We met with Roman Balayan in the Babylon restaurant of the Kyivan House of Cinematographers – some kind of legendary place. We talked about life and cinema, about the game of chance and self-doubt, about his new films and about old ones, among which, of course, a famous Flights in Dreams and Reality that had long ago become classics.
Conversation is one of those art forms that Mr. Roman has mastered perfectly. Any dialog he constructs is like a fascinating presentation with its own plot and unexpected twists, with protagonists and minor characters, whose faces he depicts ingeniously and vividly.
Of course, you can’t convey it with the help of letters. However, I tried to keep as close to the original as possible.
Do you remember your first stage performance?
My mom was a wonderful actress, although she was a doctor. She acted in the village amateur theater. So the act is going on, I’m small, only 3 years old kid, sitting on my nurse’s knees.
Why the nurse?
Mom was the only doctor for 5 villages, this was 1944. She was coming back home late in the evening. And my cousin was born only 20 days later than me, so aunty Knarik also fed me. So, here I am sitting on her lap, and on the stage, which is on the same level with the floor, my mother is on the stage. It was a famous Armenian play Anush, she plays a male part. I don’t understand what they are talking about, but I see that another actor, also from our village, is aiming at my mother from behind the hill and is about to shoot. I scream “Mommy!” And crawl over to her. She rushes to me. Curtain falls and two people are crying: my mother and I. My father died during the war, I’ve never seen him, I’m fatherless. And somewhere in the audience sounds: “What a spoiled child, he ruined everything!” So this is my debut.
Where did this directing come from?
From nowhere. In eighth grade, for some reason, I imagined that I should become a movie actor. I was a more or less handsome kid. One beauty studied with me, I pretended not to notice her, and she pretended not to notice me. However, she was sending me notes: “Handsome southern guy, no one wants to buy.”
What a rascal!
And for some reason, the class also believed that I would become a cinema actor. I don’t know why, I began to study badly. After 10th grade, I wanted to enter VGIK in Moscow, but the exams were already over. I returned in an upset mood. My uncle worked as the chief administrator of the local theater in Karabakh. He suggested that I should try as an extra, and then go for exams in a year. So, I became an extra: “Your food is served,” etc. On the fifth day, I’m sitting in the auditorium, rehearsal is going on. And in front of me, there is a director and he says to the actors: “I’ve told you, you fool, you have to come from the left, after 3 steps you return to her. What a hacks, I’m already sick of you!” So I’m thinking: “Why to be an actor, if that’s my profession.” Work of a king: you sit, you command – it’s all me!
But it wasn’t so easy?
Of course not. I decided to enter VGIK but now the filmmaking faculty. The chairman of the Union of Cinematographers of Armenia, Stepan Kevorkov, in whose piece I had an audition (however, the part was given to another actor), advised me to enter the Yerevan Institute of Theatre and Cinematography first, in order to transfer then to VGIK. I prepared Othello’s monologue and fables in Russian – and there everything should have been in Armenian. And I didn’t know it! I know the Karabakh dialect, but it is quite different, almost like Ukrainian and Russian! There was a kind woman – the director of the museum at the institute, she advised me to come in 2 years, they supposed to have a Dagestan group that would have exams in Russian. I’m upset, and calling my stepfather to Stepanakert: something like I’m coming back home. He says: “Don’t leave, I’ll come.” He arrives, we go to the elegant three-story building, we go up in the elevator to the third floor, on the office door there is a board: “The Chairman of the State Control Committee of Armenia.” It turns out this is stepfather’s uncle.
All my life is connections. When he found out that I want to be a director, he said: “We had no actors in the family.” I say in such a proud voice: “Not an actor, but director.” He looks at me almost dismissively: there’s no difference for him. “Listen, maybe medical school, eh? We will do everything. Maybe Polytechnic, eh?” He is omnipotent, you know. But I insist. As a result, with a sigh, he picks up the phone, dials: “Hello, Gevorg! A month I’m waiting for a response from your organization. What’s the problem?”- he says with a special intonation of the boss. “Why this year there is no group for our brothers, talented guys from Dagestan?” “This year there was no budget for them.” “The budget is my question.” I clarify to him: exams are only in July next year. “Is it possible to make it in January?” – “I don’t know.” “If we order, it will be in January.” So I entered the university in January, together with Dagestanis.
How did you find yourself in Kyiv?
During my second year of studies in Yerevan, a Slavic woman, two meters tall is walking around the corridors of the institute and looks at the back of the students’ heads. So 10 people including me are invited to the dean’s office. It turns out that this is an assistant of the Ukrainian director Timofiy Levchuk, who is shooting in the mountains of Armenia, at an altitude of 4,200 meters the first high resolution movie the Law of the Antarctic. All the actors have bleeding throats, therefore the backs of heads and backs are needed to take some shots. As a result, we climb the mountains, the tent is trembling in the wind, a person is sitting inside, seems that he’s drinking tea, then it turned out that it was cognac, and this is Timofiy Levchuk, my future teacher. He is a war veteran, and stands altitude quite normally. And among other things, I find out that he teaches a film directing course in Kyiv. In 2 days we descend and I decide to transfer to Kyiv. With this idea I go to Kevorkov, he speaks to Levchuk, everything is settled down. But how can I go, if I have only “C” for all subjects? The dean hated me: I entered because of connections and didn’t attend classes. Again, my stepfather called the Chairman of the State Party Control, he called the rector. A day later I’m invited to the dean’s office, who still hates me, he handles me my new record-book. I open it, and there’re only “A”! “B” I only got for English and the history of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. But this is the main subject for transfer! And I say: “But what about the CPSU?” – “CPSU – never!” This way he got his revenge on me. So, this is how I transferred to Kyiv. Actually, it happened due to the fact that once I was sitting in the auditorium and saw how one person commanded everybody. Even one philosopher said that the chance is the pseudonym of God.
When did you feel yourself as a director?
There was no such a specific moment. Every day in Kyiv I wrote scripts on napkins. About each of them, my teacher said: “Complete garbage!” We – Armenians, Georgians – usually were going to Dnipro bar, so I was writing there. In general, I came up with 23 graduation scenarios, and everything couldn’t pass until I focused on Thief, a story by Marko Cheremshyna. There was no anti-Soviet thoughts, so I could shoot it. I spent over a month with the Hutsuls in the Carpathians, it was like my homeland – mountains…
And what about the premiere of the graduation film?
When I presented it in the Union of Cinematographers, everyone scolded me, except for Parajanov. He said to me: “Cut this and that. 2 minutes, 60 meters and everything will be fine.” I was editing it until 3 am, out of 18 minutes there were 8 minutes left. The next day I asked Parajanov to look at it. He watched it and stated: “This is what advice of a genius means.” And I, as an arrogant Caucasian guy, told him: “Do you really like it?” I asked, I saw that he’s angry. “The picture was not 16, but 8 minutes.” – “What?! And I’m thinking…” Only a few minutes ago he was shouting that it was ingenious! (laughs) It was unheard of: all the directors, especially the young ones, are greedy, and I cut so much! From that moment on, I realized that I had become an independent person, no matter which one good or bad.
Do you often doubt yourself?
I think that I could not to make the last three pictures. I messed up with their subject, as for artistic qualities, I think they are significantly lower than what I filmed before. Speaking about the doubts… One night, at the end of 1979, before Flights in Dreams and in Reality, I screamed and woke up. Someone in that dream convincingly explained to me that I wouldn’t become the director I imagine I would become. I believed this dream. And I think I have become a wonderful person. I’ve stopped pretending to be someone – the director, the creator. I began to like what kind of person I am, what kind of relationships I have with others. I came to terms with this niche. As a young man, I thought I would be better than Fellini. What a nonsense. However, since 1979, I consider myself one of the thousands of directors in the world.
What should be in the shot for you to consider it great?
If I intuitively feel that it is great, because I am a poorly educated person, I rely on intuition then everything turned out great. In all of my films, I change half of the script. Everything is based on improvisation. It was frustrating everyone. A paper is one deal, and completely another one is when you face some kind of texture. It is impossible to pronounce the same text at a cemetery and at a restaurant. Therefore I changed a lot. As for the script of Viktor Merezhko for Flights in Dreams and in Reality I didn’t want to shoot it.
The idea was mine. Merezhko came over, we spent 3 days at the hotel, we wrote together, and then he sent me some kind of play. Just a play. The hero is a kind of a funny guy. I can’t shoot this. Wife is terrified: “Roma, what do you think you are?” After all, I haven’t been shooting for 6 years, we have no money.
And how did you manage to decide?
One night in the kitchen, I accidentally touched the phone that was standing there. I threw the cord to the other side. It arched and took the previous shape. There was a sheet of paper in front of me. I squeezed it and let it go. And it began regaining its shape. Then I said to myself: “Ok, I’m doing this.” By morning, I had already come up with the idea how the hero of Oleg Yankovskiy writes to his mother, how his wife will wake up and say: “He was writing in a dream again.” They will argue, he will go out, hit on women in the car. The policeman will tell him something. At work – there will be a piece that was written in the script – he has to meet his mother. All the time to invent, that’s a pleasure. There are directors who prepare on purpose; they have everything written down… It’s not about me. I interfere and change everything. The only thing – no matter how talented an actor is, he should play only what I want.
So, you’re some kind of dictator on the set?
Rather, the director of showing. Because for half a minute with the help of eyebrows and text, I show how to play then I don’t show. You need charisma to make a person inspired by what you say. He or she must feel that you are smarter. And if he is smarter, he must feel that you are more talented. But you need to do this without insulting an actor, you should make him feel that it is not you who are moving him, that it is he himself who is working. To do this, you should behave like a good kindergarten teacher who says: “Dima, what if you would…” She says her own thing, and Dima thinks that this is what he decided himself. This is how I work with the actors.
So, what kind of actors do you need?
First of all, I’m interested in his or her type. Their image. The match. I shot four films in a row with Yanovskiy. It doesn’t matter if someone considers them bad. I am convinced that I express my ego through him.
What is special about him?
He had such a face that even if he did nothing in the shot, the viewer thought: “Oh, what a mind is there! What a depth!” In his eyes there is something that I was talking about all the time, even Tarkovsky was surprised when I gave this example: “ Mr. Andrei, there are artists, in whose eyes there is something besides the meaning that they perform. Some kind of biography. Or, for example, Romy Schneider. An average actress. But if you take a closer look, she has sad eyes, even when she laughs.” Oleg had it. And Slava Vakarchuk has it.
Yes. He looks at you, and in this glance there is everything. I wanted to shoot him. If Slava appeared in the Night Is Bright (2003), it would be another film.
Haven’t you tried to shoot yourself? After all, you are a very artistic person.
I don’t put myself into the shoot, unlike Otar Ioseliani. I do not like my face’s plasticity on the screen. It does not express what I want. When I shot Flights, I showed it so well – the whole group watched and there were questions: “Maybe you will act?” Stop, people, how can I do it with such a face?
But I am a cool artist, yeah (laughs). Once, I just went up to the stage and improvised for 5 minutes so that everyone was shocked. I can do it for an hour. You just need to be free.
And sober in self-perception?
When the authorities praise you, and you listen to them very carefully – I don’t have such servility. And Parajanov liked me for it.
Was he really an attention attractor?
Yes, absolutely. It’s true. Once I wrote the story about him The Legend of the Bright Boy. Like this one-man-band, the man of shock, and when there is no one around, he lies in bed and falls asleep in 5 minutes. And these 5 minutes are the only time when he thinks. He was stupefied when he read it. When Tonino Guerra watched my film about the collages of Parajanov the Night at the Museum of Paradzhanov, he was almost crying: “Roman, for some reason I thought that Sergey was exactly that kind of a person.” I showed him from the other side there…
When he was shooting the Color of Pomegranates, an orchestra supposed to be there, a lot of people should be present, so that he could create in front of them. At home, he had a crowd every day. He suspected that he, perhaps, had a wiretap, but he did not care. “Communists-Fascist” – he said whatever he wanted. Some of those who were present ran away, because nothing could happen to him, but they may face consequences. And I’m young, I don’t care either. If it not for Parajanov, I would be a director, but worse than I am. Next to such a scale, you feel an inferiority complex, but oddly enough it helped me.
Once you said that you would not want your children to be artists too…
Only when she was 18 years old my daughter came to Dovzhenko Film Studios, and it was some personal affairs. As for my son, I brought him there at the age of three to watch the Planet of the Apes. Yuri Ilyenko wanted to shoot him in the White Bird Marked with Black in the children’s episode. I said “No”.
And what is the result?
Very good one. My children are very clever. Daughter has her own business. She has the same opinion as mine about my last 3 films. The son, however, wants to come back and deal with the production – he is bored in Nice. I don’t want him to do this. I have already been an executive producer for 16 TV shows at my studio Illusion, I know what it is.
Do you plan to shoot something now?
On April 20 we start shooting.
It’s about that thing that even if you have your own severe pain, you should not be indifferent to the pain of others. This is my topic – love, and compassion. But since everything is unveiled in the finals, the question is “how”, not “what”. Will I be able to shoot it the way that even those who know what it is about will watch it with interest? It’s a live-action black and white film. There was a script called Angel, which I made in 1990 on a pedestrian bridge in Paris. The protagonist wants to jump from the bridge, but suddenly a female voice is heard from the water: “Help!” Renata Litvinova wrote a request from my words to submit it to the Soviet Goskino. They refused. After 20 years, I told about it to my friend, he grabbed his head: “We thought that this was Litvinova’s script, and we could not stand her. Oh, if we only knew that it was you!”
Why do you think this is a good story?
It’s because I wrote it on my own. I changed the script. Who is this woman, what’s going on? I’m interested. And whether it will be interesting to those who know the content – depends on the director. For some reason, it seems to me that I can do it.
Finally, I should note: you give an impression of a very calm and balanced person. But filmmaking is a nervous process.
I always make it with a smile.
How do you do it?
In my group, everyone is equal. When you feel a lot in yourself, everyone becomes nice and normal. It is bad if a person knows that you put him below someone. This can’t be shown, even if you really think so. That’s it. Therefore, everyone liked me.
I don’t expect gratitude. I helped many people a lot. My mom was the same as me. My friends say that I am a fool if I think that I will be paid back one day. But it matters to me that I did it. If I am present, no one will pay for the bill in the restaurant. This is my showing off, my pleasure. At least something that brings pleasure, except for this wretched filmmaking. I wish I could live in the nineteenth century. My mother’s grandfather was a rich man. Oh, how idle I could be! In idleness, I have no equal in this whole world, at least among directors. In contrast to some filmmakers, I even dreamed that I’m doing nothing, and money is falling from the sky, and I can give them away. There is no such profession? It’s a pity.
Dmytro Desyateryk Den – especially for opinionua.com