KinoKultura: Issue 59 (2018)

Interview with the film editor Tat'iana Kuz'micheva

By Anna Nieman

Tat’iana Kuz'micheva worked with Aleksei Balabanov not only as the editor of his films, starting with The American (Amerikanets, 2004), but also as an assistant director on Dead Man’s Bluff (Zhmurki, 2006) and Cargo 200 (Gruz 200, 2007). When Igor’ Voloshin began the production of his debut film Nirvana (2008), Balabanov supported the first-time director by “landing” his crew to him, including Kuz'micheva. In addition to Nirvana, Kuz'micheva worked with Voloshin on his films I (Ia, 2009) and The Bedouin (Beduin, 2011). This interview came together over the course of a long email exchange with Kuz'micheva, thanks to her geniality and the depth of her analytical approach. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

AN: Tat’iana, how did you begin working in film and why did you choose the important, but “hidden” profession of film editor?  Where did you study?

TK:My parents began to take me to the cinema at an early age, and I grew up to not only genuinely love film, but to understand it. I can’t say how the idea of becoming specifically a film editor came to me: it seems to always have been there, since childhood. Somehow I intuitively imagined—not in any detail, of course—what the job would entail. It seemed to me that this was the very miracle, the very process when a film is born. From early childhood, I would watch the credits to the very end and would find the word “editor”, and it would always be a lady, which would make me happy, because it meant that I, too, could do it. However, I couldn’t find such a major in the course catalogue [of VGIK, the All-Russian State Institute of Cinematography], and was afraid to go for a degree in directing or cinematography. Besides, by the time I finished school in 1991, film production [in Russia] was experiencing a major decline, which meant I couldn’t even be an apprentice on a production. [...] Eventually it became clear that I could no longer live without cinema and could not find myself anywhere else, so I wrote a letter to Sergei Mikhailovich Sel’ianov, saying that I wanted to work for him. It has to be said that Sergei Mikhailovich most certainly was and, perhaps still is, the only person who has allowed many young people to have a go at their dream. I am one of them. And just his faith in you would give you strength. It seemed as though he sees something in you, so you must really possess it.

AN: What lead you to write to Sel’ianov? Were you familiar with his directorial output or did you know him as a producer?

TK: The impetus was the article in the August issue of the magazine Iskusstvo kino in 2002 [Sergeeva 2002]. When I read it, I realized that [Sel’ianov] was a genuine personality, with depth and integrity, and that filmmaking was his life purpose. So I wrote him a letter, because it seemed that he was the type of an open-minded and aware person one could turn to. He invited me in for a chat, and the rest came together bit by bit.

AN: Who was your “teacher,” someone who inspired you professionally?

TK: I can’t name any particular person. The idea is to learn from everyone you encounter along the way. Lesha [Aleksei Balabanov] brought me on and taught me a great many things: besides being everything else, he [was] a great film editor. From then on, I’ve been acquiring something new from each director with whom I worked. There is always something to learn. I am inspired by good cinema. It develops good taste, one can explore the editing and dramatic solutions that amaze, and sometimes even help in a particular situation—to put together a scene, for example.

AN: Such a master as Liudmila Feigenova who worked with Andrei Tarkovskii was in a close, almost symbiotic relationship with the director. How do you see the role of editor in making the film?

TK: The way I understand: if it is auteur cinema, the relationship is really to some degree symbiotic. I consider it my main task to thoroughly understand the director and what he wants from a particular movie. To be on the same wavelength, to understand him so well as to precisely execute his ideas, while leaving a space for some creative freedom and to offer your own ideas. It is my personal opinion, and it’s important not to have regrets if some of your ideas are not accepted, because the film is the goal, and the film is not yours, but the director’s with whom you work.

AN: How did you meet Aleksei Balabanov?

kuzmicheva and BalabanovTK: After a period of studying editing techniques and completing several student films, Sergei [Sel’ianov] offered me a job on one project, saying that I should do okay, because the crew was very professional. It was The American. The production was closed with less than a third of the footage shot. We put together about half an hour, the very beginning of the film.

AN: Do you remember any details related to the production?

TK: As I recall, we began to edit as soon as the crew returned from America; we gathered all the American material and even laid down the sound track: it was [Leonid] Fedorov’s composition “Muzh li ne muzh” (“Husband, or Not”). There wasn’t much: some walks, the concert scene and the actual final scene at the airport.

AN: You started working with Balabanov during a difficult period for him: after the tragedy in Karmadon where the collapse of Kolka Glacier killed his close friend, actor-director Sergei Bodrov Jr. and many other long-time Balabanov crew members, who were filming there at the time. Among the victims was your predecessor, the editor Marina Lipartiia [1971–2002]. How did that affect your relationship with the director?

TK: I don’t know why, but from the start I felt welcome. Though I was terrified of Lesha [Balabanov] at first, because he was such a big name, and I was just learning and didn’t know much. I even think his treatment of me was a kind of an investment. Later on I began to sense him and understand him well, and that was very important for him, and for the work, too. Although I was very nervous, the work was a true joy for me.

Or, perhaps, he simply turned out to be a kindred spirit where it came to worldview and taste, and because of that it wasn’t difficult for me to understand him. Perhaps, he valued that in me, calling me “smart.” To him, the most terrible thing was human stupidity. If he ever was rude to people, it was mostly because of that very stupidity.

On the other hand, they say that after the tragedy, Lesha was not the same: he was no longer as “angry”, in a good way, but he softened up. Perhaps that’s why he treated me so gently. Karmadon caught up with me, too, later on, when I got to know the people at CTB [the film studio founded by Sel’ianov and Balabanov] who knew those who were lost there and have shared so many stories about them. Through those people, I came to love those who perished and truly felt the tragedy.

AN: You were talking about the closeness of attitude between you and Balabanov. Could you share an example that speaks to it?

TK: I’m not sure if it’s possible to define this affinity… It happens when all these different people are somehow joined according to the principle of “theirs” and “ours”, and you reach an understanding with some that you can’t achieve with others. Perhaps it has something to do with the psychophysics and the background. Another thing that Lesha and I had in common was music. The rock [music] from Sverdlovsk and from Leningrad… this music shaped me, it coincided with the transitional time for our country and with my own transitional period, adolescence. I didn’t have to discover anything new there: everything was clear from the start. Music aside, I shared his perception of cinema, which helped me understand him, meaning that I have an eye for the cinematic, whatever that may mean. Or, perhaps it’s just the cinematic knowledge and the good taste that had been cultivated from childhood, the ability to distinguish a quality film from a lesser one. Also, I guess, an honest attitude toward life and work, when your work, the film you’re working on, and cinema in general, comes first.

AN: Balabanov can, undoubtedly, be called an auteur filmmaker; from the script to the final cut of a film the vision was entirely his own. At the same time, according to his DoPs Aleksandr Simonov and Sergei Astakhov, even the VFX artist Oleg Beliaev, Balabanov would listen carefully to their advice and could be persuaded to make adjustments when it came to the technical aspects of production, or cinematography. In terms of editing, what kind of dynamic existed between you and the director?

TK: Surely, everyone you’ve spoken to has told you that Lesha would have the entire film in his head while he was writing the script. For example, he would not complete the script unless he had chosen all the locations, visited them and imagined how the characters would exist there, and how he would shoot it. Then he would adjust the script according to the specific location, and often to the specific actor. Or, for example, even before the production would start, he knew what music would be playing in the film, and he would shoot this or that scene to the beat. That is why, when it came to editing the film, there weren’t too many options. While it’s absolutely true that he would always lend an ear to any idea that was offered, he would rarely accept it. But it’s his film after all, isn’t it? He had a crystal-clear understanding of his goals and some unchangeable concepts. A film is, in a way, an exercise in exhibitionism by its creator who mustn’t give up his ground, who must insist on their innermost intimate vision to be able to, in the end, “sign your name to it.” I think in most cases he was right, when to all of us it seemed that we are doing something weird; but in the end everything worked, everything was on target.

The footage for The American and Dead Man’s Bluff we edited together: I would compose a scene from preselected takes and Lesha would observe and correct me along the way, suggesting better solutions. It Doesn’t Hurt Me (Mne ne bol’no, 2006) I edited mostly on my own. Starting with Cargo 200 we adopted the following approach: I would assemble the entire film, then we would correct it together, lay down the soundtrack and finalize the cut. I would say that he trusted me and allowed for my freedom, and, on my end, it was important for me to grasp and not to muddle his main idea.

AN: How would you begin your acquaintance with each of the films? Did you participate in the discussion of the script? Did you attend the filming?

TK: I almost never participated in pre-production process, other than attending a few read-through sessions. This would allow me to imagine the way things would work during the production and editing. From the very beginning I was working on the set as an assistant director. One of my responsibilities was ensuring the editability of the footage. By and large, I served as a liaison between Lesha and the crew. 

AN: I’ve read that Balabanov hasn’t always expressed himself clearly to the cast and the crew during filming. On the other hand, you and some other crew members say that that he always knew what he wanted. What was your own experience in this context? How did you find a common language?

kuzmicheva and BalabanovTK: Probably everyone brought it up as an issue because Aleksei thought that, if he had a clear idea in his head about something, everyone else automatically had it too—as if everyone could read his mind and have a silent understanding with him. But he was always ready to explain if something was unclear. However, everyone was afraid to go up to him for another clarification, simply because he could get mad. So I was the one to go and ask him. I think if there were a person who would follow him from the very inception and listen, and delve into all the processes, then it would be possible to understand everything. On the set I would follow him and attempt to understand. He would explain things to me and I would help the production to the best of my ability, but to be an assistant director is a special talent, and I don’t have it. [...] Lesha himself said that the only time he had an ideal assistant director was when they were filming in America. I think professionalism played a big role here.

When it came to editing, based on my own experience, what would happen later in the edits first became clear on the set. And later, before assembly, we would go over every scene; if you are already working [on the film], it was clear what to do, even by Lesha’s minor remarks. I mean: if you are in the process, it’s all clear. As many people have probably mentioned: it was very difficult to imagine the completed film just by reading Lesha’s scripts. The film revealed itself during the filming—at least for me, being with Lesha on the set, day in and day out, I began to fully grasp what he wanted to say. 

AN: They say that Balabanov filmed with virtually no extra footage: almost everything that was filmed was used. Please describe the process. What does this mean for the editor? 

TK: It is difficult for me to say what it means from an editor’s viewpoint, because Lesha’s footage was the first I ever worked with, and willy-nilly shaped my notion that this is as it should be. Of course, I’m only for flexibility within the footage and the availability of different options. But in Lesha’s case it wasn’t necessary, because he knew exactly how things would look during editing; it was as if he didn’t even understand why would you need to shoot extra and “just in case” footage. Even if they were to shoot it, it would probably be impossible to convince Lesha to put it in the film. Even if there was the aspect of budgeting for the film, this wasn’t paramount. I know of one other director who films without any waste, and this is also because he knows exactly what he wants.

AN: Could you name him?

TK: Of course. It’s Igor’ Voloshin. When I encountered other directors I understood what sets Lesha’s footage apart. In the majority of the cases, editing of a film can be imagined as composing a large mosaic. One chooses the brightest, the most beautiful and accurate elements and composes the final picture, all the while rearranging the pieces to achieve the precise dramatic effect and the necessary emotional impact for the audience. By contrast, Lesha’s footage consisted of these large living layers, these chunks of life that, when joined together, take on a life of their own, and the very magic of cinema occurs beyond your involvement. This is immediately evident during editing—whether the footage is alive or not. Sometimes, no matter how you splice it, it won’t stick, it won’t come to life—and that’s it!

AN: Is it possible that this approach was motivated by rationing film stock, a hold-over from the low-budget days? This would be understandable in the case of, say, Brother (Brat, 1997), which was filmed on the leftover Kodak from the big-budget production of Anna Karenina. By the time you began to work with Balabanov, the budget situation had improved somewhat. Has this influenced his approach?

TK:  I don’t think it did. It’s true they made Brother with almost no money, but it also took a while to make. It seems to me that when there’s money, then there’s a deadline, there’s a clear understanding of who, when, and within what timeframe will perform what particular tasks. Lesha never liked to drag out the production. At the same time, he always demanded the execution of his vision to be exact. But again, without tyranny, in the cases of force majeure on the set, he found a compromise. If he saw that something had gone very wrong, he could cancel the shooting, as was the case with The American.

AN: Has the shift to digital filming influenced your work in any way? 

TK: Not a lot has changed. The technology remained pretty much the same, but is a bit more simplified. Though on the first two pictures, we edited the working cut for print, and that was a good experience. I got to see the real editing room, an editing bench, I saw how they work on it. I didn’t splice the film myself, but there were still those wonderful lady-editors in white robes at Lenfilm.

AN: In an interview, Balabanov once said that the most important thing for him was to catch “the energy of reality.” How did that come through in his editing?

TK: I haven’t heard him describe it like that, but I’m glad to hear it: it confirms my theory that Lesha’s footage has a life of its own. On the set, he would often say that we are filming reality, but, as usual, we misunderstood what he meant. Now I get it!

AN: They say that to prepare for the editing process, Balabanov would watch TV on mute while the music from the future film would play. He would change channels as he created the rhythm of the future picture. Is that true? How was the rhythm of a film established? What role did the music play?

TK: Yes, he would test if the rhythm of frame changes goes with certain music, and which takes go well with the music and which not. It could be any random Hollywood movie played on mute along with the soundtrack from the future film. In a sense, he was filming to the music. It seems to me that the music was playing in his head, or because of the constant listening to the music, he retained the inner beat to which he would compose the frames on the set.

AN: What can you say regarding the long takes that Balabanov is famous for, and their correlation with the short takes. Does that kind of aesthetic appeal to you?

TK: Actually, all these difficult long takes are what produces the feeling of life on film. I am amazed by the extra-long takes that are combined with a lot of action within the shot, like in the Children of Men by Alfonso Cuaron (2006), or one of our own directors, Aleksei German. As you watch it, you understand that all of it is shot in one take, but it’s not boring, it’s cool!

And these long walks and drives—the air within the film—carry enormous weight in terms of cinematic value: there is no real cinema without them. Perhaps they allow the audience to exhale, letting them think or, conversely, rev up the tension, serve as a springboard for the future twists and turns in the story. Either way, they enhance the dramatic fabric of the film, its emotional impact.

When it comes to Lesha, here’s my view: his scenes, filled with seemingly random details and people and filmed with a medium shot, may at a first glance seem messy, not very artful, but this is what it’s all about: this is what makes them alive. I would say that he is better known for his medium shots than the long ones. And he is not alone: to me the early Jim Jarmusch is the American Balabanov, and Aki Kaurismaki his Finnish counterpart.

As for me, the life on the screen is paramount, and whether it is expressed through faster cuts or longer ones depends on the particular film, on the particular task. So long as the life is not lost in the flickering of the shots.

Take the third season of Twin Peaks: in a sense, in modern times, it seems that [David] Lynch is being obnoxious with his long, or even static, takes, but it is in these spaces that cinema is born, multitudes of meanings are born; and in the end his own unique style is born, too. Not only he always stays true to himself, in this season there’s way too much of Lynch. But this is how he brings his own reality to life; this is how he achieves the goal that he has set for his film.

There was once this funny episode: while working with Igor’ Voloshin, I adopted this harsh editing rhythm. So I finished the first cut of Morphine (Morfii, 2008) and, as we sat down to review it, Lesha  began to lengthen the takes on dialogues, reducing the number of cuts. Later on he would say: “Tania gave me this American-style cut.”

AN: I totally agree with you about Lynch and Jarmusch, even if you consider Paterson (2016), not just the early films. Kaurismaki, too. I know Balabanov was very fond of his films, but what did he think about the aforementioned American directors?

TK: Oh, yes, Paterson, you’re right! Same feeling I had after seeing Broken Flowers (2005) when it just came out.

I haven’t heard anything about the Americans from Lesha, but he had this affection for Jos Stelling. They met at some festival, enjoyed meeting each other, and expressed mutual respect and recognition for each others’ work. He always remembered this and talked about it when we were assembling Me Too (Ia tozhe khochu, 2012), and suddenly [Leonid] Bichevin came to visit after working with Stelling on The Girl and Death [2012]. [Sergei] Makovetskii and Renata Litvinova also starred in that film, such a curious coincidence. Also, before Morphine, Aleksei was working on this very dark script [The Clay Pit; see Balabanov 2017; A.N.]. It was very heavy and the only redeeming thing about it, in my opinion, was that the action was supposed to take place in the house of a railway station master. That would take it to a different plane. It would’ve been a kind of a nod to Stelling.

AN: In Me Too there are a lot of close-ups; especially compelling is the tight shot of Iurii Matveev’s face at the bonfire. When it came to editing, what role do you think the close-up played in Balabanov’s films?

TK: Perhaps I will disappoint you, but a close-up was a kind of back-up for Lesha, especially when it came to scenes with several people around the table, or by the fire, who are engaged in an activity: drinking, eating, picking something up and passing it around a table or the fire. It’s a challenge for them to precisely repeat the sequence of the required movements and lines, especially if they are non-professional actors, like Sasha [Aleksandr] Mosin, or Iura [Iurii] Matveev. That’s why, sometimes, we had to shoot a close-up without the hands, or other details, to have a clean cut of the scene; or if the scene is in a tight space, like a car. However, something that served a purely technical function on the set, may later in a film serve a dramatic purpose. Because, at times, the audience, or a critic, doesn’t grasp the meaning that the director has intended, or conversely, finds something that the director hasn’t even imagined. This is the independent life of a film, as it should be, in my view. Indeed, a film, like any other creative output, is not only the outcome of the production by the director and his crew, but an expression of influences of the cultural and social spheres, the times and, lastly, divine energy.

AN: Was Cargo 200 a difficult film for you? Could you talk about your work on it? Any moments that come to mind?

kuzmicheva and BalabanovTK: Shortly before the production began, I ran into Nadia [Nadezhda] Vasil’eva [Balabanov’s wife and the costume designer on most of his films; A.N.], and she said that Lesha is in great creative shape and captivated by his work on a new screenplay, and even looks younger. So the entire filming process was guided by his youthful energy. Indeed, a lot depends on the attitude of the director. It is true that there were difficult scenes, night shifts, even conflicts, but we were all somehow united by Lesha’s energy. This shoot wasn’t difficult for me; to the contrary, everything was going great. (Morphine was the only truly difficult production.)

The production of Cargo 200 took place in many different locations. We had expeditions to Vyborg, Volkhov, and Cherepovets. In addition, we filmed on the army base near Pskov, in Kronshtadt and in St Petersburg itself. Actually, we traveled more than we filmed! All things considered, we managed to squeeze it into one month.

Aleksei’s [Serebriakov] house, the yard, the banya [sauna], the shed and the well—these are all specially built sets near Vyborg. The role of the groom was played by a real young actor: he was walking around in that terrible makeup for a day or two. First when [Zhurov and his officers] bring him—it was one makeup; then when he was just lying there—that was a different makeup.

The woman who plays Zhurov’s mother [Valentina Andriukova] was discovered by our wonderful Tania Lelik, the casting director, during the filming at the drunks’ flat. She is not an actress, she just lived there.

Lesha saw the smokestacks of the Cherepovets plant while traveling to Velikii Ustiug, and decided that he must film there. Zhurov’s motorcycle would constantly break and Aleksei Poluian (the actor playing Zhurov) was afraid to ride it. Leonid Gromov was confirmed to play Artem in the last moment, and in my view it was a great choice. Lenia [Leonid] Bichevin didn’t know how to drive and had to learn immediately before the filming, after he joined us in Vyborg.

The script for Cargo 200 was shocking to many and incomprehensible. When, after reading it, I asked: what is this after all, what is the main idea, Lesha said that it doesn’t matter, it’s the energy that matters. The film began to take shape for me during the filming. Generally, working with Lesha I learned to disassociate myself from a lot of things, though perhaps it’s a trait of my personality. In addition, for me Balabanov’s works seem to be more post-modernist than purely existential; however, this could be because I have more fondness for that approach, in the sense that these images are extremely naturalistic, but ultimately this is all they are: images, representations.

And even if the director didn’t intend anything specific, but just wanted to show a violent scene, it’s still a representation; you just have to learn how to interpret it. By the way, during the editing of the film, when we got to the actual rape scene accompanied by the song “Vologda,” Lesha said: “This is just a music video, you cut it, I’m taking off.”

I wonder, actually, where he got this or that music. Often it was so to the point and meant something to me personally, something to do with my childhood memories. That happened on Cargo 200 and, for whatever reason, I especially really enjoyed “Mommy Blue” in It Doesn’t Hurt Me. You can think whatever you want about the film, but it’s a wonderful song. By the way, the close-ups in this movie were shot with a purpose and had a dramatic meaning. In general, for this film Aleksei came up with a different visual form and used more jump cuts in editing.

AN: Could you share more details about the editing of It Doesn’t Hurt Me, in particular close-ups?

TK: The script for It Doesn’t Hurt Me wasn’t Lesha’s. He just corrected the dialogues and came up with a different title. He just offered a certain visual form. Tight shots of the characters are motivated by the dramatic moments in the narrative dealing with people’s relationships—love, pain, disappointment. It’s a bit of a music video editing style with jump cuts that were pre-conceived and shot. It’s an uncharacteristic style for Lesha, but, as it seems to me, the script had to be developed, the narrative form had to be shaped, and so he saw the material in this way and tried to enhance it.

AN: You said that the production of Morphine was difficult. In what way?

TK: Morphine was a complex production. Sets were built for exterior shots and sound stages for the interior scenes. It was a historical film with costumes and props, elaborate make-up. It was a massive machinery that was supposed to move smoothly, but it didn’t happen. The shooting schedule would constantly change. That’s the most challenging thing during a production: all the departments were confused and stalled all the time, props were a nightmare, the soundstages were late to be completed. Throughout the production I had a feeling that I’m walking through a viscous substance: everything was difficult. It also seemed that we wouldn’t be able to splice the whole thing together, but that this is just a mass of random scenes. Sasha [Aleksandr] Simonov (the DoP on Morphine) and even I had some ideas on how to do it nicely: transition from scene to scene by using the effect of a torn film to set at once a certain discreteness to the narrative. Lesha did not accept our “avant-garde style” and came up with the chapter structure. The sequence of the chapters could be different, we settled it in the end with Lesha, but there were options.

AN: The working relationship between a director and an editor is traditionally very close. How did the years of working with Balabanov influence you as a professional?

TK: Tremendously, I think. I have a hard time working with directors who don’t know what they want. To film everything at 180 degrees and then during the editing decide what will be used in the film and how to structure the narrative—I’m not fond of this approach. I like it when the scenes are shot unconventionally, that they reveal the director’s touch. Therefore, I didn’t become a line worker in my profession. I care about what it is I’m cutting. This limits my employment options.

AN: You also worked with Igor’ Voloshin, who considers Balabanov his mentor. Was the influence evident in his approach to the footage?

TK: Of course, Igor’ sees everything differently and his editing tempo is completely different. But despite these big visual differences, he and Lesha are undoubtedly akin in a way. Perhaps, in the realist, documentarian approach to cinema. In that very “energy of reality.” Igor’’s footage is like Lesha’s in that it is very much alive. When Igor’ films, he knows exactly what he is doing and how the cut is going to look, and there is practically no leftover footage either.

AN: If you were to compare working with Voloshin and Balabanov, what useful conclusions have you drawn from working with each?

TK: To work with their footage is a pleasure and a gift. When working with such material there’s no need to cut around things and come up with artificial solutions; it’s pure creativity at its core.

AN: What are you doing currently, what trends in film attract your attention?

TK: I have very little work. I feel closest to auteur cinema. I don’t mean art-house, but the cinema that bears the hand of the author, no matter what genre, so long as it is alive and relatable, or moral issues are represented within the reality of the film. Overall, I love cyber-punk and sci-fi, but there are very few quality films in these genres.

September 2017

Anna Nieman

Works Cited
Balabanov, Aleksei. 2017. “Clay Pit. A film about bad people.” Translated by Daria Ezerova. SRSC 11.1: 65–93.

Sergeeva, Tamara. 2002. “Sergei Sel’ianov: ‘Ia ugadyvaiu, a ne proschityvaiu’.” Iskusstvo kino 8.


Anna Nieman, Tat'iana Kuz'micheva © 2018

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Updated: 2018