Hollywood meets Russia on location
Suzdal, USSR — IN the background, the council of boyars -- Russian aristocrats -- argues whether Peter the Great should melt down church bells for ammunition in the war against Sweden. ``How can you commit this sacrilege?'' asks Peter's son, Alexis.
Meanwhile, in an adjoining room cluttered with lights, cables, and props, Joel Katz ponders another matter for debate: how to get a chair moved.
In the United States, he says, ``we would say, `Bring that chair over here,' and it would be moved.''
Here, he says, ``they would have a debate about who picks up which leg.''
Hollywood, meet Russia.
In this picturesque old village, east of Moscow, an American production company is filming a 10-part television series on the life of Peter the Great.
The script is based on the story of the Russian sovereign who opened Russia's window on the West in the 18th century, bringing European influences to a backward nation.
But some of the filmmakers can be forgiven for wishing the window had opened a little wider and stayed open a few centuries longer. Maybe then they wouldn't have had to ship in everything from washing machines (to wash the costumes and crew's clothing) to thousands of pieces of plastic cutlery (to feed seemingly omnivorous Russian extras).
Now, as Mr. Katz, the executive producer, admits, ``It's foolish of us to expect Western perfectionism'' in rural Russia.
But, he says, this country often seems to operate under what he calls ``Murphinsky's law.''
``Which is,'' he explains, ``Murphy's law squared. Whatever can conceivably go wrong will certainly go wrong . . . and you'll usually have to wait'' to get things straightened out.
Filmmaking in the West and the Soviet Union is a study in contrasts. Actors, directors, and technicians in this country get paid whether they work or not. Productions are planned up to a year in advance, and a film studio's annual economic plan -- rather than its box office revenues -- gauges success or failure.
Thus some complications could have been expected when the polyglot crew for ``Peter the Great'' (the lighting crew is Italian, the director American, and the actors mainly European) descended on this Russian hamlet.
Out of a $26.5 million budget, $5.3 million was earmarked for the purchase of services from the Soviet state -- everything from extras (mainly Red Army soldiers) to limousines for the stars (gray and white Volga sedans, the same cars favored by Russian taxi drivers and the KGB secret police).
In some areas -- such as set construction -- the Soviets excelled. The wooden village that was Moscow 350 years ago has been faithfully re-created here in Suzdal.
But in other aspects of the production, it seems that both sides got more -- or less -- than they bargained for.
``We are not accustomed to this sort of thing,'' says an official of Moscow's Gorky Studios, which is providing assistance to the production. ``And we didn't have much time for preparation.''
Moreover, he complains, the Americans always seem to be changing their schedule -- skewering the best-laid Soviet plans in the process.
The Americans, on the other hand, say they need the flexibility to finish on schedule and within budget. (The latter, it seems, is increasingly unlikely.) And they are grateful that the Soviets are only providing services for cash and not acting as co-producers of the epic. Otherwise, one official says, the 71/2-month shooting schedule would have stretched to ``a minimum of a year to a year and a half.''
Even as it is, Katz says, ``The scheduling of this picture has been a nightmare.''
Take the wigs, for example. Some 250 were supposed to be flown from Bukhara in Soviet Central Asia (where some scenes were shot) to Suzdal. But the Soviets placed them on a truck instead. There are rumors that the truck driver loaded black-market watermelons, too, and stopped to sell them along the roadside on the way northward. As a result, the entire cast and crew was idled for 12 days.
Line producer Konstantin Thoeren won't reveal how much the delay cost, but concedes it was ``a lot.''
Not surprisingly, members of the cast and crew have responded to the isolations, frustrations, and, it must be said, charms, of filming here in different ways.
Maximilian Schell, who plays Peter the Great, avows that Suzdal is ``a wonderful place. . . . Nothing disturbs you.''
``The phone doesn't work, so it can't ring. . . . It's an experience I wouldn't have missed for anything.''
Somewhat less ringing in his endorsement of the virtues of isolation is Omar Sharif, who plays Peter's ally, Prince Fyodor Romodanovsky.
``I think that staying here too long is a little trying as well. . . . After you've done a day's work, especially in these conditions where it's very cold, you want to be able to look forward to a great meal.''
``You can't do that here, unfortunately.''
That is, unless one's idea of a great meal is potatoes -- which, the crew complains, are featured in virtually every meal served up by the local restaurants and hotels. To help provide a bit of variety, the company brought a ``snack wagon'' here from California.
Suzdal would appear to be the perfect backdrop for filming ``Peter the Great,'' with its 16th- and 17th-century churches, monasteries, and kremlin (fortress).
``It certainly makes a great deal of difference,'' says Vanessa Redgrave, who plays Peter's ambitious older sister, Sophia.
Director of photography Vittorio Storaro has used a prototype lighting system to simulate natural light in the high-ceilinged buildings and to avoid damaging the centuries-old paintings, tapestries, and furnishings in them.
Mr. Storaro brought his own lights, cables, and generators from Rome, custom-made to withstand cold down to -30 degrees C. (-86 degrees F.). Early on, however, he found that a Russian winter is easily underestimated. Frost forming on the lights overnight turned to water the next day when the lights were turned on, and droplets seeped into the bulb sockets. One hundred fifty bulbs were blown on a single day. Replacements had to be flown in from Western Europe.
Twenty-one leading Russian actors have parts in the production. Their acting skill has won plaudits from the Westerners. They speak their lines in English -- even though most do not understand the language at all.
Dialogue coach Nancy Manningham says they first deliver the sentences in Russian to get a sense of the meaning and render the proper emotional shading. That way, she says, the English sounds more natural.
Even so, one crew member predicts that only three or four of the Russian actors will emerge from the editing room with their own voices. The rest will have dubbed-in lines when the production airs next February (on NBC-TV.)
Language presents other obstacles for the production. In fact, says director Marvin Chomsky, it is the ``main problem.''
``I suffer from an inability to communicate. I don't speak Russian. I'd probably be able to [save] an hour to two hours a day if I spoke Russian fluently.''
And if Mr. Chomsky had it all to do over again, what would he do differently?
``Probably,'' he says, ``shoot in the summertime.''