There were many things I wanted to ask Andrey Zvyagintsev about the unspoken secrets his film “The Return” is full of. But then again, if he wanted us to know all the answers, he would have put them in there in the first place. So rather than ruin it for you, I got the 40-year-old actor-turned-director to dance around the big questions . . .
I heard that the original script was more like a normal Hollywood thriller. How did you alter it?
It’s like when you’re buying a suit; if the pants are too long, and the waist is too wide, you have it tailored to fit your size, so it looks good on you. It’s like that with the script.
But it seems like a lot of very clear points were made vague. For example, when the father comes home after 12 years, most films would tell you why . . .
The original scenario was really a clear-cut genre film. It started and ended with the two boys, now adults aged around 40, sitting on the balcony of an apartment in Manhattan and reminiscing. It had this framework of telling the story as a flashback, but I felt that would dissipate the emotion. It feels like something that already happened, and I didn’t like that. I wanted you to feel like you’re the only witness to these scenes, like they’re happening now. As to how I changed the script, for example, in the film there’s a scene where the father tells the boys he doesn’t eat fish anymore. And they ask him why, but he doesn’t say anything in my film. But in the original screenplay, he had a two-page monologue!
I always want to make things more succinct. If I’d included that, the character would have been another man entirely. There are three things I can tell you that I’m always aiming for in my work: one, conciseness; two, to observe things closely; three, to allow time to pass slowly, naturally.
David Lynch once remarked that “fragments of things are pretty interesting. You can dream the rest.”
I totally agree. If a film doesn’t retain some mystery, or secret, it’s a failure. If you sum everything up by the last reel, then people just spend 90 minutes waiting for the answer. There’s no point in that. It’s a poor connection between the film and the audience. How I see it, the viewer, his perception — or “dream” — has to be half of what makes up a film.
When you were editing the film did you find places in it where you thought you were giving away too much and so you took them out?
For example, the scenes where they stop in this unidentified town after they leave their home, where they go to the gas station and the father’s making all those calls, where he’s looking at women in the rearview mirror. This bit kept bugging me like a sore tooth. But when I tried to imagine taking part of it out, I couldn’t put my finger on it, so I left it all in. If you watch the DVD, you can see the scenes that I did cut. Those were easy decisions to make.
Konstantin has to give a guarded performance. How did you direct him, and I’m wondering if you ever spoke to him about where his character was for those 12 years.
I didn’t tell him anything. Actually, even from when we were still doing the casting, he wasn’t that interested in what his character had been doing for 12 years or where he’d been. For Konstantin, the important thing was being concerned with the future. He was concerned with giving a natural performance, and not getting too hung up with the details of his character.
But what advice did you give him regarding his relationship with his sons?
Well, we rehearsed every scene straight through. And if I caught something that didn’t feel right, I’d tell him, you should do this, or you shouldn’t do that. But it never required more than really simple directions like that. I don’t think there’s any point in explaining or discussing such things. The important thing is to find the perfect actor for the role in the first place. If you find the right person, they’ll nail the part perfectly. But actually, my choice of Konstantin violated that principle.
If you met Konstantin, you’d be really surprised. He’s a really gentle guy, with a quiet voice, nice to people. You’d never believe he was that character. But he’s an actor, he wanted to do it. But do you want to know why I chose him? I was looking for a somewhat unknown actor, and had probably 20 or 25 people in for auditions, but most of them were too brutal. Only Konstantin had this sensitivity. The other guys would just come off as monsters during the readings, but although Konstantin was changing his personality to fit the role, some of it came through. So he could play brutal and cruel, but the kind side of his personality came through as well, making it a really three-dimensional performance.
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