All right, let’s use this Tumblr for its intended purpose. Here are some additional details from The Movie Set That Ate Itself that didn’t make it into GQ (and perhaps shouldn’t have, given that the first draft was over 7,000 words).


Ilya’s first cinematic idée fixe, says a friend, was organizational: he wanted to create a “Center for Young Cinema.” After taking a workshop at VGIK, the Russian state film school, however, he wrote a script that would soon become his first film, – an abstract meditation on storytelling and ritual that culminates in a scene of village crones dancing topless around a suckling pig. It got great reviews. As he was finishing 4, he discovered Lev Landau.

Khrzhanovsky didn’t know anything about physics, but the story, with its rich currents of sex, genius and doom, mesmerized him. He promptly optioned the scientist’s life rights and formed a production company, Phenomenon Films. And then something amazing happened: in the February of 2005, 4 took first prize at the Rotterdam Film Festival. All of a sudden, European producers were asking what’s next.

Khrzhanovsky began by commissioning famous novelist Vladimir Sorokin, with whom he had worked on 4, to write the script. Sorokin is a provocateur whose fiction periodically features people eating excrement and/or each other, so no one expected a straight-up Hollywood biopic - yet the first draft of his script still managed to shock nearly everyone who read it. The main character spent half the film masturbating; a later scene showed the comatose physicist, dribbling spittle and all, being molested by hospital nurses. The team tried a couple of rewrites. Finally, Sorokin amicably handed the reins over to Khrzhanovsky, saying, the director recalls, “I gave you clay. You mold whatever you want.” From here on out, Dau would be one man’s vision. And it would only get weirder.


As preproduction on Dau began in 2005, it was clear that Khrzhanovsky wasn’t interested in conventional approach to any aspect of the film, not just the script. His second feature would be shot using some of the strangest techniques ever devised. Apart from the veteran German DP Jürgen Jürges, most of the crew would consist of people from art and theater worlds who had the right “energy.” The only acting professional in the cast was Radmila Schogoleva, who would play Dau’s wife Nora; before the shooting began, she spent a full year working at a chocolate factory and a hospital, a regimen devised by Khrzhanovsky to beat the actress out of her. 

For the title role, Khrzhanovsky had one stipulation: it had to be played by an actual genius, regardless of the discipline. “In [Russian 2002 film] Tycoon,” he explained to me, “Vladimir Mashkov plays an oligarch. And you can plainly see that he is just a servant. I needed people who would have those energy levels. Geniuses to play geniuses, the powerful to play the powerful.” He ended up casting Teodor Currentzis, a lushly maned, 38-year-old pinup of a classical conductor.

The choice presented two challenges. One, Currentzis had a busy touring schedule he was in no hurry to abandon. And two, he was a Greek, born and raised in Athens. His Russian was shaky at best. Khrzhanovsky gleefully accepted both: the film would shoot around Currentzis’s other commitments, and as for his inconvenient Greekdom, Khrzhanovsky told me cryptically, “All geniuses are foreigners.”

Each of the lead performers would have “personal directors” assigned to them. Schogoleva’s, for example, followed her everywhere, even sleeping on the floor of her bedroom. His job, says a colleague, was “to stress her out,” in the hope she would then explode into authentic rage at her screen husband Currentzis. Schogoleva’s early screen tests show a model-thin Slavic beauty. On Khrzhanovsky’s orders, she gained 40 pounds, and will gain 40 more before the shoot’s end. The transformation seems to delight Khrzhanovsky, who keeps a collection of her before-and-after photos in his office.

Professional extras didn’t suit him; instead, a team 25 photographers roamed the streets of three cities looking for good faces. Their efforts resulted in a database of 210,000 candidates. In Kharkov alone, they photographed 160,000 people, every ninth resident of the city. The best of those were then processed through wardrobe and makeup, assigned a costume, and represented by six-inch photo cutouts. Thus, in assembling crowd scenes, Khrzhanovsky could literally play with hundreds of dress-up dolls, arranging them in deliberate color patterns (blue coats to violet to red, that sort of thing). Then his assistants would call up the living version of each doll and arrange them the same way in the shot.

The film’s original budget, a combination of a state grant with some private financing from Europe, was $3.5 million. The dollar goes fairly far in Russia, but this was still a modest sum. In Kharkov, Khrzhanovsky managed to put it to some breathtaking use. For a scene set at the airport, which involved a giant fake plane and required covering the tarmac with 800 tons of mud, he got the airport closed outright: the city of 1,400,000 didn’t accept inbound flights for a full day. Kharkov also allowed Khrzhanovsky to empty out and redecorate two miles of its main drag, to build a large street set on rooftops (in order to achieve a clearer horizon line – remember, no CGI) and to sheath its radio tower in a 70-foot plywood sword. The level of municipal cooperation was staggering, especially if you consider that Dau’s purpose was to dress Kharkov up as a baroquely Stalinist hell. Khrzhanovsky swears that the city let him do it all for free. Perhaps not entirely: both Kharkov’s mayor and deputy mayor have bit parts in the film.

Document check, mid-massage

At the Institute, Day 3: Document check, mid-massage [photo by S. Maximishin]

  1. flossish reblogged this from michaelidov
  2. longformblog reblogged this from michaelidov and added:
    Some extra details from Michael Idov’s The Movie Set That Ate Itself.
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