This interview was done by our guest writer, Redmond Bacon.
Jumpman, the latest film by Ivan I. Tverdovsky, concerns an orphaned boy who suffers from congenital analgesia – meaning that he feels no pain. One day his estranged mother picks him up from the orphanage and together they run a blackmailing scheme whereby he jumps in front of cars and blackmails their owners for money. Set in and around Moscow, it’s a seething indictment of corruption in contemporary Russian society. The third film from the young director shows him in total command of his style, which deploys long takes to fully immerse us into the lives of its characters. Soundtracked by artists such as ЛУНА, and set in popular Moscow locales such as Squat 3/4 club, it maintains a contemporary feel, giving it a strong chance of connecting with young viewers in Russia today.
The movie celebrated its premiere in the competition slot of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. I sat down with the director to talk about his inspiration for the film, his attraction to characters who are outsiders, and the significance of national symbols.
What inspired you to make the film?
I worked on a big documentary project concerning the Russian police. One of the protagonists who seemed to be the most interesting for the story, a young officer, was abusing teenagers in order to take advantage of what was happening. Obviously, I wasn’t able to show it in the documentary, but it struck me that it was a good plot for a movie.
The main character suffers from congenital analgesia. Did you do any research into this phenomenon before writing the script?
Yes, but it’s not a documentary story, so the medical details concerning the disease or what it does, is not important. What’s important is that this guy just doesn’t feel pain. He doesn’t feel it. It seems to me that this is something very interesting for a generation of people starting in 2000, who grew up in the era of one president. They grew up, they are now adults. It seems to me that it’s a sort of new mentality. They are very different from me, for example, and I am ten years older than them. The two generations are very different from each other.
As if reflecting this generation, the soundtrack is full of contemporary pop, like the song “Free Love” by ЛУНА. Did you have the music in mind before making the film, or did you pick it afterwards?
Obviously, that wasn’t by chance. Those were things that I was thinking through during the shooting. For me, it was very important to put together supporting music – not music written by a composer, but a soundtrack that would correspond to a particular taste. I wanted to make sure that there’s no bad taste.
There was one scene filmed in Squat 3/4 nightclub. This is a very popular nightclub with young people in Moscow. Did you film there intentionally or was it somewhere suggested by the location scout?
For me, it was important because there are locations in the film that are somehow linked to me, to my life. It was partly accidental, and partly, it just happened. We were shooting a supermarket next to my building where I go buy my food. There are places that I visit all the time, streets that I walk along all the time. And obviously, that creates unbelievable internal emotions, especially when I’m watching it on the screen. At some point, I start understanding that’s me. This film is about me.
This inability to feel pain makes Denis a type of superhero. Would you say you are inspired by superhero films?
It seemed to me that it was interesting, as the title Jumpman suggests, that he might be a superhero like Batman or Birdman. But obviously, I didn’t set myself a task to make a film about somebody who will save the whole [of] mankind.
Your films focus on people who are different from what society considers to be normal. For example, your first feature, Class Corrections, was about a girl who was disabled, and the second, Zoology, is about a woman who grows a tail. What attracts you to characters who are outsiders?
I’m not interested in successful people. You understand everything about them, they have beautiful lives. They don’t need help. Everything is fine. It seems to me that people who need help are people who have problems, who are not able to resolve their problems, people who are completely helpless in the face of society. And in various situations in their lives they need support. Film as a medium is an instrument of help. If a film had an impact on at least a single person, who was somewhere on the verge of maybe committing suicide or full of depression and helplessness and unable to live, and having seen the film they can find the energy [and a] new will to live, then it seems worth it.
You wrote, directed and edited the movie yourself. Is it important for you to have complete creative control?
There are three equally important stages in a film. And they form what we call auteur cinema. It’s the writing of the script, the shooting, and the editing. If there’s someone participating in that and having a direct influence, or participating too much in these stages, they become co-authors. Obviously, a film is teamwork. A lot of people extend their efforts and their hearts into it. But my approach to it is very egoistic. I wanted to take advantage of the best I can get from a team, while at the same time I have to somehow process important moments of the film inside of my self. If I had a co-writer, or co-director or co-editor, the film would be completely different. Perhaps it would be better.
Have you tried having someone else edit your films?
I had a very early negative experience. I made a classic documentary for Russian television. I had someone who was called the supervising editor, or something like that. I told him what to do, he did all the editing, and at one point I looked at the editing, and he was trying to invent things. He was against me, saying: “The channel will not like that, the producers will not like that.” Then I saw the end result when they actually showed it on TV. This was a film where I was trying to say something, but the film had no face, it looked exactly the same as everything else that was shown on that TV channel. No matter who made it, who shot it, there was no personality.
You use very long takes, to allow the actors to immerse themselves in the role. Why do you shoot like this?
I use long shots because I started as a documentarian. I got used to observing for a long time, never pushing the stop button. I’m from the generation of people who never used film. Earlier it was very expensive and people tried to be economical but now it doesn’t really matter how much you shoot. Its a completely different psychology for the shooting process. And because that’s how I was starting, it was even subconscious. That’s something I don’t have under control. The way I see things is in long shots.
I thought this style was somewhat indebted to Russian theatre. Are you inspired by classical theatre tradition?
I really like actors. I love working with actors. But the principles that apply to my film work are different from those applied by theatre directors. I try and put together certain principles of classical Russian theatre, while at the same time I try to use my documentary experience. For example, I have no dialogue in the script. There is a very detailed description of what is happening, but I never have any phrases, any lines. When the actor comes on location, they can’t just quickly take the text, learn it and say it on camera. We don’t work like that. They really have to merge into the material and what is happening.
Like a workshop in a traditional theatre?
It’s a combination of traditional theatre and absolute documentary-style verbatim.
At the end of the court scene, where everyone is revealed to be in on the con, the camera pans to the Russian Coat of Arms. Are you trying to say something about the state of Russia today?
I’ll give you an example. Right now in Russia, we have the World Championships. I’m not really fond of football actually [but] our team kicked out the Spanish team. And for two days the city was full; all of these streets were full of people with flags.
There were so many. It seemed that you fell into a huge field of poppies, or flowers. The atmosphere of the city completely changes. At the same time, the meaning of the flag is very ordinary, it’s the flag of our state, and there’s some sort of patriotism linked to that. But it seems to me that people who live under this flag, like me, consider it very beautiful. It adds a certain colour to our life. At the same time, I believe that sometimes these symbols are not used for their direct meaning.
For example, at the party for the judge, for the first promotion, the flag is a symbol of power. To me it’s a central element of the scene. It creates the correct artificial space for the scene. I don’t use just a flag because there are judges and attorneys, but because all of these symbols create the right atmosphere, the right kind of beauty.
By the end, Denis breaks away from the chains of his mother and moves back to the orphanage. I would say this ends the movie on a hopeful note. Do you think the younger generation may have a hope of changing things in Russia?
I don’t think this is related to the mother at all. This is a [magical] or isolated world where these teenagers live. One of them enters into our world, and bit by bit he understands how imperfect it is – how strange it is. And there are people who are not able to live, to adjust to the world. And if they go back to their own world, they have hope. So perhaps people will be able to find a different way, and build completely different surroundings.