There are few directors who can claim to have worked with such talents as Akira Kurosawa, Andrei Tarkovsky and Sylvester Stallone, but Russian filmmaker Andrei Konchalovsky has done just that. In a career that has spanned over 45 years, he directed critically acclaimed dramas such as First Teacher and Uncle Vanya in the 60s and 70s, before moving to the US in the 80s to helm Maria’s Lovers, Runaway Train and Tango And Cash.
With a retrospective of some of Konchalovsky’s Russian movies appearing at the Barbican this week, we sat down with the director for a brief discussion about filmmaking and the Hollywood film industry…
The Barbican retrospective covers a broad cross-section of your career to date, which spans a period of over 45 years. How do you feel your style has evolved over those decades?
You know, I have no idea. [laughs] I think that’s a question for someone who can study my films, which I can’t.
Every film is a reflection of the state of mind of the director. I’ve changed completely over these 45 years, in my understanding of good and evil, let’s say. And my understanding of my role as a director, as a creator, as a thinking man has changed.
When I started, I thought I knew everything about movie making. I thought I could leave a scar on the face of this planet, and I thought I was a genius, and I thought I was going to change people forever. All these thoughts a young director can have, because this is a part of ignorance. Arrogance is a part of ignorance.
But optimism, as well, perhaps?
Optimism as well, but still naïve. I’ve had enough disappointment and lost a lot of illusions about myself, and changing style constantly, because I was curious and inquisitive. I made comedies and tragedies and melodramas and musicals, like in theatre. So, every time I tried to apply my imagination to a completely different thing.
So, that’s why I say I don’t have style. There is a core, and the core is philosophy, and philosophy changes, because 45 years ago I thought I knew what was good and bad, but I slowly understood that everything is relative. Maybe sometimes people can be very good, but at the same time very nasty and very bad.
That started, maybe, with Runaway Train, written by Kurosawa. Everything is relative, including freedom. Freedom from what? You cannot be free. Truth doesn’t free you. As a matter of fact, truth can enslave you, like Wikileaks.
There is one question that is unresolvable: what is life for? Once, a great Russian actor was asked, “What is life?” and he said, “You ask me what is life, and I ask you, what is a carrot? A carrot is a carrot and life is life.” And to understand such a thing is very simple: life is life, and nothing else. But the wonderful English philosopher, John Gray – he’s my contemporary, I’d like to meet him – he’s written several books, and in one he wrote, “Man is the only animal who can live without purpose.”
Man needs a purpose to live. Why he can’t find a purpose just in living and seeing? He always has to destroy and build something. So, in that sense, happiness. Man runs after happiness, but for everyone that’s different. In the end, you understand that happiness is just in being alive.
It sounds strange, but it’s only now that I understand this. I think this explains my indifference to the critics, in a sense. Of course, I’m upset when a critic says my film is a piece of trash. But I cannot say, “Oh, my career is over.” No, I prefer to do what I think what I have to do, and be happy that it’s done, because success is in finishing a film, not to have a great distribution.
For me, the success is to do the next one. Not this one, but the next one. Then I’m successful, just in making it.
In the 80s, you made the move to America, and made Runaway Train and Tango And Cash. What was your experience working there at the time? Particularly as, when you were making those, there were films like Red Heat and Rocky IV coming out, which had a very skewed view of Russia.
It didn’t matter. The Hollywood film industry needs an enemy. For a time there were the Nazis, then the Russians, then terrorists, etc, etc. I don’t take it seriously, although it would be good if they could find enemies within.
When I was making films in Hollywood, you should understand that it wasn’t as it is now. Hollywood 25 years ago was a vibrant place, where great directors like Scorsese, Coppola, Kubrick were all still making films, and the films cost between three and seven million.
Today, these people are either dead or not working in Hollywood, or have had to apply Hollywood aesthetics to their films.
The Hollywood aesthetic is making film by committee. And filmmaking by committee excludes originality. As David Mamet, the great American playwright, wrote in his book, Bambi Vs Godzilla, “Hollywood is a totalitarian system. You either compromise and collaborate, or you’re dead.”
And it wasn’t like this in the 80s. There are films that are art, and there are films that are entertainment. The mechanic of entertainment is stimulation. Stimulation in roller coasters, videogames, and entertaining films appeal to the animalistic centers in our instinct: survival, fight-of-flight, and sex.
That’s why you have entertainment like porno. You can be excited for one thing only, copulation, and you leave, and you’re completely empty.
When you see art, you’re never empty when you leave, because, besides entertainment and stimulation, you have the enjoyment of understanding human psychology. And that’s the big difference.
I’m not against entertainment, I’m just saying art in film fulfills you.
Entertainment in film, like Rambo, doesn’t fulfill you. You look at it, and forget it. When you look at a great movie, you never forget it. That’s the difference.
Andrei Konchalovsky, thank you very much!
Andrei Konchalovsky’s Barbican Directorspective season begins on 20 January with his 2007 film, Gloss.
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