Adapting Natasha: For This Film About the Russian-Jewish Immigrant Experience, the Key Was in the Casting

In 2002, I wrote the short story “Natasha” as a kind of repudiation of filmmaking.

I’d returned to Toronto after five years in Los Angeles, where I’d gotten my MFA in production at USC and tried with negligible success to become a filmmaker. I wanted to tell stories about the Russian-Jewish immigrant community where I’d grown up, and I’d concluded that there wasn’t much appetite in American cinema to accommodate such stories. Also, my first ambition had been to write and I’d arrived at filmmaking sideways, unsure how to pursue a career as a writer. Hollywood returned me to my priorities.

As it happened, I found a publisher for my stories about Russian-Jewish immigrants, and in 2004 Natasha and Other Stories appeared. By the standards of a first collection of stories, the book attracted a fair amount of attention, though not from film producers. This neither disappointed nor surprised me. I’d written the stories as stories, without the slightest intention that they be filmed. The thought that “Natasha” might serve as the basis for a film didn’t occur to me until 2011.

By then I’d written a novel and directed a feature film. The film, Victoria Day, released in 2009, was a coming-of-age story set in 1980s Toronto, and tread moderately over the same territory as the stories: Most of the action took place between the teenage lead and his teenage Canadian friends. The domestic scenes—between the boy and his parents, where the language is Russian and in which one gets a sense of the immigrant household—comprised less than a quarter of the film. Looking back, that aspect felt unsatisfying to me, like I had temporized. If I did it again, I thought, I would be immoderate.

David Bezmozgis, writer and director of Natasha

Eventually, I realized that “Natasha” provided me with the material I sought. Or to put it another way, the same impulse that led me to write the stories—to authentically render the experiences of the most recent wave of Russian-Jewish immigrants to North America—led me to adapt “Natasha” for the screen. Just as with the stories, I hadn’t seen it done before and thought I might be able to do it.

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Natasha is the forbidden love story between Mark Berman, a 16-year-old suburban Russian-Jewish kid and his cousin by marriage, the eponymous Natasha, 14 years old. At the beginning of the summer she arrives in Toronto with her mother and, largely because she speaks no English and has no other friends, Mark is tasked to look after her. This premise dictates that most of the dialogue be in Russian and that the film be an ensemble piece involving aunts, uncles, cousins and elderly grandparents. Everything that was implicit in Victoria Day would be explicit in Natasha. I resolved that the film would be made on these terms or it wouldn’t be made at all.

I was not yet 30 when I wrote the original story, and I was nearly 40 when I sat down to do the adaptation. It had been years since I’d even read the story. I was no longer the same writer. Had someone asked me to write it fresh, I couldn’t have replicated it. There were things about the original that I admired but there were also things that I viewed more critically. I approached the material with objectivity, as if it belonged to another author whose work I appreciated but toward whom I felt no special loyalty. There were exchanges of dialogue I transcribed almost verbatim from the story into the screenplay and there were scenes that existed in summary in the short story that I dramatized for the film. Other scenes I invented entirely to flesh out the story and give it its own life and logic.

On the whole, I think the script is quite faithful to the short story. The one place where I departed significantly was in setting the action not in the 1990s but in the present day. I did this for practical reasons—to avoid making a period film and all the hassles this entailed for a film our size—but also because it introduced visual elements into the story that benefited the film. Cell phones allowed Mark and Natasha to text secretly, and the internet allowed Natasha to physically show Mark the shocking and titillating proof of her participation in pornography.

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The screenplay was predicated on the idea that it would be possible to secure financing for a mostly Russian-language film shot in Toronto and that, if financing could be secured, there were enough capable Russian-speaking actors to allow us to make the movie. My first film had been significantly financed by Telefilm Canada, the federal film financing agency. However, Telefilm had a policy on the books that they would not fund any film whose dialogue was more than 50 percent in a language other than English, French or one of Canada’s indigenous languages. Natasha failed this test. My producers and I petitioned that an exemption be granted to Natasha, since the project, based on a beloved book, reflected contemporary Canadian reality. Our regional director at Telefilm advocated for the exemption and we received the funding—effectively setting an important precedent.

But even with financing tenuously in place, everything depended on assembling the right cast. The pool of Russian-speaking actors in Canada isn’t deep, but, with one exception, we were able to cast the film with Russian-speaking Canadian immigrants. Our anchor was Alex Ozerov, who plays Mark. I’m quite sure there wasn’t another actor in North America capable of playing the role. It was sheer luck that he lived in Toronto. Other cast members, like Genadjis Dolganovs and Igor Ovadis, were working actors with credits in English and French-Canadian film and television. Still others, like Aya Stolnits, who plays Natasha’s mother, and Pavel Tsitinel, who plays the grandfather, had theater and film careers in the former Soviet Union and Israel and came through word of mouth in the local Russian-speaking community.

Sasha K. Gordon plays the titular Natasha

Yet I had a very hard time finding an actress to play Natasha. I needed someone who spoke perfect Russian, was of age but could pass for younger, and had the talent and maturity to handle not only the emotional range demanded by the role but also the sexual content. We searched in Canada, Israel and the United States. About a month before we were set to shoot, we still didn’t have anyone. Accident and, if one is inclined to believe, fate brought Sasha Gordon to us. She lived in Manhattan but had come to Toronto with a friend and, while here, visited her friend’s cousin at his office. The cousin was one of the executive producers on Natasha. Sasha informed him that she was pursuing acting. She was born in Odessa and had come to the United States by herself at 16. She put herself on tape but the tape languished for weeks before it reached me. I don’t know what we would have done if I hadn’t seen it.

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In terms of adapting the story for the screen, I felt that much of the work had been accomplished once we’d cast the film. The goal had been to faithfully recreate the atmosphere of the short story, that of Russian-Jewish immigrant life. A film made largely in Russian, using Russian-speaking actors—many of them Russian Jews—meant that the end product would not be fraudulent. It didn’t mean it would be good—it could still fail in many ways—but that it stood a chance to not disappoint.

We shot much of the film on location, mostly in the borrowed homes of Russian immigrants. The large house belonging to Rufus, the suburban drug dealer, belonged to the Ukrainian-Israeli contractor who had done work on my own house. (He has a cameo driving an excavator.) Natasha’s apartment belonged to family friends who were conveniently away in Florida during much of our shoot. (Near the end of the film, they are seen opening the lobby door for Mark and glaring at him suspiciously.) The Berman family house was loaned to us by another Russian-Jewish family, as they too were away. (Photographs of their children and grandchildren grace the refrigerator door.) And the call center, where Mark spends one dismal workday selling windows and doors, was where my uncle had formerly sold windows and doors. (On the day we shot, it was populated by many of its employees.)  We struck a similar arrangement with Toronto’s Pearson Airport for Zina’s arrival—shooting our scenes as actual travelers wheeled their actual luggage down the ramp to be greeted by their relatives and friends. (One of my favorite moments in the film is when a Sikh man in a crimson turban crosses in front of Natasha.)

Aya-Tatyana Stolnits (as Zina) and Gordon in a scene from Natahsa

I realize it’s unusual for the writer of a novel or story to not only write the screen adaptation but also to direct the film. However, when I watch the film, the part I think about least is the writing. I don’t find myself admiring various turns of phrase. I esteem slightly more some of the directing decisions—how a scene was blocked or how the camera moves. (Though I credit a lot of those decisions to my cinematographer, Guy Godfree.) The things that give me the greatest satisfaction in the film relate to me only insofar as I created the conditions to bring them about—not unlike a parent who admires the beauty and talent of his child, aware of how little credit he is due. I derive pleasure from seeing the faces of the actors, their expressions and gestures, their intonations in delivering a line or the ineffable way they inhabit a silence.

In the end, that was all I aspired to do: to create a dramatic vehicle for these particular characters to credibly inhabit. It was what I’d wanted to do when I lived in Los Angeles but didn’t know how. The irony is that I ended up doing it by adapting the story I wrote out of frustration with filmmaking. MM

Natasha opens in theaters April 28, 2017, courtesy of Menemsha Films. David Bezmozgis’ Natasha and Other Stories was named a New York Times Notable Book and has been translated into 15 languages.

1 Comment

  1. Alf Liebhold

    May 20, 2017 at 12:20 am

    Sounds genuine and therefore interesting, David

    Are you’re still in contact with Jonathan Liebhold?

    I wish you success for this venture. Please let me know how it went.

    Sincerely Dr Alf Liebhold (Australia)

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