Making Matilda

Aleksey Uchitel on his Russian costume drama and the controversy surrounding it.

by Amber Wilkinson

Matilda and Nicholas. Alexey Utichel:  'It was quite unusual before the film was screened because, no one saw it but we had those very grave accusations that I believe were undeserved'
Matilda and Nicholas. Alexey Utichel: 'It was quite unusual before the film was screened because, no one saw it but we had those very grave accusations that I believe were undeserved' Photo: Courtesy of Kinostar Films
Aleksey Uchitel on the set of Matilda
Aleksey Uchitel on the set of Matilda Photo: Courtesy of Kinostar Films
Aleksey Uchitel's Matilda (Mathilde) - which closes London's Russian Film Week tonight (November 26) tells the story of Tsar Nicholas II's (Lars Eidinger) romance with ballerina Matilda Kshesinskaya (Michalina Olszanska) prior to becoming emperor and his marriage to Alexandra Feodorovna (Luise Wolfram). Given its Merchant Ivory-style sumptuousness and fairy tale-inflected storytelling, it may seem an unlikely candidate for controversy, but before its release in Russia it sparked mass protests and even terror attacks because Nicholas is now considered a saint by the Russian Orthodox Church.

During the first FIPRESCI colloquium on Russian Cinema, Uchitel was on hand to introduce the film and talk about the way that scandal was whipped up around it.

Before the questions, he admitted: "For me and for the whole crew it was quite difficult in the making. It took us four years in the making. It was quite unusual before the film was screened because, no one saw it but we had those very grave accusations that I believe were undeserved. Another specificity of this film is that we have a lot of foreign actors, which is not very typical of films from Russia. You can see we have a lot of actors from Germany and from Poland, who were playing the leading roles, and we had a composer from the US and an international crew and international cast, which is not typical for a film made in Russia film made in Russian."

Could you tell us a bit about the costumes and detailing in general of the film. It all seems very authentic, were you able to draw on documents for the time to achieve that?

Speaking about the costumes, I would like to mention the great work from our two costume artists and designers Nadezhda Vasileva and Olga Mikhailova. Together with their assistants, they made 7000 costumes. We relied on a number of photographs, literary sources and paintings, which is one reason why we reached this level of authenticity. There was even one case when Lars Eidinger, the lead actor, was brought to the shoot wearing a leather jacket and jeans and I asked, 'Why is he not in a costume?' And I was told, 'No, during that time, it was starting to become fashionable, jeans included'. So that was one of those paradoxical things, not only all those glorious dresses and military uniforms.

What were your sources of inspiration and what footage did you use if any because often your film is compared to Anna Karenina by Joe Wright?

Michalina Olszanska as Matilda. Alexey Uchitel: 'Accusing a film before seeing it seems absurd to me, regardless of who it comes from'
Michalina Olszanska as Matilda. Alexey Uchitel: 'Accusing a film before seeing it seems absurd to me, regardless of who it comes from' Photo: Courtesy of Kinostar Films
Despite the fact that the film is called Matilda, I was mostly interested in the heir to the throne, the future emperor Nicholas II because despite the title, he is very little known as a personality - how he grew, how he was formed and how he felt. That apart from the understanding of him as someone who probably led the country to a disaster, what interested me most was his personality.

This particular episode with Matilda Kshesinskaya the ballerina and their sincere and beautiful love - at least I think it was - in many ways affected the destiny of Russia as a country, because probably under different circumstances, there might be a different tsar and the story might have been different for our country. Those events really determined what happened next in a sense.

If you don't love your character, if you don't feel what your character feels, if you can't step into the shoes of your character, it would be impossible to make a film.

You said it took four years to make, how much of that was filming? And can you tell us a little bit about the difficulties of the train crash sequence?

It took around one year and partly because our actress Michalina Olszanska (Matilda) was ill for around two months, so we had to stop for that time. We did most of the filming in eight months. Four years is mostly because of the colossal preparation process. I mentioned the costumes and the props. For instance, the coronation sequence was all built for the film.

Regarding the train crash, as is customary for the cinema, it's a mix of CG and real footage. For instance, some of the parts of the sequence within the carriage is real footage and was difficult to make and required some effort for it to be authentic, and it was very hard to edit, too.

The 'scandal' came out a long time before the film was released. How did you and the producers react to that during the post-production and what does this say about the current state of Russian society in terms of right wing and religious forces impinging on freedom of expression.

Alexey Utichel: 'We relied on a number of photographs, literary sources and paintings, which is one reason why we reached this level of authenticity'
Alexey Utichel: 'We relied on a number of photographs, literary sources and paintings, which is one reason why we reached this level of authenticity' Photo: Courtesy of Kinostar Films
In terms of the reaction, I thought it was absurd, all of this, because accusing a film before seeing it seems absurd to me, regardless of who it comes from, whether it the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church, or just some individuals. Then it became even more active and there were some cars set on fire and there were some cars being crashed into cinemas before the film was released. We were all concerned. I was concerned whether the film would be released or not, but eventually it was. It has been in cinemas for four weeks now and there were no protests of any kind, which proves that all those people who were trying to ban the film were actually wrong and there was nothing in the film that they were accusing it of.

But the fact that the high leadership of the church is trying to interfere not only with the film industry, but also with the theatre, through imposing their ideology through bans and constraints - this is true and this is unacceptable.

Whose legs were those we saw dancing and were the Perm Opera and Ballet Theatre were involved?

Perm Opera and Ballet Theatre Principal Ballet Master Alexey Miroshnichenko was the choreographer and all the ballet scenes were done by him. Almost all the company of Perm were involved and the dancing school for the theatre, which allowed us to provide quite a serious level of dancing for the film. When you see Michalina Olszanska dancing, this is a professional - she is the prima ballerina of Perm, Daria Tikhonova. But the actresses themselves were also trained to some extent.

The film will go on limited release in the US on December 2 and in Canada on December 3.

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