The inception of the film Leviathan can be traced back to 2008. On the set of Andrey Zvyagintsev's short film Apocrypha for the anthology New York, I Love You, translator and assistant to the director Inna Braude told him the story of a welder from Colorado named Marvin John Heemeyer, who was being pressured by the new owners of a cement plant to sell them his workshop, located on their land. After Heemeyer refused all of their offers, the management of the plant simply erected a fence around his entire property. Having lost hope of winning the fight for his property rights after going through all the rounds of the judicial and executive bureaucracy, he outfitted a multi-tonne bulldozer with bulletproof armor, literally sealed himself inside the cabin and drove out of his workshop. He destroyed all the buildings at the cement plant, completely demolished the fence that had been cutting him off from the outside world and headed into town. The police did everything they could think of to try to stop him, firing over 200 bullets into the bulldozer and using heavy trucks as barriers to block his path, but all their efforts were in vain: he barreled over everything in his path, and, upon entering the city, methodically demolished about a dozen office buildings. Having got his revenge, he declared through a loudspeaker that until then, no one would hear him out, but now they had all heard him. He then killed himself in the cabin of his bulldozer. No one, except Heemeyer himself, was injured in the incident.
The story made such a strong impression on the director that he began to think seriously about shooting a screen version of it in the US, with a detailed recreation of the events. Upon returning home, he shared the tale with his friend and co-writer Oleg Negin, suggesting that they write a script based on it.
A little later, the director came across a text which was the retelling of a medieval chronicle dating back to Martin Luther (Michael Kohlhaas). The plot of this novella, written by Heinrich von Kleist, closely resembled Heemeyer's story. It was clear that this is an eternal story, the source of which, with some effort, can be found in the biblical story of Job's travail. Therefore, it did not matter in what setting the events of this drama unfolded. The story of conflict between the individual and the authorities is universal. Soon, yet another reference came up: parallels with the work by the 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes. It was from these narratives and ideas that the structure of Leviathan was developed.
In the winter (December 2010), Oleg Negin wrote the first draft of the script with the working title Dad. This version was set in Russia, but retraced the events of the American tragedy, including the protagonist's rampage. The script abounded with expletives, which did not sit right with the film's producer, Alexander Rodnyansky, and prevented the project from going ahead at that time, in 2011, immediately after the completion of Elena.
The second version of the script, now going by the name Leviathan, was completed in the fall of 2012 and brought together references to the American tragedy of Marvin John Heemeyer, the biblical story of Job and Thomas Hobbes' philosophical treatise Leviathan or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common-Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil.
Leviathan involves more people than any other Zvyagintsev film, with eight central characters. There are over 15 characters in total, all gradually drawn into the swirling funnel of the film's drama.
Casting took almost a year. Several months elapsed between Vladimir Vdovichenkov's auditions and his confirmation in the role. During that period, Vdovichenkov received an offer of a part in a British film called Black Sea, directed by Kevin Macdonald and starring Jude Law. Vdovichenkov had already verbally agreed to the British film when he was informed that he had got the part in Leviathan. It seems that this was a serious dilemma for Vdovichenkov, which he ultimately resolved in favor of working with Zvyagintsev.
In search of the film's setting, the creative team scouted over 70 towns and cities within a 600-kilometer radius of Moscow, traveling from Pskov to Vladimir, from Yaroslavl to Orel, looking as far afield as Belarus. The final choice fell on the village of Teriberka, perched on the shore of the Barents Sea (Murmansk Region).
So it was in Teriberka that the indoor/outdoor set of Kolya's house was built, consisting of a two-story wooden house, a repair shop and a greenhouse. From May to July 2013, the art department, helmed by production designer Andrey Ponkratov, worked on constructing the set.
Principal photography took place from August 1 to November 8, 2013, with a total of 67 shooting days. The filming took place in the villages of Teriberka and Tumanny, and the towns of Kirovsk, Monchegorsk, Apatity and Olenegorsk in Murmansk Region, as well as Poshekhonye in Yaroslavl Region. To cut back on travel costs, some of the interior scenes were filmed in Moscow.
To better get into character, Aleksey Serebryakov would take home his character's wardrobe the day before a shooting day to get a feel for it, traveling to and from the set in costume. Turning down all other projects, he did not leave Teriberka for two and a half months, devoting himself completely to his work on Leviathan. Elena Lyadova likewise spent the entire production period out on location with the cast and crew, never leaving the shoot. This was very important for cultivating relationships and imbuing Kolya's house with vibrancy and the spirit of life itself. And actress Anna Ukolova gained over 30 pounds for the shoot at the director's request.
The first day of the shoot was marked by a setback. During the filming of the first shot, in which Kolya and Roma drive through a stone gorge, the Nissan Terrano picture vehicle blew its front wheel tire. Sergey Pokhodaev at the steering wheel and Aleksey Serebryakov in the passenger seat, controlling the car using a special off-set system, lost control of the vehicle. The car crashed into the crew vehicles. Fortunately, no one was hurt in the accident. Present that day on the set, Vdovichenkov said that the incident should be regarded as a good omen.
Due to the damage to the picture car, the shooting plan had to be immediately modified. The schedule for the first few days had to be rearranged. For the remainder of the shoot, another car of the same make was purchased in St. Petersburg a few days later and painted the same color. At the same time, the car damaged in the accident was repaired. As a result, two identical picture cars were filmed; both were always present on the set. After two or three weeks, while shooting a similar scene in the same place, when Kolya drives through the stone gorge in the early morning to meet Dmitry at the station, the same thing happened. During the very first take, two of the picture car's tires burst at the same time, but Aleksey Serebryakov maintained control of the vehicle, avoiding another accident.
Elena Lyadova also had an accident. In one of the scenes, not included in the final cut of the film, her character is leaving a parking lot. Backing out of her spot, Elena ran into a car parked behind her. Everyone escaped unscathed, aside from a slight scare and the fact that the director had to reimburse the car's owner for the minor damage caused. Thus, all of the actors driving Kolya's car got into accidents, and it always happened while the camera was rolling.
In the scene of the first encounter between Kolya and Pasha at a traffic checkpoint, Sergey Pokhodaev's father, Aleksey, played the role of Pasha's partner.
In the scene where Roma runs out of the house to greet Dmitry as he arrives, the director deliberately did not warn Sergey Pokhodaev, playing Roma, that Vdovichenkov would give him a gift (a model airplane to be assembled). This improvisation element was introduced on the third take and eventually made the cut.
During the filming of the breakfast scene in Kolya's house, following Dmitry's arrival, where Roma mouths off to Lilya and is smacked upside the head by his father as a result, a total of eight takes were shot. When asked how he managed to convey such a natural reaction to the smack, Sergey Pokhodaev replied: "He's been hitting me for real".
There is a scene in the film where the characters played by Aleksey Serebryakov, Elena Lyadova and Vladimir Vdovichenkov arrive in the main square of the fictional town of Pribrezhny, which features a statue of Lenin. Curiously, in one of the childhood photographs contributed by Elena Lyadova to the shoot, she and her mother are standing in a very similar looking square. This photo, set on the dressing table in Kolya's house, is visible in the scene where Pasha comes to Kolya to tell him that the missing Lilya has been found.
The scene where Kolya, Dmitry and Lilya are drinking at the table after hearing the ruling on the property litigation case was cut in half during editing.
The shot with the old photo of the house that Kolya puts on the table to show to Dmitry was a pickup that was shot during editing in the Moscow office after it became clear that the scene would have to be significantly shortened. For this shot, both Aleksey Serebryakov and Vladimir Vdovichenkov were asked to come in. This panoramic photograph, taken in 1929, was found by executive producer Ekaterina Marakulina in Teriberka's historical museum. The amazing coincidence lies in the fact that the point from which the establishing shot of the village and Kolya's house was captured in the film was determined during preproduction, before the team got a hold of the old photograph. That is, 85 years earlier, someone else chose to take a photograph from a vantage point almost identical to the one from which the crew decided to shoot the panoramic view of the location.
The skeleton of a blue whale, weighing one-and-a-half tonnes and measuring 24 meters in length, was constructed by prop makers around a metal frame according to the specifications of production designer Andrey Ponkratov. It was assembled in a bay near Teriberka over a six-day period.
The shot with a fly beating against the glass at the beginning of the scene where Dmitry reads over the complaint letter against the mayor, which he has just finished typing on a computer, was filmed on the spur of the moment, when the director happened to notice the insect while setting up for the scene.
The picnic by the lake scene was shot over five days. The shot where Dmitry shows off his stone skipping moves (at the beginning of the picnic by the lake scene) was filmed outside of the aforementioned five-day stretch. Andrey Zvyagintsev himself and dolly grip Leonid Dolenko took turns demonstrating their stone skipping prowess. Whose throw made the final cut remains unknown.
At one point during the picnic by the lake scene, the characters played by Aleksey Serebryakov, Vladimir Vdovichenkov, Sergey Bachursky and Aleksey Rozin down a full glass of vodka each in honor of Stepanych's (Sergey Bachursky) birthday. Due to an error by the prop master, the actors were given a bottle of real vodka in the first take, which they drank in the shot. Only after the director called "cut" did the actors report that the vodka was real. All four were sure that it was a prank deliberately pulled by the director and to this day have trouble believing otherwise. Thus, the actors got to experience first-hand the "hardcore Russian custom" of quaffing vodka by the glass.
The scene in the train where Dmitry returns to Moscow was significantly cut during editing. It was filmed on an actual moving train, but it was traveling only a short distance, so the film crew was provided with two train cars attached so that they mirrored each other. Thus, when the train reached its destination, the crew just moved to the other car. Although the train then traveled in the opposite direction, the direction of the movement in the frame still looked right.
The scene in which Lilya and Angela are filleting fish on a conveyor line was shot in a real, working fish processing factory, during the night shift. After being instructed on the procedure, the actresses stepped up to the conveyor, taking the place of two actual workers. Riding together with Lilya on the fishery bus were real factory workers from the village of Teriberka.
During the shooting of the scene when Angela and Pasha come to offer Roma a home with them, a fire started on the set of Kolya's house during a take. Fortunately, it had been decided to postpone lunch that day in order not to interrupt the filming of the challenging scene, and so the team remained on the set and discovered the smoke coming out from under the wall in time to successfully put out the source of the fire and prevent the premature loss of the set.
In total, principal photography yielded three and a half hours of useable material, having shot 85,000 meters of Kodak film.
The editing of the film spanned 50 days.
A rough cut was submitted for consideration to the selection committee of the 67th Cannes International Film Festival while editing and sound work were still under way, and the film was accepted into the competition program. The film premiered on the closing day of the festival, May 23, 2014, and was awarded Best Screenplay.