How 'Leviathan' Producer Played the Russian System to Get Foreign-Language Oscar Submission

Alexander Rodnyansky - H 2015
Getty Images

Alexander Rodnyansky in a book reveals details of his campaign to garner enough votes to win backing for his Putin-critical film that won a Golden Globe.

The producer of a controversial film that criticized rampant corruption in Vladimir Putin's Russia has revealed how he outwitted pro-government elements to win the country's foreign-language Oscar submission last year.

Alexander Rodnyansky was aware that Andrey Zvyagintsev's Leviathan, which depicts the destruction of a man's life and livelihood by corrupt government officials, would face opposition from Kremlin loyalists in Russia's Oscar selection committee.

Now, for the first time, in a new, updated edition of his Russian-language book Vykhodit prodyuser (Enter the Producer) originally published in 2013, Rodnyansky reveals the lengths to which he went to ensure the film was the country's Oscar contender.

Experience in previous years — when films that were considered weaker and ideologically complacent, such as Mosfilm chief Karen Shakhnazarov's war film White Tiger or Burnt by the Sun 2: Citadel, Nikita Mikhalkov's much-maligned sequel to his 1995 Oscar-winner Burnt by the Sun, had been submitted in preference to internationally acclaimed titles, such as Alexander Sokurov's Faust or Zvyagintsev's previous film Elena — had demonstrated what he was up against.

"Independent film fans were evenly divided between Elena and Faust," Rodnyansky said, recalling the selection process in 2013. "But at the last moment, the chairman of the Oscar committee, Vladimir Menshov, produced five or six proxy votes of people unable to come to the meeting, and White Tiger got the nomination."

Menshov, a Soviet era actor and director who won an Oscar in 1981 for Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears, employed the same tactic the following year, according to the producer.

With international acclaim building for Leviathan — after it had been in competition at Cannes in 2014, where it won the best screenplay award, and the film had been picked up by Sony Pictures Classics — Rodnyansky was determined to do it justice.

"The funny thing here is that [SPC co-president Michael] Barker himself was sure Leviathan would not be able to participate in the Oscar race as the Russian Oscar committee would never allow such a controversial film to be nominated," the producer writes.

Rodnyansky says he turned detective to learn exactly who was eligible to vote in the Oscar selection process in Russia as the committee was surprisingly reluctant to identify its members.

But once he worked out that a select group of 29 directors and producers, whose pics had won awards at top international film festivals or had been nominated for an Oscar, were eligible to vote, he set about getting the movie to as many of them as possible.

"We showed Leviathan to all of them — even those who did not live in Moscow," Rodnyansky writes, adding that one, Sergey Bodrov, lived in Los Angeles and another, Dmitry Lesnevsky, lived in London, but "watched the film in Cannes." Others, including Sergey Selyanov, Alexei Uchitel and Alexander Sokurov, were based in St. Petersburg.

Then, employing the committee chairman's own tactics, Rodnyansky came to the selection meeting, called at short notice on a Saturday in Moscow, with the support of four attending members and 10 proxy votes supported by signed power of attorney letters.

Leviathan's main competitor for the nomination was, it turned out, Zhora Kryzhovnikov's romantic comedy Gorko (Kiss Them All). The film, a comedy of Russian wedding customs with a surprise twist at the end, had done well at the domestic box office, but had not participated in any international festivals, Rodnyansky notes.

The pics were put to the vote, but Rodnyansky's dogged work won the day: His 14 votes easily outweighed the eight against (Menshov and one other member plus six proxies). "All others present at the meeting voted for Leviathan," the producer says.

The hard work paid off. Leviathan received wide international publicity and won a Golden Globe before going down to the wire at the 87th Academy Awards, where Polish film Ida, from Pawel Pawlikowski, took home the foreign-language Oscar statuette.

The updated edition of Rodnyansky's Enter the Producer is set to be published in Moscow on Saturday.