Meeting filmmaker David Cronenberg is unnerving. It's not just his decades of films that get under your skin with their evisceration of sex, disease and (increasingly) brutal violence. It's those clear blue eyes that seem to bore through your subconscious and into your soul.
Not to worry. The 63-year-old director, looking fit and cool in a blazer over jeans and jogging shoes, munches on a croissant and seems friendly and curious, discussing my digital tape recorder as happily as his latest film, Eastern Promises.
It feels like a companion piece to A History Of Violence: there's organized crime, a family in peril, a mystery man played by Viggo Mortensen. Why do those themes intrigue you?
It's just an accident really. To me they look very different. A History Of Violence was very American, whereas there's no American character in Eastern Promises. But I'm sure they'd make a terrific double bill. I admit I was looking for something I could do with Viggo. A director has a strange relationship with his actors, because after the actor has gone on to his next movie, you're in the editing room living with him every day, dreaming about him and hearing his voice. I had always thought he had a very Russian, Slavic look. And when I read the script I thought, "This is a role made in heaven for Viggo."
Mortensen literally disappears into the role. Why do you like working with him?
He's a marvel. He's not a method actor; he's Viggo before and after you say "Cut." And yet he knows how to embody and inhabit his character and to become him. He uses all the things actors use - the clothes, the hair, all those things that are sometimes mistaken for vanity. They're not. And he builds up a role carefully. He found somebody in California who could help him with the Russian - all on his own. He met a Russian ex-criminal and talked to him about the reality of what that character might be like.
When you make a film that's about organized crime, lots of other great films come to mind. Did you feel pressured by that?
Yeah, sure. I did with History Of Violence, too, especially because of The Sopranos. But I liked the originality of this story and the contemporary feel of the Russian émigré subculture in London.
There's a major fight scene set in a public bath. How difficult was it to film, and how hard was it to get Viggo, who's naked for most of it, comfortable?
It was no different from any other fight scene. You set the arena, design the baths. The stunt coordinator asked how I intended to shoot it - with impressionistic cutting, like the Bourne movies, or realistically. Of course, I wanted that realism. Early on, Viggo said, "It's obvious I'm going to have to play this naked. It'd be stupid to have a towel around me." And you can imagine how restricted I'd be as a director if I could only shoot him from the waist up. Viggo was very comfortable with the crew, who had worked with him on AHOV. So it was just normal attention to detail, and took three days to shoot.
There's a great scene about tattoos and Russian prisoners. If you were covered with tattoos, what would they be?
I wouldn't have the skulls and church symbols and things you'd find on Russian prisoners. They'd probably be insects and snakes. I've always been a nature boy.
Do you anticipate any backlash from Russians? I think they'll love it. We used a lot of the London Russian émigré community as extras, and they adored it and said it was totally accurate. They were bowled over by how well Viggo and the others embodied Russianness. It'll probably be Putin's favourite movie.
Additional Interview Audio Clips
On his largely European cast:
On the film's climax:
On getting older and directing: