PLEASE NOTE: The following article contains major spoilers for the movie Splice.
Thirteen years after endearing himself to science fiction fans with the cult classic Cube, independent filmmaker Vincenzo Natali has finally hit the big time. His decade-in-development passion-project Splice – with Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley as genetic engineers who create a rapidly-evolving human/animal hybrid named Dren, only to see the experiment veer in a wholly unexpected direction – was a surprise smash on the Sundance scifi/horror scene, and now it’s being unleashed on unsuspecting summer movie audiences courtesy of Dark Castle Films.
Shortly after screening Splice for myself, I was given the opportunity to interview Mr. Natali in person. He’s a humble, unassuming man who still seems awestruck to see his offbeat little movie set up as kind of alternative summer blockbuster, but he was eager to talk about the film, its production and the very real science behind the fiction. He was especially eager to talk about the “science part”; as a result, I’ve actually had to omit a few passages where we literally ceased talking about the movie and instead just mutually geeked out over a shared fascination with newsworthy biotech minutia.
MovieBob: I’ve got serious questions, but I’ve got one, I guess, silly-ish question that I’ve just got to ask so I figure, might as well knock that one out first and just get to it. Is that alright? [Mr. Natali nods] Okay, cool. At the beginning of the third act, the relationship between Adrien Brody and Dren takes a turn that a lot of the audience probably won’t see coming.
(Note: This is why there’s a spoiler warning. In the scene in question, Dren – by this point having evolved to look like an uncomfortably lovely human woman save for her plus-sized eyes, prehensile tail and triple-jointed legs – strips off her clothes and attempts to seduce Adrien Brody’s character. She succeeds.)
MB: So the question is, do you realize you may have made the “would ya?” movie of 2010? [big laugh from Natali] Because people will talk about this, about the themes and the science, but the thing that a lot of male members of the audience will be asking over their coffee and drinks after seeing it is: “So, dude, would ya?” Last year it was Avatar…
Vincenzo Natali: Right! [laughs] That’s right!
MB: Was that going through your mind at all?
VN: Oh, yeah. That was the [reason] for making the whole movie. I think it encapsulates everything that the movie is about, because it is the ultimate transgression. [Splice] is about discovering the monster in the humans, and the humanity in the monster. So I knew that scene would elicit a pretty strong response, and I have to admit it’s exciting to watch audiences react to that because people react in so many different ways – some people laugh, some gasp, some groan – so it’s a very uncomfortable scene but I think in a very fun kind of way.
MB: Were you expecting the film to get this wide of a release?
VN: Not in my life, no. It is an utterly surreal experience. Never would I have thought that a major studio would pick up Splice and release it in the middle of the summer. It’s amazing. Impossible to think this would happen, but it has. And it’s all thanks to [producer] Joel Silver. He found the film at Sundance and he really believed in it, and embraced it … embraced everything that’s strange and dangerous about it.
MB: How is he [Silver] to work with?
VN: Wonderful. I was terrified to work with him – he has a reputation, he’s a very powerful man – but he was tremendously respectful to the film, and to me, very deferential. Just a great ally.
MB: Were there any alterations requested by the studio once it got picked up?
VN: I totally had my say, but they had suggestions … mostly picking up the pace and clarifying. There’s one story point that we shot that needed just a bit more of that. But all the places you’d anticipate a studio would want changes, they didn’t. It was mostly cosmetic and cleanup work, but everything weird and dangerous about the movie was left untouched.
MB: I’ve been seeing the trailers running a lot on TV. They’re selling it as, “hey, here’s a monster movie!” I can’t wait to go see this on opening night with an audience that doesn’t know quite what’s coming.
(Note: This interview was conducted almost a month ago, and already there were TV spots – an unheard of level of promotion for a low-budget, adult scifi/horror movie in the summer.)
VN: [excited] Yeah, it’s going to be interesting to see. It’s definitely being sold in a certain way that doesn’t entirely represent what the movie is, so I’ll be interested to see if they’re disappointed or pleasantly surprised.
MB: Most Frankenstein stories have been about neglectful fathers who won’t take responsibility for what they’ve created and see it only as a monster. It strikes me that what you’ve got here is a Frankenstein story about an obsessive mother who takes too much responsibility for what she’s created. Where did it come from, approaching this material this way?
VN: Well, first, I had two co-writers – Antoinette Terry Bryant and Doug Taylor – and I’m sort of aware enough of these kinds of movies that I didn’t want to imitate them. And the way to push it into the 21st Century was to make it a love triangle, that it’s a couple who create Dren. What I was very aware of not wanting to do was the usual plot where the creature might escape. I would be much more interesting if the scientists cage their creation and start destroying it, becoming more monstrous than the monster. But a lot of it really comes from having ten years to work on the script – it took a long time to get this movie made.
MB: Kind of a geeky science question: Is there a master list of what Dren is supposed to be made of?
(Note: This is about where the “this fellow really likes to talk science!” comes in.)
VN: Oh! That’s a great question, actually. The answer is no. Here’s why: What Clive and Elsa have done is taken the material from Fred and Ginger [more basic animal hybrids from earlier in the film] and added human DNA. But in the voodoo of their splicing technique they’ve accidentally awakened what are called “Junk Genes” – dormant genes that we all have that are left over from evolution. So we’ll never know 100% what Dren is; it’ll always be a mystery.
MB: For a movie that’s been in development ten years, it’s very much on the cutting edge of science we’re talking about right now; what with designer genes, Chimeric Animals – y’know, pigs with human hearts, etc. What I like is, there’s no “This is wrong! They tampered in God’s domain!” Was it a conscious thing to avoid that?
VN: Absolutely. I think the film treads along a moral gray. I think Clive and Elsa are quite admirable in certain ways. When we started writing this they had just legalized creating animal/human hybrids in the UK to help find cures to the same diseases Clive and Elsa are trying to cure … this is good work. In a sense, they ought to be lauded for putting everything on the line for this experiment.
(Note: I have been waiting, literally, my entire life to hear this kind of pragmatic, matter-of-fact humanism out of a science fiction filmmaker.)
Y’know, Mary Shelly’s brilliant novel [Frankenstein] was subtitled The Modern Prometheus, so clearly the theme of that was “Man should not steal fire from the gods.” Our film starts from the premise of “Well, we already stole the fire, so now what do you do with it? How do you handle it without getting burned?”
MB: How much of “adult Dren” is Delphine [Chaneac] and how much is an effect?
VN: Essentially, Delphine’s face has been altered digitally, the legs and her tail are CG, and we [digitally] removed one finger. That was pretty much it. I was operating under the assumption that small changes to the human form would be more disturbing than big changes.
We tried a device [for the legs] like these crazy elevator shoes, but we found it was better to just have her in high-heels which, being French, was natural for her [laughs].
MB: Was it conscious that she was never precisely “horrifying”?
VN: It’s all thanks to Delphine that it works, but I was always concerned about how creature-like Dren should look. Obviously, since Adrien Brody’s character is going to have relations with her, she can’t look grotesque, but on the other hand you don’t just want to do Species where of course you’re going to sleep with Natasha Henstridge – no moral line being crossed there. And Delphine is not only beautiful but also such a compelling presence, you kind of fall in love with her onscreen.
MB: We talked earlier about the moral gray of the film. How do you feel about, in real life, actual scientists doing this sort of work and saying, “Y’know, let’s throw some human in there”?
VN: I’m surprisingly open-minded about it, on a case by case basis. Let me put it this way: We’re going to do it, no matter what. Humans have defined themselves by altering their environment, and now that we have the technology it’s only a matter of time before we’re altering ourselves. So we’ll need to do it in the most responsible way. What I find frightening is when I hear about genes or parts of the human genome are patented – that’s like someone sticking a flag in your eyeball: “This belongs to Johnson & Johnson!”
But from my experience with real geneticists, I find them to be admirable, extraordinary people whose work should fundamentally be supported. I’m absolutely in favor of stem cell research. It all just needs to be handled cautiously, and I’m always wary of when a big corporation is involved.
MB: If you had to say one thing to someone who’s on the fence about seeing Splice, what would it be?
VN: Bring a date!