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“A Little Person Against the Government Machine”: Andrey Zvyagintsev on Leviathan


When Andrey Zvyagintsev brought Elena — his corrosively apocalyptic attack on the Russian oligarchy— to Cannes in 2011, he was alternately direct and evasive about its pessimistic national diagnosis. One interviewer was informed Zvyagintsev  had considered calling the film Invasion of the Barbarians, but was another was told that focusing on class issues was missing the larger moral point. Much has changed in three years, and in interviews Zvyagintsev has been adamant that his fourth feature isn’t exactly what it appears to be — i.e., another head-on broadside against different segments of Russia’s ruling class.

Leviathan can be unreductively considered a direct continuation/extension of Elena‘s line of argument, not least in again fueling itself with appropriated snatches of Philip Glass that match the scene-setting waves rolling onto the beach. Where Elena dissected Russia’s particularly extreme economic chasm between the rich and poor, implicitly sounding a warning over the anger and hostility that must ensue, Leviathan is a remarkably direct broadside against the collusion of the Russian Orthodox Church and a government corrupt on pretty much every conceivable level. It’s there in the literal background — when the words “Pussy Riot” appear on screen (context for the unfamiliar can be found here) — but it’s also directly onscreen in the primary narrative of Nikolay (Aleksei Serebryakov), who’s trying to save his longtime family home by the river from eminent domain-type seizure by mayor Vadim (Roman Madyanov).

Puffy and red — near-comic alcohol abuse is the sole leveler across class strata — Vadim exercises his power inelegantly, showing up at Nikolay’s house one night to bluntly inform him “You’ve never had any fucking rights and you never will.” Though Nikolay gets a lawyer friend from Moscow to help out, the odds aren’t good — and, as Zvyagintsev soon reveals, Vadim is constantly justified in all his abuses of power by a priest friend he regularly consults with. If Vadim, glowering beneath a portrait of Putin, is the top dog entitled to abuse his position in this remote municipality, he’s given ostensible, mock-pious legitimacy by his counterpart on the church’s side.

Leviathan isn’t particularly subtle (the directly invoked Book of Job suggests the trajectory to come), nor is it as compact as Elena. With the help of his regular DP Mikhail Krichman, Zvyagintsev’s newest is a crisply made, blackly amusing and breathtakingly undiluted assault, a transplantation/riff on the story of Marvin John Heemeyer, whose bulldozer-vs.-building spree provided the initial inspiration. The tale’s been relocated to a town next to a graveyard of ship/whale skeletons, doused with vodka and — in a scene where past leaders’ portraits are used for drunken target practice — suggests a politically oppressive continuity extending far beyond the immediate moment. There’s another link here with Elena, which likewise originated as a proposed English-language project as part of a series of four films about the apocalypse before being given a specifically Russian context. In interviews, Zvyagintsev has denied any intended attack on Putin’s government, stressing that 35% of his financing came from them.

The evidence, though, is all in his film, which barely requires parsing for political intent. I didn’t want to waste his time or my interview slot trying to pin Zvyagintsev down on a topic he’d clearly rather have some plausible deniability regarding. But I was honor bound to ask about Pussy Riot, and when Zvyagintsev — otherwise animated, fully engaged and much peppier than might be expected — got to the end of an answer that required him to express a point of view on the topic, his voice got quieter and his words slower, as if he realized it was time to stop himself. First, though, I wanted to ask him about the film’s striking setting and the shooting location of Kirovsk — a question that led to a more productively complicated answer than I expected.

Filmmaker: What drew you to film in the city of Kirovsk specifically? Is there a local historical context non-Russian viewers wouldn’t be aware of?

Zvyagintsev: I was in New York filming a segment for New York, I Love You. At dinner my translator and assistant told me the story of what happened in Greensby, Colorado — the story of Marvin John Heemayer, the standoff of a little person against the government machine that ended tragically. This story really grabbed me and shook me emotionally, and I thought, “Why not film it as a mockumentary, as it happened?” The more I thought about it and spoke about it with my co-writer, we realized that the story could take place anywhere. In our Russian context, it took on more somber and depressive tones. More than that: this kind of conflict, in a Russian context, is absolutely clear. For that reason, we moved the story to Russia and it took on other traits. Our Nikolai isn’t Marvin John Heemayer; in the Russian context, his kind of patience is like that shown in Gogol’s “The Overcoat,” about another tragic figure crushed by the government machine.

It’s hard to believe this now, but in the scenario there wasn’t the beach, the sea, the skeletons. We had a story that took place somewhere in Russia. For three months — July, August and most of September — we rode through more than 70 cities in a radius of 600 kilometers around Moscow. From Pskov to Vladimir, Nizhny Novgorod and Arkangelsk in the north, and in the south as well — a lot of small capital cities. Our producer counted 75 cities where we rode into the central part, where we planned to build a two-story administrative building — which NIkolai was supposed to level with his tractor — in the middle of the overall architectural layout of the city.

We kept finding the same city over and over, one which was not very interesting. Back in Moscow, we got on Google Maps and started looking further away. In Khakassia, we found Teriberka, located between Kazakhstan and Siberia. We found photos of the empty spaces we needed. We drove there and saw the Barents Sea, the crashing waves and the skeletons in this dying settlement. In the film, you remember the drawing Nikolai pulls out: “This is the home where my dad lived.” That’s a real drawing of the area, and it matches one of the first shots of the film, when Nikolai’s house is seen by the river. We determined that this should be the first shot, and only after that did we find that panoramic drawing in the local museum almost from the same perspective — maybe a little higher. That shocked us, because that house was a set we built. In the same location, we found the graveyard of ships. That was a living shipyard at some point, and now it’s dying.

Kirovsk was used for the city exteriors and interiors, more importantly the exteriors — the government buildings, the court building. Kirovsk was enticing because it’s surrounded by a lot of mountains. In the middle of this landscape has been inscribed a typical, standard Soviet town, with all its normal two-story buildings. When you see a building and these mountains behind it, it makes a strong impression. So Teriberka and Kirvovsk were chosen primarily for aesthetic reasons, the feeling that this is the edge of the world. Also because it’s beautiful, in the highest sense of the word — closer to the sublime than merely pretty.

In the context of the film, the two cities are right next to each other. In reality, Teriberka is 120 kilometers away from Murmansk, and Kirovsk is in the other direction, 200 kilometers from Murmansk. So they’re separated by more than 300 kilometers.

Filmmaker: So how did that affect your production schedule? I assume you completed shooting in one city, then moved on to the other.

Zvyagintsev: Ordinarily, that’s what we would do. The dream of any director is to shoot in chronological order, but technically that’s very difficult, so normally you shoot as you’re able to — you film all the scenes in the hotel in three days and so on. However, in Kirovsk, for the last 100 years — we found the documentation — snow always comes on the 15th or the 20th of September and then just lays there. So we began filming in Teriberka on August 1, for about 20 days, and then we went to Kirovsk, so as not to shoot in the snow, and filmed everything that related to government exteriors and interiors. The mayor’s office was filmed in Monchegorsk, which is about 50 kilometers away from there. We also shot something in Olenogorsk — the train station or something like that, I don’t remember. After we shot all that, we returned to Teriberka on the 10th or 12th of September and continued shooting, since we needed snow for some shots and in Teriberka, the snow has also been observed for about 100 years to come at the same time every year. We finished shooting there about October 20th. Then we went to Moscow and shot the interior courtroom and similar scenes, then returned to Teriberka after the snow had fallen to get the final shots.

Filmmaker: How do you divide framing, lighting and movement duties with your cinematographer?

Zvyagintsev: My relationship with the cinematographer, as with my co-writer, isn’t to say “Write me this scene” or “Film this for me.” I don’t acknowledge that kind of industrial approach. I don’t understand how you can approach creative work without a close, friendly relationship. I’ve filmed all of my movies with Mikhail and don’t understand how I could find a mutual language with another person, because you need to spend a lot of time with another person to do this — to look at the world, finding agreement, to establish a friendship and love each other, so you can look at the same things the same way. If Mikhail gets involved in some project when I need to make a new film, and it’s mandatory for me to find a new partner, it’ll be very hard for me. It’s like the saying: “You need to eat a pood of salt with someone to learn how to see one thing the same way.” It’s a very close relationship. In pre-production, when making compositional decisions, lighting and so on, it can take us about half a year to conceive the film.

Filmmaker: The movie was shot on 35mm. Here, that’s no longer an easy decision: you have to figure out who’s going to process your film and so on. Was it difficult for you to arrange to shoot on 35mm?

Zvyagintsev: For us, too, it’s beginning to become a problem. The company was CineLab, which manufactured the film and did the telecine for the digital intermediate. They only had two productions this year that were shooting on film; everybody else was shooting digital, and there’s a lot of movies being worked on there every year. Mikhail and I still see things on film rather than on digital — and, of course, to shoot on digital you need experience as a cinematographer. You need to do a lot of experiments and tests to make sure that you know how to use it.

Producers assume that it’s cheaper to work digitally. In reality that’s a misunderstanding, because the amount of time spent on color correction is significantly greater with digital. A color corrector I know says two or three more time goes to do color correction on digital as opposed to film. That’s money too, you know? So the digital camera isn’t cheaper to use, and it makes the director weaker, because he understands that he can keep shooting and shooting and shooting. When you’re not constrained, you make more work for yourself afterwards as far as choosing the take. So as long as shooting on film is an option, I prefer to do so, because it makes you concentrate.

Also the impression it makes is different; it’s alive. Yesterday I came to New York and turned on the TV in my hotel room, a beautiful TV of great quality. The first few channels, I saw some very high-quality digital images. I was looking at movies, and I saw that I was looking at digital. Then I flipped over to some movie on another channel, and it couldn’t have been shot on any format other than 35mm. I saw that it was an entirely different form of expression. It’s impossible to explain this in words: you feel it on some subconscious level. We did some tests of the same shots on digital and film, then projected them at the same time on the same screen. We instantly correctly guessed which was which.

Filmmaker: It’s impossible to ignore the television in Elena and Leviathan; in the latter case, the words “Pussy Riot” are inescapable.

Zvyagintsev: You’re probably talking primarily about Elena. In Elena, we chose each excerpt very carefully. When we see her breakfasting after the death of her husband, we see in the glass parts of the kitchen a reflection of what’s on the TV. It was important to see that, and to try to get live sound from it. These clips are chosen for each specific context of each scene.

In this film the TV only appears in two scenes. Discussion about Pussy Riot was happening as we wrote the screenplay, while there was very heated discussion about them. That’s why they ended up in there, but this screenplay has nothing to do with Pussy Riot. The footage was from a murder; someone killed two women, and then wrote “Pussy Riot” in their blood. In our film, we only hear that there’s some kind of discussion about Pussy Riot, but not what kind. It’s important, because it was exactly at this time in 2012 that the church was especially prominent in its impatience and lack of kindheartedness and so on. But of course, everyone has their own point of view on this topic, and everything that came after it.

Filmmaker: Is the film being released, or is it not being released because of the new laws against use of profanity on-screen? I read conflicting reports.

Zvyagintsev: First of all, this law was in the works for a long time, before we released the film. If we wanted for viewers to see the movie, we had to re-edit it — not to change or remove scenes, but to dub out the profanity. Viewers just won’t hear it.

The choice is simple: either viewers in Russia will see the movie or not. Not one theater will take the risk of showing the film as is at the potential cost of losing their license. If we didn’t cut the profanity, viewers would only see the film on DVD. In movies, musical concerts, plays, print and online publications, in books, there must not be profanity. But if your DVD is wrapped up in a special cellophane package that says “Warning, profanity,” then you have the right to sell it to any person who wants to buy it and watch it at home.

Of course, I wanted viewers to see this in the theater, because it’s meant to be seen there. It’s an entirely different film that way than on a TV. So the choice was simple; I simply didn’t have one. Russian viewers should be able to come and see it. The loss isn’t a big one: several of those words, if they don’t hear it, I don’t think it’s a big deal. We did the profanity re-editing for two days, and of course it was very painful. When viewers who hadn’t seen the film saw it in our limited, Oscar-qualifying run in St. Petersburg, they didn’t notice the lack of profanity. In two or three places, it’ll be noticeable, but mostly not, and not for most people. Our editor took a few friends to the screening and asked them if they noticed, and they didn’t.

We kept the ambient and foley sounds, so it’s not complete silence. We tried to cover up the absences with these sounds. For me, of course, it hurt a lot. There’s a good moment, a strong one, when they’re drunk in the car and one of them uses the phrase “fucking mother.” He gives a really strong delivery. After we cut the “fucking,” they told us we had to cut out the “mother” as well. I said, “Why? ‘Fucking’ I understand, but ‘mother’ is a fine word.” [As in English, the “your mother” formulation in Russian has strongly insulting connotations.]

The film will come out. The main decision was whether it was right to release it in September, as planned, or on November 13, as previously announced, but in February. Like a good wine gets better with time — the strategy is that by that time, the film will have achieved some of kind of critical mass, reputation-wise. So there’s no ban; 35% of the budget — and it’s a big one, $7 million — come from the government.

In Russia, these kind of curious incidents are possible, Not only in Russia: I think all over the world, there’s always something like that. Human nature changes a lot of things that seem ideal. I’m now talking about Thomas Hobbes’ idea of the leviathan, People’s lives and social guarantees and the rights of laws would protect everybody in an ideal world, but not in reality.

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