On 7 May M.Art will present the screening of  “Van Goghs”, a 2018 Russian drama film written and directed  by Sergey Livnev. Alongside the well-known cast (Aleksey Serebriakov, best known abroad for his roles in Leviathan  and McMafia, and Daniel Olbrychski, best known for his roles in Salt and The Tin Drum) and intriguing plot (relations between strong-minded elderly father and his disheartened middle-aged son) the film is also noteworthy as it is the first Livnev’s work as a director in 25 years. Marina Maximova of RA+C met with Livnev to talk about why he came back to directing and what we can expect of his latest film.

MM: You are a scriptwriter and director of “Van Goghs”, but to most of our readers you are known as a successful producer. How do you combine these three roles?

SL: I switched the roles throughout my life. I was first writer, then director, then director-writer… And at some point I could not do it anymore. When you make a film, you have to make a statement about yourself. And I got scared to reveal myself in a truthful and honest way. Being a young man, I always wanted to present myself more interesting, more attractive, more knowledgeable than I was. In reality, I was not exactly like that. Quite the opposite, at the time I was an inexperienced tousy youngster. I wanted to tell everyone about my feelings, but I was scared to do so, and I could not resolve this paradox. I directed two films, “Kiks”, 1993 and “Serp i molot [Sickle and Hammer]”,1994. Now I understand that both of them were attempts not tell about things that really worried me, but to hide them as far as possible.

As I could not talk about myself, I stopped making films and started producing them. Making others’ films is different. They are not your thoughts and not your pain. For the next 20 years I convinced myself that producing is exactly what I had always wanted to do. And I did like it sometimes, when I could feel the drive, get completely immersed in them. I was one of the first producers to introduce popular cinema and comedies to Russian film scene. Only 15 years ago it was a complete terra incognita. But if making the first films gave me the real adrenaline rush, then with each next one the excitement faded. More and more people were doing the same thing, and for me it became more like a conveyor production, rather than discovering new territories. So eventually I stopped.

Luckily at the same time I realised that I am no longer scared to tell the world who I am and expose all those things that worry and concern me. So, I came back to my roots and made this film.

MM: Is it at all autobiographical? Are relations between generations is what concerns you the most now?

SL: It is what concerns everyone and it is only a matter of whether we understand it or not. Parents are the first people we get to know. They welcome us to this world and for quite a long time they are the only ones with whom we spend our time. The way that parents build their relations with us forms how we see the world and treat other people. Our childhood determines how we will love, how we will hate, how we will raise our own  children. Everything comes from the childhood. When we become parents, we start to project what we learned to our children. I have been in both roles, child and parent, so I have the first-hand knowledge of that. Relations with my parents had huge impact on me. I believe that understanding more about these relations is crucial for anybody’s life.

MM: How did the title “Van Goghs” appear?

SL: It is something I can’t tell you now, because I will spoil the film for you. It is not a film about Vincent Van Gogh, not a historical drama. The events are happening in our days. If you want to understand the meaning of the title you need to watch the film to the very end including the credits. Then you will get it.

MM: In one of the interviews you mentioned that this film is not for festival juries, it is for the normal audience. But you also said that it is not for everyone. Who is your intended audience?

SL: This film is not for those who go to the movies in search of light entertainment, to eat popcorn and just have fun. It is for the small group of viewers who go to cinema for emotional experience. They want to empathise with the characters, to cry, to feel their pain to compare their lives with what is happening on a screen. They are relatively small group, probably 10 per cent of the general audience, and there are even fewer of those who appreciate such a cinema in Russia then abroad.

While the demand is growing there is not enough developed channels of distribution. In Russia films like “Van Goghs” does not get to viewers as smoothly as it would abroad. The problem is that people who constitute their audience do not often go to cinemas but prefer to watch films online. The whole generation fell out of cinema scene. In the 1990s old Soviet cinema theatres were closed or turned into furniture stores, so the culture of movie-going  disappeared. In the 2000s cinemas started to re-open again and the younger generation is different in their approach to films. But we need to wait for this generation to grow to get the normal functioning of the system back.

MM: I am, of course, very tempted to ask you about Assa. This film, which became a legend when it was created is back on screens in Russia. Why do you think it is popular today? And could you tell more about how you got involved in its making?

SL: People who watched Assa when it was released back in 1987 most likely go the theatre now  to relive the experience which was life-changing for so many. Back then it brought together not only cinema art, but also visual art, music, and youth cultures of that period, and most importantly brought the wind of freedom, it was even more  an important social statement than just a film. The young people who go to theatres now to watch Assa have probably learned about this film from their parents and are curious to see, what it is in that film that was so important for their parents.  Sometimes probably parents and children go together, which is great.

For me Assa is certainly very special.  I was 19. I was a student of the cameraman department of VGIK film school, however I did not want to be a cameraman. I was writing scripts.  Sergey Soloviev read a couple of my scripts,  liked them and asked me to write a script for him.  He briefed me like that: I want a criminal story with at least two murders, to include music like “this contemporary stuff you are listening to now’, to add some passion and intrigues of Indian cinema and to make everything tender, “like Chekhov”, he said. “Like Chekhov” was kind of challenging, especially in mixture with Indian cinema. This was the cocktail I had to shake, and from which Assa appeared.

MM: I am curious to know more about music. Obviously in Assa music is one of the major elements of the film. What role does music play in “Van Goghs”? As far as I know the film was awarded a prize for the best music at Kinotavr film festival in Russia.

SL: Music, of course, is the key part of cinema. Good music is something you don’t really notice, but the lack of it could ruin the whole experience. In fact, the music in “Van Goghs” is not new, but recycled. It is the same music I used in one of my first films, “Hammer and Sickle”. It was written by Leonid Desiatnikov, who at that moment was not yet the classic of musical scene, but was only preparing to be one. When I was making “Van Goghs” I took that music and played it together with the visual and it worked amazingly well. I asked Desitanikov to adapt the “Hammer and Sickle” music  for “Van Goghs” and he did it together with Alexey Sergunin. And now this relatively old music from the 1990s is mentioned by the critics and wins awards.

MM: Why did you decide to show the film in London?

SL: Do you need any other reason other than that London is the capital of the world and one of the major cities in the cinema industry? I have been living here on and off since 2006 and I know very well that it has rich and diverse Russian community. I hope many of them will come to see the film on 7 May.