Director Andrey Zvyagintsev on ‘Leviathan’, Russia, & Vodka
It feels like a lifetime since last year’s Cannes festival, but the memory will hardly ever fade. Among the photogenic scenery, beautiful venues, and a bountiful intake of mind-probing motion pictures, I had the pleasure of being one among a handful of journalist participating in a roundtable interview with Leviathan director Andrey Zvyagintsev. My lengthy capsule review of the film will have hopefully revealed, even without a rating, just how much in awe I was after seeing the film. Indeed, it ended up topping my own personal Top 10, and was among our collective 13 Best Foreign Films of 2014.
Right now, in the midst of awards season, Leviathan is doing very well. Getting a limited theatrical release on New Years Eve, and expanding in the weeks to come, this modern Russian masterpiece has deservedly been wowing critics. In a singularly surprising and sober move, Russia has entered the film into the Best Foreign Language race, despite the film’s courageous surgical analysis of the rampant political corruption in the country. And it’s been paying off. It received a Golden Globe nomination and the Academy has it on their January shortlist, with an Oscar nom all but locked. If it were up to me, the film would pick up every award it has coming its way.
Until we find out what it may win or be nominated for, however, read on for the roundtable discussion with director Andrey Zvyagintsev from last year’s Cannes film festival. Bear in mind that this is one of the very first international interviews conducted for the film, it was done through a translator, and due to a time limit each journalist (there was about 7 of us) got to ask only one question. As such, the interview below isn’t presented in the usual Q&A format, but rather Zvyagintsev’s thoughts on the various topics covered in the questions. Also, he doesn’t shy away from a few key spoilers so take this as a warning that if you want absolutely nothing spoiled for the film, you’d best read it after you’ve seen it.
On the origin of the story in the film, how it ties in with The Book of Job, and the film’s early development.
I was told the story in the US from 2004, about this guy called Marvin John Heemeyer, who was this average guy who had a small job who lost his job and went nuts broke some official buildings and show some rebellion, his name was Killdozer, you can find it on the net if you like.
This is really the beginning of my film that’s how we started working on the scenario. I was told this story in 2008, so for 6 years I worked on that and finally got this result.
And I really had this desire of showing on the big screen that story that happened in the US, and show it on the big screen in my own words, you can say, in an artistic way.
And I didn’t want to make a documentary film about what happened, so I really had to talk about this thing but I needed to find some parallel to the subject. That’s how I found the story of Job, I wanted to tell a story of a man who loses everything he has; one by one, little by little, up to the point when he loses his health and his life.
For the room in order to build this topic, I needed some sort of mattress, to create some sort of collision and make this story eternal. And that’s why I called it Leviathan.
Some friends of mine, who teach philosophy, (they are married actually), they told me about Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes. Originally, the idea came from the ancient story, but when they told me about Hobbes I thought “OK, everything matches. I really have to talk about this story; this story of a powerful state.”
And just one more thing, one small detail. Once the location was confirmed, we found the house, we found the place, some local guy came to us and said, “you know, there’s a place 8 kilometres from here where you can actually see whales”, and that was like the epiphany, I knew it was a sign coming from above that we had to work here.”
Why he chose this particular project after his smaller, and more intimate, previous film Elena.
I had in my hands, or let’s say it was on my producer’s table, five screenplays. One of them was Leviathan, which actually arrived a little later. We had all kinds of projects, one of which was this huge big budget war film that happens in Kiev, and there was a Polish king in it, and I had a lot of choice.
There was one project about Ancient Greece. Which was also a huge project, for which we would have to rebuild the port of Athens.
So your question you should ask to the producer because he’s the one who really chose the Leviathan project. I was ready to work on anything.
On the representation of Russia and particularly why Putin’s portrait was so evident in the film.
This is actually the real office of the Mayor, Oleny Gorsk, so the portrait was really in the room. That’s the portrait of Putin when he’s much younger, 2003. It had to be there, because in any mayor’s office you have the portrait of the president. It’s a reality. In any office, of any big representative of power, you have representation of this power. Removing this portrait would be awkward. It belongs there.
I didn’t try to do anything with this portrait, it was just there in this room and I left it there.
[At this point one of the journalists kept insisting that he shot the film with clear intentions to represent Russia and Putin in a certain light]
They represent power, they keep saying that in the film. They have this little sign on the jacket “United Russia” which makes them loyal to the power. They have to represent it.
I can assure you if Putin saw the film, it wouldn’t be awkward for him.
Why he chose to work with composer Philip Glass again…
We worked with Philip on Elena, I used his 3rd symphony. And we were talking about the rights to his music, which is when I realized I ‘d love to work with him for my next movie. I’m really happy to know him because I think he’s a genius and very modern.
I wanted to work with him, but I didn’t say “OK, my next project I’m working with him for sure”, if I have a film that goes with his music, and once the project of this film was clear I knew I wanted to work with him. I contacted his agent, but he didn’t have time to create music, even though he had wanted to create the music for Elena.
So, I decided to go on the web and listen to every music I can find, and finally I got on to this “Acktachen” and I decided that was it.
Whether vodka was allowed on set…
[laughs, and then in English:] Good question!
I realized that those scenes where actors are drunk would be the hardest. I thought to myself “how do I do that and stay close to reality?” So I suggested to the actors: if you feel like you can control the situation and do your work, you can try [and drink real vodka]. And if something doesn’t go well, we will re-shoot.
So they were basically all a little drunk in those scenes, except one person: The mayor [played by Roman Madyanov] Absolutely clean. Only talent.
The current political status in Russia and whether the film was meant to be political in nature…
I would say that I worked on the film for 6 years. To me the film is about Man vs. State. It’s not about any political system; it could be any country, since the story I was told happened in 2008. It was man facing state. I don’t want to be appreciated as “for” or “against” any system; I like to think that this is an artistic approach to reality which could happen anywhere.
I really hope my film is perceived as more of an artistic film than a political one.
Today it’s very critical, but everyone knows about it, everyone watches TV, the news. There was a break between Europe and Russia and that’s why there are films like Maidan, or Red Army. It’s reality, it appears in films. It’s not easy for Russia because its also a moment when you have to build a future.
If Europe continues with the sanctions, Russia will just shut itself and really be a closed country and all these feelings within Russia against Europe will grow. It would be very sad to come back to those years of the Cold War when, really, we were separated from the rest of the world.
His next project will be…
I really don’t know. The producer has about 3 or 4 scripts on the table, and he’s thinking. He’s the one who decides.