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Lost in the Uncanny Valley: Vincenzo Natali on ĎSpliceí

Delphine Chanťac and Vincenzo Natali on the set of 'Splice.'
by Dan Lybarger

In Vincenzo Nataliís movies, his characters might have to escape from an elaborate prison with lethal booby traps or face down a destructive mutant. But their most potent danger is their own folly.

The 41-year-old Canadian writer-director gained international recognition for his 1997 breakthrough film Cube, in which a group of seemingly random characters find themselves stuck in a nightmarishly complicated series of square tunnels and have only their wits to help them escape. His latest, Splice, features Oscar-winner Adrien Brody and Oscar-nominee Sarah Polley as a pair of frustrated geneticists who incorporate human DNA into their experiments when their corporate backers demand more lucrative results.

Expectedly (this is a horror movie), their new creation, Dren (played by French actress Delphine Chanťac, Senso) winds up being difficult, if not impossible, to control. Nonetheless, itís her creators who frequently behave like monsters. Both throw caution and ethics to the wind and reveal themselves to be questionable custodians for the technology theyíve discovered.

If the outline for the story Natali has written with Antoinette Terry Bryant and Doug Taylor, seems familiar, the director admits he owes more than small debt to Mary Shelleyís Frankenstein. What makes Splice intriguing is that Dren is as sympathetic as she is dangerous. When she misbehaves, sheís merely imitating her deeply flawed parents.

Nataliís route to the directorís chair is unusual in that he has a long career as a storyboard artist, working on everything from the animated version of Beatlejuice to The Adventures of Tintin to the live action film Ginger Snaps. Heís also helmed the existentialist comedy Nothing and a creepy segment of the omnibus film Paris, je tíaime. Heís even made a documentary about Terry Gilliam and the making of Tideland called Getting Gilliam.

Contacted by phone from Los Angeles, Natali sounded oddly jovial for someone whose film deals with such unsettling and sobering subjects. Many of his projects have been gestating for years, so heís understandably happy to have his work finally out for the public to see. On June 4, heíll discover whether audiences will accept Dren and her story with open arms or pitchforks.

Dan Lybarger: My brother, Dr. Lonnie P. Lybarger, is an immunologist-geneticist at the University of Arizona.

Vincenzo Natali: He didnít happen to see the film, did he? Iíd be interested to know what he thought.

Lybarger: Youíve had someone who understands genetics as your advisor.

Natali: Oh, yes. I worked with several people, with both the writing of the script and the making of the movie. It was amazing to me. Every time I suggested something I wanted to do in the script, I was shocked to discover that it was quite possible.

What I began to realize this wasnít science fiction in the strictest sense of the word. Weíre making a film that takes place 15 minutes into the future. Itís just a little bit ahead of the curve.

Therefore, I felt somewhat beholden to reality. I felt that I needed to present the science in the most realistic way that I could in the dramatic context of the story. So Iíd love to know what a real geneticist would think about the finished product.

Lybarger: How is genetic engineering viewed in Canada because it was a major campaign issue in 2008 here in Missouri?

Natali: Even though we have a Conservative government at the moment (in Canada), I think Canadians as a wholeócertainly with what went on with the (George W.) Bush Administration, weíre much more open minded about stem cell research.

It remains a contentious issue. Iím sure thereís a lot of misinformation out there. Iím sure movies like mine probably donít help in that theyíre very hyperbolic, and so on (laughs). But itís definitely on the whole a more liberal society than in the States and therefore more comfortable with this sort of thing.

Lybarger: That said, my brother would be horrified at what Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley do in this film.

Natali: No, no. I donít think that would go down very well (laughs). No, what Sarah and Adrien do is completely unethical. Even though I think that theyíre well-intentioned, they go about it in a completely reckless way. I donít think any kind of reasonable scientist would advocate that sort of behavioróin Canada, or anywhere else.

Lybarger: About halfway through the film, we end up not wanting them to kill (the monster) Dren and actually feel sorry for her.

Natali: Absolutely. While Splice is a creature film, I really think of it as a creature film spliced with a relationship story. And in my mind, itís what hopefully elevates the material because it really gets into the gritty details of the relationship between creature and creator.

And itís a very complex relationship because it begins as a familial one and as Dren grows into something quite alluring and beautiful as it becomes a kind of love affair. So, thereís lots of tricky, complex stuff going on in this movie.

Lybarger: Thereís a Japanese concept that the closer a human simulation gets without quite being human, the more unsettling it is to look at it.

Natali: ďThe Uncanny Valley.Ē

Lybarger: I noticed something like that with Dren because her eyes are spaced just a little too far enough apart for human.

Natali: Thatís exactly the principle we were operating under, which was that small changes to the human form are more disturbing than big ones.
With our creature, we wanted to be quite subtle in the way we designed her.

The tendency with movies is to be larger than life. Particularly, creature designs tend to be baroque and over the top. I just felt that with this particular story, it just wasnít the right way to go, and we needed to make Dren completely biologically plausible and believable. Therefore, she definitely walks the Uncanny Valley (laughs).

Although I should point out that the Uncanny Valley is a term thatís also been applied to describe certain digital effects that arenít successful because for years theyíve been trying to create a synthetic human on film. And it almost never succeeds. The reason for its failure is what they describe as ďThe Uncanny Valley.Ē

Itís a term that really has two applications. Hopefully, the first application is the one that you can apply to Splice. Hopefully, Dren is something that is 100 percent real.

Lybarger: In both Splice and Cube, it seems that human frailty is more dangerous than the monster or the obstacle people have to overcome. Would you say thatís a recurring trend in your films?

Natali: Yeah. Itís something that I really believe. I think if youíre looking for the enemy; look in a mirror. Thatís the greatest obstacle that anyone can face is themselves, invariably. When you couple that with this kind of technology, which is so powerful, itís a potent cocktail. While Iíve always felt that this is a monster film, the real monsters in this movie are human. And in some respects the creature demonstrates more humanity than her human counterparts.

Lybarger: When I saw the scene where she and Brody start flirting, I went, ďOh, yeah, right.Ē But itís not like the scientists have a boyfriend ready for her.

Natali: No, exactly. Thatís part of the reason why sex enters into the picture and into this movie because if you make something like Dren, eventually thatís going to be an issue. The prime directive of any species is to procreate.

And I think thatís where I felt our film was breaking new ground because I donít think Iíve ever seen sex with a creature like Dren being dealt with in a mature way. Iíve seen it done in kind of a more adolescent way, but never has it been in an emotional way. I hope thatís where Splice takes an audience somewhere theyíve never been before.

Lybarger: You are actually going backward in some ways because normally when the Frankenstein story is retold because a reader has some feeling for Mary Shelleyís original monster, but in some of the films, you almost want to pick up a pitchfork yourself.

Natali: Right. Itís no coincidence that Clive (Brodyís character) and Elsa (Polleyís character) are named that way, because theyíre named after Colin Clive and Elsa Lanchester, who were the actors in the original James Whale Frankenstein films, so Splice has its roots firmly planted in Mary Shelley.

And when you read the novel, you can draw even more comparisons. As you say, (the) Frankenstein (monster) is a very sympathetic character and a very intelligent one in the book.

Lybarger: Thatís right because he reads John Milton.

Natali: (laughs) Thatís right. Heís a very well-read monster and actually a very articulate one, which our creature isnít. I decided that it was better not to have her speak in the film for the very simple reason that I wanted to keep her enigmatic. I didnít want you to know what she was thinking at all times. I wanted that to be sort of a mystery. But she definitely has her lineage in Mary Shelleyís work.

In fact, the corporation that Clive and Elsa work for, Newstead, is named after Lord Byronís estate where Mary Shelley conceived of Frankenstein, a little bit of Splice trivia.

Lybarger: In his early films, Sam Raimi used to joke that all he needed were performers who could really scream, but with Dren, you need someone in an adult body who can have child-like expressions and can completely carry a scene with her face.

Natali: We were enormously fortunate to find Delphine Chanťac, who is a French actress, who by some strange happenstance was the first actor to walk into the audition for Dren, and I instantly knew that she was it for exactly the reasons that you mentioned. She just has this child-like quality on one hand. On the other hand, you can see that she can be quite dangerous. And she also had this sort of androgynous beauty, which was quite alien and alluring at the same time.

She just seemed to embody all of these fascinating contradictions. I donít really know how we would have made the film without her, frankly.

Lybarger: Was it also difficult to find actors who could use geneticistsí polysyllabic lingo and not trip over their own tongues?

Natali: (laughs) You know, both Sarah and Adrien spent time in labs just to get comfortable with the environment and the equipment and so on. They went to great pains to make the characters seem authentic.

Itís similar to the situation with Delphine. Iím not sure what I would have done without Sarah and Adrien because they really just exude intelligence. You can believe they are brilliant geneticists, and at the same time they have a vulnerability, which makes them likable even under extreme circumstances where their characters are behaving very poorly and doing all manner of transgressive things.

If the film succeeds, itís really because of these performances. They are the ones who add the human gene to this whole enterprise and make the film emotional.

Lybarger: You had a long career as a storyboard artist before you broke through with Cube. Does that help you in dealing with special effects sequences?

Natali: Oh, yes. Itís kind of an essential tool for this sort of movie because, first of all, we had a limited budget because we financed this film independently. So there was no room for waste. I mean we had to be extremely cautious with how we expended our resources.

I knew from the get go that if Dren wasnít perfect, the movie was a failure. So that required a great deal of planning in advance. And because Dren wasnít a creature that we could just pull out of a box, we really had to engineer her. There was a lot of R&D that went into it, too.

And all that starts with a storyboard because a storyboard tells you precisely what the camera is going to see. So, I storyboarded the entire film (laughs), with special attention paid to the creature scenes.

DL Your film was partially backed by the French company Gaumont, is that part of the reason why you cast Chanťac?

Natali: Yes. It was financed as a Canada-France co-production, and Iíd have to say that without Gaumont, this film would never have happened. It took a French company to want to do this movie. American companies are terrified of the sex in this film; the French companies loved it. To them, that was a plus. And I donít think the film would have gotten made any other way.

Part of the nature of the treaty required that we use certain elements from France, and Delphine quite happily turned out to be one of those elements.

Lybarger: Whatís really interesting is that Splice didnít play a horror fest but at Sundance before Warner Bros. picked it up.

Natali: Thatís the amazing thing. At the time when we took the film to Sundance, we were actually not in good shape because we had been trying to sell the film to the domestic market
for at least nine months without success.

We had a few companies who wanted the film, but they went out of business. Really, right now the condition of the independent film market is just dismal. And especially at that time right after the economic downturn, it was virtually impossible to sell a film for large scale theatrical release in America.

So we didnít walk into Sundance with tremendously high hopes (laughs), but by some miracle, Joel Silver (the producer of Lethal Weapon and The Matrix) caught wind of the thing and even though heís never acquired a filmóever before in his entire career, he saw it. And he wanted it.

And itís all thanks to him that weíre getting this big push from Warner Bros. this summer. Itís really nothing short of a miracle. Weíre incredibly lucky. And it would never have happened under normal circumstances because we would never have even thought of taking it to Joel. Thatís not within the purview of what he normally does.

Lybarger: I have an audio slideshow that fellow Canadian director David Cronenberg did for Microsoft Cinemania, and he says that people always tell him that his films look American, but not quite. Do you think thereís a uniquely Canadian vibe to the kinds of films that you and he make?

Natali: I think thatís true, and I donít think that thereís any intention behind that. I canít speak for him, but for myself, Iím not trying to do anything. Itís just the way that it turns out. I think itís just because Canada exists in a netherworld. Itís not either American nor European. Itís somewhere in between. And so when you see a film thatís shot there, it just seems like thereís something a little bit odd about it (laughs). Thereís always something a little bit odd about Canadians in general.

I say that because Iím Canadian.

Lybarger: Although you were born in Detroit. Is that true?

Natali: That is true. Iím actually a hybrid. Thatís even more confusing than being Canadian. Iím sort of uncomfortably straddling the border.

Lybarger: The only film on your rťsumť thatís straight horror is your segment of Paris, je tíaime. While the events in Cube and Splice are unlikely, they could happen. Whereas in your segment, weíre dealing with Parisian vampires.

Natali: I think there are two kinds of science fiction: thereís the science fiction thatís very much into outer space, and the science fiction thatís interested in inner space, and I definitely belong to the latter category. The worlds I like to explore are very introspective and self-reflective worlds.

I donít think they fall into the traditional categories whereas the Paris, je tíaime segment was really my homage to vampire films, and itís kind of a romantic fantasy. The others are, I donít want to say personal, but more about where I find myself in the world today.

Lybarger: Arenít you preparing a J.G. Ballard adaptation called High Rise?

Natali: This is something Iím wanting to make. Iíve been working on this script for years. It makes Splice look like a Disney movie.

Itís really wild and really exciting for that reason. I would also say very timely because itís about a super high rise very much like the Burj in Dubai, which is now the worldís tallest building.

Itís about how society exists in that building and how it collapses. I like to call it a social disaster film. It would be really great to make it. Hopefully, Splice will help.

Lybarger: Getting back to Splice, as bad as Clive and Elsa get, the film also seems to be critical of the commercialization of science as well.

Natali: Itís the banality of evil, really. What scares me more than anything else is how, for instance, major corporations are patenting parts of the human genome. Itís the commoditization of living organisms that seems morally repellant to me.

Iím not really afraid of the researchers. I think the researchers are highly moral, highly ethical, highly humane individuals who are guided by nothing more than their desire to help other people and to pursue the science. They donít make much money. Theyíre really operating for altruistic reasons.

The corporations are a completely different kind of animal, and in my mind theyíre amoral. Theyíre worse than the mad scientists because they donít even have a point of view. The only thing theyíre looking at is the bottom line.

Lybarger: With the scripts for both Splice and High Rise, you had to spend years working with other to get them the way that you wanted them.

Natali: Itís a slow, brutal process. And in the end itís more rewarding. I canít even express to you how grateful I am to be having this conversation with you with the film coming out in a few weeks. If you had spoken to me three months ago, Iíd have laughed at the possibility that we might actually have a release from a major studio. It just seemed ridiculous.

It just seemed impossible. When you work on something for 12 years like this, and you have this kind of outcome, itís just empowering. It would never be the same if I just whipped something together and then had it succeed in this way. Itís been tough, but itís all the sweeter for it. Love it or hate it, I think that anyone who watches the film will have to realize it was made out of pure passion.

link directly to this feature at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/feature.php?feature=3029
originally posted: 05/28/10 12:44:56
last updated: 05/29/10 14:23:00
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