The movie's poster sans titles, featuring Viggo Mortensen and Naomi Watts.  Mortensen (above) plays Nikolai.  Watts plays Anna.  Below: the film's director, David Cronenberg.  (Photos: Peter Mountain)


By Omar P.L. Moore  |  the popcorn reel

August 29, 2007


Coffee has been the name of the game on a recent Friday morning at a local hotel.  David Cronenberg is dressed in his trademark black and Viggo Mortensen is nattily attired in a gray suit and a white shirt that has thin blue, green and pink bars.  A sinister-looking moustache spreads across his face.  It is not unlike the look that his onscreen brother William Hurt sported in "A History Of Violence".  A different look for a man who has played a bevy of roles that are anything but black and white.  Many audiences recognize Mortensen as Aragorn from the "Lord Of The Rings" trilogy, or as the drifter from "A Perfect Murder" who barters with rogue businessman Michael Douglas over the affections of and the plot to murder onscreen wife Gwyneth Paltrow. 

If you have seen "A History Of Violence", the highly-acclaimed 2005 film from David Cronenberg, you would have seen Viggo Mortensen as Tom/Joey, a business owner in small town America whose past catches up with him and threatens to destroy the family he has provided for.  And if you see "Eastern Promises", which opens on September 14 in the U.S. and Canada and is released by Focus Features, you will see Mr. Cronenberg's handiwork, with Mr. Mortensen once again front and center, this time as Nikolai, the driver for a Russian mob outfit operating underground in London.  "Eastern Promises" is violent, but for the director the violence is never gratuitous even though it is graphic.  If anything, the violence in Cronenberg's films symbolizes an explosion of savagery in the human heart, an impulsiveness that is purely animal.  One scene in the new film involving the leading man will be sure to have the ladies in the movie theater gasping, while alternately covering and opening their eyes.

For now, three journalists' eyes are trained on the director and actor who talk about the inner workings of "Eastern Promises", a film shot in London, with an international cast that includes Naomi Watts (from Australia), Vincent Cassell (France), Armin Mueller-Stahl (Germany), and Sinead Cusack (Ireland).  Mortensen is from Denmark, though he was born in the U.S.  Cronenberg is from Canada.  "Eastern Promises" is written by English writer Steven Knight, who also penned the script for the film "Dirty Pretty Things", which starred Chiwetel Ejiofor and Audrey Tatou.  "Eastern Promises" centers around a revealing and alternately mysterious diary written in Russian that has ended up in the hands of a British midwife (Watts), and an orphaned baby soon ends up in her charge.  From there, more mystery, suspense and a lot of tension unfolds.

Nikolai has traveled as a character in many areas in life, perhaps not unlike the mysterious drifter that appears in Andrew Davis' film "A Perfect Murder".  "The fact that he made his way from hard-core prison guy, to be able to be trusted by guys [from the mob], and drive . . . he's already worked hard and been clever enough to get [to where he is]" as a person, said Mortensen, who speaks quietly but gives a complete discourse on the philosophy and inner workings of the character that he lived with for several months on the set of "Eastern Promises", which wrapped up filming during the first two months of this year.  Mortensen, who is also an artist and a photographer, says that the shooting of Mr. Cronenberg's newest film, a noir fable with a touch of fairy tale to it -- which will be screened at the 32nd Toronto International Film Festival (September 6-15) -- brings more than what meets the eye, and praises its cinematographer Peter Suschitzky and his work, as "amazing".  Of the film's look, the actor says that "it's not that straight forward and it's not that simple, but it looks straight forward in the way it's shot, so that you see a lot -- it doesn't call attention to itself." 

Actors inevitably have to engage in introspection in order to unearth their characters, but Mr. Mortensen remains introspective off-screen.  At one point he politely instructs one of the journalists on how to describe his character in the journalist's story in advance of the film's release.  He analyses Nikolai and is thoroughly absorbed by him in the film.  Reportedly when on the "Lord Of The Rings" film set, director Peter Jackson addressed Mortensen as Aragorn for more than 30 minutes, with the actor answering to the name of the character he portrayed.

Naomi Watts (pictured above) plays Anna, a midwife at a London hospital.  Anna is a saintly presence and her actions and arrival on the scene will have an impact on the outcome of the film.  The question of innocence and themes of innocence come up, and both Cronenberg and Mortensen are keen to address them.

"I have to say, creatively, I don't think in terms of themes . . . when I'm thinking about doing a movie, when I'm making a movie, I don't think about themes . . . an actor cannot play an abstract concept like innocence . . . that's a sure way to make an actor break down and cry," says Cronenberg.  "I know that ultimately these things that I'm photographing that are physical things including people will provoke abstract thoughts in people who watch the movie, I know that.  And I want that.  But I'm not really analyzing it in terms of thematics.  So I'm thinking of this character of Naomi and her innocence and her naivete."  He adds that the character of Nikolai is innocent in many ways, kinds of kindred spirits along the way.

Mortensen looks at innocence from another angle.  "[On a film set] the journey from here to there -- to that last day -- is one where that you need to have the illusion that you have all the time in the world -- and there is no time.  It's just a struggle to tell a story. . . you can never do enough research."

Cronenberg added that "you have to allow yourself to be innocent when you're making a movie, and to be like children, because after all, you're putting on funny moustaches that are not real."

Cronenberg playfully gestures at Mortensen's moustache, prompting laughs from all in the room.

"You're putting on clothes, you're calling each other by names that you are not.   It's like playing in a sandbox, and you don't want to lose that naivete and that innocence . . . you can't be cynical and you can't be too adult, and too knowing.  You can't be too abstract and analytical while you're making the film," the director continued.

So for a film that is undoubtedly mature and adult, the child-like aspects that lie within it are unavoidable.

Furthermore, two ironies should be noted.  First, for an international cast, "Eastern Promises" has a strong European feel.  As noted, it was shot in London, and in places where tourists don't typically venture.  "We were shooting in places in London where nobody shoots -- Harlesden, Hackney -- you know, we're not shooting in Notting Hill and Mayfair, where all the cute comedies are," Cronenberg said.  The director worked with a crew that was English, and they enjoyed filming in the more authentically London locations, and the residential areas where immigrants live and multiculturalism flourishes.  The second irony is that given the international flavor and collaboration on the director's latest film, the title "Eastern Promises" seems inapposite, but when audiences see the film, they will see that the title of the film is a more than appropriate.

Audio extra: David Cronenberg and Viggo Mortensen talk more about innocence in "Eastern Promises" and when making films in general

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