“Moscow Never Sleeps”: A Conversation with Director Johnny O’Reilly
By Laura Blum
“Moscow is a prison, but we love it. To leave, you must pay a bribe to the prison guards,” cracks a Russian entrepreneur in Moscow Never Sleeps. In dialogue and detail, Johnny O’Reilly’s follow-up to his debut feature The Weather Station vividly captures the Muscovite zeitgeist, from pungent irony to soulful compassion.
As the Irish filmmaker recently told thalo.com in New York, he made the film to give Western audiences an authentic view of the city he called home for 12 years – minus the prism of geopolitics. “There’s corruption, betrayal and suffering, but also warmth, caring and humor,” he observed.
The movie entwines multiple story threads in the mold of Magnolia or, to a lesser extent, Crash. Unfolding over a period of 24 hours – as did Ulysses in Dublin -- Moscow Never Sleeps surveys the Russian capital as it swings into gear for Moscow City Day, an annual bash that brings together diverse walks of metropolitan life. Along the way it offers an engrossing sweep of the local people, panoramas and pulse. How O’Reilly worked these into his Irish-Russian co-production provided ballast for our conversation.
th: The first character we meet is hospitalized TV star Valery, who suddenly opens his eyes on his supposed deathbed. What themes were you setting up?
JO: I wanted to get across birth and death, beginning and end. Originally Valery’s story was going to be much more of a bookend. But what I didn’t know when I started writing was the availabity of drone technology. Once I discovered the possibility of aerial shots, I decided to open and end with them.
th: One of the standout storylines follows beleaguered businessman Anton, who so embodies the new globalizing Russia that he leaves his child behind and flees to New York. What did the character of Anton allow you to explore in this film?
JO: I wanted to have a range of socio-economic backgrounds and ages, to keep the cluster approach. And I wanted to explore a macro idea, something that touched on how society is organized. Anton is a big businessman who gets a call from government interests. They offer him a him a deal and he says no, and they try and take over his business. Documents can get changed. That happens to a lot of people, especially on a high level, unless you have a strong partner who’s connected. That’s part of the cancer that allows Putin to exert control. If you express your loyalty up that chain of command, your business will be protected.
th: And if not…
JO: I wanted to show that story that’s not black and white, where one guy is totally innocent and who’s raided by government. He’s chosen possibly because the powers that be have some evidence, and instead of putting him in jail, they try to extract some benefit. Such businessmen often end up in London, but Russians in London is too much of a cliché, so I had Anton flee to America.
th: What about Anton’s romance with striving singer Katya especially interested you?
JO: Originally the idea was an analysis of how these attractive young women decide to submit themselves to a bully and are willing to adapt to those circumstances. I started with Katya. The political story became more interesting and important. But it began with a love triangle.
th: The political story, like the personal story, pivots on power relationships – as elsewhere in the film. Is this part of the cultural DNA?
JO: Russians have experienced 400 years of autocratic rule. Today what you have is neo-feudal rule, which is not that different from tsarism. The vertical structure of the political system carries over to relationships among family members and between lovers. It’s really the crux of the division between East and West. When you live under dictatorship, you see how different it is.
th: How does this play out in business?
JO: The way things are with companies and government, one person makes all the decisions. Employees have to wait till their boss comes back from holidays. Orders come down from the top, and that’s how it’s always been. It goes back to the way their education is set up. In the West we all go through an educational system that encourages people to find their own personality, to seek creative solutions. In Russia, people are taught by rote. It shows in the cultural output.
th: Any signs of progress with the democratizing trends of the internet?
JO: No, because the education system hasn’t been reformed. If anything, censorship is increasing. There’s one history book for children of a certain age. It’s written by the government, with one mention of the purges, or of sending the first man into space. People who want their children to grow up in a free environment are not getting that. It’s the root of a lot of anger.
th: Is that why your characters all have an edge?
JO: There’s one great phrase that Russians use: Things are worse today than yesterday, and they’re better today than tomorrow. That suggests that Russians have learned to live in the moment. They live for today because they don’t know what will be tomorrow. That’s why it’s easy to raise finance for movies, and why there’s no casual sex. It’s always very dramatic. It’s all about love, about getting the most intense experience you can get. It’s intoxicating. Russians make the most of the moment. They like to celebrate. They like to fall in love with and betray each other.
th: The first line we hear in the movie is Valery waking up in the hospital and saying he may be in Hell. Later on, someone says Moscow is a prison whose inmates won’t leave. What animates the tensions between Muscovites and their city, and what are we to make of the irony that the whole movie takes place on Moscow City Day?
JO: I wanted that to be darkly comical, in the way that the characters have all accepted their fate, rather than stepping back and planning their way out of it. They say it’s hell because they know people suffer more than they should. Yet they have techniques for making life tolerable.
th: For example?
JO: A lot of men have lovers. That’s more about patriarchal society. In more enlightened parts of society, such as in the theater, the wife and the lover acknowledge each other. It’s a sad commentary about how how women accept things.
th: Katya is one such woman, though she seems pretty ambivalent from the scene at the airport.
JO: Katya goes off with Anton, even though she acknowledges that she doesn’t love him. He goes off first to get on the plane. She follows him. But you see from her hesitation that she’s not sure about the choice she’s making. Katya’s decision is especially true to life in Russia. Her thinking is that stability is more important than love. That’s a lot to sacrifice, and maybe it’s not the right decision. Anton organized concerts for her. She’s the ultimate trophy wife promoted by a wealthy man.
th: A key tension in your film boils down to personal relationships vs making it.
JO: The theme beyond the idea of Moscow, one that combines all of the stories, is the conflict between love and amibition. All of us are given choices on a baily basis: Do we do something that‘s good for our personal lives or for our careers? Often we make a decision that’s right and wrong.
th: Video slacker Stepan comes to regret the decision to move his babushka to assisted living so he and his girlfriend would be less cramped at home.
JO: Stepan is asked what to do abut his granny, emphasizing family over the convenience of having a space to himself. I wanted this to be a coming of age for Stepan. The idea was that he and his girlfriend cast the granny aside, and in doing so Stepan realizes something about his own feelings. He needed to see why he felt that way. For her part the granny had felt guilty about what happened to her daughter, Stepan’s mother. So she took in the grandson. Only when when Stepan showed himself a man could she die. Her work was done.
th: Similarly, wasn’t Valery only able let go after making peace with himself and others?
JO: Valery comes to appreciate the love of people around him. Through his kidnapping, they show their love for him. From pulling the trigger he comes to accept his own mortality. He decides to do right by – and bring together -- the two most important people of his life, his wife Natasha and his lover Marina. Before he dies, he wants to bring his son in as well.
th: Reconciliation and personal agency also crop up with the character of Lera, who sleuths out her biological father in hopes of escaping her stepfather Vlad and stepsister Kcenia. She may be a teenager, but she ultimately stands up for herself.
JO: Russian women are tough as nails. Even a shy little girl is capable of taking on someone daunting. Lera defeats her stepsister and confronts her biological father. His reaction makes it clear to her who her true family is. I wanted her to make her mark on certain characters – and on herself. She is the character who transforms the most.
th: Her mother Luba takes a more submissive tack.
JO: Luba is a strong, stoic women who is basically keeping everyone together in that family with a very abusive man. A lot of women tolerate abuse in silence. Like any alcoholic, Vlad is abusive one day, and the next he’s apologetic. I wanted to show his humanity.
th: It’s tempting to think that some of the problems are aggravated by cramped quarters, with people living on top of one another.
JO: One of the big issues in Moscow is space. People live in small apartments, where they share a roof with their grannies, their cousins. Historically, the idea was: We’ll house people in small apartments, but they’ll go to parks.
th: Red Square is conspicuously absent from your film, whereas we see less iconic settings such as Gorky Park. Was this a statement?
JO: I didn’t want to show Red Square, because only tourists go there. It’s like the Statue of Liberty. One of the great features of Russian life is park life. It’s massive theater. I lived near Gorky Park and saw it daily.
th: From the opening sequence, Moscow looms large, towering buildings and all. Why the architectural focus?
JO: Russia has a tradition of showcasing art and architecture. It has the best underground system in the world. It goes back to tsarist times, that concern for presentation. The buildings are huge. It almost feels like they’re designed to make you feel small. It’s Stalin’s aesthetic – the aesthetics of dictatorship. But you’ve got different levels of history. What has become the most recognizable buildings are in the commercial district called Moscow City, or the International Business Center, where we shot a number of scenes.
th: How did Moscow’s aesthetics influence the look of the film?
JO: Moscow is massive. No other city has an 11-lane motorway criss-crossing its center. It has ordered, straight lines and long, straight roads. I wanted the film to have a naturalistic feel. I didn’t want a shaky camera. I like composed shots. You can compose meaning in a shot. Because the city is grand, I wanted shots that are beautiful, slow, purposeful moves rather than anything fast and kinetic. The buildings are very solid and imposing. It was natural to want something widescreen. We shot in Cinemascope.
th: What about the featured Muscovites compelled you and your viewfinder?
JO: One family is wealthy and privileged in the arts. The other is impoverished and struggling, like the majority of people in the country. I didn’t feel a need to go to the wide extreme, but rather just keep it on the scale of the upper class and upper working class. It was always about merging the contemporary with the classical.
th: The music also blends the contemporary with the classical. What were you going for here?
JO: I wanted to reflect the architectural history and the culture. The composer, Litvinov – aka Mujuice -- is best known as a deep techno DJ, and he has a big following in Russia. But he also does classical compositions, so he could merge the classical with the contemporary, just like the architecture.
th: There’s a strong ethnic vibe in the mix.
JO: One of the things about Russia is the ethnic diversity. About 10 percent of the city is immigrants, mostly migrant workers. The Uzbeki cabbie in the film provided a couple of tracks of music, including the track in the canteen.
th: What kept you from featuring an immigrant in a larger role?
JO: I didn’t feel I had to make a statistical representation of the of the city. Gastarbiters would have been more of an almanac.
th: What motifs guided the editing?
JO: I worked with three editors. The first was concerned with kinetics, making things fast. The editor who finished the movie was Niko Lunin, whose work on Broken Circle Breakdown was amazing. We spent three days talking about ideas. His approach is very holistic. He said, “We need to cut this according to emotion -- forget about the pacing till later.” So he brought an emotional element to the editing that wasn’t there before.
th: What were the editing challenges of syncing all the stories to the fireworks scene?
JO: All the stories needed to have their climax during that scene. The first sequence conflating all the stories was in slow motion. The second one was a very long, soaring shot. The third was that climax. That’s how I structured the film, with those three plot points.
th: What’s it like for a Westerner to produce in Russia?
JO: If you’re Irish in Moscow, people are curious to talk to you. I speak the language, so it helps. At first people can be a bit standoffish. Then, when you talk, it’s, Oh, you’re interesting; I’ll give you whatever you want.
th: Though apparently that wasn’t always the case with the Russian Ministry of Culture...
JO: My movie was originally greenlit by an independent committee, but the funding was never confirmed and the money didn’t come through. Someone had made a decision, perhaps because of that image of Putin in the background, or perhaps because I’m a foreigner.
th: It probably didn’t help that Anton was played by émigré dissident Alexey Serebryakov, who starred in the anti-corruption film Leviathan.
JO: That too.
th: How did regional turbulence affect production?
JO: I was lucky to make the film before the Ukraine crisis. Since then the atmosphere of the country has totally changed. The government has taken a lot more control, and a lot of journalists have been arrested. The movie would never have been made now, with the collapse in oil or the collapse in currency. The film was financed in dolla
rs. First it was 43 rubles to the dollar, but when we were selling the film, it was 80 rubles to the dollar. Now it’s about 60 rubles to the dollar.
th: Tell us about Moscow’s ratings flap.
JO: When the film was finished, the Ministry of Culture gave it an 18+ rating. Later the distributor appealed this and the film was released 16+. One of the things about a corrupt system is that you can appeal. I had a friend in the Ministry who was able to do that. Some people say censorship doesn’t come from the top. The climate is tough and lots of themes are too much of a hot potato, so people practice self-censorship. A lot of the distributors are under pressure from local administrations to promote patriarchic movies that glorifiy the Second World War, and to serve as organs of the state.
th: What criticisms has the film kicked up in Russia?
JO: The fact that it’s a foreigner reflecting on Russian society and the overall feel of today’s Russia. Some people say there are too many characters, especially male characters who are irredeemable. I would argue that it shows people can discover they can overcome archetypes.
1) Moscow at sunrise in Johnny O’Reilly’s “Moscow Never Sleeps.” Photo courtesy of Johnny O’Reilly.
2) Alexey Serebryakov as Valery in “Moscow Never Sleeps.” Photo courtesy of Johnny O’Reilly.
3) (L-R) Anastasiya Shalonko as Lera and Lubov Aksenova as Kcenia in “Moscow Never Sleeps.” Photo courtesy of Johnny O’Reilly.
4) Yuriy Stoyanov as Valery in “Moscow Never Sleeps.” Photo courtesy of Johnny O’Reilly.
5) “Moscow Never Sleeps” director/writer/producer Johnny O’Reilly. Photo by Laura Blum.