Russian helmer Ivan I. Tvardovsky spoke to Variety about his sophomore feature “Zoology,” a modern fairytale about a middle-aged woman in a seaside town whose drab existence brightens up after she grows a tail.
A social outcast, Natasha is closer to the animals at the zoo where she works than she is to her co-workers or to the God-fearing and superstitious people who surround her, including her own mother.
For the young filmmaker, Natasha’s tail represents “a distinguishing trait, something special that each of us has” — from political views or taste in music to sexual orientation. The film offers a commentary on current Russian society, which Tverdovsky says no longer celebrates individualism but rather dictates uniformity.
The film follow’s Tverdovsky’s acclaimed first feature, 2014’s “Corrections Class,” which won more than a dozen international awards, including Karlovy Vary’s East of West prize. “Zoology” had its international premiere at the Karlovy Vary Festival, where it’s vied for the Crystal Globe.
The film seems to be a strong critique of intolerance — was that your intention with the film?
I wanted to focus on the segment of people who are fighting or looking to be independent, who want to prove to others that they can live the way they want to. The starting point was that I also wanted to go beyond that. “Zoology” is about the existence of a human being within the animal world and the other way around, the animal world’s existence in the human world and their interactions.
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Is this critique of human society specific to modern-day Russia or is it more universal?
I understand that in the context of today’s situation in the Russian Federation the focus is sort of more national, rather than being more universal, but when I actually started with this idea, I really wanted to focus on the relations of human beings and animals living within a certain environment. Animals live in an environment without any politics, without any presidents, without any borders, and there is also the question of tolerance within that society. We all live in nature under the sun, and in a way everybody is a part of the food chain.
The film has a very natural, almost documentary feel. Was that intentional?
Before I started shooting feature films I worked on documentaries. I made eight documentaries, also some short documentaries, so this style is very close to my heart.
To what extent did you allow your actors to improvise?
Actually, in the script, the text was not full, and we didn’t have the final version. … There was improvisation, but in a limited framework. I had the description of the contents of the scene but I do not insist on what kinds of words are to be used or the word order. I would call it semi-improvisational.
As far as Natalia [Pavlenkova] is concerned, we’ve known each other for a while. She played the mom of the main character in my previous feature film, “Corrections Class,” and she was also in one of my short films, so we have had a long relationship and we understand each other very well. There is this chemistry that clicks, there is emotion and love, you say half a word and we understand each other immediately. There is no need for lengthy explanations. We are in harmony — it’s not surprising after making three films together.
Who are some of the filmmakers that you like, that have influenced you?
Well, it’s actually changing all the time. I like and watch a lot of documentaries. There was a period in my life when I liked a lot Lars von Trier, then I had a period when I really felt like there was a connection with Bertolucci. But with this film right now, I’m not quite sure whether there’s any reference to a particular filmmaker; I don’t think there is any. I would like to add — one night I switched on the TV and there was a children’s channel where only cartoons are shown. When I was watching that I realized that in children’s cartoons animals are always good guys, but when you look at the films for adults, animals are usually villains. So I watched a lot of children’s cartoons to get inspiration.
Are you already working on your next project?
Yes, for the past three and a half years I’ve been working on a documentary on the Russian police. We are at the editing stage .I also have a new script and we are planning in autumn to start with some preparatory work. Of course, it will very much depend on the fate or success of “Zoology,” because it might influence the potential arrival of new co-producers.