While the cast, setting, and subject are indeed unique for a David Cronenberg film, the crew that convened to help bring the story to the screen is characterized by longtime creative collaborators whose associations with the director began years ago and are still going strong.
One of those core artisans, production designer Carol Spier, began work on Eastern Promises early. She made preliminary trips from Toronto to London in order to determine shooting exteriors and then ascertain how they would influence her design of the interiors.
Spier and Cronenberg have a long-established process of conferring on the backgrounds of the characters. For Eastern Promises, the concept for Spier's design was to show two worlds co-existing in London. Spier notes, "We contrast Anna's middle-class existence - the home where she lives with her mother and uncle, and the hospital where she works - with the more opulent crime world of Nikolai's 'family.'"
The exterior of Whittington Hospital was an easy enough match for the story's fictional hospital, but far more important was the Trans-Siberian restaurant; while the exterior is an empty building offering some visual texture and historical detail, Spier designed a lush interior. The upscale environment inside reflects both Semyon's affection for his culture as well as his ill-gotten gains.
To get better familiarized with Russian architecture, Spier spent a long weekend in St. Petersburg visiting restaurants and the Hermitage. She reports, "It was at the Hermitage where I saw the opulence and details of Catherine the Great's world. That became what Semyon was trying to put in his restaurant. I combined various elements and images, from lamps to paintings to moldings to pictures of food. Semyon didn't come from that world; he's trying very hard, so it's just a little bit off, with a little too much kitsch thrown in. It's whatever he thinks Catherine the Great might have done."
For the sequence revolving around an extended family holiday feast hosted by Semyon, food consultant Syvena Rowe, a specialist in Russian cuisine, was called in to prepare the meal. "It was like putting together a party," laughs Spier. "The opulent banquet scene is a departure for David, whose films are normally more spare."
The director notes, "This spread certainly was sumptuous. It put me in mind of the one in Fellini's Satyricon. Ours is not as opulent or decadent as that one, but while doing dolly shots past this fantastical food, I couldn't help thinking of it…Syvena is a Bulgarian woman who specializes in Eastern European cooking and has written books on it. We welcomed the authenticity that she provided because food is very symbolic and emblematic of 'the old country' still alive in London.
"That was called for in Steve's script. But when we first went looking for this subculture, we couldn't find it because it's not quite as cohesive as he has written it. As we started to do research, that subculture did rise close to the surface. It turns out that there are at least 10 very good Russian restaurants in London, though they're not easy to find. Once we did, they in turn helped us locate Russians, Ukrainians, Albanians…the Soviet diaspora in London, basically, for extras work. We also found them through the Russian Orthodox Church."
Cronenberg's longtime costume designer Denise Cronenberg (who is his sister) examined dozens of photos of Russians, from prostitutes to waiters. While visiting Russian restaurants, she noted that turtlenecks and black leather were prevalent. "Black denotes power," explains Denise Cronenberg. "We had Russian extras who came on the set, and they would be wearing black leather and we would take theirs off and put ours on because ours had a specific look. The Russian émigrés that I met told me that I was just like a Russian, because I paid in cash!…For the feast sequence, I dressed the Russian guests elegantly, but added over-the-top jewelry.
"On the opposite end of the spectrum, Anna is not really thinking that much about what she wears because she has so much else on her mind. So the concept was to dress Naomi
Watts very simply and have her wear the same clothes over and over. When not on duty in her hospital uniform, she mainly wears jeans and a waxed-cotton jacket - which is her other uniform, for riding her motorcycle.
Denise Cronenberg adds, "As Nikolai, Viggo Mortensen needed to be intimidating, yet there was a limitation because technically he is a chauffeur for the family. So the trick was to dress him in a suit and tie, dress shirt, coat and gloves, and smart sunglasses, all of which had convey that there is more to him. He would just absorb the character when he put the clothes on - even the shoes helped him get into it."
"Vincent Cassel as Kirill was the most difficult to costume, and ended up in black leather for most of the film. He dresses to show that he has money, but the black leather indicates his Russian background. We made his coats, because I couldn't find what I wanted."
Spier notes, "Color palette is key on just about every film I do with David. In Anna's world, everything is simple and not colorful. You could say we did it as beige while not exactly being beige. With the crime family, it's garishly opulent and also darker."
As is customary on a David Cronenberg movie, Spier coordinated efforts with Denise Cronenberg. The latter says, "We compared research that we'd assembled. David trusts Carol and I to coordinate on a look because we know what he would or wouldn't like."
In addition to Spier and Denise Cronenberg, other key collaborators together again with David Cronenberg on Eastern Promises include cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, editor Ronald Sanders, Academy Award-winning make-up designer Stephan Dupuis, and Academy Award-winning composer Howard Shore.
Robert Lantos reveals, "David's brilliant nucleus of distinguished craftspeople will turn down all other offers whenever he makes a movie; their loyalty to him is a fantastic asset for a film and its producers."
Suschitzky notes, "The fact that we all know each other helps cut through a lot of the inessentials that go on in a production. We know what we're each capable of doing, and that makes it a lot easier."
"Once Viggo Mortensen decides to take on a role, he's completely into it and the greatest collaborator you can have," remarks David Cronenberg.
Naomi Watts adds, "Working with him was extraordinary. He was so into his character that I could tell he was upset to leave Nikolai behind!"
Paul Webster reveals, "Viggo's one-man research engine helped mold David's thinking about the script - and fed into the script in a great way. It informed our whole process."
Particularly helpful to all, for an important story and visual element of Eastern Promises, was Alix Lambert's documentary The Mark of Cain, which she had filmed in Russian prisons; Mortensen studied her book (among others) on the same subject, namely, criminal tattoos.
This facet of Mortensen's research became "a key pivot point for our approach to refining the script with Steve," notes Cronenberg. "Viggo sent me books on Russian criminal tattoos which were filled with not just photos and diagrams but also texts about the meanings of tattoos. He also sent me The Mark of Cain. There's this whole hidden world of symbolism that is immediately fascinating."
Cronenberg in turn sent the books and the documentary to Knight, who incorporated the tattoo elements into the screenplay. Cronenberg says, "Tattoos suddenly became an intense metaphor and symbol in the movie. It's a specialized world that is in fact dying because of the changes that have happened in Russia in the last decade.
"The tattoos are tied to an older Russian criminal caste with a real structure and hierarchy - the Vory V Zakone, which is literally translated as 'Thieves in law.' It's a brotherhood of thieves. The old saying goes, 'There is no honor among thieves,' but what we found out was that the Vory has, if not honor, than at least a code that is adhered to - and it's a very brutal one."
The director clarifies that "this really is quite different from the Mafia. Also, in the modern Russian world, or the diaspora in London, it's morphing into something quite different, which is what we wanted to explore in Eastern Promises."
Vory V Zakone members include Russians and Georgians, and a smattering of Azerbaijanis, Uzbeks, Ukrainians, Kazakhs, Abkhazians, and - in the movie, at least - Turks. The Vory were born organically in Russia during the Great Terror of the 1930s, when Josef Stalin and his henchmen purged the Bolshevik Party of "enemies of the people" and sent millions to the Gulag slave labor camps in Siberia. It was in these camps that the first Vory were formed, along with the code that dictates law among Russian gangsters. The code calls for "complete submission to the laws of criminal life, including obligations to support the criminal ideal, and rejection of labor and political activities." The Vory also organized their own tribunals to pass judgment on code violations and disputes. The penalty for violation of the code is often mutilation or death.
The Vory strengthened their ranks in the 1970s, during Leonid Brezhnev's rule, as the Soviet economy began to stagnate and the black market for luxury goods thrived. With the fall of the Soviet Union, the Vory further consolidated power in Russia, while also fanning out around the globe, particularly into Western Europe and the United States.
Today, many Vory live well far from their home country. Estimates place them as operating in several dozen different countries, with thousands of members. The rigid code and behavioral rules, however, remain in place. The Vory's criminal aristocracycontinues to oversee a recruitment system that, like 70 years ago, is concentrated in the prisons.
"The criminals in Russian jails say that your tattoo is your life," says Cronenberg. "Your tattoos on your body are who you are. If you come in with no tattoos, you don't exist. They must be accurate; they tell what crimes you've committed, what jail time you've served, what your sexual orientation is, and more. If you were to have a tattoo that says you are higher up in the crime world than you are, you would be seriously punished, if not killed. It is said that tattoos are one's passport, but it's a very obscure country that the passport is from; the Russian criminal life is a rather small world. So the tattoos you've branded yourself with are determining your own fate, and are also your private passport to your private world."
Knight adds, "They communicate through the tattoos. Basically, these people have their curriculum vitae on their body, their career history. With Nikolai, the question is, are these only on his skin? It's what he's done, but is it who he is?"
Many tattoos are applied in prison. In these circumstances, to make the ink for the tattoos, prisoners break off the heel of a boot or a shoe and burn it. This yields soot that is sifted through a handkerchief and combined with urine to produce a durable ink. The tattoo is applied with a sharpened guitar string threaded through a wind-up shaver, while a grafted pen cap serves as the ink well.
Charged with making it somewhat easier on all concerned for the tattoo sequence and shots in Eastern Promises, Carol Spier created a tattoo tool based on her staff's research at the Oxford Tattoo Museum. However, hers was designed to not pierce the skin.
The stars being tattooed on Nikolai's knees in the key Vory sequence convey that he will never have to kneel down before authority, as he is raised to the highest rank in the brotherhood. It took one member of Stephan Dupuis's staff 4 hours to apply 43 tattoos on Mortensen for the full-body tattoo sequence. The tattoos, which were transfers, ranged from fingernail-sized to one which covered most of the actor's back. Several encircled his wrists, ankles, and fingers.
Keeping it all in the film family, as opposed to the crime family, Russian dialect coach Olegar Fedoro did double duty by appearing on-screen as the tattooist who works on Nikolai. "Viggo's body was a canvas for me," he reports. "Instead of a brush, I was using a little electric machine."
Among the 43 tattoos are Skull With Flowers, Smoking Skull, Tiger, Star, Virgin Mary with Child, Woman with Knife, Snake & Dagger, Scorpion, Sailing Ship, Naked Angel on a Wheel, Jesus, Grim Reaper, Hot Cross Button, Coppolas, Epaulettes, Crow, Cross, Cat with Pipe, Candelabra, Button, Barbed Wire, Ankle Chain, and the 7 assorted Finger Tattoos. 12 of the tattoos are Russian sayings.
Mortensen notes, "Some of the tattoos were humorous, and some were quite poetic. On the instep of my right foot, one said 'Where are you going?' On the instep of the other foot, another said, 'What the hell do you care?' One of my favorites said, 'Let all I have lived be as if it were a dream,' which is so beautiful and sad. Another said, 'I'm a slave to fate but no lackey to the law,' which translates to, 'I'll accept my lot in life without complaining, but don't expect me to show you any respect or listen to anything you say; I don't care how hard you hit me.'
"These tattoos tied in with the so-called honorable thief who has a complete lack of respect for authority, no matter where it's coming from. There is, in the Vory, a respect for those who don't respect authority. As crude as they can be, there is real attention to history and imagery. For example, the Ankle Chain ones refer back to the time of Peter the Great, when prisoners were commonly shackled by the ankles. The crucifix on my chest denotes that I am a thief in good standing; it has nothing to do with religion. The three church domes on my back represent three different prison sentences, while the St. Petersburg cross on my finger is a symbol for having been in a prison there."
Mortensen's in-character tattoos for Nikolai were so authentic-looking that when the actor visited a Russian restaurant, diners fell silent, thinking that a top Vory had entered. However, once he spoke English, many visibly relaxed…
…although, reveals Armin Mueller-Stahl, "I was told that some of them actually left."
The recent polonium poisoning of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko brought world attention to the number of wealthy Russians now making their homes in London. In fact, during production of Eastern Promises, David Cronenberg and Vincent Cassel's temporary homes were mere steps away from where traces of the poison were found as part of the investigation into Litvinenko's death.
But, in the immigrant tradition, the Russian subculture in London hasn't seen the vast majority of its denizens settle into expensive centrally located residences. Instead, they have gravitated towards less expensive places on the outskirts of the city. Undiscovered by tourists, these communities have their own textures and history.
As such, the production followed the screenplay's lead by not shooting in the traditional London locales that are familiar on-screen. Cronenberg emphasizes, "We shot in places where the immigrants live, like in the East End. It brought us texture.
"Russia itself is not in great shape. So we captured locations in London with a sense of decay, which I'm partial to anyway. We tried to show where you could see the weight of the ages, which connects with Russia. There is a historical sense of a Russian past that flows through all the Russian characters, and a traditional Russian sadness and cynicism. That has not disappeared with modern Russia, although it's mutated a bit."
The director elaborates, "Viggo Mortensen and I were both reading Dostoevsky - as it turned out, the same book; Demons, a.k.a. The Possessed. Much of what's written by that author permeated his portrayal of Nikolai. The combination of the texture of his voice and his face with the weathered streets and the dilapidated interiors gave us a strongly authentic foundation. With Carol Spier's production design and the night shooting as lit by Peter Suschitzky's camera, I felt we were able to get on-screen aspects of a film noir."
Eastern Promises shot its interior sequences on sets built at 3 Mills Studios in East London. 3 Mills is a converted gin distillery. But the production was also frequently on the move, filming at different locations throughout the U.K. These included Kilburn, where an anonymous suburban setting doubled as a brothel; Woolwich, Greenwich, Southwark, Brompton Cemetery, Cannon Street, a Hackney housing estate, and Harlesden.
Paul Webster remarks, "Harlesden is considered such a dangerous place that twenty security guards were on duty the night we were there, as well as four police officers; normally there would be four security guards and one police officer. So as not to attract attention, our production vehicles were hidden behind shops."
A safer location was Deptford, an area which traces its history dating back to the Middle Ages, and where Henry VIII built his Tudor fleet by the Thames in the 16th Century. There, the production filmed a body being dumped. As the Thames is a tidal river, rising between 10-12 yards as the tide ebbs and flows, the production had to time this scene with precision. The scene had to be shot when the tide was at its highest, and completed before the river ebbed, revealing mud flats.
The Thames Barrier, in the lower part of the tidal Thames, was used for where a body washes up. The Barrier is a series of ten separate movable gates positioned end-to-end 520 yards across the river to control floodwaters and stem the tide.
The only real tourist destination that the production filmed at was the Old Royal Naval College at Greenwich, which was designed by Sir Christopher Wren in the 18th Century. However, Sir Christopher's beautiful columned buildings will not be seen on-screen; the location was selected for its kitchen, which doubled for the Trans-Siberian restaurant kitchen.
When not playing scenes in the kitchen, Armin Mueller-Stahl took the opportunity to see the city. "London is very, very exciting," he enthuses. "Also, I'm a painter myself, so I went to see Cézanne and Hockney works at the museums."
Webster comments, "Eastern Promises should offer a real sense of what London is these days; a multicultural cosmopolitan city. Everywhere you turn, there is the old bumping up against the new, which is so appropriate for our story."
Knight adds, "There are hundreds of different languages spoken in our city, and there are several different languages spoken in our film. The variety of locations reflect that, and also show the diversity of London life, the way it is now."
To ensure that words were being pronounced and/or with an accurate accent, three dialogue/dialect coaches were employed by the production. On the set, the trio all listened intently through their earphones during each take.
Russian dialect coach Olegar Fedoro checked authenticity constantly and monitored Mortensen closely. Fedoro says, "My goal was that when people in Moscow see this film, they say, 'I didn't know he was Russian.' We began preparing when Viggo came back from Russia, where he was very inspired. He's a stronger linguist than most actors."
While dialogue coach Andrew Jack also advised on the Russian accents, he mostly concentrated on making sure that actors spoke English with an appropriate Eastern European accent. Extra effort was required by and with Vincent Cassel (who is French) and Mueller-Stahl (who grew up in East Berlin) in particular. Even Naomi Watts's English accent had to be refined, since the English-born actress was raised in Australia.
Rounding out the linguistic chaperones was Esin Harvey, who was a Turkish dialogue advisor. She worked with the actors who play members of the rival crime family, seen initially in the opening sequence and later figuring into the plot.
Jack explains, "We had to make a demarcation on this particular movie as to who was dealing with dialect and who was dealing with dialogue. Olegar and Esin dealt more with language. We all aimed for a lot of subtleties that kept these characters believable."
David Cronenberg sees the finished film as "a mob crime thriller intricately interwoven with familial dramas - all unfolding in a subculture that dwells within another very strong culture."
Paul Webster notes, "The emotional triangle between Anna, Nikolai, and Kirill intrigued me in Steve Knight's script, and even more so with what our actors brought to it. David also caught all the drama of a man who is willing to sacrifice everything for his work, and the pressures that brings; Viggo Mortensen's character makes a kind of Faustian bargain. From these diverse elements, David mines all dramatic and thriller excitement."
Mortensen offers, "I consider myself very fortunate to have done two movies in a row with David. I think that with this movie, we explored language a little more, whereas in A History of Violence it was gesture that took precedence.
"Eastern Promises is a logical follow-up to A History of Violence; there are identity issues, explorations of the traditional family structure, people dealing with perilous situations and moral dilemmas, and the question 'Is violence ever justified?'"
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