Interview: Andrei Konchalovsky at Barbican

Andrei Konchalovsky’s most recent film, The Nutcracker in 3D (2010), was a box office flop in the States. However, in the past Konchalovsky has also known great success, including the award winning House of Fools (2002) which took the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival. As a filmmaker, Konchalovsky has certainly had a varied career, from working with Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell in Tango & Cash (1989), creating a TV adaptation Homer’s The Odyssey for HBO, and also directing numerous Russian language films, including the highly regarded Uncle Vanya (1970) and The First Teacher (1964), his debut feature made whilst he was still a student.

Last week, CineVue travelled to Pushkin House in Holborn to ask Konchalovsky how he felt about the forthcoming Directorspective at London’s Barbican Centre, who his influences were, and what he thought about living and working in Hollywood.

Joe Walsh: Why did you choose to focus on your Russian language films for the upcoming Barbican Directorspective?

Andrei Konchalovsky: These films haven’t been exposed to British public first, second because they reflect certain aspects of life in Russian history through the century. Uncle Vanya is about pre- revolutionary Russia and is an adaptation of Chekhov’s play. First Teacher, my first film, was about revolution and about the transition from home mentality to different conditions. And then House of Fools is about Perestroika, post-Soviet years, and The Chechen War…Gloss (2007) is a satire on barbaric decadence of today’s Russia. So it’s completely different stages of the Russian history and stages of society. 

JW: A lot of your works are literature based – Chekhov, Aitmatov, Turgenev etc, and you were also involved with The Last Station (2009), about the last years of Leo Tolstoy’s life, as an executive producer. What is it about the relationship between film and literature that captivates your imagination?

AK: It’s a very vulgar relationship. The easiest way to make a film is just to take it as an [sic] example and then the picture tends to spoil it. So many films based on literature can be completely spoilt by interpretations; but still there’s always chance to remake. Like Anna Karenna: how many interpretations of Anna Karenna? Ten? Fifteen? Crime and Punishment? Twenty? Hamlet? Fifty? So it’s just a good source of inspiration. Literature has a story and film needs a story.

JW: Your films all seem have a Chekhovian sense to them. Would you agree?

AK: No, no, not every one; some of them. I’m glad there is Chekhovian sense, because Chekhov is one of the writers who tired to find out the lack of, or the absence of answers and question of what it is to be human [sic]. He didn’t have any answers and that’s because he dared to say “I don’t know”.

JW: Throughout your career you have suffered from censorship in Russia, but you have also said that you found it more difficult in the United States, within the Hollywood system. I wondered what is was you found so difficult about Hollywood as a film production institution?

AK: It is very difficult to smuggle your ideas over the ‘committee’, and once you get money you’re under a very watchful eye. In Russia, once you get the money, no one cares. They can refuse the film, it can be banned…but still it was done. In a system where money is the censorship, someone is always watching you and it’s much more difficult to smuggle in an idea.

JW: Your most recent film, The Nutcracker, wasn’t overly well received in America. You said that it was because you aren’t a “nice director”.

AK: It was my mistake, no one else can be blamed. I made The Nutcracker thinking naively that The Nutcracker doesn’t have to be exactly the Tchaikovsky ballet, with sweets and candies and caramels all through; or Disney-like with nice music and with dancing couples and snowflakes. But in America, The Nutcracker is famous because of the ballet, and I don’t think Americans know that a very important source for The Nutcracker is literary, E.T.A. Hoffmann. So the critics were appallingly bad to me, trying to find out why the film didn’t have the Tchaikovsky ballet, and I was stupid enough to not to explain that this is Hoffman, not Tchaikovsky…They said, “It is so dark, it’s unbelievably dark.”…They were shocked and they panicked to the bone and the film failed. In Russia it did very well. It’s now on the screens and it has caused a big controversy and has a big audience [sic]. And next year in Europe I think it’s going to be perceived differently. Europeans are more sophisticated and they expect surprises.

JW: Do you think there is a something of a Zeitgeist in Hollywood with the comfortable clichés of Disney?

AK: Oh yes, yes defiantly. Hollywood likes safe. It is all uniform: it’s a horror, a comedy, a slapstick comedy, cult, action, or a children’s film. They hate cross-lateral genres, they hate multi genres, and they hate combination of unknown. It was my film (The Nutcracker) and its quite weird; it’s a fairytale with some dances and some songs but its not a musical, not a ballet. Its a kind of a theatrical performance, a combination of Cirque de Soleil and a political pamphlet.

JK: In light of this problem with Hollywood, is artistic freedom central to your work?

AK: No artistic freedom is kind of, you know, it’s an elastic thing. If you are naive enough to take a big budget film and you’re responsible for big money, you should be responsible also for returning this money. The moment you start to think about returns, you think accessibility; you think about how the film is going to break even; your common denominator is lowering. So artistic freedom is in proportion to the money you spend on films. The best film you can do and be completely free with is for $500, and then you can be completely free. But once you have a hundred million you have no freedom.

JW: You have also said that “the fear of conformity is the fear of a person who does not feel inside the obsession of talent to break all illusion.” So relating to what you have said about Hollywood, is it important for you to break away from conformity?

AK: When I was living in Hollywood, when I made one of my films, I thought I am going to be successful because it was very promising on Columbia’s side and they loved it. Then in the middle of promotion of the film, the management changed drastically and the film went to the drain. In a sense, Hollywood is not America; Hollywood is Gross National Product. Hollywood doesn’t speak about American life and reality; Hollywood speaks about American myth. Very few directors make films in Hollywood that speak about reality – maybe Oliver Stone is one of them. The rest of great American directors who work out of Hollywood, they make film life, you know, like Coppola or Woody Allen. I’m not interested in real life; I’m interested in human beings. But basically, it is the same. Human beings are a mystery, but when you make film in Hollywood, you should answer exactly what a human being is without trying to question anything. After I left Hollywood I said, “Because I was unable to make big money, I was forced to do what I consider to be real art. But I was forced to that. What if I had been successful?”

The Andrei Konchalovsky Directorspective continues at the Barbican throughout January.

Joe Walsh