Kirill Sokolov on the exuberant cinephilia behind his debut WHY DON’T YOU JUST DIE! first published by SciFiNow magazine, in early 2020
You studied physics to a postgraduate level. How do you get from studying physics to filmmaking? Do they intersect in any way?
Kirill Sokolov: It took around five years, because I always was a huge movie fan and I watched a lot of movies, and I really liked them, and when I started at university I understood that I really would like to make some kind of movies by myself, so I picked up all my friends and we made some crazy short movies, without any scripts, with just ketchup instead of blood, and some with fights and chicken guts and other stuff – so I think probably like everybody started filmmaking. We made a lot of such kind of movies, and you know, suddenly I understood that I get much more fun during making the movies than during my regular job in the lab, so I decided just to put all my time into the movie making. I made around six rather normal short movies. A few of them were 30 minutes long, and they travelled to festivals and I tried to get into the film industry and to make my first movie,. So it took around five years to get to this point, and then Why Don’t You Just Die! happened.
I first saw your film in Tallinn way back in 2018. It’s been having a brilliant run on the festival circuit ever since, and is now finding its way into Western cinemas. How was it received domestically in Russia?
Kirill Sokolov: The thing is, we had a lot of problems, to tell the truth. When we finished the movie, we didn’t have enough money to promote it, and in Russia it has a different title [Papa, sdokhni] – it’s called, to translate it rather closely, it will be something like “Die, dad!”, but in a rather rude way, so it was a rather provocative title, and because of this and the amount of blood in the trailer and on the poster, we were, for example, banned on social media, we couldn’t post any information on Facebook, or Russian social networks, and we were banned on Instagram and Twitter, then the managers of the cinemas didn’t put our posters in their halls because of the blood and of the title, and then TV didn’t take up our commercials, because of the titles and all the blood. And so we had so many problems with promotion that it was a very small release in Russia for a very short period of time. From that moment I thought that, ok, my career’s finished (laughs) and had to think what I should do next, but then the world’s festivals happened, and some people started to talk about it, write about it, and now I’m in pre-production with my next movie, so the end of the story is ok, but when it was released in Russia I was in deep shit, to tell the truth.
The original Russian title of your film translates as “Papa, die!”, and it certainly features one very bad dad (with a “world’s best dad” mug). To what extent did you intend your film as a critique of patriarchy? And is it a specifically Russian brand of patriarchy? Is Why Don’t You Just Die!, beneath all its crazy surface action, a political film?
Kirill Sokolov: Yeah, yeah, of course, of course – and you can see it rather easily, because I live in this country and even if I try to make some kind of fun movie or genre movie, if I try to tell the truth, I can’t just ignore the situation where I live now. So it’s kind of a reflection about the social and political system and environment we live in, so you just put it in the story. It’s not an especial thing, it’s a thing that just automatically appears in stories I am writing, but I don’t think, “OK, now I will make this anti-propaganda movie to show how things are bad in Russia”, no. You just try to put some kind of truth inside your story. This truth appeared, and it looked like something noted.
Just before the opening title of Why Don’t You Just Die! appears on screen, as its protagonist Matvei is flipped backwards across a room into a breaking table, this event is shown from multiple angles, with the clear sound of a Wilhelm scream added gratuitously to the soundtrack, followed by horns and strings on the score that would be more at home in a spaghetti western than a contemporary Russian story. This is just one example of a style that runs all the way through your film. In other words, you take great pleasure in the exuberant language of cinema, and you are happy to switch codes and change registers from one scene to the next, or even within a single scene. Did you always regard this anything-goes approach as the absolute key to your work, where you just switch from one kind of genre to another very rapidly?
Kirill Sokolov: Yes, the thing is, Why Don’t You Just Die! is very popular domestic movie, and you can find a lot of different references to different, other movies easily. So there are a lot of spaghetti westerns in it, there are a lot of South Korean movies in it, there are, for example, we made the sound of the movie like a kung fu movie of the Sixties – there are lot of iron sounds and metal scratches you can hear. And all this stuff appears only because, as I said, I am a huge movie fan, and for me it is a very natural thing to put my movie experience in the story I am writing and trying to make. And the other thing that, um, when I wrote it, I knew that it’s my debut and I won’t have a lot of money. So, how to make a story which is 90% based in one location, with few actors, rather exciting and different? That’s how it became a sort of apartment western – we called it, when we were shooting it, an apartment western, and, for example, to put absolutely unpredictable points of view to the really understandable situation, for example the conflict between two guys in a regular apartment, but what if we showed the conflict like a western conflict? We put the music and we put the edit, and the irony appears, and the genre kind of element appears and you start to see this simple situation from an absolutely different point of view, and we can jump from one genre to another, to switch the emotions of the viewer and try to manipulate them. So I think it’s a kind of game. Probably the kind of people who are movie fans, who watch a lot of movies, can get more fun from Why Don’t You Just Die! than regular people who, you know, are not very good with movies.
I am assuming that Tarantino – and Sergio Leone – have inspired your filmmaking. Who are your other main influences for the film?
Kirill Sokolov: Park Chan-wook, definitely, because I’m crazy about him. The hammer, and colour, and they say some kinds of editing jokes. So I really like him very, very much. For example when I wrote the script, I read a lot about Martin McDonagh, and his drama and his scripts, and his kind of sense of humour and irony, how he mixes really dark situations and characters, and puts it with some very funny and big irony. Or for example, like Koreans, you know, they mix genres, and in one moment, you laugh, in the next moment you care, and in the next moment you feel some kind of romantic passion, and you are happy at the end of the movie because you went through that whole spectrum of emotions. So, South Korean movies, Park Chan-wook, Martin McDonagh, of course Sergio Leone, a lot of him – as I told you, I like kung fu movies, so I watched a lot of them. Wong Kar-wai, because of the colours. Danny Boyle – I like very much Danny Boyle and especially how he works with editing – that’s a big inspiration for me, and you can find, for example, the joke with handcuffs, it was inspired by Danny Boyle, a very similar thing you can find in 127 Hours. It’s kind of a cool thing. You can take anything from the movie and it will send you to some other movie, I think.
Apart from some flashbacks, your film is set entirely within the confines of a modest Russian apartment – and yet you make this the improbable arena of hyperkinetic action, torture porn, a double-crossing crime story, a family tragedy, and even a spaghetti western. Did you shoot in a real apartment, or was that a studio set?
Kirill Sokolov: No no, it was a studio set, because we destroyed it totally.
What were the challenges of having so very much happen in a single location? How did you keep continuity when so much damage is done from scene to scene to the interiors? Did you film it in order?
Kirill Sokolov: No the big problem was that we couldn’t because of the actor’s schedules, we couldn’t make it in order so we had to rebuild it and then destroy it and then rebuild it again. You know, put a lot of blood, then wash the blood, then put the blood again, and it was kind of crazy, (laughs) absolutely crazy.
Kirill Sokolov: We are going to shoot it in May or June, so now I am in the middle of pre-production. I hope that it will be a crazy cool movie. It’s a story about three women, three generations of women from one family. They are a 12-year-old girl, her mother is about 30 and her mother is about 50. These three women, they struggle with each other, and this struggle leads to a huge chase. It’s a kind of road movie with a big chase, so something like that with a lot of shooting, cops, corrupted cops, some amount of blood in there, something like that. … Now it’s called No Looking Back, but probably we will change it.
© Anton Bitel