INTERVIEW: "Indochine" Director Spans "East West" in Stalin Era Epic

by Dave Ratzlow

(indieWIRE/4.11.2000) -- Inspired by the true stories of people who lived through a shameful episode of Soviet history, the Oscar nominated "East West" is a disturbing account of a young doctor who returns to his homeland just after WWII. With his French wife and their son, he hopes to help rebuild his country in a new era of peace. But they soon realize that Stalin's post-war Soviet Union is not the utopia they imagined; just off the boat, one unfortunate old man is shot for refusing the order of the Soviet soldiers.

Director Régis Wargnier teams up again with French icon Catherine Denueve, star of his 1993 Oscar winner, "Indochine." Fittingly, Deneuve plays a famous French actress who helps the family maneuver through international politics and bureaucracy. Sandrine Bonnaire ("The Ceremony") and Russian actors Oleg Menchikov ("Burnt by the Sun") and Sergei Bodrov Jr. ("Brat") also give excellent performances in which intense emotions are always just below the surface.

Set in a humorless and oppressive world, the film is filled with elements of high drama. But Wargnier, a charming and relaxed middle-aged man, directs with the light touch that the French do so well, allowing no artifice to get in the way of this harrowing tale. Wargnier doesn't offer easy answers to the situation, nor clear-cut representations of who is friend or foe. Which is perfectly appropriate for a film about secrets, corruption and totalitarian oppression. Dave Ratzlow speaks to the director about Franco-Russian screenwriting, the Leonardo DiCaprio of Russia, and his prima donna cast member -- not Deneuve -- but Menchikov.

"East West" opened last weekend in New York and Los Angeles.

indieWIRE: So how did your involvement in this story get started?

Régis Wargnier: The story chose me. As writers or directors, some people do one movie a year because they want to work; they want experience, they don't really care what they want to express. But it takes time for me to get into a story.

While traveling through central Asia and the former republics of the USSR, I would meet people, 55, 60-years-old, who spoke good French. I was very close to the Chinese border so I really wondered how they spoke such good French. And they would say something like, "we were born in France, bred in France and then taken to Russia or Ukraine because our parents decided to come back to the motherland after WWII."

"So the Russians wrote the first draft, because we French didn't know anything. The reality came from them. And then we kind of made a very French, westernized version of it and they didn't like it."

And then I heard other stories in other countries. The people I met were the children of those who returned. Eventually I had all this emotional material that they gave me, so I started writing with a Russian writer, Sergei Bodrov [who wrote "Prisoner of the Mountains"]. And in five days, without even realizing it, we built up the basic story. And then, of course, I tried to find related documents, but this time, the most interesting resources were the people I had met. It was the first time I had to really talk and listen to so many people. It was really a different approach. So the Russians wrote the first draft, because we French didn't know anything. The reality came from them. And then we kind of made a very French, westernized version of it and they didn't like it. The Russians were not happy.

Finally we got together and wrote something that we both liked, but it was three hours long. It was like a very huge Russian novel. So many people, so many anecdotes, so many episodes. And I knew that the French wouldn't finance a three-hour movie.

So right away, Bodrov, who also lives in Venice, Beach, California told me, "Forget about the French producer, come and work with me in LA. We'll have a good time." And this guy, who gave me the most Slavic atmosphere, I met him again in LA, and he was the most efficient American scriptwriter. He had the ability to focus the story. To be a Russian and be an American. So we cut a few characters, and finally made the script.

iW: How did you find Oleg?

Wargnier: I first saw Oleg in a Russian film at Cannes years ago and then again in "Burnt by the Sun."

iW: So you kept him in the back of your mind?

Wargnier: Oh yeah, I wrote for Oleg. I wanted a Russian actor to play this part. I got pressure in France to take French stars, but I wouldn't believe it.

iW: Is he a big star in Russia?

Wargnier: Yeah. Oleg is someone who is impossible to catch. Every time you have to get in touch with this guy, you have to go through assistants. But I left the script with him, and, okay, he said yes. You know why? He didn't say, "I'm going to do a film with Catherine Deneuve, Sandrine Bonnaire, the director of 'Indochine,'" He told me why, and I believed him. He said, "Because I've never been offered to play a secret. I don't know what I'm going to do with this part, but I have to make people understand that things are not as they seem." And I told him, "Yeah, and you have to do most of the lines in French." He said, "I'll learn." So I rang Bodrov, because he made a movie with him, and Bodrov said, "Yes. He will be there and ready." But Oleg wouldn't rehearse with us. I brought him to Paris you know, for the costume and to meet with Sandrine and so forth. I asked him, "Why don't we try and read some French scenes?" And he said "Nyet." And even the day before shooting the first scene with French lines, we still didn't know.

"You know the quality of this young guy, he has the most expressive eyes. Like Deneuve, the camera loves him. It's sometimes unfair, but some people, you put a light on them, and they just shine."

iW: Really?

Wargnier: Yeah, and Sandrine is going crazy. She told me, "I'm not ready to act with a guy who can't say a word in French. How can you be sure?" I said, "Because Bodrov told me to be sure." And even when we rehearsed it just before the take, he didn't do it. He just went "la la la la la." But when I said "action," he spoke French better than Russian actors living in France for seven years. You know, I think this film was very important for Sandrine, because she said just before the shoot, "If this guys fails, I will be so angry." And he didn't fail. In fact, after the first take of French lines, she applauded. In fact, the crew fell in love with this guy. So Sandrine knew that she had to do her best, to match him.

iW: Did that frustrate you not having a rehearsal process?

Wargnier: No, I got used to it. That's how this guy works. But usually, I just read the script with the actors separately. Because I like to create complicity between me and the actors. There are things that we should know about the situation and the character that another character would not know. So during a take, Sandrine could surprise him, so you can get create some kind of magic. But even just reading with Oleg was difficult. While we were in Paris, [reading over the script] he always wanted to go shopping. He would say, "Where is the Prada shop?"

iW: And the young guy, Bodrov Jr., I hear he's like the Leonardo DiCaprio of Russia?

Wargnier: Well, you could say so. You know, he's also the screenwriter's son. I saw him for the first time in "Prisoner of the Mountains" when he was co-staring with Menchikov. They knew each other quite well and I could understand that this guy could really be someone in this country when I looked at what Menchikov's attitude was towards him. Oleg was not always that nice. He was like. . . okay, this guy is a contender, he's gonna challenge me one day.

You know the quality of this young guy, he has the most expressive eyes. Like Deneuve, the camera loves him. It's sometimes unfair, but some people, you put a light on them, and they just shine. And he was also very nice and modest, because he was working with great movie stars and very talented people, so he always wanted to do more. He was always like, "Oh, Régis, I want to do another take, I can do better." But there was a time when Oleg would say, "No, I'm done. I had my best at the third take. You want to do nine? Hey Bodrov, wake up, it's movies. Not again."

[Dave Ratzlow is a writer based in New York.]