The Nazis reached the outskirts of Moscow. Napoleon entered it. Stalin loomed over it for decades. Monuments to past glories and tragedies are spread throughout it. Synonymous with Chekhov, Tchaikovsky and Pasternak, Moscow is an ancient city riddled with bullets, history and culture.
The city is also an epicenter of the European avant-garde and a fertile breeding ground for the ubiquitous hipster. Visuals arts, performance art and experimental theatre compete with deep house electronica for their attention. It’s as if the young have to reach far into the future in order to ignore the past.
When I decided to make a film that would encapsulate Moscow as a city, I knew I had to adopt an aesthetic approach that would somehow merge the classical with the contemporary. This dichotomy became the guiding principal for all elements of the filmmaking process. What I didn’t know was that this would also be the guiding principal for the film’s financing. On the one hand, our production conformed to the modern procedures of European public funding. On the other hand, It followed the ancient traditions of patronage by requiring equity finance from wealthy Russians.
I first went to Moscow in 1993. That was the year of the Russian constitutional crisis, when tanks were sent in to attack the government buildings. Despite the tragic circumstances of this event, nothing could have been more exciting for a young student seeking thrills and adventure. I got hooked on adrenaline, made great friends, fell in love with the city and vowed to come back. I returned many times in the ’90s, usually with half-baked film ideas and hare-brained money-making schemes and a strong desire to ingest a heavy dose of the city’s chaos and excitement. By the mid 2000s, I figured out how to properly make a film and I started to work in the local film business. My first movie, The Weather Station, was a psychological thriller shot in the Crimea. Described as Hitchcock meets the Coen Brothers, the film was a contained thriller set on a remote-mountain. It did well in Russia and proved to be an excellent launchpad for Moscow Never Sleeps.
Moscow Never Sleeps was the kind of project that Russia’s Ministry of Culture should have supported—a commercial arthouse film with international potential, the participation of top Russian film stars and a rare chance to make an international co-production with a non-aligned, friendly country such as Ireland. Our submission to the Ministry was armed with a funding commitment from the Irish Film Board and we were the first Russian film to receive prestigious financing from the Council of Europe’s Eurimages fund. Once our script was endorsed by the Ministry’s independent cultural committee, we were a shoo-in for financing. Apparently.
Then something happened.
To the shock of our colleagues, and despite all the indications, someone in the Ministry pulled the plug on us. Perhaps this was due to one of the film’s five storylines, which depicts a particularly egregious act of corruption by a government official.
We were left high and dry, having raised only 10 percent of our budget through an offer from a Russian equity investor. The obvious option was to admit failure and turn down the investment offer. The other option was to try and shoot one of the film’s five narratives, make a teaser trailer to convince Russian investors to fill the financial hole left behind by the Ministry and shoot the remaining 80 percent of the film the following year.
The post-Soviet Russian economy is free of regulation, rife with corruption and full of fast flowing cash. Money doesn’t trickle down, it cascades. People get rich quick and poor even quicker. Those on the rise find themselves accosted by old school friends and cousins hitting them up for their own get rich quick schemes. Having raised almost half the money from Europe, we were within a shout of fully financing the film if I could convince Russian investors to match-fund. However, I had no Russian producer, no track record of raising finance and no connections. What I needed was a bit of luck and a first class pitch.
Moscow is Europe’s biggest city, an important world capital. But nobody ever goes there. The tourism industry is tiny. There’s very little cultural or commercial interaction with the West. Most of the information people get about Russia seeps through the filter of geo-politics. Knowledge of Russia outside the country is mostly limited to Putin, vodka, spies and prostitutes. Moscow Never Sleeps was conceived to show international audiences what life is really like behind the curtain. In the process, we also wanted to subvert some of the over-simplified stereotypes in the Western press about Russian people. This proved to be a compelling pitch for Russian investors who well understood this form of discrimination.
With the track record of a successful first film, the commitment of European public funding and a convincing pitch, all that was left to complete a persuasive investment package was a red hot teaser trailer. For this, I needed to go into production and risk the only cash we had. This belonged to a well-known Moscow restauranteur.
In his trademark leather jacket and wrap-around shades, the restaurateur looked like Bono. His holiday home on the Amalfi Coast once belonged to Anita Ekberg from Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. A committed family man with a keen sense of mischief, he was a friend whose teenage son I used to give English classes to. He was the first investor to commit to the project and the only other person without whom the film would never have been made. He was willing to invest, but only if I could find another investor to match-fund.
Securing introductions in the world of Moscow’s high finance was easier than expected. Wealthy Russians spend a lot of time in expensive restaurants with big windows through which they show off their cars and their bodyguard detail. I met investment bankers in the penthouse suites of Europe’s tallest skyscrapers, sons of Kazakh oligarchs in upmarket hookah bars and government officials in guarded dachas outside the city. I was introduced to one of Moscow’s top rabbis reputed to be one the best networkers in the city, a famous singer looking to launch a new career as a film producer and an ex-nuclear submarine captain turned arms dealer. Many wanted me to cast their wives or girlfirends in central roles. One frozen food factory owner insisted he compose the film’s soundtrack in exchange for a $200K investment.
Russian government officials had the most money to spend. Their status was typically conveyed to me in hushed tones by describing the proximity of their family’s connection to Putin himself. In the end, they proved to be too secretive and paranoid to trust a foreigner with their ill-gotten gains.
While I was enjoying these colourful encounters, I wasn’t securing any commitments. The film is set over one balmy day early in September. Leaves start to fall off Russian trees late in mid-September and the first snow falls soon afterwards. By late August, our time was running out.
Eventually, I was introduced to an Armenian banker who made a killing off his investment bank which was sold at the height of the boom. A canny, cautious investor, he was not naturally inclined to take risks, but he was interested in movies. Sipping green tea on his terrace overlooking the Pussy Riot cathedral, he agreed to match the restaurateur’s investment.
Film productions are a juggernaut of many moving parts. A typical production schedule frontloads the easy shooting days so crews can get used to working with each other. By the time we had secured enough finance to start shooting, we only had three days to prepare and it turned out that we were starting with the biggest and most complicated scenes of the film.
Every September Moscow celebrates City Day—a bank holiday in which the parks and streets are taken over by open-air parties and performances. The climax of the celebrations is a series of massive firework displays across the city. It was important to capture the scale of these events as backdrops to the action in the movie. So we had three film crews working simultaneously across the city.
The shoot went well, but we incurred inevitable cost overruns. After three days, we stopped shooting and I spent the weekend convincing my investors to increase their outlay.
Once an investor has spent money on a project, they become part of the team and their incentives align with the producer’s. They are financially invested in the film and emotionally invested in the trails and tribulations of the production. By presenting them with a sober evaluation of the situation, my investors were ultimately convinced to continue bankrolling the production. We shot for another five days and finally completed the first of our five storylines. Below is the teaser that we created based on this initial footage.
This teaser was the final piece in the puzzle I needed in order to embark on an investment tour. I spent the winter and spring working my way through the community of wealthy Russians. By the following summer, I had secured funding from six other investors—an ex-politician, the son of an oil magnate, an Irish businesswoman, a Hungarian aviation executive, a Ukrainian telecoms executive and an American banker. It was promising, but I had only secured half of the $2m I needed to complete the Russian side of the financing. In order to trigger the post-production funding from Eurimages and the Irish Film board, I needed to be fully financed, to complete the shoot and send all the footage to Ireland.
By August our time was again running out. Once more we were faced with a choice. But this time it was starker. We couldn’t give money back to our original investors because we had already spent it. We had no choice but to continue shooting with less than 50 percent of the film’s budget in place.
The original shoot was scheduled for eight weeks. We cut this down to seven. But we only had enough money to shoot for three weeks. Then one of our investors pulled out—leaving us with just enough money to shoot for two weeks.
We started with a much leaner team than before but soon found our stride. One of the benefits of shooting with less people is that there is less equipment, less logistical difficulties and more time to work on the important elements of the shoot—re-writing the script and working with the actors. However, almost every evening, I had to leave the shoot to go and meet prospective investors. We completed the two weeks shooting and had about 40 percent of the film in the bag. It was now the end of September. The Russian winter was looming. If we delayed for another week, I would lose the crew and the actors. And we had no money.
After a year of seeking investors, I had met with many people who didn’t want to invest but who were well-disposed to the project. I reached out to them, asking them for phone numbers for any wealthy investors they knew. I concocted a short text which I sent to eight different people, four of whom were billionaires. The text was a simple loan offer on the basis of a favourable interest rate and my own ownership of the rights in the film as collateral. Five of them never replied. Two politely declined. And one of billionaires asked for more information. The text was sent on a Tuesday. By Friday, we had an $250K in the bank.
While all the stopping and starting wasn’t good for the nervous system, it was good for the film because I had more time to rewrite the script, choose better locations and prepare for the next shooting period. We now had enough to shoot for another two weeks, but still needed to raise $750K to complete funding.
I had been in contact with a well-known Ukrainian-born investor for a few months and was waiting for the right time to pitch. This came at a party in his compound outside Moscow during one of the shooting days. Much to the frustration of my production team, I decided to abandon the shoot and go to the party in the hope of securing the final investment.
Five days later, it was confirmed. We had enough to complete the shoot but not enough to pay all crew salaries. After we completed the shoot, I continued to raise finance for the project. The Irish Film Board would not trigger their payments for post-production until all the footage was safely in Ireland and my Russian production manager, rightly, would not release the footage until the crew was paid. Four weeks later, another two investors were added and myself and the footage arrived safely back in Dublin. One year later the film was complete.
When I wrote the script, I had no intention of producing the film. I edged into a producing role because there were few people on the Russian side who could manage the English language documentation required for Eurimages and the international co-production requirements. Little did I know how much work there would be involved in the process and what kind of a journey it would lead me on. Ultimately, it was great for the film because I was able to make it exactly as I wanted. This wasn’t because I had enough money, but because I had all the time I needed. I doubt I’ll ever have the same privilege again. MM
Moscow Never Sleeps opens in theaters in N.Y. June 9, 2017, in L.A. June 16, 2017, and in Washington, D.C. June 30, 2017, with an expansion in select cities to follow, courtesy of Snapshot Productions.
Johnny O’Reilly has been working as a screenwriter and director for over 15 years. His short film “The Terms” won over 20 awards and was shortlisted for the 2003 Oscars. He’s written and directed three feature films, including the experimental film CO/MA with Mike Figgis and the Crimea-based film noir The Weather Station (which was released worldwide in 2011). Moscow Never Sleeps is his third feature film.