Despite its unavoidable nature death is a subject typically left undiscussed least we bring it’s gaze down on ourselves by the very act of thinking about it. A taboo which holds strong in traditional Russian culture, Wherever You Are from Oleg Trofim instead provides an exalted celebration our inevitable demise, exquisitely set to the sounds of Synecdoche Montauk. Directors Notes invited the Moscow based director to tell us how he and his team created this poetic micro-museum of death.
My aunt has cancer. It is treatable, but there is no guarantee. My close friend’s father died last winter and I went through this whole difficult stage with him. I’m becoming a father soon. All these thoughts kept me busy until I realised that the image of death, which causes fear, must be rethought and healed. And for a director, the best medicine is his own movie so I decided to make a movie about death. Then I got to know the music of Moscow indie/neo-soul artist Synecdoche Montauk and the script came instantly. In one day.
The author of the lyrics and music is Savva Rozanov, a poet and composer. The theme of death and its adoption appears in almost all of Savva’s work – it seemed to me that it’s not a decadent spirit, but rather an exalted one. Poetically beautiful, it is a kind of self-therapy and such a noble reflection about the inevitable.
In addition to semantic and sensual constructions, it was important for us to create such a micro-museum of death, one of the goals of which was the aestheticization of the image of a funeral in the local culture. We turned to the traditions of not only the Orthodox Church and Slavic traditions, but also the rituals which have been formed at the junction of these religions and visions of the world over the past few hundred years.
I realised that the image of death, which causes fear, must be rethought and healed.
The visual choices came at the script stage. Mikhail Milashin (DoP) and I love European black and white photography – such as the work of Polish photographer Josef Koudelka from his series about Gypsy villages in Eastern Europe, as well as Nikos Economopoulos, Peter Marlow and many others – and so we decided to pay tribute to our favorite authors inspired by their works.
Deep contrast, the monumental movement on the dolly and the techno-crane without tremors, jumps and dynamics, it seemed to us, creates a sense of photographicism and lively statics. This approach also helps the viewer to feel the moment of communication with death, because at such moments, in my opinion, time stops, the Earth stops its rotation, the sound disappears.
The shooting process took 4 days and about three weeks of preparation. For the pool scene with the dancing boy, we had to build a pool 5 centimeters deep and about 150 square meters square. It seemed that filling it with water would not be a particular problem, but we realized that we needed to pour more than 5 tons of water and because of the large area, there was no way to heat it up. The boy had to dance almost in an ice pool, often without protective hydro-socks, because they could be seen in the frame. So, we filmed the whole dance, dividing it into many small parts.
We created the solar glow with the help of a warm helium balloon with a diameter of 8 meters. With each new shot, we brought it lower to the ground, then deflated it to “grow into the ground”, imitating the setting sun. All the irregularities of the ball, the edges of the pool and other visual debris we later erased in CG.
The scene with the mirror in the apartment, where the wake takes place, was born in the process of searching for locations. We didn’t have enough money to build a set, but the artistic solution required a specific design of the space – long corridors, low ceilings, glittering walls, floors, corners. It is such an interpreted image of a typical post-Soviet municipal housing. Most of the population of Russia still live in such apartments. So we had to look for real apartments in abandoned houses to be able to paint the walls, change the floor, etc. But even there, we did not find a suitable corridor to get right out of it to the living room, where the memorial meal takes place.
For a director, the best medicine is his own movie.
Artist Dima Onishchenko and I decided that we needed to combine the two spaces, passing through the mirror. It wasn’t difficult to implement by means of simple CG-compositing. This decision also supported the image of the unreality of what was happening. The soaring pigeons (in Slavic culture it is an image of the spirit from the other side; their presence means that the spirits have accepted the soul of the deceased into their world) have become for the viewer not birds, but some kind of symbol.
This year I have already made three creative projects, including Synecdoche Montauk, Sirotkin – Higher than Houses – a film about a Georgian teenager in a crisis of adulthood and TOKYЁ – a documentary about the trip of a provincial Russian musician to the capital of Japan, where he meets Russian expats and Japanese who have connected their lives with Russia. He also tries to understand whether it makes sense to change the cultural paradigm under the influence of the environment. At the moment I’m working on my second full-length film – it’s an action adventure about the first Russian superhero. The film is planned to be released in the autumn of 2020.
Wherever You Are is one of the many great projects shared with the Directors Notes Programmers through our submissions process. If you’d like to join them submit your film.