Though there were a great many surprises the morning when the Golden Globe nominations were announced; and as always, many eyes were on the race for Best Foreign Language film. While the Golden Globes aren’t always the most accurate barometer of the Foreign Language nominees for the Academy Awards (as the eligibility rules laid forth by both bodies in this race are very different), the Golden Globe nominations can provide some very real momentum for films that have been submitted to the Academy for consideration for the Best Foreign Language Oscar. This year, one of those films was “The Edge,” starring Vladimir Mashkov, who is best known in America for his work in “Behind Enemy Lines,” TV’s Alias, and has recently been in L.A. filming “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.”
In “The Edge,” Mashkov plays Ignat, a train mechanic in a remote Siberian village as World War II is coming to a close. What proceeds in “The Edge” is the kind of personal and political war epic the American studio system used to make, but now all too tragically has to be imported from other countries. Although “The Edge” is very much a tale of inner and societal redemption, it’s also a two-hour adrenaline rush, fueled by sexual expression and “faster-than-a-speeding-bullet” train races, filmed using real trains dating back to 1902 and using no CGI. With all the visual splendor in the film, its shocking to think that it was filmed for only ten million dollars.
I recently had the privilege of corresponding with the films’ director Alexy Uchitel and producer Kosntantin Ernst (who worked on the “Night Watch” and “Day Watch” films which enjoyed impassioned cult followings in America). I spoke to Uchitel and Ernst about making “The Edge,” its’ theatrical run in Russia, and it’s path to America and the Oscars thus far. I’m honored to be able to share our discussions with you here:
Jackson Eric Truax: Mr. Uchitel, as “The Edge” is coming to America, and American audiences and Academy voters will hopefully get a chance to see it soon, can you set up what “The Edge” is about in your own words?
Alexey Uchitel: It’s quite hard for a director of a 2-hour film to express it in a few words… I think that in the whole this film is about love and that there are no enemies in this world. It’s just us who try to create enemies for ourselves and this concept has to be destroyed.
JET: When you were making the film, did you have a sort of “Director’s Thesis?” A statement of purpose of what the film was thematically that all of your creative decisions fed in to?
AU: There was only one thesis – to make an honest and emotional film that will be totally comprehensible to any viewer in any country.
JET: Throughout the awards season, there are so many great films foreign and domestic fighting for screens and for audience attention. Why do you think audiences should seek out “The Edge” and make it a part of their awards season?
AU: Because of the unpredictability of the plot, originality of the dramaturgy, and the unique shooting of the steam engines.
JET: Did you sign onto the film after reading Alexander Gonorovsky’s screenplay? If so, what was it in the screenplay that made you want to make as your next film?
AU: The script touched me and I immediately felt that I wanted to make this film, which is quite a rare feeling for a director. I was captured by the quite unique combination of the immense artistic conception of the script and at the same time how accessible it is for the wide audience. It happens very rarely that these two elements come together in a script.
JET: Obviously “The Edge” is an historical piece, and one that so vividly and richly detailed. What was your research process like, both for creating a visual world that looked accurate, but also striking the right tone emotionally and politically, with all the characters internally and in their relationships with each other?
AU: To reach maximum accuracy, the whole crew has undedtook huge research and preparation work. We built the set of the village where the action takes place in the North of Russia, and shot in the reality of Russian winter. A unique bridge over the river was built, and the scene where Ignat [Vladimir Mashkov] and Elsa [Anjorka Strechel] drive the steam engine over the bridge was shot without any CGI effects. I think it was a big achievement. As for the actors and especially the crowds of extras, we carefully chose each and every face to reach the necessary effect of authenticity.
JET: Were the trains an integral part of “The Edge” from the beginning? Were they involved heavily in the initial script or was that something you brought as a director? Was there something in the poetry or romanticism of trains that attracted you to the script, or that made you want to make trains an integral part of the film?
AU: The steam engines were in the script from the very beginning and it was one of the elements that actually attracted me to the script. In fact, in our movie the steam engines are the characters of the film, not just machines. Of course, on the set in the real conditions, many scenes involving steam engines had to be changed, keeping approximately ¼ of the original ideas. But we worked closely with the screenwriter as I am convinced that there is no result without collaboration from the author.
JET: There are a lot of really complicated things to shoot in “The Edge.” The train sequences, the flashbacks, bears, fires, and the entire third act (not to spoil anything). What was the most challenging thing for you to shoot or stage as a director and how did you deal with it?
AU: There was nothing easy in this film, and of course, we had scenes that were quite dangerous for the actors. As for me as the director, the most difficult and complicated scenes to shoot were the races with the steam engines that we shot entirely in the exteriors and without any computer generated effects.
JET: Composer David Holmes is someone whose work will be familiar to American audiences, as he composed the scores for “Out of Sight” and the “Ocean’s Eleven” trilogy among other things. What attracted you to him as a composer, and what was your process of working with him like?
AU: We really appreciate David’s impact to the film, the very emotional and harmonious music he created. After screening the first cut of the movie he understood immediately what we wanted to say with this film and what kind of music it needed, and this mutual understanding made our work very interesting and easy.
JET: When people see “The Edge,” whether it’s an Academy screener or at a screening, or audiences see it in theaters or buy the DVD, what would you most like them to be thinking when the credits roll?
AU: First of all, of course, I hope there would be no empty seats when the credits roll, and I would like the viewers to associate themselves with what they see on the screen, to change for the better as the characters of the movie change, to feel for their emotions and deeds.
JET: At this point “The Edge” has had a theatrical run in Russia and played at the Toronto Film Festival. What in the film do you think people have been connecting and responding to? What feedback have you been most proud of?
AU: I feel that the viewers respond to the message they see in the film, and it shows not only in the applause or tears after the film. What I am proud of is that after any screenings in any country of the world I don’t hear the questions about the film itself – it means that the story and it’s background is understood by all audiences regardless of nationality, that this is a universal story.
JET: Thank you so much Mr. Uchitel. “The Edge” is such a remarkable and beautiful film. I wish you the best of luck with it in America and the world over.
AU: Thank you!
Jackson Eric Truax: Mr. Ernst, different countries have very different ways of choosing a film to be submitted to the Academy for Oscar consideration for Best Foreign Language Feature. What’s Russia’s process? How did “The Edge” come to enter and get through said process? What was your involvement, if any?
Konstantin Ernst: Actually, I’m not aware how it works in other countries. I haven’t really been interested. But as for Russia, the choice was made by the members of the National Committee. They preliminarily pick out films of the most appropriate quality level, hold a screening, and then make their choice and vote. The chairman of the Russian Academy Award Committee is the Oscar winner of 1980 [for “Moscow Does Not Believe in Trains”] Vladimir Menshov. This year “The Edge” has received the most votes. I personally had nothing to do with it as I’m not a committee member.
JET: How did you first get involved with “The Edge?” Once you took it on as producer, what were the initial steps you took to get the film off the ground? Was it a challenge to get talent or financing?
KE: Our work on the film started with a discussion about the script, brought to us by Alexey Uchitel. We had a keen vision of the cast we wished for this movie and we were able to find partners relatively quickly, as the dramatic material and the executive team were quite well known in our country. Concerning the work on the film itself – it took two years.
JET: “The Edge” is an historical production that exists on a grand scale, with large set pieces and many extras, to say nothing of the train sequences, explosions, and bears. What were the biggest challenges for you on “The Edge” as producer and how did you overcome them?
KE: When the entire filming takes place in the same location, on one hand it is complicated, as you don’t possess the same facilities as while working in a studio. On the other hand, I personally prefer this way of working; you sacrifice some comfort, but get a complete immersion into the working process in return. None of the actors are being distracted by their out-of-filming activities; they don’t attend premiers, presentations, parties, don’t get distracted by their “celebrity-routine.” You don’t stand a chance to get distracted when you’re in the middle of Taiga. You’ve got nothing left but to concentrate on you work. In this case the producer is responsible for providing the crew with everything they might need, take care of the schedule and the quality of the product on the outcome.
JET: For those unaware with the Russian film industry, was this a particularly large production for a Russian film? Was this an incredibly high budget? I know it played in Russia theatrically earlier this year. Did it play well there for a film of this scale and subject matter?
KE: The film’s budget was $10 million, which is neither great nor small for Russian standards (we’ve got some movies with a much greater budgets). The film came out in autumn and earned over $5 million. It’s no highest score, quite obviously, but, you know, all over the world art cinema doesn’t get nearly as much as high-budget blockbusters, which only aim to entertain. For our viewers, we offer a heart-moving story full of drama and deep emotion. Too bad, that by far not all viewers are capable of this kind of deep feeling.
JET: You produced the film in Russia and now you’re bringing it to America. As a producer, what have you learned about the differences in the cinema culture in America and in Russia?
KE: We’ve cooperated a lot with American partners, including the 20th Century Fox, a distributor for the “Night Watch” and the “Day Watch,” which I produced. That’s why I can say I have quite a deep knowledge of the topic. As for the difference between American and Russian cinema – it is exactly as great as the difference between the USA and Russia.
JET: Are their films that are easier to get Russian audiences to see that American audiences wouldn’t and vice-versa?
KE: To show a film on a national topic in a country where it was made is considerably easier than abroad – the audience finds each detail of the told story familiar and common. We tried to make “The Edge” more of a parable, a legend. And as we all know, being great admirers of Joseph Campbell, the myth structure reveals no national borders and limitations.
JET: Thank you so much for your time. “The Edge” is such a powerful film that beautifully brings to life this piece of history. I hope everyone the world over gets a chance to see it.
KE: Thank you. We do hope that “The Edge” will be as interesting for the members of the Academy. These are filmmakers of a great level of professionalism, able to estimate and value a work of their colleges from the other side of the planet.