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Filmmaker Johnny O’Reilly on ‘Moscow Never Sleeps’ – screening at the Galway Film Fleadh on July 11
06 Jul 2015 : Seán Brosnan
‘Moscow Never Sleeps’ writer/director Johnny O’Reilly
The Galway Film Fleadh kicks off this week with one of the key titles screening at the festival being Moscow-based Irish director Johnny O’Reilly’s second feature ‘Moscow Never Sleeps’.

‘Moscow Never Sleeps’ is a contemporary multi-narrative feature film that dives headlong into the volatile intersections of Russia’s capital and the intimate lives of five people: An entrepreneur whose business empire comes under siege by powerful bureaucrats; a teenage girl mired in the misery of a broken home; a young man forced to abandon his grandmother; a beautiful singer torn apart by the pursuit of two men; and an ailing film star who gets embroiled in a bizarre kidnapping. Over the course of one day – Moscow City Day - their lives will change forever.

For director Johnny O’Reilly – a resident of Moscow for over 12 years - ‘Moscow Never Sleeps’ is a visual love poem to his adopted city and the interweaving lives of its denizens and the result of two and a half years hard work.

IFTN: It has been a long road for ‘Moscow Never Sleeps’ with prep starting in 2012 and long delays because of adverse weather conditions – how does it feel now to premiere it at the Fleadh almost three years later?

Johnny O’Reilly:‘Prep started in 2012 and the film was completed at the end of 2014. So, overall it took two and a half years to complete the film, instead of the usual one and a half. The main reason for the delay was due to single-day timeframe of the script coupled with the weather conditions in Russia. Moscow summer temperatures are around +30 and during the winter it’s -20. All the action in the film takes place on Moscow City Day – always the first Saturday in September. If you’re scheduled to start shooting in August, you’ve got a very short window to complete the film because winter arrives at the end of September and the exterior footage just doesn’t match. In Ireland, you have the luxury of postponing the start of shooting for a couple of weeks if there’s a delay in financing. On ‘Moscow Never Sleeps’, we couldn’t delay, so we shot what we could afford to in September 2012 and then had to wait until September 2013 to film matching footage and complete the film.’

‘I’m really looking forward to the Fleadh because in reality, I made the film for audiences like this. My view of Moscow is that of an outsider, who has sneaked into Russia to make this film. It’s going to be exciting to share this vision with the Film Fleadh audience many of whom are my friends, peers and colleagues.’

What was the inspiration behind ‘Moscow Never Sleeps’ – I read somewhere recently that it was your love poem to the city of Moscow…

‘Moscow is a city I love and a place that has been my home for 12 years. It’s also the biggest city in Europe and very few Westerners have visited the city. I always felt that international audiences needed to know more about what Moscow was like beyond the headlines. Unfortunately, much of the information people get about Russia in the West is filtered through the polarizing prism of geo-politics and nationalism. All we hear about are the egregious actions of the Russian government but very little about how normal people live. So, my intention from the start was to capture the spirit of the city – its’ unique atmosphere, the humanity and cruelty of its inhabitants and the vibrant energy of the city’s nightlife and to somehow circumvent the narrow stereotypical narratives about Russia in the Western media.’

Inter-weaving storylines and themes with many characters is a hard concept to get right but really seems to hit the mark when it is done well. Did you look at any films for inspiration here, like the works of Paul Thomas Anderson and Robert Altman for example who seem to thrive on these sorts of stories….

‘Yes, I looked at a lot of multi-narrative films. On the one extreme, you have films such as ‘Short Cuts’ (Robert Altman) which doesn’t have much of a distinct theme nor many overlapping narratives. On the other extreme you have a film like ’Crash’ (Paul Haggis), which deals very clearly with the theme of racism and xenophobia and has highly compressed interwoven narratives. I knew that MNS would not have a clear cut single theme as with ‘Crash’, but I also didn’t want the narratives to be as separate as in ‘Short Cuts’. I wanted the film to feel like a single whole, not an almanac or a series of short films. So, I structured the narratives around two clusters of characters. Two families essentially. In this regards, it’s more similar to ‘Magnolia’ (Paul Thomas Anderson) and I hope it’s broad enough to give both a wider and deeper sense of life in Moscow.’

The financing behind this film has been described as a “co-pro hybrid”, combining Eurimages and Irish Film Board funding with private equity financing from a group of Moscow-based investors – what can you tell us about the funding behind ‘Moscow’?

‘Financing the film was a bit of a rollercoaster ride. On one side, I was dealing with the sober, legalistic procedures of bodies such as Eurimages and the Irish Film Board. On the other side, I was conducting very personal deals with a wide range of colourful Russian investors. Two very different processes from two very different worlds. Neither side really understood each other, but there was a willingness on both sides to give it a go. Much of the private finance was only finally confirmed during the shoot. I remember many times having to leave the set and spend evenings in upmarket hookah-pipe smoking clubs trying to secure cash for the next week’s shoot. Financing almost collapsed twice, but in the freewheeling capitalism of Moscow, there were always options to secure cash to keep things going for a few more days. Somehow it all worked out in the end despite all the hiccups.’

This is of course your second Russian feature (and second feature overall) after the critically acclaimed ‘The Weather Station’ – what do you think are the key differences between the film industries in Ireland and Russia?

‘They’re not really comparable. Russia is a big enough market to provide wide audiences for indigenous films. Producers don’t necessarily aspire to international distribution and the government incentives for international co-productions are almost non-existent in Russia. Over 80% of European films are international co-productions. In Russia, it’s less than 10%. There is, however, a lot more private finance available in Russia.’

Any films in particular that you will be hoping to catch at the Fleadh?

‘I’ve heard ‘You’re Ugly Too’ is great – looking forward to seeing that.’

Russians have a reputation for being hypersensitive about what other nations think of them. Do you think the film will help assuage their concerns?

‘I hope so. I’m not a fan of promoting or funding creative works which are supposedly “patriotic” in nature. But I do think that there’s a disconnect between the way Russia is portrayed in the Western Media and the reality of Russian society. This impression is totally understandable given the actions of the Russian government, but it’s just a pity that all of Russian life and society gets tarred with this brush. My intention with the film is not to whitewash Moscow, or make it any more appealing than I feel it. I just want to present a balanced vision of a vibrant culture that is far too often perceived through the polarising prism of nationalism and geopolitics.’

‘Moscow Never Sleeps’ is screening at the Galway Film Fleadh on Saturday July 11 at the Town Hall Theatre.

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