“Splice,” writer-director Vincenzo Natali’s story about genetic engineering gone wrong was without a distributor when it was shown at the Sundance Film Festival last January. But as the Canadian filmmaker, best known for his 1998 cult hit “Cube,” explained during a recent Dallas interview, that Utah screening changed everything
“It was a Cinderella story,” Natali said. “It was everything a geek filmmaker like myself could have hoped for. And I needed it, because this film had actually been finished for quite some time—it was finished about a year ago. And we just went through this terrible process trying to sell the film. It really it the worst time to sell an independent film to the domestic market. The two companies that were interested in the film went out of business, and I could smell a SyFy movie-of-the-week premiere. I’m not joking at all!
“But as it turned out, everything had to go wrong in order for it to go right. Because once we were at Sundance, we got a positive reaction, and then by an extraordinary fluke Joel Silver became aware of the film and picked it up for Warner Brothers. This sort of thing just doesn’t happen.” The picture will open wide on June 4, backed by a major studio advertising push.
“But I have to admit, it’s been very consistent with the making of the film,” Natali added, “which has been an extremely painful and lengthy process, but in the end it’s always worked out in the best way possible.”
Of course, having a major player like Silver acquire “Splice” created some concern in itself. “The first day I sat down with Silver, I was absolutely terrified,” Natali admitted, “because he’s a very powerful producer, and I didn’t know what he was going to do. But as it turned out, he was more afraid of me, because he liked the film as it was—he didn’t want to change too much. And I think he was afraid I might go overboard. I have to express my gratitude because I was treated, and the film was treated, with tremendous respect.” The changes eventually made—involving a couple minutes of cuts and one brief sequence added for clarity’s sake—amounted, Natali said, to “very surgical, subtle kind of work.”
“Splice” is a modern-day “Frankenstein” tale about two geneticists (Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley) engaged in work for a pharmaceutical company to combine DNA from different animals to create new, potentially lucrative proteins. They secretly add human DNA to the mix, fashioning a creature they eventually call Dren that evolves into a human-animal hybrid with a mind of its own. And their differences over how to deal with Dren becomes a science-fiction parable about family life, and especially child-rearing.
The film was shot in the Canadian winter, and the outdoor scenes look authentically frigid. “There’s nothing better than the real thing,” Natali said with a laugh as he described how Brody actually rolled in the snow to get cold before one especially difficult scene. “And that was the principle that we applied to the making of the whole film, in terms of the lab environment, in terms of designing the creature, we just wanted everything to feel real.
“We wrote it in consultation with a real geneticist,” he explained, referring to himself and his co-writers Antoinette Terry Bryant and Douglas Taylor. “Whenever I had a crazy idea, I would run it past my geneticist friend, and ask, ‘Is that possible?’ And the thing that really shocked me is that without exception, he said, ‘Yes,’ every time. And what I realized is, first of all, what we were dealing with in the film wasn’t so far the truth, or what could happen, and secondly, the world of genetics is just a fascinating, crazy field of science. And in terms of what’s been done, I think it’s just the tip of the iceberg. And in fact, in the time it took us to get the movie made, real science also eclipsed our fiction. When we started shooting the film, in the U.K. they legalized the creation of animal-human hybrids. That really had an impact on the whole approach to the movie. I wanted to scale it down to the human level and keep it real and emotional. It’s still definitely not a documentary, but in this case I thought we were better off trying to stay grounded.” But, he added, visually he still had great leeway, because “there’s almost nothing you can imagine that’s more bizarre than what exists in nature.”
Natali’s imagination could take flight particularly in the design of Dren, who morphs from a fetus-like figure to one decidedly humanoid, though with birdlike and amphibian characteristics, too. “At the end of the day I didn’t want to be too analytical about it,” he said, “because in my mind the mathematics of genetic splicing was that one plus one equals three, that there would be a dialectic between these different genes that would result in something that is greater than the sum of its parts. So you could never fully trace what was in Dren. She was always going to be kind of an enigma.”
“At a certain time I brought on artists,” he continued. “Most really came from a fine arts background, so they weren’t really movie-trained people. And I think for that reason, partly, they gave Dren an air of believability. And then in terms of working on her evolution, that itself was an evolutionary process that really spanned the entire development period of the making of the film, and into the post-production. We were always adjusting little things. But the guiding principle was always: make her real. That was the prime directive I gave to everybody.”
Of course, bringing the conception of Dren to life on the screen involved a wide array of cinematic techniques. “She’s a hybrid organism, and to make her work on film, we used a hybrid of different techniques,” Natali said. “I always wanted real actors as much as possible. Partly because she’s a real character in the movie—she’s not hidden in the shadows, she’s onscreen as much as the human players—that seemed to be the right approach. But in the end we used everything and threw in the kitchen sink. At times she’s a puppet, at times she’s a fully digital character, at times she’s an actor, at times she’s a mixture of all three.”
But in the final analysis, Natali said, all the design and technical considerations were secondary to the story’s emotional content. “On some level, this movie’s personal for me,” he emphasized. “It really is about a relationship, it’s about having certain fears about having kids. To me, it always comes down to character, it’s always about the human component. That’s true of any great science fiction and any great fantasy—it’s always going to come back to the human condition.”