An interview with Kirill Serebrennikov, director of Izmena (Betrayal)
Your last movie was a dark comedy; this one is a metaphysical drama. Are there any connections?
I started with dark comedies… I always think about dark comedies. Here I wanted to switch to something dark/noir/catastrophic/horror. Probably today I would do something more optimistic because of the things happening in my life.
Tell us about the actors: the leading male is from Macedonia, and the leading female from Germany. Why have you been looking so far away for a Russian movie?
I was looking for good actors and I have to make sure they won’t be known at all. Private life, TV shows, soap operas, if they have husbands or wives, tabloid stories: it complicates it; I wanted to get rid of any knowledge about their lives. As naked and honest as possible. I have to say it was torture for them to come to Russia for several months without their families, and no connection with their native language. As if you and me were in China.
They didn’t know Russian at all?
No, they didn’t! They knew what their lines were about; they studied them more for sound and facial expressions. We then spent time finding the right voices to dub them, something close to them. It was sort of like casting very good actors to play the roles again. First I found Francisca in Germany; when I saw her there she was like a magnet – her white skin and cold beauty. Then my friend in Bulgaria mentioned a guy he saw at the theatre. He had no practice at all in film… he is a director of Macedonian theatre. He had to stop his activity for a while!
Every actor seems to have ticks and do particular things; why did you choose that?
Well, my ideas come from my body, brain… I don’t know from where. I can’t explain how it happens. When I ask actors to do things they then sometimes ask me why and I explain: “because”.If God or Buddha or whatever else is out there would explain what they do, and all the crap around us… whatever they’d say, it wouldn’t be true. Things just come out. Like babies come into being.
The cinematography is simply stunning. What work have you done to prepare for it?
I always make films from myself, from the belly! It’s all part of my mental projection; I used my “natural” energy, my animal presence. I wanted it to look real.
It was particularly impressive during the accident scene.
True, and that scene is also crucial. The characters face a completely new world from there. After he meets this lady, everything changes; the accident happens for no particular reason. Life is like this; sometimes it happens. For him it’s the beginning of a huge and scary journey. A lot of unpredictable things happen in his life. A lot of ghosts, demons, black energy. It’s like an earthquake.
Could it be interpreted as a projection about society in general?
You can interpret it that way, definitely… that’s the idea. Our lives and our society are connected to our inner feelings.
Who inspired your works?
Bergman, Antonioni, Visconti and Pasolini. Also, Paul Thomas Anderson and Ulrich Seidl. Even cartoons: The Simpsons, and Japanese film-makers, Kim Ki-duk, Wong Kar-wai. It’s everything; everything comes in.
What about the state of things in Russia: Putin, Pussy Riot…
Society is totally crap; there are people that I do not understand at all. I was censored for wearing a Pussy Riot t-shirt on some TV show. How is that possible?
Is it hard to make a movie in Russia?
Making films is generally a rather difficult thing, anywhere: Russia, China, the USA… If you try to do it you will face difficulties; that’s why you never read or hear bad things about people making films. It’s a sweaty job.
I mostly worked in theatre; I don’t do films so often. This gives me more time to prepare for it. Every time [I decide to direct a new one] I feel frustrated as it’s very different from the theatre approach. It takes a lot of … everything! Energy and effort.
Could it get so bad in Russia that you’d have to film elsewhere?
I believe in Karma. I was born in Russia and I need to work there. There would be no other way to do it; I want to do it there. I tried to find a way to do things. Russians, they will fight against this injustice. It also takes time because Russia is too big; the difference between territories is strong. We are victims of the capitalist system. It is quite clear that Putin is not a real Russian dictator. It’s part of universal capitalism. He does things like every other international leader, the same things, but in a more Russian way.
Going back to the film, why did you deprive it of any references? Names, locations…
I wanted myself and the audience to focus on what the characters were feeling and doing. I don’t want social connotations and references to interfere.
That is also why you did not use a soundtrack?
Just Rachmaninov’s Symphony No.1 Isle of the Dead. Films are about something in between things… like theatre. The invisible becomes visible. Things that you normally cannot see in reality.
That’s why you love Antonioni, right?
Filippo L’Astorina, the Editor