Five seasons in, The Americans, – a show set in the ‘80s – found itself more relevant than ever before. A contentious election with the re-emergence of Russia as an geopolitical boogeyman will do that to a show about the Cold War.
Still, the show has taken it all in stride. Creators Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg say all the right things in interviews and the espionage-driven plot continues to chug along on its own accord in the show’s penultimate season.
Serendipitously, late last year (just after the U.S. Presidential election) The Americans got to experience one thing they’d always wanted to pull off, regardless of how many post-election think pieces it would launch in the future: they filmed in Moscow.
We spoke with director Chris Long and Oleg Burov actor Costa Ronin about the circumstances that led them to Russia, what the experience was like and Moscow’s reception to The Americans.
Den of Geek: How long have you guys wanted to be able to film in Russia?
Chris Long – I would say ever since the start of The Americans it’s been talked about. I’ve only been there for the past two seasons but I know it was raised the first couple of seasons. Ideas were thrown around. It was only really Costa’s storyline which drove us there. It really felt right at that moment. We wanted to go for many reasons – it would open up the show. But then those reasons became the right reasons when Oleg returned to Russia. Emotionally it made sense.
How were you able to make it happen? Was there any convincing needed on FX’s part?
CL – No, not really. It was sort of – Joel, Joe and I spoke about it. We investigated making the dream into a reality. We reached out to some friends who had filmed in Moscow before who told us of a wonderful production company called Bazelevs, who are I think one of the two leading production companies in Moscow. They’re used to dealing with foreigners. Usually they do commercials and films. And they were absolutely wonderful.
We had the most wonderful producer, Sofia Maltseva. She was incredible. We did most of the scouting and the shooting of the locations by photograph. We had a very small timeframe in Moscow. They would shoot things on video and send me the video and photographs. Really, it could not have happened without them. It’s not just a country you can show up in and just start shooting. We had permits to shoot at particular locations. They told us what we could and couldn’t do. They delivered absolutely everything they promised and more.
When we got there some of the locations didn’t look exactly like the photographs in my head. We needed to change some of the locations. They reacted incredibly fast and got permits incredibly quickly. They were an incredibly capable film crew. Young – lots of young people. I can’t speak highly enough of the process.
How many film locations did you have by the end of it all?
CL – I can’t list them all but we filmed in seven different locations and we filmed material for five different shows – all at night. It was an all-night experience.
How long were you there?
CL – We were only there for three days.
CL – Exactly. We flew in and we arrived in the evening. We went scouting all night. The next two nights we shot the scenes with Costa in two full nights.
Was there any time left over for extracurricular activities? What do you eat in Moscow? That’s a detail I like to hear about anytime anybody travels…well, anywhere.
CL – It’s funny really because we ate in the best restaurant in Moscow for lunch (Ed Note: The restaurant is Cafe Pushkin if you want to check out the menu). We’d work until 5, 6 or 7 in the morning and Costa and I would have a vodka before we went to bed for breakfast. That was the end of the work day.
Then we’d get up around 1 or 2 and we’d go to the most incredible restaurant. The food is amazing. Obviously Costa is Russian. He knows Moscow well. What do you think, Costa? How did we do?
Costa Ronin – It is quite an interesting experience. I think from my memory it was like a Russian spread for lunch. The Russian crew had all these suggestions of where to go and where to eat and what to see. So a lot of it was very educational. The city has changed so much. It’s changed so rapidly. It was an exploration.
CL – More than any other country I’ve ever shot in in the world – this production company because they’re very used to high end commercial productions – would look after you from the time you got off the plane. They never left your side until they put you back on the plane. They were full of suggestions and full of guidance. It’s not an easy city to get around.
Costa, what was it like being from Russia and getting to go back home to shoot in Moscow?
CR – It was incredible from every point of view. It’s crazy that we created this world four or five years ago in our heads and then the production team built it. Getting to go there and taking the story where the story actually takes place – that’s just incredible.
When you’re looking into people’s eyes – Russian people, Russian extras, Russian background actors – you’re able to tap into that common DNA, that common cultural experience, it’s just incredible. It’s like taking Troy back to Troy. Phenomenal. It’s always hard taking a show on the road. We’ve done it on a few occasions. But taking this particular story that takes place thirty years ago where it belongs was phenomenal. I’m very grateful for that.
CL – The thing to remember to is that the only people we took from our crew was Costa and I and a production assistant who is Russian, Venya (Bruk). There were only three of us from The Americans. Costa was very much a huge part of making this happen. He was the only one prepared to do this run and gun. We wouldn’t be able to afford it otherwise.
Of course we were shooting around 2017 since our show’s a period piece. Costa had to do a bunch of takes because there are modern cars in the shot or people walking by but he got his head back in the game each time so beautifully. This was basically done on a shoestring.
I don’t know much about the Russian media landscape. Does The Americans air in Russia?
CL – No. But a lot of the crew had seen it because they pirate it. They gave us the biggest compliment we could have gotten and said the show looked incredible in recreating Moscow in 1984.
CR – It was very good to be a part of an experience where an American team and a Russian team come together to tell one story. That was quite special.
What was the general reaction of the production crew? Did you have any other interactions with Moscow-ites who were familiar with the show?
CL – Most of them hadn’t seen the show before we got there. We sent them some stuff to look at. We didn’t really get into the politics very much. We went just after the recent election. We kept it about the filmmaking and not about Trump and Putin.