Beyond Prometheus: An interview with Vincenzo Natali of Splice

I haven’t managed to watch this week’s Oscar pick yet, so in it’s place, here’s the full transcript from my Fast Forward interview with Splice director Vincenzo Natali. Natali is also the writer-director of Cube, one of my favourite Canadian films and a perfect example of how to do ambitious sci-fi on a shoestring budget. Splice finds the director exploring the muddy moral ground of genetic engineering, and playing with a significantly larger budget. Enjoy.

You’ve been working on Splice for over a decade. How did the pace of scientific change affect you as a storyteller?
Well, I think it’s made it easier, because it’s really now part of the popular consciousness, whereas when I started, people weren’t so interested in this particular subject matter. At the same time, as I was developing the film, it was a little bit scary, because I had a feeling that the truth was going to eclipse my fiction, and I was going to end up with a film that was already out of date. But truthfully, I feel like this movie goes somewhere that science hasn’t — yet — but it is headed in that direction, and it was amazing to hear that earlier this week, Craig Venter, who is a very famous geneticist in the United States, had created the first artificial lifeform?

What’s your gut reaction when you hear about that sort of discovery? Is it positive or negative or terrified, or what?
I think it’s all of the above — I think it’s very exciting (laughs). I can’t help but be amazed at how many things that were considered science fiction when I was a kid have now come to pass. And I feel as though, I think it’s often been said that we are living in the future, and the discourse between science fiction and science, in the scientific community, is a really lively one. And I think that when you do something like Splice, and you discover as I did that the real science was much closer to my proposed, fictional science than I had thought, there’s almost an obligation to make the science in the movie as real as possible. And that was really my approach. I just feel that truth is stranger than fiction, and that, while the audience might not know all the details about how the stuff works, they would intuitively feel that the film was being truthful if I presented the science in a realistic way.

When you’re making a movie in the tradition of The Island of Dr. Moreau or Frankenstein, is there any concern about coming across anti-science?
You know, it’s a horror film. Let me put it this way — the movie is not a documentary. It absolutely is entertainment, and in no way did I want to make anything that would discourage people from doing this kind of work. I think the movie does raise questions about it, and that’s healthy, but I personally am fully in support of much of the medical research, if not all of it, that’s being done. And I think it’s not only an important tool, but kind of a necessary one as we enter into a world where there’s not going to be enough food, and our resources are dwindling, and if we can’t change the environment, we may start to have to change ourselves to survive in it.

I just think we’re beyond the Promethean myth. We’re no longer having to question whether this technology should exist or not. We’re not questioning whether we should be stealing fire from the gods — that’s already happened. It’s simply a matter of questioning how to apply that technology in a way that will do maximum good and minimum harm.

Is it even possible for speculative sci-fi to have the impact that a story like Frankenstein did now that a lot of what used to be science fiction has become a reality?
Oh, I think they affect us all the more for that very reason. I think that the population at large is very cognizant of the fact that we are on the cusp of some seismic change — that on many levels, not just technologically, but socially, culturally, politically, the world is in flux, and I think there’s tremendous anxiety associated with that. And I think that science fiction is the modern mythology — its an indirect way of dealing with those concerns, those issues, those ideas. So it’s more relevant now than ever before.

Have you noticed any difference in the reception to those ideas in Canada and the U.S.?
Specifically with Splice? Well, unfortunately, I haven’t had the opportunity to see Splice with a Canadian audience yet, so I don’t know. I can only gauge it by reactions from journalists I’ve spoken to today. So, I wouldn’t even dare categorize it.

I think that Canadians are much more introspective than Americans, and so in that regard, I think that we’re probably a little more cautious, but at the same time, perhaps we’re a little more intelligent with how we approach these things….

How’s that for a non-committal answer?

Are you at all concerned about how the story will age? In 15 years, if we’re able to do this kind of genetic engineering, will that affect the story?
Yeah, absolutely. Listen, any movie is a kind of time capsule. I always look at it that way. And that’s why I generally don’t like it when filmmakers go in and retool their old films — I don’t want to see Wizard of Oz with digital monkeys, I want my monkeys to have wires and wings stuck to their back, and a rear projection screen behind them. And in terms of the science, I think we look at these movies in a similar way. I think that 2001, which is probably, as these things go, the most scientifically plausible depiction of space travel, has aged extremely well. But that doesn’t meant that all the technology is correct, and I don’t think that matters. I think what matters is the approach, and that film took a very sophisticated and mature approach to it. And I think what really matters is the metaphor, is what the film’s about. And when I say mythology, when I describe science fiction as mythology, I really think that’s what it is. It’s like the modern, on some level, modern fairy tales in the Bruno Bettelheim approach to these thing. It’s a fairy tale that exists to help us psychologically weather the trials of daily life.

You’ve mentioned that seeing Star Wars was a formative experience for you. Did that approach to bringing archetypal elements into sci-fi influence you as a filmmaker?
I’m sure it has. I mean, you know what’s so fascinating about that movie, because I’m sort of a first-generation Star Wars baby, having seen the film when it opened in 1977 — when I meet people from anywhere in the world, and they’re my age, that is a common point that we share, that that film affected us. I think it transcended cultural boundaries completely. I think that George Lucas somehow really connected with some common psychological — I don’t know if psychological is the right word — but some common archetypal traits of the human mind, and so yeah, I think it’s really affected me. I think all my films — all of them — are steeped in mythology. Even my first film, Cube, it takes place in a science fiction context, but it takes place in a maze, and a maze is one of the oldest archetypes. So in much the same way, with Splice, Dren, while she’s a product of cutting-edge science, she really is a modern angel. Or some kind of animal-human hybrid that inevitably humans fall in love with. And that’s just a conceit that’s been with us for thousands of years.

It goes back to Greek and Egyptian mythology, at least.
Absolutely. I always thought that she should be a genetically engineered angel, or harpy, or siren, any one of those things would work. And I can’t help but wonder if in some way those notions weren’t implanted in us so that one day we would bring them into the real world, courtesy of new technology. I’m sure that’s what Clive Nelson (Adrien Brody’s character) thinks.

Compared to most sci-fi films, the budget for Splice ($26 million) is tiny, but compared to Cube’s $300,000,  it’s massive. Did it feel like a lot of money to you?
You know, it doesn’t change anything, because in fact the ratio of how much of our resources to what we were trying to put on the screen is about equivalent to what we were doing with Cube. Maybe it was slightly more luxurious, but when you take into account that with this movie, we’re actually paying people, and all the costs that are associated with that, it was tight. It was tough, and it really killed me. Every time I make one these movies, I just feel like I’m going to die. And I don’t mean to sound overly melodramatic, but that’s really how it feels.

On the other hand, that’s sort of what makes them great, because I’ve consistently found that limitations help me — that I become a smarter and more economical storyteller when I can’t just do whatever I want and I’m forced to be creative and push the boundaries of what I would normally consider putting into a movie or not putting into a movie. So it seems like ‘wow, what a huge leap,’ but it sure doesn’t feel that way. (laughs) It’s just tough.

In some ways it’s harder, because when people think you have a lot of money, they ask for a lot more money, and it becomes much harder to negotiate things, so ultimately one finds that less money is showing up on the screen. And that’s just a constant battle.

It must also change people’s expectations of the end result.
Yeah, because I think when we started making this movie, I don’t think that people — it’s the case with all of my movies where they look small on the page, because you read it and you go, ‘oh, it’s just a few characters and a few locations, and how hard can that be?’ And then what you realize is, it’s really a Chinese puzzle, and it’s just layers of complications. And even though Dren is just one creature, she goes through this radical evolution which really makes her into like five creatures, and each one has its own set of technical requirements and design requirements, and…. It was complicated stuff.

Your next project is a film version of Neuromancer. How did that come about?
It came about because I was produced by several producers to do it, and I had a very good conversation with William Gibson about it, and so I think I have approval from everybody. And it is shocking when you re-read the book now — first of all, I don’t even know how people could comprehend it in 1984, when it was first published. I don’t even know how people understood it. And even now, to me, it seems ahead of the curve. But thankfully, the world has caught up to it enough that I think you can make a movie of it, because I think people will get it. I’ve had some people say, isn’t it dated, or have other movies stolen or borrowed enough from it that it’s not original anymore, and I could not disagree more. I think that the existence of those films and all of that stuff helps because now that very abstract notion of what cyberspace is and how the characters interact in it don’t need to be explained at all. Everybody gets it. And then you can get into the really interesting stuff, which is how we’re all going to merge with our machines.

I think if Splice is about how we are potentially evolving our bodies, Neuromancer is about how we will evolve our minds. So I’m very excited about it.

What’s the project’s status? Is there a script?
They’ve actually been trying to make it for a bunch of years, so there are actually many scripts, and as soon as I finish Splice I’ll be putting fingers to keyboard and trying to punch something up.

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