In light of Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, millions of their citizens made the complicated decision to leave, moving en masse to destinations such as Kazakhstan, Georgia, Armenia, Latvia, Turkey and Germany. A choice fraught with danger and uncertainty, it requires a great, torturous leap into the unknown. Inspired by his own personal story, Director Pavel Kling makes great use of a single apartment to depict one woman’s choice to exit Russia, carefully cataloguing the small decisions that could have a massive impact on the rest of her life. Employing a variety of immersive sound effects, great lived-in production design, excellent use of space and dry, yet evocative voiceover, Bad Timing soberly counts the cost of leaving everything behind. We had the chance to talk to Kling about his own journey to Kazakhstan and back, working with his brother on the spare yet effective soundtrack and how the nation appears to be returning to the Soviet era.
Bad Timing seems to encapsulate a common theme in Russian life right now: exile. Is this something that spoke personally to your experience or the experience of your friends? Is this a meaningful film for you to make?
Over the past two years, I packed my bags twice. The first time was in February 2022 when everything started. I immediately bought tickets to Turkey and then to Indonesia. However, I returned home after a month. I realised that I wanted to live and create things in Russia. The second time was in September when the mobilisation was announced.
Originally, Bad Timing wasn’t called that and was in the form of a short sketch where a girl was drying her hair before going out. The sound of the hair dryer would transition into the noise of a guitar. This noise would fill the entire space, and the wall of sound would deafen her. After she would casually leave the apartment as if nothing happened. I started pre-production, looking for a location, and assembling a team.
When information about the mobilisation appeared, panic erupted on the internet. There were posts saying that people were being drafted into the army right off the streets and that the borders would be closed in a couple of days. In the end, none of that actually happened. For several days, there were no men on the streets. It seemed like there was no future at all. I stopped pre-production, packed my suitcase on an impulse, and left. I made it to the border with Kazakhstan. It’s interesting that when you’re standing at the border and you see the line where another country begins, you suddenly realise that no borders can close you off. At that moment, you feel how fear led you here. It happened to me both times. I crossed the border on foot, walking about a mile and a half uphill to the next checkpoint. Sometimes I looked back at the queue of men and cars left behind and thought about the homes, wives, and children they left behind.
The decision was difficult, but it was one of the most important decisions I made in my life.
I spent two weeks in Astana. Once after taking a shower, I looked into the mirror, gazing into my own eyes for five minutes straight, and realised that I wanted to go back to Moscow. To continue shooting the short, to keep working. The risks were impossible to evaluate. The decision was difficult, but it was one of the most important decisions I made in my life. I felt that I needed to film about it, and I didn’t want to do anything else. Endless anxiety, a home left behind. I simply integrated this experience into a film. Many of my friends and acquaintances left. They burned their bridges with Russia. It’s hard for me to call it ‘exile’. I see it as a choice. Every action is a choice. The most important skill a person should develop is being honest with themselves and not hiding from reality. To confront fear and doubts head-on, to do what truly matters. This is what my film is about. Perhaps this sounds cliché, but I don’t care.
I’m sure you know the Sergei Dovlatov collection of short stories, The Suitcase, each based on an item he eventually took with him to the United States. I’m wondering if this is an inspiration at all and if you feel that Russia is returning to the age of the Soviet Union.
Of course, I’m familiar with Dovlatov’s books. However, I haven’t specifically read The Suitcase. The Soviet Union is a significant part of our country. One of my friends says that it’s a trauma that no one wants to deal with any more. Just 30 years ago, life here was completely different. Then everything fell apart, Western culture and ideals flooded in. Everything got mixed up and Russia emerged.
It feels that the Soviet Union is still here but in the form of ruins.
I feel that Russia hasn’t fully formed yet and is searching for its identity. It feels that the Soviet Union is still here but in the form of ruins. And young people are living among them. This is reflected in the film through the girl’s apartment. It symbolises Russia. It has Soviet-era renovations that are roughly mixed with foreign elements. It looks like the girl is trying to hide and embellish the real interior but it’s impossible to conceal it. As a result, everything looks dirty and ugly.
I loved the use of dry voiceover, which almost catalogues this woman’s choice, but without imparting emotion. How did you think about using it? Did you know you were always going to use it?
The film’s script was written in the form of such a dry narrative. When I edited the film, I felt that it wasn’t coming together. I showed an early cut to my friends, and it left many questions unanswered. I thought about recording a voiceover introduction at the beginning. And our DOP Philip Zadorojny suggested stretching it throughout the entire length of the film. From that moment on, I began my experiments with voice-over, phrases and narrative. I wrote and mixed tenses. I showed one of these cuts to a close friend, and he told me that the coolest thing about this montage was that sometimes the voice predicted her actions, like in the game The Stanley Parable or in Lars von Trier’s Europe. I thought, “This could be it!” and I re-wrote the entire text in a way that the voice predicted her actions. So then she breaks the narrative.
You never mention the reason itself: the war. Is it because for Russians it’s pretty self-evident or was there a thematic reason not to mention it?
Throughout the entire process of creating this film, I have a feeling that everything is clear and there’s no need to mention it. The setting and context surrounding already contain everything.
I re-wrote the entire text in a way that the voice predicted her actions.
Your lead actress is particularly good. Tell me about casting her and if you gave her any notes for her performance. She seems to underplay it quite well.
Her name is 4Tuna. She is an artist and musician, currently living in Paris. We met on the set of a commercial where she was assisting the stylist. When I saw her, I thought, “Wow, I need to film her immediately.” And I waited for the right moment. For several weeks, I convinced her to be part of my film. It turned out that she was on the verge of leaving for Asia. Then she decided to go to Paris. Her plans were constantly changing. Her state of mind is reflected in the film. We shot a pre-shoot where we rehearsed everything. She has incredible body language. Before each take, I would discuss with her what she should be thinking about and where to direct her attention. But otherwise, we simply started the camera and enjoyed watching her exist in the frame.
The seriousness of the situation is excellently contrasted with the banality of her actions. Was it interesting to explore this?
Yes, in a situation where panic takes hold of you, even the simplest actions take on a different intensity and it’s elusive because it all simmers within. You continue to live, but the movements change, everything changes.
The sound design and music are a massive part of getting us into this headspace. Tell me about your collaboration with the sound designer.
Sound is a significant part of my life. I always pay attention to it in movies. I’m also obsessed with music and listen to it all the time. The sound was shaped by three people in particular. It was my first collaboration with Vasiliy Piroshkov, the production sound mixer. Every time when I said ‘Cut!’, Vasya entered the set and pulled out microphones from various places and I had no idea they were there the whole time. Vasily recorded the sound and atmosphere brilliantly, so we had a lot to work with.
The music was composed by my twin brother, Andrey Kling, who performs under the project name Aborigen. It’s guitar-driven ambient music with a very primal feel; gritty and crawling textures. I’m a big fan of his. Even before the shoot, I got his word that he would compose the music for the film. The sound design was done by Alexander Turkunov. By the way, it’s his voice that is heard in the film. He has an incredible timbre. Alexander is a sound design genius. We met on a commercial project, and since then, he’s the only one I work with. A true enthusiast. He insisted on a session for synchronous noises. Footsteps, rustling of money, teeth brushing and other details were recorded there. Usually, I draft sounds as targets or ideas. Then I go to Alexander and he takes everything to another level, bringing in a bunch of ideas.
The film takes place exclusively in one location, but you manage to get quite a lot of mileage out of it. Tell me about finding the right location and how you thought about lighting and shooting it.
In fact, this apartment played a significant role in my decision to return to Russia. We had been searching for a suitable apartment for a long time before the shoot. Nothing seemed right. Then Alexandra Tretyakova, our production designer, sent me photos of her friend’s apartment. In her message, she wrote, “Pavel, this is a sign! We must shoot a video about the hair dryer”. The next day I bought a ticket from Astana to Moscow. It was clear from the beginning that the camera needed to be cold and static as if it were the point of view from the apartment from which the girl was escaping. Only in the scene with the hair dryer do we get so close to the girl that we dive into her state of mind.
It was clear from the beginning that the camera needed to be cold and static as if it were the point of view from the apartment from which the girl was escaping.
I worked with my close friend, Director of Photography Philipp Zadorojny. Lighting was handled by Nikita Lychev, another talented cinematographer who agreed to help us. Philipp has worked on many documentary projects where there is usually no opportunity to set up lights. In such projects, you work with what you have so he knows how to work with a minimal setup without bitching about it. During the shoot, we had two small LED lights and a few light bulbs that we controlled with our phones. I remember Nikita using an orange trash bag instead of colour filters. That was pretty much it.
I’d particularly love you to break down the mirror shot. What kind of cinematic trickery did you use to achieve it?
For some reason, everyone convinced me that this shot could be done using CG. But after tests and conversations with the visual effects studio, it became clear that achieving the ‘fly through the mirror’ effect would require a dolly and a set built in a studio. We didn’t have nearly enough money for a studio set. However, my brother works at a club, so I asked him to let us use the main dance floor on a weekday. It had everything we needed to create a blackout and space for the set and dolly. My Production Designer Alexandra Tretyakova built an amazing set that replicated our apartment. The backside of the walls were made of foam board, which she somehow managed to make look like concrete. The seams were invisible. It was pure magic!
If a shot requires set design, a dolly, a focus puller, and an extra shooting day, then that’s how it should be filmed.
When we did the rehearsal, the whole crew stood still during playback and I got goosebumps. A simple but important thing hit me. If a shot requires set design, a dolly, a focus puller, and an extra shooting day, then that’s how it should be filmed. No cutting corners. The shots with the hair dryer are the best shots I’ve ever captured in my life. At least, up to this point. There’s definitely magic happening in this scene and I’m thrilled that we, as a team, made it to the end.
What will we see from you next?
I’m working on a short film about two twin brothers who discover a revolver belonging to their father. This leads them to realise how little they actually know about him. Gradually, one family secret after another comes to the surface.