You made a sensational debut into the film world by winning a Student Academy Award for your short documentary film, Undesirables (1999)! How did you become an archive researcher?
I went on to producing and directing TV shows and making documentary films – and yes, research. One of my first theatrical features was Davis Guggenheim’s, An Inconvenient Truth (2006), and I was head of research on that feature. I was living in Paris, France when that film got its well-deserved Academy Award, and I kept thinking about that TV anchor-boss in Moscow [I used to work for], who told me in the hallway of Moscow TV station years ago [when I told him “I am going to the library], “What
f-ing research! You just sit down and write, you don’t need any research, this is television.”
I also write, and I direct films, and I’ve produced non-fiction features. I’m currently finishing my documentary film that was in part funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities [NEH], National Endowment for Democracy, and Stanford University. And have prepared my mother’s book of plays and stories for publication.
As a documentary filmmaker, what do you gain through your experience as an archival researcher, and vice versa?
I think these are linked. The better your research, the better your non-fiction film will be. Also, clients prefer to hire researchers who understand how films are made… who know the editing process and can think like producers and directors.
How do you manage your time between your multiple roles?
A lot of it is improvisation, and we freelancers have to learn this. I mix and match. Right now I am finishing my feature length film and I am doing research on two projects – one is a feature film on science versus 6th extinction, another is a conceptual project.
You live in Los Angeles but you grew up in Moscow. Has this double culture triggered new opportunities for dealing with Russian archival sources?
I even encountered this a few times.
Being bi-cultural (or multicultural) is a great addition. I was always afraid that I would be typecast as someone who would be good only for projects that involve Russia or speaking Russian.
Since I’d already worked with Al Gore on An Inconvenient Truth (2006), spent three years making videos at NASA, produced for Discovery, and edited for Greenpeace USA out of Washington DC. I would say I was lucky enough not to be “typecast” for most of my life…
However, recently I was hired to do research on a CNN project about the Cold War. So I do still get typecast… sometimes. But now I like it.
Also, my own feature film is in Russian and has to do with Russian history: this is what interests me a lot. Being multi-cultured can only help.
What is the most unusual archival project you worked on?
Every project I am on is unusual in its own way. One of the most unusual projects I was asked to do was research for a film about a famous Colombo crime family mobster. The caveat was that this new film was produced by that mobster himself. I was given an offer I couldn’t refuse…I watched hours of archival material about his crimes. To present my research, I go to his executive producer’s house – a spacious white mansion in Hollywood Hills with a luxurious swimming pool — and I wait to meet him with my laptop. So the mobster-producer comes in, and he is very charismatic. He asks me whether he is the same in real life as he is in this footage about him and what do I think of him now that I’ve met him in person and what do I think of him as a person. I mumble that the footage was most interesting and that it is important for him to tell his story of being a mob boss and then waking away from it – to the world. He watches the material and exclaims in frustration – “I cannot believe I have to pay for the archival footage they used to blackmail me!” Then he adds, “But if the movie brings money, I should write them a thank you note for filming this.” He learns that I am Russian and he tells me how much he loves Russian people. He tells me that he worked with a lot of them. He says, “they were the best partners, honest people, nice people”. “The main ones I worked with— two people” he says, “one was shot dead— poof poof (and he puts his finger to his temple and makes the trigger gesture )—and the other Russian was wounded and is in a wheelchair now…”. So that project was unusual, from the beginning to the end. Hollywood Reporter praised the use of “juicy archival footage” chronicling the history of ‘La Cosa Nostra’…
Wonderful! Your next project involves Google! A word about it?
Some of my clients are CNN, Google, Netflix, NASA— a lot of “dream companies” to work for.