When producer Mark Carliner gazed from his Moscow hotel room two weeks ago and saw tank units controlled by the Soviet coup leaders streaming into the city, it seemed his dreams were crumbling.
For two years Carliner had been trying to get the green light for a three-hour miniseries based on the life of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. He had painstakingly managed to secure permission to film inside the Kremlin--where no film crew had gone before--and to use other authentic locations, including Stalin's house and office.
"But when I saw those tanks, it looked like it was all over," Carliner recalls. He and Czech-born director Ivan Passer were in Moscow, preparing to start production of "Stalin" for HBO Pictures in October, with Robert Duvall in the title role. Passer knew a thing or two about coups, having fled Prague in 1968 along with director Milos Forman when Soviet tanks entered the city, and he persuaded Carliner that they should fly to Budapest, and try to shoot "Stalin" there.
When they arrived in Hungary the next day, Carliner said, "I was upset and exhausted. I almost collapsed." Making "Stalin" anywhere else but Moscow would be a poor second best. But then he received a call from Moscow, urging him to make "Stalin" there after all.
The man who called was Leonid Vereshagin, general manager of a company run by actor-director Nikita Mikhailov, cultural adviser to the Russian parliament and a confidant of Boris Yeltsin. "Leonid told me the coup would be over within 10 days, they desperately wanted us to come back, and that it was important to them that the film should be shot in Russia," Carliner said.
Within 24 hours the coup had collapsed--and Carliner's dream was back on track. Some interiors for "Stalin" will be shot in Hungary, but about the end of October the cast and crew will make their triumphant entry into Moscow. After nine weeks of shooting, the film will be aired in 1992.
Carliner, perhaps best known as producer of the 1985 movie "Heaven Help Us," has in the last two weeks found himself near the epicenter of events with world-shaking consequences.
Since the collapse of the coup, for instance, he has realized that his Moscow hotel, the Oktyabrskaya, was used as a headquarters by the coup leaders. "Sunday night, Ivan and I had dinner at the hotel, and we wondered what all these gray-looking apparatchiks were doing there," he said.
"Now we know. There we were, sitting and eating and talking about making our Stalin movie, and there they were, two tables away, plotting to overthrow Gorbachev."
The speed at which events are developing in Moscow is causing Carliner to revise his plans constantly. For instance, now that the Communist Party there has all but disintegrated, he thinks he may have a chance to use Lenin's office and apartment within the Kremlin as a location for the "Stalin" project.
"I've been inside and seen it," Carliner said. "It's kept as a museum, and it's a privilege to visit. But now, if the Communist Party is (disgraced), there's a chance it might be dismantled. I'm going to seek permission to film there before that happens."
Carliner has already gained access to key locations in Moscow because he is a known filmmaker inside the Soviet Union. He produced a 1988 TV movie called "Disaster at Silo 7," which warned strongly about the possibility for nuclear missile accidents and was well received by the Soviets.
The script for "Stalin" has been written by veteran TV writer Paul Monash--but in an ironic twist, Passer has brought in screenwriter Paul Jarrico for what Carliner called "a director's polish and revision." Jarrico, now in his 70s, was blacklisted in the McCarthy era for being a communist sympathizer.
"He has a unique connection to the material and is preparing to make certain contributions that will benefit the project," Carliner added.
The script of "Stalin" covers four decades in the dictator's life, and deals with his family life as well as his brutal political deeds. Carliner likes to call the story "a gangster family epic" and noted that Duvall, on reading the script, told him it was a Russian equivalent to "The Godfather"--in which he also starred.
The film, which is budgeted at more than $8 million, follows in the line of biographical dramas from HBO Pictures, which includes this year's Emmy-winning "The Josephine Baker Story."