KinoKultura: Issue 48 (2015)
A Memoir of Aleksei Balabanov
Ray Toler has starred in films such as Home Alone (1990) with Macaulay Culkin and U.S. Marshals (1998) with Tommy Lee Jones and Wesley Snipes. In 2000, Toler played the part of Ben Johnson in Aleksei Balabanov’s Brother 2 (2000). In this film, Danila (Sergei Bodrov Jr.) is trying to drive from New York City to Chicago by car to avenge the death of his friend Dmitrii, but encounters car troubles on the way. Ben is a truck driver who stops to help the stranded Danila. Despite the language barrier, Danila and Ben become friends as they drive across America together. At the end of the film, needing to get out of the country quickly, Danila calls Ben, who smuggles him and “Marylin” (Dariia Lesnikova) to the airport past the police and Ukrainian mafia. On 12 May 2014, Toler responded to an email that I sent to him asking about his experience working on Balabanov’s sequel to his 1997 hit success Brother.
Dear Dr White,
I appreciate your inquiry on my experience working with Aleksei Balabanov. I would be pleased to give you some recollections of our association.
I was extremely saddened when I learned about Aleksei’s death. In the short time that I had the pleasure of working with him, we became good friends.
I first met Aleksei when my agent arranged a meeting between us to discuss the possibility of my playing the role of Ben Johnson the truck driver in his film Brat 2. I knew the character was a friendly, boisterous truck driver and I was to be prepared for a screen test. I had played a similar role in the film US Marshals and I was all prepared to perform a high-energy, fun-loving (somewhat over the top) screen test with the lines I had been given to read. But Aleksei surprised me. He wanted no screen test. He simply wanted to talk.
He offered me a seat. The office was small and rather than sit across the desk from each other we sat next to each other in chairs along the wall. He asked about my family and what it was like growing up in the Midwest. I asked him the same about his youth in Russia. We talked about American slang and his interest in language and our conversation was more like two friends chatting than an employment interview.
Suddenly, out of the blue, Aleksei asked me to tell him an American joke. Telling a joke on the spot is quite difficult and I don’t remember the joke I told but, if memory serves, it was quite ridiculous and probably a bit off-color. But Alexsei got the joke and we both laughed. Aleksei then translated the joke into Russian for one of his assistants who was in the room. The assistant didn’t get it. Aleksei mused on the difficulty of translating jokes and maintaining the same rhythm and timing particularly if the joke contained a pun on English words. We both laughed at the assistant’s reaction. We shook hands and the interview was over. The next day, my agent notified me that I had been cast in the role and that Aleksei was anxious to work with me.
All of my scenes in the film were with the young leading man Sergey Bodrov Jr. (who also was taken from us too soon). I was to portray a somewhat father figure to Sergey’s character of Danila and it would be my quick thinking that would get him through airport security as he made his escape at the end.
All of our filming was on location rather than in a studio and despite the language barrier (I knew no Russian but Sergey, who had taken English in school, managed to understand me and I him) our chemistry together was evident from our first meeting. The friendship captured by Aleksei in the film was real. In fact, some of the shots of Sergey and me good-naturedly interacting were taken when we didn’t know that the camera was rolling. We asked him when the shot was going to begin and he laughed and said, “I already have what I need.” The real was always better than the contrived.
But that was Aleksei’s strength as a filmmaker—finding those real and touching moments despite the chaos and violence in the world. These moments speak to the strength and perseverance of the human character no matter how dark and foreboding the world may become. Aleksei’s unique vision recognized that and the contrast of extreme violence and close, passionate but realistic, human interaction between the characters permeates all of Aleksei’s films.
It was my pleasure to know Aleksei and become his friend. I will always remember the enjoyment of working on the set with him. His work was both provocative and popular; and his passing is both a loss for the Russian film community and the world film community at large. I grieve for his family. He will be missed.
An episode from the casting of Dead Man’s Bluff: A conversation with Andrei Suseikin
Andrei Suseikin grew up in Nizhnii Novgorod. While still at school, he became interested in sports and started bodybuilding. In fact, this was at a time when sports were actively promoted in the Soviet Union and many of Andrei’s classmates were involved in various types of sport: karate, wrestling, etc. Suseikin finished high school just at the time of the Soviet Union’s collapse. This fact dramatically changed the future prospects of this novice athlete. Admission to the university in those years offered him very little in terms of a future career, and frankly, Suseikin saw only two options for his future: to become a bandit or to go to work in security. Suseikin chose to work in security and to continue bodybuilding. Sports more than once saved him during the chaos of the 1990s and it also gave him an unexpected opportunity to meet the film director Aleksei Balabanov.
In 2004, Balabanov and his group were selecting a suitable location for his new “black comedy,” which would be called Dead Man’s Bluff. Balabanov chose Nizhnii Novgorod, which he had come to know during his university years. During his time in Nizhnii, Balabanov had graduated from the translation faculty of the Gor’kii Pedagogical Institute of Foreign Languages. It was here that the already renowned film director and novice strongman crossed paths.
Dead Man’s Bluff takes place during the “lawless nineties.” Sergei Mikhailovich (Nikita Mikhalkov) is a crime boss who controls the drug trade within the city. For him work two young bandits—Simon (Dmitrii Diuzhev) and Sergei (Aleksei Panin). For their boss, Simon and Sergei must exchange a suitcase full of money for a suitcase full of drugs. However, the bandit Koron (Sergei Makovetskii) and his accomplices take the suitcase full of heroin in a doublecross, thinking that there are stealing the money. In order to get the heroin back, Simon and Sergei must go to Koron’s apartment. At the same time, Mozg (Garik Sukachev) and his thugs intend to rob Koron. Simon and Sergei kill them all and go to Moscow, taking Sergei Mikhailovich’s drugs as collateral in order to get into business in the capital. A decade later, Simon and Sergei are deputies in the State Duma and successful businessmen.
In February 2014, Suseikin recalled for me his meeting with Balabanov:
In late September 2004, after I had just arrived from the World Championship of Fitness (Vilnius), where I had taken first in the “amateur” category, I was sitting with my friends (coaches and athletes) in the gym Dinamo and we were celebrating my victory. We were in a great mood. I was already pretty drunk so I went to get some fresh air. As I was coming out of the gym, a well-dressed and very agitated woman ran up to me and started shouting “Where is a trainer? Where is a trainer? I need a trainer?”
I said, “Well, you can say that I am a trainer. How can I help?”
She answered (I remember her words verbatim): “The great maestro Balabanov is making a film in your city, a film like those of Tarantino—it will be a very cheery crime comedy. I definitely need some guys without a hint of intelligence on their faces.”
I, being a little tipsy, said: “You know what, I have as many of those guys as you want... I will bring to you an entire regiment of these guys ... if you need them.”
She made her fingers into a rectangle [like a camera lens] and trained it on me: “Oh! With such a face, you are totally right for the role of Garik Sukachev’s accomplice. Exactly, you will act with Garik Sukachev, as his assistant. You are perfect for the role!”
I said, “Well... very well...”
“But still, please bring a few guys.”
I said, “Good! No problem. I only need [to know] - when, where, and how many?!!”
She: “At least a couple.”
She left. I grabbed the phone and called my buddies from the gym—Misha Smoliakov and Sasha Gerber. I said to them: “Guys! You want to appear in a movie?” They: “Why not?” I explained to them: “Come here at this time and everything will be great!”
And I began to think, is it possible that I could be so lucky? That’s it! I’ve won the World Championship and now I will be a star in a movie! I will be just like Schwarzenegger and luck into it!! Can this really be my chance? I was so thrilled. Of course, I knew who Balabanov was, because Brother and Brother 2 had become cult films. I had watched them more than once.
On the appointed day, the three of us went to the hotel Russia - the old hotel built during the Stalin era on the Upper Volga embankment with high ceilings and large rooms. We were met by the woman. She said: “Come in! Come in! That’s good!” We went into a large luxury suite – an enormous Stalinist luxury suite—you could ride a bike around it. Everywhere were packages and some women approached us. They took Sasha and Misha under their arms, led them to the mirror and began to stick on them wigs, eyebrows and whiskers on their cheeks in order to change their appearance. I stood and wondered... the door opened and Balabanov in camouflage, as usual, entered. He almost at once reminded me of Trotskii for some reason. As such he entered and said:
“What are you doing to them? What in the world are you doing to them? They are simply perfect! They are masterpieces! Who found them? Who brought them here? This is just fantastic! Come and remove all of this! Here, this is [without the makeup] fantastic!”
And we were standing in a semi-circle: the woman, the lads and me. Balabanov said: “This is just a masterpiece!” He shook hands with my friend: “You, what were you doing to them? Thank you very much!” Shaking hands with the woman: “Thank you!” Shaking hands with my other friend: “Thank you!” He turned to me, looked closely and made some face: from what I could understand, he [wished to] ignore me.
Balabanov turned around and said: “That’s it! Disperse! Tomorrow we shoot! This is unbelievable!”
Once again he turned to us and once again shaking hands: “Thank you!” Another hand: “Thank you!” And again he looked at me as if I was not there! I stood there and just couldn’t get it. I thought: “What the f**k is it?”
Balabanov and the woman left.
Later, I went up to the woman and said: “Am I to understand that the maestro does not like me?”
The woman said, “You know, he thinks that your face is too intelligent and just... of course, I’m sorry... you do not really fit...”
I said, “Well, understandable... what can I do? The Maestro is a maestro...” I did not anticipate such a reaction!
Two days later he filmed two of my friends with Garik Sukachev. The film crew was here in Nizhnii Novgorod for only five or six days. The guys went, were filmed, they were paid some ridiculous amount of money, but they were just curious. When I saw the film, of course, I liked it very much, although, it’s not a masterpiece, but it does depict the spirit of the times. There was, of course, some disappointment that I had not participated in it. But most of all I was awestruck by the reaction of the maestro. That is, I could not understand why he disregarded me so! What kind of feelings had I brought out in him that he would look at me so? I cannot understand it even now.
Frederick H. White, Andrei Suseikin
The memories of Evgenii Smirnov about Aleksei Balabanov in the form of an interview
Evgenii Smirnov was born in Germany in 1958. Eventually, his parents moved to Russia and Evgenii grew up in the city of Gorky [present-day Nizhnii Novgorod]. While still in the eighth grade, Evgenii decided that he wanted to study foreign languages. After graduating from high school in 1976, he realized his dream and joined the translation department of the Institute of Foreign Languages (named after Nikolai Dobroliubov). It was then, in September-October 1976, that he met his classmate Aleksei Balabanov.
During the first few days of the semester, a tight-knit group of friends formed, one which included Aleksei and Evgenii. At some point, Balabanov had problems with his rented apartment and he lived for a time with Evgenii and his family. The two were quite close until the end of their second year at university when they parted ways and each formed his own circle of friends. In their third year, Balabanov went to England for three months of language training.
Evgenii remembers that Balabanov and most of his fellow students who had studied in England had brought back a lot of vinyl records by western groups (The Beatles, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Genesis, UFO, Uriah Heep, Yes, etc.). Judging from his records, Evgenii felt that Balabanov had gained a good knowledge of western rock music while abroad. Balabanov especially appreciated the creativity of Jethro Tull. His enthusiasm for western music, however, did not supplant his love for Russian classical music. “As far as I can remember,” said Evgenii, “his favorite composer was Modest Mussorgskii, whose portrait hung in his dorm room.” Even so, as others have corroborated, the youth subculture of 1970s England affected Balabanov, including his appearance. On his return, Balabanov could often be seen out and about dressed in tight black leather pants, barefoot, with a linen bag hanging across his body and with very long hair. “For a while he looked a bit like a hermit or Raskolnikov.”
“One of the favorite phrases of Aleksei Oktiabrinych (as we called him at the time - in jest of course) was: ‘I’m up for taking a little rifle to shoot some trifle.’ I think an aspect of this phrase is somehow reflected in many of his films. Generally, Balabanov was a profound and, in my opinion, reflective man who strove to even greater depths of knowledge.”
On 24 May 2014, Evgenii shared with me some memories about Balabanov after graduation:
We met once or twice after he had graduated. He came to Nizhnii Novgorod in the early ‘80s, and we went together to Dzerzhinsk to see our common friend from the institute Aleksandr Arttsvenko. Although Arttsvenko studied a year later than Balabanov, they were very close friends. As I recall, Arttsvenko at that time worked at some school, which we found with difficulty, but Sasha [Arttsvenko] was not there. So we bought some vodka and killed the rest of the day talking and eating some cheap food. I do not remember the details of our second meeting, but it was not much different from the first one. Then for many, many years we did not communicate with each other. From time to time I heard news of Aleksei’s new creative achievements (he had already become a famous director) or from Aleksandr Gurylev and Kirill Mazur, who had remained friends with Balabanov.
It was in 2004 or 2005 that fate suddenly brought Aleksei and me together. I was driving home and saw a film crew filming a scene (as it turned out for the film Dead Man’s Bluff) in front of our apartment building on the waterfront. I walked over to Aleksei and we certainly were both excited about this meeting, however, he did not display the emotions that people [usually] show after a long separation. “Hi,” simply said Aleksei. It sounded as if we had parted last night, not more than 20 years ago. Perhaps this manner manifested itself in relationships [with people, who were] not very close to him... With friends like me.
Then he turned to me and asked for help in finding an apartment in order to shoot a scene in this movie [Dead Man’s Bluff]. And again, very bluntly he said: “Zhenya, give me your apartment! We’ll shoot a quick scene and go away!”
I said, “No, my friend! I won’t give [you] my apartment. But I will try to help [you find one]!”
Instead, I agreed with the neighbors on the second floor of our apartment building. They were not very wealthy people. Their son had a growing interest in cinema and even had worked as an extra in a local Comedy Theatre; at the mere mention of the name Balabanov, he lit up with happiness and persuaded his parents to give-up [their] apartment for filming. There is a comical aspect to this story: When I asked Aleksei how much time it would take in the apartment, his response was, “Well, in about three hours we can film everything.” Knowing a bit about the filming process and the true meaning of the Russian “Well,” I, myself, added an hour (just in case) and conveyed to the owners that the apartment would be needed for 4 hours. They gladly agreed and asked to clarify when filming would begin. Balabanov replied: “Well, at a normal time, not too early. In the morning.”
On the appointed day, sometime around 7-7:30am, I was awakened by the roar of engines. Looking out of the bedroom window, I saw driving up the embankment to the apartment building were about ten huge trucks full of all sorts of film equipment, lighting and other things. A bus unloaded a bunch of [support] people. In front of the entrance was placed a policeman (obviously so [that the crew would] not to be disturbed by “onlookers”), and in this entrance they deployed a “field kitchen.” All of the equipment was being carried into the apartment, the crew was running back and forth, not paying attention to the not-yet-awake residents. Then they asked all unauthorized people to leave the apartment...
As it turned out, Aleksei was very unceremonious. Without any reverence, such as “if you would or please could you,” he urged his team [to demand that] the tenants of the apartment vacate the premises as soon as possible so that they did not interfere with the filming process.
Filming ended… around 2:30 in the morning!
The next day I met [my neighbor]. She stopped, looked at me intently and said with a smile: “Well, thank you my friendly neighbor! You did us a great service!” In the movie Dead Man’s Bluff this was the apartment of the cop, played by Viktor Sukhorukov.
While Aleksei was in Nizhnii Novgorod, we got together. One evening, I went to see him at the hotel Russia. He had a fairly large room, in which “creative disorder” reigned. We hung out for about five hours, drinking, eating and talking. More precisely, our conversation was centered mainly on movies. I love the cinema, but to talk about movies for five hours, was not easy. At some point, it seemed to me that I had exhausted all of my knowledge and views, and was unable to support further this cinematic conversation... That night, I realized that Aleksei, as a man living for cinema, was fanatically devoted to it and knew all about it!
Before we said goodbye, Aleksei gave me some video tapes with his older works: films, sketches of Sverdlovsk life, when he shot [the rock band] Nautilus Pompilius at home, there was also some of his student work. He said, “Watch them, if you want, and tell me what you think.” Of course, I took these tapes and even watched some of them. The day before his departure from Nizhnii, I brought the tapes to him at the hotel and said, “Lyosh, I have not been able to watch everything.” And he replied: “Well, okay ...” And it sounded as though he was annoyed by the fact that I had not lived up to his expectations and had not watched all of his work, which was clearly very dear to him and of which he may have been proud...
After Dead Man’s Bluff we exchanged a few phone calls, but no more. He called me, probably, a year after we met in Nizhnii. He said that he was going to Los Angeles and asked for the phone number of a mutual friend, whom he never called. The second call from him was about eight months later, but he was not his usual self. He invited me to come to St. Petersburg, to stay at his large apartment, of which, it seemed to me, he was very fond. Alas, I never made it to Petersburg...
Frederick H. White, Evgenii Smirnov
Balabanov and the "British Students"
Stephen M. Norris is Professor of History and Assistant Director of the Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies at Miami University (OH). He is the author of two books on Russian cultural history: A War of Images: Russian Popular Prints, Wartime Culture, and National Identity, 1812-1945(2006) and Blockbuster History in the New Russia: Movies, Memory, Patriotism (2012). He has co-edited three books on Russian history, including Russia’s People of Empire: Life Stories from Eurasia, 1500 to the Present (2012). He is currently writing a biography of the Soviet political caricaturist, Boris Efimov (1900-2008).
Aleksei Balabanov proved to be just as provocative, entertaining, and unpredictable in person as his films are on screen. On July 11, 2007, I took a group of eight undergraduate students and three professors from Miami University (OH) to Lenfilm Studios in St. Petersburg. Through some professional contacts, I had managed to set up a question and answer session with Balabanov, whose film, Cargo 200, had only been out in wide release for a month after causing controversy at the Kinotavr festival earlier that year.
Unbeknownst to our group, Balabanov had learned English in the UK as part of an exchange program in the 1980s. He initially thought we were English, which led to a number of comments about the UK before he realized we were American. Once the jokes had been told about the two countries, Balabanov answered a host of questions in English and Russian about his works, his recent film, and his view of contemporary Russian culture. Below are five of the questions asked by Miami University students along with Balabanov’s replies.
Q: How much do you rely on classic Russian literature for your films?
A: I like Dostoevsky a lot, he’s one of the greatest writers in the history of the world, and I have been influenced by some of his themes, but I also love Leskov, particularly his Cathedral Folk, yet have no plans to make a movie on his work. I would not consider my ideas to be overly influenced by the Russian classics, just informed by them.
Q: What are your favorites among the films you have made?
A: Brother, for sure, although it’s been ten years since I made it and Russia is a different place now than it was then. Of Freaks and Men and Cargo 200 are both bizarre films, which also make them my favorites.
Q: Where did you get the idea for Cargo 200?
A: Cargo 200 is based on real events. I worked for over five years as an assistant director in Sverdlovsk Studios, in my hometown. I collected stories from those years, particularly from my friends and acquaintances who had been involved in the war in Afghanistan. When I did my military service, I lived with a pilot who flew bodies to and from Afghanistan. Cargo 200 has its origins in these stories.
Q: What sort of statement are you trying to make about the Soviet Union to contemporary audiences in this film?
A: The USSR was a bizarre country and it’s difficult to explain what it was like to live in that time because we were afraid, but in bizarre ways. I wanted to show the real life of the time, of the era of Brezhnev—Chernenko was the last Brezhnev and then came Gorbachev and then everything changed. Cargo 200 is a patriotic film, one that reminds people of the fear in that bizarre country that is no more. Ultimately, I am a Russian and I like my country very much, and this is what informs my films.
Q: What other filmmakers and films do you like? Do you like American films?
A: I like Rogozhkin and Mikhalkov. Mikhalkov has not made a bad film and is also a great actor, just not as Alexander III. I like American blockbusters more than our own because ours are just copies that are not as good. I did not like Zviagintsev’s The Return because it was an imitation of Tarkovskii’s movies only more boring.
The conversation included discussion about the nationalistic parts of his films (he claimed he was going to make a “dark melodrama” about an Azerbaijani who “ruins Russian society”), his favorite places in Russia (Velikii Ustiug, where Balabanov said “they did not blow up the churches”), the state of education in Russia (he lamented that kids today do not read books, but play video games, to which his son replied that he does both), and the state of Russian cinema (he praised Karen Shakhnazarov’s work as head of Mosfil’m).
After our session, Balabanov invited our group to the Lenfilm stolovaia, where he treated everyone to zakuski and a bottle of gin (“because you are British,” he quipped). It was in the cafeteria that it emerged that the director had been out late at a party the night before and had not eaten anything at all since. After engaging in a few shots of gin with my students, even staring one down and declaring, “davai, amerikanets,” Balabanov slumped over in his seat and passed out. Taken aback, our group said our goodbyes to the director, his wife and son, and our other hosts at Lenfilm. We left the encounter with answers to some interesting questions but with an even more interesting story about Aleksei Balabanov, a bottle of gin, and a group of British students.
Stephen M. Norris
Frederick H. White
Utah Valley University
2] Garik Sukachev, playing one of the bandits, is a well-known singer, songwriter and filmmaker. The front-man for groups like Brigade S and The Untouchables, Sukachev cultivated in the 1990s the image of a Thief in Law. He would later soften that image, but at the time of Dead Man’s Bluff,Sukachev could still trade on his own criminal persona.
Frederick H. White © 2015
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