Creative inspiration comes in all shapes and sizes.
For Vincenzo Natali, director of the new film “Splice,” opening June 4 from Warner Bros., it arrived in the form of a mouse. Specifically, a laboratory rodent that looked like the disfigured love child of Pinky and The Brain.
“It was a photograph of something known as the Vacanti Mouse,” Natali said during an interview to promote the film. “It was such a shocking image; and I just felt there was a film to be made from this.”
The result is a science fiction-horror hybrid that blends elements of “Frankenstein” and “The Fly.” “Splice” examines classic genre themes as the irresistible urge to play God, technology run amok and the awful consequence of being a lousy parent.
Oscar winner Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley star as Clive and Elsa (after Colin Clive and Elsa Lancaster, stars of the 1930s Universal “Frankenstein” films). They are a romantically linked pair of genetic engineers whose work creating hybrid animal species has made them rock stars in their field. Egos and ambition collide and they create a rogue hybrid with human DNA, that they call Dren.
At first an all-CGI creature, Dren is portrayed in her rapidly maturing adulthood by French actress Delphine Chaneac. She is soon in the middle of a most tangled web woven by two doctors in way over their heads. The film takes some surprising – and quite disturbing -- twists that will stay with you long after you exit the theater. The director credits his two lead actors for their total commitment to the parts.
“They are very courageous actors and I think they like to do experimental, new things,” said Natali, who directed and co-wrote the film with Antoinette Terry Bryant and Doug Taylor. “Dren is kind of a catalyst, I think, for opening up sides of Adrien and Sarah’s characters that they have hidden away. Their darkest fears, their darkest desires emerge after they’ve made Dren.”
They’re not mad scientists, Natali says about the two lead characters. “But they are also a little bit immature. They’re not fully prepared for what they’ve created, and they pay the price.”
The science “Splice” revolves around is the cutting edge field of DNA splicing. It experiences rapid advancement on a regular basis, which is great for science, but not so great for a filmmaker trying to complete a project more than a decade in the making.
“In the time that it took to write the script, the science evolved exponentially. What we found was that some of the ideas which were total fantasy in our script, were becoming a reality,” said Natali, who kept several geneticists on speed dial to help keep the script current.
A new-born Dren meets Esla in Warner Bros.' "Splice"“Splice” is the type of ‘smart sci-fi that has been making a theatrical comeback of late. While it sports some impressive special effects work, with barely a half-dozen speaking parts and only a handful of locations, it is still a relatively low-budget affair.
Despite the fact that he had to go outside the studio system to get financing, Natali thinks hard-core genre films are no longer the tough sell they used to be.
“I…think the fact that Joel Silver picked up the movie at Sundance [via his Dark Castle Entertainment banner] speaks to the way the kind of mood about these type of films is changing,” he said.
Hollywood obviously still loves science fiction of the grand blockbuster scale, like “Avatar” and “Star Trek.” But as “District 9,” the animated “9” and “Moon” have proven, there is a place at the multiplex for modestly budgeted, complex genre films. Another positive sign came when the post-apocalyptic project “Skyline” was sold at the Cannes Film Festival. And while it has a reportedly near-$200 million budget, Christopher Nolan’s upcoming mind-bender “Inception” appears – on the page, at least -- closer in sci-fi spirit to “Moon” than to “Men in Black.”
These movies are almost spiritual ancestors to the best of the sci-fi from the 70s and early 80s, pictures that used science and technology to illustrate socially relevant stories.
“I think that we’re living in a time where everyone feels that there’s some seismic change happening in the world, and we’re very anxious about it,” Natali said. “I think science fiction as a genre – and horror, to some degree – are the ones that are most equipped to deal with those issues.”
Natali, whose breakthrough film was the 1997 cult favorite “Cube,” is becoming the go-to guy for genre projects. He has three in development, including adaptations of the Young Adult book series “Tunnels,” J.G. Ballard’s fantasy novel “High Rise,” and William Gibson’s landmark cyber-punk book “Neuromancer.” In regards to the latter, he cites the irony of technology being responsible for the premature news that the film is a “Go.”
“It’s so funny that everyone’s asking about “Neuromancer.” It kind of leaked out on the Internet. Nothing’s official yet,” he said, although he added it is this close to becoming a reality.
Natali also debunked the rumor he’s attached to adapt Alan Moore’s DC Comics “Swamp Thing” run, saying it was the result of answering a hypothetical question.
“Somebody asked me if I could adapt a comic book, which one would I want to do? I said “Swamp Thing” but I absolutely do not have the rights to “Swamp Thing” – no one does, because it’s caught in a legal rights quagmire. There is no “Swamp Thing” movie in development. I’d like there to be but there isn’t.”
Don’t misunderstand him; Natali is happy to be here. After getting his start doing storyboards for Saturday morning cartoons such as “Beetlejuice” and Roseanne Barr’s short-lived animated series, an experience he said was “like film school for me,” it took a long time to get to a place in his career where his name is bandied about for high-profile films.
“I’m in a very fortuitous place right now. Its taken a long time to get here but it seems worth it.”