Before the UK première of Alexander Hant’s How Viktor The Garlic Took Alexey The Stud To The Nursing Home, we talked to the Russian director about the motivations and message behind his unusual and fairy-tale-like reinvention the father-and-son journey in an eclectic Russian setting.
The first thing that draws attention is the long, unusual title of your film. What is the reason for choosing the nicknames ‘Garlic’ and a ‘Stud’?
Initially, with the scriptwriter we planned to make it short. We thought about the options: ‘Garlic’, ‘Shower Stone’, ‘Stone’, ‘Cement’ and many others. We even considered ‘Felt-tip pen’ or ‘Marker’ – we wanted to give such a nickname to Viktor. Producers usually avoid long names because they doubt whether the audience will respond to the long title and if it will reflect the box office, but our producer did not mind. Gathering our film world, we did not know that this was going to be a fairy tale. Social fairy-tale, as I call it. At some point during the filming I was horrified to find that the footage was not at all like reality, and that the script resembled an epic. Then I moved in this direction, this time consciously, and the world became more grotesque. When we finished the film, it became clear that its style required just such a name.
Colourful, patterned fabrics are constantly present in every frame of the film, contrasting with the grey reality. What is the reason behind this juxtaposition and your choice of patterns?
When I read the script for the first time, it became clear that this is a social drama about the orphan who meets his father and decides to get rid of him to get his apartment. To put it mildly, it is not the most cheerful story. And I asked myself: how do I tell it, in order to break through the barriers and obstacles that usually stand between the film and its viewers? After all, when the word “social” appears, it comes alongside a grey, gloomy and dark scenery and I wanted to tone that down. I thought to show that the world really is quite different, and that all these anti-heroes are not the unkind and immoral characters they appear at first. In addition to the aggression with which they defend themselves, they also have a particular character, and one must get to it somehow.
At the stage of preparation, we decided that our main colours would be green, red and yellow. The city in the first part of the film is richly coloured, and when the heroes go on the road, the flowers become smaller, even the hospital was chosen to be monochromatic. I began to weave the colour, brightness and contrast into the narrative, and the world began to acquire quite unrealistic outlines – it became hypertrophic and grotesque. Historically, this is how the fairy tale has always appeared, and I was determined to strengthen this feeling. I would not say that this is a fairy tale in its pure form, but there is also Ivan The Fool, the Humpbacked Horse, and even the Sleeping Beauty. We wanted to move the story from the city, from its dynamism and fuss, and put forward another colour palette. So it was a conscious move, without any symbolic meaning.
Viktor seems to be the embodiment of an anti-hero, but his character undergoes changes throughout the film. Is the audience supposed to pass a moral judgement on Viktor?
We tried not to put ourselves in a position of condemnation, although in principle there is such an opportunity, there is a space where one could adopt a certain attitude toward the characters and the events. I tried to avoid this, and I wanted to find something that touched me on a personal level, that would dig out what is in me. I wanted to immerse myself in these characterss, move along with them, try to find the opportunity to be a little closer, to see what happens to them. This was the main goal. I knew for sure that I did not want social cinema, a social theme, and, in general, some kind of storytelling where there is only reality and nothing more.
I believe that Viktor and Alexey are quite ordinary; they are not marginalized, as it may seem. Nothing like this. Alternatively, through them we should recognize that our entire society has long been marginalized.
I understand that you cannot offer the viewer only what he likes. He must be dragged into the narrative, but he must be forced into the film himself, without thinking whether he likes it or not. And then I have no right to judge the characters. In general, I believe that my profession is a process of research, immersion, and the issues of upbringing are related not so much to imposition of morality as to the expansion of horizons, the opening of the mind.
The lyrics of the soundtracks are aggressive, bold, furious. Do you think that this is the voice of modern Russian youth, such as Viktor?
The soundtrack was one of the hardest trials of the film. I tried everything, but it all came down to the most obvious. When we were shooting, Tkachuk (Viktor) came up with the idea of playing rap in the car. As a result, ‘Garlic’ listens to rap, although my initial idea was rather electronic music, dub-step. When I started to film, I thought that I had to invent something new. And I came up with popular balalaika music, I wanted to emphasise the fairy-tale aspect, to give the feeling that these are not real heroes, but fictional characters, so that the audience sees them with the right attitude. The music took a long time in the editing process, but at some point I realised that it had all come to be cartoon-like, that the music created a sense of illustration that does not allow the viewer to identify himself with the characters. And then Gershwin arose with “Rhapsody in Blue”– a piece that created the perfect contrast that made this world brighter, and through this music one could take a closer look at the characters. We had a long dispute with the producer who initially rejected all my options. I tried a lot of options, I refused Gershwin, and at the end I turned to my character’s idea.
In several scenes I use the music that he already listens to. I thought, “What if I immerse myself, try to understand it?” Then, I listened to a whole bunch of rap, and gradually discovered Viktor’s whole world. Every second, he takes a camera and reads out his texts – this is such a folk thing, a popular print even. Rap merged into this world, very organically, captivated everything. As a result, this wonderful story has come alongside wonderful performers: Grebz, MC Raptor, Husky, Antokha MC, ‘Ne Budite Spyashchikh’. I found a wonderful band that has nothing to do with rap, Zhora Kushnarenko’s project, called ‘Ne Tvoe Delo’, of which we use two songs in the beginning as well as the final one. A part of the music for the film was written by a remarkable electronic engineer #PRNRML Vladimir Ivanov. Finally, everything fell into place. And all this diverse music, the content of the texts, I believe to be an expression of the young Russian generation.
The film depicts a postmodern world where all values collapse. Do you think that this story is specific to modern Russia, or is it an international phenomenon?
I think that Alexei Borodachev wrote a universal story in terms of content. The problems depicted here are relatable for everyone and do not rely on any specific aspect of the Russian context. I, too, tried not to turn it in the direction of cinema that would be clear only to a Russian audience. I also understood that it is interesting for a foreigner to see not just the father-and-son history, but also to understand the picture of the place where the story takes place. We deliberately sought out colourful places, suits, signs that would create such a popular, fantastic idea of our reality. It seems to me that we correctly chose such a goal and an audience. When we showed the picture in Karlovy Vary Film Festival, I did not know how the film would be perceived. Of course, the audience was not aware of all the humour of the gang history, but generally no one felt the distance. The main thing is that the essence of the story has a meaning that is universally understood despite the local colour. There are many examples of films where everything relies on very specific local forms, but at the same time the content is clear to everyone. If the story is capable of transmitting feelings, the main task is not to spoil it and use the language of the cinema to pull out all the fun and message possible from the screen.
Finally, would you say that out of the hopelessness of the events depicted in the film, there is a lesson to be learned?
I did not try to lead the viewer or the character to any definite conclusion. The ending is open. It is important that the main character asks himself difficult questions, harder than those that worried him before. Previously, all he was concerned with was how to get away from his wife, how to apply for a loan, how to get rid of his father to get a house. Viktor perceived the world purely empirically, but having undergone on the journey with his father, he does not know where to move further – into the family life, or somewhere else. He asks himself: “where am I, where am I going, what is around me?” We do not usually realise how much we resemble our parents, and even purposefully deny this similarity. Viktor ‘the Garlic’ also does not realise how close he is to his father. I do not build any illusions about his rightness or wrongness. However, every person has a chance to change their life, an opportunity that is very hard to take advantage of.
Interview by Lucia González Mantecón
“How Viktor ‘The Garlic’ Took Alexey ‘The Stud’ to The Nursing Home will premiere at Barbican Centre on 28 March 2018, followed by a Q&A session with Alexander Hant. Book your tickets here.