Man Meets Animal In The New Film Splice

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Human-animal hybrids have been a part of mythology for millennia. But what if it were actually possible to create half-human creatures in the lab? Vincenzo Natali, director and screenwriter of the science fiction film Splice, talks about the ethics of splicing human and animal DNA.

IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

Human-animal hybrids may seem like the stuff of legend or mythology, think mermaid and centaurs, but researchers have already created pigs with human blood flowing through their bodies, and they've had sheep with partly human livers. They've injected human brain cells into mice.

But what's next? This is the 21st century. We don't splice body parts anymore. We splice genes. How about splicing together a genome of human DNA and animal DNA to make a whole new creature?

That's the subject of the new movie "Splice," which opens today. Sounds sort of like a science fiction sort of thing, but you know, it's more than fiction because states all over the country are already starting to ban similar experiments, and the movie talks about a lot of those issues about why certain experiments like those might be banned.

Our number is 1-800-989-8255. You can tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. Let me bring on our first guest. Vincenzo Natali is the director and co-writer of the new movie "Splice." He joins us by phone from Los Angeles. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Mr. VINCENZO NATALI (Director, Co-writer, "Splice"): Oh, thank you.

FLATOW: Where did you get this idea from?

Mr. NATALI: It was inspired very strangely by a mouse, but it was a very special mouse because this mouse appeared to have a human ear growing out of its back.

FLATOW: I remember that mouse.

Mr. NATALI: Yeah, it was an MIT experiment. It's called the Vacanti mouse, and actually, it was not a genetic experiment. It just looked like one. But what they had done was surgically implanted a plastic armature underneath the mouse's skin and then grown cartilage cells from a cow over the armature. It was an extraordinary experiment but a very shocking image, and that's really what inspired me to start working on "Splice."

FLATOW: But that was a long time ago, wasn't it, that mouse?

Mr. NATALI: That was 15 years ago. It took a long time to make (technical difficulties).

FLATOW: And you've been working really, you've been working on that idea for the last 10 years or so, 15 years?

Mr. NATALI: On and off, yes.

FLATOW: In the meantime, the science and technology has changed, hasn't it?

Mr. NATALI: Essentially, yeah. It's shocking. It's wild and very exciting.

FLATOW: So that now instead of just taking a mouse ear and splicing it onto a a human ear and splicing it onto a mouse, you're now talking about splicing genes.

Mr. NATALI: Absolutely. Well, you know, Craig Venter, who is a very eminent geneticist, announced a week ago that he had created the first synthetic life form, and he had literally programmed the DNA with a computer. It's really that's a huge, that's a quantum leap forward.

FLATOW: So what do the characters do in this movie to make their own quantum leap forward?

Mr. NATALI: Strangely, in my film, they do something that's very similar to what Craig Venter did. They literally are programming the proteins in a computer, and then the computer is taking the four basic chemicals that make up a DNA strand and combining them in a sequence.

And then they inject it into a host cell, or actually a host egg cell, and then they put it in an artificial womb, and they let it gestate. And then the fun begins.

FLATOW: The fun begins. And they created a creature that is part-human, part-animal.

Mr. NATALI: That's right.

FLATOW: And did the theme of "Frankenstein" pop into your head anywhere along the line here?

Mr. NATALI: Actually, the main characters, played by Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley, are named Clive and Elsa, after Colin Clive and Elsa Lanchester, the original actors from the James Whale "Frankenstein" films. So it was very much in my mind.

But I was also keen to take that paradigm and kind of push it into a 21st-century context.

FLATOW: Yeah, you certainly have done that. And but you hit a lot of interesting notes along the way, especially the tug between research and ethics and the ethics of doing research.

Mr. NATALI: You know, it just comes with the territory. I don't think there's any avoiding it. I mean, in no way do I want my movie to be an indictment of this kind of work. I think that it's for the most part, it's really important work, and there's really great benefits to be had for mankind.

But at the same time, one has to approach these things rather cautiously, and our scientists in "Splice," who are very young and very ambitious, very clever, decide to do this in the worst possible way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NATALI: They do it in a clandestine way, and things get a little bit out of hand.

FLATOW: We're going to play a little clip because it illustrates that they both were not there was a tension between the two of them. One wanted to do this, and one said no, this is unethical, and we should stop our research and not continue to bring it to fruition. And let's play a little bit of that clip from the film.

(Soundbite of film, "Splice")

Mr. ADRIEN BRODY (Actor): (As Clive Nicoli) (Unintelligible) criminal.

Ms. SARAH POLLEY (Actor): (As Elsa Kast) Scientists push boundaries. This is important (unintelligible).

Mr. BRODY: (As Clive) Yeah,. And sticking to a few rules isn't always such a bad idea, either, you know.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. POLLEY: (As Elsa) Nobody is going to care about a few rules after they see what we just made.

Mr. BRODY: (As Clive) See what we've made? Is that what you just said?

Ms. POLLEY: (As Elsa) Yeah.

Mr. BRODY: (As Clive) Nobody can see what we made.

FLATOW: And we certainly get to see what they made.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: But they do and he talks all through the film about he's so worried about pushing the envelope too far.

Mr. NATALI: Yeah, I mean, it's really I think - hopefully, what distinguishes "Splice" is that it's a creature film, but it's spliced with a relationship story. And it's really about the relationship that this - these two scientists have with each other. It's a professional and a personal relationship, and when they make this creature that they ultimately call Dren, it becomes kind of a familial relationship. It's sort of a family film.

FLATOW: Yeah, it is a family film.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: And even the Freudian even in a Freudian way.

Mr. NATALI: Oh, yes. Yeah, it goes all the way. We do the full Oedipal.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: And it's actually opened to some pretty good reviews. People are enjoying it.

Mr. NATALI: I hope so. I mean, I hope some you know, listen. It's a very provocative film, and I fully expect that some people will hate it. And the only reaction I don't want is an indifferent one. If that's the reaction, then I have failed. And the film is very provocative. It goes to some pretty crazy places.

But I did try to approach it intelligently, and I think that, you know, it's always about character. It's always about who these people are and their relationship to one another, and the thing they make, which is in itself more than just a creature. It is a character in the story, and I think in some respects, it demonstrates more humanity than the scientists.

FLATOW: Yeah. In the film, the scientists work for a pharmaceutical company that's behind the scenes, telling them what kind of research they can and they can't do. And they actually ignore the advice of the pharmaceutical company, which doesn't want to go in this direction.

Mr. NATALI: Yeah, the pharmaceutical company is amoral. They don't really have a point of view except the bottom line, and doing this sort of controversial research doesn't really help their stock. So they say no.

And the geneticists are actually in my mind quite heroic, you know, because they put everything on the line. They risk everything to do this and with, you know, some good reasons. They fully intend to cure some important diseases.

What was really shocking and amazing about making the film was just before we started to shoot it in the U.K., they legalized the creation of animal-human hybrids specifically to cure some of the same diseases that my characters were hoping to cure. So it was throughout this process, it was just an interesting parallel to, you know, what was fact and what was fiction.

And at any rate, I think that that is good research, actually, and I support what Clive and Elsa are doing. It's just the way they do it. You know, they just behave irresponsibly. And as characters, while they're quite brilliant, and they fully understand the chemical building blocks of life, they don't have a full appreciation of what life is because they've lived a very sequestered, hermetic kind of existence in their lab. And in a sense, this is about them growing up.

FLATOW: Let me see if I can get a phone call or two in, from Beth(ph) in is it Mishkeyuna(ph)?

BETH (Caller): Yeah, you got it.

FLATOW: Hi there, go ahead.

BETH: Well, I was going to mention that now I know what film this is. I don't view this topic as heroic. I think the billions of dollars that are spent on it could be better spent on basic things that would prevent the diseases in the first place.

And another, since you mentioned he mentioned relationships. I also wonder, since police officers supposedly have one of the highest rates of domestic violence, I wonder what the relationships are of the researchers in real life. If he - I wonder if they're not cold and clinical in their real life because they do when they work on animals, they sever their vocal chords so they don't hear their screams.

FLATOW: Okay...

BETH: And I didn't call in to be a PETA person. I'm just saying...

FLATOW: Okay, I got your point. Let me get a reaction.

Mr. NATALI: Well, you know, first of all, I once again have to emphasize that my movie is truly fiction. In no way do I mean to portray this as being possible. I mean, I think there are things in it that things like this that can happen, that might happen, but the way the film plays out is purely it's a fable. It's a fairy tale. It shouldn't be taken too literally.

And my experience in working with real geneticists on the movie and researching the film was that these are amazing people because they I mean, it's a wide field. They do all kinds of things, but the specific guys I met with really are devoted to their work, I mean, and helping their fellow man. And they don't make much money doing it. It's it really is where we're headed.

I think that on some level, human beings have always changed their environment, and...

FLATOW: Well, do you think there's going to be this kind of splicing going on, humans and animals?

Mr. NATALI: Well, there already is in a manner of speaking, not exactly what we're portraying here. And I think, you know, we have it's a very, it's a hot-button topic, and, you know, temperatures get very high when you talk about this stuff. I dont want to be hyperbolic about it.

I mean, it's my movie is a horror film. So it, you know, it does portray it in the most outrageous light, but the reality of it I don't think is so scary. I just think it has to be approached in a careful way. And my greatest fear personally is that it's the commodification of new life forms and the commodification of existing life forms.

I mean, they've patented part of the human genome, and that to me, that raises certain ethical issues.

FLATOW: Right, and they talk about patenting these new life forms and just using them for the proteins they make and because they're a good factory.

Mr. NATALI: Exactly. I mean, it's you know, it is the next industrial revolution. There's probably no question about that, and a lot of good is going to come from it and potentially some things that aren't so good.

It just I really think it is inevitable. I don't think there's any avoiding. We're headed in that direction.

FLATOW: What's interesting is that you're part of popular culture that gets these things to be talked about. And I also find it interesting that we're seeing so many science themes not only in films but in TV shows and whatever, like, percolating up from the bottom. The scientists don't have to convince you anymore.

Mr. NATALI: I just think there's a real dialogue that's going on now between science fiction and science. I mean, a lot of the things that I considered to be pure fantasy when I was a kid have come to pass, and that's just the reality we're living in.

I mean, in a sense, we are living in the future now. So it's a very exciting time. I think there you know, it's just an uncertain time, and of course, with that comes, you know, anxiety.

FLATOW: Yes, and you'll be anxious. I enjoyed the film. It's "Splice." We have the director and co-writer, Vincenzo Natali. It's opening in theaters all over the country today?

Mr. NATALI: It is indeed.

FLATOW: Good luck to you.

Mr. NATALI: Infecting America.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: It is a different kind of horror movie. I think you'll enjoy it. We're going to have to take a break, and when we come back, we're going to change gears and talk about something totally different. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

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