GENESIS, CONCEPT, CASTING
Eastern Promises has been brought to the screen through a unique creative collaboration forged among a Canadian auteur, a British screenwriter, producers and crew from both countries as well as the U.S., and a leading man able to fully inhabit a complex character.
Even before director David Cronenberg and actor Viggo Mortensen had memorably teamed up for one of the most acclaimed films of 2005, A History of Violence, screenwriter Steve Knight was searching for a follow-up to what would later be made as his acclaimed first feature, Dirty Pretty Things. Knight knew that he wanted to keep writing about intriguing subject matter - and people and places in London that are often overlooked.
Knight reflects, "I wrote Dirty Pretty Things because I was interested in the stories of the 'other London' beneath the surface, the London of newly arrived immigrants. I felt it was an area that could be explored in more than one feature. Dirty Pretty Things was about an African and a Turk, and Eastern Promises is about another community and another experience."
Producer Paul Webster comments, "The London that has emerged in the last 20 years is a polyglot society. Eastern Promises is one of the first films to emphasize that. I saw it as a companion piece to Steve's earlier work, in that there is a thriller element in a part of London we don't know about."
Originally, Knight had been commissioned to write an hourlong telefilm script about Eastern European "people traffic." Using that trade as a point of origin (both geographically and character-wise), his narrative moved into exploring those who profit from it. This criminal brotherhood is the Vory V Zakone (pronounced "vor-ee sack-o-nee"), "which is a real organization," reveals Knight. It soon became apparent that the new script warranted feature film treatment.
Knight called on resources in London and New York to be able to meet with criminals in both cities, as well as the London police, the Russian-assigned desk in London's West End, and the FBI in the U.S.
Knight admits, "The reality is so bizarre and upsetting that I had to tone it down for the script. Slavery usually happens in normal suburban streets; you don't see it, yet it's going on around you. Similarly, it was a revelation to me how different Eastern nationalities - Russian, Chinese, and Turkish - all operate in unique ways while forging links with each
other. The police have difficulty penetrating these underworlds, yet these groups who exist within London are almost self-policing in that they try not to cause too much antagonism outside their own group.
"The character of Semyon is based on a real-life restaurant owner in New York. The character of Anna was written as a tribute to the midwife who delivered my eldest son at London's Whittington Hospital - which we later used to double as the exterior of the hospital location in the movie.
He elaborates, "The character of Anna was also my way of taking a conventional Londoner and leading her into this concealed world. Those two worlds don't often meet, let alone collide, so I came up with the emergency Caesarean section as a way to bring the midwife and an enslaved 14-year-old girl together in the thriller context."
"The sex-trafficking trade is a huge industry in the U.K.," reveals Webster. "Police records have shown that it is run predominantly by criminals of Eastern European descent."
Producers, and production companies, from Britain, Canada, and the U.S. joined forces to bring the script to the screen. Webster notes, "Steve tells accessible exciting stories, merging exotic elements into familiar environments. When I first read it in 2004, I felt the script was commercial, moving, exciting and castable. What we needed was a top director, which we finally got."
Cronenberg remembers reading the script and being "immediately sucked into this intense little world of the criminal subculture in London. In a sense, Steve has reinvented the crime movie, because the script accesses all the great parts of that genre while inverting and subverting them in an interesting way. It's not a retro movie; instead, it's very modern and intense.
"What I also found was that it offered a wonderful character study - particularly of Nikolai - and that I wanted to bring these characters to life."
Cronenberg began working with the screenwriter. Knight reports, "It was the perfect relationship between a writer and a director. David had a very clear vision, so we had a quite brief meeting and then I went off and did the work that we agreed needed to be done."
Producer Robert Lantos, head of Toronto-based Serendipity Point Pictures, had worked on two previous films with Cronenberg. The producer says, "David has a unique and magical gift. He creates a mesmerizing, hypnotic reality on-screen. Working with him is always a rewarding and memorable experience.
"It was David's passion for Eastern Promises that initially sparked my interest. Steve's powerful and timely screenplay, coupled with David's masterful craftsmanship, made for an irresistible combination."
Lantos came aboard, and the film became a U.K./Canadian co-production, with the picture filmed on location in the U.K. and post-production completed in Canada.
There was only one actor considered for the lead role of conflicted Vory V Zakone foot soldier Nikolai Luzhin. Cronenberg muses, "When I worked with Viggo Mortensen on A History of Violence, I noted that he had a kind of Russian or Slavic look to him. He is in fact half-Danish. After our experience on A History of Violence, I wanted to work with him again. In reading the script, I immediately thought of him. Viggo is a brilliant actor, beyond what people realize, and I believe that with Eastern Promises, that is going to be more evident.
"His character this time is very precise and controlled, and highly cautious. Nikolai seems at first glance to be a thug, but he also has a softness, and is therefore strong and delicate at the same time."
"When we first meet Nikolai, he's almost dead inside," adds Knight. "He lives in a world of violence and as such is a violent person. But there is also a gentleness about him that comes as a surprise to Anna."
Mortensen says, "Nikolai is a man who has a lot of secrets. He came to London by way of the Ural mountain region, which is a kind of dividing mountain range a couple of time zones east of Moscow on the edge of the Siberian plain. He's seen a lot and, being close to Kirill, is on the front lines of the family's doings."
The actor's assessment of the character's history comes from an informed perspective; while preparing for the part, Mortensen spent weeks in Russia. He traveled to the Urals, among other places. He immersed himself in Russian culture, watching Russian movies and television, reading or re-reading the works of authors such as Vladimir Nabokov, listening to spoken-word tapes, and testing his knowledge of the language - which he had studied in advance of the trip. He also did research on the sex trafficking trade and the gangs that are based in the Ural area.
Knight marvels, "He went away and immersed himself in that world - and spent time with a lot of very disreputable Russian people! I wrote the lines, but the heart and soul of Nikolai is really from Viggo."
During the film shoot, Mortensen had with him artifacts that he had brought back from Russia, including worry beads made in prison from melted-down plastic cigarette lighters. He decorated his trailer with copies of Russian icons, and created an atmosphere conducive to maintaining his character.
Cronenberg reports, "He learned to speak Russian quite well for this role. He brings the intensity and humor and subtlety to Nikolai that he brings to every performance, all the while speaking with a Russian accent, so his voice has a different timbre than you've heard in his other movies. It's a complete transformation from the inside out. He played
two characters, really, in A History of Violence, and I saw traces of neither one of them in his portrayal of Nikolai."
Says Webster, "Among actors, Viggo is completely unique in my experience because of his attention to detail; the research he did - months before we started to film - was incredible. He is an artist in his own right and brings an artist's sensibility to the process, as well as an actor's craft."
Mortensen says, "Being able to think about what I'd seen, by going to where the character was from, provides something real for scenes. I believe it's helpful to the other actors, too, if I'm convincing."
To play opposite Mortensen, the production needed an actress of comparable stature. In Naomi Watts, they found her. Cronenberg notes, "Naomi has such respect in the acting community; there's nobody who doesn't say she's a fantastic actress - as well as a total delight to work with. Both those things proved to be true. She's incredibly easy to direct because she just gets it right away on the most subtle level. I'm sure there's a lot of internal work that she does, but I never saw it. She would come to the set and nail it immediately. She gets the whole picture and accesses the inner life of the character. Of course, she's a great beauty and her beauty is so valuable for her as an actress because it's a down-to-earth, real beauty. It's not so exotic that it's hard for her to play a regular person. She can play a regular person and still glow.
"Anna is very vulnerable, and has had loss in her life which is still affecting her. She starts to connect with the Russian half of her roots - her late father had emigrated to England - in investigating where this young woman came from, what the diary means, and what will become of the orphaned baby. Because she's living a dreary English life, she's drawn into the intense lives of the Russian immigrants who live in London. Nikolai scares her, yet she has a desire to flirt with danger; it's her effort to scare herself back into the world. Naomi carries off all Anna's changes and modulations with such grace."
Watts, who had long sought to work with Cronenberg, found Knight's script to be "a page-turner, a really good thriller, and a window into a world that hasn't been seen much. Anna has long denied her Russian culture, and at the start of the film is in quite a sad place in her life. She's hiding behind her work and doesn't want to spend too much time with her family because they just remind her of her past traumas. But what I love is that there is still a sense of danger in her, and she comes alive again through meeting Nikolai - he's like the big bad wolf that intrigues her - and seeks to take control of the situation with the lost girl and orphaned baby. But it becomes clear that she's getting into a world that's much heavier than she can handle by herself, and she has to call on her family for help."
Webster remarks, "Anna's journey for not only the girl and the baby but herself lends an emotional core to the story. Naomi mixes empathy with a touch of stubborn hardness, to the character, so that while you sense Anna getting out of her depth you also feel her determination not to be afraid."
Given the production's ties to the locale, Watts researched her role at Whittington Hospital. There, she witnessed a C-section and observed labor sessions with midwifes and birthing mothers. Watts states, "I was present at such powerful moments in another person's life. It was earthy and beautiful and poetic. What midwives do is pretty extraordinary. It requires a huge amount of trust."
The leading lady also learned how to ride a Russian-made motorcycle. She laughs, "400 pounds of steel, and almost that many people standing by. There I was, riding through the streets of London; I couldn't believe it. But I came to like it and, I'm pleased to say, can now put it on my list of skills.
"Also, I'd never signed on to do a movie without at least talking to the director and hearing about his vision, but I did on Eastern Promises. Then, David and I kept planning to meet but we only finally did when I arrived in London. Very unusual, but with someone like David you don't panic, and when we did meet he instilled me with confidence."
French actor Vincent Cassel then signed on as the volatile Kirill. Cronenberg remarks, "Think of Kirill like Saddam Hussein's son; too much power, too little depth, and a lot of insecurities - a very dangerous combination. Unlike Nikolai, Kirill is passionate and emotional, so they're an odd couple."
Knight adds, "Kirill is like a firework going off. He's capable of great violence and great affection. His sheer energy and enthusiasm make him, in spite of everything he does, sympathetic."
Cronenberg notes, "If you live long enough, you get to work with the people you admire and want to work with. I'd met with Vincent before about other projects, and I thought of him when I read the screenplay. He proved to be wonderful, bringing out all the wildness, ambivalence, liveliness, and desperation that Steve had wonderfully written.
"Vincent communicates external and internal chaos on-screen with great precision and control; he's a marvel to work with. I knew that his extreme looks and strong screen presence would allow him to match up well with Viggo."
Cassel, though eager to work with Cronenberg and Mortensen, wasn't sure he wanted to play "another villain. But I found this character to be multi-dimensional; Kirill is a victim of a very tough childhood. Yes, he's violent and dangerous, but at the same time it's touching because 'the family business' and a very dark father are all he knows. Kirill's relationship with Nikolai exists on so many different levels, including jealousy. The biggest challenge for me was to be believable as a Russian with the accent and the Russian language, which I worked hard at."
Webster marvels, "It's amazing to watch Vincent go from the reprobate to the mewling child of a harsh father. He does that so very well and uncovers the pathos in Kirill. You
see him reduced to little-boy status every time his dad comes onto the scene, especially given Armin Mueller-Stahl's effortless sense of command."
Cassel laughs, "Between scenes, Armin would glance over at me and say things like, 'My son…my son…' or 'Why are you like that?' So I would be the naughty son by doing things like moving Armin's belongings around. We enjoyed doing this to each other!"
Mueller-Stahl is making his first significant screen appearance in several years in Eastern Promises. "Armin is somebody that I've taken note of for years - fantastic voice, fantastic face," says Cronenberg. "His own life experience - being forced to leave East Germany - is all there in his countenance. Even before I met him, I sensed that there was an incredible sweetness to him but also an incredible power that could make you afraid at the same time. That was exactly what the role of Semyon required, because nobody is what he seems at the beginning of this movie.
"Armin took on not just the role, but also accepted the challenge of speaking English with a Russian accent; for a German, that is difficult. But he just rose to the occasion, working with dialect and dialogue coaches to make his accent was correct, just like the actors half his age in the cast were."
Mueller-Stahl muses, "It's a black piece of work, this story. Semyon is a very brutal man, and the world is full of those people. A monster is not visible, but is deep inside. The Vory stays secret because they are not visible. But it's very important to show both sides of these monsters. Semyon has a very warm sentimental relationship with his granddaughter, and the same attitude to Russian music. There's a certain tradition to playing a crime boss on-screen. Hopefully, I was able to do it my own way.
"On the set, David is friendly and also focused on the story, and on what needs to happen in a scene. When I met him the first time, I thought, 'What a nice man - and his films are so scary.'"
Cronenberg met Irish-born actress Sinéad Cusack several times over the years, having directed her husband Jeremy Irons in two films (Dead Ringers and M. Butterfly). Eastern Promises finally gave the filmmaker the opportunity to offer her a role. Cusack was "over the moon to be working with David. All his films are so layered and atmospheric. I found this script to be grown-up; the characters very well-drawn, and anyone who has been reading the newspapers in recent years is very aware of what is going on with this human trafficking from Russia."
The director notes, "I didn't want to cast Anna's mother as a grandmotherly; I wanted her to be an attractive intense woman in her own right, as Steve suggested in the script. These two women, living together in the shadow of a double tragedy - the death of Anna's Russian father and the death of her child - makes for an intense little household, especially when you throw in the proudly Russian Uncle Stepan."
Uncle Stepan is played by Jerzy Skolimowski, a filmmaker whom Cronenberg has long admired. Cronenberg reflects, "I was knocked out by the films Jerzy made in the Polish New Wave of the 1960s. During pre-production, I remembered that Jerzy had played a KGB agent in White Nights  and that he was terrific in the role. We met up in London, and I was thrilled that he agreed to be in Eastern Promises.
"We ended up assembling an exciting and largely European cast. This was a particular thrill for me because the characters I do movies about tend not to be European. It was a whole new team to play with."
Lantos reports, "I was thrilled to collaborate on a film with actors of such towering talent; they are all at the peak of their form in Eastern Promises. No matter how many times I've seen this movie, there are scenes in which their performances take my breath away."
Cassel remarks, "Working with David is a pleasure. Being familiar with his work, I was confident that he'd be good with actors. Of course he is. There's a lot of freedom, but at the same time he's completely precise with the screenplay. He'll make the right joke at the right moment, but at the same time he's definitely the one in charge on the set."
Lantos adds, "He's always on schedule, always on budget, and always does what he says he will do - and extremely well. Working with David is effortless."
Skolimowski offers, "David is calmly sure of himself and at the same time, spreads a harmonious feeling on the set. Everything goes smoothly and rather fast. It's like film sets should be; my own, unfortunately not."
READ MORE ABOUT THE DESIGN/ FILMING AND MORTENSEN'S TATTOOS
READ MORE ABOUT DAVID CRONENBERG (Director) AND STEVE KNIGHT (Screenplay)
THE ART OF ORIGINAL FILMMAKING