothing that happened was just a gesture. Everything has many layers of reality to it - the design, colors, lighting, sound, dialog and actors. Everything had integrity and sense of purpose.
With the actor, you can't really ask what's the meaning of your performance. An actor cannot act an abstract concept, and I cannot photograph an abstract concept. So we have to get into the flesh. The actor has to get into the character. He knows his character will provoke abstract thought, just like I know how I direct will do the same. But you can't work out of that. You have to work out of what's there.
Directing is really a strange act. You've got a lot of people and technology around, a lot of budget considerations. Pragmatic stuff. Yet, you want never to have any hint of that in what you're creating. All that matters is what's in that little rectangle - because that's all you're left with in the editing room.
You divest yourself of everything else. It's monk-like, monastic, self-effacing. You have to get rid of your ego; you need your ego, but you have to get rid of it. It's very Buddhist in a way. You open all your pores to everything that's going on in that rectangle. You have to have incredibly thick skin and incredibly porous skin at the same time. It's a difficult trick - like juggling many different kinds of shapes at the same time.
It's a philosophical endeavor: I'm trying to understand what it is be a human who exists in this time and place and, then, what it's like for me to be them.
It's no accident I often dream I'm my leading actor or actress. I remember when I was first aware of it - working on The Fly - I awoke, swung my legs over the edge of the bed and was Jeff Goldblum. I literally thought I was him. I was spending so much time looking at him, listening to him. As a director you have an obsession with your actors even after they're physically gone - because you're editing them, you're watching every physical tic and nuance, listening to every subtle tone. So they're embodying you or you're embodying them.
So, do when you work with Viggo, is it like being in his skin the whole time?
Yes, that's true. I can tell you that one time the props guy came to me and said, "I'm going to ask you about this because you are Viggo, and Viggo is you - so it doesn't matter which of you I ask." He saw it.
It's wonderful when that happens. The vulnerability Viggo's able to display comes from that trust. We're very close. He's not innately gregarious - neither am I. Open, but not gregarious. So, we're alike and understand each other. We're incredibly honest when we're working together - but funny, too. Viggo's got a very good sense of humor. We laugh a lot, and that's important.
Eastern Promises gets you to thinking about the nature of art, as opposed to the nature of product...
We who make movies seriously deal with that. They're always half product because you're spending somebody else's money to make them, so it's not like writing poetry in your garret. But, you aspire to art.
Many years ago, Mick Garris, the sci-fi writer and director, was interviewing me, John Landis and John Carpenter for TV. When we stopped taping, they looked at me quizzically, and I said, "What?" And they said, "You called yourself an artist. We'd never say that about ourselves."