To understand modern Russia, it’s essential to understand the rise of gangster culture in the 90s, as traditional structures were eroded in favour of a lawless, wild East. In many ways Russia still maintains a gangster-like structure, right up to the higher echelons of the government. With Gypsy Son, directing duo Robert Mentov and Dwight Jantzi combine to recreate the murky, morally comprised world of the post-Soviet union, telling the story of a gangster reconciling his dark duty with religious guilt. Aided by a gorgeous film tone, lived-in supporting actors, an evocative use of light and colour and a mesmerising synth soundtrack, this short has a spiritual, holy feel despite the horror of its subject matter. DN alum Mentov returns to tell us about setting the film in the 1990s, recreating Russia within Canada, finding new lighting sources at the last minute and being inspired by the Pusher series and the works of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
The film is set in 1995, right in the middle of Russia’s Wild 90s, a time when gangsterism was rife. Why did you pick that timeframe for your film?
Gypsy Son was set during a time where my family and I had left behind the former Soviet Union, and I wanted to explore a stylised version of the world we left behind.
What was the challenge of creating a Russian atmosphere or feeling in Canada? What was it like finding that real lived-in aesthetic through production design?
The main challenge was finding a balance of created materials and authentic ones. We referenced old photographers from the 90s for the build while sourcing real materials like wallpaper from Latvia and raiding my mom’s house for old objects that would help personify the world of Gypsy Son. Coming from the documentary world, I often rely on finding the film versus creating the film. In this instance we had to build the entire set from scratch. We had a really incredible team at Breathe Entertainment, and Sam Szigeti, our production designer, applied a gritty aesthetic based on the reference discussions we had.
The idea of redemption seems to tie the film together — both religious and personal. A neat touch is the icon on the wall as if it’s silently judging Gypsy Son. What attracts you to this idea of redemption, even for such an irredeemable character?
I’ve always been interested in the anti-hero, and people who live outside of the standard societal norms. I try to avoid singular archetypes within my films in order to reflect how people truly are in reality, nuanced and living within the greys. The film investigates themes of rebirth, reincarnation, as well as religion as a basis of morality within the world of organized crime. Through Gypsy Son, I wanted to explore the role of religion for a man whose karmic debt was so heavy that he was essentially irredeemable. I wanted both him and the audience to feel that weight of judgement from beyond.
I wanted to explore the role of religion for a man whose karmic debt was so heavy that he was essentially irredeemable.
There is also this balance between the spiritual and the real. Was there a challenge in capturing both sides of this conflict, oftentimes within the same scene or shot?
The intention was to make Gypsy Son feel like a dream, a sort of purgatory of the exiled man and so it was important to curate an atmosphere that can feel like reality but also like some recurring delusion. I feel the use of sound and music helps build into this, where the use of more diegetic scenes seem part of the real world, while an array of faster pace imagery set to our established tone of music helps create that recurring nightmarish feeling.
I would love in particular to have a rundown of the lighting used in the film! The cigarette smoke in particular looks very evocative…
Our main philosophy with the lighting was to use many smaller sources to create more shadows and to avoid fill at all costs. The sources were generally overhead as well as practicals on dimmers to help the background stand out. Given the themes, I wanted us to push darkness in this film, especially since there were no creative constraints restricting how far we can go. We relied on a variety of lighting that we flagged to help shape the light, always favouring backlight. Because the entire project was realised through favours and donations, our entire lighting list was unavailable and switched out last minute. Thankfully we had an incredible Gaffer Vincenzo Buggea who adjusted all of his setups accordingly.
Our challenges included creating a high contrast image while maintaining our minimum exposure for the film stock and not losing information. I tend to underexpose around one third of a stop if I know I’m going to be losing the shadows in the grade later, but it’s really easy for the image to fall apart if you’re looking to get your exposure back after the fact. We also had to match to a variety of different film stocks (fresh and expired) and kelvin temperatures throughout the shoot.
The intention was to make Gypsy Son feel like a dream, a sort of purgatory of the exiled man.
Tell me about the Den of Thieves — is this something that you had to research a lot? Did you have any references in this respect? The first Russian film that instantly comes to my mind is Brat! What were you inspired by?
The Den of Thieves was a fictitious concept created from other inspirations of gangster films and literature. I wanted to focus more on building out a stylised world of the mid-90s rather than creating something of historical accuracy. It was more to reflect the mood of the times rather than convey historical details. Brat is such an influence on a subliminal level, and I do think it permeated through into this film. The Pusher series was also an influence as well as the writings of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn; particularly that sense of the protagonist being stuck in a prison-like purgatory, from his apartment to the Den of Thieves.
I watched this film without headphones and with headphones. With the headphones on, I noticed how much amazing sound design there is within the movie, almost accompanying and commenting on our protagonist’s inner state. What was it like working on this?
I’m glad you felt this. I find that sound design is one of the most important elements of my films apart from the visual style. I wanted to really balance the music, the quiet dialogue scenes and the sound design to reflect the inner nature of our characters’ thoughts. Karl Kai, a close collaborator and the editor of this film helped bring that vision to fruition.
The use of 35mm and 16mm really helps to give a sense of Gypsy Son’s inner state within this murky, morally compromised world. Was it your intention to always shoot on film? How did that help you create this world?
I love that: “morally compromised world”. The intention was always to shoot on film for this project, I don’t think it could have been done in any other way. The gritty tangible nature of it enhanced the set design and overall world. For me, the softness of film always amplifies a narrative space while the sharpness of digital takes away from it. With this, we were deliberate in our choices of film stock, exposure and processing to establish a high grain structure as a response to a post-Soviet 90s world.
I wanted to really balance the music, the quiet dialogue scenes and the sound design to reflect the inner nature of our characters’ thoughts.
The music is equally compelling, especially the use of an arpeggiated synth line; tell me about the collaboration with your composer?
Alex Nunes, who was also our 1st AC on the project, is an incredibly talented composer. He, myself and Karl went back and forth between iterations to try to heighten the inner psychology of the main character through the music. I knew from the beginning that this would have to have an 80s synth base because of the time the film was set as well as the visual tone we established. It becomes an intuitive process where we have an idea of what we want, and inherently some things work and some things feel completely part of another film. It feels like there’s very little ego in our collaboration and that leads to unique results.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
The only thing I’d mention is that collaboration between talented humans is the only thing that made a project like this possible, and that no singular force was responsible for the final result. Without everyone committed to their roles as part of a bigger picture we wouldn’t have been able to do things like levitate a junkie, recreate the post-Soviet 90s or blow up a car in exchange for a case of beer.
What are you working on next?
I’m currently working on a film in post-production that revolves around a group of Eastern European immigrant skateboarders based in Toronto, and how they are dealing with identity, and home within the current geopolitical time. It’s a documentary-narrative hybrid shot on a variety of analog mediums. Where Gypsy Son was about control and romanticising the past, Troika is about openness to a technically imperfect image and reflection of the current times. It is an exploration of dialogue within ourselves and our group to help search for these constantly changing questions.