David Cronenberg heads back into the darkness with the armies of the Russian mafia in London-set Eastern Promises.
When moviegoers think of David Cronenberg, they picture some pretty distinctive characteristics. Words like creepy, gory, disturbing, fetishistic, and existential doom come into the mix, carrying with them the genre taint that such adjectives suggest. And yet the Toronto-based director is no misanthropic stylist looking for kicks at the expense of human frailty. Frailty, in fact, might be considered his métier, as he appears most interested in people on the edge of collapse or surrender or, very occasionally, triumph.
What gets lost is that Cronenberg is also a workaday filmmaker, concerned with the ordinary pursuits of visual storytelling. To hear him tell it, the maker of such darkly varied fare as Crash, Scanners, Naked Lunch, and Videodrome doesn't have an overarching philosophy overtly connecting his body of work.
That's not to say there isn't one, or even several. But the veteran filmmaker, who had a late-career breakthrough with 2005's A History of Violence, has now followed that study of masculine fight-or-flight codes with the equally assured Eastern Promises, which again finds Viggo Mortensen in the thick of organized killers this time the armies of the Russian mob. There has been talk of these films leading to a trilogy starring the ruggedly handsome Lord of the Rings star.
"Well, that's just crazy talk," Cronenberg says, affecting a low, Nixonian rasp while on the line from his Toronto office. "What that presupposes is that I am in complete control of my career and of what movies I do. Frankly, I find it charming that people think that; it's kind of sweet that they think I can say something like, 'And now I will do a trilogy with Viggo Mortensen having to do with mob-identity crises.' I do films for myself, basically, and the truth is that what comes along when people are ready to finance it is pretty much what gets made, as opposed to, 'Now perhaps a musical comedy might be the right thing for me to do.' So doing what I want to do gets spread out over time, and I certainly don't make as much money as I could making them for other people."
If anything, the connections between the two movies worked against them as career moves.
"The idea that this is another mob story with Viggo might well have mitigated it as a project, but from an acting point of view, we saw that this character was so different, it wouldn't be a problem."
In the London-set film, which opens here Friday (September 14), the craggy actor plays Nikolai Luzhin, a seemingly taciturn driver for a Russian kingpin played by Armin Mueller-Stahl. Naomi Watts is a midwife who unwittingly exposes and potentially threatens Luzhin's ambition within a troubled crime clan. However, where Mortensen's character was seemingly passive in History of Violence, Nikolai is constantly shaping the environment around him.
"That's one of the big differences between the two roles, along with his [Mortensen] speaking Russian so well. He had to speak it the way his character would really speak it, and a good actor is going to do that. This was very intricate stuff, subtle and very challenging. When we did History, I knew that he was good, but then I discovered he was truly a great actor. Good is good enough for good, but if you want your movie to be great, you have to go [for] some great."
But you can't just pick up a sufficient amount of great at your local IGA. The ins and outs of acting, especially in relation to directing, have played on Cronenberg's mind over the years, something he acknowledged by casting French actor Vincent Cassel as the mob boss's weak bully of a son as well as hiring great Polish helmer Jerzy Skolimowski to play the midwife's Russian uncle.
"Casting is a huge part of directing," he declares. "It's very much not known or talked about; it's a black art, you could say. Because you are balancing the needs of the box office, the financing, the nationalities of the players in coproductions, their availability, and their prices. That's an awful lot to consider when the most important thing, of course, is simply to serve the story. But, that said, I wanted to convey an Eastern European flavour to the whole thing here, but I also needed the actors to speak English well.
"I was lucky to find Jerzy, who, by the way, also directed Moonlighting, the movie that convinced me that Jeremy Irons would be right for Dead Ringers. So you have these little triumphs or whatever, but you still have to deal with the actor on the set. I'm very dependent on their collaboration. I don't do storyboards; I don't move people around like pawns and say, 'You've got to stand at the window and say it this way,' because I'm actually interested in hearing the actor tell me why he wants to lie on the floor instead. I do a lot of my prep with set and lighting design. But I don't know why you would go to the trouble of hiring wonderful actors and not want them to contribute to the way a scene is staged."
Over the years, his relationship with on-camera performers changed as he got more control of the craft and the purse strings.
"My first few movies, I was limited by time and money to maybe three setups per day, and I looked at the actors as the bulls in my china shop. So if someone wanted to go over to a window, I would think, 'Oh, no, I won't be able to light that!' But I would hide that from them, feeling that it would expose weakness on my part, and [I would] give them other reasons, to disguise the facts. Gradually, I came to realize that you can actually explain that to an actor and invite more collaboration. This doesn't lessen your authority when you let them help you with a scene."
Cronenberg had some hands-on experience with this when he agreed to play a crazed psychologist in his friend Clive Barker's 1990 Nightbreed. (He has appeared, mostly in camp cameos, in some 21 titles, including a few of his own.)
"That film [Nightbreed] meant three months in London purely as an actor, and that really cemented my grasp of what an actor's space is like. Because even though you may be only 10 feet away from where you would be as a director, you're in a completely different world. Your body is your instrument. When you're a director, nobody cares if you have a cold sore or if your hair is bad. It's not vanity; it has to do with delivering the goods.
"In my case, I was probably not a good actor. Clive had a lot of respect for me as a director, and I felt that any suggestion I would make would carry too much weight. So I kept my mouth shut and probably refrained from contributing what a normal, good actor would bring to the process."
No one would say that anyone in the cast of Eastern Promises is holding back, although Cronenberg insists that much of the tale's ensemble nature came from the strength of its script.
"A lot of that is Steve Knight," he says, referring to the British screenwriter who also wrote Stephen Frears's superb Dirty Pretty Things. "I loved his script, even if we did do some major, major rewrites."
As for how the film will "position" the 64-year-old director, Cronenberg is appropriately sanguine.
"If I had that much control over the arc of my so-called career, I don't know that I would control it in a good way. I love it when people say something is good for your career, as if it's a separate, doggy-like entity that is apart from yourself. I just don't look at it that way."
Anyway, given any exposure to his body of work however it was achieved you could reasonably expect Cronenberg's dog to leave tooth marks in the middle of the night.