Nineteenth century tsarist Russia is no different from modern day Los Angeles—at least according to Bernard Rose. Tolstoy’s analyses of human nature and morality, re-envisioned through morally deficient Los Angeles, may sound bizarre coming from a man who directed Playboy vignettes in the early 90s and a strangely erotic scene with a rusty hook in Candyman—but Bernard Rose doesn’t seem to have a set genre or style. From surreal fantasy in Paperhouse to the life of Beethoven in Immortal Beloved, Bernard Rose is hard to classify.
Rose lives by a motto he heard when he was young watching the Ken Russell movie Savage Messiah. A young sculpture throws a statue through the window of a gallery that failed to view his work. After being arrested, they are about to let him go and the kid protests: “I don’t want to get off, if I get off it means I didn’t do anything”. Taking on Tolstoy via drug-addled LA? Why not.
Romany Reagan: You directed ‘Anna Karenina’ in 1997 and now this trilogy of Tolstoy’s short stories—what about Russian lit appeals to you?
Bernard Rose: Well it’s not necessarily Russian literature en masse, more specifically Tolstoy. I actually first got into Tolstoy when I was researching ‘Immortal Beloved’, I read The Kreutzer Sonata at that time because there was a Beethoven piece in the title. I found the writing really powerful and immediate and started reading as much Tolstoy as I could. His insights into basic problems of the human condition are extremely powerful and timeless. And, you know, there’s the benefit of it being public domain.
How did you choose these three stories [The Death of Ivan Ilych, The Kreutzer Sonata, Master and Man] in particular for your trilogy?
Well the thing about any kind of trilogy is you start with one and then you get to two and by the time you’re thinking of a third one, you call it a trilogy. It wasn’t like I sat down ten years ago and made a master plan, it was a bit kind of more haphazard than that. The Death of Ivan Ilych, which was the first one I did, I found to be a phenomenally powerful book. After having done a pretty straightforward interpretation of Anna Karenina, which we shot in Russia, it was done in period, it was a costume picture, I found all those things in the end kind of got in the way because when you read the book he wasn’t writing in period—he was writing about the world around him. I think there’s a direct correlation between Los Angeles in the present day and 19th century Russia. All three of the stories have been updated to modern day Los Angeles, and in doing that I haven’t actually changed anything. Well, obviously I’ve added things that are modern, in ‘ivans xtc’ there was the whole thing of the movie business instead of the tsarist bureaucracy—but the joke is there isn’t much difference.
The main character, Edgar, in ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’ is a wealthy, respected man living a life most people would want. So what’s his problem?
Essentially he’s suffering the ultimate insecurity, which is sexual jealousy. One of the things that’s fascinating about Tolstoy is he’s writing that book in the 1880s. It’s pre-Freud, pre any kind of pathologization of human behaviour, and yet he has this clinical description of somebody who is essentially having a mental breakdown. It’s so powerful. Edgar’s so wealthy, so in one sense, he kind of feels like he’s bought his wife, that she’s a possession. The whole thing of money and possession that’s mixed up in marriage I think is part of what the book is about.
Tolstoy keeps going on about how woman are just prostitutes trying to get the wealthiest husband they can, but there really wasn’t any other option for them, there really wasn’t a plan B back then.
Well, in way what he’s saying is not so much that all women are prostitutes, he’s saying we morally judge by the length of term of the agreement, and if it’s for an hour we look down on it and say it’s morally wrong—and if it’s for life then we say it’s totally acceptable. In a way, that’s irrefutable.
‘ivans xtc’ paints a pretty harsh picture of the business side of movies, does the film mean you’ve turned on Hollywood?
I don’t see that I turned on Hollywood, to me I think it’s wrong to view the film as aggressive in that way. I was being honest about the world that was around me, under the circumstances there were some people who were upset by it and I think I was a little bit insensitive to that, I know, but the idea that I turned on Hollywood is wrong. I love Hollywood, I didn’t leave here, I stayed. I love that sort of wonderful, low, pull of desperation that hangs over Los Angeles, it’s kind of enjoyable after a while.
Jay Maloney, your old agent, was the real life agent used as a template for Ivan. What was your relationship with him like?
Well, he was my agent up until the point where he left the agency [Creative Artists Agency], which was in the early 90s.
He hung himself the morning of the same day you screened of the first cut of ‘ivans xtc’, that must have felt so bizarre.
Yes, the tragedy that overtook him happened after I had shot and cut the movie. But the film was never about him, he was just a template for Danny’s character in that movie—the film is an adaptation of the Tolstoy.
Yeah but still, that’s a hell of a coincidence… Ok so, the third film in the series is based on Master and Man, right? What stage are you in on that project?
I’m about to shoot it, but I’ll have it done later in the year.
Wow. That’s a quick turnaround. Do you have a title yet?
Yeah, the film is going to be called ‘Boxing Day’.
More than the others, Master and Man seems to have a moralistic or ‘life lesson’ feel to it.
Tolstoy was proselytising the Christian, but he had his own brand of Christianity, he violently disagreed with the Orthodox Russian Church and was excommunicated by them, but at the period when he was writing these stories, they were written out of a religious impulse and I think you have to accept that that’s part of what’s powerful about them. He describes the spiritual crisis that was inside of him with such power, it’s very effective. The one hundred or so plus years that have intervened have not changed anything about the way people feel.
There were parts of ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’ that hit very close to home, it’s an uncomfortable movie to watch.
I think that’s good. I think it’s amazing the story still has that kind of power, there’s really nothing in the movie that isn’t in the book. The emotions of the characters in The Kreutzer Sonata are really unpleasant, but they’re actual emotions people have. We can pretend they don’t happen, but they do. When he talks about the negative aspects of sex, it’s not that he’s against sex, after all, Tolstoy had thirteen legitimate children and thirteen illegitimate children—so whatever he said he wasn’t practicing. The point is, there are very negative aspects to sexual relationships and they do cause people a lot of pain.
In ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’ there is a lot of raw and unflattering sex. Not having the soft lighting or filters common in most movie sex scenes made the sex seem really pornographically real.
If you analyse the film, it’s actually not even really that explicit, certainly not by Lars von Trier standards. The whole point about the sex scenes in ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’ is they are literally there to perform a function. His obsession with her is sexual and you have to see that. That’s part of what drives him mad.
Also, the way you’ve set it up too, that’s how he met her, he met her when she was with someone else. It’s the classic story of men wanting the hot girl, then the second they get her they want to put her in a sweater and some loafers.
But that’s it. That’s what happens. It’s really unpleasant when you think about it. It’s a psychological flaw in human beings, that behaviour. Everybody’s experienced it whether it’s being the object of jealousy or the jealous person themselves, yet still in every movie you see there is this wonderful myth that loves conquers all and you have to find ‘The One’, and all this stuff, and you realise this is some dreadful lie that they teach people and it’s just not what happens.
Danny Huston on the set of The Kreutzer Sonata (courtesy of Axiom Films)
You have a lot of reoccurring collaborations throughout your projects with people from your real life. You described your work with digital as ‘Your girlfriend’s the star, the backyard’s your set, your life is the script.’
So do you prefer to work with people in your real life over an auditioned cast, or does that just depend on the project?
No, I’d much rather work with people I know. If you’re working with a bunch of people who have been introduced to you by agents, essentially it’s like the difference between Monet painting the lilies in his backyard and a 19th century genre painting of a bowl of flowers that belonged to somebody else just because they want that bowl of flowers painted.
Have your relationships over the years become more collaborative or are you still very much the director in charge?
I think when you do projects like these in many ways you take on more responsibilities, camera and editing and things like that. When you take on more responsibility it becomes more collaborative, because there is just you and the actors, and that becomes the big collaboration. When that’s working it’s just fun, it’s like a big game.
It also makes sense to use the same people for the next film, because it’s a trilogy. I assume Danny Huston will also be in ‘Boxing Day’?
Danny is going to star in it along with my friend Mathew Jacobs, he actually wrote ‘Paperhouse’ and he was in ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’. Remember the scene with the crazy driver?
Yeah, that’s him?
Yeah, that’s him and so the film is just basically the two of them in a car getting stuck in the snow.
I’m really excited about that, out of the three, that’s my favourite story.
It’s such a beautiful story. I think the end is so moving.
The through line of the three stories seems to be people at the end of their lives looking back and going, ‘Oh my god. What was this all for?’ Questioning what your life is about.
I think that’s right, I think Tolstoy is all about spiritual crises. Obviously the spiritual crisis in ‘ivans xtc’ is an existential one, here’s this guy that has ostensibly everything he was supposed to get in life and yet he’s dying, so he’s living in absolute terror and only at the end of it gets a glimpse of what he should have been doing with his life. I think in ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’ it’s about a similar thing. It’s about putting your faith in another human being and what an almost dreadful thing that is for both parties: for the person you’ve foisted that upon and for yourself. It basically drives him mad to the point where, again, he’s in so much pain he’d either like to kill himself or her, and I think that’s what’s the beauty of that. I think what’s great about Master and Man as a sort of part three, is he does actually get some sort of redemption at the end of it. He does one good thing, you know?
Even though the story is still quite depressing, as a lot of Russian lit is, it always has that dark element, Master and Man is the only one that actually leaves you with some warmth.
Literally, he does of course freeze to death.
Interview conducted by Roman Reagan