Night Visions: Kirill Sokolov
I spoke with Kirill Sokolov about his debut feature and crafting genre-aware thrills.
Kirill Sokolov visited NIGHT VISIONS 2019 with his debut feature, the wild and irreverent splatterpunk WHY DON’T YOU JUST DIE! I got the chance to talk with him about the origins of the film, and how it reflects the feeling of Russia today. There are SPOILERS throughout the interview.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Where do you even start with something like WHY DON’T YOU JUST DIE?
I’m always writing – and I write a lot. This is my fifth full-length script. I just sold another older script to other producers, but this is the one we finally turned into a film. The story came from when the MeToo -movement began. When that happened, I had a lot of friends, lots of women, who started talking about their past, and how they were abused by their families. By their dads and brothers. I was shocked. This was everyone, even friends from ‘normal’ families, who were victims of these situations, and nobody talked about this. So it started as this story of revenge, about a girl who was raped by her father. Then as I spent eight months writing the story some things begin to change, but the initial premise – the revenge – stayed the same.
How much work went on describing the apartment in the writing and everything that happens to it, or was all that found in the shooting?
There were two problems: When I finished the first draft of the story, I understood that my main lead just sat on the sofa for thirty minutes doing nothing. Secondly, because it’s my first film, I didn’t have a lot of money. So I wrote the whole thing into a very small location. That’s how the film got three stories, each of them with a different character. So there’s Matvey, Ivganich, and then Olya. Once you put all three stories together in one location and jump around in time, people will think they’re watching something bigger than just one story. That was the idea at least. It was very close to how PULP FICTION was made.
After that, we started to think about how we could make the apartment interesting for 90 minutes. I wanted to make an Apartment Western, which I don’t think I’ve seen before, so I tried breaking the scenes down from different styles each time. If you look at the beginning, the film is very fast-paced with rapid cuts, and then it goes to a western style with lots of long takes and the camera is moving differently. We changed the style within the apartment depending on the situation.
The apartment itself feels timeless. It’s filled with things that you can’t place in any certain period. Was that because of the budget or intentional?
It was an idea to make this apartment very Russian, but not overtly modern. It’s Russia from the last ten or fifteen years, but so you can’t say what year it is. Modern Russia, but that’s all. It also looks like that because the family is dysfunctional. They decorated their apartment thirty years ago and then changed nothing. And because they’re slowly dying on the inside, so too is their home. Nothing is ever renewed or fixed, so everything reflects that.
I’ve never been to Russia, so my understanding of how Russia looks is based on the films I see. But a lot of films tend to favor this kind of dated, recent-history look. Is this visual style something that Russians see as preferable to themselves?
I don’t know, I don’t think about it. The apartment itself is closer to the place I lived in when I was in St. Petersburg. This kind of green wallpaper, and the bookshelves that you can find in any Russian apartment. But the thing is, we wanted to make a very colorful film, cause all Russian movies are very grey and monochromatic. So we wanted it to be stylized. The purpose was to make it clear that it was a genre movie.
Hence color coding the characters (Matvey is yellow, Andrey is pink, Tasha is green, and Olya is black).
Yes, exactly. It’s kind of a cool thing to use visual language to help understand where everyone and everything is. With a set like this, you can get a certain idea of everything you see. We put furniture and items in the house backward. Things that you might not instantly see as a viewer, but you’ll sense that something is wrong or dangerous.
One of my favorite parts is the whole opening sequence. The film explodes off the screen with this cartoonish, ultra-violent choreography.
All of the film was storyboarded very early, even before I met with the producers. The fight was very much all there. I don’t like how fighting looks in Russian movies. I thought about how to make it clearer and very direct. It was drawn a lot in the storyboard, but we then had a stunt guy who had more ideas on how to make it better. But because the budget was limited, the storyboard allowed us to think of very clearly where to put the camera, what would make for a more interesting shot, and how we could build the set better. The set itself was like a LEGO kit, every wall could be moved, and we made special holes for where to put the camera. That was all thanks to the storyboard.
What was your budget like?
$800k, and we shot for 32 days. Because it was one location and four actors we could take that long for the shoot. This was good. It gave us a chance to film a lot of the details you usually couldn’t afford because it just takes too long normally. We even had one day where we didn’t bring actors to the set so we could just shoot details.
The actors have wonderful faces, and with the film being like a cartoon their reactions are everything. How long was the casting process?
The casting process was really long and it didn’t help that it was a very different project for Russia. If you try and turn the script as it’s written into a film, it would be very dark and sad. Because the themes in the film aren’t really funny. There’s a lot of crazy that happens in it. But I wanted to make a funny movie that had the audience thinking about what they saw afterward. So I had to keep the irony of how people react to different situations. It had to be very specific. I looked for people who had a good sense of humor, and who could laugh at themselves. Which is tough with Russian men, especially actors in their fifties. They’re very serious about themselves. But I was really happy to find our lead for Andrey; the actor Vitaliy Khaev, because he’s easygoing, and he could change his performance so that even with all the terrible things he does, he could still be sympathetic. I was really worried about his character, even though he’s a bad guy.
I kept wondering why I liked him. He’s awful, but also weirdly charming.
That’s what I wanted to get. Vitaliy is now a big star in Russia, he’s made a bunch of successful movies, and we got him just in time before he hit big.
One thing that reminded me that this was a comedy was the way you used even minor things as weapons against Matvey. Like even when they give him water they throw the cup at his head and it just goes *bonk* and flies off.
There are a lot of things that we tried to make over the top so it wouldn’t be dark. Like the blood: It’s everywhere and more like a cartoon. Like Looney Tunes violence. To remind you that you’re watching a movie, so you’re not shocked too much.
The apartment itself becomes a victim of the carnage, it felt weird trying to remember what it looked like in the beginning compared to the end.
It was a lot to handle because of course we didn’t shoot this linearly. So we fixed everything, and then rebuilt it, and then cleaned the blood, and then crushed everything again. This set took so much work.
Speaking of cleaning, there’s a scene where Matvey needs to retrieve a paperclip from a bathtub. I’m not going to spoil what happens, but let’s just say that it was painful to watch.
I like this scene very much. It’s such a simple idea, but it provokes a huge reaction in people. Audiences react to that scene more than anything else in the film. When Matvey starts using his mouth people just cringe and cry and shout, and it’s amazing to see in the cinema. Because people really shout out at that scene. It was really simple to do, but it was also funny. I’m really proud of that one.
It’s like in EVIL DEAD. This commitment to things being funny and gross at once.
Yes! Funny and gross! I’ve had a similar situation in real life, but thankfully not with my mouth! My wife’s ring had dropped into the drain, and I had to go deep into that thing trying to get it out.
It’s painful because that, unlike a shotgun to the chest, is a situation we can relate to.
Exactly, and then we had the paperclip circle the drain in slow motion to make it worse!
Kirill laughs loudly.
What’s the phrase that Matvey keeps repeating to himself?
It’s something I heard in my childhood. Like if you miss walking into a crack or hole on a sidewalk, you tap yourself three times on the chest and say “evil won’t touch me.” It protects you. The idea is that Matvey is still a child, so he behaves like a kid. Grownups don’t do that kind of stuff anymore.
And he’s wearing a Batman hoodie when everyone else is dressed more like adults.
Then there’s the mother, who makes an active choice not to do anything, and when she tries to it’s taken away from her.
I’m happy you saw this. The actress always questioned me during shooting that what am I doing there, and I had to explain how that was the character. She’s always doing nothing. We even chose her dress to match the walls so she would blend in. I wanted to show that inaction can be just as bad as doing something.
There’s a cruel feeling to the story that the moment you step into the apartment, you won’t get out until the family has entirely collapsed. That they need to implode together before anything can move forward.
This movie is really fun to watch with other people because everyone’s reactions are so weird. When there’s the big scene with the whole family together, there’s always this pause, and then laughter. Because the audiences need a moment to just internalize what is happening on screen.
The film also refuses to give closure to anyone. It just keeps being taken away. Even when Matvey is at his best, it doesn’t feel like he has learned anything. He doesn’t even seem interested in the monetary rewards introduced very quickly into the story.
Yes! People ask about this, but I try not to answer this question because everyone has their theories about it.
Do you want to hear my interpretation?
When Matvey finds out the reason he’s there, his childlike attitude is that nothing else matters. He’s so innocent that he doesn’t think about money because he’s been asked to help a girl he likes. Like a child helping an adult they like.
Definitely! That’s it. If he looked at the money like all the other characters, he’d be in the same situation. But that power, because he doesn’t think about money, is so strong that he almost becomes untouchable.
I kept coming back to films like TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE, where the influence of currency manifests in death and destruction.
Yes, money is a good symbol of that. But also now in Russia, we’re at a very specific time, which is a problem that I wanted to explore. You can talk about how money makes people do bad things to them, but I wanted to talk about family. It’s a family that is supposed to be together and close to each other. They need to protect one another, but instead, now they eat themselves. And in Russia right now you feel like the community is boiling, that it’s happening all the time.
Was this element in the film already when writing it?
It is there, but my attitude is that you can’t write about things without reflecting on your life or your country, or any social or political system in the material. So however you do it, it’s there. I just tried to mainly concentrate on making a fun movie. And in Russia people will see these themes easily, but even if you don’t you’ll still enjoy the movie.
It seems like this has gotten a great reception at least, there have been awards from horror festivals —
It’s funny that it’s at a horror festival because I don’t see it as that. Even with the blood. But yes, people have enjoyed it. We’ve sold it to twenty countries, it’ll be in French cinemas in January, and even a Taiwanese country has talked about a remake. It’s getting a good life, after all the struggles it went through to get made.
I can’t wait to show it to my friends, it’s the kind of film that I can see working best in groups.
We just sold the film to Wild Bunch in Europe. So it’ll hopefully be out soon.
I’ve asked this from everyone I’ve interviewed here at the festival: What is the scariest film you’ve seen? It doesn’t have to be a horror film.
You know, I started watching a lot of films in early childhood, and my parents didn’t give a shit about what I watched. So I got my hands on everything. So there were a few films that traumatized me because I was too young for them. This very old film, CANDYMAN, I don’t know why it’s scary, but it terrified me as a kid. Because it has such a mix of urban cities and fairy tales. I watched it when I was six and I don’t know why, but I couldn’t sleep for months after this movie. This dude can appear in every mirror. I had very bad nightmares from it.
But as an adult. I don’t know. COME AND SEE is one of the scariest films you could ever watch. It’s scary because you can understand that it’s the truth you’re seeing, and that makes me feel scared. When you see horror now, it doesn’t work for me as something scary comes into my dreams. But a few years ago I saw a movie called PRISONERS, which I didn’t like at all because it felt like exploitation. I don’t understand it at all. I regret that I watched it to the end because it leaves you with such a disgusting feeling inside. I’m not sure I like this kind of movie.
Can you tell me about your next film?
My next film will be a road movie, mostly set in forests, and that’s going to be difficult because we can’t just make what we want, we have to choose everything more carefully. Or maybe we’ll be more spontaneous, I don’t know. We’re going to shoot it in May or June, it’ll be an adventure-road-chase movie about three women from three different generations. The two older generations are fighting with each other over the youngest girl, and that conflict turns into a big chase with crooked cops and stolen cars.
It’s going to be fun!