Eastern Promises Press Conference

Interview with writer Steve Knight, the actors Vincent Cassel and Naomi Watts, and director David Cronenberg.

Q: Steve, this project has been around for quite a while, can you tell us what was the impetus for writing it then, and how different it was?

Steve Knight: Well, it began life as two one-hour television projects, and the brief was Eastern Europe, and then I decided to develop it as a feature. And then the process began which every writer is familiar with, when you’re waiting for various people to come on board, the director, the actors, the finance, all of that. I was doing other things, other people were doing other things, and in the end it was fantastic that we did wait because we got David and a fantastic cast. So in the end patience was a virtue.

Q: David, how did the project come to you, and what was your immediate reaction to the screenplay that you read?

David Cronenberg: My Hollywood agent sent me the script. They get very frustrated because I keep saying no to everything because I hate everything they show me. They dig around in obscure corners – in this case the obscure corner was BBC Films – and found me this script which I really loved. I didn’t think it was a script that you’d want to go and shoot right away, it felt like a first draft which in essence it was, but I was very interested to talk to Steve and the producers about what we might do to make it into a movie.

Q: Vincent, when the offer came to you, what challenges did you face taking on this role, and was one of them speaking English in a Russian accent?

Vincent Cassel: That’s not what attracted me to the part, because that was my main problem! But – Naomi, and Viggo, and David – it was already hard to say no, just with this cast and this director. I was sorry to be playing another bad guy, but on the other hand there were so many things to show about him by the end of the movie. So I said no but I said yes.

Q: Naomi, I understand that you had only just finished shooting Funny Games a few days before this, and both films take place in dark emotional places. Did you ever want to do something lighter?

Naomi Watts: Of course I think about this all the time, but lighter stuff is harder to find. And female roles in comedy, especially, are usually quite silly. I think film is the director’s medium and the good filmmakers, the ones I like, tell darker stories.

David Cronenberg: (drily) But you have to admit that Eastern Promises is sort of a laugh riot. It is funny, there are laughs, and I have a feeling that there are no laughs in Funny Games.

Q: Does it follow that a film that deals in dark themes is going to be serious to make, or can you have fun while you’re not actually acting that moment?

Naomi Watts: I think you have to.

David Cronenberg: Why would you do it if you weren’t having fun? We had a lot of laughs on the set.

Naomi Watts: I was quite surprised. You think you know someone’s work – and in fact we hadn’t met – so I thought David would be this very intense, broody man who probably won’t talk very much. And it couldn’t have been further from the truth. He has a wicked sense of humour.

Q: David, you’ve obviously worked with Viggo before, but I believe on this film he almost became Russian. Does his intensity surprise you? For the actors, does it make you raise your game?

David Cronenberg: I knew Viggo’s methodology from A History Of Violence, and he’s very thorough, and does a lot of research – also with a great sense of humour by the way. We take the work seriously as professionals but it really is fun if you do it right, it doesn’t have to be anguished. So I wasn’t surprised as how he works; that’s what’s exciting about working with someone a second time, you know each other’s creative process, so it’s almost like starting in third gear.

Naomi Watts: I think it’s not only helpful to him but helpful for those around him. I don’t know Viggo that well but I get the feeling that he pretty much was connected to that character the whole time – am I wrong?

David Cronenberg: No, it’s just that it’s not what you think when you think Method Acting. He didn’t ask us to call him the character’s name; after cut he’s still Viggo, you can still joke with him. But he filled his trailer with Russian stuff and his apartment is covered with research materials, and he carries things on his body that remind him of the character. But it’s all done in a very light way; it’s not heavy, and it isn’t silly. It’s very natural and very organic.

Vincent Cassel: The energy is certainly different; he’s a very calm, focussed person whereas I’m more full of energy when I need to. But acting has something to do with pleasure I think, so if you are tense and too focussed all day long, it just gets boring. If David cracks a joke and you smile and you think about something else, then when you shoot again you are fresh. So I think you need to relax, to be tense at the right moment. You can’t stay rigid. And you know what, I even think that a lot of Method Actors, it’s just a legend; they pretend to be serious, it’s just to keep it mysterious.

Q: Steve, there’s a lot of detail to research for pretty much every character; how easy was it to go into the various worlds of the script?

Steve Knight: In terms of the trafficking of people, I spent some time with the police in Chinatown in London, at the Russian desk in Bow St, and spent some time with FBI and ex-FBI agents in New York (at one time the film was going to be set in New York). And just talking to those people and particularly the Russian desk in London, they told me that if someone was arrested for smuggling heroin they would get 40 years in jail; if they were arrested for smuggling a 14-year-old girl they’d get two years. It was a sort of unknown problem at the time; hopefully people are becoming more aware of it as a problem.

Q: Did the law enforcement people suggest that that was one reason why they were happy to cooperate?

Steve Knight: Yeah, I think they were very keen to help. It’s now much more of a current issue, it’s in the papers a lot more, but at the time they would tell me that are suburban houses in suburban streets in North London where people are slaves. Anti-Slavery International, a pressure group, say that there are more slaves now than there were in the 18th Century.

Q: Why did you decide to shoot the sauna fight scene in this particular way, with knives instead of guns?

David Cronenberg: In Steve’s script there were no guns. Although I think that’s not accurate now, there was a time when the police in London didn’t carry guns because there was a kind of understanding with the criminals. That’s long gone, of course, there are guns everywhere, but I just liked that, because to kill someone with a knife is a very intimate, perverse act, whereas with a gun, even if you are just a few feet away, you can distance yourself and you don’t really have to experience it. But if you kill someone with a knife, it means that you feel them, you smell them, you hear them breathing, you’re right there, and it has a more terrifying effect on the people around whoever you’ve killed; that you would do such a thing. That’s obviously why beheadings seem to be such a terrifying thing to people in the West, even though dropping a bomb on a village will kill a lot more people a lot more quickly. So it’s a psychological thing that they would do – this is me interpreting what Steve wrote – and I chose those knives because they are not exotic, they’re carpet knives, they’re very cheap, you can buy them anywhere, and if you throw them away they can’t identify them. I thought that if these characters were stopped on the street by the police and found to have knives they could say that they were carpet layers, that’s their job, it’s not a weapon.

But of course these criminals also work on a level of symbols and lessons to be taught, and they would be destroying the tattoo pattern on his body with those knives, and it would please them to do that. They would be leaving a message for other people who would betray them, that they were not to be messed with. So all of those things made it much more potent, though obviously less efficient. They could walk in with a gun, and shoot him, and he wouldn’t be able to fight back, but it was meant to have that potency.

Q: It probably doesn’t surprise anyone that Viggo was quite so committed to authenticity in the fight scenes, but did any of his fellow cast mates feel a pang of envy?

David Cronenberg: They all wanted naked scenes after that!

Q: Viggo went for it; I imagine some actors might have balked at the nudity.

David Cronenberg: It’s unusual for a star of some magnitude to do that, but he doesn’t consider himself a star, he’s an actor. It was obvious that the level of reality that we’d established in the film would make it silly if I shot it in an obscure way that I hadn’t done in the rest of the movie, or if the towel miraculously stayed around his waist. We were thinking about what the scene needed in the context of the movie, and went for it.

Q: Was it ever a consideration that there might be any danger brushing up against the Russian Mafia?

David Cronenberg: Well, we hired those people, so they were on our side! No, we did have a lot of Russian extras; the old ladies in the birthday scene were Russian, and they surprised me by singing along with the accordion player, I didn’t know they were going to do that. We also had some extras playing drivers and bodyguards, they said in real life they were drivers and bodyguards and bouncers, but they wore Armani and drove Mercedes, so I think we were getting some subliminal confrontation. But over the net we’ve discovered that we’re getting two thumbs up from Russian criminals – we’re not sure whose thumbs they are… But they are criminals, so they don’t mind being depicted as criminals, they just want to make sure that you’re not making fun of them, and apparently we’re ok with the mob.

Q: Was it difficult filming in London and not including the landmarks, but finding nondescript locations?

David Cronenberg: There’s more of that in London than there are landmarks. We had a wonderful location manager. He knows a lot about London and based on the script he could tell us who lived where and why, immigration patterns, and why the shifted. We wanted to get this right; that the young Turk would be an Arsenal fan, as opposed to a Chelsea fan. So it was very exciting to explore London that way, and the crew – who were all Londoners – were excited to be shooting the real London, the London that they knew themselves. Although there are some surprises too – like the watergate where the body is dumped; its very historical and very significant, but not too many Londoners know its there.

Q: Naomi how are you managing to juggle motherhood and work?

Naomi Watts: Well, I haven’t gone back to shoot yet, though it’s in the pipeline. He’s three months old – today – and I’ve done some promotional work and it’s exciting to be able to say I can only do three hours press, I’ve got a baby now – feeding intervals. But it’s unusual to spend three hours away from my newborn baby; it’s like a piece of my body is back in the hotel room. Still, I love my work, I love what I do, and it makes me happy; I think if I’m happy that I’ll be a better mother.

Q: David, why do you make such dark films?

David Cronenberg: I think they’re all funny. But most artists are interested in exploring places that are not normally explored – curiosity, and I think the feeling that you will discover something profound or significant about the human condition, or human nature, if you go to those places as opposed to the more mundane everyday places that we all know. Not that – a wonderful situation comedy or domestic drama can be very revealing as well – I think artists have this desire to uncover things that are hidden. You don’t want things to be hidden. You want to know what’s really going on, and that often leads to dark places – when there’s no light, things happen.

Q: The Litvinenko incident – it’s kind of tangential – but you and Vincent were close to where the poison was found.

David Cronenberg: When we started shooting the movie the Russian mob in London was a fairly obscure subject; by the time we finished it was front-page news all over the world. That happened halfway through shooting, literally half a block from my front door. One day there were police in HAZMAT suits finding traces of polonium and the Itsu on Piccadilly was closed for renovation except there were police guards around it. That was also close to where we were living. But being the crazy people that we are, this rather excited us. It didn’t scare us or make us nervous; rather it made us think that we had our finger on the pulse of something current – the emergence of Russia as a post-Soviet power and the ripple effect that its having all over the world.

Q: Vincent, were you excited?

Vincent Cassel: Kind of… But I’d been to Russia and I was excited by Russia itself. There’s an energy in Moscow, and I came back from there thinking I need to make a Russian movie. So be careful what you want.

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