The making of a mobster

In 2005, director David Cronenberg — probably best known as the horror master behind Shivers and The Fly, but more recently, helmer of existential fare like Crash and eXistenZ — teamed up with Viggo Mortensen for A History of Violence. The result was the eccentric Cronenberg’s first mainstream hit in more than a decade and the equally eccentric Mortensen’s first show of legitimacy since starring as Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The duo have reunited for Eastern Promises, a disturbing look at the Russian-mob-run sex trade that permeates London. Mortensen plays a Russian thug with ice in his veins and a soft spot for Naomi Watts.

The Current sat down with Cronenberg and Mortensen at the L’Ermitage Hotel in Beverly Hills to discuss the process of embodying a Russian character, and filming a three-way brawl between a very naked Mortensen and two knife-wielding attackers.

Viggo, it’s not every day that the main character in an American movie can pull off a Russian accent and still be taken seriously by an audience. How did you prepare?

Viggo Mortensen: My approach was to translate everything my character says with someone here, who was a translator — a Russian guy. The next thing was to master all the slang, because `my character’s` would have been street or prison slang. Met some `Russian` people I was lucky enough to be able to meet, who had backgrounds a lot like my character’s. Once they realized I wasn’t out to make fun of them, that I didn’t want to be critical, I just wanted to be authentic and know what they knew — as much as they felt like telling me — then they were eager to tell me things I wouldn’t have known otherwise. They told me certain words I wouldn’t have known otherwise.

Part of your research was to actually travel to Russia, too. Alone.

VM: I went for a couple weeks, just before we started. I would’ve liked to have gone longer, but it’s quite a long time when you’re in a place totally different and you’re on your own. You can soak up a lot. I went to Moscow, St. Petersburg; just walked around a lot, subways and buses. I went further into the country, too, to the Urals — sort of where Europe ends and Russia starts.

Did any of your research, or anything that you learned from these guys with “backgrounds a lot like `your` character’s,” scare you?

VM: Well, I knew some of the people I spoke with were not people I’d want to hang out with normally. There was this truce between the ignorant civilian and them because of something that was of common interest — once they realized I was out to do `a Russian character` authentically for once. The accent is rarely done well. Russians in American or European movies — outside of Russia — are generally pretty cliché-ridden. The speech is just very bad and not much of an effort made, which `Russians` find alternately amusing and disrespectful — but not surprising. They’re kind of like, “Enh, what do you expect?” When I point out to some of them, “I’ve seen a lot of Russian movies now, and there’s Americans depicted in your movies that are pretty silly, too,” they go, “Err … that’s true … err.”

David, Eastern Promises, and just about everything else you’ve ever done, seems to pulse with a natural choreography, from the editing to the way the characters move, that’s realistic and also poetic. How closely does the end result reflect your initial vision for each project?

David Cronenberg: When I read a script, I do sort of watch it as though it’s a movie and I kind of decide if I’m excited about it or not. But I don’t `actually` see the movie. Sometimes people say, “Did it turn out the way you wanted?” And I have no idea because it’s not as though I have a perfect, imaginary version in my head and can run the reel side by side to it to see how they compare. It’s a gradual, accumulative process. You’re working with a lot of people, you’re doing research, the script is changing — it’s modulating. You’re visiting the locations to see what’s available and what’s not, and you’re reacting to that. So it’s, as I said, a slow, accumulative process. It’s not an instant, I know everything in the movie. In fact, I’d be bored doing that. I wouldn’t want to imagine the whole movie beforehand.

The soon-to-be infamous bathhouse brawl between Viggo, naked, and two giant men is a grueling fight sequence, memorable for its intensity and realism.

DC: I would say to the stunt coordinator, “I’m not going to shoot this in an impressionistic, quick-cutting, Bourne-like way where you don’t really see anything. I want this to be very physical, I want to see all the bodies, I want it to make sense physiologically.” Killing someone the way this happens is very hard work. I want the audience to experience all that.

You and Viggo have developed a well-known working relationship. Does that help when you ask him to strip down and wrestle through a tiled bathhouse?

DC: There was one moment, I really quite liked it. An English props man came up to me to ask a question about some prop for Viggo and he said, “Well, I know that you are Viggo and Viggo is you, so it doesn’t matter which one of you I ask.” I thought that was very sweet. It was obvious to the crew we were very much in sync. So we just talk business as usual: How do you play the scene? How do you make it more real? Why does this character act this way as opposed to that way? Normal stuff, but I think the bathhouse scene is no different. I know the nudity makes it unusual of Viggo. But, basically, as we were choreographing the scene with the stunt coordinator, Viggo said, “Well, it’s obvious I have to play this in the nude.” I said, “Great, great, good.” That was pretty much the discussion.