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In 1993, writer/director Sergei Bodrov fled to Los Angeles for a temporary respite from Russia’s weather and politics. Then, in 1995 he returned to Russia to escape the treadmill of Hollywood development deals. He must have been pretty anxious for a change: He headed to an area near Chechnya, the insurgent Russian province that is seldom mentioned without the modifier “war-torn.”
“I came in ’93 just to relax, because I worked really hard in Russia, movie after movie,” explains the jovial Bodrov between bites of crabcake and asparagus at the Park Hyatt’s restaurant. “The year of ’91-92 was really tough. I made two movies in a row in wintertime. It was so cold. And inflation was like a nightmare. I decided to come to California, just to spend two months on the beach.”
Collaborating with his friend Alexandre Rockwell, who directed In the Soup, Bodrov wrote a screenplay for an American film. The script was sold, but it didn’t seem the movie would ever get made. So the director began to consider directing Prisoner of the Mountains, a script he derived from a Tolstoy story, “Prisoner of the Caucasus,” about two Russian officers, one wealthy and one poor, who are held for ransom by Chechen rebels in a small, mountainous village. (In Bodrov’s version, one of the soldiers is a hard-bitten veteran, the other a raw draftee.)
“It was before Chechen war” when he began adapting the Tolstoy tale, Bodrov recalls in accented English punctuated by an occasional stutter. “It’s just a really simple, great story. It was 12 pages, and I read the story when I was a kid. It was written for kids. I was amazed; it was the same situation. He wrote about Chechen war 150 years ago.”
“I was thinking, maybe I can make this story in Bosnia. But then I decided to make the film at home.”
The Chechen conflict “is a huge mistake, a stupid war,” notes the Siberia-born writer/director, who used to write for Crokodil, the official Soviet satire magazine. “And making a film in Chechnya,” he worried, “could be a problem for me personally. Not because it’s dangerous, but because it’s wrong to go to the war and make movie with actors when people are dying.
“My solution was that it’s an old story. Even in my movie, I try to be far from this war. I never mention that they’re Chechens.”
The remote, timeless locale,
it’s suggested, could have been Afghanistan. “Absolutely,” he agrees. “It’s the same: Muslims, Russians.”
Despite this discretion, some Russian critics accused the director of opportunism: “‘Oh, so you’re so quick,’” Bodrov parrots. “‘You made a Chechen war movie. It will be helpful for you.’”
“Come on,” he laughs. “Nobody wants to see movie about Chechen war. Nobody. Nobody wants to see movie about war in general, and Chechen war especially. I was thinking, again, it’s just a great story. The emotional relationship with the people.”
“I wanted to make a human movie,” he continues. “It was so easy to make a horror. You know, in the end, helicopters coming to bomb this village.” Not, he adds, that “I had money enough to bomb this village. But it was not my intention.”
Despite the setting, the film was not very controversial in Russia. “I got a really great emotional response from the audience,” Bodrov says, and the movie enjoyed a run as the country’s top box-office attraction. “Of course, from Russian nationalists I got, ‘Oh, you’re blaming Russians. You don’t like Russians.’ I said, ‘Look, I’m Russian. I put my son in this movie.’”
Prisoner of the Mountain made money in Russia, in part because of a lucrative TV-rights deal, but these days making films in the former Soviet Union is difficult. Without the government funding they previously enjoyed, Bodrov chuckles, Russian directors have made “flop, flop, flop.”
“I was lucky because my former student, from my screenwriting seminar, is now a really successful businessman. And he gave me money, his own money. But it’s exceptional, an exceptional case. He was smart; he made his money back.
“Six, seven years ago, Russian distribution companies realized it was possible to open American movies. It was easy. One guy, he came to Los Angeles, and he bought 2,000 movies. American. Really junk, really. Like Wild Girls on the Beach, Wild Girls on the Beach Sequel.” Bodrov pronounces these mocking titles with mischievous delight. “And he was asking about weight, how heavy these movies are, because [his primary cost] was transportation. He was asking, ‘How heavy is your movie?’ and people didn’t understand.” Bodrov laughs uproariously.
The arrival of Hollywood B-movies transformed the Moscow movie biz. “In the beginning, it was, like, Russian film industry: Closed,” the director remembers. “Everywhere was Wild Girls on the Beach. But after a year, year and a half, people got sick of it. It was impossible to watch them. And now again people want to watch Russian movies. But unfortunately the distribution network has almost collapsed.”
“For example, we will sell our movie to each of [Russia’s approximately 50 distribution] regions for minimum price. Because it’s impossible to know how much money they will make. Just sell it and forget about it.”
While Russian filmgoers sampled America’s high-tech cinema, Bodrov headed for a remote border region. He took only a few Russian actors with him, preferring to cast most of the film’s roles from the local population. “I love to work with nonprofessional actors, and if you’re lucky they’re so great,” he says. “You have to choose really carefully. Take for example kids. They could be the most awful actors. All those kids in commercials, when they’re actors they’re usually awful. If you can find a real kid, he’s a genius.”
Despite this enthusiasm, Bodrov was reluctant to cast his son as the younger of the two Russian solders. “I didn’t want to take him. He wanted to play it, but he knew that I’m not taking him. He was ready to work with me as my assistant. But it was really difficult for me to find a good professional young actor for this part.”
The director finally did
hire Sergei Bodrov Jr. after failing to find anyone who seemed to complement Oleg Menshikov, the veteran actor he had cast as the veteran soldier. “I knew it could be a disaster, and everyone will blame me: ‘He took his son.’ And I wasn’t so crazy about it when other film directors used their kids. I was always,” he chuckles, “‘Come on. It’s impossible to find somebody better than your kid?’”
Bodrov grins when asked if he’s created a monster. “Yeah, sure. Absolutely. I can’t stop him now. He is acting, he finished two movies more. He has now his own TV show. Huge! Now he’s a star, you know.”
His son’s performance worked out well, but as the crew prepared to leave, another crisis broke. “It was like a tragicomedy. We were working in a military zone. War. Drug traffickers, gun runners. We, of course, hired security people. And everything was fine, we paid them what they wanted. Then at the end of the movie, parents of this girl [Susanna Mekhralieva, who plays one of the principal roles] told everyone, ‘She is getting more than the boss of the security people.’”
“So they came to me in the middle of the night with Kalashnikovs,” he laughs. “They said, ‘You’re not leaving now. We want $50,000.’ From their point of view, it was like, this girl was better than a man. ‘How is it possible? She is 12 years old. I am a respected man. You paid me $100 less.’ It was, like, ‘You insulted me. You have to pay now.’” The former security guards threatened to burn the crew’s equipment-laden trucks, Bodrov says, but calmed down when “we paid them a couple thousand dollars.”
To the burned-out Bodrov, the interruption was a little bit like spending a few days on the beach in California. “People ask me if I was afraid,” he smiles. “But I was so exhausted that I was thinking it could be a good break to be held hostage for a few days.”