Foreign Contenders: Andrey Zvyagintsev Breaks Down the Technical Aspects of Shooting Russia’s Melancholic Loveless

Not far removed from the philosophical and ethical inquiries that 19th century literary masters like Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Dostoyevsky debated in their written works, director Andrey Zvyagintsev confronts modern Russia’s vices and virtues through delicately stylized realism.

He is one of the country’s most internationally esteemed filmmakers since Tarkovsky, but has had the unique burden of portraying hot-button issues in Putin’s Russia. A Golden Globe to his name, an Oscar nomination, and Cannes’ eternal praises appear to have served as a strong shield from censorship.

In Loveless, his aesthetically and emotionally harsh latest, he comments on the power Christian fundamentalism exercises over his country’s population, the direct effect brutal class divisions have on interpersonal relationships, and the expected social contract between parents and children, which has been a recurrent topic of his feature debut The ReturnLoveless focuses on a marriage on the verge of annihilation, each parent charging at the other, with their son’s future as ammunition. We are drawn into their chaotic psyches, which are written with expert depth.

In this highly politicized climate, Zvyagintsev spends most interviews discussing the implications and the topical context of his features. Cinematic craft is often relegated to the back burner. There is an unquestionable link, however, between the technical craftsmanship which rendered Loveless, and the humanistic notions that drive it. Attending AFI Fest in support of the film, which is Russia’s Oscar entry for Best Foreign Language Film, the director broke down the technical aspects of putting together another hard-to-shake-off masterpiece.

Andrey Zvyagintsev directing a scene on the set of Loveless. Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Let’s talk about the locations in Loveless. In Leviathan and your previous films, the places and landscapes where the story takes places are crucial. Tell me about finding the locations and the spaces your characters inhabit in this new film. 

Andrey Zvyagintsev (AZ): With Leviathan, the location was, by nature, beautiful. It’s the complete edge of the world, right next to the North Ocean. There’s this sense of entropy; the landscape is magical. For Loveless, we thought about filming in St. Petersburg, because it’s been a long dream of mine to film in St. Petersburg. It’s a very cinematic space, and in May through June St. Petersburg has white nights, which is a magical experience. You can go out in the middle of the night and see an empty city in complete light.

However, before we went to location scout in St. Petersburg, we found a place in Moscow called Shodnenskiy Kovsh. It’s essentially an oasis within the Moscow boundaries, where there are tall grasses, the forest is very wild, and there’s a river with beavers in it. Within it, you feel like you’re in a wild forest, however, when you raise your eyes, you see the tops of the buildings. So it’s a really interesting contrast between an industrial city and wild forest, and it left a really interesting imprint on me.

It was our position on this film, as it was in Elena, which was also filmed in Moscow, to avoid postcard views of the city—to avoid the banality that comes with views like that, and instead show a very lived-in, very daily Moscow view.

Maryana Spivak as Zhenya, one half of the bitter couple at the center of Loveless

MM: In that sense, because you wanted lived-in spaces, how involved is your production design for the interiors of these family’s homes? A large part of the scenes in Loveless take place in the character’s private spaces. How did you use the production design to work visually and thematically for the film?

AZ: It’s impossible to overstate the importance of the production designer. The first thing our production designer, Andrey Ponkratov, came up with was the status of the characters. Zhenya and Boris are a middle class family; not poor, but also not very wealthy. They are people who buy things on credit. Anton is obviously part of the elite, and Masha is the heiress of her mother, which means she is from a poor Soviet family. That’s what they started with. It was important that the space be larger, and be a space with a lot of light. Andrey [Ponkratov], made all of the creative decisions: the wallpapers, the decorations, etc.

The three apartment sets were built in a pavilion. While the production designer came up with a lot of creative decisions, we did discuss things on the stage of the schematics, of the drawings. It was really important for me to have a long corridor in Zhenya and Boris’s apartment for two reasons. The first, for the scene where the boy closes the door, hiding from his mother when she was showing the realtor and the potential new buyers of the apartment. This was really important for me, because I wanted to shoot a long take in the corridor.

The second reason I wanted this long corridor has to do with the scene where the boy is crying. The apartment has two doors, one for the bathroom and one for the kitchen. The space needed to be designed in a specific way where the kitchen door could open, becoming a little space the boy has to hide, so then after we could see him walking down the corridor, with his bare legs, this gentle creature that’s really hurt. It’s just a take of him walking down the corridor. This was really important to me.

Also, in Masha’s apartment, I wanted a similar long access between the kitchen and the living room for long takes, such as in the sex scene. These decisions were made together, and then the production designer would offer other details, like the colors of the floor and the colors of the wall, all of these other production design details. It was a long process. Before we even started building the decorations, it was a six month process of figuring all of these things out.

Zhenya (Spivak) observing her son Alyosha (Matvey Novikov)

MM: There is a perpetual feeling of melancholy. There’s a melancholy to the light. You also highlight the seasons in which the narrative occurs: autumn and the winter. Tell me about achieving that with your cinematographer. Were there any issues related to the locations that affected these lighting and color decisions? 

AZ: Starting the film the way it starts now was actually a complete accident. The original intention was to start the movie with the school, the opening where there’s the long pause and then all the children run out, but then winter came. We were going to film the very last scene of the man walking past the pole with the missing sign of the boy, and then the camera turns towards the river. We were allowed to film two takes on that day, because we were filming in the oasis, and it’s very hard to get permission to film there because it’s protected.

We were very lucky, because it snowed heavily the day before. When we finished shooting the intended scene of the pole, the very end of the film, I told our cinematographer Mikhail Krichman to walk with me for 100 meters down the river. We would stop every few meters or so; we had time for six takes before the sun went down and there wasn’t enough light. I really liked it, and I understood that we needed more takes to have enough choice to later decide what I wanted to use. I didn’t know where I was going to use them, but I wanted more to pick and choose from.

We organized another shoot day, and again we were really lucky with the weather. It snowed the night before and the entire day throughout the shoot, so the snow was not only on the branches like it was on the very first day but also falling, and those were really great scenes. I really loved them, and when looking at the scenes from the first day, when we walked impromptu down the river, and then the second day, I wanted to choose from each. For continuity, we added snowfall using CGI for the scenes where snow wasn’t falling. If you asked me now which scenes were taken during the actual snowfall and which have CGI added, I wouldn’t be able to tell you.

Your question is really interesting, in terms of this melancholic light. If you notice, when the boy is present, there is always some sort of sun in the scene, and this was a conscious decision. Even in the scene with the school and when all the kids are leaving, I waited for the cloudiness to be of the kind that would show the sun on occasion as it moves. It’s a metaphor for the life of this film. This melancholic light, as you call it, it is a low cloudiness that is present in autumn, so it’s an autumn light. We underlined this sort of light in the color correction.

Maybe it’s too serious of a metaphor, but at the end of the film there are the lightest scenes. It starts with the boy walking by the river, a pretty light scene, and then it ends with the snow, which is also light but in another sense. If you think of the film in a “V” formation, the bottom of this V is the scene with the mother. It is the darkest scene of the film. We referred to it as the “kingdom of darkness.” If you think about the drive to the mother’s house, they’re driving at night, and then when they’re driving out of the mother’s house, it’s sunrise, so the sun is coming up again. So the exact center of the film is also the darkest in terms of the story, bookended by night and sunrise.

The episode with the mother was always the one I thought that was the scariest because the characters visit their past. It’s the part of the movie where you really see inside the subconscious of the characters the most, and for me, it’s the scariest part of the film.

Aleksey Rozin as Boris—Loveless teams Rozin with Zvyagintsev for a third time

MM: Aleksey Rozin, who plays Boris in Loveless, previously worked with you in both Elena and Leviathan. How has that relationship developed now in your third collaboration and what’s your general approach when it comes to blocking scenes and rehearsing? Since your setups are so intricate, do you rehearse on location?

AZ: The actors know the mise-en-scène, so the actors know where to open the fridge, where to turn, where to sit based on the composition of the shot. We rehearse on set. We decide where to put the camera, and then what lenses to use. It’s quite like a usual work environment. It’s not improvised or anything like that. We decide together. Aleksey is the only actor who has been in three of my movies, and I have this tradition with the leads of my film, where I write some words of advice or wisdom. For Aleksey, I wrote, “You’re already in three of my movies, is it not too much?” Of course I was just joking. I knew what Aleksey was like as an actor before, but still, it’s really important for me to go through the ritual of casting every time I make a movie, because I need to confirm that this actor fits the personality of the character, so casting is still a ritual I go through, even in a case like this.

MM: Do the age and the state of mind of the person watching your films affect how they perceive them? I watched The Return when I was 13 years old, and I don’t know how it would affect me now. In the case of Loveless, I wonder how couples of different ages will react to it

AZ: Generally, I think it’s not necessarily important, but in the case of Loveless, some experience is important, because an 18 or 20-year-old guy or girl will not necessarily understand the marital status. They’ll think, “What monsters, what are they doing together anyway?” So some experience, whether its three or five years of living together with someone in a marriage, will add understanding for this film specifically. I showed my eight year old son The Return, and in the middle of the film, he said, “Can we watch Transformers instead?” MM

Loveless opened December 1, 2017, all images courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

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