“I Was Watching Russian TV More than My Entire Family in Russia”: Maxim Pozdorovkin and Matvey Kulakov on Editing Our New President
Maxim Pozdorovkin entered the documentary film world in 2013 with Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, a film that earned him top prizes at Sundance, Cinema Eye Honors and the British Independent Film Awards. He returned to Sundance in 2014 with The Notorious Mr. Bout. Now, he returns to the World Cinema Documentary Competition once again with Our New President, a doc on Russia’s propagandistic state-run news networks. Below, Pozdorovkin and co-editor Matvey Kulakov discuss how they crafted a feature film from such surreal archival footage.
Filmmaker: How and why did you wind up being the editor of your film? What were the factors and attributes that led to your being hired for this job?
Pozdorovkin: For a filmmaker, not having the ability to shoot material to realize one’s idea is a bit like playing basketball with one hand tied behind your back. When you’re working with mostly archival material as we were in Our New President, you have to take the authorial control wherever you can get it. I edited the film together with Matvey Kulakov, passing scenes back and forth, going down dead ends, etc.
Kulakov: Maxim and I have been friends for over three years and have collaborated on a few musical projects. I was always interested in the films Maxim and Joe [Bender] made at Third Party Films. So when Maxim shared his ideas of making a new film out of propaganda stuff and offered me to join as an editor, I accepted the offer without hesitation, as I always do when it comes to unusual collaborations or unexpected projects.
Filmmaker: In terms of advancing your film from its earliest assembly to your final cut, what were goals as an editor? What elements of the film did you want to enhance, or preserve, or tease out or totally reshape?
Pozdorovkin: Editing an archival film is radically different than most docs or fiction films. While it is incredibly constraining not to have your own footage to rely on, there is a radical simplicity in the editing process. With a found footage film, you assemble a lean cut quickly and then spend an absurd amount of hours making it better and better. There are no three hour assemblies or radical reshaping of the film. You know most of the material that has to be in there so the process becomes a bit like an insane chess puzzle, where you are just moving hundreds of different pieces around.
Kulakov: Editing Our New President was a long, mind-shattering process. I had never seen movies quite like this one before, so there was no reference point that shaped the film from the outset. All we had was our intuition. At one point, I realized that I was watching Russian television more than my entire family in Russia. That was a pretty disturbing fact to get used to. Before this project I used to edit music videos, so my personal goal was to make the film dynamic and entertaining. This was not easy given our source footage. While our film is about Russian media and the people who consume it, one could make a movie like this about media all over the world. The main goal was to show what it feels like to be surrounded by and submerged in “alternative truth.”
Filmmaker: How did you achieve these goals? What types of editing techniques, or processes, or feedback screenings allowed this work to occur?
Pozdorovkin: In most of my films, I end up playing with a lot of genre conventions to structure sequences in the film. Our New President is no different. From the mummy excavation, styled after Raiders of the Lost Ark and John Carpenter, to a meeting of the UN security council, remixed as a dinner theatre production, this film forced us to experiment with a lot of montage effects and various sound and image permutations. There is a lot of parallel editing, a lot of use of sound to undercut scenes as well as to enhance them. All our collaborators and friends at Third Party Films were constant guides as Matvey and I shaped and shaved this movie. Dan Cogan and Jenny Raskin at Impact were incredibly useful collaborators and sounding boards in the construction of this admittedly unorthodox movie.
Filmmaker: As an editor, how did you come up in the business, and what influences have affected your work?
Pozdorovkin: As a filmmaker I’ve always responded to Fred Wiseman’s notion that the shooting of a film is research and the editing is the writing. My job as a director is to know the footage better than anybody else, to know all its expressive possibilities. On all the films that I’ve made I’ve been incredibly hands-on in the edit, pre-editing most scenes. As I’ve gotten faster on the editing software, I’ve found myself editing more and more. This edit was a collaboration with Matvey, as we needed to constantly bring fresh approaches to the material, to take turns digging in the archive of madness and disinformation that we had collected.
Filmmaker: What editing system did you use, and why?
Pozdorovkin: Premiere, after all the Final Cut confusion, had to make the switch. Easy and pliant.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to cut and why? And how did you do it?
Pozdorovkin: For me, the scene of Trump and Putin’s meeting at the G20. Formally, we had to layer all of our film’s components into this culmination, to make the scene dramatic but also to mock the drama and hype that is responsible for so much media hyperbole. So, there were a lot of competing demands on that scene.
Kulakov: Some scenes built themselves. Others, like the shutdown of NTV or the mummy excavation took months of tweaking to turn into something we were satisfied with. The mummy scene in particular has about twelve different layers of sound.
Filmmaker: What role did VFX work, or compositing, or other post-production techniques play in terms of the final edit?
Kulakov: We paid a lot of attention to the sound design from the very beginning. Later we replaced many cues with our own music to improve some scenes. In our film the music built the story, helping lead viewers through it without permanent brain damage. Regarding VFX, we tried to keep the original footage without radical changes, using effects only in specific cases, avoiding any interference.
Filmmaker: Finally, now that the process is over, what new meanings has the film taken on for you? What did you discover in the footage that you might not have seen initially, and how does your final understanding of the film differ from the understanding that you began with?
Pozdorovkin: On a recent watch I realized the value this film will have as a time capsule. As we move from the immediacy of Trump’s election and as our perspective becomes shaped by future events and revelations, the meaning of this film will change with the times. That’s an exciting prospect, to not know what the material in your film will feel like five years from now.