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The Pulse of Russian City Life: An Interview with Johnny O’Reilly on Moscow Never Sleeps

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By Sergey Toymentsev.

Johnny O’Reilly is an Irish director making movies in Russia and with an exclusively Russian cast. Such an unusual choice of setting is due to his genuine passion for the country which he acquired since his undergraduate study of Russian at Trinity College Dublin. He first came to Moscow as an exchange student in the early 1990s and later served as a journalist covering political events in postcommunist Russia for foreign newspapers. His first feature The Weather Station (2010) is a minimalistic thriller set at an arctic meteorological outpost with a classic “whodunit” plot. His follow-up, Moscow Never Sleeps (2015), offers a more personal take on Russian culture. Being a Russian-Irish co-production, it is financed by Russian private equity funding, the Irish Film Board, Eurimages ,and AI Film.

Set in contemporary Moscow, the film is structured as a multi-narrative following the lives of five characters: an entrepreneur (starring Leviathan’s Alexei Serebryakov), whose construction business is taken off by corrupt government officials; his young trophy wife, who aspires to be a pop singer; a famous comedian on his death bed abducted by goofy Russian hoodlums; a teenage girl from a working-class family hoping to reunite with her estranged biological father; and a young man conflicted about sending his grandmother to a nursing home. All stories are woven together with a dynamic alternate montage, paralleling the rapid pulse of the city life, and interspersed with beautiful aerial shots of the majestic urban landscape. By encompassing a wide variety of social strata with an encyclopedic ambition as well as peering into the depths of characters’ inner lives, O’Reilly’s Moscow Never Sleeps strives to break geopolitical stereotypes about Russian people and make international audience fall in love with Europe’s biggest metropolis.

Moscow Never Sleeps is your second feature film set in Russia, after The Weather Station you made in 2010. How come you ended up making movies in Russia?

I studied Russian at university in Ireland. As part of my studies I learned about Russia and visited it in 1993 and then stayed for eight months. During that period, I learned the language and fell in love with the country. And then after that I always looked for excuses to come back.  I always had it in mind to make films here because I find Russia so aspiring in terms of stories, in terms of things that are happening here. And I came back in 2006, although I kept coming back many times in the 90s. But in 2006 I had a script which was set in Moscow and I just ended up staying there for twelve years. So I made it my home for that period. And for the last six years of my time there I made these two movies.

Moscow Never Sleeps is an international co-production. Who funded your movie and was the Russian Ministry of Culture involved in this?

No, and it’s unusual that they weren’t. I still to this day do not know why they weren’t. I have some ideas but we can all guess what the reason might be. A lot of Russian and European co-productions are structured in a way that some part is funded by the government and another by Eurimages, which is a very prestigious European Film Fund. In our case that came to 50 or 60% of the financing. And then the other 40 or 45% came from private finance: mostly from Russian-based business men and women, about half of them were Irish and the other half Russian. When we applied to the Russian Ministry of Culture, we already had Irish foreign financing in base. Furthermore, we were the first Russian movie to get the majority of the Eurimages funding. So those two elements of our application package made it very attractive to the Ministry of Culture. But they never funded it yet. I don’t know why. It was run by people who were rather strange and unclear. Our film was endorsed by their expert committee but for some reason they never gave us the money.

There are not so many reviews of your film written by Russian film critics and most of them are quite negative and hostile. Can you comment on this?

Moscow 02Yeah, it’s funny. I think part of the problem was my film and the nature of the Russian distribution business. People here are very conservative. Because my movie was not supported by the Ministry of Culture and Russian reviewers never heard of me, I suppose they were unsure how to market the movie. Distributors, marketing people and sales agents are generally quite conservative, unlike producers, for example. Very few of them are likely to try something new because their job is basically their judgment. If they make a wrong judgment and convince a company to put their money into a movie that fails, it could be very damaging to their career. So it’s harder for someone like me or the movie like this to catch the attention of a bigger distributor in Russia. We only ended up with a very small distributor who did not have the money to put into a proper marketing campaign. Furthermore, they just had a terrible PR person who did no work, zero. Most countries have five or ten film distributors who have been there for ten or twenty years and know their business well. In Russia it is still a young industry where distributors are coming and going very quickly, they come to the business just for a couple of years and then leave after failing. So I failed to recognize that in advance. I think that’s one of the reasons. Another reason, I think, is that we didn’t participate in the major Russian film festival “Kinotavr” where all film reviewers usually gather. We submitted our movie there, but they rejected it, which seemed strange to many of us. I think a lot of it is due to the fact that programmers in festivals like that are used to work with people they know, their friends. When someone comes out of the blue who is not a friend and, moreover, an Irish guy, they just can’t figure that out. Not that they are prejudiced against it, it’s just that they are so unused to do it that they wouldn’t even look at my film and make a quick decision. I think I underestimated how narrowly focused people in the film business in Russia could be.

Given that you are a director, scriptwriter and co-producer of the film, can you say that Moscow Never Sleeps is your personal statement about contemporary Russia?

It’s a very good question because while I was writing the film I started to think that this was a bit too negative, or mrachno as you would say it in Russian. And I tried to make it feel more positive because in my conversations with people I have nothing but positive things to say about Russia. I mean not about the Russian government but about Russia and the people there, the atmosphere in the city, the great opportunities in Moscow and how wonderful the city is. Probably there is a disparity between those conversations and the message that people may feel from watching the movie. I suppose it would be inaccurate to say that this is my statement about Russia. But of course, a lot of observations about Russia are in there. Both the negative and the positive. I am aware some of the characters die at the end and many of the characters are not too likable. But I wasn’t trying to explore my own feeling and to explicate that feeling as accurately as possible. I was just starting with the two main stories and half-characters and expanding them on scene where they went. Each story has emotional integrity based on reality I perceive it. For example, the Singer, Eugenia Khirivskaya’s character, decides to go abroad to New York with the Entrepreneur, Aleksei Serebryakov’s character. I could’ve written it differently by making her decide not to go with him but to stay with her young lover in Moscow. That was the decision I would advise her to make and that would be the wise decision for her. But in Russia, I think, it’s not likely that a girl in that situation would make such decision. It’s more likely she would go to New York. So yes, to a certain extent the movie reflects my observation about Russia.

Since you wrote the story for the film, can you say how much of it is real and fiction?

Moscow 03It’s all fiction. But obviously a lot of it is rooted in the stories I heard. For example, I’ve met people who have half their business taken off by corrupt government officials. I’ve come across girls who have decided to be with another man just because he is wealthy, even though they don’t love him. I’ve met Russian hoodlums, or gopniki, who are like that you saw in the film, kind of funny crazy guys who just want to impulsively do something crazy. So all of these characters I am familiar with. Obviously, there’s been an inspiration from those people whom I’ve met, the stories that I’ve heard. But it’s not like anyone from my stories in the film is a complete replication of something that I know in person. It’s all fiction.

Your movie is often being compared to Short Cuts or Magnolia. Why did you use a multinarrative structure for your film?

The start point for this film was obviously years of living in Moscow and learning about Russia and Russian culture. But also that point was that so few people outside Russia really know about the country and Moscow.  Despite the fact that Moscow is the biggest city in Europe, no one ever goes there from the West, except for business or tourism.  And yet, it is one of the world’s great cities. I was always very aware of that disparity. So for me the start point was what kind of movie I should make for international audiences that will show people a more nuanced view of Russian people and showcase the city that I’ve come to know so much. I decided that multinarrative would be a really good structure for that. I tried to give as wide a picture of the city as possible in the film: with quite a few characters of different features and different socioeconomic backdrops, some insights into how the government works and how things are working on the macrolevel as well as in the personal details of people’s lives. I thought that presenting everything on the backdrop of the Moscow city day was a good idea because it was something I always felt when I was there.  During such events in which everyone participates there are lot of things which bring the city, the country and the culture together. There’s also such a strong common history that Russians share and I wanted to convey that commonality.

You are also being compared to a “cinematic Chekhov.” Are there any literary influences in your film?

I really like that quote. Obviously I am really glad and flattered to be compared to Chekhov. I studied a lot of Chekhov and I like his work, especially his realistic style. I am certain on the subconscious level it did have an influence on this film. Because it’s not an extremely melodramatic film and the stories to some extent are quite muted, a bit like Chekhov’s stories. I think yes, there is certainly a sharing of taste with Chekhov in the film.

What do you think about Russians? Do you think there is some kind of “Russian soul” which is different from European one?

I think Russians get a hard time reputationally because of the actions of the Russian government taking all the headlines all around the world. In my view there are two Russias: the Russian government and then all those Russians whom I know as funny, honest, opinionated, and strong people. I always find myself defending Russians when I am in the West because the actions of the Russian government get conflated with the idea of the Russian character. And it makes it difficult for Russians to be accepted when they are travelling or living abroad. As for the “Russian soul”… It might sound pretentious but I am an empiricist and an atheist, I am into science, not religion. So I don’t see this idea of the “Russian soul” as anything more than a myth. I believe that it is something which is propagated by the government. Russia is a very traditional society. Those traditions are kept very strongly in place mostly by people in power. Because the stronger tradition that Russia has, the safer its neofeudalist political structure. So the idea of change, whatever it is, is always going to be too challenging to that politics. Within intelligentsia, academia or media in particular, people who promote ideas of change and hope are not going to be supported by those who rely on government funding today. I think that affects everything in terms of the definitive veneration of the concept of tradition as well as the concept of the mysterious Russian soul which keep holding Russia back from becoming a modern country. But let me counter that with my own counter-argument: Russian people have a lot of soul. They live life like there’s no tomorrow. In the West people have stability in their lives, they are not worried for their future, they get mortgages, they get jobs they know they are going to have for many years. When they make money, they keep it in banks. When Russians make money, they spend it while partying and making the most of the moment. And they live in the moment. That means there is more drama and suffering in the lives of Russians. But with more life and more humanity. I kind of feel Russians live with a greater amplitude of humanity than people in the West. And that’s very inspiring for any writer or dramatist or filmmaker.

You separate Russian people from the Russian government, you admire the former yet disapprove the latter. But what if Russian people deserve the government they have?

Moscow 04No, I don’t agree with that. There is no quid pro quo here. It’s just a common saying “people deserve what they get.” No people deserve a bad government. All people should have a chance for prosperity, freedom, human rights, etc. I think Russians deserve a better government than that they have at the moment. The reason Russia has the government that it has is because people in power have been very effective in suppressing the truth about the regime and controlling power in the country. In previous generations Russians used to be quite repressed. So there’s not much of an impetus for people to want to rise up and have a successful revolution. I guess it’s the fighting Irish spirit in me that allows me to see that yes, actually you can affect change and improve things. In Ireland we stood up against the British many times and managed to succeed in defending our freedom.  Unfortunately, Russia has a very sad history when it comes to wars and revolutions. So it’s understandable that it’s easy for the feudalistic government to take control in a place like Russia, for there isn’t strong collective spirit to fight that.

In your film women are often shown in quite unfavorable conditions. Can you say that Moscow Never Sleeps offers a commentary on gender relations in Russian society?

Yes, I think women are having a particularly hard time in Russia. They don’ have much recourse to enforce alimony payments, for example. A lot of people I know grew up with single mothers. And a lot of women I know were abandoned by their partners with no money at all. Again, it’s a very patriarchal society where laws don’t work. And I think the single most important law that can protect women is that on alimony payments. But my feeling is that it is not enforced at all. A man can live with a woman by letting her be a housewife with no job. But ten years later he goes off to find another person. And there’s no recourse in law for that woman to take his money for the betterment of her life or her child’s life. On the other hand, women must be much stronger in order to survive. I hope I portrayed this in the film. Despite the fact that they are in unhappy situations, they are very strong and overcome them. One of my female characters is the middle-aged woman who ultimately shows she is the one who’s keeping the family together despite the abuse of her husband who is in fact a very weak character. You may also see a sixteen-year-old girl who overcomes her bullying step-sister and becomes very strong in the process. I agree my film kind of reflects what I feel in the society.  But by showing this I wanted to pay tribute to strong women in Russia.

One of the Russian reviewers observed that it’s unclear what viewers your movie is intended for. What’s the target audience for your film, if any?

Moscow 05I remember those reviews. It surprises me how some reviewers use the same language that marketers and distributors use. Directors don’t really do that. Perhaps when you make a romantic comedy for a highly commercial movie with a big budget, then you need to think about your target market. But for most drama or movie like mine you don’t think about who is going to like it or whom I am writing this for. That’s just something you figure out in the marketing stage after the movie is made.  A lot of that depends on how successful it is in film festivals and various screenings. And often it is marketers who decide: well, this is going to be a right movie that we will show to all people and families and that will cost us, say, 5 million dollars to market. Or they might define it as a small festival movie which would require only 500 000 for the marketing. So those are rather technical decisions about who is going to watch it. When I was writing my movie, I wanted as many people as possible to watch it. I released it in Russia first and now it’s coming to America. So I am just trying to get as many people as possible to come. I notice a lot of Russian viewers are coming to watch my movie in the US. Most of them are first and second-generation immigrants who haven’t visited Moscow very much. So the film resonates quite highly with the Russian diaspora here.

How is your film being distributed in the US?

The distribution in the US turned out very well. We released it in four cities so far, there are going to be another three cities, and we are hoping to release it in further ten or so. Film distribution is an interesting process in America. For most countries it’s considered to be one market. But because America is so vast and there are so many cinemas here, each state is practically a separate country with its own market. So the best market we’ve had so far is Washington, DC, actually. I think it’s partly because some of the marketing strategies we have in America were associating Russia to a certain extent with the politics of Donald Trump. Everyone is interested in Russia now, thinking that Putin is running the show behind the scenes. We thought it could be a useful thing for us. What we did – we projected the title of the movie Moscow Never Sleeps onto the façade of Trump Tower and that went viral. That was just a week before we went to Washington where a lot of people who work in foreign affairs came to the screenings. We had Russian diplomats and quite a few people working in the White House who came to see the film. It was really interesting to be part of the discussion down there because everyone in Washington is working on projects researching Russia. So when my film appeared, there was just a lot of interest in it there. And we were delighted to be part of that.

What are you working on right now? And do you have plans for another Russian movie in future?

I am working on a dark comedy about undertakers set in Dublin. That would probably be my next project. But yes, I definitely want to come back to Russia and make more movies there. I just applied for my new visa to Russia for the next couple of years, so I hope I will have a chance to make another movie there, for sure.

Sergey Toymentsev is Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics at Florida State University as well as Senior Researcher at Russian Institute for Advanced Studies, Moscow State Pedagogical University. He received his PhD in Comparative Literature from Rutgers University in 2014. He is currently working on his book manuscript entitled Deleuze and Russian Film, which offers a Deleuzean history of Soviet and Russian cinema from Eisenstein to Sokurov. His articles and reviews have appeared in Journal of Philosophy: A Cross-Disciplinary Inquiry, Comparative Literature Studies, Scope, Studies in Russian & Soviet Cinema, Film Criticism, KinoKultura and others.

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