‘Splice’ Director Vincenzo Natali on His New Film and the Future of ‘Neuromancer’

Director Vincenzo Natali has been making inventive movies for decades, but none managed to capture his audience’s imagination the way his sci-fi thriller Cube did, back 1997. That all changed when Splice premiered at Sundance, shocking audiences. Warner Bros. decided it was a movie people needed to see and are giving it a nationwide release on June 4th. In it, Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley play unusually good-looking geneticists who let their ambitions get the better of them when they create Dren, a strangely beautiful creature of mixed human and animal DNA. Things get wacky, and, well, you’ll have to see the thing to find out what we mean by that. It’s by far Natali’s biggest movie (Guillermo del Toro is a producer), and things are only looking up for the director, who’s slated to helm the long-in-gestation adaptation of Neuromancer. Here he is on the status of that project, the strange experiment that inspired Splice, and taking things too far.

What about science fiction first attracted you to the genre? It’s just been a life-long obsession. I consider my life to be very dull, so I was always attracted to fantasy of various kinds. Star Wars was a huge influence on me. My mom used to take me to this old theater when I was a kid, where every Tuesday they would have a Universal horror film. So I remember seeing the original Frankenstein and the original Bride of Frankenstein in a movie theater and those films always stayed with me. They’re definitely part of the DNA of Splice, for sure.

It seems so natural that Guillermo del Toro is one of the producers. How did he get involved? I met Guillermo at a film festival and he expressed a desire to produce a film for me, which I was very happy about because I was a tremendous fan of his work. I immediately thought of Splice, which was a script I already had and that had been gathering dust on my shelf in my office. I felt intuitively that he would respond to the theme of the creature—of discovering humanity in the creature— and just thought it would appeal to him, and it did. He was wonderful. He’s basically Dren’s godfather. He really helped shepherd her into the world and he lent us his name, which opened a lot of doors and legitimized what we were doing. I see him as the great impresario of fantastic art. I think he’s done this for me and for many other people as well.

I understand that your point of inspiration was the Vacanti mouse experiment. The Vacanti mouse was such a shocking image because it was basically a naked mouse with what appeared to be a human ear growing out of its back. It wasn’t a real ear. In fact, it wasn’t even a genetic experiment, but it was such a powerful image, and I think part of its power came from how vulnerable the mouse looked. I immediately identified with it. I really felt for it. It was speaking to some pretty strange avenues that are now opening up to us with the advent of this new technology, so I really think from its very earliest stages, Splice always put the emphasis, the emotional connection, on the creature. We were always going to be suspect and dubious of the humans and, in fact, in the making of this creature, we discover the monster lurking within the humans. In other words, I never thought this should be a story of a monster going on the loose and wreaking havoc and killing people. That was just not the story I wanted to tell. I was much more interested in how the people would end up smothering their own creation. It becomes kind of a hostage story. That’s the road we followed. So the mouse was a very influential mouse.

I read that George Charames, your technical consultant on genetics, actually said that this type of experimentation is occurring clandestinely around the world, that these human-hybrid chimeras were being created. Do you think that’s true? Well, they are. They absolutely are. Not like what we have in the film, but in the UK they legalized the creation of human-animal chimeras for medical research. They destroy them after, I don’t know, a few days or a week or something, so they never go beyond the embryo stage. That’s what Clive and Elsa at the start of the film plan to do: destroy it before it grows. But it grows a little bit quickly and once it’s born, they don’t have the heart to kill it, so you can easily see how life often trumps the best-laid plans and how things can go horribly, horribly wrong.

You’re currently attached to Neuromancer as both writer and director. Have you already started working on the adaptation? Well, this is another example of technology out of control because I haven’t even signed a deal yet. That information leaked out on the Internet somewhat unexpectedly and it’s just amazing to me how fast it traveled. I mean, now it just seems like common knowledge. It’s amazing. But I have every intention of doing it. I’m very, very excited and honored to be given such a seminal and important book to adapt.

How do you envision creating the Neuromancer universe? Like Splice, I think the way to do it is to make it real. A lot of people will tell you that after The Matrix, there’s no point in making Neuromancer, because The Matrix borrowed so much from the book, and the Wachowskis will be the first to admit this, but I think that’s actually not right. I think The Matrix films were, in the best possible way, comic books, whereas Gibson’s book is a much more serious work of fiction. So I want to make it real. Actually, even though a lot of people have borrowed from it, there’s a lot in there that has not been explored. To me, it’s a treatise about the post-human world. Unlike Splice, it’s not quite as much about physical transformation as it is about the transformation of our consciousness and how we’re going to merge with our machine consciousnesses.

Have you ever talked to William Gibson? Yes. One of the great thrills of my life was when I had a very lively conversation with him on the phone prior to all this happening. He’s everything I hoped he would be. He’s a lovely man and he really supported the idea of me doing the book, so I feel like I got the blessing to move forward. He wrote the script. I’m working from his script and I want to do it with his approval.

You’re also attached to an adaptation of the J. G. Ballard book High Rise, which is more about a devolution, a breakdown of humanity. It sounds like Cronenberg’s Shivers. He [Cronenberg] must have read High Rise before he made the film, the difference being, in High Rise, there’s no parasite or chemical or external force that causes this breakdown. It really comes from within; it’s the psychology of the society. I call it a social disaster film. It’s about a society in collapse, but like all of Ballard’s fiction, it’s somewhat ambiguous. Like, it doesn’t really condemn what’s happening. It doesn’t really couch it within the terms of it being a devolution. It’s more open-ended. I think that what makes Ballard so special is that he is an author of dystopian fiction, but the dystopias may just be a necessary step. You feel like he’s not implying any kind of moral judgment on what’s happening and that’s what makes it rich. That’s what makes it really interesting.

Returning to Splice, were you ever concerned that you were going too far and that you’d lose the audience? Well, I think we do lose some people. That’s the litmus test. There are some people who just can’t go there and that’s fine, because that’s the movie I wanted to make. That’s why I’m so delighted and amazed that the film is getting a mainstream release; it was never intended to be mainstream. It was made as an independent film, but I think that overall, audiences are smarter and more desirous of innovative films than studios often give them credit for. I’m willing to believe that if the film is a success, it will be because it pushes the boundaries of what’s acceptable. And that’s consistent with many of the great films in the horror canon, like you think about Texas Chain Saw Massacre or Alien, these are movies that put things on the screen that shocked people and truly frightened them and I think that’s why people go to see horror films. There’s no question, not everyone will make the leap.

Movie Reviews: ‘Splice’, ‘I Am Love’, ‘Solitary Man’

I Am Love – In the mannered melodrama I Am Love, director Luca Guadagnino invites us into the lives of the moneyed Recchi family through its kitchen. With painstaking, extended close-ups, he focuses on the Recchi servants as they place, with trained precision, flatware on whiteclothed dining tables. All of this structured pomp is a metaphor for the traditions that stifle the spirit of the clan’s gracious matriarch, Emma (Tilda Swinton). But when Emma meets her son’s friend, a chef named Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), she breaks out of her routine and the focus on cutlery disappears. Their initial spark explodes into a full-blown, all-consuming, gorgeous Italian affair, which climaxes when Emma is forced to choose between the stability of her past and her risky, lustful reawakening. As a caged bird desperate to escape, Swinton has never been better. —Nick Haramis

Solitary Man – At 65, Michael Douglas can still walk the walk. Over the opening credits of Solitary Man, he strides through the streets of Manhattan, cutting a trim, handsome figure—and his character, Ben Kalmen, knows it. That’s his problem. Ben is well into his midlife crisis: he has already left his wife (Susan Sarandon), already destroyed his high-powered career and already bedded scores of pretty young things. Broke and unfocused, he is charming to the point of smarminess, a good time to the point of being unethical (he believably and creepily seduces the 18-year-old daughter of his girlfriend, Jordan, played by an icy Mary-Louise Parker). He’s also a liability as a father, grandfather and friend. Needless to say, he’s fun to watch. —Willa Paskin

Looking for Eric – On paper, English director Ken Loach’s Looking for Eric overflows with indie-movie clichés: troubled, middle-aged postman Eric Bishop’s life is falling apart; his sons don’t listen to him—and one of them is mixed up with a gangster; he’s still in love with the woman he left when he was in his twenties; and he’s having conversations with a figment of his imagination (the great Manchester United soccer player, Eric Cantona, who plays himself in the film). The hallucinated life coach even convinces Bishop (Steve Evets) to seize the day and take control of his circumstances. But credit goes to Loach for bringing his characteristic low-key realism to bear on the project, extracting the twee and leaving the sweetness. If the movie’s culmination feels a bit stagey, the naturalistic conversations and good cheer between friends balance it out. —W.P.

Splice – Director Vincenzo Natali’s (Cube) latest film is a cautionary tale, but it’s never clear against what, exactly, we’re being cautioned: Post-millennial parenting? Science as big business? The lust for power? Geneticists Elsa (Sarah Polley) and Clive (Adrien Brody), a young married couple who work for a pharmaceutical company, combine animal DNA to make throbbing slime-blobs. After Elsa throws her own genes into the spin-cycle, she and Clive welcome into the world an ersatz daughter—one with gills and wings—named Dren (Delphine Chanéac). There are moments of sci-fi beauty in the film, which is shot through with all kinds of creature-making tricks, but they’re too infrequent to make up for the story’s icky subplot, in which Clive puts the “orgasm” back in “organism” by bedding his pubescent progeny. —N.H.

Casino Jack and the United States of Money – For a certain kind of scumbag, the life of“über-lobbyist” Jack Abramoff might make for a heartwarming bildungsroman: a college Republican grows up and gets rich shilling for crooked countries, bribing congressmen and screwing over Native American tribes. For everyone else, it’s a sobering look at the sad, corrupt circle-jerk that constitutes modern life in Washington. Oscar winner Alex Gibney’s documentary is far less ham-fisted than the works of his liberal peer Michael Moore, and his use of source material—an email exchange between Abramoff and his co-conspirator Michael Scanlon that includes hilarious frat-boy hip-hop slang like “You da man”—is impeccable. Footage of a dapper, teenage Karl Rove is, on its own, worth the price of admission. —Scott Indrisek