SXSW Interview: Vincenzo Natali Suffers for Originality
Genre filmmaker Vincenzo Natali takes a whipping for his taste. Up to now the director of Splice has only made original properties, no adaptations, sequels, or reboots. Natali may be adapting Neuormancer and High Rise at the moment, but even there he isn’t taking the easiest path. Both are niche properties, something Natali is well-aware of when it comes to the two books (and to his own films).
At this year’s South by Southwest he premiered what he considers his most accessible movie yet, Haunter. Natali describes the subversive ghost story as a mix of Igmar Bergman and John Hughes, making for an odd but promising sounding combo.
We spoke to Natali about the film before the festival, and here’s what he had to say about Haunter, the difficulty of making movies nowadays, and more:
I know you tried getting Splice made for nearly five years. Was this a much quicker experience?
[Laughs] Yeah, this was the opposite. This has happened to me twice now because, actually, initially when I was going to make Splice in 2000, if you can believe it, and it didn’t happen, and I just did a mad scramble trying to find something else because it had been so long since I had made a movie.
And out of the blue I came across my friend Brian King’s script for what was then called Company Man. Ultimately it was named Cypher. And then that came together very quickly. It took maybe…I don’t know, it was another 6–8 months and we were shooting the movie. And almost an identical thing happened with Haunter because I had these sort of long-standing, very ambitious projects, High Rise and Neuromancer that I’d been trying to do after Splice. And, invariably, it takes a long time.
So, in the interim, Brian came up with this new script, entirely his creation. And I really loved it. We put it together in probably about the same time period, like eight months or less and we were shooting. So Brian keeps saving my ass. That’s how it works.
[Laughs] With Haunter and all your other films, you’ve only made original pictures. Why do you make it so hard on yourself getting these projects made?
[Laughs] I get asked this question daily. I don’t know. I mean, listen. Philosophically I’m not opposed to remakes, and certainly not to adaptations. But I cannot make a film unless I am passionate about it. I’m too lazy. It’s so hard making a movie. And if I’m not fully engaged with it I just don’t know…I don’t think I could make it to the end. So I think that’s really why, yeah, so far they’ve all been original.
Post-Splice, it was interesting to see where you go because of how polarizing that movie was. After a movie gets a response like that, do you think, “Should I try something more commercial?”
Well, I probably have the wrong process. [Laughs] But no, I just wanted to do something bigger. I really wanted to step it up, because, to be honest, I think big, and the only thing that’s prevented me is just budget. I’m always constrained by my budget. As I say, High Rise and Neuromancer are largish movies that have been long gestating. But the big ones are tough, and especially if they are a little bit outside the box.
Haunter actually is a much lower budgeted film than Splice. In fact, it’s the lowest budget I’ve had since my first one, Cube, and the shortest schedule. Actually, that’s not true. It was the shortest schedule I’ve had since Cube.
So it was definitely not the direction I had planned to go in. At the end of the day, I just want to make movies. There are certain rewards to shooting that way because it forces you to be very economical in your storytelling and, in some regards, I would say it forces you to be more original.
I’ve got a great quote by Alan Moore, the comic book writer, who has recently started doing short films. He says he believes that there’s a direct ratio whereby the more money you have the less creative you are, and vice versa.
And so, that did, once again, prove to be the case.
Say for Neuromancer someone said to you, “We’ll give you any amount of money to make this movie,” would you be almost resistant to offer then?
No. [Laughs] I’ll throw out Alan Moore’s stupid quote. I’ll throw it in the garbage and stomp on it.
[Laughs] Who cares what Alan Moore says? He believes in snakes being gods!
Who cares! [Laughs] He’s not a real filmmaker! He’s a comic book writer! What does he know? It’s true. In principle he’s right because what happens is if you do have a lot of money, the spectacular solution is always the easier one. And when you don’t have a lot of money, you are forced to find solutions that don’t cost a lot, like developing a character, or finding a way to show something without actually showing it on the screen, by implying it and so on.
So I think he’s right to an extent. Definitely with Haunter, which is a very classical kind of ghost story, much as it doesn’t rely on effects. It’s all about the atmosphere and what is not seen. That seems to be very good principle to adhere to.
But I’m guessing you’ve thought on most of your films, “I wish I had 10 more days or a million more dollars.”
I think to a point. The problem for me is I always feel like it’s just a little too little. [Laughs] Like with Cube, for instance, we made that film for $350,000. Honestly, if somebody gave me a million it would have been a much better movie. It’s just that little bit more would have gone a long way. If somebody gave me $20 million then maybe not. Maybe there is something to be said that it should have been in that lower range. I would say that’s true of Haunter as well.
But every movie has its own niche.
It’s interesting, though, because maybe a lot of Cube fans would disagree it’d be better with a bigger budget.
Maybe, yeah. These are all hypothetical questions. I’m a great believer that movies are time capsules. You do them at a certain time with the resources you have in the way that you can. You just should never look back. I will never do a George Lucas. In a way, the movies that I love are all flawed. And I love them as much for their flaws as anything else. If you start to tinker with them they are imagined versions of them where they would…It’s like if you fall in love with a person you love the whole package. So yeah, so I embrace my films [Laughs], even with their flaws!
And the good news is, with every one of them, because they’ve been in the sort of lower budgeted realm, and because I’ve worked with good people, I’ve always had final cut. That’s the one thing I would be loathed to give up.
I read that you’ve had final cut on all your movies. How did you luck out so early?
[Laughs] Again, sometimes it’s by design, sometimes it’s side of indifference. Like when I made Cypher, which is a movie not many people have seen, the Weinstein’s at that time, Miramax, had it, and they are notorious for re-cutting movies and tearing them apart. With my movie, I just don’t think they even noticed I made it. [Laughs] They didn’t even know! Or care. So the upside of that was they didn’t tinker with it. The downside was that they didn’t release it and stuck it in a vault [Laughs]. But so not by design, but by sort or accident in that case I had final cut. I made exactly the movie I wanted to make.
Do you prefer that, getting it put in the vault with you being completely responsible for it, or the idea of it released on 2,000 screens where maybe the Weinstein’s did do their tinkering?
I think that would be very easy to say yes. In truth, no. I think everyone wants their movie to be seen. But definitely there’s a limit. There’s a point where it would stop being my movie and then I wouldn’t want people to see that. So a little tinkering is perhaps all right. But it’s a consolation price for not having my film released. [Laughs] I look at it that way.
Your movies can have woefully strange quality to them where they won’t ever be for everyone. Have you known for a while that’s just the type of filmmaker you are?
Exactly. They’re not intended to be [for everyone]. Actually, Haunter is probably, I would guess, the most accessible thing I’ve done. Again, not by intention. That’s just sort of how it is. But even it’s pretty weird. And, yeah, life is weird. [Laughs] At least it is to me.
You know, the funny thing is when you live with these things for a long time, or as long as I did with Splice, which actually was well over a decade, you kind of forget how weird it is. [Laughs] Just because you become accustomed to it. And then when I actually showed the film to people, they just went berserk. I remember those screenings. And, invariably, in the lovemaking scene, people just went bananas. They weren’t quiet about it either. They were screaming at the screen! So, yeah, it’s funny.
Do you like it when you see that response?
Yes, well that movie is meant to be provocative for sure. I mean it would have been a failure, in my opinion, if it hadn’t incited extreme reactions. I certainly didn’t expect it to go kind of middle of the road.
With Haunter, are there any moments where it pushes an audience’s buttons?
No. I see Haunter…I don’t want to disappoint people. People who are expecting Splice and just something that’s totally subversive are not going to get that with Haunter at all. Haunter is a much more traditional kind of ghost story. Although, at the same time, what Brian has done has created something that I don’t believe I’ve ever seen in a movie before. But it’s not a subversive film. It’s a very, I believe, quite cleverly constructed sort of labyrinth-like ghost story. But it doesn’t have the intention of shocking people.
Without spoiling the movie, what was it that Brian did that is so different?
It’s sort of a ghost story inside out. It’s this dead teenager and she is reliving the same day in 1985 over, and over, and over with her family, only she is the only member of her family who is aware that they are all dead. And it is about her attempt to solve the mystery as to why this is happening.
So it’s really…it’s kind of picking up, I suppose, where The Sixth Sense or the others left off, because our ghost knows that she’s a ghost from the opening of the movie. It’s a very moody, atmospheric, as I say, labyrinth…it’s my gentle side. [Laughs]
[Laughs] Which I imagine still won’t be that gentle.
No, it’s not too gentle.
So should we never expect a romantic comedy from you?
[Laughs] No, I don’t think you are going to…Well, who knows? Never say never. I’ve been toying with a musical. How about that?
An original one?
A totally original thing, yeah. There’s a musician I am very close with and we’ve been talking about it for years. So you never know. Never say never.
It sounds like you are taking up another challenge, making an original movie and a musical.
Yeah, exactly. It’s so hard. I just got an email back from a very prominent company ‐ I won’t name them ‐ whom I like tremendously, who I had sent both 15 pages of an original script I’m writing and the script that Brian has written. And the response was: “We love this, but we don’t think we can get it made.” [Laughs]
Unfortunately, we’re just living in a time where movies are extremely expensive and people aren’t willing to take chances very often. So that’s kind of the cross that one has to bear. But it is…I try hard not to get bitter or frustrated about it because that’s just the way it is, and probably always has been, actually. It’s just that movies now are so much more expensive than they have ever been and it’s so much more expensive to release them that it makes it harder for everybody.
Do you ever see yourself going the Edward Burns route, making the movie yourself and just putting it out there for people online?
I think in a way I always have been. All the movies I’ve made, honestly, they are made like home movies that have a crew. I have a professional crew and so on. But at the end of the day it’s just me, the camera, and I’m playing with Barbie dolls. Like literally shooting stuff in my basement to make all the features fit together because we just never have enough money.
On one hand I get frustrated by that because I just want to be able to do more. On the other hand, I sort of like it because there’s a handmade quality to it, and I like doing handmade things. So yeah, no, I sort of feel like I’m already there, really. But as I say, with something like Neuromancer, I can’t do that in my basement. All of these films, even Splice, which is the most expensive one I’ve made, they are designed only to have a few characters in a few locations. Because when you don’t have as much money, what you want to do is limit the number of elements that you are working with so you can maximize your resources.
But a movie like Neuromancer, it, by definition, covers multiple continents. It goes into outer space, cyberspace, everywhere. And that’s just a different kind of filmmaking. But I’d like to go there. I really would love to be able to stay in that ballpark. So it’s all good.