© Focus Features.
David Cronenberg has long been fascinated with the liminal properties of human skin. He recognizes the body as a site of potential transformation. In his earlier films (Shivers, Rabid, The Brood), he rendered horror as a venereal process of invasive and rabid infection. Over the course of his filmography, he has charted the body's intimate liaison with technology (Videodrome, The Fly, eXistenZ) and has intelligently underscored the transgressive (and often horrifying) elements of physical change.
In recent years, his approach has become more psychological if not more naturalistic. He no longer needs to configure agencies of change as parasites erupting from within, bursting through the liminality of the skin. With calm exactitude and a stern eye, he suggests that the propensity for violence within each individual is the truest source of transgression, albeit hidden and disguised beneath the skin, if not within the constructions of biography. With A History of Violence he stunned audiences with how thin the veneer of civilization truly is and how the past will hunt and reveal you. In his most recent effort - Eastern Promises - he collaborates once again with A History of Violence leading man Viggo Mortensen to notate inherent violence (the marketing slogan says "sin") as marked on the skin through a criminalized system of initiatory tattoos. Intrigued by this driving narrative metaphor, I met up with Cronenberg and Mortensen at the Ritz Carlton during a recent visit to San Francisco. Our conversation necessarily contains some spoilers, so please be wary.
I don't want to appear too pandering, David, but I have to admit that, though I interview directors all the time, you have been on my top five wish list for a long time.
David Cronenberg: Thank you.
Viggo Mortensen: Probably number five. [Laughter.]
Cronenberg: We don't want to say.
Mortensen: Who's number one?
I like Guillermo del Toro quite a lot.
Cronenberg: Oh, but I do, too! He's a good friend, a terrific guy and very funny.
I can actually say that I've grown up with your films, David. I've been watching them since Shivers. So there are some basic general themes I've long wanted to talk to you about.
I was a student of the mythologist Joseph Campbell. Joe, at a very early age, taught me to compare mythologies and gave me an assignment at one time, which was to study all the creation myths. One common theme that I found that interested me was the culpability of human skin. The reason for this being that humans are said to be created from earth, and the surface of the earth - in many of these ancients myths - is the skin of a vanquished race. Either Tiamat in Sumerian-Babylonian mythology or the Titans in Greek mythology or, if you want to get scientific about it, the slag of celestial explosions. Inherent in the human skin is this hint of ancient conflict or violence.
Mortensen: Except for Lithuanians. They're not a part of that. [Chuckles.]
Cronenberg: He's alluding to my background.
It seems to me in your films there is this awareness of the culpable liminality of human skin and, though I know most people describe your films as horror or sci-fi, I don't really think of them as being limited to those genres; for me, your films are more archetypal, psychological. They follow mythic templates. Especially more so in your recent films like A History of Violence and now Eastern Promises, where these themes have become truly sophisticated and subtle. In Eastern Promises tattooed skin becomes primary and significant. Could the two of you talk about where that metaphor came from?
Cronenberg: Sure. Of course, when you're making a film, you don't think thematically. You're thinking very physically and pragmatically and emotionally; but, not in abstract ways because, as I've said many times, you can't photograph an abstract concept and an actor can't play an abstract concept. You have to get very specific, even though it's by being very specific that you can then be universal. Each character has to come from some place. He has to have a name. It's only in allegory that you get a character who plays an abstract concept; that you get a character who plays pride or humility or shame.
When it comes to the tattooing, it wasn't really very prominent in the original script that Steve [Knight] and I wrote. It was alluded to, but it wasn't developed in a full way. It was actually Viggo, doing his research - we had already agreed we were doing the movie - who came up with a book called Russian Criminal Tattoo, which is a fantastic book, quite mindblowing really. It was about the whole tattooing subculture in Russian prisons. That immediately triggered off for us the substance behind this character [Nikolai Luzhin], where he would have come from - or at least pretended he came from, of course, as it turns out - and that whole kind of life that he had and that whole ritual structure based on tattooing as identification, certification of your identity, authentication.
I sent that book and a documentary that Viggo found as well called The Mark of Cain - which is really fantastic, shot in Russian prisons with prisoners showing their tattoos and describing what they mean and so on - I sent that to Steve Knight and said, "This will blow your mind." [As if] the script had almost been waiting for this last piece of the puzzle to become the central metaphor of the movie and to make everything gel around it. As I say, we were already launched on making the movie but this wasn't originally in it.
It's interesting that you bring up a documentary entitled The Mark of Cain because, lapsed Catholic that I am, that's exactly what I thought of. Of course it's obvious that the mark God laid on Cain is the original tattoo.
Cronenberg: That's right and that documentary, of course, alluded to that as well.
In Eastern Promises there's a reference to "forced" tattoos. What's meant by that?
Mortensen: There's a caste system, not just in Russia but in prisons in this country as well. If you're a pederast, if you're a child molester, if you're a homosexual; there are certain kinds of crimes in Russian prisons that count against you and that limit you in the hierarchy in the prison, no matter how loyal you might be, how tough you might be, how much of a survivor, how much of a good fighter you might be, a good thief or whatever...
Cronenberg: Basically, to cut to the chase, they force you to have tattoos that identify you as such.
Mortensen: They hold you down and tattoo you. Or if you're a stool pigeon, they'll tattoo a rat on you on your forehead.
Cronenberg: So these are tattoos that you have not agreed to have. They will hold you down and put them on you. It's like someone stamping something in your passport saying, "Do not allow this person to come into the country."
Mortensen: Or you're forced to wear a yellow star or something; but it's on your body.
Within the structure of the film, then, do you feel that the strategy by which Nikolai gains his stars is a forced tattooing?
Cronenberg: No, not at all.
Mortensen: That's a great honor.
Cronenberg: That's something he would aspire to. It's something Nikolai would desire. When Semyon [Armin Mueller-Stahl] says, "It's time you joined us," Nikolai says, "Thank you, Papa." It's like becoming a made man in the mafia. It's becoming accepted as "one of us," a man to be trusted, and this is indicated by these stars [on his chest] and on [his] knees; that's [his] mark of acceptance and authentication, that [he's] a guy to be trusted. Now, if [he] should end up in prison again, he would have great status in that prison hierarchy because of those stars. In those prisons, if you fake a tattoo, if you just put those [stars] on and they find out, it's not very nice what happens after that.
Mortensen: You get killed or the old school guys come up to you and say, "On your finger it says you were in St. Petersburg Prison; but, I happen to know you never were there. Get rid of that tattoo. I'll give you 20 minutes and we'll be back and - if it's not gone..."
Cronenberg: "We're going to take your finger off, or your hand, so that you won't have that tattoo."
Mortensen: So you burn it off, you cut it off, with whatever you can find.
Cronenberg: It's pretty brutal.
Nikolai's Mephistophelian contract in Eastern Promises is handsomely and elegantly measured, even though it's quite troubling and disturbing. Despite the violent things that he does, I don't think of him as a criminal and I'm conflicted about feeling that way. You've successfully made his moral dilemma one we can empathize with, albeit reluctantly. He's redeemed somewhat by his secrets.
Cronenberg: He is assuming the role of criminal as a chauffeur to [Semyon's] son [and] has to then be witness to crimes. You see him cutting the fingers off [a corpse] because it's something he does. He's helping his boss, his commander, which is Kirill [Vincent Cassel]. So he does commit criminal acts. If there was a bust of that crime family, he would definitely be busted because it would be obvious that he had at least witnessed crimes that he didn't report. He would have to have committed some crimes himself...
Mortensen: To fit in. What you can say in a broad sense about all the characters, not just mine, but Naomi [Watts]'s character, Armin Mueller-Stahl's character, even Vincent's character, is that - like in A History of Violence and like in most of [David's] movies - like in life, once someone makes a movie thoughtfully and intelligently as [David] does and most directors don't, people are never what they seem at first, and you never really get to know them fully. At the end of Eastern Promises, you wonder what else there is to my character and other characters and you wonder what's going to happen. Tomorrow is going to be complicated. What's going to happen to these poor people?
The final image of Nikolai is unsettling for being enigmatic. You say it's an honor for Nikolai to receive these tattoo stars, you say it is something he would strive for, and yet it is likewise repulsive and horrifying. When he reveals them to Yuri [Donald Sumpter], Yuri winces and recoils.
Cronenberg: He's gone over a line. There's no coming back, in a way.
Mortensen: The unspoken thing from Yuri is, "Well, we'll make use of you as long as we can, but there may be a point where you're totally on your own, and there might be a time when we are on the wrong side of the fence from each other completely, and I can't vouch for you and won't know anything about you. If I have to, I'll arrest you."
One of my favorite lines in the film is when Nikolai says, "You play with a prince to do business with a king." That line is Shakespearean.
Which leads me to ask about the dynamic between Kirill and Nikolai. You mentioned earlier that, if you are a homosexual, you would have no chance to advance in this hierarchy and yet, somehow, there's this tension being posed that, as Nikolai assumes the role of Kirill's father, he's subverting the old patriarchy with a more accommodating patriarchy. How did that energy come about?
Mortensen: It was practical on one level.
Cronenberg: Yeah. It's obvious that Kirill is in love with Nikolai. He can't really admit to himself that he's gay because he would have no credibility. As the son of the boss, it would be an embarrassment to the whole organization. Nikolai knows this and uses it. He manipulates Kirill for his own purposes.
But not without affection.
Mortensen: Well, there is a certain tenderness and that speaks to the thing of, you never fully know. You don't really know how close they actually are.
Cronenberg: That's exactly right. Kirill is a floppy, irresponsible, crazy kid, and Nikolai's like the responsible brother, and there is some kind of strange affection between them; but is that only manipulative? You don't really know. It's hard to know how genuine that is. Nikolai would be capable of portraying that without it being true; but you don't know. And it could be both. It could be manipulative and genuine at the same time because, of course, in relationships that happens, too. Semyon, of course, represents the old school, the old Vory, with a rigid, as you say, patriarchal understanding of the way things work.
Mortensen: That's why he is so devastated when Nikolai finally says, "This is what people are saying." He probably knows [the truth about Kirill]; but hearing it from Nikolai confirms his worst fears. He's not very happy, obviously.
Cronenberg: And the truth is, of course, if Nikolai takes over or supplants Semyon, we don't know where that will place Kirill who is the [true] prince. Is he supplanted totally by Nikolai? Or does Nikolai still have to be the man behind the throne?
Mortensen: Making Kirill feel like he's in charge.
Cronenberg: Like he's the boss.
That's how I read it. Again, referencing Shakespeare, Nikolai seemed like Iago behind Othello.
Cronenberg: But still manipulate him emotionally in every other way because Nikolai's much more calculated and controlled as well about those things and about people. It puts Nikolai in a very interesting, strange place in his life.
Clearly the scene everyone is going to be talking about in this film is the bathhouse sequence, which is such a brave and committed scene for both of you to have taken on, but especially you, Viggo. The violence in that scene is fiercely naturalistic and I felt you upped Guillermo del Toro's half-chelsea from Pan's Labyrinth. Just when I thought I had seen it all with the rip of Guillermo's half-chelsea, this bathhouse scene comes up. How did you structure the violence? What are you wanting to say about violence? Are you texturing the violence through the audience's vulnerability?
Cronenberg: Yes. The nudity in the scene is really about vulnerability; it's not sex. Most nudity in movies has a sexual aspect. Not that this doesn't maybe have some of that as well; but, it's much more sublimated. I've only recently been talking about it - because it just occurred to me - that it's like the shower scene in Psycho. You're naked, you're wet and there's some people with knives who don't like you. This is a very vulnerable kind of thing that people can relate to. Of course, it's all set up properly because of the tattoos that you meet there, so people can see the tattoos and see that it's all legitimate, and then it goes quite wrong.
I said to the stunt coordinator and the camera man, "This is not Bourne-like impressionistic cutting away, where you don't see anything. Violence is physical. It's all about bodies. It's about the destruction of bodies. And I insist on that as the reality of this. And I want to see it all. This fight scene has to make physiological sense. It has to make mechanical sense. It has to make body sense."
If an audience is seeing a movie to live another life - which I think is one of the attractions of seeing movies; you get to be out of your own life and live some other life that maybe you [wouldn't] ever really want to live but you're curious about - so, I'm saying, if you're a Nikolai in the movie, then you're going to experience this; I'm not going to throw it away, do it off camera, and do it frivolously. All the hard work and the difficulty of killing someone, if that's what this character has to do, I want you to feel it and see it.
I saw the film in an audience of jaded critics who were all squirming around like earthworms on a hot griddle.
Cronenberg: Then it worked! That's great!