Oldenburg „Unforgiven“, the new film from Armenian-Russian director Sarik Andreasyan was the the opening film of Oldenburg International Film Festival this year. We had a packed house for this affecting Russian production that surely left its mark. The story is based on the tragic and true events surrounding the life of Vitaly Kaloyev and his family before and after the disastrous Überlingen mid-air collision.
It was an emotional journey, watching the Russian perspective on a horrific accident that also greatly impacted German communities on July 2, 2002. Watching these tragic events unfold before our very eyes was heart-rending. Although some of the more dramatic scenes may seem as if they might have been exaggerated or a tad too far-fetched, it was surprising to find out that there were quite a few true to life scenes that happened on that fateful day.
Russian superstar Dmitri Nagiev portrayed Kaloyev in such a way that he rarely had to say a word to get his point across. His essence was enough; he was able to emote so much pain and suffering in just a single glance or gesture. It was shocking to learn that he is one of the biggest comedic stars in Russia, not really known for dramatic work. This picture surely reveals a deeper and more complex side to this Russian actor.
Director Sarik Andreasyan, producer Lenny Levi and screenwriter Matthew Jacobs were all in attendance. I sat down with them during the opening gala after „Unforgiven“ made it’s German premiere. Some of Sarik Andreasyan’s answers were given in Russian so in those cases Lenny Levi translated into English.
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Lesen Sie auch: Unforgiven – An der Kälte des Westens verzweifeln (NWZ)
The film was really touching and at times a tough and emotional watch. Matthew, how did you and Sarik come up with the concept of the screenplay? You said before the screening that you tried to sell your script in Hollywood but it wasn’t working out. Can you go more into that?
MATTHEW JACOBS (screenwriter): Sarik had brought the story to me and it was one of a couple ideas that we were throwing around at the time. Back in 2014 I was really drawn to this and in doing some research we decided to move ahead with the script, which I wrote in English. I don’t speak Russian. I don’t speak German. While moving ahead, we had some financing that fell through with one group of people, which happens all the time. And at that point Sarik said that he still wanted to do it. He thought that he could do it back home in Russia, and he had the script translated to do it that way.
So Sarik, you approached Matthew with the story. That must mean that you knew each other beforehand. How did this friendship develop?
SARIK ANDREASYAN (director): Yeah, yeah because Lenny (the film’s producer) is our old common friend.
Oh, I see. So you’re all old buddies.
LENNY LEVI (producer): You know, well we decided to do it in Russian. It would have taken too long to do it in English. And we wanted to do this film because we just thought that the time was right and at the same time the story came up with Arnold Schwarzenegger, so we decided not to wait anymore. And also, what’s most important, we thought about how it’s a Russian story, it takes place in Russia so it makes sense to do it in Russian.
SA: Yeah, because it’s mentality things. I don’t know how it feels for people from here, who are not Russian but in Russia this movie is very understandable. People understand what we mean, every scene, every character because we are Russians. And this story, it was a very famous story...at fifteen years people talk about it so every year the television, the newspapers talk about this. That’s why I know about this story for all of my life.
So it’s very close to your hearts, very personal.
SA & LL: Yeah yeah, yeah.
MJ: And I had never heard of it.
I don’t really remembering hearing much about it either.
MJ: It wasn’t until he (Sarik) had brought it up. And then I was surprised at how much information there was and how much press. I don’t really think that it leaked into the U.S.
Yeah, I feel like a lot of the mainstream U.S. news is U.S.-centric.
LL: Yeah...but the other reason we wanted to do it in Russia is because we wanted to do right by everyone else who was involved. And the only way to do it the right way was in Russian.
The music was nice. I felt as if the score was like extra dialogue during so many silent moments, silent scenes. It allowed the main actor (Dmitri Nagiev who played Kaloev) to portray his emotions on an aesthetic level, especially with his facial movements. How extensively was the music built into the screenplay?
MJ: The score is its own thing. You know before starting to write a project like this it’s very tonal, it’s very dark and there’s a lot of long sequences especially in the middle of the film where it’s his silence and his grief. And you have to sort of translate that onto the screen without dialogue. So we don’t talk about the music expressly but we knew the tone and what will be happening through large...the film in silence.
Sarik, what guidance did you give the composer to create this specific tonal and dark mood for the film?
SA: So the musical producer for the film is my older brother.
LL: Obviously, he is also a huge fan of the story so he was sort of spearheading the music.
SA: It was very important for the music to convey the fact that every time he comes home it’s an empty house. So that was the, you know, overall thing for the composer to work with. The loneliness, you should be submerged into the world of loneliness.
Yeah, it definitely did brought us into that mindset.
SA: And a lot of the sound design elements, the ticking of the clock, noises served a scene’s purpose. And you know there are a few scenes when all the noises are turned off and you just hear the music and see the image on the screen. Also obviously all to get to the point of loneliness and sadness and whatever the story brings.
Yeah, it brought the story there. I think that the main actor Dmitri Nagiev was quite talented. I’m not familiar at all with his work but I was quite impressed by his dramatic range,
SA: He’s one of the best actors in Russia, but he’s a comedy actor. He’s like a Jim Carrey in Russia.
Wow, I would have never have guessed that. He seemed so comfortable in this very dramatic, emotional, serious role.
SA: It’s his first dramatic role.
MJ: I remember when you started filming and I had seen some dailies, I was very impressed right from the start.
LL: He’s big time. He’s only known for comedy. It’s gonna change now.
So Sarik, was working with such a seasoned comedic actor difficult for you? How did you approach directing Nagiev knowing that he comes from a comedic background?
SA: I obviously knew him, knew that he had different ranges. He’s famous for being a comedy actor but he can do more than just that. And this film was very anticipated in Russia. People were waiting because the story is so famous. Everything just came into place, which gives Dmitri an opportunity to elevate, to show a different side of who he is, you know so it adds to the film. So that’s how it all came about.
You stated that it was a highly anticipated film. How was the reception by the critics, by the audiences in Russia?
SA: It officially opens up the 27th of this month (September), but we went through several festivals in Russia. Yeah, it’s been great. People cried, people were thankful because it’s a very touching story for them.
Were you all there for the world premiere and the other Russian festival screenings?
MJ: No, this is my first time. It’s my first time seeing it with an audience and on a big screen.
How was that for you? Seeing your words come to life up on the screen?
MJ: Well, it’s great. You know, it’s weird to have flashbacks to...because years go by and you kind of forget a lot of stuff. And then you watch it and you remember scenes and it’s just a real experience. I mean it’s very exciting.
Was there a lot of collaboration between you and Sarik? Was there some give and take with changing dialogue and scene structure? Did a lot of what we saw in the film tonight appear in your original script?
MJ: A lot of it. I mean, again, it’s going back years but I remember when I had seen the rough cut my initial reaction...because getting it translated into Russian I really didn’t know what my expectations were. And I remember my first thought when I watched the rough cut was, „Wow, that’s a lot closer to my original script than I would have imagined they could have done“.
LL: It was also adapted. It was changed a little bit by the Russian screenwriter because when it comes to very specific elements of being from a city, you know something being very specific that Matt wouldn’t be aware of because he’s not from there. It’s very, very small details. But in order to make it truthful and realistic you have to...But the core, everything that he said is there but it’s just the small things here and there.
What’s the plan for the future of your film? Is it being widely distributed? How big of a release will it get when it comes out to Russian cinemas later this month?
SA: Well, we hope that we’ll join a few other festivals. You know, how many who will have us. Mostly, we really anticipate the reaction from the audience in Russia when it opens up this month. It will get a very wide release in Russia, 2000 screens or more. It’s big for Russian movie.
LL: You know, it’s one of those anticipated films. It’s been...everyone knows about it. It’s all over the place so you know we hope it’ll get a response.
I have a feeling that here in Germany it might also be widely attended and liked by the movinggoing public.
SA: Yeah, it sold to Germany, to a company. It’s obviously up to them how they are going to distribute it. It’s going to exhibit here in theaters as well. At the end of the day, it takes place in Germany too, so a way for people to connect to it.
Right, well in my section of the theater you probably could have heard a pin drop because many people around me were sitting at attention, amazed into silence, which is usually a good sign.
MJ: Yeah, and it was a big audience too so it feels even more silent.
What are the next film projects that you will be working on? Will all three of your be involved?
LL: We do, we...(hesitant)...
SA: We do have, we do work on something we just don’t want to talk about it now. We are thinking, we are...
LL: Well, our company, too. We have a company based in Moscow so we are constantly releasing Russian language films, but we are working on something that will probably be released in English this time.
All three of you?
LL: Yeah, yeah.
Well, I mean if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. It sounds like it was an amazing experience all around and the audience tonight was really into it. Thanks for sitting down with me.