Out in British cinemas this week, How I Ended This Summer is the chilling story of a young man working at an Arctic ice station for the sake of an experience who finds himself facing dangers he never expected. I caught up with director Aleksei Popogrebsky when he was visiting London to hear about what drew him to this story and to the incredible landscape in which it's set.
"When I was a kid, before I ever imagined that I would be making films, I was fascinated by polar explorations," Popogrebsky recalls, the excitement still audible in his adult voice. "I suppose what intrigued me was the contrast of that experience. I was living in urban, downtown Moscow in what was really a very cosy environment. I was afraid of the dark and I was mesmerised by the way that some people committed to going into that darkness, to spending years in conditions that were so cold and where there was so much limitation on freedom. I imagined what I would do in that situation - would I stand up to it or would I crumble?
"By the time I started making films, a couple of decades later, I realised that the non-fiction books I'd read and collected over the years due to this fascination could be developed into a really cinematic story, but it would have to be about people in isolation and I realised I was not yet ready as a filmmaker. So I made another film, Simple Things, which actually starred Sergei Puskepalis, who plays the older character in How I Ended This Summer. I told him I wanted to set the next one in the Arctic, I selected the location, and it was only then that I found out he'd lived there for nine years."
This fortunate discovery meant that Popogrebsky had found himself not only a star but also an advisor. "It's not like we sat down and he dictated me stuff," he explains, "but when he arrived and put on those clothes it was so natural to him, he was immediately part of the landscape. With every scene I would ask him, what would you personally do in this situation? It was under his skin."
Although it would have been possible to shoot most of the film in a studio and then spend just a couple of weeks on a location shoot, Popogrebsky felt that the essence of the experience required that they live it in the same way the characters did. For the same reason he chose to shoot chronologically.
"Grigoriy (Dobrygin, who plays the younger character) hadn't really read the script beforehand," he says. "I gave it to him scene by scene, each day. As we went along the script was enriched as we found new answers based on how things progressed and what his character went through. Shooting like that was tough for all of us but especially for him as he was the youngest.
"It had to be a self contained expedition and that meant challenges for all of us. Each of us had to be able to do several jobs. As well as being the director, I was in charge of, well, pretty much everything - rations, menus, schedules, how we were going to dry out our stuff, how transport was going to work. The Arctic Ocean was just 13 metres away and each day we had to look at the ocean and the weather and work out the logistics of which scene we could shoot. Really a director should have a second assistant director, producers and so forth, but we had to select the crew very carefully so everyone had multiple skills. The set designer was also a welder."
The main set for the film was a real operating polar station, putting the crew in a position not unlike that of the film's young protagonist, but Popogrebsky says the staff there were welcoming, at least to begin with. "They were excited because nothing much happens there, but then after a few days they stopped paying much attention because didn't look much more exciting than their routine. We were a source of disruption but they were cool with that and the biggest compliment came at the end when a man who had spent 40 years of his life in these Arctic weather stations said 'Now I realise making films is hard work.'"
Though he still finds himself drawn to those harsh yet beautiful landscapes. Popogrebsky's current project is very different. He has just completed a short experimental 3D film, Bloodrop, as part of a series of five films by leading young Russian directors. This is a prelude to making a 3D feature film; Popogrebsky is interested in 3D as a dramaturgical tool and wants to find ways to integrate it into the storytelling process. Given the effectiveness of How I Ended This Summer, that could really be something to look forward to.