Even post- perestroika, filming a movie isn’t easy in Russia. Just ask Ivan Passer, the director of HBO’s new “Stalin.”
“Looking back, I still don’t believe we did it,” said Passer, who is no stranger to the ways of what was the East Bloc. The director, whose American credits include “Cutter’s Way,” is Czechoslovakian.
Passer recently recalled shooting one elaborate scene that takes place in a hall in the Kremlin. Stalin, played by Robert Duvall, is celebrating the end of World War II by throwing a huge banquet for all the military generals and admirals.
Kremlin officials had told Passer they would re-create the banquet for the shoot. “I said, ‘OK. But we have to start at 8 in the morning.”’ When he arrived at the hall that morning, the Kremlin had provided an elaborate feast of suckling pigs, caviar, fresh fruit and vodka. But the extras were nowhere in sight--they were 10 miles away dressing for the scene. Two hours passed and there were still no extras. It seemed the buses sent to pick up the extras hadn’t arrived and no one knew where the buses were.
Eventually, transportation was found and the extras showed at 4:45 p.m. “There were 500 hungry, thirsty people,” Passer said. “They saw this food. They ran to the tables and they ate it in 10 minutes with their hands. Before I made a shot, it was gone.”
So, in what was by then a habit, he regrouped. “As the time got shorter and shorter, I was reblocking the whole scene,” he said. “We shot it so you can’t tell (there is no food).”
Passer and producer Mark Carliner had been warned about the perils of shooting in Russia. “I had some friends who did it,” Passer said. “Everybody got bogged down in the mud or the quicksand and they couldn’t get out of it.”
The two even got caught up in a coup. They arrived in Moscow on Aug. 18, 1991, for pre-production of “Stalin.” The next morning, Carliner woke up early and looked out the window.
“There were tanks in the street,” Carliner said. “I woke Ivan up and he thought I was joking, because Ivan had been in Prague in 1968 when the Russians came in. I remember the first thing he said was let’s turn on the television. We turned it on to the Russian channel and it was a black-and-white film of ‘Swan Lake.’ Ivan turned to me and said, ‘You know. We are in deep trouble when they play ‘Swan Lake,’ because that is exactly what they played when the Russian tanks moved into Prague.’ ”
Both men got out of the country the next day. “‘We were really in the middle of it,” Carliner said. “Ivan thought it was imperative we get out of there. As we were going to the airport, there were columns of tanks on the road. It was the eeriest.”
Carliner and Passer had no idea when they left Russia if the coup would succeed or fail. If it did succeed, Carliner said, “the people who we were working with would have been the ones first on the chopping block. It is kind of like when current events and history came together.”
As luck would have it, the attempted coup was over a few days later, and “Stalin” began production in Russia in October. When production ended 60 days later, the Soviet Union officially no longer existed. Carliner admitted that HBO considered making the movie in Budapest, Hungary. “They were rightfully concerned,” he said. “There is a big investment. It was, in fact, to their credit they bit the bullet.”
And so did the cast and crew. Getting hotel space for them was next to impossible. “It was just difficult because Russia is difficult,” Carliner said. “The conditions were quite primitive and just getting from here to there was difficult. Every day there was another problem.”
“It is kind of like every single little thing that goes wrong, you eventually start to feel it is deliberate,” said Julia Ormond, who plays Stalin’s wife Nadya, and previously worked in Russia in 1990 on the TNT miniseries “Young Catherine.”
“You start to think there is no such think as coincidence, that these are deliberate attempts,” said Ormond, who was at one point mistaken as a prostitute because she was waiting alone for co-workers at a Moscow hotel. “It is like being told you are not in control of your life, but other powers are.”
Even trying to light a scene proved to be a monumental task. Carliner said they were not allowed to use their generators for a scene in Stalin’s office because it would interfere with secret communications equipment. So they had to plug into the Kremlin’s electricity. “We were there four or five hours before we could figure out a way to tap into the Kremlin electricity without blowing the fuses in the Kremlin,” Carliner said.
The strangest incident, though, occurred the day they shot Stalin’s death scene in his actual house. “There was a power failure as we shot the death scene,” Carliner said. “Simultanously, our generators failed and the power at (Stalin’s house) failed. It was very creepy.”
“It was one disaster after another,” Passer said, laughing.
Even a simple scene, in which Duvall hunts rabbits in the Siberian snow, went awry.
“We had only Robert Duvall, a gun and a snow hare,” Passer said. “I looked at the assistant director and he said, ‘What can happen today?’ I said, ‘Nothing.’ ”
Just as Passer said nothing could happen a woman ran onto the set screaming hysterically. “She said, ‘You can’t shoot it. It’s a national park.’ The location was chosen way ahead. It took me an hour to calm her down and explain every shot.”
With that finally settled, the man who had the key to the gun prop room showed up late. “I think he was drunk,” Passer said. Then, instead of a snow hare, Passer was presented with an adorable Easter bunny with long ears. “I said if the film starts with this Easter bunny being shot, everybody will walk out of the film.” Production halted until a proper snow hare could be found.
Despite all the troubles, though, Passer said making “Stalin” was an exciting challenge: “What will happen and how do we overcome it? We always did. I began to get the strange feeling I was protected by some force who wanted this movie to be made. I just went with it.”
“Stalin” premieres Saturday at 8 p.m. on HBO . It repeats Nov. 24 at 9 a.m. and 8 p.m. and Nov. 29 at 9 a.m.