I was about halfway through a tweet responding to Keith Calder’s link to a GQ article covering an insane Russian movie production when I realized that a certain Mr. Fischer beat me to the same thought. Be that as it may, the point remains: Synecdoche, NY exists, and it’s in Ukraine! The article has been out for a bit, but I’m just now catching up to it and I’m truly stunned!
The GQ story is essentially that of a set visit, but a visit to one of the strangest sets ever assembled. Empowered by a full-control deal with his investors, filmmaker Ilya Khrzhanovsky set out to entirely restage the world in which Dau–his story of a Stalin-era Russian physicist–takes place. Driving for pure authenticity, Khrzhanovsky has spent the last five years (with no end in sight) creating a fully-functioning, period-accurate town straight out of 1950s Stalin-era Russia. In it he has stocked the set with a rotating cast of thousands of extras and crew members all costumed and required to speak in period-appropriate vernacular. Filming is intermittent, with sound captured by microphones embedded through the set while extras are constantly processed and the director embarks on experimental flights of fancy.
Before me is an entire city, built to scale, open to the elements, and—at 1 a.m. and with no camera in sight—fully populated. Two guards walk the perimeter, gravel crunching under their boots. Down the fake street, a female janitor in a vintage head scarf sweeps a porch.
The set is roughly the size of two football fields, surrounded by a five-story fantasia of oppressive architecture. One edifice, a woozy take on Lenin’s tomb, has an irregular ziggurat leading up to it. A coliseum-like stadium looms over two drab residential buildings. Atonal cello music squalls across the city, issuing from pole-mounted loudspeakers. The sole purpose of it seems to be to make one tense, uncomfortable, on edge.
Unbelievable are the lengths that the production has gone to create a believable set for Dau, with insane obsession over details like the pipe-width of the toilets, expiration dates on food wrappers, paperwork required to get on and off set, and more. Of course, don’t actually call it a set!
According to a glossary of forbidden terms posted right in front of me on the wall, the set is to be referred to as the Institute. Likewise, inside the Institute, there are no scenes, just experiments. No shooting, only documentation. And there is certainly no director. Instead, Ilya Khrzhanovsky, the man responsible for this madness, is to be referred to as the Head of the Institute or simply the Boss.
Whether or not he’s doing it purposefully, Khrzhanovsky is quickly sealing himself into the canon of filmmakers like Kubrick, Herzog, and Coppola that all went out on insane limbs to make films of impossible scale. But while those others may have been serving a vision that few others could see or believe, Khrzhanovsky admits that he doesn’t even know what he’s making or when it will be finished, as he’ll have so much raw footage that he could cut a dozen movies with it. Apparently he considers the film to be somewhere around 80% finished, what footage can be seen promises “a vertiginous mix of avant-garde sensibilities, Hollywood sweep, and reality-show techniques.”
The intrigue doesn’t end there, as Khrzhanovsky is also probably fucking a lot of his cast members, and there’s a bizarre cult factor to the whole endeavor, with people moving themselves and their families to the city that houses the set, and abandoning other careers and pursuits to join on.
But what story is the director trying to tell? A sad one of a genius Russian physicist who had an unusual (for the times) sexually-open relationship with his wife, and also received a Nobel Peace Prize as he sat bed-ridden by a long coma. It definitely sounds like a cinematic story, though how much of it will be told is unclear from the 45-minute improvised arguments being filmed by a director who shares his character’s sexual proclivities. Much is written about director’s long history of sexual liberation and constant, aggressive search for pussy. The year’s long shoot on an isolated set has also resulted in the most epic casting couch of all time, and it’s not-so-subtly hinted that Ilya’s dick is pretty much his casting director. When he’s not casting impressionable young women though, Khrzhanovsky is demanding that no one besides a genuine genius can play the lead role, ultimately hiring a brilliant composer to take on the central part.
It all sound delightfully insane, and you should definitely read through the long story of Michael Idov’s visit to the filmmaking commune/Gulag, as you’re sure to hear more about it once a film of some kind actually emerges from it!