On Friday, Film Comment Selects 2012 presents the Russian science-fiction film Target, about a future in which some of Russia's super-rich go in search for immortality—literally. Film Comment sat down for a rare interview with the director, Alexander Zeldovich, who returns with his first movie since the start of the millennium.
Even though Target draws upon very different genres of literature, TV, and film—and espouses different philosophies—it has a very clear voice. Where did the idea come from?
I met with our future producer Dmitri Lesnevsky and presented an inexpensive, humble sort of script. He said he wasn’t interested because it wasn’t ambitious enough. So I asked him to give us a week, and we came up with another idea that related to my previous film Moscow (00), which was about the decay of Russia in the Nineties, seeing how this decay continued over the last six years of Putin’s reign. We originally wanted to set Target in the present, but to avoid unnecessary political bullshit, we set it in the future, and explored how things could possibly devolve in 15 to 20 years. Because we were exploring national identity––which is more than geography or silk trees––we also decided to incorporate elements of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Likewise, Moscow is essentially a version of Chekhov’s Three Sisters.
Also like Moscow, Target has six main characters, which is quite a lot. How did you find a balance between them?
They’re really only one character, divided into six parts. I don’t know why it’s six specifically, aside from it just having this sort of well-balanced quantity. It also allowed us to make the film in more than one style. Within the frames of the budget, this amount of characters is somehow natural and shows various angles of human nature and possible fates.
Unbound by financial concerns, the characters seem only concerned with their looks, which is the reason why they travel to the so-called “Target.” Of all the possible sins for the super-rich to partake in, why did you choose vanity?
Youthfulness is a commodity our society is always selling. We are buying things that help us look younger and prolong our years, which is akin to buying eternal life. It’s posited as somewhere between an art and science. Coming from a former Soviet society, these characters have an inherited atheism. Without a religious mentality, they’re fueled by material desires. So it’s a bit unnatural and really dangerous.
I think that from the first shots of the film you get the feeling that nothing good will come of these people, that they’re doomed to tragedy. That’s somewhat unusual for film. Someone wrote in Film Comment it’s a drama—and it’s true, because tragedy is a dry thing.
In addition to being obsessed by youth, the characters seem to be obsessed with all things Chinese.
It’s the way the world’s going. We spent about a week in Hong Kong, and mixed some of the buildings we saw there with Moscow’s current skyline to create a futuristic, 2020 version. Even in a couple of days in Beijing, you really feel the potential, the energy, because it is a very healthy nation, physically healthy. They’re all on a mission, moving somewhere all together, and that is a strange feeling. I should also point out the idea for a highway uniting Europe and China that crosses Russian territory was just something we thought up, and six months ago our government announced plans to complete one by 2018. So this could all happen.
Even though it’s billed as a science-fiction film, there are lots of things besides the Europe-China highway that seem very real.
Absolutely. [Laughs] I can’t say that the goggles Viktor uses to determine which minerals are good and evil won’t be invented in a couple years. [Editor’s note: Google announced similar goggles on Thursday.]
How did you arrive at the film’s distinctive color scheme and look?
Technically, the color was done during the grading process. I would describe it as sort of stylistic nostalgia for colored films of the Fifties or Sixties. The gradient itself was made with the idea of direct dry printing, a color printmaking process primarily used in the Fifties. I wouldn’t say we’re imitating it exactly, but we had it in mind.
When we started to invent this environment, to invent this future, but we also wanted something recognizable. So we show people being nostalgic, like in the style of dresses the women wear—they still have Fifties revivals in the future.
The score is sort of timeless, and has a sweeping quality, reminiscent of something John Williams might do but more subtle.
It’s an original 90-minute score, composed by Leonid Desyatnikov, who is the best Russian composer working right now, and one of the most important composers in the world. This was our third time working together. I feel that the music adds a third dimension to the film. Even as I was coming up for the initial ideas for Target, I thought of places where the music would be and how it would interact.
Chernukha (blackness) was the dominant mode of Russian filmmaking in the 1990s and 2000s. Do you feel that your work is reacting against it?
Chernukha’s quite provincial from my point of view. I never liked chernukha, this low-scale realism. For me, film is a theoretical space, it’s imagination, it’s artificial. I don’t want to hide it and say I’m showing real reality. I’m showing an artificial picture. Don’t hide it. I don’t want to imitate reality because I can’t and I don’t want to. I can only hope that I inherited it, the great tradition of Russian and Soviet cinema which was, in the best of its examples, quite ambitious.
Works that are trying to be realist can be an excuse to have no visual sense, unlike something like Tarkovsky, where it’s more about elaborating on inner spaces and revealing reality through this constructed space that isn’t actually real.
Yes, absolutely. When you are building your own reality of course you can repeat existing reality, but it looks like a repetition. It is more challenging to build a reality which will be contradictory to reality. It is more challenging to compete with reality. It’s a more aggressive attitude; you’re building your own world. In some sense it reminds you of the real world, but in other ways you notice how life imitates art.
The world that exists in the film is like a crystal ball. You can just turn it slightly and see very different things. There’s a lot in this world, a lot of life, magic, and some philosophical ideas as well. You can dig it out or not. Also, it’s not just about Russia. It takes place on Russian soil, which is important, but I’ve found that European audiences sometimes understand it better and are more sensitive to it than in Russia—it’s funny. In America the reaction was even stronger than in Europe. It might be because there’s a measure of distance because it’s in a different language. A friend of mine in San Francisco says everything was clear to him because maybe the film is based in this grand film tradition and familiar tropes.