Canadian director Vincenzo Natali is himself a gene-spliced hybrid of indie filmmaker and SF auteur, making very big little films for more than a decade.
After years doing storyboards for cartoons, he made his first SF feature, Cube (1997), a Twilight Zone-like riff on Kafka and Sartre about a group of people stuck in a mathematically organized deathtrap that became an instant indie fave. His next SF/comedy feature, Nothing (2003), starring Cube alum Andrew Miller (who co-wrote with Natali) and Stargate: Atlantis' David Hewlett (who also co-wrote, and who has been in all of Natali's films), was a mostly two-character comedy about a pair of losers who literally will the rest of the world out of existence.
Now his major feature Splice, which stars Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley as a pair of genetic engineers working for big pharma doing unorthodox work on the sly, has been picked up by Warners and Dark Castle through the graces of mega-producer Joel Silver and Guillermo del Toro. SCI FI Wire talked to Natali in his hotel room in Boston while the director nabbed a much-needed energy bar from his publicist.
Nothing and Cube and Splice deal with characters who are in emotionally confined spaces. And often physically confined spaces. These SF movies you made could be produced as plays.
Vincenzo Natali: I hate to say it, but there's a very simple answer to that—it's because my films have very low budgets! They have theater-sized budgets. And what you learn very quickly when you make low-budget film in that you want to limit the number of factors you're dealing with. So even Splice, which is by far the largest budget I've ever had to work with, I knew there was going to be a very expensive special effect in it, which was Dren, the creature. And therefore I really had to limit my players. There's only five speaking parts and few locations. But I have to admit, as often as not, it makes the films better. It forces me as a filmmaker to be more economical with my storytelling. And frankly, to be more creative than if I had a blank check.
Is Splice a comedy?
VN: It's a little bit of a comedy! Splice is a lot of things. Splice is spliced from many different genres and influences and many moments from my personal life. It's a hybrid, and definitely one component is comedy.
The earlier forms of Dren, the creature in Splice, really exploit what's known as the "uncanny valley." To what extent did you actively seek that out, or was that serendipitous?
VN: To give a definition, the "uncanny valley" was coined by a Japanese roboticist [Masahiro Mori] who was referring to the effect that a robot has on humans when it's very, very similar to a human being, but not quite. It creates a disquieting feeling in people. And actually, we did seek that out. Because I felt that small changes to the human form would be more shocking than gross changes. And generally when you see creature films, the tendency is to be very baroque with the design. In the case of Dren, we decided to be quite subtle and subtractive. And I think, and hope, that that creates exactly what you're referring to—that uncanny valley. That discomfort.
What kinds of things that exhibit the uncanny valley did you look at while you were developing Dren?
VN: By and large our references came from ... life. I tried not to be too fantastical about it. I was really fortunate to work with a number of excellent artists. A guy named Dan Ouellette in New York. An artist in Toronto named Amro Attia. A guy in California named Peter Konig. So Dren is the child of many parents. And there were many others, too. I don't think we were looking at specific things. It was a prolonged, organic process. But I must say that once we had cast Delphine [Chanéac, who plays the creature], she informed a lot of what constituted Dren's earlier stages. We tried to reverse-engineer a lot of Delphine into those early stages of Dren.
As a storyboard artist, you'd have a familiarity with anatomy. What was the process of gene-splicing with paper and pencil like in terms of developing Dren? In terms of reapplying what you'd know of anatomy as an artist?
VN: I'm not terribly well trained. ... But I've always been fascinated by anatomy. I'd say the other element of this whole equation was the notion that while we're at this point where we can combine DNA from different species, the idea of doing it is has been with us for thousands of years. The fact that the scientific community has appropriated the word "chimera" to describe this work of course refers to a mythical beast from Greek mythology. And I always thought that Dren would evolve into a kind of genetically engineered angel. [....] That was sort of the underlying notion. What makes the creature look so real, especially in its early stages, is the work of a guy named Tom Czarnopys in Chicago, who did all the sculptures [of Dren]. He has a real knowledge of anatomy, human and animal. And I think that applied knowledge makes Dren feel like a biologically logical creation.
You have Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley interacting with things, creatures, that weren't there during filming. They were added by CGI later. How do you direct actors to interact with something that's not there, outside of "black box" theater?
VN: As much as you can, you put something there. So I had a real puppet, a blue puppet [that could be removed from the film later] representing the baby or toddler Dren frequently. And that's also why I wanted to use real actors, when I could, to play Dren. Because in addition to being a more effective way to render Dren on the screen, I also felt that I would get a better performance from Adrien and Sarah, because they would have a real person to react with. And not a real person in a blue spandex sock with ping-pong balls on them. And frankly, Adrien and Sarah are such good actors, it required very little work on my part. They really just ran with it. Sarah, in particular, really enjoyed working with the puppet. She really had fun with it.