Immersing us in the frozen wilds of the Russian Arctic, writer/director Alexei Popogrebsky makes an impressive addition to the canon of films about man’s extraordinary ability to cope with harsh nature and extreme isolation. Young Pavel (Grigory Dobrygin) arrives at a remote research station for a summer of adventure under the tutelage of the wise and crusty Sergei (Sergei Puskepalis), whose multi-year tour of duty is coming to an end. Misplaced confidence and youthful immaturity lead to a string of potentially deadly deceptions.
The deliberate pace of life in the Arctic, combined with the disorienting round-the-clock sunlight, sets the stage for a thriller infused with equal parts psychological trauma and physical endurance. Winner of three Silver Bears (for both lead actors and cinematography) at the 2010 Berlin Film Festival. [Synopsis courtesy of New Directors/New Films ’10]
Editor’s Note: This is one interview in a series profiling directors whose films are screening at the 2010 New Directors/New Films Festival.
“How I Ended This Summer”
Director/Screenwriter: Alexei Popogrebsky
Cast: Grigory Dobrygin, Sergei Puskepalis
Producers: Roman Borisevich, Alexandr Kushaev
Director of photography: Pavel Kostomarov
Production designer: Gennedy Popov
Music: Dmitry Katkhanov
Costume designer: Svetlana Mikhailova
Editor: Ivan Lebedev
Sales: Bavaria Film International
Director Alexei Popogrebsky on how he got into filmmaking…
I was born in 1972 in Moscow into a family of the screenwriter, Pyotr Popogrebsky. I never consciously aimed to become a filmmaker, and instead graduated from Moscow State University with a degree in psychology. However, in 1994 I teamed up with my friend, Boris Khlebnikov, a passionate film theory student at VGIK, to film two shorts. Having made plenty of typical first-time-filmmaker mistakes along the way, we don’t mind that few people ever saw these films. Meanwhile, we started developing our debut feature, Koktebel. It was produced in 2003 by Roman Borisevich, screened at many festivals, and received a number of awards. Boris and I then went on to work independently, collaborating with producer Roman Borisevich under the Koktebel Film Company marquee. So, all in all, after my third feature I consider myself an amateur and prefer to stay it, doing things I love.
Popogrebsky on what prompted him to write the screenplay for “How I Ended This Summer”…
I think I was 14, a city kid, by chance reading diaries of Pinegin, a companion to Sedov’s 1912 tragic effort to reach the North Pole. That was a hastily-planned expedition, and when their vessel got ice-bound some thousand miles both from the goal and the nearest dwelling, the leader calmly stated: “So we will spend the winter here.” (In fact it became two winters for the crew and eternity for Sedov. This was before radio, emergency air lifts or GPS became consumer goods). At that time “a winter” felt like half of my life. It still often does. Ever since I was fascinated with this ability to come to terms with notions of time and space drastically different from our common scale of hours and minutes or blocks and metro stops. I knew that a story of two people in absolute isolation would make a perfect script. The outline was ready by 2005, but I felt I needed more experience as a filmmaker, so I started developing it further only after my second feature, Simple Things.
And on the approach he took to making the film…
In making this film our effort was to become subjects to the nature of extreme North, to let go of rigid pre-planned concepts and be open and attentive to what it could offer us. So, we traveled to a real polar station at the northmost point of Russia’s easternmost region, Chukotka, and stayed there for 3 months. We shot mostly chronologically, to let the actors and the crew develop the right feeling and get seasoned along the way. We also structured our crew and equipment as mobile as possible not to miss a single opportunity the nature could offer us. It had a lot to offer, and I believe there wasn’t anything we missed. Red One digital cameras were of big help in this regard.
Popogrebsky on the challenges he faced in bringing his story to the screen…
The biggest challenge for me as the director and the leader of the expedition was to find the right balance of letting go of some parts of my ambitions to control every aspect of what is within the frame, instead being guided and advised by the nature, while never completely letting go of my responsibility as the leader. It required a special mindset that I think I would have never achieved filming in a city.
On what the film offers that is unique…
Film has a unique power to create worlds that are far beyond our personal experience. In our film we offer the audiences an opportunity to witness a world that actually exists on our planet, but is so alien to our life as city-dwellers that it might seem surreal. The film also offers us an opportunity to contemplate what could be our behavior and decisions if we were in the place of the younger protagonist, a city kid and a recent college graduate.
Popogrebsky on inspirations…
There is not a single film I could mention as a direct inspiration. A few movies that I felt a relation to I saw only after the filming part was completed. These are “Into the Wild” by Sean Penn and “Encounters at the End of the World” by Werner Herzog. There is one film, completely unrelated to our story, that I consider very crucial to me in the way it treats human psychology, as opposed to ready-to-wear movie motivations, which I, a psychology major, find reductionistic. This is “A Nos Amours” by Maurice Pialat.
And on future plans…
I am thinking about a very different project, this time with a female protagonist, shot completely on a sound-stage, which a gradually shifting sense of reality, and possibly a lot of music. It might as well be in English. I already have the plot, and will soon start developing the script.