“The Russian Woodpecker” started as a 5-7 minute film about the eponymous tapping sound created by a secret Soviet antenna. The movie was my first, and I planned to upload this short to YouTube upon completion. The project began when I failed to resist the incessant entreaties of a friend, the Ukrainian artist Fedor Alexandrovich, to follow him into to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. With a borrowed camera, he wanted me to film this enormous antenna that stands a stone’s throw from the destroyed nuclear power plant. It is a testament to the difficulty of filmmaking that shooting in the radioactive Chernobyl zone does not make the list of the top five challenges we faced. Here they are, along with how we overcame them.
CHALLENGE #1: Working with an irradiated, eccentric, headstrong artist
Fedor is no ordinary investigator. Irradiated by Chernobyl at age four and sent to an orphanage for safety, he harbors a burning grievance and an obsession with finding the truth about the catastrophe. But his approach was radically different from my own, and our problems began the first day of pre-production. While I thought it enough to shoot the antenna and interview a few radar specialists and the former Soviet officials who ran the array, Fedor dismissed those plans as naïve. “You’ll never find the truth that way,” he told me when I landed in Kiev. “To understand a crime a this magnitude, we need a more powerful approach. We must re-enact my dreams. The first is simple: I’m sailing across a radioactive sea on a raft built entirely of mirrors. I have a torch. And I’m naked.”
SOLUTION: I did a quick calculation and realized that this plan would soon exhaust my miniscule budget and I had my doubts that it would bring us closer to the truth. However, I also had a hunch that regardless of where Fedor’s journey would take us, it would be a fascinating ride. I made a deal with him: we would build his raft and film his dreams, but he had to conduct a parrallel investigation and interview the scientists and military men behind the antenna. It worked perfectly, and as we moved forward, we each came to respect the other’s approach, and both investigations are woven into the final film.
CHALLENGE #2: Using stratagems and hidden cameras to wrest the truth from ex-Soviet officials
One thing Fedor was right about was that my idea of simply asking about the antenna would lead nowhere. For months, we met with scientists, engineers and the senior military men who built and ran the antenna. None of them would give us a straight answer as to what its true purpose was. This was maddening, since I thought it would be a simple matter to put to rest American conspiracy theories that the radar was a mind control device or a “weather weapon.” Instead, the more we dug, the further from truth we found ourselves.
SOLUTION: We had an intuition that one of the reasons no one would tell us the truth was because while they agreed to an interview when our Ukrainian fixer called, we were vague about the fact that the producer and director (me) was an American. So we found an apartment with a cubby where I could hide during the interviews and manage them via Skype and headphones.
And once we began conducting interviews with me safely out of sight, we began to make progress. But not enough. Eventually, we had to resort to using a hidden camera on a particularly recalcitrant Soviet official. After several glasses of cognac and assurances from our heroic cameraman that he was a true patriot (a scene captured by a GoPro peering through a hole in said cameraman’s jacket pocket), did our subject begin to unravel the tale of this mysterious radar weapon.
CHALLENGE #3: Filming from a 150 meter tall radioactive and decaying radio antenna
The Duga antenna is one of the largest ever constructed, taller than the Great Pyramid of Giza. Unlike the Egyptian wonder, however, it is also radioactive, creaky, rusty, full of broken struts, and prone to swaying terrifyingly in the wind. On the days that we filmed, it was also wet with rain.
SOLUTION: It is impossible to underestimate the courage and/or craziness of our DP, Artem Ryzhykov. As a team, we had agreed among ourselves that we would not touch the antenna when filming on the grounds. However, when the guards turned their backs for a moment, Artem disappeared and bolted up the antenna in what might be record time (the whole climb is available in our Extras at iTunes).
What is more remarkable is that he climbed for much of the way with one arm, the other holding a camera to record the ascent (a GoPro attached to his head captured the rest). At the top of the radar array, swaying violently in the wind and pelted with rain, Artem set up one camera, turned it on, then climbed down a rusty ladder and back up another section to catch a view of his silouette against the sky. It wasn’t until later that evening that any of us knew what he had done (we believed him when he said he went for a long walk to meditate), but I can’t imagine the movie without these shots. His one-armed manner of climbing the antenna resulted in a severe sprain and he wore a sling for many weeks after.
CHALLENGE #4: Losing our protagonist after he was threatened by the secret police
After months of following Fedor and going ever deeper into his theory about the connection between “The Russian Woodpecker” and the Chernobyl catastrophe, one day he came to me trembling and said he got it all wrong. He wanted to stop the investigation and destroy much of our footage. He then disappeared and stopped returning our calls. We were confused and devastated. After nearly a year of work, our film lost both its protagonist and its central theory in one day.
SOLUTION: Artem again offered to get to the bottom of the situation. He convinced Fedor to meet with him and he filmed the meeting with a hidden camera. That night, we all watched the two hour conversation enrapt, and learned that a member of the Ukrainian secret police (the GRU, for those who pay attention to these things), had approached Fedor and warned him against cooperating further on the film. They told him that I was an agent of the CIA and that if he didn’t remove any negative references about Russia, his young son would not be safe. Fedor agreed to do everything he could to derail the film and soon after, left the country. We disbanded and started to think again about how to turn our footage into a short film.
Luckily, a few weeks later, after the Maidan protests broke out, Fedor had a partial change of heart. He returned to Kiev and finally accepted that I was not working for the CIA (in a twist of irony reported elsewhere, I did in fact work with the CIA for some years, but in a totally different capacity). Fedor still refused to continue his investigation or to go to Moscow, where we had a few remaining interviews set up, but he did agree that we could go forward with the film if we 1) removed his name as co-director (something we had agreed upon early in the process to take into account the fact that he conceived the dream sequences), 2) allowed the secret police to view the film before release, and 3) we added a disclaimer to the beginning of the film that Fedor believed would provide him some protection. We did two out of three; the fall of the Yanukovitch regime and loss of power of the pro-Russian secret police luckily obviated the need to give them final cut on our film.
CHALLENGE #5: Our cinematographer was shot by a sniper.
When the protest movement in Kiev turned violent (a night we happened to be filming, and which comprises the opening shots of the film), I asked our team to stay away from the front lines. Artem, however, refused to do so, saying that he wanted to record for posterity what was taking place as Ukrainian protestors wrestled for the future or their country. Unfortunately, during one of these days filming, Artem was hit by sniper fire. The first bullet entered the lens of his camera and totally destroyed it; the second lodged in his bicep and knocked him to the ground. He was dragged to safety, but was too afraid to go to the hospital, where protestors were being beaten and dumped naked into surrounding forests, many freezing to death. Two of his friends, also citizen journalists, died that day from bullet wounds.
SOLUTION: When he turned up several days later, Artem was too proud to ask for help. He had walked miles to a veterinarian friend who removed the bullet and sanitized his wound. However, he had a terrible pain in his arm, and worse, numbness in his fingers. He was afraid he would never operate a camera again.
At this point, our budget was totally exhausted, but I hoped that we could quickly crowdfund enough money to get Artem proper medical care and replacement equipment (which had taken him years to save for). I asked Artem to say very simply in English what happened, and put this low quality Skype video on Indiegogo. Within a few hours we collected all the money we needed (much of it from total strangers), and got Artem the medical treatment and rehabilitation he needed. Today he is totally recovered and back working as a DP.
“The Russian Woodpecker” was not only a challenging film, but also one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done. Our whole team feels enormously grateful that we overcame these obstacles, maintained our sanity, health and respect for one other, and created a film that somehow captured the emotions and themes of this intense year we all lived through.
“The Russian Woodpecker,” winner of the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, will be released in select theaters and on VOD on October 16, 2015.