Interview : Alexei Popogrebsky

Winner of Best Film at last year’s London Film Festival, and the Silver Bear at Berlin for the performances of its two actors and the luminous cinematography, Alexei Popogrebsky’s How I Ended This Summer is a stunning tale of isolation and paranoia set in the Arctic Circle. Both an intense study of human relationships in a psychological pressure cooker formed by the hostile landscape, and a survival thriller as taut as a (polar) bear trap, it was filmed over three months in Chukotka, on Russia’s north-eastern coast. I was able to catch up with the film’s director during a fleeting visit to London this week ahead of the film’s general release at the end of the month.

Can you talk a little about the genesis of the project, was the location the primary source of inspiration for the story?

Well, it’s deeply rooted in my childhood, but not in the Freudian sense. Many years before I had any idea I’d be making films, I came across a book called Diaries of a Polar Pilot, I was maybe eight years old and fascinated with it because of how different their experience was from my own, living in the city. Reading that, I projected myself into their situation, assuming that I probably wouldn’t be able to handle it. The next book I came across was an account of a failed expedition to conquer the North Pole in 1912, and again through reading that and imagining their experience literally blew my mind. From there I started collecting pretty much every non-fiction book on Polar expeditions that I could find in Russia.

Did that research include much on the ‘isolation sickness’ the characters in the film experience?

For me, the most fascinating part was not the sickness or people going crazy, it was when a completely ‘abnormal’ or ‘extreme’ experience becomes routine, it’s something very human and very intense. In the books that I enjoyed the most, like Fridtjof Nansen’s account of his expeditions, there are details of everyday life, the daily routine, they’re there for years, often in darkness, and that’s what’s so fascinating, that humans are animals that can adapt to anything, really. So, it’s not so much about ‘sickness’, which is maybe a side-product, but more the details of mundane, everyday life in such conditions. You can read an intense book about war, for example, I mean what could be less human than war, but people still create room for very human details and daily routines.

Pavel seems to have agreed to take on the job in the film without fully understanding the implications of his decision. He seems to be there for the ‘experience’, unaware of the potential effects of such complete isolation. I wonder if you experienced anything similar yourself, whether your filmmaking adventure in such a hostile environment as Chukotka was something you could ever prepare for completely?

Luckily, by the time we started shooting the film we were fully prepared. We were there previously, with my DoP and production designer, and had spent two weeks living at the station. Preparation is always key to the success of any expedition. We’d agreed with Grigory (Dobrygin, the actor playing Pavel) that he wouldn’t get to read the script, it was his first film, he was still a student at drama school, and I was a little concerned that he would become too self-aware, too self-conscious. If he read the whole script he’d be thinking “it develops like this, which means I have to do this here…”, there’d be too much rationalisation of action. But it also really helped me, I had a very detailed script, which if you were to re-read now, you’d see 95% of it is on screen, and the goal was to shoot chronologically but also very flexibly, and we always had a few scenes on which we could go back and forth on any particular day as the conditions changed, the weather was constantly shifting there. With my detailed script in mind, and based on what was happening at any given time, I’d re-write the scenes for the next day and hand them out to the actors and crew.

So how conducive was the environment to improvisation, both with your actors and your camera?

There’s a saying that you can only truly improvise when you know the basis very, very well, which is especially true for the actors. When they know the scene well, they’re able to improvise best because they have this inner map of how the scene should play out, onto which they can then project themselves. Overall I think there are two major schools of acting, when somebody brilliantly portrays someone else and then gets an Oscar for wearing a fake nose, which I’m not against, I think she’s a great actress and it was a great nose, but then there’s Stanislavsky, the founder of method acting. “Me, in the given circumstances”, “I, in the given circumstances”, that is the most powerful tool an actor can use in film. I always try to find the right actor, for example I wrote this part especially for Sergei Puskepalis and once I’d found Grigory I re-wrote his part with him in mind, to accommodate his personality, his character. With this method of shooting, the circumstances were there, it was all about creating the right environment for the actors, and for us, to allow the characters to emerge organically through the process. In terms of nature, with digital cameras and a very tight crew, we were able to be very flexible. There was a day when we were supposed to shoot on one base, but seeing that the sea looked particularly good that day, it meant we were able to go to the abandoned Polar station which was about twelve miles across the ocean. It would have had to have been an adjacent scene though, as I wanted to maintain chronology as far as possible during the shoot. If you compare pictures of Grigory from the beginning and the end of the film, it’s like two completely different people, it wasn’t about make-up, it was about ageing him through the experience itself.

Sergei is very much the dominant character in the film and also the more experienced actor, and with this being Grigory’s first film as you said, how was their on-screen relationship reflected in their process as actors? Did you have much rehearsal time?

I try not to rehearse, and especially shooting digitally, the takes become the rehearsal. With the actors, I’d maybe spend half an hour discussing the choreography, who goes where, so that the grip and the DoP can set up the lights and the boom operator knows where they’ll probably be, then we just go for the first take. Sometimes it’d be five takes, sometimes twenty-five, as long as it took for the mise-en-scene and the scene to develop. I didn’t want to play any mind games with the actors, I believe that with trust there you can achieve so much more than through manipulation. There are some people who are manipulators by nature, like Lars von Trier for example, he’s brilliant at that, but I have a very different personality, I don’t want to do something that’s not natural to me. The actors had this almost father and son relationship, they’d spend time together, joke around, but because the trust was there, all the fear you see from Grigory on screen really came from the strength of Sergei’s performance.

That comes out especially in the scene where they’re outside, salting the fish. It’s immediately very tender but with a palpable undercurrent of tension.

That scene was completely improvised. We set up two cameras and I just told Grigory that if he gets an opportunity to break the news to Sergei then he should, so it was up to Sergei to make sure no such opportunities presented themselves.

You studied as a psychologist prior to becoming a filmmaker, yet explicit psychological motivation is something you steer clear of in the film, especially in relation to Pavel’s actions. There’s a tendency in much cinema today to over-analyse, or spell out the reasons for a character’s actions, to provide definitive motivation, whereas Pavel seems to act very impetuously, almost entirely by instinct. Do you think the survival instinct bypasses rationalisation of action, or do you think a degree of ambiguity creates drama in its unpredictability? I’m thinking especially about the writing process, how difficult it is to communicate the unsaid in the script stages.

Firstly, this clear-cut, ‘film’ motivation that exists in Hollywood cinema doesn’t really exist in life. Luckily, life is so much more subtle and rich than that, and what we call motivation is usually post-factum rationalisation of whatever impulses and reasons we prescribe to our or another person’s actions. It’s good for the industry of psychoanalysis to suggest that there are people who can analyse and ascribe various reasons and causes to anything, but it doesn’t really work like that in life and I certainly don’t think it should work like that in film. Sidney Lumet talks about a certain ‘rubber duck syndrome’ in American films, everything boils down to a childhood trauma in which the protagonist is deprived of his favourite rubber duck as a kid, or something like that, and a lot of films tend to work that way. When I write my scripts, I’ll spend a year with the story in my head before committing anything to paper, I want to get to a point where the characters begin to behave or act by themselves, almost independently of me, beyond my own intentions. I know the structure should work a certain way, but sometimes the character doesn’t want to go where I’m trying to make him go, it just doesn’t fit, almost as though the structure or the story is rejecting that idea and I have to accept that after a while a character begins to have his own truth. I try not to use rationalised motivation and it always make me laugh inside when some frustrated audience member asks “what was the motivation for Pavel not breaking the news to Sergei?”, and I’d always respond “well, if he did break the news to Sergei, what would be the motivation for that?”. I studied psychology for nine years, and of those nine years, ‘motivation’ was a two year course, it’s not something that gives its answers up easily.

Is Pavel’s fear of Sergei simply a result of him not knowing how to deal with somebody who’s interpersonal skills have eroded through such extensive time alone, or does it say something more universal, about inter-generational relationships, about the sense of entitlement and complacency of today’s post-Soviet youth versus the more serious, controlled work ethic of Sergei?

All of the above. We really have two very different people, from different times and different generations and particularly from completely different sets of life experiences. For one of them, the back story had been there for many years, in fact Sergei Puskepalis, and I found this out only after choosing the location, lived in that very region for nine years when he was a kid. Pavel, who just came for the summer from the big city, he’s us, he’s the Twitter guy, the consumer of experience. It seems nowadays that we don’t trust that we’ve had this or that experience unless we Tweet about it. So it’s all those things, not just that the older one is from a Soviet background, they could be Brazilians, or Brits, anybody, obviously the nuances would have to be adjusted, but the core of the story is how one relates to circumstances.

The thriller/genre elements seem to reveal themselves very organically as the film progresses, was it a difficult balance, deciding how far to push those elements of the story?

The challenge here was to incorporate genre elements without using clichéd genre tools. There are so many instances that with sound, editing and framing those elements present themselves, which the audience loves, the game of cat-and-mouse, but we tried to avoid that as much as possible. Without spoiling the film for those readers that haven’t seen it, the only time we gave ourselves the freedom to play with those elements was in the scene in the abandoned station, which I thought was necessary as it played with Pavel’s perspective of what was happening, he thinks he’s being chased by Sergei and as a product of the big city, where he’s seen all those types of films, he projects those fears onto his circumstances.

The music and sound design in the film is extraordinary, how much of that was decided in post-production, or were you clear prior to shooting quite how important a part of the film it would play?

Thank you, it’s something I was really passionate about. All of the sounds you hear were captured on location, but not necessarily as we were filming. We knew we’d have to cover all the foley with the actors on set, simply because of the unique setting. After we’d shot a scene, we’d set aside half an hour to do the sound takes, and all the atmosphere takes were done with six-channel microphones, hours and hours of it. The music is all original and there’s also ‘music’ that you might not perceive as such, which my composer made out of wind noises, there’s radio static that is harmonised to become musical in nature, albeit hopefully unperceived.

I’ve got to ask about the polar bear, it’s one of the most heart-stopping moments in the film…

The bear was in the script, doing exactly what you see on screen, and I was completely prepared to come back to Moscow and create a CGI bear, but luckily one turned up whilst we were shooting…

That must have been terrifying, how did you get him to run towards the camera like that? And how did you keep your cameraman behind the camera?

He’s running towards the camera because me and the assistant cinematographer are behind him making lots of noise. We were so in awe of our luck and our ability to direct nature that we perhaps got a little carried away. I had a reality check a few weeks later when I was alone, my crew were some kilometres away, and I came across a bear by myself and it was the single most primitive, terrifying experience of my life.

What did you do?

I ran for my life.


How I Ended This Summer will be released by New Wave Films on April 22nd 2011 and will be reviewed in full shortly.

Photography by Christopher Lane ©2011