Out of nowhere to the outside, Alexander Vartanov spawned the very strong debut feature "Bullet Collector", a movie that with its dark themes and bizarre visuals took us by storm. We knew we had to get a word with the guy since he is clearly off to an impressive start and everyone is curios to find out a little bit more about him.
Before you made your debut feature, "Bullet Collector", you worked with theater. How did you get started in theater, what were some things you worked on and what made you go into filmmaking?
I always wanted to make films. I was into movies since childhood; first I wanted to become an actor and for two years tried to enter different drama schools, but I was never admitted. I was a dorkish kid, awkward and shy, with thick glasses, so I guess acting was out of the question. After studying journalism for five years (mother thought I needed a “proper” education) I entered film school to become a film director, but I dropped out after two years mainly for financial reasons – I couldn’t complete my graduation project. But I desperately wanted to become an “artist” so I tagged along a small theatre group, that was occupying some basement on the outskirts of Moscow. First I was allowed to paint the scenery (which filled me with pride), then I was permitted to play small parts (of dorkish and awkward guys with thick glasses, obviously), and – finally – in 1999 I staged my first real theatre production. I worked mainly with modern playwrights in small independent venues and staged one play of my own. And although I managed to gain some recognition as a theatre director, theatre was a series of accidents. I never really belonged there.
Did you notice any similarities as well as big differences between working in theater and being a filmmaker?
The main difference is that in theatre I never really knew what I was doing during rehearsals, it were strange waters. In my six years in theatre I never fully understood how it’s working and what to do with it. On the film set I’m much more assured. On the film (or television) set for the first time in my life I knew what I was doing.
Before "Bullet Collector" you worked on an episode of a series called "Kvartirka", how was your experience on that? Where did the "Kvartirka" show air, and is it available for purchase?
It wasn’t an episode, it was 22 episodes of an original series, which I co-created, co-produced, co-wrote, co-directed and co-starred. A big TV-boss saw one of my theatre productions and asked me if I’ve had any ideas for television. He wanted something crazy and unusual. It were the first days of reality-TV (Big Brother-type shows) in Russia, so we came up with the idea of “mockureality”. Neither me nor any of my co-creators (who were my friends from theatre) haven’t had the faintest idea of how a “normal” tv-series should work and look, let alone a “mockureality”. We had an enormous set all for ourselves (“Kvartirka” means “a small apartment” btw), a group of actors and gigantic crew and we just tried to have as much fun as possible, so it was a great and satisfying period of constant discovery of new possibilities and new language. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a big hit, so it was never released on dvd, and as it was dial-up Internet era in Russia, it never went online and now it’s gathering dust somewhere on my shelf. Maybe one day I will put it online, I don’t know.
"Bullet Collector" is mainly about youth violence, is this something you can relate to yourself, or notice a lot in the world?
I’ve never thought of "Bullet Collector" as a violent film or a film about violence. It always amazes me when people refer to the violence in the film in terms like “this is too much”. Images of a bullet being taken out of a dead man’s throat or the episode with the same dead man’s intestines are just bizarre for me; it’s sort of strange fun, not violence. The episodes in reform school aren’t violent for me at all, compared with what happens there in reality, some of my friends in Russia even said: “This is not a proper reform school, he wasn’t even raped”. Anyway, the level of violence or body count in, for example, "Die Hard" movies is much higher. I think that this is a film about teenager’s hopes and fears, about the teenager’s confusion and anger that come out of impossibility to decipher the world of grown-ups and figure out the laws of a so-called “normal” world. Not a film about violence.
Russia is known to have some amazing filmmakers, from Eisenstein to Tarkovsky, but your main influence on "Bullet Collector" is known to be Truffaut's "The 400 Blows". What are some other influences?
Usually I’m told that my influences are “If…” and “Zero de Conduite”. Plain wrong. I’ve been watching so many movies all my life that I really have no idea if something in particular influences me. I don’t have favorite movies or favorite style, or maybe there are too much of them. I wasn’t trying to imitate something; I was just looking for the rightest way of telling this particular story and put you into the principal character’s mind. The idea of comparing principal character of "Bullet Collector" to Antoine Doinel from Truffaut’s cycle came really early on during the writing of screenplay and I honestly don’t remember why. The analogy just seemed natural. The other film we’ve had in mind with Yuri Klavdiev was “Un Prophete” by Jacques Audiard for the reform school episodes. And there is one shot that was stolen from "The Searchers", but it went totally unnoticed by everybody, which was a huge surprise for me. So, apart from those two French movies, there weren’t really any influences. At least conscious ones.
How did you get started with the movie - where did the budget come from, how did you get in contact with actors, etc.?
After about five years of me trying to find the financing for the movie, one producer decided to invest some money in it. But then suddenly the government changed whole system of state support for cinema (this crazy system is really hard to explain for a non-Russian person, but anyway – the system was changed overnight). Plus, we’ve had new censorship laws (which aren’t called “censorship laws”, of course). They made any movie in which young people are engaged in “anti-social behavior”, are swearing, smoking, killing each other, fucking (and saying the word “fuck” itself) almost impossible to make. At least, with state money. So, off goes the producer. And I am already writing the screenplay and working on it with the energy of unstoppable train. I’ve decided to produce it out of my own money. My co-producer Elena Stepanischeva found some more, and the last third came from “our friends and neighbors”. Everything else was just normal process of making a film – casting sessions, location scouting etc. We just tried to spend as little as possible on everything. The young actors were found really fast and easily through some Russian social networks groups with crazy names like “I want to be in the movies” or “Future stars”. And the grown-up actors were taken from some significant Russian independent films which I like (Julia Aug from “Silent Souls”, Alisa Khazanova from “Tale in the Darkness”, Petr Fedorov from “Russia 88” etc.) Co-incidentally, some of them are my good friends or colleagues from previous works, which helped.
The movie manages to convey realism but with some truly bizarre imagery, almost surreal at times. What was your idea behind such a peculiar style?
I didn’t try to be surreal for the sake of it. As I’ve said, I just tried to depict the chaos of teenager’s mind, where everything is homogenized – tender love for (imaginary?) girlfriend, fantasies about dead people’s intestines, longing for mother’s care, the wish to be a merciless avenger, desperate need for friends, desire to be like everybody else and to be unique at the same time, etc.
What was the hardest thing about making "Bullet Collector"?
Honestly - to find locations. It was almost impossible with our budget restrictions. We couldn’t find the hospital, for example, which would let us film there for $150 that we’ve had. So, hospital ward was filmed in co-producer’s bedroom with the single hospital bed that we’ve managed to find and carry to the fifth floor without elevator (it was enormous). Hence the un-realness of hospital episodes – it wasn’t the real hospital.
"Bullet Collector" was released by Artsploitation in USA, and Alpha Violent in France. Are there any other releases available of the movie?
I’ve been told by our agent that after American release some other territories expressed interest in the film, but I’m not sure if there are any results. It was never released in Russia – not theatrically, nor DVD-VOD.
How do you feel "Bullet Collector" has been received by the audience?
It was mostly shown on film festivals and the audience there is more receptive than usually. Different people see different things in the film. Some people see there their own experiences, some “a mysterious Russian soul”, in Brazil I’ve been told that it’s “magical realism”, some don’t see a thing. I know some people cried during the film and some were appalled, some wanted their young children to watch it and some, I reckon, would wish their children never saw it. I think it was received just like any other movie.
We touched a bit on it before, but we're just curious to what your opinion is on Russian movies? Has the digital revolution changed it, do you feel it lives up to its masterful heritage, and are you a fan of Russian movies in general?
Russian cinema is at the very special stage right now. The filmmakers are divided in two different esthetical and political camps. We even have two different national film academies with two national film awards and two different guilds for filmmakers (at times it feels like some absurdist play). Everything is divided into “us” and “them”, like during the Cold War. Also, the censorship situation is worsening each day. In terms of aesthetics and style there are clearly two or three different groups and I don’t really feel that I belong to any of them.
Are you planning on directing more movies, and do you have anything planned?
I’ve made already a five-part TV miniseries and two shorts (for a multimedia theatre project). Right now I’m in pre-production of the next film, which is also based on Yuri Klavdiev writings. This one is also self-financed. Filming starts in July. It’s going to be a kind of follow-up to "Bullet Collector" with the main character somehow resembling the one from previous film, only twice older. The delay in my response to your questions is partly due to the location scouting for a new film.
Finally, thank you for doing this interview with us. Do you have anything to add or tell our readers about?
I really love soup. (OK, sorry, just tried to be funny).