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HomeColumnsDirector SeriesDirector Series-Timor Bakmembetov, Night Watch (Nochnoi Dozor)

Director Series-Timor Bakmembetov, Night Watch (Nochnoi Dozor)

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The Russian smash hit Night Watch is not an imitation Hollywood action film. Yes, the story has witches, vampires and shape-shifters awaiting a prophetic entity who will bring on Armageddon. But Night Watch also depicts such post-Soviet realities as homelessness, organized crime, arena rock, the Russian ballet, and nuclear catastrophe à la Chernobyl. The script is chock full of Chekhovian monologues and the cinematography recalls the arty compositions of Sven Nyquist from his days with Ingmar Bergman.Made on $4 million, Night Watch has grossed eight times that much at the Russian box office—the highest grossing Russian film of all time. On its home turf it outperformed all the imported Hollywood summer blockbusters. “We made the movie in Russia specifically for a Russian audience,” says director Timur Bekmambetov, whose depiction of post-Soviet Russia offers the bleakest urban vistas since the futurist world of Blade Runner. Bekmambetov, a longtime director of music videos and commercials, brings to Night Watch the sort of flashy style associated with Hollywood action, but it is his desire to be true to his home terrain that is ultimately his greatest innovation.Below the Line: The cinematography is very stylized when the vampires appear, but in much of the film the look is completely realistic. How did you decide on the DP Sergei Trofimov?Timur Bekmambetov: We’ve been friends for over 30 years, from when I was 17. We grew up together, made our first commercials together, and our first movie together in 1991. We’ve done many music videos and commercials. In 80 percent of everything I’ve done I’ve worked with him. We feel the same, we think the same, and sometimes that’s good and sometimes it’s a problem! Because it gets difficult for us to surprise each other.BTL: Despite the horror subject matter, there were all these touches from everyday life. Little things like the shabby apartments and the pictures hanging on the walls—the film really conveys a sense of contemporary Russia. The lighting is especially effective in setting the mood. It’s kind of half-horror movie, and then at times it’s drab like in an art film. Were you looking to achieve a sense of realism?Bekmambetov: It was all part of the concept, to present contemporary Russian, with all the cultural references. We decided we had to use Russian reality, our background and culture, as a fantasy world. Every detail in the movie comes from some part of lives, our memories. The cars and props and locations, the sets. For example, there’s the witch’s kitchen—it is actually based on a real kitchen—the kitchen of a palm reader that Sergei visited once.BTL: Everything looks completely authentic. Were the sets built or were they practical?Bekmambetov: We built everything. We had a very good art director, Mukhtar Mirzakeyev. He’s excellent with details. Even the nuclear reactor control room was a set. We actually changed a lot of things. It all looks real, but a bit more than real. It’s cinematically real. I know the art director even better than my DP. I’ve known him for 35 years. He was my teacher. Originally I was an art director and a stage designer, and since I was 10 he taught me how to think in terms of art direction and how to bring it off. He was an artist and stage designer, and my sister’s husband. He’s the person who continues the ideas and concepts of Russian avant-garde artists of the past—that’s who he studied with. That tradition comes from the beginning of the 20th century and filters through him. It’s an important tradition but it’s generally invisible to critics because they don’t see the visual elements and think only of the literary ideas, not what’s happening behind them. But the film presents a very specific world with compositions and visual ideas that have their origin in the history of Russian modern art.BTL: You put a lot of emphasis on how the film creates a mythology.Bekmambetov: The thing is to feel it. It’s a very unusual mix for a Russian audience because nobody ever did it before—rearranged reality and created a mythology of our life. During the Soviet era we had a great and solid mythology, but it was totalitarian. Yet it was a huge mythology that informed every aspect of life right down to how to drink, how to smoke, eat, have children, how to dress, everything. It was solid. For the people it was comfortable. Perhaps there weren’t many choices but it was comfortable and a solid world, even when it was fake like in The Matrix. But then over 15 or 20 years, during Perestroika and Yeltsin’s time, we destroyed everything and we didn’t have any mythology. It became a free world where everybody must create whatever he needs, wants, wishes, and there was no longer a binding social idea. And everybody was ashamed of what they had materially—they had bad furniture, bad food, cars, and so it went on, from year to year. Now we’ve had to stop that and tell people that what they have is great—or if not great, that what they have is what they have, and they have to love it for what it is, because it’s our life, our unique way to live. And the idea of the movie, the aesthetic idea, was to rearrange everything and show people that this world is very intense, and that it’s an adventure to live in Moscow.BTL: How has film production in general changed from the Soviet era to now?Bekmambetov: The techniques are new and everything is much faster.BTL: I know everything used to be state-financed. Do you think it’s a fair comparison to say that what has happened in Russia was like the change in Hollywood from the studio era to the independents?Bekmambetov: Absolutely. But also we had the big political change. And unfortunately the old generation just disappeared. We use the old studio buildings as factories to rent—the stages and props for commercials and music videos. But the new generation has come in. We use new technology to produce music videos and commercials faster, cheaper and smarter, and it carries over into the films. Producers now have their own production companies—we have our own production company for Night Watch. We established it about 10 years ago and have made about 1,000 commercials. It was the only way to make this movie.BTL: For the big battle scenes I noticed that armor was acquired by the production from various museums.Bekmambetov: We have a lot of clubs in Russia, collectors of old armor and military equipment from ages ago and they put on dramatic recreations of battles. From Minsk we got about 100 people dressed in their stuff and they were extras when we were shooting.BTL: How much digital work was done?Bekmambetov: A lot of the city. The nuclear reactor. We generated most of the crowd of warriors, aside from the 100 extras. In Russia there are no big effects companies, so what happened is we combined into a community, for a year, all the Russian CG companies. We had 700 VFX shots in the movie and all together there were three hundred people doing the effects, animating, and creating software.BTL: I understand this is the first installment of a trilogy.Bekmambetov: The next film is done. It was released last month and has made $34 million so far. The one we’re preparing now will be shot in English.BTL: Will it also be shot in Russia?Bekmambetov: Nobody knows yet.

Written by Henry Turner

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