In a Silent Way
When it premiered at the Venice Film Festival, Andrei Zvyagintsev's piercing and contemplative father-son tale immediately established the director as a major international talent. Director Eric Eason discusses The Return with Zvyagintsev.
The ambiguously sublime directorial debut of Andrei Zvyagintsev's The Return won the Golden Lion Award, the highest accolade at the Venice Film Festival, and has been justly compared with the early masterworks of Andrei Tarkovsky and Aleksandr Sokurov.
On the surface, the film's story couldn't be any simpler: two young brothers embark on a fishing expedition with their father, who has just returned from a 12-year absence. Yet what enfolds from this simplicity is a harrowing exploration of the power of patriarchy bordering on the biblical.
The Return was photographed by Mikhail Krichman in the St. Petersburg region of northern Russia during the summer months when the sun never sets. The result is one of the most expressively beautiful and lyrical color palettes in recent memory. Krichman's light has a religious luminosity similar to NЋstor Almendros's magic-hour cinematography in Days of Heaven.
Anchoring the story are the highly developed characters brought to life by the three lead actors (the brothers are portrayed by Ivan Dobronravov and Vladimir Garin, the father by Konstantin Lavronenko). These remarkable performances lend an air of realism and counterpoint to the otherwise mythical elements. Tragically, Garin drowned shortly after the end of shooting in the same lake where several of the film's scenes were filmed.
The Return makes its American premiere at Sundance and will be released in January by Kino International.
Tell us about the development of this project: how did you find this material and come to direct the film?
I filmed three short stories for the REN TV channel series "Black Room.У The producer, Dmitri Lesnevsky, was satisfied with the result and decided to attempt a full-length production — his debut as a movie producer. We signed a contract and began to search for a screenplay. Several months later Dimitry found and offered me this screenplay by Vladimir Moiseyenko and Aleksandr Novototsky, whom I didn't know personally until then. I saw a huge inner potential in it, a deep layer that was hidden behind the intrigue. It was a very finely written story of the relationship between a father and two adolescents. The psychological character trends of all three main characters were very minutely and convincingly written out, and I found the dialogue simply brilliant — very precise and well-defined both on the conversational and content levels. When I read it I got an impression of vital, pulsating life. It is an extremely rare quality for screenplays. In any case, a screenplay is an intermediary product on the way to the screen, but it either has something in it or it doesn't. And if there's nothing there, no matter what you do, you wouldn't be able to put something into it. Here there was a fortunate opportunity to work with excellent material.
What was the film's total budget?
It will probably seem incredible to your readership, but our budget doesn't amount to even half-a-million dollars.
How many days of shooting were involved?
The shooting would have lasted 47 days if not for one very complicated scene, which we shot for three days. Therefore, the shooting period was 50 days.
How did you cast the film? Did the young actors who portrayed the sons have professional experience?
I realized that shooting would be senseless unless we found two genius boys. I said, "Dimitri, if I don't have enough time to find the actors and if I can't find two genius children, we can say that this project has come to nothing.У Frankly speaking, I had great doubts that it was possible to find two such children. We searched for a long time in St. Petersburg and Moscow, and altogether we had spent six months doing just that. We auditioned over 600 boys. I saw the older boy, [Vladimir] "VolodyaУ Garin, on the very first day of casting, when I came to St. Petersburg. He attended a musical and theatrical school and was being trained for a career as an opera singer. He was 14 then, just 14, but I kind of felt right away that there was a deep personality in front of me, a self-sufficient person. He was unlike other children — mature beyond his age. And the second boy, Ivan Dobronravov, a Moscovite who came sometime in the second or third week of casting, also drew attention as a result of his extraordinary [qualities]. Ivan had already had acting experience at that time. He had acted in a TV series and onstage.
What, if any, was your rehearsal process like?
There wasn't any special method. We talked a lot. The main criterion during rehearsals was authenticity, aspiration for absolutely unconditional existence. One episode, the scene over the father's body, was rehearsed at night for about three hours. Four of us — the father, the children and I — had gone to a sandy riverbank and rehearsed during the night, which I believe was very helpful because of its mysterious silence. At about 6:00 in the morning we were ready to shoot the scene. If I don't believe an actor's work, the viewer wouldn't believe it either. If it is not happening here, now, right in front of my eyes, I dare to say that it will not appear on film, too. I can say that even after two months of filming, there still wasn't any method. I just realized that it's born everytime anew on the set.
Your color palette, your compositions, your camera movements, your landscapes, even the physiognomy of your actors — everything melts seamlessly into the dreamlike fable you evoked. What was the preproduction process like with your cinematographer? Your production designer? Did you storyboard your film? Did you purposely wait to shoot your film at certain hours of the day, a "magic hourУ?
We were really ascetic — in details, in composition, in color. Details destroying the [laconic quality] of objects and color were purged. I can say that [laconic quality] in color solution became an extension of [the simplicity] of the story. There are almost no strangers in the movie. Three people are traveling, and that's it. They get into a town, a town that is almost empty. We didn't have any mass scenes. We did everything possible to have as few people "on the horizon" as possible. It was important for us toescape the chaos. The surroundings in the movie are conditional - everything is expunged so that real characters were perceived as strange figures, as images, that must be guessed at. Perhaps this cold desolation creates an impression of dreaming or obsession. During the preparation stage we, together with the d.p., Mikhail Krichman, planned every episode and, proceeding from a determined setting, imagined the picture using our inner sight. The result was not a conventional order of shooting, but a scheme, a view from above, of camera disposition and movement as well as movement of the actors. We did every episode in the film that way. Of course, there were many things changed on the set, but we had a base, and that was very helpful in our work. I realized that in conditions of a small budget, when you have to produce four to five minutes of material every day, it's impossible to be unprepared. One must see the entire picture in his head and only allow improvisation on that basis.
For our color solution, in search of a common language, we used examples from movies and painting. Finally, Mikhail suggested a chemical process of film development that allowed fading colors to such an extent as to make a picture in sharp contrast and as close to monochromatic as you can see in pictures by Vermeer and Rembrandt. At least, we moved in that direction, and whether we have achieved our goal is for others to judge. As for our work with [a production designer], it turned out that we worked without one, and she appeared only one week before the shooting, so she had to do what had already been planned.
In what part of Russia did you make the film?
The territory north of St. Petersburg, between Lake Ladoga and the Finnish Gulf. Only one episode was filmed outside Moscow. Eason: What are your feelings about Hollywood and its influence on European audiences?
It should be acknowledged that Hollywood is the chief supplier of entertainment in the world, like McDonald's is the chief supplier of fast food. But there are some gourmands as well. Hollywood entertainment is the product of the entertainment "dream factory" in the first place, but what is more significant for European cinema are such things as exploring, analysis, experience - so called author cinema - but not entertainment in itself. And if it is true that the director in Hollywood is something like an ordinary member of the crew, a person who can be fired, replaced at any stage of production, well, in that case he is not an author. He is an executive. It means that the producer rules in Hollywood. And only in Hollywood are test screenings for audiences possible and, judging by their reaction, whole scenes of the films are cut or even reshot. I feel sorry for any director who finds himself in a situation like that. Mass entertainment cannot be called a work of art, because an author rules in art. But when I see films such as Magnolia, The Ice Storm and American Beauty, I am really happy and glad for American cinema.