Nikolai's Mephistophelian contract in Eastern Promises is handsomely and elegantly measured, even though it's quite troubling and disturbing. Despite the violent things that he does, I don't think of him as a criminal and I'm conflicted about feeling that way. You've successfully made his moral dilemma one we can empathize with, albeit reluctantly. He's redeemed somewhat by his secrets.
Cronenberg: He is assuming the role of criminal as a chauffeur to [Semyon's] son [and] has to then be witness to crimes. You see him cutting the fingers off [a corpse] because it's something he does. He's helping his boss, his commander, which is Kirill [Vincent Cassel]. So he does commit criminal acts. If there was a bust of that crime family, he would definitely be busted because it would be obvious that he had at least witnessed crimes that he didn't report. He would have to have committed some crimes himself -
Mortensen: To fit in. What you can say in a broad sense about all the characters, not just mine, but Naomi [Watts]'s character, Armin Mueller-Stahl's character, even Vincent's character, is that - like in A History of Violence and like in most of [David's] movies - like in life, once someone makes a movie thoughtfully and intelligently as [David] does and most directors don't, people are never what they seem at first, and you never really get to know them fully. At the end of Eastern Promises, you wonder what else there is to my character and other characters and you wonder what's going to happen. Tomorrow is going to be complicated. What's going to happen to these poor people?
The final image of Nikolai is unsettling for being enigmatic. You say it's an honor for Nikolai to receive these tattoo stars, you say it is something he would strive for, and yet it is likewise repulsive and horrifying. When he reveals them to Yuri [Donald Sumpter], Yuri winces and recoils.
Cronenberg: He's gone over a line. There's no coming back, in a way.
Mortensen: The unspoken thing from Yuri is, "Well, we'll make use of you as long as we can, but there may be a point where you're totally on your own, and there might be a time when we are on the wrong side of the fence from each other completely, and I can't vouch for you and won't know anything about you. If I have to, I'll arrest you."
One of my favorite lines in the film is when Nikolai says, "You play with a prince to do business with a king." That line is Shakespearean.
Which leads me to ask about the dynamic between Kirill and Nikolai. You mentioned earlier that, if you are a homosexual, you would have no chance to advance in this hierarchy and yet, somehow, there's this tension being posed that, as Nikolai assumes the role of Kirill's father, he's subverting the old patriarchy with a more accommodating patriarchy. How did that energy come about?
Mortensen: It was practical on one level.
Cronenberg: Yeah. It's obvious that Kirill is in love with Nikolai. He can't really admit to himself that he's gay because he would have no credibility. As the son of the boss, it would be an embarrassment to the whole organization. Nikolai knows this and uses it. He manipulates Kirill for his own purposes.
But not without affection.
Mortensen: Well, there is a certain tenderness and that speaks to the thing of, you never fully know. You don't really know how close they actually are.
Cronenberg: That's exactly right. Kirill is a floppy, irresponsible, crazy kid, and Nikolai's like the responsible brother, and there is some kind of strange affection between them; but is that only manipulative? You don't really know. It's hard to know how genuine that is. Nikolai would be capable of portraying that without it being true; but you don't know. And it could be both. It could be manipulative and genuine at the same time because, of course, in relationships that happens, too. Semyon, of course, represents the old school, the old Vory, with a rigid, as you say, patriarchal understanding of the way things work.
Mortensen: That's why he is so devastated when Nikolai finally says, "This is what people are saying." He probably knows [the truth about Kirill]; but hearing it from Nikolai confirms his worst fears. He's not very happy, obviously.
Cronenberg: And the truth is, of course, if Nikolai takes over or supplants Semyon, we don't know where that will place Kirill who is the [true] prince. Is he supplanted totally by Nikolai? Or does Nikolai still have to be the man behind the throne?
Mortensen: Making Kirill feel like he's in charge.
Cronenberg: Like he's the boss.
That's how I read it. Again, referencing Shakespeare, Nikolai seemed like Iago behind Othello.
Cronenberg: But still manipulate him emotionally in every other way because Nikolai's much more calculated and controlled as well about those things and about people. It puts Nikolai in a very interesting, strange place in his life.
Clearly the scene everyone is going to be talking about in this film is the bathhouse sequence, which is such a brave and committed scene for both of you to have taken on, but especially you, Viggo. The violence in that scene is fiercely naturalistic and I felt you upped Guillermo del Toro's half-chelsea from Pan's Labyrinth. Just when I thought I had seen it all with the rip of Guillermo's half-chelsea, this bathhouse scene comes up. How did you structure the violence? What are you wanting to say about violence? Are you texturing the violence through the audience's vulnerability?
Cronenberg: Yes. The nudity in the scene is really about vulnerability; it's not sex. Most nudity in movies has a sexual aspect. Not that this doesn't maybe have some of that as well; but, it's much more sublimated. I've only recently been talking about it - because it just occurred to me - that it's like the shower scene in Psycho. You're naked, you're wet and there's some people with knives who don't like you. This is a very vulnerable kind of thing that people can relate to. Of course, it's all set up properly because of the tattoos that you meet there, so people can see the tattoos and see that it's all legitimate, and then it goes quite wrong.
I said to the stunt coordinator and the camera man, "This is not Bourne-like impressionistic cutting away, where you don't see anything. Violence is physical. It's all about bodies. It's about the destruction of bodies. And I insist on that as the reality of this. And I want to see it all. This fight scene has to make physiological sense. It has to make mechanical sense. It has to make body sense."
If an audience is seeing a movie to live another life - which I think is one of the attractions of seeing movies; you get to be out of your own life and live some other life that maybe you [wouldn't] ever really want to live but you're curious about - so, I'm saying, if you're a Nikolai in the movie, then you're going to experience this; I'm not going to throw it away, do it off camera, and do it frivolously. All the hard work and the difficulty of killing someone, if that's what this character has to do, I want you to feel it and see it.
I saw the film in an audience of jaded critics who were all squirming around like earthworms on a hot griddle.
Cronenberg: Then it worked! That's great!
Bookmark/Search this post with: