DATE September 13, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Director David Cronenberg and actor Viggo Mortensen
on their new film, "Eastern Promises"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
After teaming up on the film "A History of Violence," director David
Cronenberg and actor Viggo Mortensen have made a new film called "Eastern
Promises." Cronenberg also made "Scanners," "The Fly," "Videodrome" and "Dead
Ringers." Mortensen co-starred in "The Lord of the Ring" films, "A Walk on the
Moon," and "A Perfect Murder."
"Eastern Promises" is a thriller set in London. A pregnant teenage girl
collapses in a pharmacy and is rushed to the hospital where she dies in
childbirth. The nurse-midwife takes a special interest in the orphaned
infant. She takes the mother's diary, which is written in Russian, and tries
to get it translated so she can track down the baby's extended family. The
diary leads her to a Russian restaurant she doesn't realize is owned by the
head of a Russian crime family. She also doesn't know that the boss is
interested in the diary because he's worried it may implicate him in a series
of crimes. After the midwife's first visit to the restaurant, she's driven
home by the family's driver, a menacing-looking character who also does a lot
of the family dirty work. The midwife is played by Naomi Watts, the driver by
(Soundbite of "Eastern Promises")
Ms. NAOMI WATTS: (As Anna) Have you ever met...(unintelligible).
Mr. VIGGO MORTENSEN: (As Nikolai) I made love to a girl's
Ms. WATTS: (As Anna) She was pregnant.
Mr. MORTENSEN: (As Nikolai) Ah. In that case, no, I never heard of her.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. WATTS: (As Anna) She died on my shift.
Mr. MORTENSEN: (As Nikolai) But I thought you did birth.
Ms. WATTS: (As Anna) Sometimes birth and death go together. She came in
with needle punctures all over both arms, probably a prostitute at the age 14.
Do you think...(unintelligible)...knew her?
Mr. MORTENSEN: (As Nikolai) I am driver. I go left, I go right, I go
straight ahead. That's it.
Ms. WATTS: (As Anna) So take the next right.
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: David Cronenberg, Viggo Mortensen, welcome to FRESH AIR. This is
really an incredible film, and I want the audience to enjoy it as much as I
did so I don't want to give too much away, but at the same time I want to be
able to talk with you in some depth about the film, so I'll try to strike a
Mr. DAVID CRONENBERG: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: David Cronenberg, what was in the screenplay that made you think,
`This is a David Cronenberg film'?
Mr. CRONENBERG: Oh, I never look for that. I absolutely--first of all, I
don't know what a David Cronenberg film is. I know a lot of people have tried
to tell me. I have no idea. I know people sometimes think I have a little
checklist of things, you know, there has to be body consciousness. There has
to be transformation. There has to be this and that. But I absolutely, in
fact, try very hard to eradicate my entire body of work from my mind and
really think only about the project as it floats uniquely, its own little
world with its own little ecosystem. Because I know that when I'm making the
film, that's what I have to do. I have to forget everything else, you know.
I have to really only allow that movie to tell me what it wants; and I listen
to that and I don't think about anything else.
GROSS: Yeah, I'm one of those people that has that little checklist for what
makes a David Cronenberg film, and this kind of...
Mr. CRONENBERG: Well, that's, you know...
GROSS: ...everything I've checked off.
Mr. CRONENBERG: That's a critical thing, you know. That's a critical thing,
and it's an analytical thing...
Mr. CRONENBERG: And, in fact, when I'm doing interviews, I find it quite a
fascinating process because it means I have to be articulate about things that
I was actually inarticulate about before and only intuitive about before, so
it's only now, you know, after the movie's made, that I start to have to
actually be able to speak about it.
GROSS: David, would you describe the Russian criminal organization that you
portray in the movie?
Mr. CRONENBERG: Well, they're Russian. I can't really describe--I mean,
it's a many-headed Hydra, you know. It's very interesting. I mean, one of
the books that I read when I was doing research for this movie was called
"Violent Entrepreneurs," and it was about the role of criminality in the rise
of current Russian capitalism. And in a way, since the fall of the Soviet
Union, what we have seen is a kind--if you're looking at it just as a social
scientist, it's very interesting because you're seeing the rawest, most
virulent form of capitalism possible as it arises out of Russia. And most of
the oligarches that we have heard about have definitely had criminal pasts. I
mean, there's almost no other way to start your life as a Russian capitalist
without dealing with criminals if, in fact, you aren't one yourself.
So, to me, that was the underpinning for me. That is--they're kind of ardent
capitalists, really, first, and then they also have this whole past that goes
beyond communism back to the czarist days and the days of Russian prisons in
which there was a bond formed that sort of floated outside of society. It was
a brotherhood of thieves. A "Vory v Zakone," which means "thieves in law,"
literally. It's not really like a mafia, because at that time it had nothing
to do with businesses and having a facade of respectability. You were a
thief, and your thievery was written on your body in tattoos. I mean, it was
obvious to anybody who knew how to read your body like a book who you were,
where you were, what your sexual orientation was, how many crimes you
committed, what prisons you had been in, how much time you did there.
So that's the sort of underpinning of this group, which we have to understand
is a displaced group. This is the Russian mob in London, so not only is it a
strange form of Russian criminality, but it's a kind of an exported kind
that's growing in a very specific kind of way in different soil. It's not in
the black earth of Russia. It's now in the green earth of England.
GROSS: Viggo Mortensen, you play a member of this Russian crime organization,
a branch that is inland, a branch of emigres there. And you are covered in
Mr. VIGGO MORTENSEN: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And as David Cronenberg explained, each of those tattoos is supposed
to say something about your past, about who you are. You know, actors always
talk about how the clothing they wear helps them get into character. What did
having all those tattoos on your body do for you?
Mr. MORTENSEN: Well, it was helpful, and it does say a lot. And even if you
don't know what David was talking about, even if you're not a Russian criminal
or an expert in Russian criminal tattoos, old school tattoos, you do feel that
there's something, and there is. There is, symbolically, there is
something--apart from it being either off-putting or, well, certainly
remarkable that you see this person covered and that their fingers have
tattoos and everything else. That was mentioned sort of in passing in the
original script, that there were some tattoos, but it didn't really go into
And a friend of mine named Alix Lambert directed a very good documentary about
seven years ago, I guess now, or eight years ago, called "The Mark of Cain."
It's an amazing documentary. I recommend it if you can find it, and she did
something, you know, remarkable and brave, actually. She went into maximum
security prisons in Russia not long after, you know, the change from the
Soviet Union to what is now Russia, and she talked to these people. And, you
know, they became comfortable enough to reveal all kinds of things, not just
about the tattoos in great detail, what they mean, you know, that the
religious sort of tattoos that you see on my body in this movie, they don't
necessarily have anything whatsoever to do with religion. They're part of the
thieves' code, and my body is, you know, sort of my calling card. My resume.
Mr. CRONENBERG: Your resume.
Mr. MORTENSEN: My passport.
Mr. CRONENBERG: Passport, yeah. This documentary, plus another book that he
discovered called "Russian Criminal Tattoo," which is a fantastic book, these
were sent to me by Viggo and were completely mind-blowing, and I sent them to
Steve Knight, the writer of the script, and I said, `Steve, when you see
these, you're going to want to do a major rewrite with me that will
incorporate the tattooing subculture as a major part of the movie, as a
central metaphor of the movie.' It was as though the script was kind of
waiting for this...
Mr. MORTENSEN: Mm.
Mr. CRONENBERG: ...but it was Viggo who gave it to us. So that's, you know,
as I say, I mean, it is a collaboration on every level.
Mr. MORTENSEN: It was.
Mr. CRONENBERG: And it's great when it works.
GROSS: I don't want to give away too much of the film, but there's one scene
I just absolutely have to talk with you about, and anyone who sees this movie
will want to hear what you have to say about this scene. There's an
incredible scene in a steam bath where, Viggo Mortensen, your character is
asked there for a meeting, and when the meeting is over you're sitting there
alone, naked, except your completely covered in these tattoos that we've been
talking about, these tattoos that have imprinted your life story on your body.
Then, for reasons I won't explain, two fully clothed thugs come into the steam
bath and begin to try to kill you with their fists and with knives, and you're
there completely naked in this fight scene, covered with the tattoos. Your
blood mixes with the ink of the tattoos. It's an incredible scene in so many
And, I guess, David Cronenberg, let me start with you here. What are some of
the things that you wanted from the scene? I mean, I've never seen a scene
anything like it before.
Mr. CRONENBERG: Mm. Well, first of all, I wanted to humiliate Viggo because
it's part of our relationship, so anything that I can do to do that I take
advantage of it immediately.
Mr. MORTENSEN: Yeah.
Mr. CRONENBERG: But, well, I guess it ends up being our shower scene from
"Psycho," you know? I mean, weirdly enough, I think some of the dynamics are
the same. That is to say, how vulnerable can you ever be and if--when you're
wet and naked, that seems--and people are coming at you with knives. That
seems to be kind of the bottom line for vulnerability.
Of course, it's all set up on many levels in the movie. It's not just dropped
in sort of gratuitously. But the other thing, too, is that my approach to
movies, and in particularly this movie, is that people come to a movie to live
another life. You know? They come there to be someone else, to inhabit
someone else. And I take that to be physically as well, so I want the
audience to be Viggo in this scene, to be Nikolai. And then that means the
way that I shoot it, I want it to be experienced fully and physically, and
therefore I don't use sort of the "Bourne" movie-type impressionistic
quick-cutting, which is certainly a valid approach to action and has its own
effect. But I want the audience to see everything and feel everything as it
really happens, or as close as you can get making a movie.
So when the stunt coordinator, who was helping the actors work out the action,
talks to me, I say, you know, `I want to see everything. I want it all to
make physiological sense. I want it to be logical. I want it to be hard
work. I don't want to skip over anything. No jump cutting. No slow motion.
I want it to feel real, absolutely real.' Of course, everybody says, well,
`You know, you've got a star who's doing a scene naked and it's not a sex
scene. I mean, this is unusual.' But I say, `Well, you know,'--it was a very
quick discussion. We were working out the choreography and Viggo said, `Well,
you know, it's obvious I have to do this naked,' and I said, `Yeah, OK,' and
that was pretty much it, you know, for that discussion.
Mr. MORTENSEN: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: It's not a scene where it's like, `ooh, it's Viggo Mortensen nude.'
It's a scene where it's like here is this man facing his mortality naked in
the world, and this scene just gives such a powerful sense of the human body's
resilience and vulnerability, and of this one's man's resilience and
Mr. CRONENBERG: Yeah.
GROSS: And it's just--I don't know--it all--it just seems to me, as how like
you enter the world and you come out of the world...
Mr. MORTENSEN: Mm.
GROSS: You know, naked.
Mr. MORTENSEN: Yeah.
GROSS: No matter what kind of stuff you put on, you are finally naked. And I
just think that's a wonderful scene. At the same time, you had to deal with
all the practicalities of shooting an actor naked and making sure that
everything was exposed in the way you wanted it to be exposed and not to
Mr. CRONENBERG: You're not talking about...
GROSS: ...not to call...
Mr. CRONENBERG: ...film exposure, are you?
GROSS: No, no. But, I mean...
Mr. MORTENSEN: Right.
Mr. CRONENBERG: No, no, it's actually--I didn't...
GROSS: You didn't want to overemphasize like the genital part of the...
Mr. CRONENBERG: Well, actually...
GROSS: You want it to be there but not overemphasize?
Mr. CRONENBERG: The truth is that I didn't think about those things when I
was shooting it.
Mr. CRONENBERG: I mean, that was the freedom that I had with Viggo. You
know, I mean, it would have been silly for him to have a towel wrapped around
him that never moved in a scene like that...
Mr. CRONENBERG: And it would have been very restrictive for me if I had to
not show anything from sort of belly button to knees or something like that.
So I actually didn't worry about how we were shooting it. That was the
freedom that I had. Whether things were flattering, not flattering,
attractive, not attractive. I mean, it's like, you know, it's like the
difference between shooting with an actor who is constantly worried about how
he looks. Does he look good? Does his skin look good? And so, you know, and
you have to light him that way and that takes a terrible toll on the mood of a
movie. For example, if you can't light it dramatically because the actor's
wrinkles show, for example. And this was sort of an equivalent of that. It
could have been, but I actually totally didn't worry about it. I shot it the
way I would have shot it if he had been wearing clothes.
Mr. MORTENSEN: Mm-hm.
GROSS: Viggo Mortensen, did you think about that at all?
Mr. MORTENSEN: No. I mean, I was aware of the fact, and we discussed that
in passing when we were working out the fact. You know, he was--because we're
also friends and he's courteous and he's just being practical. So what I'm
thinking, how long it's going to take to shoot, and he shot it in about half
the time anybody would. I don't think if you had twice the budget you would
have shot it any different.
Mr. CRONENBERG: No, that's right. We had lots of time.
Mr. MORTENSEN: Most directors, even not using slow motion and everything
else, with the angles and having to use three rooms and flying around all over
the place, they would have probably take a good week to do it. He did it in
two days, which--I was glad of that because, you know, I did get a little
banged up. For obvious reasons, I couldn't have pads and things on my knees
and elbows and back and whatnot. And the quicker it was over, in a way, the
better. And the quicker they moved along in the day, the better because after
they'd say "Cut," you know, I would become a little self-conscious at times.
But not so much. I mean, I played it the same way he shot it, as if I had
clothes. It was just a scene about a particular thing, and I did think,
towards the end, when I started to accumulate a certain amount of bruises that
they did have to airbrush to cover.
Mr. CRONENBERG: Well, they did actually.
Mr. MORTENSEN: I thought it was karmic retribution for what happened to
Maria Bello on the wooden stairs.
Mr. CRONENBERG: Yeah, that's right. That's right. She got--she was the one
who got bruised there, and he got bruised here.
GROSS: They're referring, by the way, for our listeners who don't know, to a
very kind of rough sex scene in "A History of Violence," which is the previous
film that David Cronenberg and Viggo Mortensen collaborated on.
Mr. CRONENBERG: Maria phoned me and wanted to be one of the killers in that
scene of Viggo...
GROSS: That's really funny.
Mr. CRONENBERG: But I couldn't, I couldn't make it work.
Mr. MORTENSEN: The one who kicks me.
GROSS: My guests are director David Cronenberg and actor Viggo Mortensen.
Their new film is called "Eastern Promises." More after a break. This is
GROSS: We're talking about the new thriller "Eastern Promises" with the
film's director, David Cronenberg, and its star Viggo Mortensen.
Early in the movie, the mysterious woman who's past we don't know but she's
probably been a sex slave walks into a pharmacy and she's hemorrhaging. She's
pregnant and she's hemorrhaging. And she passes out and as she passes out
slips on her own blood.
Mr. CRONENBERG: Yeah.
GROSS: David Cronenberg, can you talk about shooting blood? You have to
shoot a lot of it in this movie...
Mr. CRONENBERG: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And how you wanted the blood to look; and even the idea of yeah,
blood. Blood would be slippery if there was that much of it.
Mr. CRONENBERG: Oh yeah. But, I mean, the human body contains quite a lot
of blood. And there are different color of it because there's oxygenated
blood that goes through your arteries, and it's actually shockingly bright
red. In fact, if you really shot it the way it looked, people would think it
And then there's venous blood that goes through your veins, which has not been
oxygenated, and that's much darker and almost brown. And so you're playing
with people's understanding of blood and their expectations and what they've
seen in other movies. And that's actually an interesting question, because
long discussions with Stephan Dupuis, who's a special effects man and a makeup
man who I've worked with since--well, he won an Oscar with me for "The Fly."
And we go back even further than that, so probably 30 years of working with
this man. And we always end up with a discussion of, `OK, do you think this
is the right--do you like the color? Do you like this color?'
And it also has to do with the way it's lit, you see. Your director of
photography's involved as well, because it will take different colors
depending on the film stock and how you slit it.
Mr. MORTENSEN: And what surface it's on. If it's on your body or in the
bath house, for example, when it...
Mr. CRONENBERG: Tones.
Mr. MORTENSEN: ...comes off my back on the tiles...
Mr. CRONENBERG: Yeah.
Mr. MORTENSEN: It looks different when it's on a lighter surface.
Mr. CRONENBERG: That's right. That's right. So it is a discussion because
you want a--it's a movie reality rather than a real reality. I like it to be
fairly red and dark and not too bright.
GROSS: I want to make it really clear that, when I talk about how much blood
there is in your film, it's not like, `Ooh, it's gory.' I mean, the film is so
much about, like, when you shoot blood, that blood is the essence of life and
the letting of blood, like, is the absence of life. Like, without it...
Mr. CRONENBERG: Well, if you want to get into...
GROSS: ...it's like the difference between life and death, this one liquid.
Mr. CRONENBERG: You can talk about Isaac and sacrifices as well, because
there's some of that...
Mr. CRONENBERG: ...in this movie.
Mr. CRONENBERG: If you want a good biblical about this movie, there's plenty
there. There's no question about it.
Mr. MORTENSEN: One more thing about that "Violence" thing...
Mr. MORTENSEN: To me, obviously "History of Violence," because things seemed
shockingly real when there was violence, people commented on it a lot and, you
know, thought it was well done or were appalled or whatever, mixture of
feelings they had about it. And it's the same in this movie and we're talking
about it a great deal, obviously. But in screen time, it's very, very...
Mr. CRONENBERG: Yeah.
Mr. MORTENSEN: ...small percentage of the story and, you know, people may be
better able to see all the layers on second viewing or second thought as they
go out and think about this movie after seeing it. But it's mostly not about
violence at all, and it's mostly not about blood either.
Mr. CRONENBERG: No. I mean, there are literally three scenes of violence in
Mr. CRONENBERG: That's it. Three, and two of them are very short. They do
have an impact, but when you think of a movie like, I don't know, you know,
"The Departed" or something like that--the body count in this movie is very
low by comparison.
Mr. MORTENSEN: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And that's in part why it registers so much because life isn't cheap
in this movie...
Mr. CRONENBERG: No, it's not and that's exactly...
GROSS: ...like every ounce of blood really matters.
Mr. CRONENBERG: That's a good point because I, philosophically, you know,
it's easy reading statistics every day in the paper about how many people are
killed in various hideous things around the world...
Mr. MORTENSEN: Mm-hmm.
Mr. CRONENBERG: ...when you talk about violence, you're really talking about
bodies, the destruction of a body that's an incredibly complex, precious,
unique thing. The death of any person is definitely a tragedy, because
whoever it is, however old that person is, he or she, bodies, experiences that
are absolutely unique. And so to me it's a hideous thing and not to be taken
lightly, not to be thrown away. And if you're going to show it, I'm not--it
sounds like I'm being hypocritical, but I totally am not. I mean, I think
that to be casual about it in a movie is really a heinous, you know, offense
against the preciousness of a human life. And so if you're going to kill
somebody in your movie, it should mean something, the person should mean
something and it should mean something to the audience. I shouldn't let them
off the hook easily.
GROSS: David Cronenberg directed and Viggo Mortensen stars in the new
thriller "Eastern Promises." They'll be back in the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with David Cronenberg,
director of the new film "Eastern Promises," and the film's star Viggo
Mortensen. They previously worked together on the film "A History of
Violence." In "Eastern Promises," Mortensen plays a Russian emigre in London
who did time in Russian prisons. He's now a driver for a Russian crime family
and does a lot of their dirty work.
Viggo Mortensen, you not only had to learn a Russian accent for the movie, you
have to speak with a really commanding presence and sometimes a very menacing
voice, which is totally unlike how you're speaking now. You sound very
soft-spoken, completely nonthreatening the way you're speaking now.
Mr. CRONENBERG: You should see him, though. He's scary.
Mr. CRONENBERG: If you're in a booth with him, he's really scary.
GROSS: Would you talk a little bit about what you did vocally, both in terms
of the accent but also in terms of the menace that your voice sometimes
Mr. MORTENSEN: Well, there's one thing that I've noticed, or that has been
brought to my attention, and it makes sense to me, you know. People have
said--I speak Spanish because I was raised in a, you know, until I was 11,
mostly in a Spanish-speaking country, in Argentina, so I speak Spanish like I
do English. And also because of my family and living there I speak Danish,
but when I speak Spanish, for example, people have said to me, `You sound
different. You seem--not just the words, but the tone and your body language
Mr. MORTENSEN: And it's something that--the language informs you, the sounds
you make and the ideas behind them, the sort of concepts that are particular
to a culture and a language change the way you present yourself, even without
you realizing it. And with Russian, there are sounds in that language that
helped me, that did a lot of the work for me.
GROSS: What were some of the sounds within the Russian-accented English you
had to speak that helped you get the power that you needed for the role?
Mr. MORTENSEN: Well, I wasn't conscious of them, and they come under that
thing of well, I don't want to analyze it. I don't want to kill something.
GROSS: Sure, yeah. OK. Go ahead.
Mr. MORTENSEN: I just felt different. It was like you talked about earlier,
you know, when the actor first tries on his wardrobe or his costume and starts
to get used to it and, you know. Like I like to, you know, can I borrow the
watch and can I borrow those shows and break them in and make them my own so I
feel comfortable? It helps you. It does a lot of the work for you. And the
language in this case really helped. And there are, you know, I had the
advantage from speaking some Latin language that certain R sounds or hard J
sounds, I could get to them easier. But there are some vowel sounds or
combination of sounds that are particular to Russian and also Ukrainian, which
I speak a little bit of in the movie, although you wouldn't know that there's
a transition into Ukrainian briefly that a Russian would know or Ukrainian,
But those sounds were a little harder to get, you know, the ones that are very
specific. But we eventually got there.
It was the effort of getting there that also--I just found myself moving
differently and seeming differently when I was concentrating on getting those
sounds right. I can't explain it exactly, and I don't know that I'd want to
know, break it down completely. I mean, I just know that it made things
different, and it was as important to me as the clothing, as the car that I
had to drive in my occupation as chauffeur for these underworld types.
GROSS: David Cronenberg, Viggo Mortensen was best know for his roles in "The
Lord of the Rings," and is still probably best-known for that. But you saw, I
think, a different quality in him, and I'm wondering, why did you want to
start working with him? I think what we see of him in "A History of Violence"
and in your new film "Eastern Promises" is just kind of different than what
we're used to seeing...
Mr. CRONENBERG: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: ...what did you see in him and how did you notice it? How did you
know you wanted to work with him.
Mr. CRONENBERG: Two things. He was cheap and he was available. That's
pretty much it. I mean, that's what I look for in many actors.
Mr. MORTENSEN: And obedience.
Mr. CRONENBERG: Cheap, available and obedient. Three things. Well, I think
my interest in Viggo didn't have anything to do with "Lord of the Rings"
because, frankly, I didn't think that that was his most interesting
performance, just because of the nature of those movies. Talk about mythic,
you know, and feeling that you had to be mythic; I think that was all there in
that movie, not what I would have looked for in an actor, really. To me, that
movie is not a movie that you would go to or those series of movies to check
out an actor's performance.
But I've seen him in a lot of things. Everything from "GI Jane" to "Carlito's
Way," to, you know, a lot of stuff, and I just thought he was really quite
interesting visually and in presence and obviously had a good ear for
languages, a musical ear. It didn't surprise me to finally realize that he
spoke fluent Spanish and Danish and pretty good French and some Italian, some
German, maybe. Also, for both movies--more for this one, but even for
"History of Violence"--accent, language, was a key thing...
Mr. CRONENBERG: In a weird way "Eastern Promises" is about language. And to
a lesser extent, but still important, "History of Violence was, too. Now,
Viggo's really doing two accents in "History of Violence" because the sort of
Indiana accent is not his natural accent, and it's very subtle. And then
there's the Philly accent that comes later that is, you know, also extremely
subtle but really important.
And then once we'd worked together, I realized that he wasn't just good, he
was great, I have to say. And so then, of course, he was a marked man for me.
Because now I want him to be in every movie that I do. When I was reading
"Eastern Promises" and reading the role of Nikolai, it reminded me that Viggo
had always seemed to me to have a Slavic element to his looks, to his face, to
his cheekbones, and I don't know whether that's Danish and some great
grandmother was messing around with Russians, or I don't know. You never
know. And I had thought that when we were shooting "History," because a
director has a relationship with an actor that's really quite bizarre and not
much known which continues beyond the actor's actual physical presence. You
know, I'm in the editing room and I'm obsessively looking at my actors'
GROSS: Oh, sure, yeah.
Mr. CRONENBERG: Looking for the best take, the most subtle intonations of
their voice, and sometimes I'm even taking sounds from one take and putting
them in the mouth of another take. So you become incredible sensitized to an
actor's face and physical presence and voice, and so all of that that I'd gone
through with Viggo in "History of Violence" really made me feel that he was
absolutely the perfect guy for Nikolai.
GROSS: I want to ask you, Viggo Mortensen, since so many people know you for
"The Lord of the Rings" movies, I'd be really interested in hearing how you
got the part of Aragorn in the first place. What did you have to do in the
Mr. MORTENSEN: I didn't have to do anything. I had to say yes, which I was
reluctant to do, to be honest with you. I'd just gotten back from a long trip
with my son, who was 11 at the time, and I got a phone call from my agent
saying that somebody wanted me to go to New Zealand. `Do you know Peter
Jackson?' I'd seen some of his work, and, yeah, I know him. `Well, he's
making "The Lord of the Rings." And I said, `"The Lord of the Rings"?' I knew
Tolkien. I hadn't read the "Lord of the Rings." I'd read about a third of
"The Hobbit." And I said, `Well, when is that?' And they said, `Well, you'd
have to leave tomorrow and you know, but you'd be done by Christmas,' and I
go, `Oh, well that's just a few months.' They go, `No, no, no, Christmas of
next year.' And I said, oh well, no, I can't. I mean, I haven't read the
books and'... And I was meant to go--they'd already started shooting and
they'd already rehearsed for months and they wanted me to replace someone,
which was also a strange position to be in. So I kind of said no, really.
And my son was there when I was having this conversation. And I hung up, and
he knew "The Lord of the Rings," and his friends had talked about that book or
that series of books. And he says, `Well, you're talking about "The Lord of
the Rings"?' and I said, `Yeah.' And he says, `They want you to be in that?' I
said, `Yeah, but I'm not going to do that.' And he said, `Well, what
character?' and I told him, and he said, `Well, you have to do that. That's a
great thing to do. That'd be really cool, Dad. You should do that.' So I
But the main reason I'm glad I did it, apart from the friendships and getting
to know New Zealand, a country I like, and people that I like a lot, was
because I'm sitting here now talking to you with David. And to be honest with
you, as much as David might have thought my type of actor or my work was
reason to consider me for the character in "History of Violence," there's no
way that any studio would have let me play that part in "History of Violence"
or "Eastern Promises" or any of the other things I've done since "Lord of the
Rings," frankly. "Alatriste," the movie I did in Spain, I wouldn't have
gotten those roles if I hadn't achieved, along with everybody else from "Lord
of the Rings," a certain level of notoriety by virtue of the success in the
box office of that trilogy.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you both so much for talking with us.
Mr. CRONENBERG: Well, thank you. This has been a lot of fun.
Mr. MORTENSEN: Thanks, Terry. It's been a really nice conversation.
GROSS: David Cronenberg directed the new film "Eastern Promises." It stars
Here's music from the soundtrack, composed by Howard Shore.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, a 1988 re-issue leads music critic Milo Miles to consider
how the music of Sonic Youth holds up. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Milo Miles on a re-issue of Sonic Youth's 1988 "Daydream
TERRY GROSS, host:
Sonic Youth's "Daydream Nation" was released in 1988, and the group was signed
to Geffen Records largely because of acclaim for the album from fans and the
press. Sonic Youth continues to play as revered art punk elders. This
summer, "Daydream Nation" was re-issued in a deluxe edition double CD. Critic
Milo Miles considers how well Sonic Youth's work has held up, as well as the
sensibility of indie rock and double LPs.
(Soundbite of "Silver Rocket"
Mr. THURSTON MOORE: (Singing) Snake in it
Jack into the wall
TV amp on fire
Blowin' in the hall
Gun your sled
Close your peeping toms
Crankin' on the knob
You got it
Yeah, ride the silver rocket
Can't stop it
Burning a hole in your pocket
(End of soundbite)
MILO MILES reporting:
Back in 1988, I wrote a review that compared "Daydream Nation" with another
double LP, U2's "Rattle & Hum." But it wasn't an article mechanically dictated
by format and release date. The two albums offer contrasting views of rock
'n' roll and its audience. U2 tied to the past, Sonic Youth pointing toward
the future. U2 is a band whose grand gestures and air of crusading quests
make it ideal for billboards and stadiums. Bono is in his element communing
with tens of thousands. The group lays claim to populist blues and folk rock.
Sonic Youth is a band of interiors and side streets. They may proclaim about
big issues, but it feels like they're doing it while you watch TV with them in
the basement. Guitarist, songwriter and singer Thurston Moore, in particular,
proclaims his heart belongs to avant garde classical noise and free jazz
squawk. Not exactly mass audience modes. It feels like Sonic Youth evolved
into melodies, hooks and catchy choruses more to prove they were not afraid of
them than to sell records. But evolve into them, they did.
(Soundbite of "Total Trash")
Mr. MOORE: (Singing) It start at the top
Now it's spiralling down
Works best when it's lost
Digging under the ground
(End of soundbite)
MILES: A final difference between U2 and Sonic Youth is that U2 keeps faith
in the old-fashioned rock 'n' roll notion of delivering a message, the
liberation of pop lyric wisdom. And Byron Coley points out in his liner notes
to "Daydream Nation" `the lyrics of Sonic Youth songs are, if not irrelevant,
the last thing the band works on.' Bassist, singer and songwriter Kim Gordon
occasionally delivers a complete narrative, like "Kissability," but the
standard method is for a clutch of phrases to stab into your head, and more
than ever before, for Sonic Youth, on "Daydream Nation," the stabs are more
pleasure than puzzle. I don't know what "Teenage Riot" is about exactly, but
I sure get the point.
(Soundbite of "Teenage Riot")
Mr. MOORE: (Singing) Everybody's talking 'bout the stormy weather
And what's a man to do but work out whether it's true?
Looking for a man with a focus and a temper
Who can open up a map and see between one and two
Time to get it before you let it get to you
(End of soundbite)
MILES: It's often mentioned that Sonic Youth pressed the Geffen label to sign
Nirvana, as though the bands couldn't be more different. I'm sure however
that the older band recognized that Kurt Cobain had a genius for hammering
home catch phrases that stuck with the listener, even if the other words were
unhearable. It's just that his obsessions--anger, anguish and
alienation--were more straightforwardly commercial than Sonic Youth's urban
The biggest such collage here is the so-called "Trilogy Set": "The Wonder,"
"Hyperstation," and "Eliminator Jr.," which amount to an ode to New York in
the 1980s. The city is a wonder town, the capitol of Daydream Nation. As the
songs fold in on themselves and restart, guitarist and singer Lee Ranaldo and
drummer Steve Shelley take particular delight in running the Gotham voodoo
(Soundbite of "The Wonder")
Mr. MOORE: (Singing) See flashing eyes
They're flashing cross to me
Burnin' up the sky
Sunshinin' to me
Your locus crown
Head's looking down
Bowing out to the street
I'm just walking around
Your city is a wonder town
Lips red to white
(End of soundbite)
MILES: A consumer note on the extra disc worth of live versions of "Daydream
Nation" songs and cover tunes. They're fun for fans, interesting and
sometimes exciting entertainment, but they're not revelatory. The original
recordings tell you everything fundamental about the songs. At best, the new
material should jolly you into getting the CD of "Daydream Nation," or maybe
your second CD packet. It's worth it because rock today lives in the intimate
indie spaces that fill "Daydream Nation."
GROSS: Music critic Milo Miles lives in Boston.
Coming up, our linguist Geoff Nunberg considers why the words "civility" and
"incivility" have become so popular, and what that says about us. This is
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Profile: Linguist Geoff Nunberg on the popular usage of the words
"civility" and "incivility"
TERRY GROSS, host:
Time was that people would talk about a decline in manners or politeness. Now
they're more likely to express their concerns by talking about a civility
crisis. But does the new language signal a different social climate or just a
new way of complaining about it? Our linguist Geoff Nunberg has had his ear
to the ground on this one.
GEOFF NUNBERG reporting:
Sometimes a change in the language reflects a change in the world, sometimes
just a change in the way we talk about it. And sometimes it isn't easy to
tell. Take "civility." It began its life as a word for citizenship and a
close kin of civilization. But by the early 20th century, it had dwindled to
a genteel term for a nominal courtesy or for perfunctory expressions of
politeness, a word that transit companies posted on bus placards in those
recurring campaigns aimed at getting riders and employees to be nicer to one
another. Back then, people didn't actually talk about civility very much.
They were much more likely to complain about bad manners, rudeness or
As late as the 1950s, the words "civility" and "incivility" were appearing in
The New York Times only about five or six times a year. The words didn't talk
off until the 1960s. In 1969 alone, they appeared in the Times more often
than they had over the entire eight-year Eisenhower presidency. And by now,
they're 30 times more common in the media than they used to be.
A lot of people would explain that sudden rise in civility talk as a direct
response to a breakdown in public manners. In a public agenda poll a couple
of years ago, three-quarters of the respondents said that Americans used to
treat each other with more respect and courtesy in the past. But then, every
generation since Victorian times has had exactly the same impression.
Etiquette writers in the 1920s railed about people who monopolized party
lines, rude streetcar conductors, women who pushed you out of their way in
department stores, hosts who invited you to dinner and then made you listen to
their favorite radio programs, and, of course, the discourteous motorists who
were classified as "roadster rowdies," "coupe cads" and "van vandals." Manners
are like the English language. It always seems as if things were going just
fine until this new generation came along.
But that changed in the '60s. To some people, the provocation of the social
movements of the period seemed to go beyond mere breeches of decorum and
beyond anything that could be conveyed by old words like "impolite," "rude"
and "discourteous." So they reached back to reclaim the older meanings of
civility and incivility, which invested personal deportment with a sense of
civic and political consequence. In an editorial that appeared just before
the 1968 elections, The Wall Street Journal inveighed against what it called
"the new incivility." As the Journal described them, the culprits included the
student protesters, the filthy hecklers who dog the steps of presidential
candidate Hubert Humphrey and the enraged Negro spokesman who denied any
virtue in white civilization. And the offense wasn't just in what all the
hippies and protesters were saying, but in their disagreeable physical
appearance. Their slovenly hair, beards and clothing, and their general
squalor, the Journal said, showed their contempt for the world of decent
As philosophers and sociologists use the word, civility is something distinct
from simple politeness. It's more like the attitudes and behavior that make
our public discourse possible. But in the mouth of most modern critics, the
power of civility and incivility lies precisely in blurring the lines between
personal and private life. Incivility seems to draw everything that's coarse,
irritating or merely thoughtless in American daily life into a single deep
rent in the nation's moral fabric. It's hard to think of any other social
vice that covers as much ground as incivility does. Cell phone abuse, brusque
store clerks, airlines that keep people sitting on the tarmac, telemarketers,
reality TV, spam, road rage, shock jocks and nightclub hecklers, not to
mention congressional partisanship, attack ads, hostile bloggers and
belligerent talk show hosts. A recent book on incivility in the workplace
uses the word for everything from overuse of the fax machine to the excessive
use of e-mail acronyms.
There's clearly a lot to get worked up about out there, and incivility bundles
it all up in a cognitively efficient package. The word by itself does a lot
of the work of connecting the contentious tenor of political life to a general
decline in personal values. Armed with the notion of incivility, critics can
decry the routine crudeness of broadcast expletives, hip-hop lyrics and
gross-out movies like "American Pie" as the harbingers of imminent social and
political disintegration. And on the other side, the word provides a pretext
for writing off serious political speech in the same way we dismiss rudeness
and intemperateness in everyday life. Speaking disrespectfully of the
president, say, becomes morally indistinguishable from saying nasty things
about a co-worker in the hall
In the course of things, the charge of incivility can close off serious
discussion every bit as effectively as more traditional forms of rudeness can.
What makes civility and incivility so elastic is that the words live out their
entire existence on op-ed pages with no grounding int he homey truths of
everyday life. Parents don't teach their children about civility. They teach
them about things like manners, respect and politeness. Those are the real
family values. A lot of the things that people describe as incivility would
count as simple bad manners, but a number of them wouldn't, and you have to
wonder whether the new cover term is a way of obscuring differences that we
ought to be paying attention to.
GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the School of Information
at the University of California at Berkeley. He's the author of the book
If you'd like to catch up on interviews you've missed, you can download
podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
We'll close with music by Willie Tee, the New Orleans pianist, singer,
songwriter and producer. He died Tuesday of complications of colon cancer.
He wrote and arranged the music on the 1973 album "The Wild Magnolias," which
combined Mardi Gras music and funk. Here's a track from the follow-up 1974
album "They Call Us Wild," which he also produced.
(Soundbite of music)