Russia’s film tsar
Nikita Mikhalkov is for many foreigners the ‘face’ of Russian cinema. His Oscar-winning film Burnt by the Sun gave him an international fame greater than any other Russian director, or actor. Our editor Jeremy Noble spoke to him about his new role in the film The State Counseller, which has its premiere this month.
Q Nikita Sergeyevich, audiences outside of Russia, perhaps influenced by your Oscar-winning film, and performance in, Burnt by the Sun, think of you as a ‘larger than life character.’
In The State Counsellor you play the role of Prince Pozharsky, would you describe him as a ‘larger than life character?’
I’m not interested in playing one-dimensional characters, or heroes all of the same type. And it’s not interesting either just to play an evil guy. But to find the essence and understand why a character acts or behaves in such a way, that is what is interesting. Pozharsky is absolutely sure about what he says, and what he does, and he wants to accomplish what he sets out to do, but he doesn’t achieve his ends, and that is why his actions lead him to a shocking crime.
Q Nikita Sergeyevich, The State Counsellor is based upon the novel by Boris Akunin whose books are very popular in Russia. Why do you think they are so popular?
He has an excellent understanding of what a plot needs to be, also of the history of that period, the minutiae of detail, and a fascinating plotline that can be justified in psychological terms. One can see problems adapting Akunin’s works for the screen, and I personally came across some of these. Things that take place in a book, that a reader can believe, have to be transfigured on the screen because there are roles taken straight from literature that the actor can have difficulty playing, investing his character with psychological truth.
Q Nikita Sergeyevich, Akunin’s novels about Fandorin show Russia at the height of its economic success and international prestige under the tsars; you are a well-known Russian patriot, is this one reason why you wanted a part in The State Counsellor?
I can agree with this because I am neither interested in material benefits nor material values. Most of all I was driven by the wish to embody the role of Pozharsky.
Q Nikita Sergeyevich, you arranged for permission to film the last episode of the film inside the St George’s Hall in the Kremlin. Do you think that the Government of President Putin said yes to your request because they like the idea of a film that shows a strong Russia?
Our studio enjoys people’s confidence; in The Siberian Barber we also shot in the Kremlin and that is why they know we will not defame the sanctuary.
Q Turkish Gambit is still playing in Russian cinemas, how different is The State Counsellor in style?
Turkish Gambit, as the producer himself said, was a cartoon for adults. The State Counsellor can be seen as more of a psychological detective work, with less exoticism but more depth. Akunin’s novel itself is deeper psychologically.
Q Nikita Sergeyevich, we understand that you have changed the character of Prince Pozharsky, making him less of a ‘bad guy?’
Just remember how I answered your first question.
Q Did Boris Akunin re-write the character of Prince Pozharsky, or did you discuss it with him, and he left it up to you to act the role as you and he had agreed?
He allowed me by mutual agreement to rewrite and make additions to some of the scenes as I wanted, but they fit the plot.
Q Nikita Sergeyevich, your directing work has included several films based upon Chekhov – I am thinking about An Unfinished Piece for Player Piano and Dark Eyes – does your ‘new’ characterisation of Prince Pozharsky make him more Chekhovian?
No, these are absolutely different things, they cannot be compared.
Q Nikita Sergeyevich, in the novel, the relationship between Erast Fandorin and Prince Pozharsky is very much that between the ‘good guy’ and the ‘bad guy;’ in the film how has your more developed characterisation of Pozharsky affected the way in which Oleg Menshikov plays the role of Fandorin?
I think that the problem for Fandorin is that he agrees deep-down with Pozharsky but he doesn’t accept his methods, and this describes their polarity.
Q Nikita Sergeyevich, like Bergman, you like to improvise on a set, to create a film that is “a living thing,” are there moments in The State Counsellor when this process happened?
Yes and there are rather many moments like this. And these are the real living moments of the film.
Q Nikita Sergeyevich, I understand that you were asked if you wanted to direct The State Counsellor, but you said no. Is this because you wanted to concentrate upon the characterization of Prince Pozharsky?
Now I am working on a sequel to Burnt by the Sun, that’s why I didn’t want to let Akunin down, or upset him, because I couldn’t have given the film my all.
Q Nikita Sergeyevich, you are as much a director as an actor, did you find it difficult being only on one side of the camera?
It wasn’t difficult at all. I am a disciplined actor. Yes, I submit my proposals but it is the director who makes the final decision, young or old. Everybody has to have his own opinion.
Q Nikita Sergeyevich, do you think that The State Counsellor will be popular with western audiences, or do you think that it is a film that will appeal more to Russians?
I have no doubt it will appeal to foreigners. There is nothing specifically Russian about the film. It will be interesting for everyone.
Q Nikita Sergeyevich, I will not ask you if you think that your own performance in The State Counsellor could win you another Oscar nomination, but do you think that the film could be in the running?
I never put in front of myself such a goal to reach. Frankly speaking I would be surprised if the film gets an Oscar because the movies that get Oscars are of different types. I never saw a detective film or a thriller win an Oscar except when it was something extraordinary.
Q Nikita Sergeyevich, the Russian film industry is experiencing a renaissance at the moment, do you think that in the future ‘Hollywood’ will not be in California but in Moscow?
Without doubt. If it wasn’t so then the film world in Russia would not have been reproducing at such speed. Distribution and the film industry are inter-related, because not everyone wants to watch only American blockbusters. The Siberian Barber was shown in thirty six cinemas, and Turkish Gambit is showing in nine hundred. This is how a national event becomes an international happening.