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Yurii MINZIANOV: “We should make films about ourselves and for ourselves”

The successful Ukrainian producer spoke about TV series and Oscar ambitions
31 January, 2018 - 17:43

Producer Yurii Minzianov is well-known in professional circles. His filmography includes over 60 TV series and movies. In 2009, he was even nominated for the Outstanding International Producer award at the Monte-Carlo Television Festival (Monaco) for the series The Squad.

However, if someone told, years ago, a cinema-addicted boy from Kazan, who dreamed of joining the Russian State University of Cinematography (VGIK), what would be his cinematic fate, he would have probably smiled skeptically. The boy dreamed of becoming a director. Having graduated from the institute, he came to Kyiv just because he liked the city very much, joined the Dovzhenko Studio, and immediately landed in the crew led by sophisticated and intelligent director Artur Voitetskyi, who was making the film Stories about Love. Minzianov did not have time to breathe in the smell of scenery and film as much as he wanted, since he was soon drafted into the army. When he returned, the studio had no jobs meeting his qualifications, and he was ironically offered a janitor’s place. They did all they could... The young man would have agreed to this proposal, really. Just to stay in the cinema industry. It did not work out then.

Therefore, Minzianov’s career came to include a stint at an amateur children’s film studio, and another one at a video unit of Ukrtelefilm, where his first position was called “props assistant.” He made two documentaries there later, and one of them, called Do Not Shut Your Doors and telling the story of the Olympic champion Vira Kriepkina, who having left the sport cared for orphans, was awarded a special prize at the All-Union Sport Film Festival in Ashgabat. The dream of directing virtually came true, but at that time, the “strong and unbreakable country” collapsed, with film production entering a terrible downturn, so Minzianov entered video industry, as demand for pirated video cassettes grew, and his knowledge of world cinema helped a lot, so there was a lot of work available, and very profitable at that.

Private TV studios started to appear only later. As often happens, an accident helped. A friend invited Minzianov to the Mehapol TV channel to present a TV show about novelties of video market. Older people probably still remember the programs Expres Video and Kapitan Video, which served as guides in the chaos of outright movie trash and masterpieces of world cinema that had broken into this country.

A little later, the revolutionary, intellectual and stylish TV channel 1+1 appeared, where general producer Oleksandr Rodnianskyi invited Minzianov, initially as the program director, and then as the director of film production. “While working for the ‘Pluses’ [1+1 TV channel. – Ed.] I underwent serious professional and personal tests,” he would say later. His experience would prove to be in demand at the Inter TV channel as well as the studios Film.UA and Star Media. It was already production experience.

 When the cinema, even if it was just series, began to revive, did you want to return to directing?

“No. On the contrary, I saw, while working for the ‘Pluses,’ that the profession of producer was actually more interesting and more diverse than directing. After all, in essence, production is a creative activity as well, only you are looking at the material already filmed by the director and point out mistakes to them. In order for a film to succeed, you need a creative tandem; it is necessary for the director you have selected to be on the same wavelength with you, to think the same way. This is not always the case, people are different, each has issues of their own, but when you are fortunate enough to find an individual who shares your views and tastes, you see a result. Incidentally, by the way, when I started series production at Star Media, a young director said: ‘You have a good eye, you select precisely the actors we need.’ And speaking of selecting the director for an art house, image-building film, I can mention my cooperation with Pasha Ostrykov, with whom we made Golden Love and The Class of ‘97. I visited the Lira Cinema once to attend a short film screening, and saw Ostrykov’s work Stop, which he self-financed and made without a professional education. I really liked it, and I still think that Stop is Ostrykov’s best picture (he smiles when he hears it, probably!). That day, I approached Ostrykov and offered to discuss his ideas, if he had any.”

 And what made you radically change the scope of your production work – from series production, where you had achieved success, to art house, festival cinema?

“I would have done it earlier if possible, because all my best TV shows still have a flavor of art house cinema.”

 What projects do you consider to be the best?

“Those that were shelved for a long time, because TV channels did not want to accept them because of them being ‘outside format.’ These are Extraterrestrial, directed by Serhii Krutin and starring Vitalii Linetskyi, Crucian Carps (by the same director), and The Squad. By the way, The Squad took a huge toll on me! Being under the influence of the television series Lost, I and the scriptwriter Sasha Zelenko invented our heroes, our mysterious intrigue, which the viewer would not immediately understand. Each series featured secrets, ‘skeletons in the closet,’ the same flashbacks as can be seen in the Lost series, which told each character’s story: who they were, what they were doing. We planned to film three seasons. We completed the first, and its finale carried the announcement ‘To be continued,’ the audience was waiting for the development of the plot, but the series was shelved, and nobody saw it for four or five years. Yes, do not be surprised, TV shows are now shelved just like in the Soviet time. It happens massively and very frequently. However, Rodnianskyi, who was then just appointed the chief manager of the REN-TV channel, liked The Squad and generally adores such films. We even held talks with him about the purchase of the series, but he left the channel literally a month later, and the deal fell through. Two years later, however, The Squad finally found its audience (it was shown by the Russian TV3 channel, specializing in movies and programs of mystical nature), but it was broadcast only once and in a very bad, disadvantageous season for a premiere: from the end of May to the beginning of June. It was just sent down the drain, to use a slang expression. It was shown on the 1+1 channel later, but also failed. All in all, many mystical (and not in a positive way) stories are connected with this TV series, we experienced it ourselves. And I have become convinced from my own experience that, when filming mystical works, one should be very careful with the material. It is true.

“And you know what was most distressing? It was 2007, and in the second season of The Squad, we planned to film things which are now called Game of Thrones.”

 What do you mean?

“We had planned a plotline where people would travel to the 16th century Templars via a special tunnel, and in parallel with the present, the story that we are now seeing in Game of Thrones was to unfold! At the time, no one else thought in that direction. I am sorry that the series did not get continued. Recently, by the way, the ICTV offered me to restart this project and correct it a little, rewriting some episodes, because the editor also likes The Squad very much. But this is impossible, unfortunately. Linetskyi is gone, and I will not be able to cast same actors.”

 That is, your series period is over?

“Not totally. I will not do cheap ‘TV movies’ or four-episode projects. I have an agreement with the management of Star Media that I will work on premium projects only. One such script has already been written, I think that we will begin to film it this summer. This is an adaptation of the English series Liar, but we looked at it from a different, non-British perspective, and it will be called Victim. This will keep the intrigue alive. Do you know why it got me interested? Once again, this is about foreboding. We knew that Liar was to be released, and looked into it expecting that it would become a box office success. It is a series about sexual harassment.”

 How many episodes are planned?

“Eight. By the way, the last episode of Liar set new records in the UK, since the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke out just then, although the project itself is weak. I also have a very good scriptwriter, whom I proposed to make an adaptation. It is complicated. We need to change a lot of situations, introduce new characters, so that the viewer understands that action is taking place here, and not in some foreign, strange country.”

 A new stage in your professional work – producing art house cinema – began extremely successfully. At the closing ceremony of last year’s Odesa International Film Festival (OIFF), you ascended the stage to receive prizes four times, which was a record, I believe. What is the secret of this success, can you analyze it?

“Yes, Ostrykov’s The Class of ‘97 was the best short film at the OIFF-2017, while Kateryna Hornostai won the FIPRESCI prize for the best short Ukrainian film with her Lilac, and special diplomas of the international jury were also awarded to Arkadii Nepytaliuk’s Pryputni and the already mentioned Lilac. Of course, such a success was very enjoyable.

“How to explain it? I will try. The recipe for successful cinema is primarily an original, strong scenario and accurate casting. This is 50 percent of success. The rest can be picked on: say, here is a too long perspective, there an actor failed or a scene did not work. But, by and large, if the script and casting are at a high level, the film can be considered a success, since the general audience or the festival audience will understand it. I became convinced of this having done more than 60 series projects, 2 feature-length and several short films. And I think that the main thing for the producer is to have a taste, to find the director whom you trust to make the film and, accordingly, trust with the money. It is not a secret that the most difficult problem in today’s film production is to find financing.”

 And where do you get the money? Just do not make jokes that you get them from the bedside table.

“The funny thing is that I self-funded short films as they were low-budget. In addition, we earned some money for advertising through the Kristi Film Company.”

 Do you own Kristi Film?

“No, it is owned by my son Dmytro. He created it a year ago. Kristi Film is a partner of Star Media, and Vlad Riashyn helped the company a lot in the initial stage. By the way, Dmytro could not come up with a name for a long time, and when my granddaughter was born, he decided to name the company after her, as she is Kristina.

“Subconsciously, I had long wanted to do what I like. But it was not possible, since a terrible economic crisis hit in 2008, there was no money for TV cinema, let alone festival or theater products. And now, when Ukrainian cinema is starting to get revived, I have thought it is a chance. I am 61, and have not so many active years left, so am I really going to end my life as a series producer?!”

 And what is the outcome of the first year of Kristi Film’s existence, apart from the aforementioned films and prizes?

“Most importantly, in my opinion, we have chosen the right orientation, position and direction. After all, if you are doing art house movies, you should understand the festival tricks. We have figured them out.”

 Any examples?

“For example, you can send a work to a film forum and even win a prize, but you can also enter the nomination process at the European Film Academy (EFA) or even qualify for an Oscar. We did a selection and now we send our films to the festivals where such rules apply. Recently, for example, Dmytro attended an international film festival in Belgium with Ostrykov. Having arrived there, he called me in a sad mood and said that our low-budget short had no chance of success, as the competition program included works with serious budgets, supported by respected world cinema institutions. Ultimately, we not only won a prize, but also an EFA nomination, whose members will name the best films of the year in December 2018.

“Now our goal is to get into the qualification for the Oscars, the path to which has turned out to be very short. Looking at the film festival in Belgium, we have realized that it is a realistic perspective. And, who knows, perhaps, we will be able to bring an Oscar to Ukraine! (Smiles.) In any case, we have set ourselves this objective.”

 Should we expect the Kristi Film Company, which has so boldly started its work, to offer us any surprises in the near future?

“Kristi Film is finalizing the comedy horror film Halloween Story. This will be an audience-friendly movie where one can laugh and get scared a little bit. (Laughs.) We have already settled the date of the premiere on October 31, 2018, when the film launch party will take place, and it will have the theatrical release on the next day, November 1.

“The plans include also the biggest project so far, which we are only just approaching with my co-producer Myroslav Slaboshpytskyi, it should be a feature-length film, called Seraphima and based on a novel by Oles Ulianenko. It will be a very complicated, uneasy, frank film. We hope that we will make it in co-production with foreign partners, and certain ideas on that count already exist. Marysia Nikitiuk is writing the script (by the way, she is a winner of the Ulianenko Prize), and she will be the director of the film as well. So, the things have started moving.

“In addition, as a producer, I have started working on the film Sex and Nothing Personal. This is a Star Media project, directed by Olha Riashyna. The casting has just ended, we have selected the actors who will play the main characters. I think it should be a cool youth comedy.”

 As an experienced and successful producer, a person with taste and intuition, can you give a forecast of what movies, themes, and genres will be in demand in the coming years?

“I always say that I am not interested in the latest special effects in the cinema, even the most fantastic of them, but in stories of human relationships. For example, what drew my attention to the Pryputni script even back in the initial stage? It is about ordinary people whose characters are familiar to each of us. This movie is not about oligarchs, not about Cinderellas, but, so to say, about your own neighbors, with whom you can talk on the street. Whatever the development of film technology will be, and even if they come up with 4D, 6D, 10D, through which we would be able to observe incredible virtual reality, nothing can be more interesting than the person and their life, the reflections that they are experiencing. I believe that Ukrainian cinema should not be chasing the production of blockbuster films; we should make films about ourselves and for ourselves, as it is done in small countries, like Sweden, Norway, or Finland. The audience will go to such a movie, because any person wants to take an outside look at oneself and one’s problems. In addition, the genre does not matter: it can be a drama as well as a comedy and a musical.”

 Essentially, I agree with you, but we cannot forget that we live in a country which is engaged in a continuing war. Our children, brothers, parents fight and die. This is also a reality. How do you assess the so-called patriotic cinema, which gets a lot of dedicated funding from the national budget?

“I am not excited about it. Because if a talented person films an honest movie about any problems of this country, this actually reflects their love of Ukraine. And if the words ‘patriotic cinema’ will be a smokescreen for money which will be provided to opportunists who adapt to any government, nothing good will happen. And the audience will not go to such a movie, and the money will just be spent uselessly.”

 And what movies did you go to when you did not anticipate that you would hear the phrase someday: “Producer Yurii Minzianov is invited to the stage for a prize”?

“My idol was Andrei Tarkovsky. When I was in the 10th grade, I watched Solaris and just fell in love with it. Even in my term work on directing at the VGIK, I tried to imitate him. Moreover, I was acquainted with Tarkovsky, even if briefly. When he began to film Stalker, my friend who was director of photography offered me to work in an expedition and brought me into the crew before its departure for principal photography... It was a short meeting. Tarkovsky only asked who I was, in what year of school, and told me to prepare for a trip. But a telegram came from my Kazan-based mother the next day, stating that my grandmother had died (she lived in Poltava oblast). My mother was unable to attend the funeral and cried, begging me to go. Of course, I could not deny her wish. So, Stalker passed by me... But youthful love has a great influence on all the future life, it is undeniable.

“There were other favorite directors and films in different periods of life. I can endlessly watch one film. I saw it for the first time at the VGIK. It was The Conformist by Bernardo Bertolucci. He then came to Moscow and showed VGIK students the film. It stunned us. This is truly a gigantic movie! It was not for nothing that Francis Coppola, and George Lucas, and James Cameron all said that The Conformist defined their formation as artists. I liked films of Nikita Mikhalkov once. It was a long time ago.”

 For an average viewer, it is not always clear what is the producer’s place in the film crew. What is your formulation of the essence of this profession?

“It is difficult to define. It is banal to say that it resembles the profession of a doctor who diagnoses and cures illnesses. Maybe (stirs up), if you compare film art with soccer, the producer is the head coach of the national team!”

 Are you a soccer fan?

“Yes! I will say more, I adore computer football, play it regularly. And I rest a bit on such occasions. Sometimes I regret the lack of computers in my childhood, when I was 10 to 12 years old, and were they available then, I would have sat in front of my monitor for 24 hours a day! (Laughs.) My father infected me with soccer, he took me with him to the stadium.”

 What team do you support?

“Now, of course, it is Dynamo Kyiv, and when I lived in Kazan, I supported Rubin of Kazan. Rubin has declined since, but when my father brought me to the stadium for the first time, the illustrious Viktor Kolotov played for the team, and my father said that he would go far. Kolotov was in great demand, invited to Torpedo of Moscow, the contract was effectively already signed, but Volodymyr Shcherbytsky, the chief party boss of Ukraine at the time and a passionate fan, roused everyone, saying that Kolotov had to play for Dynamo Kyiv. And his instruction was fulfilled! (Laughs.)

“By the way, you know, regardless of your question, I have long drawn parallels between cinema and soccer.”

 And what are they, in addition to the analogy between the producer and the coach?

“All these soccer nuances – who should play in this or that game, whom to focus on in the coming match – in many respects, they coincide with the preparation for the filming of a picture. The coach, as well as the producer, should have that inner feeling. And it should not let one down. Otherwise, one needs to change the profession.”

P.S. Recently it became known that Nikitiuk’s latest film When the Trees Fall had been selected for the competition program of the Panorama Berlinale-2018. “Marysik, I congratulate you, but do not mount your high horse! We still have to do the beautiful Seraphima film!” the perfectionist producer Minzianov responded to the wonderful news.

By Iryna HORDIICHUK, special to The Day