Bleeding Cool Chats With Splice Director Vincenzo Natali

This interview was originally published when Splice played in UK cinemas during the summer, but here it is again on the occasion of the film’s DVD and Blu-ray release in the US. UK importers note, the US Blu-ray is free of region coding.

BC: Good morning Vincenzo, thank you for talking to me. I’ve got a lot of questions about Splice but first of all, I want to go back to your older films that I know and love. I think the oldest one of them that I know is the short film Elevated. Why can’t we buy that on DVD?

VN:You know, it’s distributed by the film school that made it – that I made it with – which is actually a great institution in Canada called the Canadian Film Centre and so it is distributed in some form. I don’t know exactly what form that is. People loaded it onto Youtube, you can find it there.

BC: I feel a little evil watching it on Youtube, when instead I could be, you know, contributing to a film school. Do you know what I mean?

VN: Well I don’t know that they have it commercially available, actually, so you shouldn’t feel too guilty. One time I think it had been on some sort of compilation but I’m not sure that that’s available anymore.

BC: Then after that of course, your debut feature was Cube. Was that your very own concept or did you develop that with anybody else?

VN: The concept came from the me but it was written with two other writers and you know, it was just one of those wonderful eureka moments because I actually came up with the idea very simply because I was trying to think of a low budget film. I knew I would only be able to shoot in one set. So a bit of the conundrum for me was “how do I make that cinematic and interesting?”. I knew I wasn’t the kind of film maker who would do My Dinner With Andre or something of that nature. I wanted my characters to be moving from place to place, and then it just occurred to me “Well what if one set could double as many?” and that led me to think of a maze composed of identical rooms and of course it would be a symmetrical maze, so therefore a cube and so on. So that’s how Cube began, and it took me a while, with the assistance of a couple of other writers, to actually turn it into a functioning three act structure. That’s how it began.

BC: Now how do you feel about the other Cube films? It seemed so pure on its own and now there’s these other things.

VN: Well you know, it’s an odd thing. I intentionally divorced myself from being involved with the sequels. I could have been involved but I just didn’t know what to do with it that wouldn’t be just kind of a retread. Then I felt that it would have to be something so radically different from what Cube was that, probably, the production company wouldn’t like my ideas. So I just said ‘go ahead and do it’. At the end of the day, I find it very flattering. Cube is such a small film and I never had great expectations for it, and the fact that it’s spawned a few sequels I guess speaks well for it, so it’s kind of flattering. It’s sort of interesting to see what other people will do with your idea, it’s like the thing has a life of it’s own in a way. So I’m not opposed to it, the only thing that bothers me is that very often I meet people and their assumption is that I’ve directed those films, or had something to do with them, and I truly didn’t. For better or worse, I can’t take credit for any Cube sequels.

BC: As well as inspiring sequels, I’d say that Cube has inspired a lot of imitators. There’s a lot of single room films that have a very similar feel, I think. There’s was the one with the Mathematicians a couple of years ago attempting to solve some theorems and so on. I don’t know if you’re familiar with all of these pictures?

VN: Yeah I haven’t seen that one. People mention these things. They might have been inspired by Cube. I’m a great believer in that ideas are just out there and people plug into them. I mean I’ve had many occasions where I’ve been working on something and then discovered that someone else was working on something that was nearly identical and I didn’t know anything about them or their work. So these things happen. Or maybe Cube did inspire them, but that’s OK too. ‘Artist’ is a very generous term for ‘thief’ I think. You know they’re pillaging from each other and things like that.

BC: I guess this is where our time-line bends around and touches back on itself. Is it true to say that it was not too long after Cube came out that you initially had the idea for Splice?

VN: Yeah, Splice was really supposed to be my follow up to Cube and I almost made it ten years ago. I came very close. I had a backer here in Canada. At the last minute, he was really a backer because he backed out. He decided not to do it, I think it was just too expensive, but in a way I’m glad, actually, because I think I grew into the movie. I think I was probably more equipped to make that film at a slightly later age. Also I think the world grew into it. Film technology evolved and as well in the real world, genetic technology evolved so that now that Splice is coming out, it’s coming out in a world that’s very aware of these things. we read about them daily and it’s just so close to what’s actually possible now that I think it resonates more.

BC: I think that’s true, and it probably will continue to for some time until the reality of what’s happening sort of overtakes your film in some sense. As we meet that moment it’s just going to get pretty scary for anyone who’s actually seen Splice.

VN: It’s a fascinating time. I mean, real world science is just extraordinary. The fact that Craig Venter, who’s a very famous geneticist, announced that he created the first artificial life form, using a technique, I might add, that is rather similar to what Clive and Elsa did in my movie. It’s really extraordinary, I mean, it’s incredible, exciting. I think that we have a very interesting strange future ahead of us.

BC: A lot of Splice, to me, seems to be about something that’s pretty timeless. It seems to be about sexual ideas that are coded into us, in a way where we don’t need scientists to rewrite us to make us that way. It’s something that’s inherently human.

VN: Absolutely. I think with all of my films, they owe a great debt to mythology. In a way, Cube is really the Theseus and the Minotaur put into a slightly different context. In the same way, Splice is really a way of revisiting those ancient myths in which humans fell in love with things that were more than human. I was really fascinated by how those concepts which have been with us for thousands of years are now finding fruition in reality thanks to new technology.

BC: So getting back onto the time-line… I believe you then did a little bit of television, before finally making – I was looking forwards to it – it was always going to be called Company Man; but when I went to go see it, it was called Cypher. It seemed to be a pretty difficult birth with that film. You seemed to struggle to get that one out.

VN: Well they’re all difficult, I have to say, but Cypher had a hard time, and the simple reason is because Miramax had bought the movie, and at some point decided they just weren’t going to release it in North America.

BC: Why do they do this to everyone?

VN: Oh, believe me. Of course I’m not the only one. There are countless film makers who have gone though this experience with the Weinsteins. This is when the Weinsteins ran Miramax. I think what had happened really was they had produced a couple of films that had a similar vibe. They did Equilibrium, which actually is a good movie, and a movie called… a Philip K. Dick adaptation. I forget the name.

BC: Imposter?

VN: Imposter! That’s it. Maybe one other, and they all failed, and then we finished ours, and they just said ‘We don’t want to release another intellectual, cold science fiction movie’, so they just put it in a vault. Literally. So even though they only controlled the US rights, that had a ripple effect throughout the rest of the world, you know. Everyone looks to America, or the American distributor for leadership, and when there isn’t one, or the distributor’s waffling, it sucks all of the air out of the foreign distributors. So the movie, thankfully, was released everywhere else, but it never got the push that I felt it deserved. Actually the UK was the best territory for that.

BC: Yeah, I got to see it at the cinema relatively easily. I think I had to travel about sixty miles, it could have been worse.

VN: Oh my God! You travelled sixty miles?

BC: Well I travelled to London from Oxford, which is where I live, and there’s a pretty good coach service. It’s nice and cheap, so in a sense, in Oxford we can think of London as our very big, extra city centre. It’s just a little way away. So I travelled down to London to see that, as indeed I’ve had to with many films. But it was a good trip and it was well worth making, and it’s a film that’s actually stayed with me quite a bit. I see echoes of it in a lot of other films. Even when I was watching Inception recently, I’m not afraid to say, I compared Inception unfavourably to your film.

VN: Well you know it’s… I didn’t write the script by the way, it was written by a friend of mine, and I always thought it was a brilliant script, and in a sense, even thought it wasn’t based on a Philip K. Dick story, I thought it was like a story that Philip K. Dick could have written, and in some ways was more faithful to his work than a lot of real adaptations that had been done at the time. So yeah, I’m not surprised it resonates. I have great fondness for the film. It’s hard for me to judge of course, but I think that the actors are really great in it and the story really holds together, and it’s complicated and yet the basic conceit is very simple. There’s a lot that I really think is terrific about it and it’s been a constant frustration for me, even with Cube.

None of my films, until Splice have been released properly. They’ve kind of slipped out, almost by accident, but that’s sort of the price one pays for trying to do original material. The reality is: there were moments along the way where I thought I could have done more mainstream there, and that would have been more widely seen, but it’s just very hard for me to devote that much effort and passion into something that I don’t really care about. That’s always what’s held me back from stepping into the mainstream. Thankfully, with Splice, we were very lucky to be picked up at Sundance by Joel Silver and Warner Bros. I think that really gave the film a shot in the arm, it helped enormously, and we have a great distributor in the UK – Optimum – is a wonderful distributor.

BC: They seem to be doing a good job. They’ve got some fun little viral things going around. I don’t know if you know, but there’s a web page where someone can put in a friend’s email address and they get a phone notification that their DNA has been used in an unauthorised experiment, and things like that. They’re doing a lot of good work to try to make people turn out at the weekend. Now… Is it fair to say that your next film after Cypher, Nothing, is probably the least seen of your features?

VN: Well let me put it this way: never title your film Nothing. Very dangerous thing to do. So yes, I made this movie called Nothing that, if it’s possible, actually had a smaller release than Cypher. But again, it’s a movie I have tremendous affection for. I knew when I made it that it wasn’t going to be a mainstream movie, it was in some ways almost experimental. So I didn’t really have the same expectations, and it was also quite a small movie. I made it very very cheaply. But it is a strange film, and not many people have seen it.

BC: It’s a very funny film, and that seems to me, what sets it apart from your previous work. It is quite consistently a comedy, pretty much all of the way through. Again, I’m aware it’s not something you wrote yourself, but was the script fully completed before you became involved?

VN: Oh no, oh no. The concept came from me. I specifically made it to work with the two actors that are in the film, and we actually wrote the outline of the movie together and then Andrew Miller and his writing partner wrote the script, but the concept came from me. Actually the only film I’ve ever made where the concept didn’t come from me was Cypher. So, you know, the fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree, and Nothing is kind of a buddy comedy in a void. It’s very hard to describe, and I think that’s what makes it so charming. I thought of it very much as a modern fable or folk tale, something of that nature. Again it was a film that was just made with tremendous passion. All of these movies, including Splice, were completely driven by passion. No one made very much money making these films, it was just for the sheer pleasure, and knowing that we were doing something outrageous and dangerous, and that’s what excites me. I think that’s a thing that’s been a blessing and a curse in my career, is that I’ve always been able to make the movies that I wanted to make, but it always takes a long time to get them made, and then I’m not sure that they’re, at the end of the day, for a wide audience.

BC: Well that’s interesting, that you do eventually get them made, because I remember from a very long time, you were talking about a film called Echo Beach.

VN: Oh yeah.

BC: Now is that going to show up again at some point? Do you think we’ll see that, or has that mutated into something else?

VN: You know, I always think about Echo Beach. I’d sort of held off a bit, because it, in a sense, formed the third part of a trilogy, a loosely connected trilogy between Cube and Nothing, or with Cube and Nothing, in that each of those films is progressively more minimal than the last. Echo Beach, without saying anything about the content of it, is extremely minimal, and I realised after Nothing that if I did anything smaller and more minimal than that movie, I might as well just put a gun to my head. I might as well put a gun to my career and shoot it dead, because that would be the end. So I kind of put the breaks on Echo Beach, but it’s funny you should mention it. I was just thinking about it the other day, and it might be time to revisit it.

BC: Are there clues in the lyrics of the song to what the film might be about?

VN: Not really, no. But the title absolutely does come from the song, which by the way, I haven’t cleared the rights for, so I’m not sure if I’d ever be able to get it.

BC: I really can’t stand that song, I have to say. It drives me nuts.

VN: Well you know, it’s funny, it came from a Toronto band.

BC: Martha and the Muffins right?

VN: Martha and the Muffins! It was like a new wave song, I don’t know when it was written. It’s funny, I found a great CD in Tokyo, which, this would drive you insane, the whole CD is DJ’s remixing Echo Beach.

BC: Yeah. I think I might snap that CD if I ever found it.

VN: So no, the movie really has nothing to do with the song, except for the backdrop for the movie is a beach. I shouldn’t say anything more.

BC: And at some point something echoes.

VN: Something echoes, exactly right.

BC: So there’s a number of films that you are apparently attached to at the moment. Are they really going to happen? I mean, I’ve read about Tunnels, I’ve read about High Rise, and of course Neuromancer is what a lot of people are talking about. What’s going on with these films?

VN: Well they’re all very actively being worked on, in fact, currently, all three of them are going through rewrites. All three of them have producers. Tunnels, potentially, has money behind it, because it’s being produced by Relativity. It’s a kind of…almost a studio here in Hollywood. They back a lot of movies. The other films, we haven’t actually started the process of looking for money yet. High Rise is being produced by Jeremy Thomas – one of the great producers in the world, and exactly the right person for that material. Neuromancer is something that’s happened very recently. Literally yesterday, I finished my first rough draft of it, so it’s in it’s infant stages. I’m actually very hopeful for it after Inception, because I think that they share enough material, there’s enough connective tissue between those movies, that people could see how Neuromancer could be made; but not enough so that it doesn’t stand out on it’s own, as something original.

BC: Would that be your approach? Would you literally go out and film cyberspace on sets?

VN: Oh no, not at all. The cyberspace element of it would be a completely abstract universe. So it will be the opposite of The Matrix. Except for some very discreet scenes we are not in a world that looks like our own. It’s the opposite. In fact, that’s serves the whole point, that the main character, Case, is what they call a Console Jockey, kind of a hacker, who in a sense, downloads his consciousness into this digital universe, and that’s where he’s happiest. That’s what makes the book so resonate and fascinating and timeless in a sense, in that Case is really enamoured with the immaterial world. He hates what he calls the Meat, his own flesh, his own body, and in the real universe, the last thing he’d want to do is go into a perfect duplicated version of the real world. All he wants to do is escape from our world.

He enters what was coined the ‘Matrix’ but what was actually blatantly lifted by the Wachowski Brothers, so I’m calling it something else, but essentially he goes into this other alternative universe which a kind of platonic universe, where everything is pure and clean and beautiful. So that would be very much a digital construct in the film.

BC: Sure. It’s been a few years since I read the book, but I have read it a few times, and it seems that it does need to be in some sense stylised, but it was never clear to me, various people came and went attached to the project in different ways, whether it would be a physical thing that was filmed, or indeed something that was constructed by a computer. Obviously it makes so much more sense for it to be constructed by a computer because that’s what we’re talking about, but none the less, I would not have been surprised had you’d said you were going to build Caligari style sets.

VN: Yeah, I don’t think in this day and age that would be necessary I think that it shouldn’t look anything like Tron. Which is, when you read the book, sort of what it sounds like. I think it should be something else, but that’s what’s so magnificent about it: it could be anything really, but I think it should be stylised. I don’t think that it should in any way feel like the real world, and in fact, not a great deal of the movie, or the book, takes place in that universe. We only glimpse it periodically, and in fact the rest of the film takes place in very much a real, gritty world. My approach to this is pretty far from The Matrix. I think the Matrix is very much a comic book kind of universe with a heightened, stylised reality, in both The Matrix universe and the real world.

BC: Yeah, they’re movie movie worlds aren’t they? They’re worlds that only exist in movies, I think.

VN: That’s it, and I think what makes William Gibson’s book so powerful, is that you feel that this is world that could exist. This is perhaps where we’re headed, and so my approach to it is to not make it too futuristic. In fact the real world is not that dissimilar to ours. We’re only a little bit in the future. It’s amazing to think that that book was written in 1984, because it so accurately imagined what lay ahead for us, and actually that’s why I think now is the time to make the movie, because even ten years ago, I think it would be hard for people to fully grasp the central conceit of it. Now it’s just part of our culture.

BC: Yeah, we’ve been familiarised. What do you think about 3D, Vincenzo? Are you attracted to that as a format to make movies in?

VN: Not really, to be perfectly honest. The day that I can walk into a movie theatre and watch 3D without wearing glasses, and without having eye strain, then I’m there, I’m 100% there, I’d be thrilled. As it stands, I have yet to have the perfect 3D experience. There’s always a moment, it’s always great for about twenty minutes, maybe forty minutes, I think it’s wonderful, and then after that, I just desperately want to rip those glasses off. I can’t stand it, I just find it hard to watch. I feel like that’s where we’re headed inevitably, but I don’t really think that the technology, even James Cameron’s technology which seems like it’s the best, I don’t feel like it’s quite there yet.

BC: I must say I’ve never suffered from eye strain, but you are a glasses wearer yourself, aren’t you? So I’m wondering if there’s any hope for you in prescription 3D glasses, maybe if they come along. Are you interested in the potential though? When I think about the new vocabulary that it opens up for film, I get quite excited, actually, and I know I’m in a minority, and a lot of people think that it’s a gimmick, but I’m waiting for somebody exciting to really start pushing it around. I think there’s a lot of scope.

VN: No, I wouldn’t disagree with that, and I’m not sure if it’s a gimmick either. I think that inevitably where we’re heading is Neuromancer. When we go to see a movie, it’s the ultimate version of it. It would be that we download ourselves into the movie. We want to be immersed, and I think that anything, any tool that helps that experience become more immersive is a good thing. My only objection to 3D is that at a certain point, it takes me out of the movie, because I find it hard to watch, but no, I can see that. Aesthetically, I think that there will be some nice things that come out of it. I find that movies, by and large are too cutty, meaning that they’re too choppy. I actually like the way Stanley Kubrick shoots for instance, which is that he does a lot of mise-en-scene. He doesn’t do a lot of cutting. It’s very much about the orchestration of blocking the actors and the movements of the camera, and I think if you’re making a 3D film, that almost becomes a necessity. It’s too hard for your eyes to adjust when you’re jumping from quick shot to the next. So I totally get what you’re saying. We’ll just see where it goes, there’s a tremendous push in this direction right now, so I’m sure there’s all kinds of developments going on.

BC: Well I’m sure you’ll have the meeting one day, if you haven’t had it already, in which someone asks for Neuromancer to be in 3D. I just think it’s inevitable.

VN: Oh of course that’s already happened, and I can see that to a point. It’s just that at the moment for me, if I were to get excited about anything, it would be high resolution 2D imaging. I’m very curious to see, I think David Fincher just did this, I could be wrong, but the film that is shot at 4K and projected in 4K.

BC: Well projecting it in 4K is going to be the problem isn’t it? He’s going to be able to do that in about half a dozen places.

VN: That’s the issue, but I believe, I could be wrong about this, I heard somewhere that that’s what he did for Social Network, his new movie.

BC: I believe it’s been shot in 4K, yeah, but how many of us will get to see that, I don’t know. Coincidentally, I think the screen where Splice was premièred at the Sci-Fi London for the English première was actually 4K enabled.

VN: Really? Wow.

BC: But I don’t think they have much to show.

VN: No, I’m sure they don’t, but I would love to see it. I think that when you look at IMAX and so on, it starts to take on a 3D quality, even thought it isn’t actually 3D. When the image becomes so sharp, it has that immersive quality. So personally, that’s a more appealing format at the moment, but at some point, I just don’t have control. If I were lucky enough to make a $100 million movie, at this stage, I don’t think I would be the person making that decision. I’m not sure that Louis Leterrier when he made Clash of the Titans really made the choice to make it a 3D film.

BC: I’m not sure how many choices would have been left to him on a film like that, to be honest. I mean, it’s difficult to imagine. So, Youtube, by the way, is now 4K enabled, believe it or not. If you Google Youtube 4K, you can read their press release about it, but who’s ever going to watch that, I don’t know.

VN: That would be very slow loading.

BC: Very. I think that after the increase in resolution the next thing to do, after maybe 8k sort of pushes it as far as it could ever realistically be discerned, is an increase in frame rates, but that would mean that all of the films made before that moment in history wouldn’t be able to be converted, right? If we went back to Cube, and we tried to interpolate extra frames in the middle, we just wouldn’t get there. I suspect it’s coming, because Cameron suspects it’s coming, and he seems to be making these decisions himself, to be honest.

VN: It’s an interesting thing, I mean at the end of the day, I think that this technology has existed for a hundred years, and it’s 24 frames a second, and it’s been pretty good. I’m not saying it can’t improve, but there’s definitely something about the 24 frame a second rate that is very pleasing to the human eye. Doesn’t mean it’s real, but it’s easy to watch, it’s ‘easy on the eyes’ as they say, and I’m all for experimentation. I’m fascinated by that kind of thing, I’m all for pushing boundaries, but I’ve seen higher frame rate material, and it has a funny feeling about it. It kind of starts to feel a little bit artificial. Like even 30 frames per second, I don’t like. 30 frames a second has a very, even when it’s shot on film, looks like video to me. That’s the approximate frame rate of video.

BC: Well, that’s NTSC video. It would be different here in the UK.

VN: You have a superior system. NTSC is 29.97 frames a second I think. At any rate, I prefer a lower frame rate. I just find that there’s something about the way motion blurs and so on, it just has a more ‘real’ quality, if I can use that word. There’s something almost kind of cheap about the 30 frame per second frame rate, even if you’re shooting on 35mm film, it’s an odd thing. Or you know, who knows? Maybe it’s just the way my brain is wired, maybe the next generation will feel very differently. Maybe it’s just because I grew up with that one particular format.

BC: Yes. It may just be “conventional awareness”. Now before I let you go, tell me: what’s your day like today? What are you working on today?

VN: Today is my reading day, actually. Now that I finished my first pass of Neuromancer, I have a back log of reading. Sound exciting, doesn’t it?

BC: The credit I have here for the screenplay on High Rise, it’s yourself and Richard Stanley. Is that correct?

VN: Yeah. Yeah, Richard’s writing a draft right now.

BC: That’s really quite exciting.

VN: It is. He’s really, I don’t know if you’ve ever met Richard, he’s quite brilliant, and quite amazing. Extraordinary character. There aren’t many like Richard Stanley.

BC: I’ve read essays by him, and I’ve seen his documentaries, it’s quite clear he is a rare kind. Well that’s exciting. Is it widely known?

VN: No, I don’t think so, because for years I had worked on High Rise myself, pretty much alone. At one point Rudy Wurlitzer had written a draft, He’s quite a well known screen writer. That hadn’t really worked out, and at a certain point, I just felt tapped out. So Jeremy Thomas suggested Richard who he had worked with in the past, so Richard’s come in and he’s really injected new blood into it. I think we’re going to nail it, I think it’s going to be great.

Thanks to Vincenzo for taking so much time out of his reading day to talk to me, and to Ted Leighton for the transcript.