The Violence Within

Director David Cronenberg talks with Scott Macaulay about what makes violence the stuff of cinema.

During the course of his long career, David Cronenberg has excelled at creating popular films that also quite deliberately map out very specific social, political and philosophical concerns, and his latest, the London-set crime drama Eastern Promises, certainly continues this tradition. Cronenberg takes a thriller ostensibly about a chauffeur to a local crime boss and a beautiful young nurse who is unexpectedly thrust into the world of the Russian mob, and goes on to explore issues involving the globalist exporting of one culture's violent traditions to another. I spoke to Cronenberg about the philosophical underpinnings of his work, his attitude towards auteurism, and choreographing the film's spectacular nude fight scene.

With A History of Violence and now Eastern Promises, you've made two films that have each examined the role violence plays within specific cultures. In A History of Violence, you told the story of an everyday American husband and father who resorts to violence to protect his family. The new film, Eastern Promises, is set within a more exotic culture: the world of the Russian mafia in London. What unites, if anything, these stories given their vastly different backdrops?

I suppose my interest primarily is in enclosed, hermetic, sealed cultures-or subcultures within other cultures, whether they have to do with violence or not. And whether [these communities exist on] a small scale or an invented sci-fi scale, I think [my interest] comes from my existentialist philosophy, the underpinnings of which say that there is creative will involved in our understanding of reality. In other words, people invent their own realities, or, they combine to make a collective reality. Whether it's a small town in Iowa that has its own understanding of reality, or Russian emigres in London who have their own understandings of reality, for me it's always an interesting study. And, of course, the more colorful or intense a subculture is, the more obviously dramatic it is. As George Bernard Shaw said, "Conflict is the essence of drama," and when you are dealing with a crime family, as in Eastern Promises, you immediately have conflict. In this case, because the conflict [involves] crime, the conflict is not just psychological but physical as well, which means violence. So, I approach violence kind of through the back door. I don't think it's my primary subject, but it ends up being a subject.

A History of Violence was set in a kind of archetypal small-town America. Were you intending your depiction of the Russian crime world in London in this new film to have a similar mythic flavor, or were you interested in the documentary specifics of this world?

When you're doing something that's sci-fi, it's almost like you're inventing the whole universe. You're inventing new rules of physics and new psychologies. It's thrilling and exciting but it's also difficult, and you have a built-in problem, which is that of credibility and connection with your audience. But when you deal with something that already has a mythic quality to it, your audience begins with a level of understanding. And Russian culture certainly has a lot of mythology built into it. It's a very rich culture, very old. It's really not European. Europeans think of Russians as Asian, and Asians think of Russians as Europeans. Even its version of Christianity doesn't match up with too many other versions of Christianity. So, even though North Americans are not as familiar with [Russian culture], there are many people in audiences around the world who will start with a higher level of connection to "Russian-ness" when they see this movie. For North Americans, it's a trip into an exotic, underground world that's full of texture, detail, characters and languages. And because [Russian culture] is so rich, we were able as filmmakers to go into other things. Of course we did a lot of research, but there is also a lot of invention in our version of this Russian mob.

"A director is the huge filter that everything passes through. You are making two or three thousand decisions a day in prep and when you are shooting, and they all come from your sensibility, taste and judgment."

What kind of invention?

Well, we have a ritual in a restaurant in which the main character is inducted into the mob, and some of those elements we invented. But some of them we didn't, like the importance of tattoos in Russian prisons, which is well documented. Research on [Russian prison tattoos] was an important part of getting our script to click into focus. In Russian prisons you don't exist if you don't have tattoos. A tattoo is like your passport, your identity, the story of your life written on your body. No one will trust you if you don't have that passport. Based on this research, the scene where Nikolai is inducted into the mob became a scene of reading and commenting on tattoos and their meanings, but I don't know that [this criminal induction has] ever actually happened in quite this formal, ritualized way.

One of the film's most talked about scenes is the centerpiece fight scene, in which Viggo's character, Nikolai, who is nude in a steam bath, is attacked by two knife-wielding Russians. How did you choreograph and execute this scene?

One of the problems with [shooting] that scene was always going to be nudity. Having to be careful of nudity would have been a big problem. If Viggo had been the kind of actor who was worried about being dignified or vulnerable, I would have had to try to shoot the scene with what, him wearing his towel all the way through? Or, from the waist up? Fortunately, Viggo is pretty fearless, and he said, immediately, "I've got to do it nude." It came down to a matter of trust between us, and because we had developed that trust on A History of Violence, I didn't have to worry then about [him being uncomfortable being nude on camera].

For me, then, the first thing about a fight scene like this one was the space-where would it be happening? Carol Spier, the production designer, and I found this wonderful steam bath location, but then just after we found it they renovated it and completely destroyed all the old textures-the old tiles, leaky pipes and rusty stuff that gave it such great visual appeal. So, we had to build [the steam bath] on a stage. The first thing I did with Carol was to make sure the spaces offered a lot of possibilities for interesting angles, lighting and the flow of action. Once I had the model for the set then I talked to the stunt coordinator [Julian Spencer] who was going to work with the three actors involved. We never used stunt doubles, by the way. He worked only with Viggo and the actors who played the two Chechens and no one else. I said [to the stunt coordinator], "Here's where this scene will start-I'm going to leave this character here in the previous scene, and then I want [the fight] to flow through here and use this area over there and end here." And then he worked out with the actors exactly what the fight would be. They'd rehearse in a rehearsal hall with the set marked on the floor with tape. Every week I'd come in and they would show me what they had developed. And I'd say, "Well, that's a bit corny, this a bit unbelievable, try this, and how about that?" And, "Remember that book we read about Russians who were trained in that commando killing technique?" We posited that this character of Viggo's might have received that kind of training and therefore could do those moves. And it gradually developed.

One of the questions the stunt coordinator asked initially was, how was I going to shoot the scene? Was it going to be quick, impressionistic cutting like in the Bourne movies, where you don't really see anything or know what you've seen, or was it going to be more like A History of Violence where you can see everything and it is much more, what I would call, realistic? You can justify all those different ways of shooting an action scene, but basically it's a subjective, intuitive thing. It's a feel. My philosophy is that the pleasure of any movie is that the audience gets to live in a safe way the life of somebody else, and so I wanted the audience to feel that they were there, that they were in this fight. That to me mean means not quick impressionistic cutting but a kind of realistic flow that is physically grounded in the body. Once the stunt coordinator knew that, he knew that everything he had the actors do had to be credible, had to be something that could really happen. There could be no quick cutaways or swish pans where you wouldn't know what's going on. And all of these things came together when we shot the scene, which took us three days.

This is the third film in a row that you haven't written after having scripted most of your previous movies. What made this script something you wanted to do, and once you sign on to a film you haven't written, how do you make it your own?

Well, I don't bother trying to make it my own in the sense of, you know, the "Capra touch" and all of that. A director is the huge filter that everything passes through. You are making two or three thousand decisions a day in prep and when you are shooting, and they all come from your sensibility, taste and judgment. I know that [any one of my movies] will have a lot of me in it, so I don't worry about "making it my own." I'm just trying to get the most exciting juice out of a project as I can. And, as I've said many times, you make the film to find out why you're making the film. You don't really know up front what compels you to spend two years of your life making a film, but you tend to find out at the end, in retrospect. Sometimes it's not until you're doing interviews that you begin to be able to articulate what it was about a project that intrigued you enough to spend that much time on it.

What, then, specifically, intrigued you about the script for Eastern Promises?

A good script will induce you to contribute to it, to be creative. And in this case, Steven Knight has a very good ear for immigrant speech and a great sense of multiculturalism, the idea of subcultures living within other cultures. [These ideas] were very present and attractive to me in the script for Eastern Promises. Another of the strengths of Steven's scripts and this one in particular is that they avoid the clich&eactute;s of the mob movie. [This script] somehow subverted those clich'es while being able to still use the strengths of narrative and suspense that are innate within the mob movie.