The Pleasure Principle
My guest for dinner at Simple Pleasures restaurant was Alexei Uchitel, People’s Artist of Russia, and both director and producer of the film Dreaming of Space, which had its premiere at the recent Moscow International Film Festival. In keeping with the subject of the film – the need for people to free themselves from restrictions – we sat outside on the rooftop terrace. What I like best about the upstairs at Simple Pleasures is the way in which it makes a virtue of the fact that you are in the centre of a big city; there is no breathtaking view to hold your attention, but all around you and down below on the street, Moscow is on the go.
Alexei was driving, and opted for the fresh grapefruit juice. I was on foot, and took the excellent glass of house white. The kitchen for the summer terrace is also outside, and there was a wonderful sizzle and aroma of stir-fried vegetables as we ordered.
“Who had the idea for the film?”
“Alexander Mindadze showed me the script for the film when we were working on His Wife’s Diary.”
As always I couldn’t resist the bread basket. “The film is set at the height of the Cold War, and there are many political references; yet you say that it doesn’t matter when or where a film is set, that what matters to you are the relationships between people. Surely the setting of a film affects how people treat each other?
“Time and place don’t influence relationships, they influence how people express themselves. There’s a moment in the film when Lara and Horsie are running together, and he pulls her to him very physically. During filming I was told that in the 50s a guy wouldn’t act so aggressively. But for me that external fact is not so important. What matters is showing what’s happening between people.”
The first courses arrived, for Alexei the grilled aubergine with houmous (“excellent” was the only comment) and for me the grilled shrimp with curried watermelon. I liked the combination of the crisp shrimps and the moist salad.
“I’ve been looking at your previous feature films (Giselle’s Mania, His Wife’s Diary and The Stroll), and looking for themes and ideas that link them together. Is there anything that connects them?”
“Yes, different styles of shooting. Dramaturgy dictates the way a film should be shot. What do they have in common? I’m trying to make films about crazy people who don’t live according to the rules. I made a documentary film called Obvodnoi Kanal. At the end of the canal there are three asylums – can you believe it! In actual life, it’s not always clear who are the crazy ones – the lunatics inside the building or outside.”
The sun was setting, and the lights inside the adjacent buildings were being switched on, illuminating our corner table; it’s not too fanciful to say that there was something of a film set about the scene. “You said recently that for you dramaturgy is the most important factor in a film; what did you mean by that?”
The answer came back straightaway, “You can make a bad film from a good script, but even a genius can’t shoot a good film from a bad script.” Yes, this is a man who knows his work inside out.
Our main courses came, still hissing straight from the nearby stove. The New York Steak was medium rare, accompanied with a good selection of stir-fry vegetables. My lamb chops were nicely pink. “You began your film career making documentaries; how did that experience affect your later feature films?”
“It affects how I select actors for my films. I don’t pay attention only to their talent; I ask them how they behave in real life and if there are some similarities with the film character. That synthesis brings the best results.”
“Is there anything particularly Russian about your work? I don’t mean that a film is set in Russia, or that it has a Russian subject, but about the psychological characteristics of the protagonists?”
“Horsie is very ingenuous. He’s the embodiment of Russian epic heroes, the collective image of what a Russian hero is like. But then what does it mean to be Russian? Gherman is also Russian by nationality, and yet we didn’t want to show just a person who is trying to escape from his country. Longing for a lightness of being is also a part of being Russian.”
“You’re both a director and producer; can we talk about the business of film? You founded your own studio, Rock Studio, in 1990. Was it to make your own films?”
“At first, yes. Now we are making films by first-time directors. Dunya Smirnova is making her debut with the film Seasons.”
Alexei passed on the pudding; but I had to know what was the fried ice cream.
“The reason I am both the director and the producer of my films is that I don’t want to be told what to do; which actor to invite and which not to invite, which film to make and which not.”
“Where does the money come from?”
“There are three sources of financing: the Ministry of Culture, TV channels – but they’re mostly interested in serials – and some companies and private investors; about 80 to 90 % of financing comes from the state.”
The fried ice-cream? It’s rolled in flour and muesli, and very briefly dipped in oil. Delicious.
“What was it like when you first started in the film business? Has it changed?”
“During the earlier years it was terrible; there was so much criticism, it was very hard to work. Right now a commission of experts is the only thing you have to pass to get government financing. The commission mostly consists of creative people – critics, directors, producers. A producer submits a script with the name of the author hidden, for fairness. The commission meets twice a year and issues grants. And after you’ve got your money, there’s no control over how you make the film.”
“Do you think that the Russian film industry will always need government help, like the French industry; or do you see it becoming independent like Hollywood?
“The government should just be financing debutants and art films, and the others should be financing themselves through distribution in cinemas, and sales of video and DVD.
Cosmos is an art film, it needs government support. But you know, advertising is not included in the grant money; that’s what prevents it from having a wide release.
Turkish Gambit and Nightwatch were financed by Channel 1, which then gave them national advertising, in effect, for free.
I wonder what sales we would have if we could spend the same amount of money.”
Alexei had to leave for a television interview. I was thinking after he left that when a film is finished, that’s when the business has only just begun.
If you would like to know more about my guest, please visit www.uchitel.info and www.rockfilm.ru
WHAT WE ATE
Grilled Shrimp with Curried Watermelon
Grilled Eggplant with houmous
Grilled New York Steak
Grilled Lamb Saddle Chops
All entrees served with stir-fry oriental vegetables
Fried ice cream
WHAT WE DRANK
Freshly-squeezed grapefruit juice
Glass of Isla Negra Cono Sur (Chile)
What it cost: