Interview with Regis Wargnier
Director and co-screenwriter

The East-West project has evolved quite a bit over time. What was your original idea?

In the beginning, I wanted vast spaces and I wanted to work with Catherine Deneuve again. I imagined a Westerner in Central Asia, something a bit unorthodox in which Catherine would have played a diplomat who crosses Central Asia to fetch a pure bred horse which is a gift from the Turks to the French President. That is how I got to visit all the Central Asian Republics: Turkmenistan, Kasakhastan, Kirghizistan, which to me are the last lands of adventure.

The project fell through because it turned out to be too expensive and too complicated, but during this trip through

lost countries, I met, thanks to Joel Chapron who was a marvelous guide, a number of people who spoke French. They were children of French mothers and Russians fathers who had chosen to heed Stalin's call and return to USSR in 1946, and who, for the most part, had ended-up exiled in these remote regions of Central Asia.

I had my subject matter. The heroes of East-West, Marie and Alexei, are directly inspired by characters who lived through these tragic episodes of communist history. Right away, I wanted to understand why these people came back, how they fell into Stalin's trap. They understand their mistake as soon as they reach the Soviet Union, but it is too late, they cannot turn back. Those who weren't executed had to adapt and conform.

Did you gather actual testimonies?

It was very difficult. Despite the disolution of the Soviet Union, mentalities haven't really changed. After 30 or 40 years of Soviet terror, the survivors continue to be paranoid, they trust no one, they are in the habit of being silent and of distrusting everyone, especially foreigners. It is very difficult to find them and gather interviews or documents, it frightens them to tell what they have seen, they fear retribution.

The most striking testimony we recorded came from Blanche, a French woman who lives in Alma-Alta in Kasakhstan. She is the one who told us about the executions that took place in railroad stations, the separation of families, all the police violence that I wanted to show in the film's first images.

It is clear that this film is an homage to those who belong to the great family of History's forgotten souls.

I say it as an opening to the film: "They were the last travelers of these dark times which, in the past five yeras, had forced over three million men, women and children onto Europe's roadways ..."

Nowadays, we may think these white Russians quite naive to have suddenly decided to return to Moscow, but we must imagine the pain of exile and the difficulty of living far from one's roots.

We must also take into account the fact that war had spread such chaos and devastation in Europe that it was conceivable that ideas had also circulated and that the risk of returning to the USSR seemed therefore, rather slight. The immigrants said to themselves: "We of course heard of

the Stalinist terror in 1937-38, but after twenty million died to defend the motherland, there has to be a change, an opening of the minds... If we can one day create another Russia, move towards democracy, have an influence on communism, we must go back now". Those people were true idealists.

Do we know how many Russians travelled back to USSR?

In order to get an exact figure, one would need access to KGB files, which is impossible. As for the immigrants who came from France, the numbers vary between 3,000 and 12,000 people. All we know is that more people arrived than expected, which caused a great deal of paranoia in the soviet government: "If there are this many, they must have been manipulated by the West. What we have here are spies".

That's what Stalin thought. In any case, they had to eliminate them, which explains the perfunctory executions, the internment camps, and all forms of repression.

Why is it that France never sought to retrieve its own expatriates?

There was a total black-out. Nobody had any news of anyone. When in the film, Marie's passport is torn up by a Soviet soldier, she has no recourse left. That is exactly how things happened.

The people who arrived just vanished from the face of the earth. And the Cold War began, the two blocks were

formed. The stakes were worldwide and when a French minister in the 50s and 60s approached a negotiation table in Moscow, he didn't care about a miserable French woman whose family had been without news of her for years.

Would it be pertinent to talk about a prevalent theme of inspiration between EAST-WEST and your last films, INDOCHINE or UNE FEMME FRAN€AISE? It is yet another love story that takes place within one of this century's great upheavals. In the end are you always plowing the same furrow?

The films you are talking about delved into my own story and after Une Femme Fran‡aise, I really felt the need to change and work on fictional material that had nothing to do with me. Of course, a film always ends up looking like its author. But what enticed me about the story of East-West were the dramatics stakes. A woman follows a man because she loves him. They are imprisoned, even if there is an open cage. He quickly finds his roots again and manages to adapt because he knows that he no longer has a choice. She rebels and dreams of nothing but freedom. How is the couple going to survive?

But why this sudden passion for Russia?

There is nothing sudden about it. I grew up in the East-West years. I come from a hard-line conservative family so as soon as I was old enough to think, I naturally adhered to leftist ideas. These two cardinal points will always bear heavy meaning for me. They represent thirty years of European history, a battle, an impenetrable boundary: the wold split in two.

Can it be said of EAST-WEST that it is a political film?

It is a film with a heavy political backdrop. I do not presume to denounce the dark years of communist history in this film. I have nothing to add to the work of historians, but this film also depicts the daily life of millions of human beings and simply recalls one thing: the Western conscience wasn't troubled by the Russian people's situation. The Iron Curtain suited us.

Between the pre-production trips, the location scouting and the shoot, you spent a long time in the former USSR. What is it that strikes you most about that country today?

What strikes me? Ten years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the after effects of Communism are still noticeable in all strata of society. One can't conceive of the degree to which brains were annihilated. The oldest Russians prefer not to question themselves because they cannot admit that their lives resulted in historical failure.

People my age, on the other hand, who have realized that Communism was a negative Utopia and who have gauged its barbarism, those people are slowly perishing of despair. I have a friend in Bulgaria who says: "Our brains were broken, we had a shitty life, but we don't have the strengh to live any other way, we don't have the strengh to fight in another society. We have been cheated by history". I find

that dizzing. East-West also comes from the feeling of this abominable injustice.

You co-wrote the screenplay with two Russian authors, Serguei Bodrov and Rustam Ibragimbekov. How did you split the work?

I definitely couldn't have written the film without them. It was Bodrov who convinced me of the historic importance of the topic. We spent five days together, working out the basic plot lines and coming up with the main characters. We spoke to the producer who said"done deal". I then developed the project with Louis Gardel. Together, we wrote thirty or so pages, then Bodrov came back to Paris and Rustam joined us.

What did they specifically contribute to the project, and what did you learn from the experience?

It was a fascinating exchange. The Russians took our romantic impulses and placed them back into a reality that totally escaped us. They broke down our Western point of view. I was, for instance, fascinated by the thought of filming a communal apartment.

Putting twenty or thirty people together in the same place, the famous writer, the whore, the postman and the milkmaid and watching what happens: betrayal, suspicion, but also love, friendship, solidarity. This, to me, is an incredible dramatic device. But we couldn't have written such a realistic "kommunalka" if two of our authors hadn't lived there as children. They lent the film all its authenticity. Over the course of a year, we communicated constantly and spoke from Paris to Moscow and from Baku to Los Angeles. We learned to work together by accepting each other's reactions. There was, for instance, an essential idea in the script that was suggested by Serguei and Rustam, which I

never would have imagined myself. From the moment when Alexei realizes how monstrous the regime is, he becomes entirely obsessed with saving his wife, but he cannot share his secret with her. It is too risky. So he lies to her, pretends to be someone else and plays the apparatchik as he waits for the moment when he can free her. Let me reiterate that the film esxists thanks to the Russian screenwriters and thanks to all the Russian crewmembers and Russian, Ukrainian and Bulgarian actors. The film's historic and artistic support comes from all those people.

Was there any friction between you?

There were times when we clashed harshly. The challenge was to end up with a screenplay that would appeal both to the French and to the Russians. I absolutely wanted the Russians to be free-handed. The last phase took place in Los Angeles, when Serguei Bodrov and I ironed out the structure. In the end, Rustam told me: "I wouldn't have

written it this way, but I accept..." . The writing adventure was extraordinary.

Oleg Menchikov doesn't speak French. How did he come to accept the challenge of playing in a language he doesn't know?

Menchikov, who does whatever he wants in theatre and film, accepted for two reasons. The first is that Indochine is an extremely well-known film in Russia. The Russian soul somehow finds itself in it. The second is the desire to work with French actresses. During Communism's worst years, Russians could see some comedies like L'Africain, for example, and Catherine Deneuve was dreamy to them. It was a moment of bliss. But it was playing the part of a secret, of silence, that drew Oleg as an actor. Playing a character who spends ten years being two-faced and who doesn't reveal himself until the very end of the film.

Oleg is the actor of ambiguity, of background. He gives himself while holding himself back. A director finds no

repose with him. It has to do with the quality of his face, both absolutely impenetrable and smooth. One shouldn't think that this film is a political commitment for him, nor is it a way to testify against communism. No, he is an actor and an astounding one. I spoke about him with Mikhaikov, who's known him for a long time. He says the same thing: menchikov the man is a mystery.

What were the greatest difficulties you encountered during the shoot?

I think that we accumulated many difficulties on this film.

After Une Femme Fran‡aise, I wanted to work differently, to take risks. The extreme solution was to work with new people with whom I had to establish myself. That is how I

came to change my crew, despite the fact that everyone, starting with Serguei Bodrov, advised me against taking such a risk on such a difficult shoot-hence the vast sensation of solitude I felt during the shoot, a sometimes deep feeling of isolation. I was the one who fought for us to go to the Ukraine. The producers were not enthralled by the idea but I knew that the film would find its identity there. The story takes place in Kiev and I needed to feel the film's land, to immerse myself in the Russian culture and language. I learned as much Russian as I could.

I thought: "The Russians will come to us, I must also go toward them". But the Ukraine is a difficult country to live in, an economically gaunt country that is drifting into a Mafia state. In addition to this, the Ukrainians' relationship with existence is very different from ours. There is something fatalistic and resigned about it.

For the studio sets, I would have liked to shoot in Prague

but, for budgetary reasons, we had to shoot in Sophia, where the working conditions are decent but daily life is difficult. I found a very harsh mentality there. The crew members we worked with were rather guarded and somewhat wary of us. Hope came from our interpreters who were college students in their twenties and in love with our culture. They were delighted to work with us but were quickly denounced by Bulgarian crew members, as being pro-French. As you can see, there was no shortage of difficulties.

What were the pleasant surprises of the shoot?

Firstly, I got along very well with Laurent Dailland, the Director of Photography which, to me, is always an essential relationship to have on set. But the greatest joy, in the Ukraine and Bulgaria, was the cast because despite the fall of the Soviet system, public theatres still carry on and you get great actors for small parts. They are drawn by the

Western allure, despite themselves. The Ukrainian actorBogdan Stupa, for example, who plays the head of the Red Army choir, is a living legend in his country. Imagine a single man who is like a blend of Manfredi, Noiret and Trintignant. In a Ukrainian film, Stupa would never have accepted such a small part. In my film, he is magnificient, you never know whose side he is on, if he protects Marie or if he is a threat to her. All these actors were astonished by our means.

When I shot the pool scene with four cameras (one under water, two on the pool's edge and the fourth perched on a

very sophisticated crane, built by the Ukrainians themselves), the Ukrainian crew was very impressed. One often hears about the family unit on a film set-on the set of East-West, it really was like a reconstituted family.

You had never worked with Sandrine Bonnaire. What drew you to her?

I wrote Marie's part for an imaginary woman, without thinking of an actress in particular but knowing that I would have to yield to the demands of notoriety. Sandrine was a naturally obvious choice. The thing I expected above all from the actress who would play the part was that she be accurate. Throughout this film, Marie is our conveyance, our witness and our guiding thread. Without her, there is no film.

It was necessary for her to immediately enter the "costume". At first, I was worried about Sandrine because mine are not the films that have an interest for her. If she hadn't gotten into the business, if she hadn't met Pialat, I think her taste would have taken her to a wider film culture than the movies in which she's played. But she met Pialat and her career settled in "art films" ("cinema d'auteur") in the strict sense that we French understand it. She has very select tastes in film. But I hope

that this film will help her to conquer a vast audience.

Several marvelous things happened on the set. The "union" with Menchikov was perfect. Sandrine and Oleg have so much in common that they somehow look alike. Furthermore, I quickly understood that Sandrine is an actress who works fast and hard on instinct and intuition. She throws herself in the scenes with astonishing strength.

After INDOCHINE, how was it to be reunited with Catherine Deneuve?

I have always kept Catherine abreast of the script's evolution. Together, we decided to give up on the Asian Western while feeling naturally disappointed about it. We didn't want to stop there. When I spoke to her of the new project, she said that if she liked the part, she was in. From that moment on, I wrote it for her. A famous actress was needed, an actress

who imposes her presence as soon as she comes on to the screen. That is what Catherine brings: excess in the right direction, determination and natural authority.

Can it be said that this is your most ambitious film?

In a way, yes. Indochine was also very ambitious but it was in keeping with a dream I shared with the producer, whereas as far as East-West is concerned, I was the film's driving force. The ambition to make the film was proportionate to the risks we took to do it. When we shoot under such difficult conditions and you are confronted daily with real obstacles, physical accidents, you ask yourself: "Why are all these people going along with with me? We barely know each other". This is the film that was the least pleasurable, with the most struggles. But there is something miraculous about filmmaking that causes the shoot to carry on and the people to hang on. When I watch the film today, I get the feeling that the energy we spent really came through on screen.

Nominated for an Academy Award®
for Best Foreign Language Film
Soundtrack available at Sony Classical