"Splice" has a pretty good pedigree for a horror film. The movie stars Academy Award winner Adrien Brody and the well-thought of Sarah Polley as a pair of geneticists who splice together human DNA with several animals and create a monster. Beyond the talent in front of the camera, "Splice" had the distinction of premiering at the 2010 Sundance film festival as part of "Park City at Midnight." Blast got a chance to sit down with the film’s director and main creative force, Vincenzo Natali in Boston recently and we asked him about the long development process, how you create a memorable movie monster and the challenges of defying the expectations most people have for a horror film.
BLAST: I read that "Splice" was eight years in the making. What took so long to get the film made?
VINCENZO NATALI: It was a number of things. Actually it was more than eight years. It was more like 12. I almost made the film in 2000 and it didn’t work out. There were several reasons it didn’t. The main one being that the real-world technology — genetic engineering — just wasn’t part of the popular consciousness. In a way I had to wait for the real science to catch up to my fiction before people would want to see this movie. Also the film tech has evolved a lot in ten years. I was able to make "Splice" much cheaper and more effectively than I would have been in able to in 2000. Then there is just dumb luck or serendipity. Getting the right people involved at the right time. It was a lot of work getting this movie made. There are aspects to the story that are a bit dangerous or a bit frightening for Hollywood studios. Going the independent route was the only way to make it really work.
BLAST: What about genetic engineering and the scientific world appealed to you as a setting?
VN: A whole bunch of things really. Once you dip your toe in that world, it is really captivating. Life is really strange when you look at it at that level. It is just a fascinating subject.
I am a huge fan of creature movies. In a way this is a love letter to creature films. The thought that is so fascinating to me is that things that have only been imagined for thousands of years could actually come into existence, courtesy of new technology, was really an extraordinary prospect. I was seduced by the whole thing. I was kind of shocked actually that no one has made a film like "Splice" yet. It just seemed so obvious to me. I kept waiting with dread that I would wake of one day and read that someone was doing a similar project. Thankfully for me they didn’t.
BLAST: Clive and Elsa (Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley) feel like very real, genuine scientists. How much research did you do in constructing the characters?
VN: When I went to visit these labs, the median age was around 30, so people are pretty young at the labs and they are not the clich©d image of scientists. They aren’t wearing pocket protectors or horned-rimmed glasses or anything like that. They are pretty hip. I thought that made sense for Clive and Elsa and I thought that would make them more relatable as characters and humanize them. On one of my tours I met a guy who became a consultant on the film and he was wearing a shirt that said "Born to clone" and I was like wow. It was like a case of life imitating art or at least it confirmed some of the things that we had put in the script that I wasn’t sure about. I made some connections about these kinds of people that had proven to be real.
BLAST: Clive and Elsa are both very complex characters and could easily exist outside a monster movie. Did you start with the characters or the monster?
VN: The reason d’ªtre was to splice a creature film with a relationship story. I half joking call it my family film. And it is, though a really odd one. So yes it was always about the characters. And that is why I needed to get great actors. There were some fairly complex emotions being dealt with, especially for a horror film.
BLAST: There is a clear focus on the characters in the film. Why was it so important to make Clive and Elsa more realistic than the characters you usually see in horror films?
VN: I mean otherwise it would be just another Frankenstein movie. It’s not that Frankenstein doesn’t have well-developed characters, but I thought that the thing that was going to propel the Frankenstein myth into the 21st century was to make it a love triangle. And also I wanted to make Elsa the protagonist and to make it a mother-daughter story and more female-centric.
BLAST: How long did it take to conceive and flesh out your movie monster Dren?
VN: It took about as long as it took to get the film made. It was always done in fits and starts. I started drawing Dren right away when I was first writing the script. She was always a key component to selling the film because everyone wanted to know what the creature would look like. Along the way I worked with some really great artists and then great film technicians. So Dren is the child of many parents. The final and most important component of the whole process was the casting of Delphine Chaneac who plays the adult Dren. I think if Dren works as a character it is due to Delphine. She just gives so much to that character. She makes her both something that you can sympathize with and be scared of. In some ways we reverse engineered the early stages of Dren to be consistent with her. She really informed a lot of the early designs. Because Dren in the early stages is a lot different physically than in her adult phase.
BLAST: What did having to create Dren based around Delphine’s performance and practical effects rather than CGI add?
VN: Even if I had the money I never would have been able to make Dren fully digital and have that same kind of performance. There is a degree of subtlety that a real actor can give you that even in a movie like “Avatar” can’t fully give you.
BLAST: You reveal all of Dren’s different traits very slowly and it makes the film much more effective and frightening. Was that a conscious choice?
VN: That is one of the advantages of low-budget filmmaking. I couldn’t afford to do a lot so I had to be very judicious with when I showed different parts of her anatomy. Because each different part had a price tag with it and a dollar value so it was all done in a very meticulous way. And as is often the case with these sort of things I find that those limitations improve the story of filmmaking better because I end up having to be more economical as a filmmaker and I need to leave more to the audiences imagination.
BLAST: When writing and conceiving "Splice," did you get inspiration from any particular filmmakers?
VN: The film obviously owes debts to a number of filmmakers — first and foremost David Cronenberg because I think when you make something in the biological horror world, that is territory trademarked by David Cronenberg. I think he is such and intelligent filmmaker and that is something I was aspiring to. But also James Whale who did the original Universal Frankenstein horror movies. I think that those sorts of influences seeped in unconsciously or subconsciously. They kind of entered by osmosis. "Splice" is definitely a hybrid, but like Dren, it is composed of many different components. Hopefully they add up to the greater sum of its parts.
BLAST: Horror is a genre that has certain expectations. Was it challenging not simply falling into simply reproducing the same kind of "scares" you see in most horror films?
VN: I had the great fortune of making the film independently so I didn’t have a nervous executive leaning over my shoulder saying it isn’t scary enough or telling me to do it a certain way.
BLAST: Like someone saying you need four "jump scares" or whatever.
VN: That was never and issue. We were very lucky
BLAST: That has to be challenging. You see a movie like the recently released "Nightmare on Elm Street" remake and you can almost predict every beat. It has to be tough working in the horror genre to fight those kinds of expectations.
VN: I am sympathetic. I don’t know what I would do if I had "Nightmare on Elm Street," because we are kind of at a stage now with film being over a 100 years old where we have seen these kinds of stories a lot. It feels sometimes if you are working within the boundaries of a film like "Nightmare on Elm Street" you don’t have a lot of room to mess around. It is probably very difficult. That is why it is so liberating to work on something like "Splice" because I could set my own boundaries.
BLAST: Did you find that focusing on the characters is the best way to upend people’s expectations about horror?
VN: You can never go wrong with focusing on the characters.
BLAST: I guess with a horror film it is easier to surprise people in a way.
VN: To some degree as a filmmaker you have an unfair advantage working on a horror film because people do have low expectations. If they are going to see an Academy Award-nominated movie, expectations are pretty high; but if they are going to see a monster movie, they might be pleasantly surprised and impressed that there is a little bit of character development.