NARRATOR: On casual observation a tattoo of a religious icon would seem self-explanatory. But in Russian prison, a crucifix does not indicate accepting Jesus as savior; it signifies that the wearer is a thief. Tattoo subculture is heavy with symbolism and hidden meanings within the underworld of organized crime known as the Vor v Zakone - Thieves In Law.
In researching his role, Viggo Mortensen learns that to the Vor if you do not have a tattoo, then you do not exist. The body depicts a life history of hierarchies and disgraces.
CREW MEMBER: Thank you.
CREW MEMBER: David, there’s a monitor over here if you want to use it.
NARRATOR: Camera tests are conducted in pre-production to investigate how the 43 tattoos on Mr. Mortensen’s body will look on film. His tattoo research becomes a key element not only to his character but also to the film’s storyline.
PETER SUSCHITZKY: Tilt it down a bit.
CREW MEMBER: No, I know.
PETER SUSCHITZKY: Thank you.
VIGGO MORTENSEN: You don’t want me to turn around to see the back?
PETER SUSCHITZKY: Yes, please.
DAVID CRONENBERG: Just do a slow rotation. And keep going around. Just stay there for a bit.
NARRATOR: Ink is in short supply in prison, so inmates make tattoos by melting down tires and boot heels then mixing the solution with blood and urine. However, in Mr. Mortensen’s case – they are cosmetic, glue-based ink transfers applied to skin using a sponge with warm water.
DAVID CRONENBERG: Good. Fold your arms across your chest, there. Yeah. O.K. We can cut.
CREW MEMBER: Cut it, please.
STEPHAN DUPUIS: Do we like all these tattoos?
DAVID CRONENBERG: Yes. As soon as I saw it I said, “Yes. That’s right.”
STEPHAN DUPUIS: O.K.
DAVID CRONENBERG: It’s not cluttered, but it’s full. It’s like a full life we’re seeing. It’s your passport, it’s your livelihood in your tattoos. And we’re carrying through on it.
VIGGO MORTENSEN: This could be a little bigger.
DAVID CRONENBERG: Yeah.
STEPHAN DUPUIS: Slightly bigger.
DAVID CRONENBERG: And you know that they do sort of a more 3D version of it?
STEPHAN DUPUIS: Yeah. More elaborate.
DAVID CRONENBERG: More elaborate.
NARRATOR: On Nikolai’s back – a cathedral. The number of dome towers, called cupolas, indicates his number of prison sentences. The Russian text across his chest [Russian voice:] “Пусть будет сном что пережито мною” translates to “Let all I have lived be as if it were a dream.”
Right upper arm – a black raven. “Death, I am not yours yet.”
Right forearm – a snake twined around a dagger. “We live by fighting.”
Lower abdomen – the Grim Reaper with a scythe indicates that he is a killer. Below it: [Russian voice:] “Я здесь и я жду” translates to “I’m here and I’m waiting.”
DAVID CRONENBERG: When you see it in the light like this, you can see... the shininess... you can see the outlining.
STEPHAN DUPUIS: Yeah, it’s crinkling.
VIGGO MORTENSEN: It’s happening on these too.
DAVID CRONENBERG: There is some creasing. I mean the generality of it is great, but for close-ups and stuff, it’s kind of… You can kind of see it.
STEPHAN DUPUIS: Yeah. Then I’ll put the anti-shine on that.
CREW MEMBER: O.K. Shall we? Ready? And… Let’s roll it please. Roll it.
DAVID CRONENBERG: Give me some more tooth. And then a bit of a sneer at the end of it. O.K. You can cut.
VIGGO MORTENSEN: I mean, I think it would be weird that I’d smile that much, but...
DAVID CRONENBERG: No, no, I don’t think you will. I’m just looking for the worst-case scenario.
PETER SUSCHITZKY: It was very subtle. I couldn’t see much of it.
DAVID CRONENBERG: Maybe more of a smile than you’ll ever probably really give but let’s just try just to see. Say it right to the camera.
NIKOLAI: [IN RUSSIAN:] Maybe somebody sent your dad a hooker for Christmas.
DAVID CRONENBERG: And?
NIKOLAI: [IN RUSSIAN:] I think you and I could do business together.
DAVID CRONENBERG: Yeah. That’s good. O.K. I think we can cut.
CREW MEMBER: Good? Cut.
CAROLYN ZEIFMAN: You were good!
DAVID CRONENBERG: But, you know, you shouldn’t say things like that to Peter.
NARRATOR: After consulting the results of the tooth test, a conclusion is drawn.
KIRILL: You’re so f****** unbelievably disrespectful.