Death or glory: Russia’s biggest IMAX film is ready to take on the world

Director Alexei Mizgiryov at a news conference before the premiere of the film "The Duelist" in Moscow.

Director Alexei Mizgiryov at a news conference before the premiere of the film "The Duelist" in Moscow.

Ekaterina Chesnokova/RIA Novosti
The world premiere of “The Duelist” by Alexei Mizgirev – with a budget of around $16.5 million took place in Toronto in September. RBTH caught up with the Russian director for a chat about the project, the difficulties of depicting the 19th century, honor, and fatalism in Russia.

Even during production, Alexei Mizgirev’s The Duelist caught the attention of the international cinema industry; the world premiere was organized at a film festival in Toronto, and thanks to collaboration with IMAX the film is being released in the U.S. and other countries.

Before The Duelist Mizgirev was considered to be purely a “festival” director in Russia – all his previous pictures have gone out on limited release, and were watched by only a few thousand people. Yet suddenly, in cooperation with the producer Alexander Rodnyansky (Jayne Mansfield’s Car, Cloud Atlas, Leviathan), he has made one of the most expensive projects in the history of Russian cinema.

Set in the 1860s, The Duelist is a costume drama about a killer, the officer Yakovlev, who engages in duels for other people. For some mystical reason bullets cannot kill him, and for that very reason he always wins his duels.

Before the film’s release Mizgirev talked to RBTH about his new film.

RBTH: How does it feel, after directing only low-budget auteur films, to be a director of a film that costs such a large amount of money according to the standards of the Russian film industry?

Alexei Mizgirev: People ask me this a lot. At first I was a bit lost and didn’t know how to answer, because I hadn’t really noticed a big difference. With The Duelist we had no problems, for example with decoration and costume, because we could shoot where we wanted and didn’t have to save on props. I was now rid of many problems that had cropped up in previous films, because the producers had been able to solve them perfectly.

This was all very pleasant; however such changes indirectly affect the creative process. We were constantly discussing points to work on, but it was all very democratic, because we both understood that there are mass-produced, cookie-cutter films, and others that are single, unique pieces. The Duelist is a unique film, in which individuality and the author’s style is important – with the background of a great story and modern visual effects, of course.

Video by SonyPicturesRU / YouTube

RBTH: We have another point – all your preceding films have been about acute social issues in modern Russian life. And here we have balls, costume, duels, and nobles in waistcoats. Where has this interest in this period come from?

A.M.: Any director wants millions of people to watch his films. But when you’re given a budget of $1-2 million, it’s difficult to create beautiful and spectacular cinema. You would like to, but it’s impossible due to objective reasons. Therefore an interest in contemporary affairs is in some respects necessary, simply because you don’t have to waste money on expensive decorations and computer effects.

The concept of The Duelist has already been in the works for several years, it was just lying somewhere, literally two paragraphs long. And then something happened, and I thought to myself, this needs to happen now. Even though realizing this idea was very far off, I already thought then that the biggest problem I’d have with it would not be to do with finance.

RBTH: What sort of difficulties are you talking about?

A.M.: I am talking about the 19th century itself, or rather, its image, which is difficult to portray in audiovisual art. You probably won’t disagree that Russian viewers only know about the 19th century from TV series, since the last proper film made for the big screen was [Vladimir Motyl’s] The Captivating Star of Happiness, shot in 1975. But even this film was riddled with a mass of clichés and openly mistaken information about the 19th century.

When I was preparing for The Duelist I sifted through a mass of sources on this time. It turns out that we don’t really know anything about them, what they really ate, drank, talked about, and how they really dressed apart from some pleasant misconceptions we have. The 19th century for the contemporary viewer is a load of old mothballs at granny’s place or some sedate play from a provincial theater.

I’d like to get rid of this stereotype and show this time like no one else has done – bright, harsh, echoing with our times. This is of course a grandiose task, but I’m not afraid of the work, or the public reaction to this new style of discussion about the past. This is a complete breaking of the mold.

RBTH: However the visual style of The Duelist has several times been compared to Sherlock Holmes by Guy Ritchie and the film Vidoqc by Pitof. Do you like having such parallels with your work?

A.M.:Such comparisons have a lot of truth in them. However this is a very decorative work, a celebration of the genre in its purest form. The Duelist is a little different, including if we talk about its visual effects.

RBTH: With The Duelist, everyone asks you about the idea of honor, which is the main trigger for the film. You answer, expectedly, that honor is a timeless thing, and for this reason a story about this will always resound with the present. But it seems in your film fatalism plays just as important a role, one which is peculiar to the film’s characters. We’re guessing that this emphasis on the doomed characters’ relationship with fate is not an accidental one?

A.M.:Yes, this is one of the driving forces of the film. Delving into stories about duels, I stumbled across an eloquent fact. In the 19th century, in the birthplace of duels, France, they practically disappeared, like in many other countries. This is linked to the spread of firearms, which were far more dangerous than swords and which greatly leveled the playing field.

For exactly this reason, duels flourished in Russia, I think for the most part thanks to fatalism, which to this day remains as one of the principle characteristics of the Russian mentality. Sink or swim – it is very much our thing, even if we are talking about life and death. The Duelist is precisely about this.

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