By April MacIntyre
David Cronenberg’s most recent film, Eastern Promises, showcases London’s Russian vory v zakone, or “thieves in law” — a shady underworld of criminals who are bound by an 18-point code of conduct and etch their histories and accomplishments in their flesh with elaborate tattoos that cover their entire bodies.
Creating those tattoos for the film’s stars — especially for actor Viggo Mortensen, whose character, Nikolai, has to engage in a violent bathhouse brawl while completely nude — was a challenge for Oscar-winning makeup artist Stephan Dupuis.
Giving Dupuis a leg up on the research was Mortensen, who traveled to Russia prior to principal photography to perfect his accent, polish his Ukrainian and gather materials on appropriate tattoos for his character.
“Viggo went and did his research in Russia for a while, he met with former gangsters in Los Angeles and we watched the Russian prison documentary The Mark of Cain — a very graphic film — and he also had two books full of Russian prison tattoos. These books were quite something to look at, too,” says Dupuis. “Viggo picked the most significant designs he wanted his character to have.”
“I had a selection that was appropriate for the character, and Stephan and I worked on the placements, and then he had stencils made for the film,” says Mortensen. “Then, after screen tests, we fine-tuned the tattoos, figured out the ones that we liked. They are really old-school, hardcore Russian prison tattoos that represented Nikolai’s life story. They are Nikolai’s calling card.”
In Russian prisons, tattoos emerged as a visual mode of communication linked with social division. The images of churches, cats, Christs, Madonnas, dolphins and bears, to name just a few, became part of a secret, political language that allowed for clandestine communication both in and out of the system.
Dupuis explained further: “The trio of cupolas on his back signifies three prison terms for Nikolai; the crucifix on his chest marks his rank in the thief hierarchy. The Russian cathedral tattoos on Viggo’s back were the most difficult ones for me, the spires and curves combined with dealing with the structure of his back. That particular set of tattoos took a long time.”
Dupuis turned to Bill Stoneman, an English stencil maker, to take the tattoo designs he and Mortensen had chosen and manufacture the stencils used for the labor-intensive applications. Dupuis used two assistants to apply the stencils and help with the freehand work daily.
“The tattoo ink was alcohol-based, it didn’t come off easily, and many times Viggo would just go home with them on,” says Dupuis. “After the shower scene, with all the blood stuff and water, everything had to be redone, and then there was a lot of work after that on covering the bruises all over Viggo.”
“That was nerve wracking; we were cutting it close to the wire on some shoot days, because Stoneman was hard to reach, the stencils would arrive sometimes at the last possible minute,” said Dupuis.
Mortensen had to be shaved during the days his tattoo applications were applied to his chest, but says it wasn’t a big deal for him. “When I was in Russia, I noticed a lot of the guys I saw sort of looked like me, the Caucasian Russian, many if not most don’t have any body hair.”
The same was not true for actor Vincent Cassel, whose tattoos were applied through his chest hair.
“Making the tattoo appear on his hairy chest was not easy,” says Dupuis. The work on Cassel was harder at times because his shirt was often unbuttoned and the tattoos had to be right despite the hair issue. “I finally had it down to doing his tattoo in eight to 10 minutes each time.”
The scene where Nikolai is being “made” and in the process gets his tattoos on his chest and knees was a classic Cronenberg scene, according to Dupuis, who first worked with the director on 1978’s Scanners. “That machine for the tattooing was typical David,” says Dupuis with a laugh. “It was some sort of homemade concoction that would ring a bell, a mechanism inside the box that moved the needle up and down. I believe this weird mechanism he devised was made to look just like a Russian prison crude tattoo machine. Of course, we had to shoot those close-up shots of his knee in progressions. I had to recreate the redness and irritation that you would have seen from a real tattoo application, a bit of blood.”
Mortensen became acutely aware of the effect his tattoos had while on location, saying he “had scared the shit unwittingly” out of some Russian immigrants in London restaurants. “I had to remove the visible ones when I went out anywhere, they really did scare some people.”
This being the second film he’s worked on with Cronenberg — the first being 2005’s A History of Violence — Mortensen had nothing but praise for the Canadian director. “David had a lot to do with the final script for Eastern Promises,” he says. “His films are layered, nuanced and you see something new each time you watch; he’s a genius. David’s work is on another level, intellectually, artistically, than most of these guys out there. He doesn’t reference other people’s work; his films get better and better. He just treats people right on set.”
Mortensen says he hopes Cronenberg and the other key crewmembers on the film will get the recognition they deserve in this year’s award season.
“The work that [production designer] Carol Spier did in building Semyon’s club, and the steambaths, the score Howard Shore did for the film, the costuming, and the cinematography by Peter Suschitzky, who I also worked with in A History of Violence, were all just amazing. They were incredibly dedicated.
“I don’t want to be part of the award mechanism. I like to just work and focus on that. But during the filming of Eastern Promises I was nominated for the equivalent of the Oscar in Spain for Alatriste, and that was a real honor for me… I always think of a quote about medals from Winston Churchill: ‘Never seek them, always accept them, and never wear them.’”
Written by April MacIntyre