Ilya Stewart • Producer
“Music is one of Summer’s main characters”
- CANNES 2018: Ilya Stewart, the producer of Kirill Serebrennikov’s competition entry Leto, talks to us about the challenges the movie faced on its way to completion
With Leto (The Summer) [+see also:
interview: Ilya Stewart
film profile], Kirill Serebrennikov has created an unusual music biopic, revealing a part of Russian cultural history unknown to people beyond its geographical borders. The film is screening in the main competition of the Cannes Film Festival, in the absence of its director, who has been under house arrest since summer 2017. We met up with the producer, Ilya Stewart, to talk about the idea behind the film, the complicated music rights clearance and the challenges the movie faced on its way to completion.
Cineuropa: You have teamed up with Kirill Serebrennikov for the second time.
Ilya Stewart: While working together on his previous film, The Student, we started talking about the next project. Leto is something that we as producers developed independently, and when we showed the first draft of the script to Kirill, he said that although he listened to a different type of music in the 1980s, he’d be more than interested in directing the film. There were many things that attracted him to the project, such as Leningrad’s distinct subculture. Kirill put his personal stamp on the script, and as time passed, he started loving the music.
Leto was privately financed and co-produced in France.
It was a business decision, and it had more to do with the co-production aspect. We opted for it because Serebrennikov became an international household name, and there was a lot of interest shown in this project. We found some great up-and-coming young partners in France, and it’s surprising that an artist like Victor Tsoi, who is only known in Russia, is attractive to an international audience.
How difficult was it to obtain all the music rights, given that you are not only using Victor Tsoi’s and Mike Naumenko’s original songs, but also some of the greatest international pop/rock hits of the 1980s?
Sorting out the rights for the international music was much easier than it was for the Russian music, because Victor Tsoi is such a culturally significant figure that the rights owners are highly protective of his legacy. It was a very long and complicated process.
For someone coming from outside of Russia, it is very difficult to grasp Tsoi’s popularity. You had to deal with a lot of pressure coming from outside.
The fan community was divided about this film. A part of it was very supportive – people were helping and consulting us – while the other part strongly opposed it, thinking we were doing something almost sacrilegious. Kirill needed the freedom to make a fiction feature and not a documentary, and one of his first decisions was not to shoot a film about Victor Tsoi the brand, but Victor the young musician, who’s just getting started.
For the role of local music legend Mike Naumenko, who helped Tsoi to rise to stardom, Serebrennikov cast Roman Bilyk (aka Roma Zver), the lead singer of the Russian band Zveri.
Kirill wanted Roman and no one else for that role. For him, it was crucial that the person portraying Mike would be a genuine rock star who knew how to hold a guitar and what it’s like to be famous. With an actor playing a rock star, the audience would have felt the difference. Roman is one of the biggest in Russia, but he also bears a physical similarity to Mike Naumenko.
People are trying to find a political message in the film, although it’s a clean-cut music biopic.
The film is about freedom and love, about a specific subculture and the change in generations. It’s about a lot of things, but what people expect is a politically outspoken manifesto based on Kirill’s background. He’s previously done lots of things in the theatre that have been considered as provocative. We came together to collaborate on a film that should be proudly representing Russian culture, which I think it does, and that’s about it. Everything Kirill does comes from his head, and in my opinion, here he created a new visual language without using any references. Our idea was to make a musical, and the music is one of the movie’s main characters. That was the aim, rather than showing the rebellion or the revolution.
Does the film have a future in Russia?
It is internationally released on 7 June by Sony Pictures on at least 400 screens. It’s quite a big release.
Kirill Serebrennikov could face as many as ten years in jail for the alleged embezzlement of state funds from theatre group Seventh Studio, which he founded in 2011.
That’s what the officials are claiming, but I hope that this case will be resolved. There are so many rumours and about 50 different theories on why he’s being detained. The truth is that nobody knows what’s going on. It could be any of those theories or none of them. The case is, in my opinion, complete nonsense. It was fabricated because nine months have passed since his arrest, and nothing has changed.
Is contact with him possible at all?
Only through the lawyers. Maybe one day we’ll write a book about it, but the most important thing is that we were able to give him the material to finish the film at home. The whole team of producers sat down together and decided we were going to wait.
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