Once known as the King of Venereal Horror or the Baron of Blood, David Cronenberg has grown into the role of cinematic master statesman without abandoning his obsessive themes. From astonishing horror films like The Brood, Scanners, Videodrome, Cronenberg cracked the mainstream with The Fly and the Stephen King adaptation The Dead Zone. A fertile period of richly bizarre and independent-minded films followed: Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch, and Crash, as well as the play adaptation M. Butterfly, the warped sci-fi of eXistenZ, and the potent psychodrama of Spider, starring Ralph Fiennes. Cronenberg entered a new phase of popular prestige with 2005's A History of Violence, starring Viggo Mortensen. Mortensen had already built a reputation as a serious-minded artist and acting craftsman, with notable roles in The Indian Runner, Carlito's Way, Crimson Tide, The Portrait of a Lady, G.I. Jane, A Perfect Murder, Gus Van Sant's Psycho remake, A Walk on the Moon, Hidalgo, and his career-topping popular success as Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Cronenberg and Mortensen hit the road to promote their second collaboration, Eastern Promises, in which Mortensen plays a Russian mobster with a suspiciously moral code. I talked with this dynamic duo at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel. [Warning: though no definitive answers are given, major plot points are teased in this interview. I recommend seeing the film before reading what these guys have to say about it...]
Groucho: On a genre level, the movie will inspire a vicarious thrill for the audience and also a cathartic sense of survival, of having gotten through it. On another level, what sort of ideas did you both hope would be inspired in the audience by watching the film?
David Cronenberg: (Pause.) None.
DC: Brain-dead. We hope the audience comes out brain-dead.
Viggo Mortensen: That people would go see it.
DC: That's about the only idea. Yeah, I mean, you have to understand though I could, and at one point did think I would, become a literary academic as a career—and I'm therefore very capable of analytic thought and so on—but creatively you don't think about that. You don't think in abstract terms. I can't photograph an abstract concept. Viggo cannot act the role of an abstract concept. He has to be a specific person, I have to photograph physical things, and so from that are generated responses, ideas, thoughts, connections: obviously. But creatively we don't operate on that level. You know? When I see a script that excites me, like this one did—I just have to have the feeling that it's provocative and multi-layered and kind of what I think of as juicy, really. "How juicy is it? How many—?" But I don't really do the analytical thing. And it's only really, frankly, afterwards when I'm doing interviews that I start to be articulate about things that I was only intuitive about before. So this movie hasn't come out yet. So I don't actually know what people's responses are going to be, frankly. And other than that they should find that it's touching or moving or emotional or provocative for them: I can't get more specific than that. Maybe Viggo can, but I can't...What I have is an understanding of the complexity of human beings. I mean, Armin Mueller-Stahl, who plays Semyon, said to me when we were deciding how he would play the violin, when he takes it from the little girls? He said to me, "All monsters are sentimental. All monsters are sentimental." And I think he's right. I mean, it seems like an anomaly that that could be true, a paradox. But people are complex. I don't think there are people—there are very few people who think of themselves as evil. And the people who commit incredible atrocities that we now all read about every day—for example, in the Muslim world, but not just—they all feel totally justified; they feel righteous, they feel religious, they feel that they are doing good for somebody, for some people.
VM: That's a puzzle. You know? I mean, if you look at Schopenhauer, he talks about compassion. And why does someone, when it does him no good whatsoever, go and assist someone—or an animal—but another person? I mean, humans are unique in that way, that they will go and risk their lives sometimes, and lose their lives in doing it sometimes, to help someone who they don't know and, in doing so, not be rewarded. Maybe it's never even noticed.
DC: This is called altruism, yeah.
VM: You know, and there's a lot of focus on the brutality and the sort of shock value of some things, for some people, of this movie. And the trailer makes you think it's a certain kind of movie. And maybe at first viewing the movie is the savagery and the realism, the close to realistic-as-possible nature of the scenes and the acting and so forth, hopefully. You don't think necessarily at first about the fact that actually, in the case of Naomi's character—Anna the midwife—and my character—Nikolai, the chauffeur and mob-connected guy—that in savage circumstances and dangerous circumstances, these people for whatever reason, 'cause they have that sort of moral compass, go to extremes in order to do the right thing only because it's the right thing to do--not for any other reason. And you can't really always explain it. What I like about David's movies and his characters is that you learn a lot more about them than you do about characters in most other people's movies. And there's a lot of layers to the story. But you never fully get to know them. You don't understand everything. I don't think he's someone who answers everything for you, and I don't think, like he said, anymore than I am, that he's the kind of artist who wants to break it all down and analyze it and be an authority on the subject matter other than what goes into it that's useful in just telling the story. So that you don't get answers as an audience. And that's a way of respecting the audience. You're sitting there at the end of the movie and go, "My God, what is going to happen?" No one is as they seem, and you never, ever get to know anyone fully. You can say that...
G: Viggo, you mentioned the puzzle at the center of the film, or the character. The two films that you've made together both deal with this sense of identity being mutable, or getting lost in a lifestyle--and [, David,] you've made a lot of films about alternate realities. Does this way madness lie? And how did you, in developing the role, understand or figure out how much on one side of the line he's living?
VM: I think it's hard to know; I don't think you ever fully realize it. The more you get to know about the characters, including my character, the more you realize you would have to know to really know them. And that you never really will, fully. That's like real life: it's true of our spouses, our mothers, fathers, brothers, friends, strangers on the street, politicians, whatever. You know, you can get to know someone quite well, but you probably never really can know them fully, and they can always surprise you, even those you know best: shock you. And that's what happens in his movies because that's what happens in life. And that's what makes him a great storyteller.
DC: But I could refer a little bit to Naked Lunch and the Burroughsian interest in agents fusing with their cover story. You know? The better you are at being undercover, the more likely you are to lose your own self. And to become that person. And you can see that this is something that Nikolai's going to have to deal with big-time, because he's basically cut off all ties with his former life by the end of the movie.
VM: Whatever that was.
DC: Whatever that was.
VM: We think we know what it was, but we—
DC: And we don't even really know quite what that was. And he could be a triple agent, a quadruple agent, we don't really know. But in order to be effective at what he is doing, he really has to become what his cover story is. So, you know, the mutability of identity, which of course we talk about with the tattoos and stuff: if the tattooing is who you are, then he has become Nikolai, you know? He has become this man because he's been tattooed.
G: Yeah, it seems to me he lives by two codes at once, regardless of which—
VM: But even if he was purely a thief, there's nothing saying he might not, under some circumstance, show compassion.
VM: Do something. "Well, I just feel like doing that. That's why—I don't know why. I just do." And I think that there's one thing that—I'm thinking back about that compassion— something that would apply to both Anna, Naomi's character, and mine is that their approach—. (Sighs.) There's a quote that's roughly this from Mark Twain. He said, "The fear of death follows from a fear of life. A man who lives a full life has no fear of death." You know? And I think that even though they are troubled, each in their way and in complicated circumstances, there's—just the fact of the action she takes and how she follows through, trying to figure out what she needs to figure out no matter what it takes and who she encounters, and the fact that he does the same in his way implies an embracing of life and a certain fearlessness, you know? An instinct for survival. They both have that.
DC: And there's another calculated aspect. I mean, when he says to Kirill, "We don't kill babies. This would be bad for us. Your father's gone too far," that's a pretty accurate assessment. I think, politically, he's right. Because if a baby is murdered by a mob, suddenly the heat's going to be on in a way that it wouldn't be otherwise. Certain things are acknowledged—
VM: Yeah, he's both telling the truth and it's convenient to convince the other man in that moment.
DC: That's right. That's right. So even if we were not a double agent, he might well still have done that.
G: Without committing to an answer to us, because it's good that the film be ambiguous, was it important to either of you or both of you to know in your own minds what his true history was leading up to what we see?
DC: We actually don't know. (Pause.) Or we do but we're not telling.
G: Yeah. (Laughs.)
VM: I know, but I'm not telling. (Laughs...)
DC: Thank you.
G: Were there any particular individuals when you were in Russia and in your months of research that inspired your character?
VM: I had several, and once I had the character, I would say that the whole time I was shooting, during the shoot, every time I would go back to the hotel room, I just left [the TV] on... And at least ten times a day Vladimir Putin was on there, of course. And his posture, that sort of posture, and he's not giving any—his poker face...? And his physical—I mean he's also very good at martial arts. (Chuckles.) He ended up being sort of interest. I wouldn't say I based it on him, but he just added to the mixture of people I'd met.
G: Thanks very much.
VM: You asked great questions, thank you.
[For Groucho's review of Eastern Promises, click here.]