Interview: Vincenzo Natali on Tone, Frankenstein, and ‘Splice’

By  · Published on June 4th, 2010

Vincenzo Natali is already behind two solid genre entries with both Cube and Cypher. He also directed the wonderful short film Quartier De la Madeleine for Paris, je t’aime; the one with Elijah Wood falling in love with a vampire. While he’s proven himself as a reliable director when it comes to delivering solid work, Splice shows that he’s truly capable of much more.

Splice is a film for any genre geek. If you love Cronenberg and old Universal monster movies then you’ll undoubtedly enjoy Natali’s twist on the genre. The last thirty minutes are insane and goes to places you don’t expect it to. Everyone will be talking about it, and I do as well with Natali below.

As a forewarning, this interview contains major spoilers starting right from the beginning.

So, what part of the film did you come into when you got to the screening?

I poked my head in during the sex scene.

Do you do that at most screenings to see how people react?

It’s fun to see, but that was actually just by chance (laughs). It was a good scene to come into though, but I left after that for a little while.

Are you surprised by how people react to that scene?

Well, I never knew how people would react. I could just never guess. I think when you’re working on something as long as I have you become immune to it. You forget about it and you don’t really think about how incredibly bizarre it is. It’s exciting to see how people don’t really know how to react to it. It gets a big reaction every time I’ve seen it. I don’t know how Washington audiences normally are. I have no idea if they’re on the quiet side or the loudest side.

Definitely on the loud side (laughs).

(laughs) That’s great. They were definitely loud last night.

Well, I don’t think they were laughing at it. It’s just one of those things where people feel uncomfortable and just don’t know how to react to what they’re seeing.

And it is funny. I mean, especially with that scene where Sarah Polley’s character Elsa shows up, it’s just funny. It’s a funny scene. But you’re right, there’s a lot of nervous laughter there as well.

Someone last night mentioned the opening credits sequence and how it could have been used to explain certain things, but I love how it didn’t do that. There was no hammy text or narration to dumb it down.

Well, I hate that. I think that sort of thing usually comes in when a studio is afraid that the audience isn’t understanding what’s happening. It’s there to just spoon feed the audience. Luckily, we made this film independently and I didn’t have anyone telling me what to do. I also think audiences today are so sophisticated and in most cases it’s not even required.

It was surprising it wasn’t there since nearly every genre film starts off with that and I hear stories all the time about studios pushing for it. Warners really never asked about that?

No, not at all. It’s hard to know exactly why, but I think it partially has to do with Joel Silver. Joel picked up the movie at Sundance and he just defended it to the death. I think he really, really loved the film. He just didn’t want to change it all that much. We did make some slight cosmetic alterations to it, but I think that improved the movie. Besides that, nothing beyond those small changes. When I first heard about Warner Brothers acquiring the film on one hand I was very excited and happy, but on the other hand I was really nervous. Frankly, at that point I didn’t have control. If they had decided they wanted to take a scene out or change something I wouldn’t really have been able to stop that. I was just really lucky to have Joel and he’s one of the few producers out there with enough clout to say something is good and we have keep it.

Was it nerve racking before that being at Sundance though? This wasn’t the best year to be trying to sell a film and the subject matter of Splice certainly couldn’t have made that easier.

I honestly thought we were heading straight to DVD. I had been trying to sell the film for over a year, but I was unsuccessful. When we were picked up by a company they ended up going out of business. We went through two film companies. My expectations were very low and I was terrified, because I really wanted to get a deal before we screened at Sundance. Once a film is exposed at Sundance and the reaction isn’t good…

Then buzz just goes everywhere.

Exactly, the film is dead. It kills the movie. We weren’t able to do that and I was pretty nervous when we screened the film.

And Joel found out about the movie pretty simply.

It was all dumb luck. He found a photo of it online and thought it looked intriguing. One of his executives was at Sundance and that gentlemen saw it, liked it, and then passed it on to Joel.

How long has the film actually been completed for? I remember seeing a brief making of video with Del Toro talking about it way back.

Oh, right.

And I’ve been tracking it ever since then.

A year. I think it’s been exactly a year. I almost got a t-shirt that said, “Don’t ask me when Splice is coming out.” Everybody I knew would ask when it was coming out and that was a question that drove me crazy. It was a question that I was asking myself everyday. It’s a very scary time for independent filmmakers since there used to be a lot of places you could go with an independent film. There was Warner Brothers Independent, Fox Atomic, Miramax, and The Weinstein Company. Some of those companies still exist, but they’re really impotent right now. They’re not acquiring a lot of material. It’s pretty tough out there and it’s probably the worst it’s ever been in the history of cinema.That’s why last night when you saw me in front of the audience I was so grateful to be there because Splice really ended up beating the odds. By all rights we should have not been there.

One thing my friend Kevin at the Q and A brought up to me after the screening last night was how sexy he found Dren. Did he mention this to you?

Yeah, right (laughs).

And a lot of people seem to be feeling the same way. It’s odd that some are finding that element so shocking considering that sexual fascination with creatures has been around for centuries. Even dating back to Greek mythology that sexual curiosity was heavily there.

Right, exactly. That’s actually one of the reasons why I wanted to make the film and why I felt it should go into that territory. I was fascinated by that notion of falling in love with a creature that’s not entirely human and it is a very old concept. Yet, here we are at a moment in our technological evolution where we could perhaps manufacture one and it raises the question: what would happen if we did? So, that was definitely one of the main reasons to make the movie. Without that scene and without that idea in the film I don’t think I would’ve wanted to make it.

It also helps that you just show Dren as a beautiful creature and not purely a sex object like Species.

Yeah, that’s the difference.

I didn’t mean to compare the two.

I know, but a lot of people do compare our film to Species. I don’t think that’s a fair comparison to either film. In Species, the alien creature is a Canadian super model. So, why wouldn’t you want to sleep with it? (laughs) In Splice, our creature Dren doesn’t look human. She’s beautiful, but not in a normal kind of way. I think that scenario is much more interesting. As we all know, the definition of beautiful is an elastic thing. It changes all the time. What people thought of the idea of beauty 200 years ago is obviously quite different to today’s idea of beauty. Even twenty years ago. Maybe triple jointed legs and a nice tail is going to be the new hot thing in five years.

Trust me, Splice will kick off the fetish for triple jointed legs.

(laughs) Great. Perfect.

Getting back on track, I definitely wanna ask about the opening POV shot. What’s the idea behind that? That was really well done.

Great, thanks. The movie begins with a birth and it ends with a pregnancy.

Right, reproduction is a big theme in the movie.

That’s right. It bookends the movie. Even with the first draft of the script it began with that point-of-view of something being born. We then gradually learn we’re not being born through a living being, but through some sort of machine. Then we see we’re in a lab of some kind. What’s a better way of starting off a film than with a birth? Starting from the beginning just made sense. Prior to that, the film begins with an elaborate title sequence. I like title sequences a lot and it’s sad that title sequences are now mostly put at the end of movies. There’s this assumption that people will be too bored sitting through them, but I don’t think that’s the case at all. The whole point of a title sequence is that it’s an overture to the film. If it’s done well, it gets you into the mood of the movie.

You and Jason Reitman are bringing it back.

Yeah, I love that. His are great. There’s also the James Bond films. Who wants to see a Bond film with the title sequence at the end? You pay a lot of money to see a movie and you should be entitled to a great title sequence at the beginning (laughs). We tried to do just that.

One aspect I’m really interested about is how you side stepped certain tropes we usually get from films like this. What I mean is, what was the writing process like when it came to covering familiar ground and yet putting your own twist to it?

Part of the reason why I wanted to make the film was because I am so familiar with these kinds of movies. The Frankenstein type of films have been around since the beginning of cinema. I think Frankenstein was the first monster movie ever made. It may even pre-date Nosferatu. It’s a staple of cinema and I’m very conscious about that, but I knew my story was going to go to different places. That was what was so exciting about it: taking something that’s so familiar, pushing it to a very different direction, and maybe even reinventing it in a way. That’s an exciting thing to do. I wasn’t afraid that my film was going to be thought of as derivative, because I thought we were going to do things quite differently. Frankly, I never really even thought of Species. That seems to be the comparison everyone brings up, but I can honestly say it had no influence on me at all. I can tell you the original Alien did, Cronenberg did, but not Species.. Not that I have anything against Species (laughs).

Last night you brought up how you really wanted to play in grey areas and you did. So, when we get to the end a big question is posed: who’s the monster? Clive and Elsa? Or Dren?

Unquestionably, Clive and Elsa. They are the monsters. Again, that was another one of the themes of the movie that you were going to discover the monster within the human while also the humanity within the monster. I think Dren is a catalyst for bringing out Clive and Elsa’s darker side, but it goes back to my original inspiration: that photo of a mouse with an ear on it. When I saw that photo of the mouse it looked so vulnerable. It was nude and didn’t have any hair on it. I immediately made an emotional connection to that mouse and I think when you’re watching the film you relate to Dren. That’s obviously very Mary Shelley especially if you read the book Frankenstein or even seen the earlier film as well. You feel tremendous sympathy towards the creature. That’s the case here. But, I suppose even more so in Frankenstein. I think Clive and Elsa cross even more moral boundaries.

That dynamic in Frankenstein really is the perfect comparison. In the original film the whole point is Dr. Frankenstein the monster. Most people seem confused that Boris Karloff is the monster and that he’s Frankenstein, but he’s not.

Right, usually when people think of Frankenstein they think of Boris Karloff but the monster didn’t even have a name. There’s no question though that Dr. Frankenstein is the monster. I actually read the book quite recently and I was struck by how many similarities there were to my film. The book delves into that area a bit more and the monster is actually quite intelligent and very sensitive. The original book is much more of a psycho drama. That’s definitely what Splice is. I think as most Frankenstein stories go the monster escapes and wreaks terror upon the world. Almost the complete opposite happens here. In fact, the monster is trapped by the scientists. It’s a bit of a hostage scenario and it’s a much more of a psychological drama.

And as I brought earlier all of what happens in that climax easily could have come off silly. When I asked about the tone I wasn’t implying at all that it did…

No, no, no. I didn’t think you were.

Good, but I was wondering how you went about making that transition feel seamless? The last act becomes something very different and that change could have came off abruptly.

Well, I don’t know. I was worried about that actually even at the script stage, because it does make a transition there. Ultimately, I just decided that’s where the movie had to go. As much as I’m trying to change the genre and cheat expectations, but at the same time you got to honor certain elements. This is a horror movie and it had to end horrifically. It couldn’t end happily. There’s just no way and that’s just where it goes. Hopefully people will go along with it. I think some people even hit a bump with that.

It’s definitely polarizing.

Yeah and the movie is a hybrid too. There is some real comedy in it and some dark tragedy as well.

The film itself is mostly played as a drama and it’s not really until the third act where you could label it as being a horror movie.

The film has been sold as a monster movie. It’ll be interesting to see how the audiences react who were brought in by those ads. The ads and the movie are a bit different from one another. I’ve always seen it as a creature film spliced with a relationship film.

Is there anything about the film you haven’t been asked about yet and it’s something you’d like to talk about?

(laughs) That’s a great question! This film has been picked through pretty thoroughly though.

Or anything about your past films or your career in general?

Well, what I hope with this movie is that it draws some attention to some of my lesser known films. My first film Cube has a bit of a cult following so some people know it. My second and third film were really the victims of bad distribution. Miramax literally locked away my second film in a vault and it wasn’t to be found for many years. My third film nobody wanted, but I think they’re interesting movies. I hope Splice can bring some attention to them. I don’t know though if there’s any kind of rock that’s been unturned as far as Splice is concerned. I’ve been continually impressed by how insightful audiences and critics have been about the film. It’s very gratifying that people seem to be finding stuff in the movie that I was hoping was there. Sometimes that isn’t the case. You can make a film with certain intentions and nobody gets it, but this time people seem to really get it. At times, they even seem to get it a little bit better than I do.

Splice is in theaters Friday, June 4.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.