Alexander Rodnyansky, the producer of Russian drama “Loveless,” which is a frontrunner in Cannes competition, financed Andrey Zvyagintsev’s film without any funds from the Russian government. He tells Variety why he made the decision to use only private finance, prompted by the hostility shown by Vladimir Putin’s regime toward Zvyagintsev’s Oscar-nominated “Leviathan,” also produced by Rodnyansky. He also reveals that their next movie together may be in English and set in the Middle East.
“After the uproar that ‘Leviathan’ caused [in Russia] I made the decision not to apply [for government funding],” Rodnyansky says. “The Ministry of Culture took great pains to emphasize their dislike of ‘Leviathan,’ and the minister [Vladimir Medinsky] said he thought the film was criticizing Russia in a very brutal way and that he was not ready to accept that.”
Rodnyansky says that although none of Zvyagintsev’s previous films had been supported by government funds, he had applied for state funding for “Leviathan,” which won best screenplay in Cannes, as it had a relatively high budget for an arthouse film, more than $6 million.
On “Loveless,” Rodnyansky received funding from several partners, including France’s Why Not Productions and the Dardenne Brothers’ Les Films du Fleuve in Belgium, with Wild Bunch handling international sales, as well as backing from Russian billionaire Gleb Fetisov.
The stark tale, which centers on the disappearance of a boy whose parents are in the middle of an acrimonious divorce, can be seen as a portrait of a society in meltdown. The only glimmer of hope is provided by a band of volunteers who search tirelessly for the missing kid. It has been acclaimed by film critics in Cannes and looks to be on course for a festival award.
The theatrical release of “Leviathan” in Russia suffered from massive piracy as its release had been delayed until after the award campaign in the U.S. There were almost 10 million downloads of the film in a few weeks. “This was both a fortunate and an unfortunate event,” Rodnyansky says. “Fortunate because it made the film a public event, so even the name of the movie has become a kind of a meme, a synonym for certain political and social troubles. It polarized the audience in a brutal way, made everyone discuss the movie, and divided not just the viewing audience but [Russian] society itself. There were people who defended the movie and people who considered it to be Russophobic.”
The unfortunate effect of the piracy was that the theatrical box office was hit. It grossed around $2 million in Russia, which was respectable for an art-house title, but below expectations, given the “huge resonance” of the movie, Rodnyansky says.
Having learned from the experience, the producers of “Loveless” decided not to postpone the release of the film, and to put it out in Russia, through Sony, straight after Cannes on June 1, before any other territory. In Russia it will have the highest rating – making it only accessible to those over 18 years old – and the producers will have to cut the curse words that litter the speech of the characters.
The initial response from the Russian press to “Loveless” has been positive, but Rodnyansky expects it to “polarize” Russian audiences in the same way that “Leviathan” did. “Psychologically it is not an easy moment for Russians. They believe they are unfairly criticized and ostracized by the West. That’s why every Russian movie that speaks about the problems of our own society is considered something done against the interests of Russia,” he says. “But great movies play an important therapeutic role for society so by looking at the social problems they can make people discuss them and help solve them or at least admit their presence.”
Rodnyansky rejects any accusations that Zvyagintsev is unpatriotic and says that his work is part of Russia’s literary and cinematic tradition, and that it is the role of an artist to speak honestly about his country’s problems. “He is a real Russian artist who is extraordinarily patriotic, and not in a primitive way. [He doesn’t] promote something that is very far from his beliefs,” he says.
“His motivation is in two parts: First, he is interested in a deep investigation of human behavior and human nature. He can see extraordinary circumstances in everyday life: in the absence of love, in the breakdown of family ties… these things are important for him. Secondly, yes, he is Russian, and he believes it is important to speak about his own country.”
The film, which was budgeted at a similar level to “Leviathan,” was shot entirely in Moscow, where it is set. “We needed the real, convincing atmosphere of Russia. Zvyagintsev is a guy who is very much into detail,” Rodnyansky says. “For him it is extraordinarily important to have convincing locations that are completely relevant to what he is writing about.” Location scouting started as soon as Zvyagintsev began to write the script.
“In our minds this movie captures Russian life, society and language, but it is not limited to Russia. Zvyagintsev speaks about such universal things. He’s not social or political. He speaks about human nature,” Rodnyansky says. “It could happen anywhere, but he represents his culture, language and experience.”
That said, Rodnyansky doesn’t rule out a future excursion into English-language filmmaking for Zvyagintsev. “I could see him doing that but it would have to be a completely different story,” he says. “For example we are discussing right now a story based on true events that happened in the Middle East. Once again there’ll be a huge focus on people and characters.”
Zvyagintsev has “a following amongst actors,” Rodnyansky says. “Some really big stars have watched his movies, even the first one, and they all want to do something with him.”
Rodnyansky says a leading American producer was keen to make a U.S. version of “Leviathan,” which was inspired by a true event that took place in Colorado.
He adds that a number of Hollywood stars with their own production companies have sent scripts to Zvyagintsev with the idea that they would star in the film, Zvyagintsev would direct, and Rodnyansky would produce. “We have not been tempted by the scripts that were sent to us, but we are not allergic [to the idea]. If we found a story that reflected [Zvyagintsev’s] interests and that were logical given his focus – a character-driven story – we would accept.”
As for Rodnyansky’s other films, he is planning to produce a slate of English-language movies, mostly genre films, that will be shot in Russia, and so benefit from the low value of the ruble, but “addressed to the global audience.” These he calls “Russian global films.” They would be “films that can be originated and developed with the best talents of our part of the world – Russian directors and writers, and maybe Eastern Europeans, and other Europeans too – and shot with an international cast in English or some other languages,” he says. He is developing a slate of these projects that will be announced in the coming months.
Rodnyansky laments the poor relationship between Russia and the West, and says that Russians had hoped that President Trump would improve the situation. “Russia has been very damaged by the criticism of the Western press and governments and so on, and at the beginning [Russians] welcomed the election of Trump because he made a few statements that were in favor of Russia, or the Russian government at least, during the campaign, so after he became President it was a huge disappointment because Trump did nothing practically to act on the position he so openly articulated in the campaign. So I don’t think anyone in Russia is so supportive of Trump right now.”
He adds: “The relationship with America is very bad, and I think people and politicians in Russia have lost the belief it could improve easily right now.”
Rodnyansky rejects the idea that Putin helped Trump in the U.S. election in some way. “I think it is just talk. From the Russian point of view it is hard to imagine. This is very much about American political life, and a Russian bad guy is needed everywhere. It’s like in a movie. Everything that is going on in a [negative] direction is done by someone bad… who is bad today? The Russian.
“This is very similar to what is going on in Russia. We always have some bad guys from the West doing all the horrible things in Russia. It is a mirror situation, but we never expected America to be in such a position, to believe that everything that is going on in domestic politics has been done with Russian support and participation. I believe Russians are demonized in many ways and even [Russian] people who are liberals and are quite skeptical about the Russian government don’t believe [that Russia has interfered in U.S. politics].”
Rodnyansky and like-minded friends see Trump as being similar to populist politicians elsewhere, including Russia: “We believe this is a typical politician of the contemporary world: populistic and irresponsible. But we know this kind of politician very well. That’s why I say: ‘Welcome to our world.’”