The Motovun honoree talks about the inspirations for Cannes award winner Leviathan.
Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Cannes best screenplay award winner Leviathan is a tale of Putin-era Russian corruption set in a remote, atmospheric peninsula on the Barents Sea.
But the script’s origins were inspired by incidents much further away.
Zvyagintsev tells Screen he was initially inspired by the “killdozer” case in Colorado in 2004. Marvin John Heemeyer, an auto repair shop owner, had an ongoing zoning dispute with local authorities — he used a modified bulldozer to demolish the town hall and former mayor’s house among other buildings, before killing himself.
“I first heard about the story in 2008, when I was in New York filming New York, I Love You. I liked this story of a struggle of a small man against the system.” Over the next six years, he worked on the script that would eventually become Leviathan.
“In that period a lot of things happened that influenced the final result,” he notes.
“The original story is about a man with no family, nobody close to him. It’s really difficult to put this character into context, so the character of Kolia was given this family. Otherwise it would be a film about a loner and nobody else. That could potentially be very interesting, you could watch his isolated actions. But for [Leviathan] we needed other protagonists to expand the whole story. In creating these connections, the basic story of the Killdozer disappeared, but it was the seed that spread out in different directions.”
“He is a big hero in America,” says the director of Heemeyer. “A Russian film crew made a documentary about him. Everybody said on camera it was a terrible tragedy, but off camera, they all said he was a hero. Even the police said the same thing.”
Zvyagintsev said he was surprised no American filmmakers have made a feature about the Killdozer – “usually they react instantly,” he says. “I had a cheeky thought to actually make the film in America. But I gave of the idea, the way we did it carrying over to Russian society has more effect.”
Zvyagintsev says that he doesn’t feel an “obligation” to tell stories about Putin-era Russia, but it is a “need.” “I only feel commitment to myself to speak about this. It’s difficult to say if it’s an obligation to society or to the truth.”
The writer/director says he is now considering four different scripts and will decide after the summer what his next project will be. “All four are very demanding project that require big budgets,” he notes. “But something completely new might pop up.”
Zvyagintsev was speaking to Screen at the Motovun Film Festival in Croatia, where he receives this year’s Motovun Maverick award. The festival also screens his films The Return, The Banishment and Elena.