Interview: Ljubov Dzuzhynska
Translation: Elena Savlokhova
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What’s it like to be you?
It’s difficult. At certain times it’s tough, easy, very courageous, scary. Day to day, moment to moment.
What prevails lately?
It fluctuates throughout the day.
So far the morning is ok.
Alright then. You’ve had a lot of interviews and you’ve met quite a lot of people. Which questions do you dislike or even hate giving answers to?
I hate answering questions that were unprepared by the interviewer. Those stem from laziness. For example, “Tell me about yourself.” General questions, you know, where I have to do all the work and create monologues and long sagas about myself.
Well, we’re going to have a mixed interview of sorts. We have general questions, but they are aimed at deeper levels of the self and one’s perception. I will do my best not to disappoint you. So tell me, what question would you like to know the answer to? It can be something global, personal, existential…
How important will I be after my death?
How do you approach death and what is your perception of death?
I think I will accept death with honor and class when it’s time. Death does not scare me.
What do you think really matters at the end of one’s life?
I think everything that you leave behind. And I’m not talking about material things, rather about spiritual matters. Creativity is all that will remain after. And so it is very important to me.
Do you have a creative or realistic approach to life?
Interesting question. It’s divided. I would even say that my approach to life is more realistic than creative.
Does it disrupt your creative process?
You know, ‘creating’ is a loud word, I think. I don’t create as much, I rather react to a situation. That’s how it works for me. I read a book, I like it, and it hooks me emotionally. Afterward, ( and that’s, perhaps, where creativity resides) I wish to convey the feelings I’ve felt to others but in a realistic way. Since I cannot rewrite a book, because I am not a writer, in that sense. But I can make films. So, through this medium of film, I will try to convey my own feelings that I’ve experienced while reading a given book. The very act of conveying these feelings is creativity for me.
How do you feel when the entire process is complete and the audience is presented with the final product? In one of your interviews, you’ve mentioned that the most pleasant thing for you is to see the audience react to your creations. Is a sense of devastation present after a certain piece of work is done? What’s it like after?
Well yes, there is huge satisfaction in their reaction, as you said. But, not devastation. It’s more about fear because you are then left with thoughts like, “Now what? What do I do now?“. I’ve never experienced that void, except in advertising, where one job was followed by the next one, and I always had an upcoming project. Otherwise, I always paused. A creative and materialistic pause scared me my entire life. Now what? Will I work again? What I have produced now, how will it affect the future, how will it affect my future work? How will it affect the quantity and quality of my work?
How is it that you fear the uncertainty of the future yet you do not fear death
But see, it’s not a question of death, it’s a question of the inability to fulfill all the possibilities that I had, in the time that I had. As Vysotsky sang: “I didn’t finish the verse, I didn’t love it enough.” This is probably easy to translate. When I speak Russian, I translate from English to Russian in my head.
I understand. So you’ve been talking about the fact that you get inspired by a book and then work with it after that. I have an abstract question for you, if you had the opportunity to experience a reality of a book, which one would you like to explore? If not a book, then a film maybe.
You need to prepare for this question. I don’t have a spontaneous answer.
The unexpected is more interesting.
Well, I’m looking at my bookshelf, it helps, I have a great cheat sheet. Well, of course, I would like to explore fantasy books, because I won’t get a chance to experience anything like it within the frames of my reality. Probably “Dune“.
The book or film?
Book. I haven’t seen the film. have you?
I saw the one by David Lynch, the new one is not out yet.
Ah, Lynch, yes. I haven’t seen the new one, and I don’t think I will watch it. But the book is great, I liked it a lot for a while. But yes, I would like to explore a fantasy environment, I would like to experience something different. Because in my life, thank God, I have opportunities, for example, I have a whole shelf of books by Charles Bukowski. That’s a reality that is easy to immerse in – I would go binge drinking whenever and live in some shack. It’s not a problem. But fantasy is much more fascinating.
You say that you are not a writer. But, if, hypothetically, you wrote a book, what would it be about?
It will sound a little pretentious, but in a sense, I am writing a book with all my films. And the book is always about me or what I have lived through. Indirectly, not directly. So I think I would continue in the same direction. For example, my last film “Persian Lessons” – interestingly, it came to me in an interview that this is a film about me. That this person who ends up in a concentration camp, a Jew who is saved by falsifying his persona (he says that he is Persian and that he knows the Farsi language and is saved because of that), it was me when I was an immigrant in Canada …
When I first arrived in Canada at the age of 15, I pretended to be Canadian so that they wouldn’t figure out that I in a sense forged the language I spoke. I spoke English flawlessly, with no accent at all. And in this way, I felt completely rogue. It wasn’t me. It was not Vadik from Kyiv, it was someone else, some strange rogue guy who spoke with a very limited vocabulary, yet spoke English. And these are the moments that, maybe even subconsciously, I inject as the main themes or as indirect small messages in my films …
All of your films?
Yes! It’s fascinating, they all have some kind of parallel with me. They are exactly what I want to say, I guess. But I never sit down and think: “This is what I want to say.” I never think like that. But when it comes across afterward… I guess I react to books, to stories that have some connection with me.
In an interview for Big Money, you said that you gave up filming Atlas Shrugged because of the message it conveyed. You’ve compared people who idolize this piece of written work with fascists.
They are fascists.
I agree with your viewpoint. In the same interview, you said that after a while, in a few years, you would still shoot this film, yet change the message a bit, that you would do it your way.
I was wrong if I said that. I showed off a bit, to be honest. I would not have succeeded at that task. First of all, the genetics of the project is such that it is impossible to change the philosophy behind its main message, and the message itself too, of course. Besides, they would not allow it, I think. I would have to fight for it, yet still, I’m a hired person, and in the end, they would have won this war. So no, I wouldn’t want that. If I had been offered the opportunity now, I wouldn’t have agreed to it. I was wrong in that interview.
Then another question. Does the personality of an artist in any sphere somehow affect the way you perceive his or her creations? Would you still be able to watch a film or listen to a certain piece of music knowing that the person behind it is repulsive? Do you separate the creator and the work itself?
I would like not to be influenced by that. I would like that very much. I would like to take that away from my life, to separate my opinions from what I create. In the same way, I would also like to think about Woody Allen, for example. It’s a great example, but if the allegations that he raped his daughter are true, then how can you not think about it when watching his films? It resides in your head and you have the aftertaste of knowing.
For example, I knew Charles Bukowski personally. And he was unbearable, he was a very difficult person. But I still adore him. He is my favorite writer and I, of course, remember him as a person. We met many times, we drank together. And it left me with a sense of wreck… Well, he was a very, very difficult person. What about you?
In all honesty, I would like to learn how to separate the two.
Let me give you an example. Say you have an interview… What’s your favorite band?
I’ve been through 300 interviews so I’ve lived through that.
Where they tell you to fuck off?
No, not that haha. But being a fan is no longer a part of my life.
And does it affect your perception of their work?
Well, for a while, it does. I can’t separate the personal aspect from the professional one. I just can’t.
The same way as me then. I would want that, but it’s hard.
Yet I know people who say: “Yes, I can separate the two.”
I think they are lying to themselves. They should be introduced to me and then we shall see.
How do you think people perceive you when they meet you for the first time?
They are afraid of me.
I don’t know. My wife says that I am intimidating. Even at auditions, actors shake in front of me. I don’t know, I actually don’t see myself that way. Probably, it’s my half-gangster appearance, or maybe I somehow press a little too hard. I am very direct. So yes, people are afraid of me. I always laugh about it and say: “If they are afraid of me, then they respect me,” as Stalin said. But it’s not my intention at all, I never wanted to be perceived that way.
I share your situation because I’m the same way. Meaning, I am not afraid of you, you don’t seem to be intimidating. What I’m saying is that I also evoke the same feelings in people who do not know me. They are afraid of me, I don’t know why.
It’s weird, right?
Because I, for example, do not want that at all. It’s even unpleasant when someone is afraid of me. I say: “Just tell me what you have in mind.” “Well, well, well…” But okay. In a way, it’s nice, to be honest.
You’ve talked about Charles Bukowski, so my question is – out of all the people you’ve met in your life, famous or not, who struck you the most in terms of individuality?
I had a friend who wasn’t famous at all – he was the funniest man in the world, he was funnier than any known comedian. He was a very sensitive, amazing person who, alas, fell for drugs, on a large scale, and ruined himself in that way, and continues to do so. Thank God, he is still alive, yet he continues to self-destruct. I think that he is the most wonderful person whom I have ever met in my life. Back to drugs again, I thought of Robert Downey Jr. I was friends with him for some time, and he is also the same sort of interesting. A very fascinating human being with a very sharp brain, a soul that’s both inward and outward. And an openness. Openness in people has always attracted me very much. Also honesty, honesty in the self, honesty about the self. Also to some degree the ability to laugh at oneself. And to understand yourself. These are all very important human qualities.
Are these rare qualities in people?
Very, very rare. You know, most people think they are “too cool for school”. They will never be able to directly say facing a mirror: “Well, I was wrong, asshole, it was a mistake, I really …“. They always somehow manage to get out of situations, make excuses, lie. This is what I dislike the most. Well, you messed up, fine. You did something wrongfully but eventually came to a solution. So speak up, confess your wrongdoings. There is nothing wrong with that, nothing shameful about it. On the contrary, you will be more human in the eyes of others.
Is there something that you could never forgive?
No. By the way, despite everyone being afraid of me, I am a very kind person in this sense. I forgive people. I fully experience the feelings that come with disputes but then somehow it all goes away. Because deep inside I love people.
Let’s get back to inspiration. You said that you are inspired by books. Is there anything else that can inspire you ephemerally?
Yes, for example, a woman’s voice always inspires me. While singing, or just being melodic, while talking, or simply reading something. I am inspired by moments from my life, photographic moments – when I walk the dog and see a captivating reflection in the water. Or how a bird will land on water, for instance. These are moments that inspire me greatly. I am inspired by human goodness: when someone will give someone else a hand, help a blind old man across the road. And it’s not inspiring when I do such things, it’s rather a result of seeing it elsewhere – just to witness such a moment in life, to witness how one person is kind to the other. I hate to look at people who do bad deeds.
What is your definition of beauty at this stage of your life?
In terms of people?
In a more general sense.
I think it’s harmony. A combination of elements. Even if they are not beautiful separately, yet together they are beautiful.
It’s a beautiful answer. And what was the most beautiful you ever saw, experienced, or felt in your life?
Oh, wow what a question. Something I have to remember. My first son when he opened his eyes when he was born. Well, there were a lot of moments when your breath is taken away. But try and remember the most beautiful one… When the snow falls, those big, big flakes. Slowly. That’s beautiful, I think. Things like that. It’s early morning, I’m still a little full of emotions.
A lot of people say that our interviews are like therapy sessions.
Yes. And that’s great.
Forgive me that this interview was scheduled so early in the morning. So following up on your previous answer, what have you learned from your children?
Ha, great question. To perceive everything with ease.
Could you give an example?
It’s not much of an example, it’s better if I summarize. It’s a way of looking at something in a simple manner. This is strongly related to my work. It’s also a mistake I made with my second feature film. If your audience has to think too much if your film or your creation becomes too much of a mystery, and people can’t perceive it the way a child would, – when you grasp it intuitively, straight to the vein. Instead of being confused.
I think that this approach is wrong, you are wrong, everything should be straightforward. If people understand it then they dive into the pool of familiar emotions. And then it is easier to manipulate the emotions of people through film. And this is what I learned from my children. For them, metaphors, riddles, complex constructions, and plots, do not work. They are disconnected from accepting meaning and they cannot transfer the meaning. Try bringing a child to a museum to look at abstract paintings. The child will look at them and say: “So, can I have an ice cream?” And that’s how your trip to the abstract museum with a child will end.
An adult will begin to imagine things from witnessing the art. And sometimes it’s right to come up with meanings if it’s an outstanding abstract painting. Such things exist. There is bad abstract art, and then there is good abstract art. Just like with everything. Grown-ups try to immerse themselves into the abstract painting and come up with a meaning. Otherwise, why is it hanging here? Are you trying to make a fool out of me? So “trying to dive in and create a meaning” has no place in my films. I made this mistake once, with the second film “Life Before Her Eyes“. Tenet is also a good example.
Yes, I’ve seen your second feature film.
You have? It’s interesting, right? It may be interesting, but imagine showing this film to a child. I am not saying that films should be simple so that children could understand them, that’s not my point. The ideas themselves, the delivery of these ideas should be simple. A straight wire instead of a whole nest of wires that go back and forth.
You say that it was a mistake regarding your second film, but in the moment of creating it, you probably thought that the more you twist these wires in the nest, the more interesting it will be, and then you realized…
The cooler I will look as an artist. It was a mistake.
But were you not disappointed that the audience was not ‘mature’ enough to grasp these complex ideas?
It’s not a disappointment, it’s just the way people are. I don’t blame them at all. We are human, we are simple people. For example, we cannot listen to the most complex jazz music for a long time because it starts to hurt our ears. Yet we can listen to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata on repeat all day, and on the contrary, it will soothe us. In this manner, I would say that the simpler it is the more emotions it brings out. You don’t have to make something simple into something complex on purpose.
But since you are not an ordinary bystander in terms of cinema, what films catch more of your attention? Simple and straightforward, or one’s where you have to dig deeper?
Simple and straightforward. For example, when asked about my favorite film, I always say in interviews that it’s “Bicycle Thieves“. I decided that a long time ago. Many people cannot answer this question, in the likes of the one you’ve asked, “what is the most beautiful thing that you have ever seen?“. It is very difficult to answer this question.
I watched it yesterday, it’s good.
It’s impossible to make a simpler film easier, but it is so real, so archetypal that it makes it so emotional at the end. It’s my favorite movie.
It as if brings you back to reality and illustrates that in reality, it is not as beautiful as you could imagine. But the question is whether the world is fair, and do fairy tales exist in the real world, what do you think?
I believe the world is unfair. Well, I don’t believe in God, so it’s hard for me to say who and what is behind the word ‘world‘. Who created it and why? But I believe that a lot of things that might not happen actually do happen. For example, kids who get diagnosed with cancer, the fucking coronavirus, people’s hatred for one another. It makes me furious. People are born with hatred. These are the things that shouldn’t exist. It’s not fair and not good. And the injustice of this world… For example, Rush Limbaugh, a very political right-wing supporter of Trump, a radio host, has just died.
Yes, I’ve heard.
He is quite famous and he died yesterday, I think. It’s not fair that he lived for so long. Because he is a really evil and bad person, he planted a lot of bad things, he is a coward, a foul, disgusting person. Well, like Solovyov in Russia, who is the same type of evil. It is unfair that they live and live well. The world is unjust.
What would you like to cease from existing, if you could? But only one thing, in general. You could make it disappear just with a single thought.
Prejudices. Hating others. Not even hatred, anti-Semitism is a prejudice, racism is a prejudice. When you think something about a group of people, and you generalize it. For example, that all Jews are greedy, or that all people of color are lazy. This sort of thing.
Well, yes, it’s just that people think in semantic systems.
I think it’s the root of all evil.
If you could go back in time and change something in history, or go as far into the future as you would like, where would you choose to go and why?
I would like to go to the future.
How far into the future?
I don’t know, forty years? old. Everything will change drastically even in the frame of 40 years.
Would you like to be immortal?
Yes, I would.
Would eternity not bore you?
No. By the way, I have this topic rooted in my head, I will probably make a film on the matter soon.
About eternal life. The pursuit of eternal life by a man, the desire to live forever. And whether it is right or wrong. This is exactly the question I want to uncover in a film.
Is it reasonable to live forever?
Humanity is striving for eternal life. For some reason, I remembered the movie “A Man From Earth”. Have you seen it? It’s about a man who stopped aging and lived…
No. The entire film is built on dialogue, where a Cro-Magnon man stopped aging. And so he moves every 10 years from place to place so that others would not notice that he is not growing old, and the year in the film is 1998…
Well, wait, was he in his time?
Yes. His metabolism just started working very fast, with cells regenerating in an instant. He remained young. He suffered from terminal illnesses but recovered. And so he, roughly speaking, has survived to our time, and the whole film is based on a conversation in a living room when he packs his things to move on. He was a teacher at a small school. A physicist, historian, political scientist – his friends who teach at this school are there with him. And he hypothetically forms a dialogue with them in the likes of, “Imagine if I hypothetically lived throughout history”. And they touch topics of religion, science, and so on.
Very interesting. Is it a film or a book?
It’s a film. I don’t know if there is a book, but there are two parts to the film – the second film is quite bad, but the first one is wonderful.
I will most definitely watch it.
I’m not going to spoil it for you, there are crazy turns in that conversation. Back to the topic of immortality – when you talked about these moments, where the snowflakes fall to the earth very slowly, the cinematic moments of your life, was there ever a moment in your life that you wanted to relive over and over again? Like Faust’s “Beautiful moment, do not pass away!”
No, I would get so terribly tired of it.
But if there was an option that you would never get bored and it would feel the way it felt for the very first time?
Just a certain moment?
Well, it can last as long as you like – day, minute, etc.
I cannot pick one. Because if I do, then it would be the most important thing for me, and it immediately becomes dull, or I will look like an idiot. In the sense that, for example, if I said that such a moment was when the audience applauded my film at the Berlin Film Festival for 10 minutes then it would mean that it’s a moment I crave for the entirety of my life. What a prick. Do you really need that much applause? Once it’s fucking great, on repeat – it’s hell. You see, although it was a pleasant moment in a sense, to make a cult out of it – no thanks. Or, for example, again, if we go back to the birth of my son. It’s all about you. Your son comes into the world, and he is just like you. Any possible answer would be fixated on me. It would be very selfish, it would be very egotistical. If anyone dares to answer this question directly, then he will always look like a complete fool. Good question by the way.
Does it matter to you what others think of you and to what extent?
It does. It’s important for all of us. There are no people who are fully the “I don’t give a damn” type. I think they are lying, they are lying when they say that. It is very important how others look at you, how they evaluate you. Those who are close to you, or your fans, Internet friends – it’s all very important.
You know the filmmaking process by heart, from beginning to end. Did it make it more difficult for you to perceive films by other directors? Because you probably notice all the flaws, camera work, effects, and so on. How do you perceive cinema?
The best part is that I forget about this process when I watch any film. It fascinates me to such an extent that I don’t think about it. And this may be because of a very fascinating plot, or emotionally it somehow immerses into some kind of trance where all the screws and glue are not noticeable. That’s exactly what you asked me, what is beautiful? It is precisely the combination of different elements of the film together, in harmony. And then I stop even thinking about how it all works together. They can screw up or do things that in a bad or average film, I would never forgive, and I would say: “Well, what the hell is this, that’s so badly made.” And then, you know … They have me with a good film. That’s what I seek and what I want.
Could you give a couple of examples from recent films that impressed you?
«Uncut Gems» a few years back.
I haven’t seen it.
Watch it. And then there’s a movie called ‘Good Time‘. It doesn’t matter in which order. It’s a completely different language of cinema. These two brothers from New York created these films.
Are you a person who is goal-oriented or led by dreams? Or do you not separate the two?
I don’t live by goals, my goals are very, very simple. The goal is to make a film, for example. This goal completely absorbs me, and I just go ahead like a shark and make this film to the best of my ability. And I have no life goals at all. After that, whatever happens, happens.
And what about your dreams?
My dreams are to be free, to be free from others.
Do you consider yourself to be a free person?
Not yet. Believe it or not, I’m not free.
What does freedom entail for you?
Freedom means you have “fuck you money”. There is a term “fuck you money”. You should never serve anyone when you possess it. Although, in a sense, you will still serve the aforementioned money. And ‘fuck you money’ is a very good thing to have. It gives you freedom of speech, gives you freedom of movement, freedom of not being dependent on others, independence from poverty, independence from fears like, “How will I pay for the roof under my head tomorrow?” Such things. And most importantly – it gives freedom from humiliation in the pursuit of all of this. And this is a very important thing in life – the ‘fuck you money’.
Some are lucky to be born with him, they have rich parents, they are heirs to the ‘fuck you money’. But they still drive themselves into being an asshole. As always. They always fail to live happily even with all their money. And many of us always try to obtain this position. I’m being banal, but money is very important in life.
Money is important in capitalism, in our structure of society. And it is money that will grant us the opportunity to go to northern Japan and see snowflakes slowly falling in Hokkaido. Especially if you live in Phoenix, where snow is non-existent, or in some fucking Chelyabinsk, where you don’t get out of a stinky old factory all day long. When it snows there, you don’t even look out the window, you will not even feel like enjoying it. But ‘fuck you money’ will allow you to look at the snow and enjoy it. To buy a beautiful dog and see it rolling on the carpet, instead of, “Why did you shit the carpet, how can I afford a new one now?” You know, all these everyday problems and all these sorts of things… ‘Fuck you money ‘ gives you waist-high rubber boots in a river of shit.
I agree with you, it’s an appealing approach. So tell me, in the surrounding world, the modern world, what trends may upset you, or even frightens you? Or are you okay with how things are going?
No, I don’t like where things are headed at all. I won’t even talk about politics now, because everything is clear with that. I’m talking about people. I believe that people are becoming angry, people are turning into rats, they are meaner, they are more jealous of the successes of others. And this is most evident on social media. Since I don’t communicate with so many people directly, is very noticeable on social networks. Someone will do something wrong, or say the wrong thing, or, God forbid, express an opinion, and be attacked by a pack of hyenas. They will tear you to pieces from the comfort of their sofas. You know, they sit and bark and snarl and hustle. One by one they are nobody, but together they are dangerous – the people on the Internet. And I see this tendency, people are becoming more and more, well, animalistic. In the sense of tolerance towards others.
How do you see the future? How do you think things will turn out for humanity?
I think everything will be fine. Despite everything, things will be fine, because it has always been that way. The history of mankind always goes in a circle. In waves, things go down, things go up. The plague that we are now going through has already happened, and more than once. We’ve witnessed more fatal plagues throughout our history, human history. Wars will continue, they have always existed and always will. Then some kind of prosperity, some new forms of art will appear, as the old ones will die.
The only thing is that what will happen in 40 years will accelerate. Just like the universe is accelerating. Our world, our life is accelerating. Everything is faster now. Even this interview – you don’t have to fly for 12 hours to be able to have a conversation with me. It’s now available face to face at any time, and soon you won’t even need to click anything – you will be able to connect with neural communication. It will all happen, I think. And it’s all very interesting. It is accelerating. But it won’t be bad. We, as humanity, will not perish. We are not headed to an end. Well, someday, I think, there will be an end. But this won’t be the end of a result of some nuclear war. The sun will simply go out, but maybe we will not be here anymore. Maybe we will fly into outer space, scattered over different stars.
Regarding art (not your art), with what poem, book, film, or song do you associate yourself now at this stage of your life? What resonates with you currently?
Yesterday I rewatched a film, which I consider to be the most brilliant documentary. It’s called “My Architect“. But again, this answer implies that I see myself as a genius, but that’s far from reality. There was a genius architect, whom no one understood, who built 7 buildings, or 8 buildings throughout his career. His name was Louis Kahn – an American Jew, an immigrant. He built the best and most interesting buildings in the world. It’s a lout statement, but it’s true. And throughout his career, he had no job, no one understood him. And when he was given a job, he could not communicate with anyone because he was a difficult person. He lost projects and died in a railway station toilet without any money. And in a sense, I somehow associated with him. Not because I have built 7 of the best buildings in the world, but I can relate to this man. And this story emotionally influenced me a lot. And then it turned out that he had three families. This architect has. And from one of these families, his son unleashes it all – the life of his father. With love and respect. Just like in “Bicycle Thieves”, by the way, where the son lovingly accepts his thief father at the end.
Yes, in spite of it all.
It’s so interesting, right?
Yes, very much so.
I thought of this Japanese film when we talked about death. The soundtrack was written by Joe Hisaishi, who composes all the soundtracks for Studio Ghibli. It’s called “Departures”. It’s about death, about a bass player who joined a troupe in Tokyo, but it was disassembled and he had to move back to a small town. So he started making a living by preparing bodies for cremation. The culture there is different. It has a different philosophy to ours, a different approach to death. This film is about a period in Japan when people with such jobs were treated with disrespect, it was considered to be a bad job so these people were shunned by the public. But there was a turning point when they began to respect such people greatly. The film is incredible, it influenced me a lot. I watched it when my grandmother and grandfather passed away one month apart. I watched this film and reevaluated my approach to death. For some reason, it really resonated with me. It’s as simple as “Bicycle Thieves”. It’s not complicated, it follows a linear story, but the details are so incredible.
I took note of it and will definitely watch it.
And then there’s this heartbreaking Korean film “Poetry”. It won an award at the Cannes Film Festival.
I will find it. I’ll give you a good film recommendation too. The film is called “Failan“. It’s an amazing film and it consists of two genres, meaning that one half is one genre, and it’s the first time I saw something like that in my life, so the first part is a gangster film, and the second part is a tragic love story. You will be in tears. It’s a powerful film that will break anyone.
Why is it that the most tragic pieces of art hit the hardest? Why do sad stories resonate so strongly and are remembered for so long? Unlike happy alternatives.
Like my films.
Yes. Why do people work in those ways?
Somehow I knew it immediately. Why? I’ll tell you why. Because
you see yourself in the given situation. At the end of “House of Sand and Fog”, you sit in tears not because of that family. You are not crying for the colonel and his wife, their son, you are crying for you. You see yourself in the situation, you project yourself in this situation. How would you live through it? It’s your tragedy. You feel sorry for yourself.
I agree with you.
Or you are inspired. It’s another emotion, which too, by the way, makes you cry. For example, at the end of the film, you feel a great sense of inspiration, when the protagonists celebrate a victory over an undeserved evil. And you see it too… It also leaves you in tears. But you don’t see yourself here, I think. You see everyone as other people. Like the end of “Persian Lessons“, by the way. It turned out to be a completely different end for me this time. Like the end of “Bicycle Thieves”. It’s not a tragic end, but the opposite. An inspiration that he will be a son for him. He is a father to him, after all.
Well, it’s more complicated. It’s not tragic, it’s rather complex.
There is an interesting film “Birdy”. With Matthew Modine and Nicolas Cage. The film is not very good but has an amazing ending. I consider it to be one of the best endings. I’m constantly seeking this – endings like in “Bicycle Thieves” or “Birdy“. These story resolutions are a treasure and difficult to find. It ends like this: the guy is crazy, one of them is autistic, they grow up together, two guys in some town. He thinks that he is a bird. And this guy is his friend, who somehow took him under his wing, who protects him from others all his life. Then the one who he protected is sent to Vietnam. He has seen a lot of horrors in 4 years, flies back, encounters Birdy, and again they become friends. Birdy now thinks he can fly.
And this whole film is like “Bicycle Thieves“, where throughout the entire film you think that the bike will be stolen, and you sit on pins and needles, thinking when will it happen. In Birdy, you are certain that he’s going to climb a building and jump off, like the idiot he is. And it turns out that way at the very end. “Where’s Birdy?” “He went to the top of an 8-storey building.” His friend yells: “What are you, idiots ?! Why did you let him do it?!”and runs after him. He runs up the stairs and yells: “Birdy, Birdy, Birdy!” The elevator is broken, so he runs, runs, runs. He bursts onto the roof, Birdy stands on the edge and says: “Look, I’ll fly now!” And jumps off. And his friend, down on his knees, hands to the sky: “No! Birdy!” Nicolas Cage style. And he runs to the edge of the roof, and there is another roof right behind the first one. “Birdy, Birdy!“. He looks down. And Birdy is standing one meter away from him and says: “What?”. And that’s where the film cuts. It ends with “What?“. It was brilliant. I don’t know why, but this is one of the best endings I’ve seen. “What? Why did you yell?” And then you immediately think that maybe he was normal his entire life? All these thoughts are planted, just like in “Bicycle Thieves” with such a difficult ending. I love such endings.
I can’t remember the name of the film, but I remember that the soundtrack for this film was written by Ryuichi Sakamoto. The whole film is based on a monologue, and the story just goes on and on. About an architect who…
A Japanese film?
Yes. Sakamoto’s music is magnificent. The architect is married to a woman who was a shopaholic. And she dies because he asked her not to buy anything: “Try to stop.” And she went back to the store to return an item and died in an accident. It was tragic. Asians know how to arrange films into chapters, and they naturally succeed at that. It’s an open ending. The film, of course, ended, but it is not clear how it ended.
It’s not always a good thing, I don’t like open endings. “Guess what happened yourself”.
It’s a conventional ending, but there are still things that one could further explore. It’s like after a performance – you want to relive it over and over in your head. You want to think about it in silence.
Have you seen my latest film “Persian Lessons”?
No, not yet.
Would you like me to send it to you?
That’s a film with an ending, nothing more.
What are you most proud of in life?
My commitment to my principles, my non-surrender, not being for sale. That I have a sense of pride. Although it really bothers me very much in life. It prevents me from obtaining the ‘fuck you money‘. Everything is perfectly looped together. I gave up on many projects, I became disillusioned with Hollywood to some extent after my second film. Because I didn’t like these people or the process behind the work. It was all gone. And so I began to make these Russian films. I am proud of that and I do not regret it. I believe that I did everything right. I do this because I believe in myself, and I believe that my decisions are always right.
I am drawing a parallel with myself. I discovered a person with a similar perception of the world.
How many times could we give up and sell out? But we haven’t. And how many of our colleagues and friends do just that. And they live better than we do.
All because of principles, yes.
That’s what I am proud of. Although some people think I’m an idiot.
That’s what people say to me.
They think that we are idiots, that we are wrong. I had a great manager in Hollywood. He gave me a book for scripts, it was made of leather. Beautiful. And on the cover, it said “History will vindicate me”, “History will justify me.” What’s interesting is that it was a Castro quote. But this is exactly what applies to me, I think.
And to you too. You are clever.
Thank you for the kind words! What new thing would you like to try in life?
Something I haven’t done yet, but would very much like to… I don’t want to say something trivial, for example, to skydive. Although I would like to do that, of course.
If you come to Ukraine, I will arrange that for you. I’ll ask Timur[ed. note – world aerobatics champion, read our interview here], whom you liked.
Oh no, I’m not getting on the same plane with him.
By the way, Ukraine has one of the best parachute schools in Europe, oddly enough.
Until a certain moment. “We were lucky, we did not have a single accident for 399 days.” Then 399 is erased by 1.
Good thing that you are not afraid of death.
No, I’m not afraid of death. As to this question … I have not written a book yet, I would like to write one. This is my most cherished and most horrifying dream … I am very afraid of it. It’s paralysis and horror. Although when I write, it fucking works well. This should be my answer. When writing a script, it’s good, in my opinion. I am very critical of myself, but I write really well. At some point, I will overcome this fear and sit down and write a book.
It seems to me that it’s more about procrastination. Fear takes up a lot of time and effort. More than just sitting down and actually doing it.
And we justify this as fear. You are completely right.
It’s always like that for me: I delay things until the last moment, spend a lot of energy worrying that I’m postponing it, and then I sit down and do it within an hour, or longer, depending on the task.
And you’re doing it well.
And then I feel bad that I suffered for so long, hurting myself with this fear.
I don’t feel bad, on the contrary, when I finally do it well at the last second, at the last moment… I am happy.
And then you think to yourself: “Dammit, I spent a week or a year.” It’s a complex feeling.
We are the same, aren’t we?
Yes, I have the same feeling. Watching your interview on Big Money was a little painful for me because of the interviewer, your friend because you are entirely opposite people.
Yes, definitely. Evgeniy is a capitalist.
To the core. He is an example of it.
His favorite book is Atlas Shrugged. He thinks that this is the right philosophy, I think that it is a terrible philosophy. Well, listen, that’s the point. Let’s go back to this impatience, to anger. We are all different people with our own opinions. You need patience, tolerance. I’m not saying he’s wrong.
What was the wisest thing you heard, read, saw, or concluded yourself in your lifetime?
I’ve subscribed to Mike Tyson on Facebook. You wouldn’t think that he is a person of wisdom. But he surprises me every time with what he says. He is amazing. With the simplicity of his statements, he is a very wise man. I think Jews are very wise people. Mike Tyson and the Jews.
We will have to make this a quote.
Mike Tyson and Jews are the smartest people in the world.
Mike Tyson is generally amazing. Go to Facebook and check Mike Tyson‘s page. Wisdom is always understood only afterward. When a person says something wise, for example, that the Earth is not flat, is not comprehended at the moment. Copernicus said that the Earth revolves around the Sun and not vice versa. It was not wisdom at all back then. Back then it was considered either madness or some kind of anti-religious utterance that was punished by death or simply: “What are you talking about?”. Incomprehension. It is only after that it becomes wisdom. And I believe that the most disgusting people are those who believe that they are saying or doing something wise at this very moment. This only occurs later. It’s the same with my films, if you want to draw a parallel. When I make them, I do not consider myself as someone wise, I do not want to say anything. I just tell the story as best I can, and only then notice the wisdom in it. Then they would say: “Oh, so you meant that?” and I think to myself: “Damn, that really was cool.” That’s exactly how I do it. I’ll give you a simple example. In “House of Sand and Fog” Kathy steps on a board with nails barefoot. Do you remember that scene?
Yes, when she gets off the ladder.
You can’t forget that moment. Then she is led as Jesus Christ was.
Yes, I’ve noticed that.
She has a nail stuck in her foot, then she is led to the house by two carpenters like Jesus. Then the mother washes her feet and hands. And Jennifer Connelly is like Jesus Christ – both J.C. But I didn’t even think about it for a second back then. That’s not wisdom, just a fascinating coincidence. But still, it happens all the time in my films. Someone constantly discovers something in my films, something interesting. As if I’m some kind of fucking genius. If I planned to embed it on purpose, then it would look foolish.
That would most likely be the case. You can’t really do that sort of thing on purpose.
It has to be done subconsciously.
I just thought to myself that lately many of my acquaintances, especially women artists or photographers when speaking of women’s rights, are frequently saying that a man, whether you are a director, or a photographer, or an artist, cannot portray a woman’s experience. I disagree with that viewpoint, but I wonder what you think about this.
I am sometimes praised for being very good at portraying women. The first film, the second film, “Buy Me“, – these are all stories about women. Your question is – can men transmit a woman’s experience through art? Of course, they can.
So you do not agree with the viewpoint?
Yes, I disagree completely. I think you just need sensitivity. Sensitivity towards women. For example, I can still write a script about a slave, a black slave in the 1700s in the States. Can’t I? It doesn’t mean that I don’t know anything about black people. And I have never been a slave, but still. That being said, I have encountered women. I can learn a lot from them, starting with my mother, everyone has a mother.
We have one unpublished interview, which, unfortunately, the interviewee did not grant to be released, and it was, in my opinion, one of the best conversations in the history of the magazine.
Who was it?
There used to be a legendary magazine “OM” in Russia. I interviewed the editor-in-chief – Igor Grigoriev. In the interview he said that he perceives female characters from the perspective of the man: whether in books, films, or poems. He said that he always perceived women as an object of desire. In his view, women characters don’t have the same level of empathy as male characters do. Yesterday I thought about it and I couldn’t remember a single woman, either in a film or in a book, for which I would have felt the same feelings of admiration or inspiration as I did for male characters. Perhaps this is because there are few of them, or almost none, or because …
Have you seen “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri?”
Yes, I have.
What about that woman in the film?
Probably a bad example in terms of perception.
I’m just trying to understand.
Well, so that a woman is not the object of desire, but as …
Desire as in that one wants her?
Not necessarily. Well, roughly speaking, this is one of the basic principles of perception. But for her to inspire me as a person. So that I would not notice the fact that she is a woman, rather than just an inspirational character.
What about “Silence of the Lambs“? Jodie Foster‘s character inspires me. I think there are some good films about Joan of Arc that are also inspiring, but she is more of a victim, you’re right. You mean the strong woman you want to be? To which you’d say, “This is a fucking great human being“?
Admiration, but not the desire to be the same.
I just couldn’t come up with anything.
Fuck all equality then? I’m pro-equality, but that’s not the point. Then there’s no fucking equality, you know. Then we are made in such a way on the inside, that even women are like that … It’s a very loud statement. I don’t know. I should think about it. Cool question.
It’s just that no one portrayed a woman beautifully.
Look, this is very important – what we respect, what we react to. We either react – look how strong she is, how independent she is, and look how she paved her way through all the obstacles and achieved something. This is one. And another – look at what shit she went through and still has some humanity left, she still loved people. This example is more of a Mother Teresa character. It all depends on your values. If you have values that you are impressed with, or you respect strength, perseverance, intelligence even, you know, all these qualities. Or do you respect humanness, forgiveness, nurturing, and the ability to nurture, the ability to forgive. It’s different. You can make a hero out of either of these two. You can create a hero. And even better all together, but this is a very difficult character that exists for the hero. And then, I think there are many to admire. Suffering woman. If this is your prototype for admiration. Look, she is suffering, and look at her. You know, Jesus Christ as a woman.
Somehow it’s not carried out … You said that you empathize not with the protagonist, but with yourself, because you put yourself in the role of the protagonist. For some reason, I have never put myself in the character of a woman, I don’t know why.
And when watching “House of Sand and Fog“, who were you rooting for? By the way, this is a very good question that I people, it defines a person for me.
I think my answer will be an obvious one. I was rooting for the family.
You won’t believe it, but I rooted for her. I hurt a lot for her. This film portrays the people from my life. My mother, my first wife, and myself. My first wife was Kathy, one to one – her voice, her character, everything. I felt sorry for her, and not so sorry for them. Because in a way, I condemned them.
I love fucked up broken birds. Even when I was answering the question of who I love most, I spoke about my friend who is a drug addict. These are people who, you know, are fucking broken. I have more empathy for them than for people who heroically make mistakes and die. Because if I draw the same parallels with myself, I see myself as a broken bird.
There is this film that was released on the 4th of February on Netflix, which became sensational, the black and white one…
I have it, they sent me a DVD.
Malcolm & Marie, with Zendaya and John David Washington. A very beautiful monochrome picture. The entire film is built on dialogue. He’s a film producer, he has a successful film premiere. And so they begin a dialogue, they quarrel, reconcile, and they touch on this topic, that he transferred his previous relationships with other people, and her personal life story about rehab, into his film. Just what you said now, that you incorporate yourself as a character into the plot, although…
And there is no other way, of course, if you are a really creative person. I can’t do it any other way. I don’t know how people do anything at all without reflecting on themselves.
What would you do if you were a woman for a day?
I saw such a comic book where an old woman is lying in bed, on oxygen, dying. And her thought was: “If I knew I would end like this, I would fuck them all.” If I knew it would end this way…
Then a follow-up question – if you had to give up one thing, then what would you give up on, films or sex?
Because it’s not as important as films. What is sex? Friction, orgasms, you can do it by yourself. Or should I give it up with myself too?
Yes, no sex entirely.
A complete concept. It’s a little different. Now as Woody Allen said: “Don’t touch my hobby.” No. I would have refused anyway. I am lying a bit. Films are not that important in my life. I could start writing books or do something else. No, after all, I would give up on sex. If choosing between creativity and sex – I choose creativity. From films or sex… Cool question. Still, I could live without sex. If I were a prostitute, then the answer is simple – of course, I would never give up sex. Because it provides money.
They perceive sex differently.
Maybe for them, sex is creativity.
Well, an overwhelming number of musicians pick sex over music. They just say that they are tired of listening to music, and in their free moments they appreciate silence. Music and sound become oversaturated.
Not for me. I just don’t watch that many movies. I used to watch a lot, and I created the oversaturation for myself. It was an educational process about films; I watched all the classics, everything that I could possibly watch. And now I don’t watch films. They send them to me and I don’t watch anything. Rarely, sometimes by accident. I really want you to see this film called “Anvil“. I will send you it after the interview is over. You should definitely watch it. It’s about a Canadian heavy metal band and their career. About their life after the career.
Yes. They were very popular and what are they doing now… One of them is a driver, the other… They live on nothing. But they still have a dream. And the sister of one of these band members from a Jewish family gives him money so that his band can record a new album. This is one of the best documentaries out there. “My Architect” and “Anvil” are, in my opinion, some of the best documentaries.
Have you seen «Searching for Sugar Man»? About Sixto Rodriguez.
It’s just madness. It’s a documentary about an American musician Sixto Rodriguez. The film won an Oscar. It’s just incredible … I have never heard of such a human fate. You could never imagine that something like that happened to someone. He recorded a couple of albums, never became successful, and barely made ends meet. In the meantime, in South Africa, he became a superstar, people made mixtapes from his CDs and secretly passed them on to each other. I’m not going to tell all the twists and turns, but it’s a crazy story. You just can’t make up something like that. God works in mysterious ways.
I’m in a period of calm after my last project. I’m looking for something new, looking for something fresh. So if you come across something, especially a book… Films have already been made, so I will not reproduce films. Not now, maybe someday. So send me whatever you think might be interesting.
I can tell you what books have impressed me lately. Before quarantine I barely read books, it was difficult to focus.
You’re in Kyiv, right?
Correct. And then during the lockdown, it was as if my chakra opened, and I began to read very selectively. I read some strange books. I was very impressed by Romain Gary and his personality.
He has Russian roots if I am not mistaken. He is French. I sent you the full video interview with Timur, and he discusses him there. The first book I read by him was “The Kites”. He has an incredibly beautiful written word. I cannot convey it, but his books mesmerize me. Another book that I was impressed by greatly is “Demian” by Hermann Hesse. Do you know Yukio Mishima? His personality is very odd, he is like a samurai and he is a follower of bushido. And so I read his first book “The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea”.
Yes, I’ve read it.
The ending affected me a lot. And for some reason Kobo Abe’s “Woman in the Sands”. I know there is a very old Japanese black and white film adaptation. It’s an allegory. The bottom line is that the man collected either bugs or pebbles, I don’t remember. He drove to a desert country for the weekend, did not tell anyone where he went, and proceeded to the terminal station. When he arrived, he thought of staying there to search for these stones, and ended up in some settlement, in which the houses were covered with sand. There was a hole with a house in it, and to get out of the house you need to climb the stairs. And in this village, villagers kidnap him, lock him up in one of the houses with a woman, because they are short on people. So the bottom line is that all day you have to dig sand, dig out of this hole so that the house doesn’t drown in sand. There is a further development of the plot but it’s about his struggle of being unjustly locked up – an allegory for human life.
Yes, this constant struggle with life. And how he then tries to run but is there any point in running? It startled me. And there are two other books. This is why I love our interviews, they give me film and book suggestions that I would never have found myself. A Korean singer also suggested “The Human Stain” by Philip Roth, I think.
I’ve read this one too.
And the other one is about a man who taught at the university during the Second World War. It is self-titled. In the book, his entire life is portrayed ever since he was born, how his perception of the world surrounding him changed, and it goes on up to the moment of his death. “Stoner” by John Williams. What would you recommend to read? Because Bukowski didn’t quite click with me.
I read “Woman” at a premature age, maybe that’s the reason it didn’t click.
You know, many people think that he is a misogynist, yet he is not a misogynist at all. He is the most honest and genuine person in the world. Look, the nicest books I’ve read: my favorite is “Catch-22“.
I have it because I heard it mentioned in an interview.
I really like John Fante’s “Ask the dust“. Well, it’s similar to Bukowski, only softer. It’s an amazing book. “Wait until spring, Bandini.” You’ve suggested a lot of interesting things.
I would like to hear your feedback if you ever read or watch anything that I’ve mentioned.
Definitely, and you do the same! I would like to stay in touch, you are an amazing person, I really like you.
And you too are an astonishing person. Out of all the people I’ve met thanks to the magazine, you clicked the most. You are a very inspiring person. People have always inspired me throughout all my projects. And lately, life has somehow disappointed me because of human injustice, and I have some sort of childish perception of injustice. I can’t do anything about it, I just have to live with it. And you have returned the belief that, perhaps, there is still hope. No need to die yet.
What I’ve discovered at my age is that life is much brighter at your age. I recognized that this fear, this uncertainty, yet there are people who stay beside you. There are people who are like you, who understand you, who will even understand your madness. They will have to endure you. But they will understand. There are your people in this world and they will remain beside you.
It’s a blessing to meet them.
You will, I promise you.
I met one already, and it feels great.
We’re not alone, and it’s very, very reassuring, in a way.
I recall a very simple film, but I really liked the concept that was demonstrated. “Arrival”. I liked the idea that language determines the way you think, and I absolutely agree with this notion, because I’ve loved Asia very much since childhood.
“Persian Lessons” is entirely about that. The whole film is about how the SS man’s language changed and how it turned him into a different person. Almost.
We spent a day in Auschwitz, and it was probably the strongest feeling that I have ever experienced in my life. That’s why Gary got to me. In the book about kites, there was a page that barely mentioned the concentration camp, but it all came back to me right away, and I just sobbed for about 10 minutes, because of a simple mention. But the book itself wasn’t even unnerving.
You cried about yourself.
I just have a slightly peculiar perception, either I just think I do. Perhaps I am deceiving myself. I never put myself first in relationships or work.
It’s all subconscious. Unconsciously.
Our only way to feel something that is offered to us in creativity is admiration, or affection, or fear, or everything. You have to put yourself in this situation. And it happens unconsciously. “That would be the feeling of love for me.” When watching Romeo and Juliet, you don’t think about them at all, they are strangers to you, we don’t think about other people. Although sometimes we pretend that we are thinking about other people. We think about ourselves. Or 4 students are in a wild forest and someone with a chainsaw is hunting them down. We don’t think sorry for them. We don’t fucking know them the slightest, and we don’t give a fuck about them at all. What are we afraid of then? If you think about it, when someone runs out with a chainsaw after them, he is actually running after you. You quickly put yourself in their shoes. A man dies of cancer in the film and the poor wife is left alone – you sense empathy between her and him. “What kind of wife would I be? What if I was this man?” This all happens unconsciously. This is how we accept art, this is how we accept emotion in art.
What a shift.
This transference, and shame, this compassion or fear. It’s all about you, not about them. We think only of ourselves, we are animals. At some point in our lives, we rise above that. We sympathize, we love, we nurture our beloved, hug, we think about them. Your beloved woman or your beloved man hit his finger with a hammer. He hammered in a nail and hit his finger with a hammer. You don’t feel like you hit your finger with a hammer. You don’t feel his severe physical pain. We don’t give a damn, but we still need to empathize despite it. Don’t pretend you don’t give a fuck.
You need to find your people and heartily ache for them.
Here’s your answer. Better for them, than for someone in a movie, or a random person who was hit by a tram right in front of you.
Two more questions and I will let you go. Regarding love, what is your sense of love, and how did it develop through different periods of time, if it did at all? Not in its traditional perception, but rather love as a complex concept.
It’s harder to do it with experience. The only way I can answer – it’s getting harder and harder.
Won’t this lead to the fact that it will become impossible?
No, on the contrary,
it will lead to the fact that the desire to love will become even stronger. For lack of.
We discussed several topics in this conversation, yet what question would you like to hear in an interview, and what would you answer?
I don’t know if there is an answer to this question because it would be very difficult for me to answer it. Yet a simple question – what do you want? What do you want? If you asked, ‘what do you want from life‘? In a sense, I answered it – freedom, ‘fuck you money‘, integrity, love. ‘What do you really want? How would you like to be remembered?‘
What was the most memorable question you were asked in your entire life?
I think the one you’ve asked me earlier – sex or cinema. Neither this nor that. None is that important in life. I remember when I was doing “House of Sand and Fog” I had to go through 52 interviews in one press day.
Is that even possible?
It is – 5 minutes each. New ones came in, gave their tape, inserted it into the camera. This is how it is done. And the same questions 52 times in a row. “What’s it like to work with Jennifer Connelly?”, “How was your first time directing these actors?”, “How was…”. Fuck, nothing about the movie, of course. Many of them haven’t even seen the movie yet. At interview 25, I began to provoke the process. They asked: “What’s it like to work with Jennifer Connelly?” – and with all seriousness, I said, “It’s great when she’s not drunk. When she drinks even a little bit, she starts coming on to me, (this was before Me Too, then it was possible) sexually… “. And they’re all like, “Really?” And the publicist sits next to me and kicks me, and I’m pretending to be a victim of harassment, sadly shaking my head.
I remember you said that Tom Hanks once said: “I am not paid for films, I do films for free.”
Yes, it’s all about press days.
The same story for you?
The same story. Although, you know, if you’re proud, it’s okay. If you just filmed for the sake of producers or a studio, as a hired employee, then I think it is unacceptable to do this. And if the film is your child and you are really proud of it, then it’s easier, you want to show it, talk about it.
Well, that’s it. I have a lot of questions I would still like to ask, but I feel like we could do this forever. Thank you very much, I will watch and read all of your recommendations.
I will do the same. It was a pleasure to meet you.
The pleasure is all mine.