The Banishment: Interview with Andrey Zvyagintsev
Andrei Zvyagintsev was pushing 40 when his debut film ‘The Return’ became the surprise winner of the 2003 Venice Film Festival. Five years on, its highly-anticipated follow-up ‘The Banishment’ - nominated for the Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes - is about to be released in the UK.
Adapted from a novel by the Armenian author William Saroyan and shot in the same hypnotically sparse style as his first film, it paints a bleak portrait of family life destroyed by miscommunication and an unwanted pregnancy.
Why is there so little dialogue in The Banishment?
Originally there was a lot of dialogue in the script - and I thought it was completely enchanting. Because it’s adapted from William Saroyan, it was very heavyweight and beautiful, full of long monologues and repetitions.
But as soon as I started testing it with the actors, it became clear that it was a disaster. The long dialogue would be impossible to film in a satisfying way. It would be very difficult for the actors to hold the viewers’ attention for that long. So I had to cut it remorselessly.
Family relationships play important roles in both your films. What is it about the dynamics of the family that fascinates you?
For both films I was just looking for a subject that would touch me. This happened with both The Return and The Banishment as soon as I read the script.
It could just be coincidence that the stories which moved me happened to be about families, but perhaps there is an element of substitution there too, because I feel that I myself never had a complete family. My father left me when I was six and ever since then I have moved from place to place. It felt like was living in a hotel.
You manage to extract extraordinarily convincing performances from the children in your films. How did you achieve this?
In some ways it’s very difficult to work with children, but in others it’s actually easier than working with adult actors. You have to create a situation in which they can live. You find the right children and they just live the lives of the characters, and you film them. What you can’t do is give them an objective for the day and expect them to comply.
After the first film I decided that I would never work with children again. But then, of course, I did. [In The Banishment], there’s a scene which involves a small donkey. It lasts seven or eight seconds on screen. But it took us half a day to film it. We used three cans of film. Now I say will never work with animals again.
Did your adult cast need much direction?
The entire success of the film depends on the cast. So I spend a long time finding exactly the right people. I always have an image of a particular character in mind, and then audition many actors and keep comparing the essence of the character with the essence of the people I meet. When the virtual and the real characters almost coincide, I know I’ve found my actor.
What usually happens next, is that the essence of this actor starts ousting this imagined character. And then within the film the actor just lives his or her own life. The actor and the character become one.
The characters in The Banishment undergo a series of gruelling ordeals. Did you worry that you were being too demanding as a director, asking your actors to live out those scenes?
If you have a tree trunk and you need it to be smooth and you see, “oh there is a twig or a branch”, you come and cut it. Similarly, if something is not necessary in the actor’s personality for a particular part, you just remove it. I don’t consider that to be too demanding or sadistic.
Is this method of directing what gives your films their stark realism?
Yes. I belong to the old school of theatre and cinema and I believe that every work needs a catharsis. A film is basically another reality. It’s like a dream. It’s important that the viewer can give themselves to that dream and live within it, so when they enter the cinema they are in one kind of space and when the leave it they are in a different space.
There are very few cultural references in The Banishment – it could almost be set anywhere – but the religious symbolism used is unmistakably Christian. Why did you choose to retain this one cultural anchor point?
The function of religion in the film is to wipe out the borders between all the characters’ different confessions. But without any reference to Christianity at all, the film would lean too much towards mythology. It’s not an apocalyptic scenario, as some people have suggested. It’s much closer to the reality in which we live today.
Also, it would be very difficult for me to have the story unfold with any other religion in the background, because that’s what I have grown up with.
Would you consider making a non-Russian film?
Before The Banishment I thought it was unlikely. I was afraid of two things: Firstly, my total lack of English and understanding of American culture. And secondly, I was afraid of the Americans 'Hollywood-ising' my project. I didn’t want some monster of a producer telling me which actors to use. I just couldn’t accept that.
The first of these was obviously the biggest fear. But now I understand that a film can be made anywhere and involve any kind of actors. It really just depends on what is necessary for the story.
Your work is often compared to Andrei Tarkovsky’s. How much influence have his films had on your own?
It was Tarkovsky’s films that first inspired me to start making films myself. But Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman have been big influences too.
Did you feel pressure, when making The Banishment, to live up to the success of The Return?
It was impossible to avoid feeling the pressure. [After The Return], I had all this attention directed at me. It was like being a passenger standing at the end of a tube carriage, and suddenly everyone on the carriage turns to look at you. That’s how it feels.
There is a law in quantum physics which states that, when you observe a particle, you actually change the particle’s behaviour. I had to fight hard not to let this happen to me. It’s important to have enough strength and independence to make sure that your trajectory is not directed too far from your intention.
Were you disappointed not to win the Palme d’Or?
I feel very parental towards my films, and I can’t be too critical of my own ‘child’. I am also quite thin-skinned, like a child, so I find it absolutely impossible to ignore other people’s opinions. Of course it was a disappointment. But I also feel very fortunate just to be making films.