When I last talked to director Pavel Khvaleev he mentioned working on Involution, a couple of years later the project is finished and ready to take the world by storm. With an incredibly limited budget, Khvaleev continues to challenge what can be accomplished with a small team of talented individuals and the result is once again something to be admired. So obviously I was delighted when I heard I could probe him some more about his life as a film director/music producer and maybe learns something new about the process that allows him to direct amazing films on a shoestring budget.
Niels Matthijs: Involution is a film about a society in decline. It builds on the idea that humanity has stopped evolving and is now following a backwards trajectory. Where did you get the idea for this premise?
Pavel Khvaleev: 5 years ago my wife Sasha and I were in China and one day, walking across the overcrowded and noisy streets, we began to think about this matter. We saw much disrespect between people in this country and encountered some absurd situations. We started analysing and watching what was going on in the world, discovering proof of the Involution theory. And a month after the first script draft we came across a web scientists’ community studying the facts, proving existence of the Involution biological idea. It was hard to describe our feelings, but this was definitely a sign! We contacted them, and they were truly surprised to hear about our interest in the matter.
Do you think the premise of your film could at one point become a reality, or is it just a nifty idea that worked well within the sci-fi context?
Unfortunately, some places (including Russia, as well) are already demonstrating it today. First of all, it comes out in aggressive behaviour and total unwillingness to have a civilized dialogue. The basic fear shown in the Involution is lack of security in a society deprived of humanity and compassion.
Your budget went up a little for this film, but compared to many other films it's still minuscule. Sci-fi feels like it's a lot harder to do on a budget though, so did you have to cut a lot of corners to get your vision across?
When you work on a feature film, the main thing that matters is the budget. Fortunately, our core team isn’t numerous and consists of only 8 members, with everyone supervising several areas of work at once. It means that every one of us has to develop his talents and abilities in several directions simultaneously. It’s not simple, but it helps us to achieve great results with relatively modest budgets.
The major portion of the budget was consumed by rent of locations, obtaining sponsored shooting permits, transfers and accommodation expenses. We were really lucky with our actors, they were paid minimal fees by Western standards. And the crew worked in an amazingly friendly atmosphere and almost on bare enthusiasm.
Related to that, what's the thing you felt worst about cutting from Involution, because of the budgetary limitations?
For economy reasons, we had to cut several crowd scenes and scenes requiring special-effect makeup, that would have exposed the film setting and transformation of people in the course of Involution a little better. It was also hard to shoot the final scene in the forest with all major characters. Initially, we planned only one shooting day for it, but the process dragged on for two days, and we did exceed the budget due to stunts and special-effect makeup. We used professional fake blood, but there was a moment when we ran out of it and had to use a mixture of acrylic paint and water.
I was pleasantly surprised when I saw that the film featured some cool, custom-designed interface and sci-fi elements. Who did the designs for them?
They were created from scratch by Anna Batalova (Eldis Erased), professional UI designer and our good friend. She always seeks inspiration in the Japanese culture, supplementing it with her own perceptions.
How crucial are the people you gathered around you to make your films succeed? Looking at the credits you seem to prefer to work with a tight-nit team (Oleg Mustafin, Maria Pushkova and of course Aleksandra Khvaleeva are some names I see returning quite often).
The team was formed in the course of producing the Three movie already. These are our close friends, who at the same time have strong professional skills — each in their own field: artists, costume designers, makeup artists, etc. This team was engaged in the production of our second film — Involution. You see, having visited sponsored shoots, I can say that making a film with friends is a completely different experience in terms of team spirit, support and unlimited humour.
Since your last film, your career as an electronic music producer has received a positive boost. I'm a little surprised that the soundtrack of Involution is quite subdued compared to what you usually create as a musician. Is it tough separating the two?
At the moment, music and cinema stand united for me. I don’t have any formal music or film education. To some extent, this is an omission, as you have to learn everything by yourself, spending a lot of time on this. On the other hand, the lack of education does not appear to burden me. In a creative sense, it even brings some advantages, as it does not set any limitations. In practice, while shooting a movie, I manage to create new tracks during the breaks and spend time on self-education in this sphere.
One thing that's gaining popularity are visual albums or album films (think Beyoncé's Lemonade, Melanie Martinez's K-12 or going back a little further, Daft Punk's Interstella 5555). Is that something you'd consider doing, being a director, a music producer and having had lots of experience with directing music videos?
Yes, I’ve been thinking about it. In 2020 my new musical album is going to be released and it’s entirely possible that we take such chance!
How hard was it to produce a new film after III (which was somewhat of a breakout hit for you)? Getting noticed as a director is hard enough as it is, but it seems that the film after that is even more crucial.
The greatest challenge for us was to translate the script into English and show emotions and local specifics in the scenes. Here the American actors were of great help. I realize that many issues of the movie might have been made even better, but time is always working against us. In any case, we are still learning and trying to do our best. And when we received an invitation for the Sitges International Fantastic Film Festival, that included Involution into the competitive programme, we understood that we were moving in the right direction.
When I looked around online for impressions of Involution, I noticed a lot of low scores and negative reviews. While I strongly disagree with them, I can't say I'm too surprised. Involution doesn't quite fit the current stream of sci-fi that seems to be popular (think Black Mirror etc). How tough is it to see that a film you've invested so much in isn't finding an appreciative audience?
I understand these people writing negative reviews. It is a matter of their defeated expectancy. The idea of the Involution in general is reminiscent of a global blockbuster — a disaster film. But our film is much more of an arthouse and auteur one. Such connoisseurs are, of course, outnumbered and many of them liked the film. But in any case we will review our mistakes and ensure better film positioning in the course of promotion.
Are you inclined to change the way you make films in order to reach a bigger audience, or is it one of the perks of low budget cinema that makes it easier to do what you want and not care so much about the public's reaction?
It’s really great to stay independent and have no angry producers behind your back, dictating you their rules. This is the only way to experiment and discover something unique, something that can move the heart.
Looking ahead, I noticed on IMDb that your next feature (Ya Ne Splyu) is already in post-production. Can you give us a little sneak peek of what to expect from your next film?
It is our new experimental project in the cold and nihilistic horror genre. We have been working on it for the last two years. It is perfectly clear to everyone that contemporary society has crossed the red line of impunity and the borders between the do’s and don’ts ceased to exist long ago for a certain social unit – those who selected the dark side of the Internet. The world premiere of our new film (Sleepless Beauty in English) will take place in Amsterdam in April, at the Imagine Film Festival.
Directors are given the chance to ask a question they've been dying to see answered, which I will then try to answer to the best of my ability. Since there's so much one-way communication happening between creators and audience, I figured it might be interesting to see what would happen if the tables were turned.
What feelings did you experience in the final scene of the Involution, when Hamming and Liv are lying on the ground? Devastation, disappointment, maybe hope?
If I had to go for one single word I think it would be acquiescence.
SPOILER WARNING! I guess that, at least on paper, it looks like a stereotypical "bad ending", because both protagonists die at the end of the film. But the way they are lying on the ground, next to each other and holding hands, in combination with the ambient music and the poetic voice-over, makes it look as if they are at least at peace with the situation. So while it's clearly not an ideal outcome for them, there is that feeling of comfort, of knowing that in the end they were able to reunite. In this particular case there is also the romantic ideal that they might be happier being dead together than being alive apart from each other. I think that if you had ended with the scene right before that, the effect would've been completely different.
But it's a very personal, maybe even cultural interpretation. Japanese cinema for example often has very similar endings, where the protagonist dies, but the tone is actually relatively light and peaceful, rather than dark and full of sorrow. So I'm not sure how others will experience it, but I definitely didn't walk away all sullen and depressed.