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23 February, 2012  ▪  Yaroslav Pidhora-Hviazdovskiy

Cloaked in Bearskin

“Ursus,” a Ukrainian-Georgian-German co-production, is one of the biggest and most exciting film projects of 2012

What makes the project so huge and promising is its blending of genres, crossing of borders and reincarnation of protagonists, coupled with the involvement of a large production company and an international cast. The film also represents the first use of motion capture technology in a Ukrainian big-screen production. The technique was used to produce Robert Zemeckis’s Polar Express and Beowulf, as well as Steven Spielberg’s latest masterpiece,The Adventures of Tintin. The film will utilize the new Arri Alexa camera used by Martin Scorsese to shoot Hugo, and also boasts battle scenes filmed in Georgia and a climactic rally through Europe and the Berlin zoo. Ursus is definitely one of the most anticipated movies of the year in Ukraine. The team has already made a deal with a major German distributor (Ma.Ja.De Filmproduktion) to show the film in theaters. The Ukrainian Week spoke with Zaza Buadze, the film’s Georgian screenwriter, to find out more about the production. 

U.W.: The script reveals allusions to the world of filmmaking: the protagonist, a former filmmaker, dreams of winning at the Berlin Film Festival; other characters have the last names of well-known directors. Are you obsessed with the Berlinale award?  

–These are just fun references for film buffs. In fact, it all began exactly when the script starts, in the early 1990s, when Georgia was embroiled in a civil war. Ineke Smits, a film director from the Netherlands, was going to take the bear we had in our studio to her country. “Ineke, what are you talking about?” we told her, “Take us, we’re all dying here!” Years later, my friend Otar Shamatava, director of the Imedi TV channel that had commissioned a series from me, recalled the story and suggested that I write a script focusing on a director that would serve as a collective portrait of our generation of filmmakers. I started writing it and Otar let me do whatever I wanted with it, so my first draft was 250 pages long. I developed two plot lines. The main one was the journey of Nika who turns into a bear and travels to the Berlin Zoo. The second one included some narratives and stories from the lives of Nika, his friend Foma, and their travelling companion Sonia. They were like unproduced short films, movies within a movie. When we realized we needed a shorter script, we had to cut the second plot line as well as most of the movie buff references. I’m reminded of this epigraph from Claude Lelouch’s A Man and a Woman. 20 Years Later, a pretty bad movie, I must say. “Filmmaking is backbreaking work and a little magic,” he said. Our protagonist, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, was born out of that “little magic.” He is a director in our film, which also features a bear—hence the reference to Jean-Jacques Annaud and his The Bear

U.W.: Why do your characters go to Germany? Why there? Why wouldn’t they go to France through Annaud?

– Because the bear image started to draw in all these details like a magnet. Why go to Cannes or Venice when we have the Berlinale with its Golden Bear as the top award?

U.W.: The script is not in German; I’ve read it in Ukrainian. Will the film also be in Ukrainian?

– I want it to be a multilingual movie. Nika is Georgian and Foma is a Georgian-born Ukrainian, so in the beginning, these characters speak Georgian and Ukrainian. And I didn’t just add his Ukrainian roots after I moved to Kyiv; I had seen his prototype initially in a real stuntman of Ukrainian origin at the Georgia-Film studio. Why did I choose Hohol[1] as his last name? I didn’t do it because KGB generals in James Bond movies are often named Pushkin. We have many Hohols in Georgia—there is a village in Western Georgia where almost all the locals are Hohols; they migrated there from Ukraine 150 years ago. They’re Georgians now but they know very well where they come from.

U.W.: While writing the script, did you rely on any genre or storyline tricks that you knew would be popular?

– No way! It was a flow of consciousness. I began to write the script in 2005 and we finished it with Otar in mid-2006. Dirk Dotzert, a writer, journalist, producer and experienced script doctor, helped us at the end. Since we’d seen some opportunities for an international release for this project, its focus and perspective became important: the text contained some things only Georgians would understand, which wouldn’t have connected well with Germans or Europeans. By now, a lot of people have read the script and it was well received. Everyone now understands the storyline because it’s a universal one.  

U.W.: According to the script, in order to get to Berlin at the invitation of the local zoo, Nika wears a bear costume and crosses the border with Foma. A prop master makes the costume for him from the skin of a dead animal. To write this, you must have had an idea about how to show the bear on the screen convincingly.

– From the beginning, we did it as if we were part of a conspiracy with the viewers. It was just us, the screenwriters, and the audience, plus two protagonists and the knowledge that one is a human, not a bear. Then we looked for a practical solution. With all due respect, a bear would never have the same effect as the cat, Behemoth in Volodymyr Bortko’s The Master and Margarita. So, we either needed a fantastic costume, or a computer-generated bear. We had to think of a way to justify the presence of a CGI bear on the screen. It’s not in the script but the film will have an episode where the studio props master makes the bear costume, Nika puts it on along with the bear head, comes over to the mirror and sees himself as a CGI bear, not just himself in a new disguise. Actually, we got the idea from the script, in the episode where Sonia says “Berserk!” when she sees Nika wearing the bear costume. We realized then that our character turned into a werebear, half human, half bear, not a human in a bear costume.

U.W.: A lot of people are speaking sarcastically about your invitation of Cate Blanchett to act in the film. How did you come up with this idea?

– She’s perfect for this. She was the one we thought of as we were writing the script, not after it. We sent Cate’s agent the script in English and she liked it. We’re not sure about her shooting schedule though. But we have ours very clear: we have to start shooting in June-July 2012.

U.W.: You chose Ukrainian actor Bohdan Beniuk as Foma. Indeed, he is somewhat like the good soldier Švejk he’s been playing at the Ivan Franko Theater in Kyiv for a while now. Did you have that image in mind while writing the script?

– In fact, I didn’t know Bohdan Beniuk back in 2005, but Foma is so much like Švejkor Sancho Panza. I was so happy to discover him. I knew he was born for the part.

U.W.: The characters travel from Georgia to Germany through Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania. Where will you shoot all those scenes?

– We’ll shoot all of the Eastern European scenes in Ukraine: in Kyiv and Rakhiv, a town in the Carpathians. Georgia will do for Turkey and Georgia, and Berlin will go for Berlin. It’s easy because they drive along the highway and only stop in Petrychi. Ai is a Turkish city we made up because it means “bear” in Turkish.  

U.W.: I suppose you’re going to shoot the war in Tbilisi? And I’ve heard you were an eyewitness…  

– Yes. There is an episode in the script where a man goes to get some milk for his cat through the war zone. That was a true story, only the man didn’t have a cat named Nietzsche in the script. The man came over to the soldiers hiding behind the pillars of the Rustaveli Theater and told them they didn’t know how to shoot. He said he could teach them to do it right. People from outside Tbilisi won’t be able to imagine that, but it was like a play or a theater show. Rustaveli Prospect in Tbilisi is different from Khreshchatyk in Kyiv. It’s tiny. And that’s where soldiers were shooting while passers-by stood along the sidewalks and discussed it. It was an absurd comedy. For better or for worse, God made Georgians that way. We always turn grievance or joy into a show and the war was the best proof of that.

ZAZA BUADZE, SCREENWRITER

The Georgian screenwriter and director graduated from the Tbilisi State University where he majored in Persian language and literature and the Higher Course for Directors and Screenwriters at Sergei Soloviov’s workshop. In the late 1980s, he shot several short films and the Batumi War documentary in 1994. Mr. Buadze directed and wrote scripts for five seasons of the Coffee and Beer TV series (2003-2008) and worked as screenwriter for the film The Absurdland, released in 2006, which won a series of international awards.

OTAR SHAMAVATA, DIRECTOR

The Georgian director and producer graduated from the Tbilisi Academy of Arts majoring in architecture and Eldar Shengelaia’s workshop at the Theater and Film University. He worked as general producer for the Imedi TV channel. In 1983, Mr. Shamavata shot his first documentary called Nato Vachnadze, a tribute to the Georgian star of silent and sound film. He has shot several features and short films. Mr. Shamavata is member of Emmy, the International Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in New York. His films have won awards in Portugal and Spain.

THE STORYLINE

In 1991, Nika, a Georgian film director mobilized to the army during the civil war in his country, finds out his film has been burned.  He meets Foma Hohol, a stuntman, who is taking care of a bear abandoned by the studio staff. With the unexpected help of Nika, Foma and his bear are invited to go to the Berlin Zoo. But their plans change when the bear is accidentally shot by soldiers during a celebration. Nika decides to become the bear by wearing his skin. The rest is the European journey of Foma and Nika the bear.

THE BUDGET

Many items on the budget are not final yet, such as the cost of computer graphics and the paycheck for the actress who will play the American. However, the film has won the Ukrainian State Film Agency competition and will receive UAH 5.4mn or 30% of its total budget from Ukraine. 70% or $3mn is the investment of three parties, including 10-15% to be covered by Georgian public institutions, up to 20% by Germany and 10-15% by the Fresh Production Group, a Ukrainian group of companies. Private Georgian investors may cover the remaining 20-30%.

THE CAST

In addition to Cate Blanchett and Bohdan Beniuk, Georgian film and movie actor Niko Tavadze was invited to play one of the main characters. The authors were going to invite Richard Bohringer to play Jean-Pierre Jeunet as he looks very much like Jean-Jacques Annaud, the real-life prototype of the character. Unfortunately, Mr. Bohringer cannot star in the film due to health problems. Auditions continue.  

TECHNICAL ASPECTS

The camera used is the Arri Alexa, a digital camera that shoots at 35mm film quality. Martin Scorsese used it for Hugo, his latest 3D film. Earlier, it was used by Roland Emmerich for Anonymous and Nicolas Winding Refn in Drive. Two Kyiv-based companies will do the computer graphics, including the motion capture work, creation of the CGI bear and war scenes, and all post-production.



[1]Mykola Hohol is the Ukrainian spelling and pronunciation of “Nikolai Gogol”


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