An interview with Sergei Bodrov "Mongol"'s director

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Sergei Bodrov illuminates the life and legend of Genghis Khan in his stunning historical epic, MONGOL. Based on leading scholarly accounts and written by Bodrov and Arif Aliyev, MONGOL delves into the dramatic and harrowing early years of the ruler who was born as Temudgin in 1162. As it follows Temudgin from his perilous childhood to the battle that sealed his destiny, the film paints a multidimensional portrait of the future conqueror, revealing him not as the evil brute of hoary stereotype, but as an inspiring, fearless and visionary leader. MONGOL shows us the making of an extraordinary man, and the foundation on which so much of his greatness rested: his relationship with his wife, Borte, his lifelong love and most trusted advisor.

Sergei Bodrov has been a leading figure in Russian and world cinema for over two decades. Since making his feature directorial debut in 1984, he has helmed fourteen feature films, writing or co-writing all but two.

Bodrov won international acclaim for his 1996 drama PRISONER OF THE MOUNTAINS, which received Academy Award and Golden Globe Award nominations for Best Foreign Language Film. Co-written by Bodrov and based on a Leo Tolstoy novella, the film premiered at the 1996 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, where it won the Grand Prize (Crystal Globe) and the Award of the Ecumenical Jury.

Bodrov has lived and worked for the past five years in Kazakhstan.

Bijan Tehrani: First of all I want to congratulate you on your beautiful, poetic film. When we viewed Mongol at Cinema Without Borders, we noticed how precisely choreographed everything was in the film. How challenging was it to make a film like this where every moment seemed so carefully calculated?
Sergei Bodrov: Of course, it was a huge challenge. It was a very independent production. I wanted it to be independent and to have my final cut, so we had very limited resources. It was a war. It was a struggle. It was a fight—and some mistakes were made. We were shooting over a two-year span. This was because we would shoot for several weeks, but then I wanted to go back and add more because I wanted to do my best and make this movie perfect. When we went back to film, we were more careful with preparations. We came back with all the old crew and actors and continued the film. It gave us time to do more work. It was big international co-production. I worked with great people from Kazakhstan, Russia, Mongolia—some Germans and Australians came as well. Everybody liked the project and they were even ready to work for much less money because we couldn’t really afford to pay a lot to everybody.

BT: The acting, music, and cinematography were so well blended together. They all came together to form a unique piece; one could not tell which was standing out in a scene. Everything is in harmony. How did you manage to do that?
SB: It was an idea. When I went to scout and see the locations, everything was breathtaking. I liked the space and the scope and the locations helped to drive the story because when you see this huge place, it immediately sparks the beginning of a story. We have been living in this world for thousands of years and the complexities of man and space are very interesting—survival alone is interesting. My story is about a boy who was a slave and an orphan and how he survived. What is interesting about Mongols is how they relate to nature. They believe in many gods and spirits that relate to the Earth. I think it was very important for the movie to be in places like China and Mongolia. It is all the places Mongolians used to live in and they are still present there; you can see the ancient graves in sacred places. My crew and I would go to these places and observe ceremonies taking place around sacred sites.

BT: How close is this film to real history?
SB: Real history does not exist. It is all a game of options. For example, I am Russian and Russian history has been rewritten so many times. People begin to become confused. Not only in Russia, but even in the west. People sometimes don’t want to know about themselves and our ignorance. Russia unfortunately now has nationalist movements because we want to blame other people and not think of our own mistakes and find that we are not perfect. I also tried to explain these themes to Russian audiences and they received the film well; I am very pleased of how it was received in Kazakhstan as well because people saw what their ancestors said and saw that they were strong, interesting people.

BT: From the acting of the little boy to that of the lead actor in the film, the performances are so great and natural. How did you work with the actors?
SB: First of all, I have to thank my close friend and the casting director, Guka Omarova—she did a fantastic job. I usually do castings myself but she helped me a lot and found all these Mongolian children and they were amazing. Sometimes they were shy in the beginning, but they became very open. It’s about trust .If you are lucky, you can pick up the right ones. I loved our kids. Especially the boy, we spoiled him (laughs). He was so good and understood his tasks completely. It’s a land and a story and it was important for the actors to know their roles in order to tell the right story. I was casting around the world. Of course, it is Asian movie and I wanted to have authenticity, but I was casting around in Russia, Mongolia, China, Korea, Japan, and Los Angeles where there are very interesting actors. When I met Tadanobu Asano I knew that he was the guy. He held a mystery and presence and it was exactly what I wanted. For the female lead, we found a young women who was discovered on the streets that had never acted before. It took time and it was not easy, but she is great now. She is very mature. A lot of Chinese actresses wanted to play this role, and it would have been easy for me to get them, but I wanted to see Khulan Chuluun in the role.

BT: How did you come up with the visual style? Did you do a lot of research regarding what direction you wanted to go in?
SB: It was simple: I wanted to work with the best cinematographers. I started to work with a Dutch cinematographer who now lives in Los Angeles—Rogier Stoffers. He made wonderful films such as Karakter, which won the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 1997. He does not do big Americans films but he was very determined to just drop everything and to come to Mongolia to work with me during the first year of shooting. He shot some childhood scenes and a few more. Unforutnately, he couldn’t come back the second year, but then I worked with a great Russian cinematographer, Sergei Trofimov. He had done a lot of commercial and had a great style and he was not afraid to bring more directors because we worked with six cameras. We spent a lot of time for preparation, of course. He knows his culture; it’s in his bones. To work on our visual style, we observed some Chinese paintings, and even some Iranian paintings that were old, but stylish. We also believed in our Mongolian actors to help portray the people accurately. Of course, they gave us advice on how it is supposed to be portrayed and helped us with a number of things.

BT: Please tell us a little bit about the soundtrack?
SB: I am very pleased with my soundtrack; it took a lot of time to do the right job. I found a Mongolian band with great energy called Altan Urag. The group consists of seven guys and one girl. I just fell in love with their energy level and their unique sound. The music is kind of new wave and new generation. Of course, I also needed a composer who would do the score. A lot of big composers wanted to work on the film, even for little pay, but I was not comfortable with that. I found this young Finnish composer, Tuomas Kantelinen, who dropped everything and we began working together with different musicians and instruments. My German sound crew spent a lot of time working as well. They are very hardworking people but usually don’t work on Saturdays and Sundays—I completely changed their lives (laughs)! They worked nonstop with me. They wanted to do the best job, and I think they did very well.

BT: Did you use any new technology for the special effects?
SB: Of course, when you are making this kind of movie you need CGI. Again, I worked with a very young, interesting group of people and a lot of stunts were real stunts with performers from Kazakhstan. They are amazing. They worked so hard for months. They brought their own horses and people; they were great. But yes, CGI was in big scenes where you needed to see many people. The CGI saved a lot of time and energy.

BT:
I think the nice thing was that it was not a CG driven film—
SB: True, for us it was very important to go back to the old kind of movies. I can tell that for the Mongolians with the horses and the weapons, it felt real and they really remembered. They were telling me how it felt as if they were fighting a thousand years ago.

BT: So you’re living in Kazakhstan right now?
SB: Yeah, I moved there four years ago.

BT: There was an image created of Kazakhstan, even though most understood it was humor and didn’t take it seriously, with the Borat film. Do you think the people of Kazakhstan are proud of what your film is showing?
SB: Of course, the people of Kazakhstan were upset over the Borat film. They took it very personally because they couldn’t believe the jokes that had no relation to their country. He showed a Romanian Gypsy village that was unrealistic to how Kazakhstan is—but that film is a comedy. Of course people were upset, and to be honest it helped gain support for Mongol because the people there were looking for something fresh and different. They are very proud and liked the film. It was huge in Kazakhstan; whole families would go together to see the film.
To me, this film parallels Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus; it offers another chance to see history and believe in it again.

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About Author

Bijan Tehrani

Bijan Tehrani a film director, film critic and writer, works as editor in chief of Cinema Without Borders while teaching Language of Film and Film History at workshops nationwide. Bijan has won several awards in international film festivals and book fairs for his short films and children's books.

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