Cinematographer Mikhail Krichman, RGC, discusses his work on "Leviathan", by Andrei Zvyagintsev

A modern Russian western

AFC newsletter n°245

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Mikhail Krichman, RGC, is a Russian cinematographer who was “discovered” via his work with his fellow Russian, director Andrei Zvyagintsev. Since their first project, The Return, in 2003, they have also filmed The Banishment (2008) and Elena (2012) together. With Leviathan, which was chosen for the Official Competition in Cannes, they have created a social and political drama filmed in the furthest northwestern reaches of Russia, in a little village on the banks of the Barents Sea. A man whose government wants to deprive him of his lands decides to fight back… (FR)
Mikhail Krichman and Andrei Zvyagintsev on the set of "Leviathan" - Photo Anna Matveeva
Mikhail Krichman and Andrei Zvyagintsev on the set of "Leviathan"
Photo Anna Matveeva

What’s with the mysterious title, Leviathan?

Mikhail Krichman: The Leviathan is a metaphor for the State… It is definitely a political film, but I don’t think it’s only political. It’s a sort of modern Russian western… In any case, it is a film that essentially relies on its characters, as is the case in all of Andrei’s films.

Where did you get the idea of the film?

MK: It began in 2008 while we were filming a short film together in New York. Andrei heard in the American news about the story of a man who was fighting against a multinational corporation that wanted to purchase his land against his will. I remember that the guy had built a sort a tank using a tractor or a bulldozer… something like that. It was literally covered with sheet metal, like armour, he had driven the contraption to the headquarters of the company and demolished everything. At the end, it ended badly for him because the police raided him… Or maybe he committed suicide. It was truly impressive! When we got back to Russia, Andrei told the story to Oleg Negin, the screenwriter, and they began writing. Bit by bit, they created what would become Leviathan.

Was the film written for this Nordic scenery?

MK: Actually, no. The film wad really written for a little provincial Russian farming town. When we started searching for a location in July 2012, we kept going further and further into the countryside… but it was all in vain because nothing seemed right to Andrei. By mid-September, we still hadn’t found our location, despite the fact that we really cast a wide net: up to 400 km around Moscow! It was the production designer who solved the problem by suggesting we visit Teriberka, a village he knew in the most northwesterly part of Russia, close to Murmansk. That decision led to a few modifications being made in the script, especially as concerns the locations, as they had been originally written. For example, originally, there was an entire scene in a forest… But near Teriberka, there aren’t any forests. So in the end, Andrei and Oleg rewrote the scene to take place in that rocky and deserted landscape… The story didn’t change, but once we built the character’s house in that environment, the ambience, rhythm, and relationship between the characters changed to suit the location! It’s as simple as that!

What about the lighting?

MK: In terms of lighting, the weather is very variable in that region. That might seem like it would make it hard to take bridging shots, but I like when the clouds enter the shot and you make it last as long as possible. The wind blows, the colours change, and even passing rain showers fall for a few minutes. Andrei always manages to make something great of these situations, of these “accidents”. We began filming on 1st August 2013. The nights were very short, maybe three or for hours maximum. That allowed us to begin by taking maximum advantage of the very beautiful, oblique light that you have every day… the famous light of the North. As time went by, nights and days began to be the same length just as we were finishing the first part of shooting in October. Then, we waited until the heart of winter to return and film the last scenes in the snow in order to complete the story.
As concerns the image, Andrei wanted a very realistic effect, in every sense of the word. We did everything we could with the costumes and the sets in order to make sure they were in harmony with the landscapes. Personally, I think that Leviathan is in continuity with his previous films, but perhaps has a more “cinematographic” dimension. The film is representative of a new stage, an evolution, in his work.

What configuration did you choose?

MK: As of today, I have filmed only one film in digital. Andrei has had all of his movies filmed in 35mm. It was natural for us to choose film, and since we still have a laboratory with a full development services in Moscow, it wasn’t really an added difficulty for us! The configuration was the same as on our last movie Elena, a mix of Kodak Vision3 250D and 500T. Otherwise, as concerns the format, we wanted to film in Scope. I had done a few trials with Hawk lenses via a renter in Prague. But, unfortunately, we weren’t able to have them for our project because a big-budget American film got there before us… We settled for Super 35s, with spherical Zeiss Master Prime lenses that were easier to get our hands on.

What about Russian Lomo anamorphic lenses? Benoît Debie filmed Spring Breakers with them in the US...

MK: You might laugh, but I don’t know where to get my hands on those Lomo series… Nobody around me has them in Russia… I think that most of the “vintage” lenses were sold to American renters who entirely re-set them to conform to present mechanical and optical standards.

Did you play with the depth of the field to compensate?

MK: No, the opposite, even! I filmed almost the entire film between 5.6 and 8 in order to give enough depth of field to the foregrounds, especially. The current fashion for very low depth of fields, which was started by the appearance of camera photos with big sensors, tires me. I even think that it often becomes meaningless, because it really doesn’t bring anything to the story. For this film, I really wanted the characters to live in that universe and allow the audience to appreciate it in every scene, not leave it in a blur… Similarly, I hardly ever used neutral grey filters or 85s when I used the 500T out of doors, at the end of the day, for example.

What about lighting?

MK: I spent more time blocking or controlling the natural light sources than relighting. I used few spots, and preferred to work with prop light fixtures. I used a lot of various sources in order to accomplish that, like LEDs that you can hide easily and that don’t get hot. On every film, I try to follow Harris Savides’ advice, which was “always light the space before lighting the actors”. Placing a lamp in such or such a position on set always pays off more than bending over backwards trying to get one or more spots off screen.

Didn’t you relight faces?

MK: Yes, I did! For that purpose, I often use Chinese lanterns. I must admit that I learnt a lot reading Benjamin Bergery’s book, which is a compilation of his interviews with cameramen. That’s where I learnt how Darius Khondji or Philippe Rousselot work… I think most of my technical inspiration comes from there!

What scene are you most proud of?

MK: There is a scene that was difficult to film, which was the bus scene. And especially a shot that you’ll notice, which begins from the point of view of the driver on the road and then pans 180° to the inside of the bus, then zooms in on a character. You can imagine that the dolly was bouncing around on practically every stone on the road, and that it was no small feat to pull off that shot!

What about equipment?

MK: Andrei uses few camera movements and most of the time prefers very sedate, very simple arrangements. We used a Technocrane on a few scenes, but I don’t think you’ll notice them. Personally, I don’t really like filming scenes from a crane because I think there are just too many people that have to be involved in order to make it a success. It is difficult to explain exactly what you want, and you’re always dependent on everyone coordinating properly, unlike a simple panoramic shot or a simple travelling shot.

Any comments regarding postproduction?

MK: The film was first scanned in Moscow in 2K, and then we decided to go up to 3K. It was a good compromise given the film’s budget (7 million dollars). Colour grading took place in Dublin, by Windmill Lane with Dave Hughes, who I knew from my work on another film (Miss Julie by Liv Ulman). The DCP will be in 4K for the Cannes screening.

(Interview conduced by François Reumont for the AFC, and translated from French by Alex Raiffe)