The story of the skin

Director David Cronenberg on his violent history and promising future

A man reclines in a barber’s chair as the barber sharpens his blade. A young man walks in. The barber puts the blade in the man’s hand and eggs the young man on. “Do it! Do it!” The young man hesitates then grips the blade. The camera zooms in on the exposed bloody throat as the young man saws back and forth back and forth.

The graphic opening scene of Eastern Promises the newest movie from director David Cronenberg sets the bar high for the rest of the film. Its violent scenes (including a brutal fight scene in a bathhouse) continually surprise and shock the audience.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise. Cronenberg has a reputation for using graphic imagery. His 40-year career includes films like the Oscar-nominated A History of Violence and the sci-fi thriller Existenz along with his early body-horror films like Rabid and Shivers . These films are part of an overriding Cronenberg theme of exploring body modification mutation and mutilation in explicit and sometimes over-the-top ways.

“I guess it’s because as an existentialist atheist I think that the body is who we are and that the first fact of human existence and the last fact as well is the human body” Cronenberg speculates. “I feel that much of culture and art and politics is there to distract us from that to conceal that. That there’s a life after death for example or that there’s a spirit in the body — I don’t believe any of those things. So this is only a theory but I think that’s why my movies are very body conscious.

“As a director” he continues “I can’t photograph an abstract concept. I have to photograph something physical. Also an actor can’t play an abstract concept. An actor has to play an actual character. Therefore in order to provoke a discussion or thoughts about abstract things I have to use concrete things so that once again makes you very physically and bodily oriented.”

In Eastern Promises Cronenberg and a strong international cast including Viggo Mortensen Naomi Watts Armin Mueller-Stahl and Vincent Cassel explore the intricacies of Russian mob life in London England. The story follows Anna (Watts) a midwife in a London hospital who delivers the baby of a young Russian girl. The mother dies in childbirth and Anna finds her diary written in Russian along with the business card of a local Russian restaurant. Hoping to save the baby from growing up in foster care she sets out to find the mother’s family. She visits the Russian restaurant and speaks to the charming elderly owner Semyon (Mueller-Stahl) who offers to translate the diary.

Semyon is not who he seems to be but a high-ranking member of the Russian criminal brotherhood the Vory V Zakone involved in the black market drug rings human trafficking and underage prostitution. Mortensen plays the role of Nikolai the family’s driver who soon begins climbing the Vory ranks. Cassel plays Kirill Semyon’s volatile son.

“It’s a genre picture” says Cronenberg “a mob movie about the Russian mob in London. When we started filming it was a pretty obscure subject. Then because of the Litvinenko poisonings and all the things that went on in London while we were shooting Russian crime in London became front-page news.”

Cronenberg explores these topical issues through trademark physical elements. Most notable in this film is body mutilation in the form of tattooing used among the Vory as a means of branding ranking and cementing allegiance. According to Cronenberg tattooing was alluded to in early drafts of the script but was not always a major plot element in the film.

“Viggo in his research found a book called Russian Criminal Tattoo a stunning book about the tattooing subculture in Russian prisons” he explains. “He also found a documentary on that subject called The Mark of Cain . I sent that to Steve Knight who was very excited about the materials. Tattoos suddenly became an intense metaphor and symbol in the movie. It’s a specialized world that is in fact dying because of the changes that have happened in Russia in the last decade.”

Researching this world and presenting it as authentically as possible was important to Cronenberg and casting became an issue. While most of the main characters are Russian the actors playing them are American French Australian Polish German and British.

“Casting is a pretty interesting part of directing” says Cronenberg. “It’s not really much known but I think it’s really a crucial part of being a good director. Having that sensitivity to casting and also to the chemistry of a group of actors together. The main problem with casting this movie was the whole question of Russian-ness speaking English with a Russian accent and then speaking Russian itself. There are some very good Russian actors but they can’t speak English basically. That meant that I had to find other actors. I wanted to find actors who were not really familiar English actor faces. That’s when I started to think ‘OK it will be a problem if you have a French actor and a German actor and an American actor and they’re all supposed to be Russians when they speak English.’ But if I get the right actors and I’m smart enough I can bring them all towards a Russian accent together.”

Once the cast was finalized they worked together with a language coach to ensure the way they spoke was authentic. On the set the pieces fell into place. Cronenberg a director who often works from his own scripts was working with a script written by Steve Knight ( Dirty Pretty Things ). Surprisingly though he didn’t find the experience all that different from his past films.

“It doesn’t affect it at all actually” he says “because once you’re on the set you’re just trying to make everything work. Whether it’s you yourself or another screenwriter who’s led you into a difficult situation on the set you’re likely to curse the writer whether it’s yourself or not.

“Once you’re making the movie it’s sort of the blueprint that everybody is working with and it doesn’t matter where it came from. It’s a process of getting the most out of the script the most out of the characters — visualizing everything. The script in truth is not as accurate as a blueprint. You could build a house from a blueprint but you can’t build a movie from a script.”

The difference he says is in the details. “In the sense of every nut and every bolt being indicated it’s really very broad strokes. What colour every wall was and what carpets were on every floor and what everybody was wearing in great detail down to the wristwatch and the shoes and the shoelaces. You know no script can do that — it would be an 800-page script — and therefore once you’ve launched on making the movie the script kind of fades weirdly into the background. It just becomes a sort of suggestion.”

While Cronenberg and Eastern Promises were in Toronto on September 8 at the Toronto International Film Festival Cronenberg has no immediate plans to visit Calgary. “I haven’t been there since I was filming Fast Company (in 1978)” he says “So maybe it’s time.”