Berlin Q&A: Director Boris Khlebnikov
The Russian auteur discusses shooting on the inhospitable coasts of the White Sea and why his latest film is based on "High Noon" but looks nothing like a Western.
Boris Khlebnikov is a native son of Moscow. After two years studying biology at Moscow State Pedagogical Institute (MGPI), he entered the All-Russian State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK) to study screenwriting and film criticism. He met his contemporary Alexei Popogrebsky (How I Ended This Summer, Berlinale Main Competition 2010) in the early 1990s, and together they wrote and directed The Roads to Koktebel, which, along with Andrei Zvyagintsev’s The Return, put Russian cinema back on the map in 2003. The Roads premiered at the Moscow Film Festival, winning the Special Jury Prize there, and the film went on to win the Philip Morris Award at Karlovy Vary and FIPRESCI Discovery of the Year at Cannes Critics' Week in 2004. Khlebnikov then broke out on his own with Free Floating, about the aimless flailing of a young man, and Help Gone Mad, about a hapless rube who finds refuge with a mentally ill old man.
In A Long and Happy Life, Alexander Yatsenko, who played the lead in Free Floating, returns as a reluctant rural community leader who is compelled to backtrack on a sale of land to the government after people working the land with him refuse to be evicted. This backtracking has dire consequences for everyone involved, and along with Free Floating and Help Gone Mad, A Long and Happy Life forms a trilogy about the inevitability of choice. All of the aforementioned films by Khlebnikov and Popogrebsky were produced though Russian producer Roman Borisevich’s Koktebel Film Company, which is something of a cottage industry for Russian independents.
The Hollywood Reporter: What was the original motivation for making A Long and Happy Life?
Boris Khlebnikov: It all began when I re-watched Fred Zinnemann’s 1952 American Western High Noon. At some point, just for fun, I came up with a Russian version of the story. At first, I didn’t take it seriously. But for some reason, I gradually came to believe that I could really do this. I re-watched High Noon completely by chance, without any motive. The idea for a film came later. I thought that if I changed the characters around and changed their positive attributes to negative attributes, I would get a purely Russian story. Things are so mixed up in Russia. There are no well-established positive role models. People do not trust the police or the government. Therefore, there can be no clear-cut protagonist. We do not have a clear moral compass, and that’s why we have such a problem with heroes in movies. Because our enemy is hidden and could be anywhere!
THR: How did you conduct research into rural life in Russia? What were the most interesting and surprising things you discovered in this process?
Khlebnikov: At first, I wanted to make a full-on, modern-day Western. When we started to study the story’s subject matter and started to visit real-life farms, naturally, the plot and the genre began to fall apart. We were deluged with observations that pulled the story in a completely different direction. Co-writer Alexander Rodionov and I conducted interviews for two months. We wanted to study rural issues thoroughly before starting to write the script. We drove around seven different regions and talked to 30 farmers. The most indelible impression is that all of these farmers were either romantics or eccentrics. There were no practical people among them at all. Later on it became clear why. Farm labor and organizing farms are unfortunately fruitless endeavors in Russia. Given the current legal framework, such efforts are at an absolutely hopeless disadvantage.
THR: Where was the film shot and why was this particular location chosen?
Khlebnikov: The film was shot in in the Murmansk Region of northwestern Russia in a small village called Umba, which is on the banks of a mountain river near the Tersky coast of the White Sea. Initially, we wanted to shoot in central Russia, but at some point we realized that we need a harsher and more severe environment -- the kind of place that seems to not care about the lives of the people all around. The area has a unique natural beauty -- pine woods, cliffs and small plots of land that used to be farms. It was crucial that we convey the sense that this village is very far from Moscow, that this is a place where the relationship between people and government is more direct. When I saw the way trees and bushes consume and destroy the deserted farms, I knew this was the perfect location for our shoot. Here, you get a real sense that nature is watching everything we do, that it is stronger than us.
THR: What was your guiding principle in choosing the actors?
Khlebnikov: All of the major roles were written with specific actors in mind, and even all the characters are named after the actors. All of these actors, even those in the supporting roles, were in my various previous films. And this was a great opportunity to have them all together in the same film.
THR: What dictated your choice to shoot the film using a digital camera?
Khlebnikov: My cinematographer Pavel Kostomarov and I decided from the beginning that a documentary-style handheld camera should be used, so any film camera was too heavy for us. We chose one of the lightest digital cameras, which enabled the cameraman to easily follow the actors.
THR: How are you feeling, now that your film was selected for the competition in Berlin? After all, your career is closely connected with the Berlinale...
Khlebnikov: Right now, I still don’t have a German visa. So I'm worried.