Director Tony Pemberton Talks Russia, Film and Devo

Tony Pemberton

I first got to know Tony Pemberton when his production company Go East Productions co-produced my documentary The Mark of Cain. Tony was living in Moscow at the time and I could not have navigated Russia without him. He directed his own Film Beyond The Ocean (2000) in Russia and he knew the ins and outs of filmmaking there. No matter how insane my requests were, he never considered anything impossible.

Pemberton is currently in Germany shooting his feature film Buddha’s Little Finger. He is in Berlin, which is standing in for Moscow in the ’90s. Additionally, Pemberton is in post-production on a feature-length documentary about the band DEVO called Are We Not Men? I called him there to catch up.

Filmmaker: How is the shooting going?

Pemberton: It’s really good. It’s kind of amazing that it’s happening. You’ve heard me talk about this for more than 10 years. I think I optioned it in 2001.

Filmmaker: How did you come to make this film?

Pemberton: I optioned Buddha’s Little Finger from Victor Pelevin, a Russian author who was a friend of mine. At the time I was working on commercials and had met him and we went to New York at the same time and attempted to make a music video for Boris Grebenshchikov, who is like the Bob Dylan of Russia.

Filmmaker: Which is a dubious moniker.

Pemberton: It’s totally dubious — and the guy [Boris] loves Pelevin because he is a Buddhist and likes philosophical writing etc… In short he’s a fan. But it really didn’t work out in the end cause I think he thought most of our ideas were crazy. Anyway, I was hanging out with Pelevin while he was writing his book, Generation P. – I think I told you this story, where I met these weird people in Russia wearing Discreet Logic T-shirts. Since I was in advertising we were going to London to use these real-time animation machines like the Flame, because they didn’t have them in Russia, so I asked them where they got the shirts. They were like, “Yeah, we work for Yeltsin.” It was a time when Yeltsin had the fake nose and fell down, and I thought, “Wow, he’s animated.” And so I told this story to Pelevin and he shouted, “That’s the end of my book!” At the same time I was reading Buddha’s Little Finger, and I was like, “That could be the ending of this book.” But you can’t option two books to make one movie. That’s stupid.

Buddha’s Little Finger is a satire that toggles between the 1917 Revolution and Russia in the ’90s. It includes both the coup and the Putsch. It didn’t have a lot of story – it was more of a psychoanalysis of Russia, which is a little much for a Westerner to take, but it was a popular Western book and was translated into many languages.

When I started thinking about it as a movie, my approach was overt satire. I could relate to it since I had lived there for five years and heard the stories and even experienced this massive change in Russia. But my goal was to seek out a story that could frame ideas within the book along with my observations. In a way it became about my experiences when I was in Russia – which you saw. People would move there and they would catch a wave, or they would surf into this crazy “I can do this!” They weren’t filmmakers, they weren’t producers, they didn’t know advertising. Even I was taken by that wave – they said, “You’re American, you know commercials.” I was like, “Yeah, I hate commercials,” but they made me creative director of this advertising agency for Schwepps and Dr. Pepper and Cadbury. It was really weird. I had to call home and say, “What is a creative director?” People were like, “You’re not it! You couldn’t possibly be that.”

It was a real agency that eventually became Publis United, a well-known French agency. So, I was a creative director there for a year and then later a film producer. They would let me produce and direct my own commercials when I had a good idea or two. One idea on the table would be mine and my boss said, “Just do it yourself, I don’t trust any of the production companies.” It was wild. It was the Wild East. That’s what it got called. You could do anything there. And then there was this other sentiment that was around in the late ’90s. It was very anti-foreigner all of a sudden. It was just kind of, “No, we’re going to take back all the jobs.” And rightly so. Part of my job, which was really bizarre, was to export British humor into Russia, which was totally unreasonable – that takes years. But the thing that I knew about Russians was that the humor in America was more similar to Russian humor. So, that’s a tangent, but that’s how I knew Pelevin.

Filmmaker: Tell me a little about your previous film, Beyond The Ocean.

Pemberton: Beyond The Ocean was a film that I wanted to make in Hungary from a Hungarian story. I followed my ex-wife, who was Hungarian, to Russia. Of course moving to a new place when you’re not sure about love, destroys your love, so we came apart, but I transposed the story to Russia, stayed a year and made this film from ’96 through ’99 and went to Sundance in 2000 with it. It was partly shot in New York, but mostly in Russia. The Russian world introduced me to this notion that you can make anything work. In America I wouldn’t have been able to shoot a feature on 35mm film with a crazy crew of 25 people for six weeks for $30,000. That was just unbelievable to me. Those days are long gone but there are new digital forms that make it still possible if you if you have a will to make a film.

Filmmaker: You helped me with many of those crazy things during the making of The Mark of Cain.

Pemberton: Yeah, you sent me to see all these crazy criminologists like Dubyagin, whose wife boils down heads in her kitchen, stores them in the cold on the balcony, and reconstructs them to help identify the dead and track killers. They were completely crazy, their family photos were mixed in with scenes of serial killer cases that they were proud of working on.

Of course every American sits at home thinking, “Oh, Russia, it’s totalitarianism and it’s diabolical and …” And yes, it’s diabolical or sometimes not pleasant, but you quickly realize it’s not organized. It’s highly unorganized. Almost to the point of – nobody knows who is diabolical. Nobody knows anything. And there was a lot of misinformation and the ’90s offered up a kind of strange world, where a lot of my friends became professionals. Like a professional class of business people, but they came from nowhere. They were just slightly smarter than the next person. Many of them spoke foreign languages, which helped because a lot of the money that came in to foster the growth in Russia was foreign money. Russia in a sense is the only country where the IMF came and lent lots of money and then Russia paid it off and said, “Fuck you’ to the world.” Usually the IMF has you by the balls forever. If the IMF controls the country that means the West controls the country and Russia got out of that. But no one remembers that.

Filmmaker: So between optioning the book and making the film, tell me about that time.

Pemberton: I started working with a couple of writers, but it wasn’t getting very far until I met up with Bill Jennings, who made Harlem Aria. He was my co-worker at Montclair State. I had presented the idea to a couple of associate producers working on Sokurov’s Russian Ark who were forming a company in 2000 that became Rohfilm – this German company owned by Karsten Stoter — and Benny Dreschel there was interested. I gave them a script in 2005 and they said that they really liked it. So for all intents and purposes after that point I became a Berliner taking up residence in Berlin. “Ich bin ein Berliner.”

Filmmaker: A jelly donut?

Pemberton: A jelly cookie, like Kennedy. I liked coming here, and we presented our film in 2007 in the Berlin Film Festival as a project. And we had Russian partners at the time, like Mikhail Kalatosov, who was the nephew of the director of The Cranes Are Flying and I am Cuba. He died a few years ago. This is a shaggy dog story – I’m sorry, our moment of just-about-to-happen went on for about four years. When Mikhail died, we were in the position to get a million dollars from the film funds in Russia but shortly afterwards these film funds in Russia all became focused on a select group of people – mini-studios – so it wasn’t fair to independents. And there were some many small grants to new filmmakers but I wouldn’t get those because I’m not Russian.

But it’s ironic that Russians, at one point after I made Beyond The Ocean, kind of treated me like I was a Russian. I married into it. I joke that my kids are co-productions. I spoke Russian and my previous film was thought of as a Russian/Austrian/American co-production. And then I learned my lesson, because that film had a very dubious distribution – like a Russian film, you know? It was seen, but then someone bought it, but they bought it to hold it. It was just horrible.

So, I said to myself, “Next time I make a Russian film, I want to make it in English, or, I want to make an American indie Russian film.” You look at all the films that are made about Russia that are in English and it is a really dubious task – like, which ones do you go with that are OK with English speakers? And I have my favorites but I probably shouldn’t list them.

Filmmaker: Please list them…

Pemberton: You know, everyone hates it: Enemy at the Gates. Tey don’t care about the language. I like that. That’s nice. There are a few others where language is not the issue. It’s more about conceptual filmmaking and I think the interesting thing about Russia is that to make a film about Russia now has turned into a different thing, because a lot of the topics are more global. Change that was difficult and exciting in Russia is now happening all over the world as a global experience where people are displaced and become politicized.

Trying to make this book somewhat relevant now is what I have done with this story, which is about the ’90s in general. It’s got these revolutionary characters and then it’s got gangsters who do drugs. It’s got a cornucopia of craziness in there. I transposed a love story over it, which wasn’t in the book. It’s about a writer who is with this girl, and he is dreaming about the past of 1917. What I did was try to make these two different times more valid in the sense of politics. It’s not that I am a political person completely. But I like the shift of it, so I focused on 1991 and the coup. This poetic moment where Russia just said, “We’re going to release ourselves from the Soviet Union.” You know, like, all the others… Hungary said, “We’re not part of the Soviet Union,” and the Czech Republic said, “We’re not part of the Soviet Union,” and then for Russia to say. “We’re not part of the Soviet Union,” it’s like “Who’s left?” So, that was the poetic thing that Yeltsin did. And in the background all kinds of other things had been brewing. We see Gorbachev as a hero, but in some sense the Russians don’t see him as the hero that the West does. He just opened the door and all these things happened. And so, in waiting so long, my film now seems more relevant, which is bizarre. Now there are protests all over the world about the Pussy Riot band being put in jail, and before that this whole journalist killing spree. In my film, in 1991, there were these protests, this feeling that people could actually make a difference, could stand up against tanks, throw themselves under them, and make the army say, “OK, we’re the army, we’re not going to do things to people.” That’s a beautiful moment and the archives are incredible. On the other hand, you have the 1917 revolutionaries who really had all these ideals. And because the Soviet Union lasted another 70 years, the leaders of these regimes owned history, so therefore they owned the present and the future. They made it look ideal to the Russian people but the global world has now just exploded.

I’ve gotten a lot of really good German actors, like Andre Hennike is playing Chapayev. He was in Antibodies and Downfall. And then Stipe Erceg, who is known from The Edukators and The Baader Meinhof Complex. You probably saw that, right?

Filmmaker: I did.

Pemberton: Only you saw it. And myself. He plays the gangster who educates my Toby Kebbell character. Toby keeps joking, “You hired the wrong guy to play a coward.”

He had just gotten all buff for Titans and War Horse. This is one of his first lead roles where he plays a romantic character. He is an amazing collaborator. He’s an actor’s actor. Everyone respects him. He’s known from RocknRolla, the Guy Ritchie film, and many other big films. The female lead is played by a Montreal actress Karine Vanasse from Midnight in Paris And Pan Am, and another Montreal actress Anne-Marie Cadieux is playing Timorovna ( a male Pelevin character that I changed to a woman).

Filmmaker: Why Canada?

Pemberton: After the Russian partner died, we had to figure something else out. I kept telling the German producers that there might be a way that we could do this film with Canadian co-producers. They kept saying, “No, that’s just stupid.” Finally they met this guy Martin Paul Hus. His company is called Amerique. He got the film right away. His people saw the film in a way that nobody else saw it, except for me, and that was really great. I was like, “I think women are going to like this movie, even though there’s only a couple of female characters.” And everyone kept saying, “What do you mean?” And then one of the Canadian distributors said that immediately and then all the Germans went, “Yeah we see it.” So, that got us to a new place.

Now my crew is 70 percent women. Key people like my assistant director Carole Debuc, she is an amazing Canadian a.d. – she is a collaborator of multiple layers, which assistant directors do so wonderfully. She would say, “I do nothing, but everything happens through me.” She helped make this happen because we were pressured with a very low budget and it meant we needed to shoot the film in 21 days. It previously had been scheduled for 40. I had scrunched it down to 30 and I was like, “I can’t do less,” and then she came up with a way. She is great with saying, “No, we have to focus on the real story.” Then I have Stephanie Biron Weber (Heartbeats), who is a d.p. and also a great collaborator for story and visual ideas. And a kick-ass operator too. Bettina Schribe, the production designer, fills out this core team in all her romantically stylized sets… I kid her that she works so hard and well because again, she never has this idea that this is the most impossible film to do in 21 days, a period piece with two period and a time traveling story where yes, you end up on set arguing where the character’s drug trip is taking him…

Since it’s her first feature, she just doesn’t know that this is so hard sometimes. She’s brought such a love and humor to everything we do. She has a funny way of pointing out in pre-production that we as people do this stuff not to only make a product but to learn about ourselves through collaboration. My favorite moments were when she asked me if I had laughed today. I realized I hadn’t, and she started in on the litany of jokes we told each other in pre-prod. One of them was this story I told about my nephew when he was three in my brother’s big Jeep. I’m sitting next to this little kid in the back in his seat and he asks me, “You like trucks?” I say, “Yeah…” and he says, “Then just get yourself some!” “Get yourself some” became like a theme for us all in some odd way…

Filmmaker: Sometimes it’s better when you don’t know what you are getting into.

Pemberton: Yes. It’s almost impossible to shoot Moscow as Moscow for the ’90s now because everything has changed. Here in Germany, you find the same kind of surfaces but there is no advertising. There’s nothing. Also our approach is a little Sergio Leone because we are focusing on small details, but last week I had my first ever shoot with horses and explosions and it was totally crazy how real it looked. A real period film!

Filmmaker: What’s your anticipation for post-production and the release date?

Pemberton: We are hoping to finish in January, release in Spring, 2013.

Filmmaker: Switching gears for a minute, I also wanted to ask you about your DEVO documentary?

Pemberton: I’ve been shooting the official DEVO documentary, which is totally bizarre that I, as an Ohioan, got to make it! Viktor Sveda was the assistant wrestling coach at the university where I was teaching and he just showed up and asked, “Can I just be in your class because I like film?” He said, “I have all this footage from DEVO. It’s like surveillance tape, how it looks.” Anyway, Mark Mothersbaugh had kind of quit college after the Kent State massacre, and he went to Akron and he lived with these Vietnam vets and pot dealers. It was a very interesting time where they helped support him, and they wanted to make rock ‘n’ roll. He was an organist and he said, “I want a synthesizer and all this stuff,” and he got it all – and then another group of guys were making this idea of DEVO as a concept. They met, Jerry [Casale] and Mark. Jerry and Mark together was the real DEVO.

Anyway, this guy showed me this footage and said, “We’re going to make this compilation album with interstitial things” and I said, “What about the real documentary?” So, I got on the phone and we started talking about it. I was going with them to SXSW where they thought they could recreate their career after they hadn’t made an album in 20 years. It was really sad; it was like a Spinal Tap moment for a band that for me, was really important. When I saw them on Saturday Night Live when I was in high school, I said, “Oh My God, you can get out of Ohio! They just said ‘Ohio’ on Saturday Night Live! People live in other places and know about us!” It was like, “Life is elsewhere, it has to be elsewhere!” And those guys did it.

I’m not the super super fan, like the ones I actually met – I found the real super fans and they kind of scared me. I love them too, but I was never one of those so I saw in DEVO this kind of politicized energy. They said, “You can only be subversive, and that is the only way to effect people.” You can’t directly say, “Oh you’re supposed to feel this.” And then they feel that. Art isn’t like that. If you try to, it doesn’t work.

Filmmaker: So, what stage is that film at?

Pemberton: Basically, we’re almost finished. The process of that film has been very trying because they try to hold on to their image; on one hand, they are total performers, and they learn to let it all go – but it’s a bizarre group. It’s mostly about the relationship and how people can hold onto that kind of thing for so long. Now they are doing anti-Mitt Romney campaigns.

Filmmaker: The last thing that I want to ask you about is creating the film department at Montclair.

Pemberton: In 2003, I had kind of committed myself to be an editor of commercials for a moment. I was teaching at Pratt a little bit and Hunter and Rutger’s but I had kind of said, “I’m not going to teach anymore.” But then I got this gig where someone called me from Montclair State University. They didn’t know what they were really asking for, but they said, “We want to create a film program inside the art department.” They thought that since I had been at Sundance that I seemed like a logical candidate, like, “He’s a filmmaker – he’ll know how to do it.” What they didn’t understand about me was that I had been to Russia and I had created all these things out of nothing. And I knew bureaucracy and working with a state university. I could negotiate that. When someone says “no,” I know it doesn’t mean “no.” It never means “no” in Russia. There’s always a way. So that was kind of thrilling. I went to my classes and all the students were English students, and they said that they were learning how to draw – that’s the art program, it’s a Bauhaus program. I was like, “Oh, my God.” It took two years to convince the art department to let go of the way it had been – and it grew from zero to almost 170 majors now. And we are growing a screenwriting program next year and probably an MFA program. The main thing that we focused on was we said, “Oh, we need a portfolio review, we have to check them out, we have to …” But then we always took chances on students who had these great ideas but had nothing to show. We felt like, “OK, content is key.” If they have something to make a movie about and desire about it, we felt like, “OK, we’ll give you a chance.” So that’s kind of what we have been doing is just taking chances on the students.

(Photo: On the set of Buddha’s Little Finger, Tony Pemberton with DP Stephanie Biron Weber, AD/producer Carole Debuc, and actor Toby Kebbell. Photo by Christian Mouzard.)