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Knives and Dicks: The Making of the ‘Eastern Promises’ Naked Fight Scene

We spoke to crewmembers on the Viggo Mortensen crime thriller to hear about the actor’s dedication, his bruises and his willingness to go balls out

As Hollywood becomes increasingly obsessed with gargantuan action sequences that level fictional downtowns and involve dozens of characters, hundreds of effects wizards and endless amounts of explosions, there’s something deeply satisfying about a good-old-fashioned bare-knuckle brawl. The sight of a mano-a-mano fistfight taps into something visceral — we respond to the brutality and immediacy of a punch or the sting of a fresh bruise much more potently than any amount of digital illusions.

Maybe that’s why no action sequence this century has been more primal or anxiety-inducing than the three minutes devoted to a bloody confrontation between an undercover agent and two burly Chechen goons in David Cronenberg’s terrific 2007 thriller Eastern Promises. We’ve seen hand-to-hand combat involving knives, punches, stabbings and kicks — but we’ve never seen one staged quite like this:

Eleven years later, first assistant director Walter Gasparovic still considers it one of his favorite scenes he’s ever worked on. “I think it was a week before shooting [that sequence], and I was like, ‘Okay, how do we deal with the towel?’” he recalls about planning out the scene’s logistics. “Both Viggo and David went, ‘He can’t wear a towel.’” Gasparovic laughs at the memory. “I’m like, ‘So, you’re going balls out here?’”

Yes, they were — literally and metaphorically. Viggo is Viggo Mortensen, who plays Nikolai, a driver and enforcer for a fearsome Russian mobster in London. But in fact, Nikolai is an operative working with Scotland Yard to infiltrate this crime family, befriending its immature, monstrous scion Kirill (Vincent Cassel) in order to bring down the organization from within. Eastern Promises’ iconic scene involves Nikolai battling for survival after he’s mistaken for Kirill — these hoods think they have the drop on this helpless, naked man, but they don’t know who they’re messing with.

Steven Knight’s original screenplay described a fight in a bathhouse without getting into specifics. As Cronenberg told Film Comment at the time, “The script said, ‘Two men come in with knives and there’s a fight.’ … If I had had an actor who wouldn’t play it naked, I would have had to shoot it with a towel around him, which would have been pretty silly.”

But Cronenberg had Mortensen, who had previously worked with him on 2005’s A History of Violence and was up for anything. Speaking with The Telegraph, Mortensen, who received a Best Actor Oscar nomination for Eastern Promises, said of the sequence, “It was slippery, painful, embarrassing. You see what you see. I always knew the scene should be as realistic as the rest of the movie, so I couldn’t feasibly keep the towel on. Plus, we shouldn’t be trying to hide things or pretty it up in any way. I knew at times it would be awkward and vulnerable. It would also be painful because I couldn’t wear any pads to protect me. All I was wearing was a bunch of tattoos.”

The scene was shot over two days on a set with extra padding installed in certain locations where Mortensen and the two thugs, played by David Papava and Tamer Hassan, would fall. And not unlike when filming a sex scene, where fewer crewmembers are utilized so as to respect the privacy of the naked actors, Cronenberg used a minuscule crew for the sequence. “There wasn’t that much room within the set,” recalls script supervisor Susanna Lenton. “But you had to be very sensitive to the few people who were there and be as discreet as you could be in a situation like that.” In fact, the scene’s two main extras — just a couple of random guys who discover they’re having a steam at the worst possible moment — were Peter Mountain and Andrew Jack, respectively the film’s stills photographer and dialogue coach.

Going into production, Gasparovic knew the bathhouse fight would be one of Eastern Promises’ central set pieces, requiring a lot of discussion and preparation. “The sequence developed over a matter of weeks,” he tells me. “It was one of those things while you’re shooting [other scenes], you go, ‘Okay, this is going to be coming up. Let’s give it the attention it’s going to need.’”

Over a series of days, Mortensen rehearsed the choreography with, among others, stunt coordinator Julian Spencer. “I knew that it was going to end up being a bloody mess,” Spencer said at the time of the scene’s violence. “In scenes like this, I worry about over-choreographing, because then it starts to look staged.”

Like Spencer, Gasparovic (who was also part of the rehearsal process) worried about adding too much finesse to what was meant to be a brutal, inelegant fight. “There was no kind of phony fighting,” says Gasparovic. “It was a guy fighting for his life with nothing to protect him other than his survival instinct.” The trick to the choreography was striking a balance between preplanned actions and the unpredictability of the actors’ violent energy on set, honing the fight down to its sparest elements. As Cronenberg told Gasparovic, “These [Chechens] are killers, and their job is to come in and do the job and end this, so it should be fast.”

It was Lenton’s job to make sure it all flowed together seamlessly. “My first meeting was going over with the makeup designer the stages of wounds and blood [throughout the scene],” she says. Because Nikolai is slashed several times in the sequence, Lenton and others had to make sure that his injuries matched from shot to shot. “When we [filmed] the scene, we stopped and started, adding more blood or taking blood away when we needed to.” The sequence was shot mostly in order, and Cronenberg had a sharp sense of each piece of the fight, knowing exactly when he’d want to end one shot and start the next. As Lenton explains, “We worked out where the film cuts were going to be so that we knew when we could stop the cameras and stop the action.”

Cronenberg’s precise preparations extended to the exact type of knives the Chechens would use to dispense with Nikolai. “David thought, because these guys work in the Russian underground, they need some sort of cover,” Gasparovic says. “It became part of their backstory: ‘They probably have a carpet and linoleum company, and these are their tools.’ So, it was a carpet cutter.” Gasparovic chuckles. “I remember our props man bringing various box cutters — tools that a painter or a carpenter would use — and that knife with the hook on it just looked so nasty. The more David played with it, he thought, ‘Yeah, this is a really good tool — this could do some real damage.’”

One of the scene’s elements that couldn’t be completely accounted for beforehand, however, was… well, Mortensen’s Viggo. Cronenberg and his star knew that Nikolai would lose his towel quickly, but according to Lenton and Gasparovic, there wasn’t much concern about whether or not Mortensen’s junk would be in the frame. “With a lot of films,” Lenton says, “[the producers] will say, ‘Okay, we’re working within these parameters’” — either because of fear of getting a restrictive rating or because a particular actor doesn’t want to be naked — “‘so we don’t want to see this organ or part of the body. Susanna, will you keep an eye on it when we’re shooting?’ And then I will make sure that it runs exactly to the dictates of the actor, producers or director. I like to be very careful and sensitive — it’s my job.”

All of those normal concerns, however, were thrown out the window for Eastern Promises. “I mean, that would’ve been far too restrictive for the way we were shooting it and what the scene was,” Lenton says. “Viggo just went ahead and did it — there was nothing about me saying, ‘Oh, I think that’s a bit too much there. Do you think we should reshoot this or just do it slightly differently?’ Nothing like that.”

For viewers, the shock of Mortensen’s nudity quickly gives way to the terrifying realization of just how vulnerable Nikolai is in this harrowing fight scene. The sequence plays directly into men’s fear of castration: The presence of sharp knives so close to exposed genitalia makes this one of the most uncomfortable actions ever recorded on film scenes for guys.

Which is funny because the actual filming was pleasant and lighthearted. “David and Viggo would joke, and we honestly laughed a lot on those days,” says Gasparovic. Not that Gasparovic ever entirely forgot about the fact that Mortensen was repeatedly putting his dick into harm’s way: “I mean, it was an intense scene for the guys on set. Viggo was nude [the whole time], so we worked fast and efficient. In between takes — where normally there’d be people who would rush in with robes — Viggo was like, ‘No, I want no one here. Walter, just throw me the towel.’ As soon as David would say ‘cut,’ I’d toss the towel at him. He’d sit there covered in blood in a towel.”

During rehearsals, the choreography was worked out in slow motion, but obviously filming required the three actors to speed up their actions. The intimacy of Nikolai’s nudity was complemented by the close-quarters fighting — and his vicious killing of the two goons with their own knives. The scene is punctuated by Nikolai’s brutal stabbing of the second Chechen right in the eye, his hellacious ordeal finally over. (Lenton reveals that a dummy knife was utilized for the close-up shot, although the real coup de grâce are the stomach-turning sound effects added in post-production. “Those were amazing,” she says. “When I watched [the scene] back for the first time, it made me cringe much more than it did when we were shooting it.”)

Despite the hidden padding and relatively few takes, the sequence nonetheless took a physical toll on Mortensen. “Those guys were really throwing him around that room,” says Gasparovic, “and it was hard tiles. I think at the end of the [first] day I walked him to his car, and he goes, ‘I really feel sore.’ I asked, ‘Are you going to be okay for tomorrow?’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll be there,’ but I could see just by the way he was wincing as he got into his car…”

Per his promise, Mortensen soldiered on, finishing the scene the following day. All the while, he stayed in character — and naked. “There were a few close-ups where he could’ve worn some underwear or something, but he never did,” Gasparovic says. “I was like, ‘Viggo, you can wear your shorts if you want.’ He never did. He just went, ‘No, this is me for two days. You’ve got me like this.’”

Serving as Eastern Promises’ cathartic final action sequence, the bathhouse scene was often mentioned in the film’s glowing reviews, with Empire’s Dorian Lynskey going so far as to suggest that the scene “deserves to earn Mortensen some kind of award for nude acting above and beyond the call of duty.” The Independent’s Anthony Quinn noted, “Nikolai has to fight for his life against [the thugs’] whippy blades while Cronenberg has to ensure that Mortensen’s cojones don’t literally dominate the view.”

The sequence’s go-for-broke vitality, paired with Mortensen’s nudity, guaranteed that Eastern Promises would earn a spot amongst the most memorable fight scenes in movie history. But for those who worked on the movie, audiences’ shock at Viggo’s nakedness mostly amuses them. When the film came out, Cronenberg was dismissive of a Film Comment question about the possibility of seeing Mortensen’s balls. “They’re definitely there, as you would imagine,” the director said, “but it’s only if you’re looking for them that that’s what you see. … [W]hen people decide to run the DVD frame by frame, they are going to see everything at one point or another. Of course, a lot of the time it’s going to be slightly blurred because he’s in motion.”

That chaotic motion is key to the brilliance of the sequence. Before you can fully comprehend what’s happening, Nikolai is naked and in peril, and nothing that happens in the next few heart-stopping minutes is any less messy or riveting. “The whole nudity thing, it was a bigger issue when the film came out than it was when we were shooting it,” Lenton tells me. “Although you do think, ‘Fuck, this is really borderline kind of graphic.’ But it was true to the nature of the scene. Me, personally, I didn’t even question it that much. It did, though, make it a tough and hard scene to watch.”