Interview: Alexei Popogrebsky; director of How I Ended This Summer

Russian thriller How I Ended This Summer follows a young meteorologist named Pavel (Grigoriy Dobrygin) and his senior supervisor (Sergei Puskepalis) at an isolated Arctic outpost. When they discover a devastating piece of news from home, paranoia sets in and they slowly lose their grasp on sanity. One of the most acclaimed films of last year’s festival circuit, the picture was named Best Film at the 2010 London Film Festival, and stars Dobrygin and Puskepalis shared the Silver Bear for Best Actor at the 60th Berlin International Film Festival. I spoke to writer/director Alexei Popogrebsky ahead of How I Ended This Summer’s screening at the Perth International Arts Festival (from February 28 – March 6) and its Australia-wide opening on April 7. Popogrebsky discussed his research into isolation and responds to all the critics who make him “crabby”.

SM: I understand you studied psychology for nine years. I’m interested as to why you left that field to get into filmmaking.

AP: (Laughs) Well, it was not so much a decision as to how I wanted to spend my life, as it was a gradual evolution. Yes, this is true, I was a psychology major. Right after high school, I drove to Moscow University and my focus was the psychology of personality. My background: my dad was a scriptwriter, so I had a predicated interest in cinema. There weren’t many films available, but whatever they were influenced me at the time. I remember watching 8 1/2, the Fellini film, when I was 11 ½ years old, and that was really a significant part of my life. In 1994, me and a friend, got a very old film camera, and we did – over the course of two years – our first short film, called Passing By.

SM: Your latest film is How I Ended This Summer. What was the first germ of an idea; the first inkling of the story you had for this?

AP: There was no turning point other than my interest in how people cope with isolation and how they cope with very harsh conditions of life. That interest was really key, because I’m from Moscow, I’m from a very comfortable background, so I think when I was eight – I checked – I read the diaries of a polar pilot. I realised that I never really enjoyed winter; it made me very depressed, it’s freezing, it’s rather dark, it becomes dark early. So reading accounts of people coping with that and this setting becoming their normal life. After our first film – Roads to Koktebel – all these books that I’d been reading for many, many years, and documentaries on exploration, Arctic expeditions and exploration of Antarctica, there was something that clearly had infiltrated my thinking. A script that featured only two people in almost absolute isolation. I mean there are not that many places in the world where you can achieve that kind of isolation, unless you were, I don’t know, in a submarine, or in the orbit of space. And the Arctic is one of those places.

SM: I was going to say, a film that How I Ended This Summer reminded me of was Solaris, and obviously that takes place in space, but it similarly deals with isolation. Tell me a little bit about the setting of the film. It suggests peace half the time, and chaos the other half. Was that echoed in the making of the film?

AP: Well, the first thing, Solaris: there is that interesting parallel, but I would not say that’s a film that directly influenced the writing and making of How I Ended This Summer. However, when we were searching for the location, I watched footage from about a dozen polar stations from across the Russian Arctic coast, and one of them fascinated me, and this was the station in Chukotka, in Russia’s north east, where we eventually shot the film. Because the buildings there are situated on narrow splits of sand between water; and seeing this feature of the house in the middle of almost endless ocean, did remind me of Solaris, where he sees this house in the middle of the ocean. But talking about the setting there, that’s how things are where we filmed. And we were aware of this because we travelled there just one year before the shoot; in the summer of ’07 we spent some time there. I have to say it was an abnormally warm summer and we immediately got worried. But then we realized that even with this nice warm weather, you are really subject to nature and the elements. You don’t feel the rest of the universe anymore, because once you leave the building, once you leave the premises of the station, it’s you and the space. I’ve been hiking in my life, but those were like touristy hikes. And there, you were really an element of the elements. That is something we tried to convey through the characters, through the pacing of the film, and the methods of how we filmed was really a key to that. We filmed very chronologically; we tried to go with the story which was strictly structured. That is, we tried to go the way nature guided us. Nature changes there almost every hour, it’s quite unpredictable. It’s a paradox. It’s a film about weatherman, and it’s a film about a weather station, but the weather there – although it’s something they studied – is not something they could actually control.

SM: You said that you didn’t really look to Solaris as an inspiration in the writing, and I understand you watched a lot of documentaries, but were there any films you watched that conveyed craziness, or going crazy, that you did use as inspiration?

AP: Funny, I never thought about that. For the first thing, I have to say that I might want to argue that the people in this film don’t go crazy.

SM: Sure, it’s not slasher film type of crazy. It’s not The Shining.

AP: The Shining I enjoy, although that would never ring as a reference to this film. Until I read a review from an English speaking press, that my film is like The Shining, and that made me really crabby. No, not really. The medical aspects of the film are something that I accessed through the diaries and the documentaries of the Arctic explorers; not from other films. And also talking to people who’ve experienced that, and I would have to say it rang true with people who have had that experience of isolation and being in nature. This is really a device of some critics and bloggers who say I don’t present the motivations of the character; why they go crazy or why they don’t go crazy. For example, recently I was in Norway – that has pretty much the same latitude as where we shot – and there was a man who stood up after the screening and asked ‘Did you study the behaviour of people in these circumstances?” I said I read about it, and so on. He said, “I’m a meteorologist; I’ve spent time on those stations and that kind of behaviour of the younger and older man is very, very true.’ He felt it was based on actual circumstances, and that to me was a huge compliment, and something we were confident about, but something urban audiences have trouble feeling. You really have to either push the genre/thriller aspects – which we tried not to do – or suck them into the atmosphere and the circumstances of the film, which we tried to do in the trials of nature and in the shots.

SM: You mentioned the critics there, but the film has been very well received. It picked up some awards in Berlin, and won the Best Film prize at the London Film festival, and it’s about to play in Australia. What do you think is the universal element of the story that can appeal to international audiences?

AP: Firstly, I would say on the one hand, the setting and the circumstances are quite exotic for anyone. I mean, they’re completely exotic for people watching the film in Moscow or St. Petersburg. That experience, very few of the viewers – if any – have ever had. On the other hand, it’s really shown through the eyes of this young guy, who is – I often say – me, or one of us. He is an urban fellow who apparently ventured, or volunteered for the experience, because like all of us, we’re consumers of experience. We consume our experience, and we commoditise it through Twitter or blogs, or Flickr or whatever. It’s a very interesting phenomenon that we’re really trying to objectify our experience and share it with others. Immediately, there is a connection to all of us. So, it’s a silly thing to say it’s a universal topic, but really, the biggest challenge was to question: ‘If I was in those circumstance, would I be able to stand up to them? Would I be able to pull my act together and myself together, or not?’ by asking yourself those questions, you might make yourself stronger, and that’s really something I hope the audience whilst watching the film ask themselves. That is the goal of the film, and that is really what can ring true, or be inspiring, or be shocking to anyone. Like going to South Korea and showing the film there recently was a really interesting experience, because that is a very different culture from what I’m used to. So I wondered, ‘How would they receive the film?’ And the answers and responses were very similar to what I was getting in Russia or the United States; the observations were still very profound and deep.

SM: Do you think if you were in that situation you would handle yourself better than Pavel does?

AP: At this point, yes. Before making the film, probably not (laughs).

How I Ended This Summer plays the Perth International Arts Festival from February 28 to March 6 (click here for more details). It opens across Australia April 7.

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