Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Frightfest London 2015: Pavel Khvaleev Interview

Imagine if Andrei Tartovsky had invented a time machine, travelled from the 1970's to the mid-Noughties and directed Silent Hill. That accurately sums up the thoughts that were going through my head as I settled into Russian director Pavel Khvaleev's visually haunting, dreamlike directorial debut III.  I'll say no more about the movie as I will be publishing a review after the dust settles on this year's Frightfest.  What I will say though is that it will look stunning on the big screen.  Pavel was kind enough to not only arrange access to a screener but also agreed to answer some questions.  Here's how that went.

AOTD: Tell us a little bit about your experience shooting III. How many days did you shoot for? Were there any obstacles or did it all go smoothly?

PK: For me, shooting film III was a kind of experiment. First of all, I used only my personal money resources and finances, without any involvement of outside investors. Secondly, our entire team, including actors, made a feature film debut. The most difficult and memorable day of shooting we spent in the caves of Ichalkovsky Bor (pinewood), where the temperature didn’t exceed 0 degrees Celsius, while above the ground it was 27 °C.

As for pre-production, the storyboard is one of the most difficult stages for me, as you have to recreate and replay every second of the whole movie in your head. You need to play the role of each character yourself to feel maximum emotionality and space of the scene imagined in your head, before arranging and sketching it out on paper. The storyboard is a must if you work in a team. It allows you to stick to a clear shooting plan, but at the same time you can take the liberty of improvising, bearing in mind the key plans.

The shooting itself was divided into three parts. The first part started in Russia in July 2013, where more than half of the film was shot during the two months, including all the complicated scenes with monsters. By the way, for one of the scenes we had to wake up every morning at 5am hoping to catch the morning fog and have time to take a long shot of the forest from the bridge. The second part was in winter and lasted only for a couple of days, as we needed a lot of snow and a thick layer of ice to recreate the endless white expanse, where the heroine was walking. The third and, probably, the funniest for our crew filming part took place in Germany in May 2014, where we were shooting for about two weeks, following a very busy shooting schedule.

AOTD: The movie was shot on a very low budget of 15,000 Euros. How did you go about gathering the finances to make the movie and what challenges did the micro-budget present to you as a film-maker?

PK: Due to the limited budget, we were constantly forced to check with the cost estimate and, probably, make some sacrifices to the shooting process. But even this did not prevent us from going to Germany with the whole crew to continue exterior shooting.

Of course, the costs were saved since all postproduction, including scoring and music writing, was made by me. Thus, it reduced possible expenses from the film budget by additional 2-3 salaries. Although, every member of our crew was working out of pure enthusiasm, without any remunerations. Together with my brother, we spent about 3 months of studio time on writing film soundtracks. With more than a 10-year experience in creating and releasing dance electronic music under the name of Moonbeam, the soundtracks for film III became a real styles experiment for us. We used a lot of live instruments together with electronic analog synthesizers. The only pre-written track was Reptile’s Head by Loolacoma project, which can be heard during the end credits. The second stage of working on sound brought us some difficulties, as after film editing and colour correction we had 80 minutes of absolutely silent film. We didn’t record clear sound during the shooting, so we had to sound every rustle, step, or noise – in short, everything that happens on the screen for 80 minutes. By the way, just after the film’s launch we are planning to release a special album of soundtracks III by Moonbeam.

AOTD: That's very cool. I loved the soundtrack so I'll keep an eye out for that. None of the three principal actors in III had any prior acting experience. Tell us a little about how you went about casting the movie.

PK: There is not a single professional among the cast. With our budget we were not ready to invite professional actors. On the other hand, this particular circumstance played in our favour, allowing us to capture natural emotions on camera. As our actors, being not used to work on camera, played themselves.

AOTD: Polina Davydova is a striking onscreen presence and has the most challenging role in the movie. Did she bring anything to her performance that you didn't anticipate?

PV: We did not expect much, as we knew it would be difficult for Polina, since she did not have any acting education and experience. But, of course, she has talent which we’ve tried to reveal on the set. Both girls, Polina and Lyuba, proved to be very hardy, as some scenes of the film were shot in winter at −28 °C, in the forest with hungry mosquitoes, or in the rain. Everyone behaved themselves very professionally and endured all the hardships of nature and the script.

AOTD: There were quite a few people involved in writing the story. Can you tell us something about the gestation of the script? Did it change at all during the course of filming or arrive on screen mostly intact?

PV: The synopsis was developed by three people: Evgenia Mustafina, Oleg Mustafin, and Alexandra Khvaleeva. During discussions of the future film, they exchanged ideas, rejecting unnecessary stories and events, and keeping only the most interesting stuff. When the overall picture began to emerge, Alexandra proceeded with the main narrative part.

Up to the end of work on the film, we’ve been correcting the script, for example, adjusting Polina’s voiceover.

AOTD: III was shot partly in your home country of Russia and partly in Germany. The locations you chose in both countries are very striking and lend much to the movie’s atmosphere. How did you go about scouting/choosing the locations and why did you decide to shoot part of the movie in another country?

PV: Thank you. Well, the producer of “III” Frank Ellrich is a good friend of mine and he lives in Germany. During a visit in Frankfurt, where he lives, he took me and my wife Sasha to Marburg, the city where he was born.

We instantly loved the dark and historical atmosphere of that old place. That day it was foggy and rainy and Frank always apologized about the bad weather. But I only smiled and said: “Do you know what? This place is the perfect place to shoot parts of the movie III down here.” After this Frank stopped apologizing haha. In April last year we went there with a film crew of 10 people and Frank took us to several places he scouted due to the description of my storyboard. In ten days we caught all scenes we had especially prepared for that.

AOTD: Is the horror genre one you feel particularly drawn to and if so why?

Answer 7: It’s hard to say, because in general I am interested in many various genres, such as Thrillers, Science Fiction or Fantasy. But my music and especially my videos I created for my music project Moonbean contained very often horror or mystic elements. I feel somehow very connected to it. So all this experience I gathered at my work for the music videos finally lead me to the idea of a full horror movie.

AOTD: III is your debut as a director. Are there any past masters of horror cinema, or just cinema in general, whose work particularly inspired you?

PV: At the current moment I’m inspired, probably, just like other viewers around the world, by new strikingly good TV series, such as Black Mirror, Les Revenants (The Returned), True Detective…

AOTD: I’m not aware of many Russian horror movies appearing of late. What is the current state of horror cinema and film-making in general in your home country?

PV:  Russian horror cinema market is very poor, there are only few movies, and they are all the same. That’s why we decided not to make a clich├ęd copy of such Hollywood bestsellers as Insidious, Mirrors, and Paranormal Activity. We decided to choose a more complex narrative model that would involve not only people, but also the history. For example, just a few people in our country know that Siberian shamanism was linked to Orthodoxy, as well as to Catholicism in Europe. Thus, it is more than a typical horror movie.

We also want to say that touching religion in our country is not particularly welcomed by the Orthodox Church, which in its turn caused some difficulties at this stage. Namely, at Movement festival in Russia, our film was included into the non-competition program and, what’s more, the film could be shown only after 12pm. Other festival films as a rule are only socially oriented.

AOTD: III is screening at Frightfest in London next month. Do you have a message for the audience?

PV: Dear sophisticated viewers of Frightfest Festival, you may find our film not so bloody or dynamic. But that was not our purpose. The main thing is to feel the atmosphere and melancholy of Russian people and their environment. And most importantly, to believe that something bigger and deeper is hidden beyond the existing knowledge about diseases.

AOTD: I just want to finish by thanking Pavel for taking the time to provide such thoughtful and interesting answers to our questions.  Here's the official trailer for III.

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