Exclusive Interview: Masha Vasyukova on Getting to Meet Woody Allen
Her documentary focuses on the connection between the filmmaker and her native city.
Masha Vasyukova discovered a connection between Woody Allen and the small Russian city she grew up in. The young filmmaker decided to make a documentary about this connection and she even scored an interview with the award-winning director. Shalom Life interviews Vasyukova about her documentary, Woody before Allen, which premiered at this month’s Toronto Jewish Film Festival.
What drew you to make the film?
Film was something I always wanted to do since I was a kid. I went to America for an exchange program when I was 15 and my mom gave me a mini dv camera as a present to take with me to Texas. I always brought that camera along with me everywhere I would go. I was a Hitchcock fan and we would shoot little horror sketches with my classmates -- pretending that one was murdered and then would wait till the teacher got into the classroom to film her reaction. Those kinds of things... Then when I got back to Russia I worked as a programmer of special events at a local cinema "Zarya" in my hometown of Kaliningrad -- a very beautiful screening hall built in 1930s Konigsberg. We basically were the only cinema in Russia that brought award winning directors, actors, university professors from New York, Paris and all over the world every other week to present films, give lectures and talk about their careers. For instance, my first project idea was to screen Rear Window, Breakfast at Tiffany's and Rebel Without a Cause on a big screen which was never done in Russia before! These films were not available for Soviet public, and in the ‘90s Russian cinemas barely existed. So the 2000s were the time when people really started discovering what has been happening for decades in the world cinema.
But back to Woody before Allen. We traveled a lot to film festivals to program our yearly European Union Film Festival, and with my friend Artem Ryzhkof -- the art director of the cinema -- we used to joke a lot about the fact that Kaliningrad and Woody Allen share the same original name - Konigsberg - that neither of them uses it anymore. So the idea of making a statue in commemoration of Woody Allen in Kaliningrad was there for a while. At some point I spent some time in New York interning for the New York Film Festival, and in between Wong Kar Wai's and Clint Eastwood's premiers, we would hang out with my boss Adam Leon listening to a jazz CD compilation of songs from Woody Allen's films. And Adam would tell me stories of how he interned for Woody Allen. That's when I shared with him the two Konigsbergs name coincidence, he thought it was a joke, but when I convinced him that it was nothing but pure truth, he told me that Woody would love the statue idea. And so one day I sent a letter to Woody Allen telling him about our idea and suggesting that he would pick out the design that he likes the best. Though a lot of people told me that I would never get any response from Woody, I actually received one the very next day! By then, even before Woody Allen got involved in the selection process of the statue design, an idea of making a statue promised to be quite an adventurous and cinematic process. I sensed that this is a story to be told through film.
What's the reaction to it been so far?
I thought that we would screen the film in Kaliningrad, but the number of festivals inviting us to participate has exceeded any expectation! Our premiere happened in the Woodstock Film Festival -- another name coincidence! And there is one coming up in Hollywood. So I guess we are doing good. Jokes aside, we've felt extremely lucky with our festival history: alongside Woodstock and Kaliningrad, there were Raindance in London, FLICKERFEST in Sydney, Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, Pittsburgh Jewish Film Forum, LA and Toronto Jewish Film Festivals are coming up. And we are extremely proud to be a part of the Emerging Filmmaker Showcase organized by the American Pavilion during the Cannes Film Festival later this month.
The story about a Woody Allen statue made headlines around the world. Did you expect it to get that much attention?
I didn't really think about it, aside from all the creative questions, I was thinking how to finance both the statue and the film project and how to really make it all happen. So when the articles started to appear, it was in a way confirming that the idea is good enough and interests people around the world.
What's your favourite Woody Allen movie and why?
Good question! It may sound odd, but unlike many of my friends who've seen all of Woody Allen's films, I've only seen a few. I really like Sleeper the humor is unbeatable! The first time I saw Manhattan I was living in Brooklyn and could see the island's night lights from my window, so I always bared very lyrical feelings about this film, it definitely made generations of young people fall in love with the city and dream about New York. The philosophical and psychoanalytical discourses in Annie Hall are very bright, and coming from Immanuel Kant's hometown, this type of dialogue is always something that I like in Woody Allen's films. What I really truly love are the short stories about mythical characters in Fabulous Tales and Mythical Beasts from Without Feathers.
Every first time filmmaker experiences a number of challenges. What were some of the challenges you faced while making the movie?
There was no script in the first place, at some point I realized that it's not only a film about a name coincidence and adventures of Woody Allen's statue, I found a need to tell more about Kaliningrad and Konigsberg as it once used to be. Growing up in Kaliningrad, I always felt confused about the city's past and present -- layers of intense and varied history, an obscure ghost-like presence of the past amongst a dull concrete city centre and absence of any Russian traditional culture made me contemplate on the question of my own roots and those of the city I was born in. To me the film is an attempt to preserve the history of Konigsberg -- the city -- by referring to another Konigsberg - Woody Allen.
I was very lucky with my co-producer, my New York-based friend Anna Medvedeva. We produced the film ourselves and had lots of fun throughout the whole journey. It's important to make a film with people you enjoy spending lots of time with as well as you have complete trust in. Of course we have shot a lot of things that were not used in the film, but in the end were important in understanding what the film will be. I guess this is common for first time filmmakers. Also not having access to film equipment, made us use various cameras, some of which are intended purely for home video, in the end it was uneasy to bring all these videos -- including three sources of archival footage -- into one format, but we made it, and I am happy with how it looks. It has more of a personal touch like that, more realism.
How were you able to score an interview with Woody Allen?
Well, One of the journalists compared me to Sacha Baron Cohen in the way that I got the interview with the whole statue story just as a means to approach Woody Allen. In fact, I didn't know until the last minute if I would be able to film -- I asked his assistant if I could ask him a few questions about his family roots and just before I arrived for the meeting I got a positive response. I guess this story from one side amused Mr. Allen and from another it had to do with his family history. It's not something we all talk about often, but definitely something that is important for each one -- no mater where we come from.
Has he seen the film yet?
In fact yes, he has. He was the first person to see it. I sent him the final edit when I completed the film. His assistant at the time, Melissa Tomjanovich, told me that they watched it side by side and enjoyed every minute of it and all the choices that I made. Of course I was very flattered by such a comment coming from Woody Allen.
What's next for you?
My latest short, Tri Angle, is a dance and movement film inspired by Prosper Merime's short story and Jean Cocteau's esthetics. It is my collaboration with an American choreographer Leah Raphael Curtis. As the story derives from a myth, I wanted to explore the possibilities of creating a parallel world directly in the frame and strived to achieve all the video effects as they did before the digital era. As I am finishing it, I am very excited about my new project which will be a feature length documentary about a lost film of Jean Cocteau that has never been screened before in public but rumored to be artistically alongside Blood of a Poet and Andalusian Dog.