Mara: an interview with writer/director Alexey Kazakov
Mara (also known as Pobochnyi effekt or Side Effect) is – again – different to all the other films being screened at Grimmfest’s Easter Horror Nights. It is an intense and stylish romantic and supernatural thriller, which takes me back to seventies melodramas such as Profondo rosso. It is also Alexey Kazakov’s directorial debut, which I had the privilege of discussing with him recently (ably assisted by colleague Tata Pemova).
I asked Alexey about his background, and what prompted the move into directing this film from being established as a writer. “It’s true, this is my debut; there have been seven or eight that I have written though. I’m proud to have produced some of them too, which have been successful. I have a diploma Russian State University of Cinematography (VGIK). It was a challenge to overcome some fear: some of the most interesting things have a layer of fear. Script writing had become somewhat familiar, so I needed a new chapter and new things to explore.”
Apparently, the story of Mara had drawn on Slavic folklore; I couldn’t tell what had been myth and what was from Kazakov’s own imagination. “That’s an interesting question because I can’t always tell what is real and what is imaginary. A fascinating part of our history is the transition between paganism and Christianity. I’m fairly familiar with Catholic traditions, and they diverted farther away from paganism than the Eastern Orthodox church did. Russian culture has combined Orthodox and pagan traditions to the extent that they are twisted together now: this is what makes the Orthodox so different from other monotheistic religions.”
He hadn’t given away anything about the story, so I probed a little more about where it came from, especially the concept of erasing a young woman’s memory. Presumably joking, Alexey answered “to be honest, I think it’s psychedelic drugs. I don’t remember: it’s just my imagination. I’ve been thinking a lot about my imagination, the imagination of my colleagues and where plots come from. Just two days ago, I watched Pretty Woman again; I was really surprised to find all these lines, these characters, quotes… I know them from myself. It wasn’t like I remembered them from the movie. It was a surprise because sometimes you forget what you have seen or experienced in your early childhood and it comes up from the subconscious. An idea can feel super-original, but then retrospectively you can realise that there were seeds for it from childhood. Actually, talking of Pretty Woman, the script I’m working on right now is a romantic comedy: I thought it was an original idea, but when I rewatched Pretty Woman, I had to wonder if I’d got some ideas from there without remembering.”
Films like that – a classic, Cinderella-type story – is almost in the universal consciousness because of its simplicity. It’s understandable that its influence would carry forward into other people’s stories too. “Yes, you never imagine anything by yourself: you put your hands in some stream and take the idea from there.”
I saw classic types in the characters in Mara too: a strong woman, a fragile woman and a man caught between them. I asked whether any of them were modelled on particular people. “When I was doing research for the script, I carried out some interviews and met quote a few women that call themselves witches, and think of themselves as witches. They work with the Russian government; the phrase in the film ‘I’m working with the Kremlin’ came from real life. When we’re talking about the married couple in the film, you could say I was leaning on my own experience, but I don’t mean to suggest it was my own story shown there.”
I liked the way the couple’s contrasting response to trauma was portrayed; major events can certainly come between people. “That part is actually based on a personal traumatic experience, which didn’t end in such a major way, but still had an impact. Around five years ago, my wife and I had a child, and we lived outside the city. There was an intruder in our house, and it turned out he was a neighbour who had been convicted and had just been released from prison. Fortunately it didn’t end as badly as it did for the couple in the film, but yes it certainly gave me plenty to draw on.”
The style of the film was interesting; somewhat nostalgic, though I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it may have reminded me of until much later. I asked what Alexey’s influences were in terms of the direction. “It’s always the same with rookie directors. You ask them their influences and they’re all the same: Stanley Kubrick and Stanley Kubrick and Stanley Kubrick. We wanted to name the film after Don’t Look Now, which had made a great impression on me. We didn’t name it that way, but it was certainly very influential for me. And Stanley Kubrick, of course, but I don’t know if you can see anything of him in the film. You’re right that it’s shot in a familiar old style.”
Considering this was Alexey’s first film as a director, I asked whether he had learned any lessons to take forward into the next project. “I think one lesson, specifically about the script. I can’t ever get it perfect, but I can push it to the limit and it can get as close as possible.”
He had mentioned his planned romantic comedy earlier, but I asked what else he may be planning. “I want to make something like the Count of Monte Cristo: a drama about a girl who has been put in prison and then she comes out and seeks revenge. Not planning supernatural stories for at least the next few movies.”
Mara has been screened at the Russian Film Week in Los Angeles, but unfortunately its reception had not been fed back to Alexey and the team. The UK premiere will be taking place on 3 April, and I would hope Grimmfest delivers some better communication.