Talking with Timur

FilmInFocus' Scott Macaulay sits down with Russian director Timur Bekmambetov, the producer of Focus Features' current animated feature 9.

“The producer is kind of like a mirror,” he says in his thick Russian accent. “He helps the filmmaker see what it is that he does. That was our role, to help him be himself, to save him, to react to what he was doing and give him feedback.”

That’s Timur Bekmambetov, the Kazakhstan-born director of the hugely successful fantasy Russian adventure films Night Watch and Day Watch as well as last year’s American pulp assassin noir, Wanted, on his first producing role in the U.S. Along with his producing partners — Tim Burton, Jim Lemley (with whom Bekmambetov is developing several new projects), Dana Ginsburgh and Jinko Gotoh — Bekmambetov helped the inventive first-time director Shane Acker bring his apocalyptic animated adventure film 9 to the screen. And indeed, while many big-name directors treat producing as a form of ventriloquism, extending their own franchises by handing off properties to eager below-the-line colleagues, Bekmambetov said he and Burton were intent on using their clout to give an inventive new filmmaker both the guidance and the space to make a great movie. Bekmambetov says, “I tried to be a bridge between a filmmaker and the audience, between the rest of the world and the studio. I just tried to help Shane communicate and make decisions, but also to protect him and help him be himself. It’s what I learned when I made Wanted. I had great producers and they helped me to just be myself. During production a director has a lot of influences, and it can be quite difficult to keep your own voice. The producer has to fight and help the filmmaker.”

Bekmambetov says he got involved with 9 “in 2005 while in Berlin. “I received a DVD from Jim Lemley of the short Shane Acker presented at Sundance,” he says. “It was a very intense, entertaining and smart movie, and I was shocked how dark and mysterious the world he created was. It’s like what I do — when you have a dark and grounded world, then you can tell a bright story. I immediately contacted Jim and said I wanted to be involved. And then we contacted Tim Burton because I really feel [Tim’s world is like] his world too, and it was logical to invite him to be part of the team.” Bekmambetov hadn’t met Burton before their collaboration on 9, and “it was a great reason for me to meet him. It’s what I like about the movie business – you have a chance to meet great people, and to talk and share with them.”

Given that 9 is an animated film, the typical producer demands of intense focus during a compacted production period gave way to another kind of support. “The production took three years,” Bekmambetov explains. “[Shane] worked on it every day, and we would help him step back and see the overall picture. We were the audience during production. We were either laughing or crying.”

Bekmambetov began his career not as a filmmaker but as an engineer. He studied at the Moscow Power Engineering Institute, but then moved to the performing arts, graduating from A.N. Ostrovsky Institute of Theatre Arts in Tashkent in 1987 with a degree in theater and cinema set designing. After a stint in the military, he became a top commercial director, honing his ability to create the eye-popping imagery and special effects that characterize his films. His directorial debut in 1992 was a collaboration with Gennadi Kayumov, Peshavar Waltz, and a series of other films and television works followed. In 2004 came Night Watch, based on the popular Russian fantasy novel by Sergei Lukyaneko. Imagining a contemporary Russia which is ruled by once warring “Others” — vampires, witches and variously supernatural beings — who divide their jurisdiction into the hours of night and day, the film is full of spectacular effects sequences that rival Hollywood blockbusters while not falling into the clichés of much current CGI work. Night Watch’s success led to the 2006 Day Watch, which extends the story and was the most commercially successful film in Russian history.

Bekmambetov is now producing the superhero adventure Black Lightning, directed by Alexander Voitinskiy. It’s currently in post as the first film under a production and distribution deal between Bekmambetov’s production and visual effects company Bazelevs Films, Universal Pictures and Focus Features International. For the helmer, his range of interests, background in marketing, and the demands of today’s tentpole filmmaking world inspires him to work in both positions. “It’s very difficult for me to [separate the director and producer] roles,” he says, “because for me as a filmmaker, the movie is not just what’s on the screen, it’s everything: the street ads, the billboards, the TV ads, the trailer. It’s all part of the event. What interests me in filmmaking is creating these events. The film itself is just something that provokes the event.”

Continuing, Bekmambetov discusses what made Night Watch such a phenomenon on its 2004 release in Russia: “For months it was the most influential event in the country. It was bigger than the soccer games. Millions of millions of people discussed and argued different positions [found in the film].  It was part of the social life. [People would say], ‘We met each other the time that Night Watch was released.’ It was a synergy [with the public]. It’s not filmmakers creating an event. We can provoke [the audience] and give them the material, but the audience themselves creates the event.”

Bekmambetov likens the success of Night Watch in Russia to the reception given The Dark Knight here. “It was very similar to The Dark Knight because, first of all, it’s a movie about moral choices. What’s ‘good’ and what’s ‘bad’ — there’s not a clear answer. In Night Watch, the conflict between good and evil becomes not an obvious question. It can be that good is not good and that bad is not bad. It’s not a traditional comic world, and [the audience] wants to see which one will win.”

Of Black Lightning, which is due out in the late Fall, Bekmambetov says, “The same Russian team — friends I have known for almost 30 years — and I had the concept to make the first Russian superhero movie. We’ve never had a superhero story. Audiences of young people watch American movies, and they dream about their own superhero. [Black Lightning] is grounded in this contrast of the idea and Russian reality. The American structure of the superhero movie is where the characters has abilities and tools and has to make a moral choice: does he use them for himself or to help other people. The first answer is to use it for yourself, but then you understand the responsibility [you have] to help society. But you can’t tell people, so you’re alone. This is the traditional structure and story, but [by setting] it in Russia it becomes totally different.”