"What's the Worst That Can Happen?"
It's not such an unlikely scenario. In a private, state-of-the-art lab funded by a pharmaceutical giant, two brilliantly talented young bio-engineers, Clive Nicoli and Elsa Kast, combine genetic components from different species into hybrids that could produce new disease-fighting compounds. It's vital. It's exciting. It's the future.
As Elsa tells Clive, it's their job as scientists to push the boundaries.
But how far?
Photo: (L-r) ADRIEN BRODY as Clive Nicoli and SARAH POLLEY as Elsa Kast in Warner Bros. Pictures' and Dark Castle Entertainment's science fiction thriller "SPLICE," a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.
Director Vincenzo Natali, who devoted years to developing "Splice," often found it challenging to outpace the science that fuels his story. "The technology is advancing so rapidly, I think it took scientists less time to map the human genome than it took to write the script," he jokes. "How does 'Splice' fit into the world we live in now? I don't even know what world that is. I don't think anyone does. Things are changing in dramatic ways in all aspects of our civilization, culture and science, and that's something 'Splice' explores: our relationship to technology and the doors it unlocks. It pushes us to places we're unable, or afraid, to go."
"What takes place in this movie is not far from the truth," notes Adrien Brody, who stars as Clive. "We're living in a world in which science fiction is becoming reality, and that gives the film its weight. It's frightening to a certain extent, to see how precarious things can be, but also exciting because there is potential for wonderful things."
For Clive and Elsa, a power couple at home as well as in the lab, their triumphs have been widely celebrated in the media...and their errors, so far, easily erased.
Having successfully spliced animal genes into superior hybrids, their logical next step would be adding human DNA to the mix, in the hope of creating a new life form higher on the evolutionary scale. But that's not where their sponsors want to go, demanding instead that they curb their scientific ambitions in favor of something more practical and marketable. So they make a daring decision. They'll give the company what it wants while pursuing their own agenda, conducting the most monumental experiment of their lives in secret.
That experiment becomes Dren: a startling amalgamation of arms and legs, tail and wings, with remarkably expressive eyes; a being both miraculous and horrifying, with an increasingly unpredictable range of needs and a growth rate that's off the charts.
If their first mistake was creating Dren, their second is letting her live.
Says Natali, "Clive and Elsa are smarter than they are wise, and while they play with the building blocks of life, they don't really have any deep understanding of what life is. You could say this is a coming-of-age film in that they are forced to grow up and become responsible parents, in a sense. As Dren becomes a catalyst for their own darker needs, she sets off a downward spiral of their scientific ideologies obscured by the moral imperatives of parenthood. We watch the humans turn into monsters, as the monster reveals its humanity."
"Vincenzo has a savage imagination," declares master storyteller and "Splice" executive producer Guillermo del Toro. "'Splice' is incredibly powerful and morally ambiguous. Both the creators and the creature are flawed. At stages the creature is innocent, then malevolent; the scientists are empathetic, then ruthless. In so many ways this story crosses the line."
Losing their objectivity, then control of their creation, Clive and Elsa press forward with a series of decisions that will prove disastrous in ways they can't imagine.
"Just as the most dangerous part of Dren could be her human DNA, and not the animal, I think the danger in this film is not about science and where it's leading us but about the unpredictable human element, in a way that audiences may find shocking," proposes Sarah Polley, who stars as the driven Elsa.
Premiering at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, "Splice" impressed critics and enthralled audiences--among them, Joel Silver, Chairman of Dark Castle Entertainment, who felt that the timely and thought-provoking thriller was exactly the kind of film for which Dark Castle was created. Silver, an executive producer on "Splice" says, "This is the kind of story that goes for a visceral reaction and engages the imagination at the same time. It pulls you in and doesn't let go. It raises questions straight out of headline news about how bio-engineering could shape the future, but also stirs up fears about the dark places in human nature that we've been running from forever."
"In science fiction, those issues become epic," observes producer Steve Hoban, whose association with the director dates back to his first film, the 1992 short "Half Nelson," on which a young Natali debuted as a storyboard artist. "We're speculating about the future: is it good, is it bad, is it scary?"
While focusing on the cutting edge of bio-engineering, Natali believes "Splice" also exposes a primal fantasy lying deep in the human psyche. "The notion of bonding with something not entirely human goes back to ancient myth. It has always existed and I was fascinated by the idea that those mythic concepts--mermaids, centaurs, chimeras, human hybrids that have tantalized people's imaginations for thousands of years--could exist in the real world through new science. While 'Splice' is very much about the vanguard of genetic research, it's also about things that have been with us since the beginning of time."
To help stir that emotional connection, Natali felt strongly that Dren should be portrayed by an actor rather than a computer-generated image, and cast Delphine Chaneac in the unusual role. "It pays homage to all the things one would expect in a Frankenstein kind of story but also delves into aspects of the relationship between the creators and their creation that really keeps it on a personal level, and it's because of that I decided to have an actor play Dren. Only when it's anatomically impossible do we use CG."
Ultimately, he offers, "I don't feel 'Splice' makes a clear statement about whether the actions of Clive and Elsa are good or bad. Their mistakes in creating Dren are mostly well-intentioned. That the question of whether we are going in the right direction or the wrong direction is raised by the film, but not answered by it, is relevant, because, at this moment, I don't think we know."
"Nobody's going to care about a few rules after they see what we've made."
"See what we've made? Is that what you just said?
Nobody can see what we've made."
Having made the decision to keep their star specimen alive, Clive and Elsa must now simultaneously observe and nurture her development while keeping her existence hidden. It's a fine line they're trying to walk, and an equally fine line for Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley to give these characters their due complexity with a measure of sympathy.
Screenwriter Doug Taylor, who, with Antoinette Terry Bryant, collaborated on the "Splice" script with Natali, admits, "Clive and Elsa do some reprehensible things, take gambles they shouldn't take and behave abominably sometimes. But Sarah and Adrien are able to make even those behaviors seem understandable. Or at least forgivable."
For Brody, it seems a matter of Clive's talent and passion surpassing his maturity. "Clive is a genius, very successful in his field, and clearly that aspect of his life came easily. He loves his work. He believes in the power of science and is excited about its possibilities. He and Elsa are young, successful and adventurous. They receive a lot of praise and enjoy a lot of freedom and, theoretically, it's a positive thing they're working toward. But sometimes with that enthusiasm comes carelessness.
"He ends up in a situation that throws his life into a tailspin because, despite his and Elsa's intelligence, they're unprepared for a lot of things in life," Brody continues. "They get carried away."
Though similar in many ways, the two researchers harbor fundamental differences that become apparent as events escalate. Elsa drives Clive to places he likely would not go on his own.
At the same time, says Polley, "It's unlikely that Elsa could be with anyone who wasn't totally immersed in that world. She and Clive urge each other forward; they feed off each other, both making the other more passionate about what they do. Elsa is extremely ambitious and focused, yet there is much in her past that she has not dealt with, that's ruling her. She's a fireball of life and energy but she pushes things to their final conclusion whether or not they are good for her or for anyone else."
Part of what motivates Elsa is the memory of a harrowing childhood, which comes dramatically into play when her maternal instincts are aroused--then rejected--by Dren.
"Dren is as much a child to Clive and Elsa as she is an experiment, and when she evolves into adulthood, that relationship becomes even more complicated," says Natali.
"Her most human characteristics are her vulnerability and desire for companionship, but also her frustration at not getting what she wants," screenwriter Antoinette Terry Bryant acknowledges. "This leads to rebelliousness as Dren grows into adolescence. Unfortunately, at each 'acting out' stage of her development, her animal DNA introduces a physical component more powerful than that of her creators--who soon learn that the more you push the envelope, the more you need to watch your back."
Adds del Toro, "They don't just create a monster by using DNA in an inappropriate way. They create a monster because Elsa, in particular, cannot overcome her own demons and passes them onto the 'child.' We not only see their anxieties and ambivalence in becoming parents, but it's also compressed in time so that things happen in hours or days that would normally take decades. Adrien and Sarah do a tremendous job in finding emotional truth in characters that are going through such rapid transformations."
"Sarah is heartbreaking and terrifying as Elsa, and Adrien's performance is fantastic. He's believable, he's magnetic and you care about him," says Hoban.
To research their roles, the actors devoured stacks of information and logged shifts in the Centre for Cancer Genetics, Bapat Lab, at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, observing work on human cells by geneticist George S. Charames, a technical consultant on the film.
Recalling their first rehearsals, Natali says, "Adrien and Sarah really got the material--so much so that it was Adrien who came up with that fateful line of dialogue that reflects some of the story's dark humor: 'What's the worst that can happen?'"
"The H-50 is evolving rapidly. Early cognitive recognition tests indicate growing
intelligence. Still, her mind remains her greatest mystery."
In the story, Dren is a hybrid of human and animal. In reality, she's an artful blend of human and visual effects. But it's Delphine Chaneac who makes her real.
Dren was never intended to be a fully digital character, Natali explains. "I wanted a creature whose humanity we fall in love with. Even though we did extensive R & D on the creature development, the concept is so subtle that I felt there was no way to complete Dren without a real actor. No animator could do what Delphine does."
Chaneac was cast in Paris prior to her formal audition. As Natali and producer Hoban made their way up Charles de Gaulle Boulevard to the Gaumont offices to begin auditions, they saw her waiting. Hoban recalls, "There was this beautiful woman standing on the sidewalk. She was spectacular but she was the first, so we continued with other candidates, and she remained the gold standard that no others could match. Not only did she have a remarkable ability to play the character from adolescent to adult, and to communicate without words, she was also deceptively strong and performed most of her own stunts."
Without dialogue, Chaneac devised her own language of trills and purrs to express a wide range of emotion.
"For me, this is a love story," she says. "Dren wants to love and to be loved, but is kept at a distance because she is not normal. She's quite sensitive and pure, like a child, yet very aggressive at the same time. She can do and feel what she wants to."
Acknowledging the character's athleticism, speed and uncommon strength, Chaneac adds, "It took a great deal of concentration to play because of the extra physical demands." This included making accommodation for triple-jointed legs, four-fingered hands and a tail.
The actress' stunt work focused on what stunt coordinator Plato Fountidakis ("The Chronicles of Riddick") describes as "heightening the abilities of her character. Being a genetically altered human spliced with animal DNA, there are going to be some elements of quick and direct confrontation and extraordinary agility. We incorporated some Hong Kong-style wire work, which is basically acrobatic, with smaller, low-profile harnesses, to give her the ability to jump, perch like a bird, rotate and flip down quickly from a height."
To complete Dren's look, the filmmakers employed a combination of practical and visual effects, starting with Oscar®-winning special effects designer Howard Berger ("The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe"), of KNB EFX Group, who oversaw the creature and practical makeup. Berger had previously worked with Steve Hoban on the producer's second and third films in the "Ginger Snaps" series and was enthusiastic about working with Natali and the conceptual art that had been developed, as it gave him the opportunity to do things KNB had not done before. His efforts meshed with those of C.O.R.E. Digital Pictures, toward Natali's prime directive for realism.
"It's an intensely technical process but, at its heart, it's creating a being that we can believe in and relate to emotionally," Natali says.
Chaneac's performance informed every stage of development. "Animals can be dangerous and unpredictable and I think that's what makes Dren so cool," says Berger, "Delphine brought everything to the table; this character wouldn't exist without her. Everything, from her look to her movements, which Delphine created, are very specific. She can appear both bird-like and predator-like, as well as child-like," often in the same moment. "Vincenzo dreamed up this character but Delphine brought it to life."
For the creature's eyes, Berger designed ten versions from which Natali selected. They were then modified into cross-shaped pupils, in the form of oversized scleral contact lenses that cover the entire eye. Finally, in post-production, "Dren's eyes were digitally widened slightly beyond the realm of human norms," says Bob Munroe, C.O.R.E. Visual Effects Supervisor ("The Tudors"), making his fourth feature collaboration with Natali.
Chaneac's performance also influenced the younger version of Dren, another human/FX hybrid, played by Abigail Chu. As Natali details, "We grafted a digital head onto Abigail's body and embedded Delphine's eye motions. We played back Abigail's scenes to Delphine and recorded her visual reactions as if she were the child Dren and then, using a new technology, translated that into data that became the digital model. It's a subtle thing but it helped to give the character continuity."
Unlike a wholly digitized character, this fusion of flesh and animation depended upon flawless matching, Munroe explains. "Everything Delphine or Abigail did on screen locked us into matching the digital effect exactly the same way. If they're moving or kicking up their legs, displacing the dress, we animate the creature legs the same way but we're restricted by their movements. They only have a two-section leg but Dren has three, so how do you make them stand up? How do you make them sit down in a way that the actor isn't?"
The adult Dren image breaks down to approximately 70% human to 30% CG and the child Dren is a 50/50 split. Eleven additional creatures were developed for the film through practical and digital effects, including various embryonic and infant stages of Dren, plus the products of Clive's and Elsa's earlier experimentation: two hybrid entities named Fred and Ginger.
"What's she doing in this room? You can't let her out.
Specimens need to be contained."
"Splice" centers around the research facility where Clive and Elsa spend most of their time--a space created by Natali and production designer Todd Cherniawsky (art director, "Avatar") to be both realistic and suggestive. "Vincenzo has an inclination towards balanced compositions that play on symmetry and asymmetry," the designer says. "He likes a strong one-point perspective which essentially shoots straight down the middle of a room so that everything converges and the eye is drawn to a central point.
"There are certain images burned into our common knowledge of fear, whether it's the high school corridor or the hallway in a prison. Gridding things like this creates a fear-of-the-machine theme," he continues. Low ceilings and shorter spaces make it feel as though everything was closing in on Clive and Elsa. "There is always pressure on them."
One of the lab's pure creative departures was an imposing spherical apparatus referred to by Clive and Elsa as "Betty," for B.E.T.I., or the theoretical Biomechanical Extrautero Thermal Incubator in which the hybrid fetus Dren gestates.
At the same time, Cherniawsky states, "we wanted authenticity, not in the sense that we were making a documentary but in being sensitive to real laboratories, real scientists and real science as much as possible." That effort involved consulting with numerous geneticists and touring working labs at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto and the University of Toronto's Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, to understand how a small lab would be equipped to develop such a proto-type discovery.
Hiding Dren becomes more difficult as she grows stronger, more vocal and willful, which necessitates a move from the couple's lab to the basement and, from there, they are forced to confine her to the abandoned barn of Elsa's childhood home, miles from the city. For this, the production used an existing barn outside of Toronto at Black Creek Farm. To ensure it could withstand the stresses of production, the crew pulled it apart board by board, nail by nail, removed its mortise-and-tenon and wood-peg joints, then rebuilt it with additional steel plating and extra bolting.
Working closely with award-winning cinematographer Tetsuo Nagata ("La vie en rose"), Natali saw the action evolving from a very modernist style to something more Gothic towards the end. "'Splice' begins in a more clinical way, detached and not evocative of an emotion," Natali cites. "As the psychology of the characters becomes more twisted, then it naturally follows that the camerawork becomes a little more twisted to exemplify that state of mind. The compositions become less symmetrical and a little more off-kilter as the story moves from two main characters to three."
"None of her animal components have predatory characteristics."
"Well... there's the human element."
"I kept the science as real as possible because there was no reason for it not to be real," says Natali.
Not a cautionary tale in the traditional sense, "Splice" was principally influenced by the director's lifelong fascination with creatures. "I've been obsessed with them since I can remember," he laughingly admits. But it was a provocative and groundbreaking biological experiment known as the Vacanti Mouse that served as his direct inspiration.
In 1995 Dr. Charles Vacanti and Dr. Linda Griffith-Cima demonstrated the possible future of tissue transplantation by successfully grafting a piece of synthetic material, treated with bovine cartilage cells, onto the back of a healthy mouse and 'growing' what appeared to be a human ear. The photographs released from that experiment, at once brilliant and grotesque, reminded Natali of "a Salvador Dali image and really sparked my interest in the field of genetic engineering," he says.
Having conceived the idea that would become "Splice" around that time, Natali followed with great interest the scientific progress that seemed to be running parallel to his developing screenplay during the ensuing decade. "When I first wrote this, people weren't talking about cloning. In 1997, the world heard about Dolly, the cloned sheep, and then, in 2001, the human genome was mapped." Natali watched as genetic developments cast his core concept more toward fact than fiction.
Though it takes a leap of faith, nothing depicted in "Splice" is theoretically impossible. The splicing method Clive and Elsa use is not real, but, according to geneticist George S. Charames, who worked with the production, it is a possible technique. "People don't realize that the creation of human-animal chimeras is actually happening now around the world. If science were able to solve issues such as inter-species immunology and the ethical barriers associated with the procedures, we are not far away from 'Splice,'" he posits.
Collectively, the DNA from all the cells in the body would easily stretch from the earth to the moon. Ninety percent of the human genome contains information accumulated through the evolutionary process but remains uncoded. These sequences are sometimes referred to by the misnomer 'junk DNA.' Without knowing what they can lead to, it is impossible to foresee or control the results of combining them. Considering the theoretical recipe that produced Dren, the hard-science explanation is that she's a result of DNA borrowed from different species, including human, made into a primordial soup. The soft-science explanation, offers Natali, is that "she is greater than the sum of her parts."
"In the film, there's an allusion to Dren's potential for developing predatory characteristics," says Adrien Brody, citing a scene in which his character, Clive, considers the possibility. "But that wouldn't make her evil. Human beings are complicated enough, but imagine all those unknown elements and instincts conflicting with one another in a chimera, and the chemical reactions it could set off within the brain. She's just going through too much."
"Everything related to Dren is like biological Gestalt and somehow, by mixing different components together, it accidentally triggers genetic developments that Elsa and Clive couldn't anticipate," Natali notes.
Moreover, it triggers equally unexpected developments within themselves.
Says Guillermo del Toro, "What I find most scary and shocking in 'Splice' is not the cloning or the genetic manipulation but the idea that even with all our scientifically advanced backgrounds and sophistication we are still human--we have a complex legacy of instincts and family dynamics and questionable morals. It's not about the arrogance of man to harness the fire of the gods, but what mankind ultimately does with that fire."
"Certainly there's something horrific about what we're capable of doing right now, but there's also something fantastic and ultimately very hopeful about it," adds Sarah Polley. "I'm a huge supporter of scientific progress. 'Splice' explores the worst that can happen and I think it's important for us to push ourselves to where our greatest fears lie."
For Natali, responsibility figures prominently. "Science is a part of nature so maybe it's a part of our natural evolution to pursue these possibilities. Maybe we're meant to do these things. Unlike 'Frankenstein,' I never perceived this film as making a statement about dangerous ground. On some level it's actually a celebration of life and the creation of life, and how so much of it is beyond our control but that we must participate in it as human beings and scientists.
"On the surface, the message is about what happens when you play with genetics," Natali concludes. "But at a deeper level, it's about being responsible for the things you make."
© 2010 Film Entertainment Magazine / EMOL.org. All rights reserved.
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