Although he was born in Detroit, MI (or as I like to call it, The Home of Jack and Meg White), Vincenzo Natali moved to Toronto at the age of 1 (presumably with his parents) and is known as an intrinsically Canadian filmmaker, having debuted in 1997 with the unusually inventive and claustrophobic horror film, Cube. Cube became a success worldwide, breaking box office records (for a Canadian film, which I guess is the cinematic equivalent of "for a girl.").
Natali went on to direct features Cypher (2002) and Nothing (2003), then remained relatively quiet until his indie sci-fi Splice made a splash at Sundance. It piqued the interest of Warner Bros., and with Guillermo del Toro already endorsing the film and Oscar-winner Adrien Brody headlining, it was a no-brainer decision for the studio to jettison the film nationwide (it opens in theaters today).
Horror.com caught up Natali and company at the swanky, whirlwind Hollywood premiere (watch the video here), but we wanted to talk to him about upcoming projects as well, so here's the scoop:
Staci Layne Wilson / Horror.com: Was that your first big Hollywood premiere?
Vincenzo Natali: Oh yeah! (laughter) That was the first one. It was pretty crazy; pretty gratifying, you know. I had been working on this thing for a long time. Truly many moments I thought it wouldn't come into being. So to be there was quite extraordinary.
SLW: And to have Dave [Hewlitt] by your side as he has been all these years [the actor was in CUBE, NOTHING, CYPHER and SPLICE; the two met in high school]. That must be really something - to be able to bring people up with you.
VN: That's what justifies the whole experience, because it's hard making movies. And if you don't have good friends, you could be very lonely. It's tough. But when you do it as a team, that's the only way I could get through it anyway. And David is such an extraordinary person on all levels. He's such a great actor. Such a good friend that he's helped me in more ways than I could possibly describe (on the phone). It's just fun watching him die in the movie.
SLW: I know, right? How do you pay back your best friend… Let's see, you think of horrible ways in which to kill him in all of your films.
VN: Yeah. It's really my mission in life. (laughs)
SLW: Now to Guillermo Del Toro; is he a new friend? How long have you known him?
VN: It's quite amazing. I met him in 2004 at a film festival in Portugal. And Guillermo knew my work and said he wanted to produce a film for me, and I immediately thought of SPLICE, which at that time was gathering dust in my office. And he really responded to it. That was the very beginning of resurrecting SPLICE, which had been with me since 1998. Since then, I have a made a friend. Certainly a friend to the community. He's been very generous, and he has helped us in very significant ways.
SLW: I think I met him in 2004 also [actually, it was 2002 but who's counting?], and we kind of bonded over ferrets, because his wife was a veterinarian who treated them, and I had seven pet ferrets. He's never forgotten that in all the years. He always asks, “Oh, how are the ferrets?” [Note to California Dept. of Fish & Game: I no longer have pet ferrets.] So Guillermo is just one cool guy. It was too bad he didn't walk the press line last night; I'm assuming it's because he didn't want to talk about THE HOBBIT. I'm wondering, is he going to be also producing TUNNELS or any of your upcoming films?
VN: No. Not that I'm aware of yet. I think Guillermo said to me last night he'd like to do more stuff with me. So, there's always the possibility of something in the future. [Hopefully.] I think he's a very important figure. I think that he is the great impresario of the fantastic arts. It's a real honor to be associated with him.
SLW: He really is. And another impresario whom you know and have had brushes with is Mr. Terry Gilliam, who did what I think is one of the best films of last year. Did you see THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS?
VN: Yes. [And he is] Another magical figure. These people are larger than life.
SLW: They really are. And it is so fantastic that you get to not only rub elbows with them, but work with them as a peer. What does that feel like, that you've come so far creatively in your career now?
VN: I'm so incredibly lucky to be in this position, and to be even having this conversation with you now is nothing short of extraordinary in my mind. I had the opportunity to watch Terry Gilliam work. That was a real gift. That was like going to film school. So yeah, it's all amazing. I keep wondering when the other shoe is going to drop.
SLW: Well, I think you should not break your streak of one-word film titles. You know, don't remake DR. STRANGELOVE, OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB.
VN: (Laughs) No. I can promise you that will never happen. Ya' know, I gotta have some little trademark. So, I suppose it's going to be the one-word title.
SLW: You gotta be Vincenzo now. Just drop the Natali.
VN: You'll know that if I do, I've gone off the deep end.
SLW: And when Bob Mackie starts dressing you for the red carpets... watch out. (laughter) Now, I'm wondering. I wanna talk more a little bit about TUNNELS, because I think the concept of being trapped underground is so fascinating and scary. And even [films] underwater, like THE ABYSS or Jules Verne's 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA. So, what was your first ah-ha moment of wanting to create fear underground, using tunnels?
VN: For whatever reason that I would never be able to psychologically analyze what it is, I am fascinated with hermetic environments. It might have something to do with growing up in Toronto, where a good seven to eight months of the year is literally cold. In fact, in Toronto, there is a whole network of underground tunnels that are publicly accessible. So you can avoid the misery of being outside.
That's really what's unique to TUNNELS. I was fascinated with the notion of underground societies. Actually, two underground societies. One is human; one is not. There's a symbiotic relationship between the two. It's still in the context of the Young Reader's Book Series. I like the idea of doing an adventure story. I wouldn't mind taking a break from twisted family dynamics.
I have a number of books - photography books of underground environments - and they never cease to amaze me. They're so cool. I can't explain exactly what it is. It's just something about the engineering of those spaces and architectures that's so fascinating. Basically it even ties into our whole mythological concepts of the underworld. Like Hades [and the minotaur's lair at the center of the Cretan Labyrinth].
SLW: I feel it's especially scary when it's underground as opposed to underwater as being a bad place, like A BOY AND HIS DOG, THE DESCENT, CATACOMBS, or any films like that. So, how will you keep a sunless environment, sort of… family friendly [TUNNELS is based on a YA novel; then again, the mentally-scarring 1966 FANTASTIC VOYAGE film was intended for the kiddies]. Have you thought about production design in that way yet?
VN: I've done a little bit of preliminary design work for it. And the challenge of making a film that is 70% underground is that it can become oppressive in a bad way. It can become [confined]. And so for me, one of the challenges in designing that world is to make it not just one environment, but make it multiple environments. And while an enclosed environment, it doesn't necessarily have to be claustrophobic. There are claustrophobic moments in the film.
But in fact what is really so fascinating is we are really in an enclosed space, it is a massive space. It's just so huge. You know, if you go beneath the Earth's surface, there's the possibility of tremendous underworld continents, really. And so, it's actually the openness of it that is really extraordinary to me. To the fact that even in that open space there is a ceiling. And it's a vertical. My whole approach has been to make it vertically-oriented. Most stories taking place on the surface of the Earth are horizontally-oriented. But if you go underground, you go into a vertical world. You know, we can enter vertical cities. And we can move around within these environments in different kinds of ways. Not just the way we move up here. So yeah, it's really cool. And I'm really excited to work on a larger canvas, because all of my other films have been quite small in scale, even if they have a lot of visual FX work. They are very contained. And this is really a whole universe I have to play with.
SLW: As you talk about, you know, being spacious and yet enclosed, I think of Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. Have you been there?
VN: I never have.
SLW: You should check it out. It could be inspirational. As you spend time in the Forum Shops area, you tend to forget you're inside a casino with no windows. It's very ventilated and the ceilings are all painted light blue with clouds. There are bird-like, and outdoorsy sounds [ambient], and then there's a show with darkening skies and lightning [when the Gods get angry]. And they have fresh air being pumped in, so it's really something else!
VN: That's really cool. Yeah, I think it's fascinating. I have another project that I'm working on that is called HIGH RISE which has a similar sort of set up, because it takes place entirely inside a high rise building. But it's a super-monolith. It's enormous, and it's a self-contained world. I think there's a science fiction term that applies to these kind of things, it's called “arcology”. It's the idea of societies in enclosed environments. And [that whole] sub genre.
SLW: Wow, that sounds interesting. And you're just a scriptwriter on that one, and not directing? [I'd looked that up but signs and omens were not clear from the deity I worship, known as IMDb.]
VN: It is a script I am working on and hopefully direct. This is a J.G. Ballard novel. It's a well known book from the 70s. It's completely insane. It make SPLICE look like a Disney picture. (laughs)
SLW: Really? Hm. [I don't remember any cat-killing, rapist experimental abominations in any Disney films! I must Netflix, forthwith.] Well, I feel somewhat illiterate, because I have not read that novel, nor have I read TUNNELS, or NEROMANCER. I must be stuck in John Grisham hell or something, with too many popular mass-market novels in my life.
But I wonder… Let me go back to TUNNELS just for a second... Is this similar to the Disney film that came out awhile ago with Shia La Beouf called HOLES? Is that kind of the same idea of a young adult kind of family film?
VN: You know, to be honest. I now have to reveal my ignorance, because I have not seen HOLES. [Note from Staci: Fine literature vs a rather dopey Disney kid's flick from 2003… I still take the ignorance cake!] But probably, I think of JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH and that sort of thing, or even THE GOONIES.
SLW: [GOONIES always reminds me of GREMLINS. Then of course there's the Donner/Dante connection...] Mr. Joe Dante was there [at your premiere] last night as a matter of fact.
VN: (gasp) No?
SLW: He was indeed.
VN: How cool is that?
SLW: Oh, Joe Dante is very cool indeed. He done a 3D movie [HOLES], so that's why I was asking you [last night] about the possibility of SPLICE in 3D. But yeah, you were in very good company at the premiere, and I've heard nothing but good feedback. So, you should be happy about that.
Not too long ago, I was talking about SAW and its influence on other films - which has been phenomenal, especially for such a little indie. But so has CUBE. I saw a movie recently… I was channel-surfing a few weeks back and caught it - it was a Spanish film called FERMATS ROOM. Have you heard of that?
VN: I think I have. The mathematicians. They're in a room or something, and it's slowly shrinking?
SLW: Yeah, that's the one. So, I'm wondering: how does it feel to have sort of created a cinematic, albeit small, legacy with something you dreamed up yourself?
VN: It's weird. You know, it's little bit like being a mad scientist. You make these things in your private laboratory, but inevitably it escapes. (laughter) And it wreaks havoc in the world. And like Dr. Frankenstein, you have to take responsibility for the damage that you've caused.
But you know, it was never intended to... I never thought CUBE would be seen by that many people. It was such a small film, and it was made in Canada. Usually our films don't travel that well. As a matter of fact, it was far more successful outside of Canada than it was inside its native country. [But] it has had an influence. It's amazing. I mean, being at the premiere last night, it was hard for me to simulate it. It's just so outside of what I would've expected. And to see something that was one time just a fanciful notion turned into physical reality and see all of those people there and here talking about Dren, it's weird. It's really shocking. But I have to say on a whole, very empowering.
And with that, Natali was empowered to terminate the interview and go on to the next reporter full of the same-old, same-old questions. I do thank him for his indulgence, and wish him the best of luck with Splice and Tunnels (not sure I can endorse High Rise, though… it is, after all, a two-word title).
Related SPLICE and Vincenzo Natali mentions at Horror.com: