EXCLUSIVE: UK actor Toby Kebbell has been cast in the lead part of US director Tony Pemberton’s Buddha’s Little Finger, which is based on Victor Pelevin’s eponymous novel and marks Lore producer Rohfilm’s first foray into English-language production.

Kebbell, whose recent work has included Wrath Of The Titans and War Horse, plays the young Russian gangster Pyotr Voyd, who awakes in the notorious prison of Lubyanka, captured by the KGB, during the 1991 coup to oust Gorbachev from power. During the interrogation process, he loses his memory and believes that he is a Russian revolutionary poet in 1919 where he joins the real-life Red Army hero Vasily Chapayev and his sidekick machine-gunner Anna. Soon, Pyotr is on the run simultaneously in the Moscow of 1991’s gangster capitalism and in the Ural Mountains of precarious post-revolutionary 1919.

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“We thought Toby was charismatic and ideal for this part as he has to play a character living in two different times,” Rohfilm’s Karsten Stöter told Screen in an exclusive interview before the film’s shoot began today (Aug 28) in Leipzig. “He looks the perfect fit for 1919, while in 1991, he looks as if he doesn’t belong somehow.”

Apart from Kebbell, the cast includes two Canadian actresses Karine Vanasse (Midnight In Paris) and Anne-Marie Cadieux (Good Neighbours) and local German-based actors who have experience of international projects ranging from André Hennicke (Pandorum) and Trystan Pütter (Passion) to Stipe Erceg (Unknown Identity) and Ivan Shvedoff (Mission Impossible 4).

“Over the years, the project went through various stages of development and financing,” Stöter continued. “Initially, we wanted to make it as a German-Russian coproduction and work with the UK to get an English cast, but the UK is completely hopeless for co-production unless you have a British director and British story, and so on. We also tried putting it together with other European countries, and, in the meantime, there were many ups and downs in Russia with changes in the government and the people heading the Ministry of Culture. Unfortunately, our prospective Russian co-producer died, so we then approached other producers, but I couldn’t revive the project. I don’t think the Russian film funders could really warm to this story by Pelevin.”

However, thanks to an introduction from Canada-based German producer Regine Schmid, Stöter got to know Martin Paul-Hus of the Montréal’s Amérique Films. “I sent him the screenplay and he was just as enthusiastic as us about the story,” he says.

The € 2.2m German-Canadian co-production received backing from the German regional funds MDM and Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg and the DFFF incentive scheme, Canada’s SODEC, Telefilm Canada, and Eone Canada, as well as German facilities and postproduction house Cine Plus Filmproduktion, and the European Union’s MEDIA Programme.

Farbfilm will release the film in Germany and eOne has secured the theatrical rights for Canada.

“Our young crew has done a lot of research in scouting locations and found the kind of Stalinist buildings or neo-Classicist architecture one would need to recreate 1991 or 1919,” Stöter pointed out. “We would have liked to have shot in Russia, but this was impossiible without any funding from there. In any case, we wouldn’t have been able to shoot at original locations in Moscow because it has changed so much. One would have had to go out into the outskirts or look at other towns where there aren’t so many cars or advertising hoardings. The world we are wanting to depict no longer exists, so we have to invent it anew.”

Principal photography will wrap at the end of September in Berlin.