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It's a 'horrible' career, but the alternative is worse

January, 2008. The barn roof, complete with weather vane, sits on a field of green. Only the roof isn't real. It's just a few feet off the ground, and only half the length it's supposed to be; the other half will be added later, digitally. The green isn't grass, either - it's a chroma key green square painted on the ground. (Anyone who wants to cross it must lay down squares of construction paper, then hop from square to square, so as not to leave footprints.) And though a matching exterior was shot previously, down the highway at Black Creek Pioneer Village, we're not on location. We're in a Toronto soundstage, on day 26 of a 45-day shoot on the set of the science fiction/horror film Splice.

A vivid green screen set up behind the barn looks like a giant square of stretched balloon. A stuntman in a skintight green bodysuit, including a hood that completely covers his head and neck, stands on the ground "below" the roof. When director Vincenzo Natali (who also co-wrote the script) yells, "Action," everything whirs to life. Industrial-sized fans turn. Smoke billows from machines. Actors Sarah Polley and Adrien Brody, playing married genetic researchers named Elsa and Clive, start down the "icy" roof, slipping and clutching at one another. Their attention is focused on a young woman perched on the roof's edge: Delphine Chaneac, a French actress new to this side of the Atlantic, who's playing Dren, a human/animal hybrid that Clive and Elsa created secretly in their lab.

Dren (her name is a scientist's little joke - nerd spelled backward) began life as a mystery, as all babies do. Then she grew into a biddable little girl, albeit one with a tail. But at this point in her highly accelerated development, she's an intractable teenager, and Elsa and Clive - mommy and daddy - don't just fear they're losing control, they know it. "This is the disaster everyone warns about," Clive says in a previous scene. "A new species set loose in the world."

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All science fiction stories that aspire to greatness have at their hearts a central metaphor, and Splice has a doozy. Clive and Elsa are career-obsessed whiz kids who haven't quite grown up, Dren is the baby they accidentally conceive, and Splice is a horror-film exaggeration of the panic, jealousy and doubts about one's spouse that new parents feel when they realize the newcomer in their house is not exactly the effortless, gurgling bundle of their dreams. "It's about the family dynamic," Natali says. "Like Ordinary People. Only it's Unordinary People."

Mixed into the family metaphor are deliberate echoes of the horror classic Frankenstein and the real-life facts of modern birth: A lot of today's babies are conceived in labs by methods that would have seemed like science fiction 50 years ago. Add to that a further layer of genetics - cloned sheep, mice crossbred to grow human tissue (Natali's inspiration for the story) and animal/human hybrid experiments being okayed in England just as Splice was being shot - and you've got thrills as chilling and relevant as the mutants that stalked 1950s film screens in the wake of the atomic bomb. "The science has caught up to the fiction," Natali says.

As Elsa and Clive approach Dren, they cluck and coo, trying to calm her. She's scared, but also peeved (they've let her down). Chaneac, who's wearing painful contact lenses that make her eyes look enormous, clings to the edge with her toes. She's not a stuntwoman, but she's ended up doing a lot of physical stuff in the film because she's got a preternatural grace, as if she were the hybrid of a dancer, an acrobat and a contortionist. (For some shots, she walked on her hands.) Just as her "parents" try to grab her, Dren loses her grip and falls backward off the roof, pinwheeling her arms. I won't spoil what happens on screen, but on set she lands in the waiting arms of the chroma-green-wrapped stuntman. "That actually works," Natali says, pleased and more than a little relieved.

He should be. His film has had a rather painful gestation, longer than an elephant's but just shy of a fossil's. "I joke that they mapped the human genome in less time than it took me to write the script," Natali says. He and his first co-writer, Antoinette Terry Bryant, finished their draft on Valentine's Day 1988. (It was meant to be the follow-up to Natali's best-known feature, 1997's Cube.) The usual funding nightmares ensued. Eventually producer Steven Hoban - who also produced the hit Canadian horror film Ginger Snaps (2000) and the Academy Award-winning short Ryan (2004) - took over. Natali and a new co-writer, Doug Taylor, tweaked the screenplay, and they scored a $26-million budget (high for an indie) as a Canadian-French co-production.

"The way film financing is going, independent films almost have to be international films," Hoban says. "And Canada is in this very interesting position - we're kind of like the peacekeepers of the film world."

Then they went shopping for the right combination of actors - they were allowed to hire one American, as long as other principles were Canadian and/or French - who could believably play young, genius and married. Polley lobbied hard for the role; she has said it's one of the richest female characters she'd ever read. Brody wanted to do something less emotionally taxing than his usual dramas (such as The Pianist, for which he won a best actor Oscar). And he loved that Clive and Elsa reassure each other by asking: "What's the worst that could happen?"

"A lot can spiral down from there," Brody says, grinning.

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"To be honest, the people putting up the money wanted big-name stars," Natali says, "but the threat of an actors' strike meant that those big names were not available. Which was great for me, because I really wanted Sarah and Adrien. When I say their names, it immediately tells people this isn't a conventional horror film. It's attempting to do a little bit more."

Natali, 41, fell in love with cinema at age 8, watching Star Wars. "I hate to say that because it's such a cliché, but it was a religious experience for me," he says. "It hit some deep psychological vein. That's what I hope my films do." He calls the life of independent filmmaking "brutal. It's so horrible, you have no idea," and imagines at some point on every picture that he's genuinely going to die. "I keep trying to make movies that should cost two or three times what they do cost, but I have to work with these smaller budgets because that's the only way I have artistic freedom." Still, he insists, there's nothing he'd rather do: "It's a masochistic kind of love, but it excites me more than anything else."

Indeed, another two and a half years will pass between this January afternoon and yesterday, when Splice finally got released. Natali will have shot an entire new film by then: High Rise, due in 2011, based on the J.G. Ballard novel. But for now, it's lunchtime. Natali calls, "Cut!" The fans spin to a stop. The green-wrapped stuntman pulls up his hood, creating a brim that makes him look like he's wearing a rain hat. As I exit the set he's the last thing I see - alone on the sound stage, sitting cross-legged in a canvas chair, chatting away on his cellphone by the light of a single bare bulb.

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