"In every country there are decent people and there are freaks." — Alexey Balabanov, 2007
When did you first come up with the idea for Cargo 200?
I came up with the idea for Cargo 200 a long time ago, after the film River [a 2002 project about a 19th-century leper colony left unfinished after actress Tuiara Svinoboeva died in a road accident during production]. I traveled a lot around the country in 1984-86. I know Siberia and the far north well, and this is based on true things that happened. The only thing I made up when the corpse of the dead soldier is thrown into bed with the girl. In reality, when I served in the army from 1981-83, the boxes with dead soldiers from Afghanistan disappeared all the time. And where they ended up, no one knows. Those kind of discotheques were everywhere then, I went to them. At that time, there were limitations on vodka, so everyone bought imitation vodka.
A lot of American reviews said the movie's set in 1984 in reference to Orwell's book.
No. That's not correct. The truth is, Gorbachev is a thief. There was a famous cotton scandal in Uzbekistan in 1983. Everything that happened connected back clearly to Moscow, and it was all terrifying. And Gorbachev was then the Minister of Agriculture. That's the whole story. I had 1984 in mind, because this was the last year under Chernenko. After that began changes in the country, right after his death [in 1985].
The two boys who walk off together at the end are going to become oligarchs, right?
Yes yes yes, these are the people who will start businesses in the future. These are the beginnings of capitalism, and then these people became oligarchs. I don't love capitalism. I don't love communism either. I like it when people are honest and decent. Oligarchs are for the most part not decent people because their capital is stolen. The communists, they're simply terrible people.
Does your film belong to the chernukha genre [a series of films popular during perestroika depicting Soviet life as unpleasantly as possible]?
In the first place, this is a film without genre. I insist on this. I don't like chernukha or horror movies. This is a film without genres that absolutely reflects the position of our history in 1984. In the second place, many people don't like this film, many people like it. For example, Andrei Zernov the famous director said "We all wanted to make such a film, but we didn't have enough courage. But Balabanov made it." It was very pleasant for me to hear his words. It seems to me that this film is honest, truthful and good. There's no chernukha. In any case, the worst kind of movie is those they say nothing, when people instantly forget if when they watch it.
Did the ban on anyone under 21 seeing it cause you any problems?
Honestly, this is a formality. In reality they let everyone in. For example, I took my children to this movie. I'm not worried about showing it to them: my youngest is 13, my oldest 19. They go to the movie and they're let in.
I read you were planning to work with Willem Defoe at one point.
I became friends with Willem Defoe at Telluride. He really liked [2002's] War. We walked around and talked. I told him about my idea for a film called The American. When I wrote it, I sent it to him. He read it and said it was very good, but he didn't see himself in this role. I badgered him about it for a long time, but he refused. Afterwards we began looking for an American actor and settled on Michael Biehn. We began filming with Biehn in New York, and he was great. Then we moved to Northern Siberia, and he began to drink vodka heavily. We filmed there for three days, then moved to Irkutsk. There all hell broke loose. He drank himself into a stupor. I refused to continue filming, and winter was already passing. He returned to Los Angeles and promised to return the money. He didn't return anything. We filed a lawsuit in 2003.
Is the lawsuit over?
Of course not. We lost our money and that's it.
How do you feel about the current state of the Russian film industry?
It's not very good. Government support has fallen because of the world financial crisis. Has my film Morphia shown up there yet?
No, it's the first time I've heard of it.
You're calling me from New York?
Well, then you can easily find it at Brighton Beach.
Of course. You can find it online easily. It came out right after the premiere. Bad quality, but now there's a better one. You can find it at Brighton for sure. Morphia is based on the early writings of Mikhail Bulgakov. This was the first screenplay by Sergei Bodrov Jr., who's sadly dead now.
Do you think people misunderstand Cargo 200 when you show it outside Russia?
I don't know. I think that 1917, the revolution, everyone understands what that means. All this happens at every step to this day. They kill every day. They show it to us on television every day, and it's getting worse and worse.