KinoKultura: Issue 47 (2015)

Interview with Ian Kelly

By Frederick H. White, Utah Valley U

Ian Kelly, British actor and historical biographer, studied at Cambridge University and UCLA Film School. In 2002, he appeared in Aleksei Balabanov’s War in the role of John Boyle, an English captive of Chechen rebels. For this role, he was nominated for Best Actor at the Montreal International Film Festival. Kelly would return to Russia, acting in Andrei Kravchuk’s Admiral (2008), a film about Alexander Kolchak, Vice-Admiral in the Imperial Russian Navy and leader of the White Movement during the Russian Civil War. Kelly has also appeared in Merchant-Ivory’s Howards End (1992), Richard Attenborough’s In Love and War (1996) and David Yate’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2010-11). Kelly has also acted in plays on Broadway and in the West End. He was nominated for Best Actor for his work in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia (Manchester Drama Awards) and won Best Performance, North East Culture Awards, for his work in Lee Hall’s The Pitmen Painters. Kelly has published award winning biographies of Antonin Careme, Beau Brummell, Casanova, Samuel Foote and Vivienne Westwood. On 23 August 2014, Kelly sat down with me in Los Angeles, California to discuss his work on Balabanov’s War.

Frederick H. White: Can you tell me about your casting for War?

Ian Kelly: Balabanov employed a casting director in the UK named Fiona Reich. He was keen to point out to me subsequently that she was difficult to handle “because she was Jewish” as he put it, which was my first taste of one of his prejudices. I was made aware by my agent that: “This strange thing has come via Fiona.” She was only casting one part, but it was a very intriguing project.

My first experience in the film-world was on a film called The Mission [Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons in Robert Bolt’s screenplay] that I worked on as a teenager, which set the standard of just how exciting the process of filmmaking can be. It was shot in South America and it’s about politics. It is a huge and ambitious film. I remember reading Balabanov’s screenplay and being immensely drawn just to the scale of it all, whilst also slightly appalled by the journey that the character was meant to go on. So, we had these tortuous conversations because I was never quite sure how good Balabanov’s English was. I said to Balabanov that I had read the screenplay and that I was interested in the journey of the character, the dark places that he would have to go to, and he said: “The journey is very simple. Most times we will go by train but sometimes you will take the bus.” [laughing] You know, it was one of those uncomfortable situations (was he joking?) and a very bizarre audition.

I remember a number of things about that first meeting because it was very unusual for me as a working actor. He did not do things like they are usually done, but that was fine. One of the things he said to me was: “I hate acting and I hate actors.” Either he was putting his cards on the table or he was trying to get a rise out of me. So, we had a rather strange audition because although I had seen an English version of the screenplay, it was still rather a rough draft. One of the first things that Balabanov said to me when we met was that his background was in documentaries and that this film was going to be shot like a documentary.

IanKellyAlso, I remember that I brought my dog with me (who ended up in the film) and, as it turned out, Fiona Reich was allergic to dogs and so she cowered in one corner. Balabanov did not like dogs either so this whole thing had a rather wacko tenor. But, I had this rather odd instinct during the audition that he thought that I was “right.” I had seen some of the names as I went in and they were some of the great and good actors of my generation. Everyone was asking “What on earth is this?” because they were asking for a two and a half month commitment and then when it came to the actual negotiations with the agent, that became ridiculous because they would not deal with an escrow account; they just wanted to hand over a suitcase full of dollars. Even as I was getting on the plane, I had my agent on the phone saying: “Don’t get on the plane! Don’t get on the plane! They are promising nothing.” All of this became hysterical in retrospect because one of the clauses that they were laughing at at Lenfilm, and rightly, was en-suite facilities, because classically, for an actor on location, you would be guaranteed a level of accommodation. I was not bothered for a second as it was going to be a great big adventure, but my agent was saying: “They cannot even guarantee a toilet!” And in retrospect, of course they could not because it was a cave in Kabardino-Balkaria

Anyway, I was offered the part and I was determined to do it because I have had a long-standing interest in Russian history and literature. I don’t regret it for a second, and Balabanov was inspiring and infuriating in about equal measure, but it was not a comfortable experience, nor an entirely happy one. I was anxious from the get-go only in this regard: it was definitely an Englishman from a Russian’s point of view, which is difficult to play because there were a series of issues, especially in early drafts of the screenplay, where no Englishman would ever say this. Some of it might have been issues of translation, but there was also this agenda of constant weakness, fecklessness and duplicity in the character. I understood what Balabanov was trying to do, but it was my job to humanize it and make it real. It became a tussle because on the one hand you have to serve the director, his vision and the story, but on the other hand, I was being brought on specifically as the person from elsewhere to be that ‘real person’ from elsewhere and, therefore, I had to try to be true to that. I tried to provide Balabanov with a choice: “I will do this, but you should know that this could never be said [by an Englishman]… but I will give it my best shot.”

FHW: Balabanov asked you to watch some quite horrific ransom and execution videos, filmed by Chechen militants, at the beginning of the shoot. Can you tell me about this experience?

IK: Yeah… [long pause]. The sanatorium in Nalchik had a Presidential suite at the top, usually for the top railroad officials, and there was this one suite that Balabanov, Sergei Bodrov or Ingeborga Dapkunaite would have – and we were all there together. Balabanov wanted us to watch these videos. I tried to talk to Balabanov about his feelings regarding the dispute and the war crimes on both sides, although I knew from the beginning that this film was a rather tendentious Russian take on the conflict. And then there was this business with the beheadings and the torture videos. And… [long pause]. Well,… [pause] because it is real and because it has been filmed, there is an argument that you should not see that stuff – that there is an invasion into the privacy of someone’s death and that this is part of the horror of what is going on there; the dehumanizing of them but that also you are dehumanizing yourself, and playing into their agenda of terrorizing and brutalizing by watching.  God knows that they are some of the most distressing images of the worst things that human beings can do to each other – for the worst possible reasons, because it is about terrorizing. And, you know,… it was real. It was real. One of them was of a nineteen year old kid being decapitated quite slowly and one was of a very brave Russian officer; I say very brave because it was absolutely clear to him what was going to happen… [pause] So, these images will haunt me forever. But what was distressing beyond that was Balabanov’s reaction to it. As a filmmaker he was thrilled by it, it seemed to me, which did not fill me with confidence, and as a director he had a singular attitude to it in that he turned to Aleksei Chadov and me and said: “That is what I want! That is what I want you to do. That is the look in your eyes I want.” Which was, in it’s way, an insult to me as an actor, but much more distressing to me at the time, a cheapening of the deaths of these brave individuals.

IanKelly[Pause] My thoughts on all this are various. It seemed to me, as I came to know him, that Balabanov was a very brutalized individual in some regards but that was some of the strength of the man and it informed some of the extraordinary journey that I took with him. It was like seeing a man who as a tiny child has been hit a lot. When we played basketball or football [soccer] during the breaks in Nalchik, the abuse that he would give to the other people, the anger of the man, was astonishing to be around sometimes. And yet, he was mesmeric as well. What he could accomplish through passion and anger was hugely impressive. Conversely, I have a distinctive and perhaps a culturally prescribed dislike of that – of bullying – as a working agenda. I was aware meanwhile that he was using kid-gloves with me, going some way to understand how I work, which was good of him, and yet it was still tough to see him with other people. At times, I felt very protective of Chadov, for instance. He could stand up for himself, but even so, it was divisive to be around, that I was treated one way and my co-star another. And we became very close, despite the language barrier. I’ll think of him always as a sort of brother. 

You know, the Twin Towers fell and Balabanov is sitting there in the corner and says: “America had it coming… of course they did! This is an amazing moment of cinema.” Well yes, I thought to myself, this is many things, but that is not the response that I am having right now. Balabanov had the agenda of: “You have to understand; these people want to kill you and they want to rape your mother.” And I would say “Yes, I get that…” I tried to explain to him, “but this is not my character’s war.” This character is coming from a liberal western perspective, as am I, that maybe we should not demonize these people. But, Balabanov was very keen for me to know the demonic about the situation as he saw it, because that was the story that he was telling, although I think that he did have a wider understanding of it. That was his line after showing us the decapitation scene: “This is war!” This is ‘War’. And to this day I don’t know whether he meant to the Chechen conflict or his film, but either way at the time, I didn’t want to be in either. None of the physical or on-site danger bothered me as much as that; just being around a traumatized individual and being party to his response. But in retrospect, you look at what he got out if it, it is avowedly partisan, and that’s OK… Often the most damaged are the most interesting people and the most creative people; trying to get to grips with both sides of him in the midst of a journey through Russian culture,… I would not have missed it for the world. It’s not unusual in acting to find yourself at odds with a writer or director as you need to serve the truth of a character, that perspective, as well as the auteur’s. In the end the director always wins, but it was particularly forced in War because the character, John, was a cipher as written, and because, to be frank, I was meant to be a fish out of water, gasping for air: that’s what Balabanov wanted: for me to be constantly wrong footed and confused and even scared.

FHW: In light of this, can you describe Balabanov’s directorial style?

IK: Quite early on, I sensed that Balabanov trusted me to some extent because he said that I “could do big and I could do little,” but there were many ways in which it turned into a deeply distressing experience. On some level that was due to the practicalities of things and the danger that we were all in, which became more and more apparent. Oddly, I was not too bothered by that when the first bodyguard and the second bodyguard and the third bodyguard turned up or that I was dealing with the “house-arrest” of not being able to go on a run because they were not going to allow that. Then, there was the physical danger due to a lack of health and safety, which is very regular on a Russian film-set. Of course you know the subsequent story of what happened to Sergei Bodrov and the many, many people from Balabanov’s original crew who would die in that valley.[1] But even the reasons for injuries and fatalities that had occurred on previous Balabanov films became apparent.[2] It came to a head during the shooting of the raft sequence in War.

None of that did I find nearly as distressing as my desire to do the best job possible.  As a result, one night I went over to him to try to talk through better means of communication. Yet, at that stage, I think that he was at a place where he knew that he could get what he needed and wanted out of me—out of his bullying, which is his standard modus operandi on set. He had been given big lectures by Ingeborga Dapkunaite, Sergei Sel’ianov and Tobin Auber that he was not allowed to shout at actors and tell them that they are shit on-set. It was explained that this just does not happen in the West. And yet, he would shout at Aleksei Chadov all of the time: “You’re dreadful! This isn’t working! You can’t act!” Chadov would take it day after day after day and yet, he gives a wonderful performance. So, I tried to talk to Balabanov about the bullying and the shouting, but his agenda was very much this: “I hate acting and I hate actors. The first take is always the best. I want to see real terror in your eyes. Nothing faked,” which is why he was trying to scare me all of the time.  Of course, on some level that is insulting to your technique as an actor and it is absolutely not your best work, so I look at that stuff and in some cases I am infuriated that I did not fight my ground harder. This was not an issue of lack of time or budget as Balabanov stretched the whole experience.

FHW: About a third of the way into filming, you wrote in your diary, “Balabanov is feudal lord of our little kingdom, and he rants and bullies like the worst child at his own birthday party. He contradicts himself every few minutes, certainly in instructions to technicians and actors; it is always our fault, never a result of our doing exactly what we were told the last time, and it being a bad idea. Never. For this reason, no one takes initiative, and only Sergei A[stakhov] argues point blank.” What are your thoughts now about such an entry?

IK: I probably still agree with all of that, but that is how he got it done. It was difficult for me because it is not my film culture. Balabanov kept on telling me: “On location in Russia like this… you have no idea how lucky you are!” I did understand that the logistics of the film were an absolute nightmare; they are paying bribes to everyone and several days were lost because the helicopter did not fly over because they had bribed the wrong person and all of that sort of stuff… He did have to have this absolute determination to, as you say, turn the waves back; and he did it and that was impressive to see. What was more distressing when working with him was the belittling of people all around him. This creates a shaky terror around the set. At times it was ugly. On the whole, though, people were fine with it. Oddly, I thought: “Maybe this is something cultural and it is what is expected? Maybe it is the Russian film industry and not Balabanov at all?” The noise and shouting really was rather alarming. I don’t speak much Russian so I did not always understand the utter screaming matches, so all I could observe was the emotional effect as it appeared to me. It seemed to me that people were being stymied by it.

FHW: Along with Balabanov, you also worked with Sergei Bodrov Jr. Can you give me your impressions of him?

IK: He was delightful. He and Ingeborga were quite close, so they would go back down to Nalchik. We had this option, we could either stay in the village, Chegem, which meant that you would not have running water, but you also would not have a torturous 2.5 hour commute back and forth to Nalchik. Sergei and Ingeborga stayed down in Nalchik. So, I would only see him on-set. As I recall, we spoke a bit in French, because his English was not that great and because he was embarrassed because Ingeborga is so fluent [in English].

FHW: What do you think it was about Bodrov that allowed him to work so well with Balabanov?

IK: I do recall Sergei saying something along the lines of: “I never meant to be an actor. It was all an accident.” Balabanov did give him a really hard time because he had not lost enough weight. I was going out of my mind because I was not eating for weeks, to play this hostage, because that was what I thought was part of the job. I was literally insane with hunger, living off of coffee and vodka. Sergei, however, was not about to lose weight for a second or worry about any of that. I remember that sort of ease between them. There was nothing that Balabanov could say that was going to bother him, in the way that Chadov wanted to please Balabanov. The magic with Balabanov came because of Sergei’s complete ease—on some level his not caring. In some sense, this was the absolute right way to handle Balabanov because he did not want technique but rather “just be,” so to that extent it worked between them. I was a huge fan of Sergei’s work because all that was available at the time in the UK was Brother, Brother 2, and then also Of Freaks and Men [in which Bodrov does not appear]. That was all I knew of Balabanov’s films. Bodrov was a wonderful actor and, let’s be frank, he was slumming it in War as a favor to Balabanov. It was a small part. It was the grimmest part of the shoot; up in Chegem, flung on rocks. He gets to be heroic and loved by my character’s fiancé because he is the “real man.” I think that it was rather like water off a duck’s back for him. He was doing it as a favor and I got the impression that it was getting in the way of whatever projects he had on the go.  

FHW: In your diary, you speak of “status games” in which Dapkunaite and Bodrov seemed to monopolize Balabanov’s attention. Can you describe this process further?

IK: In retrospect, I really do not think that it mattered to Sergei enormously, but I think that it mattered to Ingeborga absolutely. I think that you read in my diary that Ingeborga was frightening, telling me: “You know, this is a Russian film-set. You mustn’t get your own coffee. You must make sure that this is done for you. And, ideally, send it back a couple times!” which is absolute anathema to me. I did see it working and I was jealous in the regard that they were allowed extra takes and I wasn’t. I really did not care about the coffee and the Winnebago [for star actors], but I did care about the acting part. But I understood that Ingeborga was slumming it even more than Sergei.

FHW: So why did Balabanov then have Dapkunaite drug through the freezing water? The scene seems a bit arbitrary in the film. Was it an attempt to break Dapkunaite like he had broken others?

IK: Well… yes, it was around those issues. Balabanov said that the scene was important to express the horror of the situation. But he was also abusing a beautiful Russian/Lithuanian movie star—publicly. She took it. She was not pleased, but she understood it. What was more shocking was the scene when she is being walked up the ladder naked. Conversely, Ingeborga is incredibly brave, a fabulous actress, and could turn on a six-pence and deliver it. She can roll a tear down her cheek on cue; she is that sort of actress. But by that scene, she was very much rattled because that water was so cold it was painful. It felt like getting cut by glass; it was a degree above freezing and there was such incredible pressure. Your life is getting knocked out of you so her life actually was dangling by a rope and she did the stunt herself. Both she and Balabanov talked about the “sexual politics” of that shot. She seemed to say that she thought that Balabanov was just trying to show her who was boss, although she accepted that as part of the screenplay that she had signed-on for. Yet, I thought that Balabanov was a little inappropriately “smirky schoolboy.” Balabanov had this camera on my head [for the ladder shot]. The guys had promised Ingeborga that my camera was not wired, but it was and that is a really ugly and invasive shot [as she goes up the ladder]. So, I was rather put-off that Balabanov was titillated by placing her in that physical danger in the freezing water a little before Chadov and I were put in a similar situation.

FHW: One of the more difficult experiences for you was the filming in a raging river in which you had a full military pack, live amo and weapons. Could you re-live that moment and tell me why your faith and respect for Balabanov diminished that day?

IK: Even now, in retrospect, I am uncertain; was Balabanov trying to get something out of me as an actor or was he trying to prove something to me? There was this raging torrent and some people were going over to set-up the camera shot and he would be shouting at them: “When I was nineteen, I would have skipped across that water!” This was one of his regular lines. He had this fabulous idea of himself as a huge macho hero. He was quite unfit at this stage, which may or may not have been the case when he was nineteen. The point was that he was really asking these people to risk their necks. There was also this sort of situation that I knew that I could give him what he wanted, but if I was loaded down with all of this amo and the Kalashnikov around my neck and we could not make the backpack any lighter… I am a fit man and it was impossible to stand up against that and I was just battling. Between takes they would all be shouting at me, telling me that I had screwed it up, while rubbing me down with vodka because that was somehow meant to help… and then they would send me back out again. In retrospect, I can see the humor in it, but at that moment, I really thought that I was going to drown; literally I thought: “Oh, this is what drowning really feels like.” I go under and there is this incredible weight on my back and the guys are way off in the distance on the bank and [laughing] your life flashes before your eyes and you think: “This is really an inglorious and ridiculous way to die.” At the time, I did lose respect for him because I was furious, only in the way you can be when you think that you have nearly died. Especially when people were laughing at you and telling you that you had still screwed it all up. I had tried so hard to do a good job and I could not stand up against this preposterous machismo; no one else was offering to do this, it was just Chadov and I out there risking our lives.

FHW: This was only an introduction. There were several days spent on the raft scene that included Balabanov bullying the main actor (Aleksei Chadov) into risking life and limb. You were made the scapegoat, so to speak, an emasculation that oriented your calls for safety as weakness. Can you tell me a bit more about how you felt Balabanov handled the situation?

IK: We have this scene in which we are escaping on this raft down some white water and there is a turn in the river and then there is, more or less, a waterfall. If the raft went beyond a certain point there really was no way out—you were going to die. Granted, it was a film set and it was a constructed raft, but it was beyond terrifying; I still get shaky thinking about it. I had never been in a situation in which there was no safety net. But, we were all on this adventure and you kind of get caught-up in this mania on a film; trying to get the shot before sunset and all of these types of situations, but that particular occasion must have come soon after the crossing-the-river sequence and I already felt as though I was not in safe hands. I also knew that my masculinity was being impugned, or maybe I should say my loyalty to the occasion and to all of the people who expected us to be out there for the shot. It was so scary that I cannot tell you. Besides the river, we are meant to be firing Kalashnikovs and Balabanov was adamant that it must be live amo, because otherwise, you really won’t look scared. The whole thing was really quite dangerous. But to complicate the emotional agenda and pressures, there were stuntmen and bodyguards among us who had actually fought in the Chechen wars and had picked up pieces of their best friends so I also felt like: “We are just pretending here, so let’s not get too heady in this. There are people around here who really know this.”

IanKellyAlso, there are other ways—it’s called acting or it’s called faking it or you can put a second net up… It was at that point that I really thought that Balabanov was trying to scare us because that was what he liked and that was real, but there was a danger, a nearness to death, that was unnecessary. At some point, I think that we were simply asking for a second safety rope and what changed everything for me was this: he told Chadov that he would be fired if he did not do the stunt. Ingeborga had a stunt double and Sergei’s character was laying supine (so there was no need for him to be in the shot), but Balabanov wanted me and Chadov on the raft. So, ridiculously, me the Western Capitalist: I tried [laughing] to lead an actors’ strike! There was a lot that I did not understand and Chadov was nearly in tears and then I was told that it was ok and that I could go – have the day off. Afterward, they tried to turn it into the fact that I was a westerner and was too weak to do the shot – only the Russians could do it. But I was so angry about it, I turned up every day to do the shot and every day Balabanov would not have me. He made Chadov do it. I fought them to the bitter end to be paid for those days, because they kept on saying that I did not work those days; that I refused to work. That was not true. I said that Chadov and I should do it together or it should not happen, but Balabanov knew that he could bully Chadov and he could not do that to me.

FHW: The irony in all of this is that one of Balabanov’s actors had recently died while making The River. I read that it was Sergei Astakhov, the main cinematographer, who finally shouted at Balabanov, asking if he wanted another tragedy where one of his actors died? Only then did Balabanov relent on this river scene for War. Did you get a sense that Balabanov relented?

IK: Balabanov was never going to admit to me that he got anything other than exactly what he wanted. I do remember though that it was that day that Ingeborga said to me: “You know that your life is in real danger.” — I responded: “What do you mean? We have extra bodyguards today.” — She said: “No, not the kidnapping stuff. This river stuff. Watch yourself.”

It was then that I became quite distressed because I felt like I had given Balabanov my heart, my self, and had said to him “I will give you everything that I can to help you with this that you are creating…” I did not mind any of the discomfort or the starvation—those were my choices - but when I felt that my safety… you know, it almost felt like it was part of Balabanov’s documentary agenda of “we have got to make this appear as real as we can.” This was similar to when we flew into Groznii and he said: “Look, a splatter of real blood” and I thought: “Well Aleksei,… that will not come across on-screen.”

FHW: In reading your diaries, it seemed to me that this experience with the raft was the breaking point for you and that after this experience, you seemed much more willing to acquiesce. Did you feel at that point that it was not worth the struggle?

IK: [Very long pause] Yes, after that I lost a lot of professional respect for him as I did not feel that I had his. There are several key scenes for that character, one of them is shouted down a telephone line back to a friend in England, that were very ill handled. Another was in Vladikavkaz where I had a very different idea of what that scene was going to be and it was not quite apparent until the last moment what he wanted. It was a very strange encounter because I knew that he was terribly happy because the sun was setting and the helicopters came over and he wanted this vainglorious fool. He said something like: “You know, you are a westerner… you’re shallow… and you have experienced the excitement of warfare so you should just be happy and thrilled.” I had had a very different idea of where that character would be and I was very unhappy with trying to provide what he wanted for him because it felt like a betrayal of the truth that I wanted to bring. …[laughing] and he won. Actually, I had a choice. The sun was setting and you can do this as an actor; you can demand an extra take or you can screw-up the take… and you see people do it all of the time and this is the way to gain power on-set or you can give people what they want, even if you think that they are wrong… it was very painful because it was then that I knew that I was only ever Balabanov’s idea of a feckless, idiotic westerner.

FHW: Which leads nicely into this question—in Vladikavkaz at the military base, you were to shoot a final scene in which your character (John) is very macho—having cheated death, saved Margaret and made it back alive. The full scene did not make it into the final cut. Were you glad that this scene and this ending to the film were lost?

IK: Why? What do you think is missing?

FHW: There was an element with Dapkunaite that has been lost in that scene. John was supposed to be holding Margaret, acting quite proud of having rescued her, while also completely oblivious to the fact that she had been raped, left alone for so long in this pit and was possibly in love with Captain Medvedev. In your diary, this seemed to be one of most difficult moments for you—that your character would be so absolutely unable to see beyond his own glory. You were protesting this macho arrogance quite vigorously. Although there is the scene with you and the soldiers in the final cut, there is no shot with you and Dapkunaite. 

IK: This is true and I had not thought about that. As I recall, it was also about Balabanov wanting to make Sergei’s character the romantic hero—this was to be the final point of closure. We, subsequently, were all together in London and I realized that there would never be wide release for the film in the West because although he could be wrong footed on the western character in Chechnya, he could not be wrong footed on the stuff in England. For example, during shooting in England, he was saying things like: “Well, obviously, this TV guy has to look Jewish because everyone in television in the West is Jewish.” I remember thinking: “Oh,.. ok.. this is definitively not true!” As a result of this, he insisted on this one guy because he looked perfectly Jewish. He was a stand-up comic and he had never done a film before. He was terrified and you can see him in the film reading his lines off of his hand. He simply could not do it, but it was one of those things: “Well Aleksei, if this is what you want…” 

FHW: I want to ask you about this notion that Balabanov was always filming “cinema about cinema.” War begins with the beheading of captured Russian soldiers, which is filmed and then the footage is sold in southern Caucasus markets and up-loaded onto the internet as evidence of Chechen victories over the Russia military. Later, John Boyle agrees to film the entire rescue of Margaret for a UK television company for four hundred thousand pounds. John, in fact, has a camera on a helmet and records his efforts to find and to release Margaret, mirroring the metanarrative of the Chechens who behead Russian soldiers as their own war narrative. Can you tell me if any of this was articulated during filming?

IK: Yes, we talked about this a lot. Balabanov said from the beginning that he was interested in documentaries. He was also interested in conveying a story through screens and cameras in order to deny the theatricality through acknowledging the technology. That stuff is all there in the script – “In English, shooting [film] and shooting [guns] is the same.”  As is the idea that an element of the war was being fought on camera and that the horror of it and the dehumanizing aspect of it have been misappropriated by new media and tv. I cannot recall him referencing his other works, although I do remember a wonderful time going around the canals of St Petersburg (he was so good to me in many ways) and he was talking about Of Freaks and Men. He said: “You have to understand that this is a city meant for cinema; this city was built for the camera.” That was his worldview. So yes, that isn’t an imposition of academia at all. I suspect that Balabanov would have been very happy teaching film at some point as he liked to view film schematically.
FHW: During the process, you kept making references in your diary to the hackneyed tropes of Sylvester Stallone’s and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s action films? Do you still view the film in this context?

IK: Balabanov from time to time would talk about some of his action scenes as being, on one hand, mired in this sort of cinema verite (as a type of photojournalism about Chechnya), but also wanting this fantastical and ridiculous escape by white-water-raft and helicopter. When you are making something, you do not know what the outcomes are going to be… some of it is very good and some of it is not, but you cannot really know until you see it on-screen. As for the elements of machismo, you have this beautiful nineteen year old in Chadov who is classically trained in ballet so, you know,… [laughing] and you have me… [laughing] So, why would Balabanov keep referencing Stallone and Schwarzenegger? I might have mentioned this in the diary because one of the lines that Balabanov said to me as I came out of the river, nearly drowned, was “Well, you’re not Schwarzenegger are you?” In retrospect, it was probably a bit of Russian wit, but at the time I probably did not appreciate it in the way in which it was intended. [laughing]

FHW: Balabanov was known to regularly go to the banya. You had the great fortune of accompanying the filmmaker to the banya several times during the filming of War. What are some of your lasting impressions?

IK: I am up for anything, but Tobin Auber thought that I was insane. Balabanov is not the type of man who would take you out for dinner for a “let’s get to know each other” kind of thing. The man had no interest in food at all. At some point, I said that I was interested in experiencing a real Russian banya, and Balabanov offered to take me. He was like some infuriating uncle sometimes: one moment, monstrous, another the soul of Russian big-heartedness. He said that I should come to his local, old-style banya in St Petersburg. So, I remember that one time Chadov was there and one time I was on my own with Aleksei. First of all, it is the real thing with a lot of old guys in their little felt caps. As we came in the barman put on the soundtrack of Brother so instantly it was like being “in” one of the works of Balabanov; then he ordered the beers and the vodkas. He was very keen for me to experience it properly—he was very disciplined like that. I had to know that this was real and it was about suffering. [laughing] He was saying that I was going to be birched by him so we did all of that and it was really hot—not your nice Swedish sauna; in and out of the ice-cold plunge, of course. During the banya, Balabanov wanted to tell me about Russia. It was really wonderful and despite all of the crap that we have already discussed, I had tremendous respect for the man. Any Russian would tell you, once you’ve been naked together and birched each other, there’s a different sort of bond! It certainly never happened with Richard Attenborough! It was then that he also revealed some bits about himself—his parents, the pain of his childhood… He had a favorite masseur who gave me something more like chiropracty—a walk up and down my back and pulling on things until I screamed. And Balabanov drank a lot, a lot…  He was very proud of St Petersburg and of Russian culture. He took me in the canals and that was an extraordinary privilege. I think that this was as close as he came to explaining to me what he was about. 

FHW: Can you tell me a bit about the London portion of the filming?
IK: It was chaotic. It was a mismatch, partly, and it was very expensive, especially compared to shooting in Nalchik. The trouble also was that they were struggling to interface with the British production company, who wanted to know precise schedules, call times and numbers of people. This conflicted with the Russians’ attitude of “let’s see how it pans out.”

IanKellyTobin and I had thrown this party up in Chegem because the cast had wanted to understand about British food. So, Tobin and I cooked everyone curry as sort of a joke and because it was difficult to shop for any food items up there. I did want to give back to everyone because they were incredibly good to me: all the cast and crew.Although there was no mutual language, there was a lot of love and affection towards the end of it all. So, Claire [my wife] and I threw a dinner party for everyone in London—for everyone who was there—and I gave a little sentimental speech in Russian because that seemed the appropriate thing to do; and Balabanov behaved appallingly. He arrived complaining that they had been caught in an anti-war protest and he said that they were all degenerates and homosexuals—you could just tell. He walked in and the first thing he said was “You live in this fucking palace…” This was my wife’s first introduction to Balabanov. In fact, it was not even our place, but somewhere we were living between places. We cooked dinner and there was nothing that he wanted. He was just in a baaad [emphasized] mood. I tried my best and you could see that Tobin was mortified, caught between the two cultures. I was just trying to be hospitable and feed people, but as I said, food never seemed to do it for Balabanov. In fact, I think that he had not wanted to come at all, but Astakhov had sort of made him come.

FHW: Upon your first viewing of the film, you thought that the film was a “mess.” You even went so far as to write in your diary: “I feel sick and angry with Aleksei and myself, and terribly, terribly depressed. But a little vindicated.” In what way did you feel “vindicated”?

IK: I cannot remember, to be frank. I think vindicated only because I was right to be worried about what was going on with my character. You know, I had a great sense of survivor’s pride—even though no one I know has seen the film, I know the conditions under which that film was wrought. It is always difficult to look at your own performance, but in particular that one because I see those choices which were mine and those that were Balabanov’s. And, I suppose, I felt that my choices were vindicated. You know, there is that thing when Balabanov says: “Give me more terror in your eyes.” And you think: “Well, you know, I am not sure that that is the right thing. We really get that this is scary for the westerner.”

FHW: Do you think that your opinion of the film has changed over time?

IK: War played at the London Film Festival over a year later; by then Bodrov was dead. It was a very strange evening. It played right after Aleksandr Sokurov’s one-shot film in the Hermitage. Can you imagine, they play The Russian Ark and War back to back? I walk in as Prince and Princess Michael of Kent are walking in the other direction. This is about everything that can be said about their reaction to Russian culture since they are Tsarists doing their Tsarist Russian thing. I don’t know… there are relationships that I took from that film that will last forever. So, I have a very complicated relationship with that film. I will never be asked again to endure so much risk in making a film and yet feel like it was not worth it. I also know that I should have been much better as an actor, but don’t know what I could have done about it at the time. I have it as a quasi-chapter in my life that remains a secret because the film never really got released in the West and it did not do well on the festival circuit beyond Montreal. It was as dark a place for me as I have never been—that unhappy on a film-set. I learned a lot about Russia, about its past and its problems, but I also learned a lot about myself as a man. I was humbled by the experience in all sorts of ways and I hope that Aleksei would be pleased by that. Actually, I hold no real animus towards the man at all. I choose to think of him in his felt hat in the banya or on the boat in St Petersburg because that is when he revealed the child within, which was much more interesting than the master of machismo, which he seemed to put such effort into—personally and professionally.

23 August 2014


1] Sergei Bodrov Jr. and most of the people in his film crew (many who had originally worked with Balabanov) were killed in the Kolka-Karmadon rock ice slide at the end of the second day of shooting in 2002.

2] During the filming of Balabanov’s film The River, members of the cast and crew were involved in an auto accident. The film’s lead actress, Tuiara Svinoboeva, died as a result. In 2002, Balabanov took the existing film and reworked the material into a film short.


Frederick H. White © 2015

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Updated: 31 Dec 14