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EXCLUSIVE: Paul Schrader Talks Biopic of Legendary Tiny Dancer Kschessinska

EXCLUSIVE: Paul Schrader Talks Biopic of Legendary Tiny Dancer Kschessinska

While he didn’t make the schlep to Cannes this year, writer-director Paul Schrader has some skin in the Cannes game. He’s announced that he’s writing an English-language biopic of Kschessinska, the legendary prima ballerina and mistress to the last Russian Tsar, for a film financed by the Kremlin-backed Culture & Arts Fund. Never before has an A-list American screenwriter written a Russian film about an iconic figure from Russian history. The film will star a mixed Russian and American cast. A director has not been signed.

On a Skype call from New York, Schrader calls the prima ballerina assoluta Mathilde Kschessinska the “ultimate femme fatale.” As the Russian Empire was imploding, the ballerina wreaked havoc inside the Royal family. Rising from poverty through the ballet world to a life of luxury, the ambitious and charismatic dancer was mistress to four aristocratic players in the crumbling Romanov dynasty, including Tsar Nicholas II.

“She was quite a notorious figure is pre-Soviet Russia,” says Schrader. “She was the first local prima ballerina, and was also quite conniving. She had a son whose patronage has never been determined. She liked people to believe it was Nicholas’s son. It was probably his cousin’s son; at one point his uncle claimed him. In court life she was a player.”

As for the Revolution, “Nicholas was a real fuck-up, not up to the task of surviving, and had bad judgement, took bad advice,” says Schrader. “It was a bloody period. When the Bolsheviks came in they commandeered Kschessinska’s house, those photos of Lenin were taken on her balcony. She had a great investment in the ancien regime. She was no lover of people’s rights. She died at age 99.”

Meanwhile Schrader is developing several other projects. He and Bret Easton Ellis are doing a DIY in July, getting money from Kickstarter. “The Canyon” is on Facebook, Kickstarter, and raised $70,000 the first week. “It’s The Ed Burns model,” Schrader says. “Everyone works for free, we’re casting on Let It Cast, we’ve done 300 auditions and some screen tests, and will shoot four weeks in July.”Schrader was supposed to direct something in San Juan with Spanish money but the economy collapsed. He and Ellis were commiserating. Schrader told him: “‘The stuff you write is about beautiful young people in rooms doing bad things. How expensive is that? You write, I’ll direct.’ It’s the new world. It’s like 100 years ago, making it up on the fly, new models, coming up with schemes, which then become codified.”

Schrader is just back from scouting locations in New Zealand for a conventional period film which is selling at Cannes, funded out of New Zealand, but no actor is set yet. Schrader wrote Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull,” and directed “American Gigolo” and “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters.”

David Weisman co-directed Edie Sedgwick in the ‘60s cult classic “Ciao! Manhattan,” then produced the Oscar-winning film “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” He is currently working with Schrader, Mushtaq Shiekh and Shah Rukh Khan, on the Bollywood-Hollywood fusion project, “Xtrme City.”

Russian entertainment powerhouse Vladimir Vinokur and his partner, the Russian ballet impresario Vladislav Moskalev, are backing “Kschessinska,” which is being produced in collaboration with American producers David Weisman and Anatoly Davydov and financed by the V. Vinokur Fund for the Support of Russian Culture & Arts under the auspices of the Kremlin.

Russian comedian, pop-singer, TV-host and actor Vladimir Vinokur established The Vinokur Fund under auspices of the Kremlin.

Bolshoi Ballet backer and entrepreneur Vladislav Moskalev organizes culturally significant charitable events in Russia as well as the global tour of the Kremlin Gala: Ballet Stars of the XXI Century; Moskalev also produced John Daly’s 2003 film “St Petersburg-Cannes Express.” His business partner Vinokur’s Fund has produced documentary films for children on the theme of ballet.

Anatoly Davydov was a Japanese scholar and journalist who became special assistant to Akira Kurosawa on “Dersu Uzala,” then worked as technical advisor and actor for Michael Apted on “Gorky Park,” for John Schlesinger on “The Falcon and the Snowman,” for John McTiernan on “The Hunt for Red October,” and for Richard Donner on “The Assassins.”

As a bonus, I am pasting for your fun and delectation Schrader’s Must-See Top 60 movies of all time (originally published in 2006 in Film Comment).


1. The Rules of the Game (1939, Jean Renoir)
2. Tokyo Story (1953, Yasujiro Ozu)
3. City Lights (1931, Charles Chaplin)
4. Pickpocket (1959, Robert Bresson)
5. Metropolis (1927, Fritz Lang)
6. Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles)
7. Orphée (1950, Jean Cocteau)
8. Masculin-Feminin (1966, Jean-Luc Godard)
9. Persona (1966, Ingmar Bergman)
10. Vertigo (1958, Alfred Hitchcock)
11. Sunrise (1927, F.W. Murnau)
12. The Searchers (1956, John Ford)
13. The Lady Eve (1941, Preston Sturges)
14. The Conformist (1970, Bernardo Bertolucci)
15. 8 ½ (1963, Federico Fellini)
16. The Godfather (1972, Francis Ford Coppola)
17. In the Mood for Love (2000, Wong Kar-wai)
18. The Third Man (1949, Carol Reed)
19. Performance (1970, Donald Cammell/Nicholas Roeg)
20. La Notte (1961, Michelangelo Antonioni) Silver

21. Mother and Son (1997, Alexander Sokurov)
22. The Leopard (1963, Luchino Visconti)
23. The Dead (1987, John Huston)
24. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Stanley Kubrick)
25. Last Year at Marienbad (1961, Alain Resnais)
26. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928, Carl Theodor Dreyer)
27. Jules and Jim (1961, Francois Truffaut)
28. The Wild Bunch (1969, Sam Peckinpah)
29. All That Jazz (1979, Bob Fosse)
30. The Life of Oharu (1952, Kenji Mizoguchi)
31. High and Low (1963, Akira Kurosawa)
32. Sweet Smell of Success (1957, Alexander Mackendrick)
33. That Obscure Object of Desire (1977, Luis Bunuel)
34. An American in Paris (1951, Vincente Minnelli)
35. The Battle of Algiers (1966, Gillo Pontecorvo)
36. Taxi Driver (1976, Martin Scorsese)
37. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974, Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
38. Blue Velvet (1986, David Lynch)
39. Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989, Woody Allen)
40. The Big Lebowski (1998, Joel Coen)


41. The Red Shoes (1948, Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger)
42. Singin’ in the Rain (1952, Stanley Donen)
43. Chinatown (1974, Roman Polanski)
44. The Crowd (1928, King Vidor)
45. Sunset Boulevard (1950, Billy Wilder)
46. Talk to Her (2002, Pedro Almodovar)
47. Shanghai Express (1932, Josef von Sternberg)
48. Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948, Max Ophuls)
49. Once Upon a Time in the West (1969, Sergio Leone)
50. Salvatore Giuliano (1962, Francesco Rosi)
51. Nostalghia (1983, Andrei Tarkovsky)
52. Seven Men from Now (1956, Budd Boetticher)
53. Claire’s Knee (1970, Eric Rohmer)
54. Earth (1930, Alexander Dovzhenko)
55. Gun Crazy (1949, Joseph H. Lewis)
56. Out of the Past (1947, Jacques Tourneur)
57. Children of Paradise (1945, Marcel Carne)
58. The Naked Spur (1953, Anthony Mann)
59. A Place in the Sun (1951, George Stevens)
60. The General (1927, Buster Keaton)

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