Dialogue: Andrei Zvyagintsev
Review of "The Banishment"
Siberian-born director Andrei Zvyagintsev was catapulted to fame and international critical acclaim when his debut feature, "The Return," took Venice's coveted Golden Lion and four other prizes four years ago. Zvyagintsev's haunting story of a father's attempts to rebuild shattered relationships with his two young sons when he returns home after 12 years away captivated audiences in Venice. Now Zvyagintsev's much-anticipated second film, "The Banishment," is In Competition at Cannes. Based on a story by American writer William Saroyan, Zvyagintsev shot on locations in Belgium, France and Moldova to create an image of an unspecified northern European environment. "Banishment" has a cast that includes Konstantin Lavronenko, who played the father in "The Return," and newcomer Maria Bonnevie from Norway. Zvyagintsev speaks about being brave with second films, casting and making it to the Croisette.
The Hollywood Reporter: Second films are often viewed more critically than first films. How do you feel about your second film after the sensational success of "The Return?"
Andrei Zvyagintsev: Opinions about second films are complicated. In your first film you can take any steps you want. In second films, there is an idea that one should not take chances, to pay attention to one's status. But in fact you must not be frightened, you must be brave. Once you are involved with the work, you forget whether it is second or fourth film and get on with your work. The second film syndrome is a myth that needs to be dispelled.
THR: Was it difficult for you to find a new theme for your second film?
Zvyagintsev: There was a long period of gestation. It was not about fear of a second film; I was simply too busy. Going with the film ("The Return") around all continents took a lot of strength -- living in hotels and giving interviews. I do not want to do that again as it is senseless and you lose time, strength and intellectual forces. When I found forces for beginning the second project, I looked for quality material and found it in a script based on a book by an American of Armenian descent.
THR: How did you find the material?
Zvyagintsev: There is a shortage of good scriptwriters in Russia, but I was offered a script by a camera operator, Arthur Melkumyan, that was based on Saroyan's "The Laughing Matter," which is a relatively unknown piece of his prose. I felt something extraordinary. Melkumyan gave us full rights to change and adapt his script, and we obtained the rights to Saroyan's story.
THR: "The Return" was based upon an extensive reworking of an original script. What changes did you make to Melkumyan's script?
Zvyagintsev: We made a lot of changes. It's enough to say Saroyan didn't let any of his characters survive. The language was peculiar. Sometimes the brothers Alex and Mark (who had different names in the original) spoke to each other in an incomprehensible language. It was intended to be Armenian but it disturbed me -- if you specify the language, you identify a precise place. We had an idea to let them speak a dead language something reconstructed by linguists but dropped that as an excessively artificial idea for a film.
THR: Saroyan's original story had a definite early 20th century sense of time and place (California) about it, which you wanted to change. How did you go about that?
Zvyagintsev: We removed specific indicators. We moved events a bit closer to modern times. Architecture, signs, license plates and specific car models were all important, even down to the windows and window frames. Stage props were bought at German flea markets. But to fully create a universal world in cinema is not easy. Material culture carries with it the hallmarks of time and place.
THR: Tell us a something about your cast, which includes Alexander Baluyev, Maria Bonnevie and Konstantin Lavronenko, who played the father in "The Return."
Zvyagintsev: After "The Return," I wanted to run from Konstantin because I didn't want to enter the same waters. In the end I couldn't find anyone else who could be his equal. Meeting Alexander Baluyev was a pleasant eye-opener. He's very famous in Russia, but he worked without the least sign of fatigue. He did 19, 20 takes, which for him was probably unusual. I had seen Maria Bonnevie in the Norwegian film "I Am Dina" and was struck by her fantastic energy and understood that this is a new actress of a new age. Many Russian actresses auditioned for the role, but Maria won despite the fact she had to play in very difficult scenes in a foreign language.
THR: "The Return" was a huge hit with critics and audiences in 2004 at Venice, and there is already a big buzz in the Cannes crowd about "The Banishment." How much attention do you pay to what others think about your films?
Zvyagintsev: I think that everyone will have their own interpretation of the film. The meaning behind the ending ... will be interpreted by some in the following way: Russia will endure everything and will digest everything. For me this is strange because there is no Russia in my film, it is the myth of eternal return, the natural and Christian cycle of life. You need to be true to a film and not to someone else's opinion.
THR: How important is it to you that "The Banishment" is In Competition at Cannes?
Zvyagintsev: Cannes is a wonderful event, and I am very pleased to be invited here. It is very important and at the same time just a brief moment. The aim of a director is to make films, not to go to festivals. You must not lose your head because then you will lose your creative powers. Of course, it is a great pleasure and luck to be in the company of people such as Gus Van Sant, Emir Kusturica, David Fincher and Quentin Tarantino. It is very prestigious, but you need to remember: That is not the main thing.
Nationality: Russian; born: Feb. 6, 1964
Selected filmography: "The Return" (2003, Vozrashcheniye)
Notable awards: "The Return," Venice Film Festival Golden Lion (2003); European Film Awards Discovery of the Year 2003
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