Actor-director Alexander Mercury has lived in London since the age of 17 but he chose to shoot his debut film in Saint Petersburg. It’s a short film with a poignant and somewhat mystical ending. Having won multiple awards and screened at over 15 festivals including the prestigious London Short Film Festival and Lublin Film Festival where it was awarded Master of Emotions, we are now releasing it in our online cinema CinePromo. Watch the film and read the interview with Alexander below.
How did this story begin? Where did you get the idea to shoot it?
Back in April 2014, the writer of the original short story Juja Dobrachkous asked me to read a couple of short stories at the launch of her book ‘Rubber Baby’. One of those stories was ‘Mama’. Its culmination is a moment when a doctor does an MRT scan on Seva (main character) and discovers a sewing needle stuck in the cranium. It’s a very poignant moment. The invited audience were overwhelmed. Off the back of this reaction and my gut feeling, I approached Juja that same evening with an offer to adapt the story for the screen.
How did you pick your actors? What did you look for?
Anatoliy Goryachev was God-sent. He was the first actor we saw followed by another dozen of really good actors but none had the same hunger in their eyes, genuine interest to the subject matter and ability to convey the right emotions as Anatoliy. It’s a beautifully nuanced work.
The actress who was originally cast to play the part of Mama fell through and we had to recast at the eleventh hour. Bearing in mind the character is in her 80s, the actress would have to endure 12h shifts and memorise a lot of lines, we were risking the entire shoot. But we got lucky and I managed to find a wonderful actress in Saint Petersburg where we were shooting. The first time we met, me and Svetlana spent four hourschatting in a book shop on the outskirts of the city: just talking about the script, her experience of living in post-war city andrelationships with siblings .
How did you work with actors? How did you develop the characters? How much freedom did you give them?
How does one approach working with a Fomenko-trained actor? (edit. Piotr NaumovichFomenko is the founder of the famous Fomenko Theatre considered one of the top in Eastern Europe). How does a 32-year old actor-turned-director work with actors twice his senior? Chances of me enlightening them with some universal wisdom were pretty slim. I showered them questions about the characters in pre-production and we went away to think on our own. When we reconvened in rehearsals, we tried to answer those questions as honestly as we could. There were really good vibes on set, a synthesis of some sort.
How did you assemble the team?
Mainly trough friends, my very kind and generous friends. A lot of folks jumped on the bandwagon because they got seduced by the story and the script.
What stage did you experience the most difficulties at? What was the most interesting period?
The biggest challenge was putting the script together: we just couldn’t decide where this pivotal scene with the needle should be. I wanted to place it at the beginning to hook the viewer early on but Juja insisted on leaving it until almost the very end. Shocking the viewer at the last moment. The ending was also tricky. At some point I realised that we should provide a glimmer of hope for Seva, that ending it all on a minor key would be a mistake. Hence the telephone ringing at the end...
What will happen to Seva in the future? The annotation to the film says that he “must find humility and strength to start from scratch”. But the ending is rather vague in this respect.
Understatement is one of the key features of this script, its forte. When we touch upon the finer energies and substances, it’s crucial not to shove it down people’s throats. The audience close up and turn away because they feel like you’re trying to sell them something, give them a remedy. A lot of people who saw the picture would come out of the screening room and say: “What will happen to him? What’s next for Seva?” or“You should make a feature!”
When the director develops the theme of the film, he/ she thinks about the purpose of the picture: what questions will the viewers ask themselves, what mood will they leave the screening room in? What reactions did you plan?
You can’t plan people’s reactions. Not with this film anyway. It’d rob him an experience, I’d literally have to trod a path for them, it’s an artificial approach. The goal was not to surprise or entertain the viewer, it’s more about having a conversation: we are watching a man’s story unfold in front of our eyes but underneath it there’s always a dialogue: “What would I do if I were him?”. I think the audience feels that, even if it’s at a subconscious level. It’s enough.
How did the audience react it reality? What feedback stuck with you?
It really varied. Some felt pensive afterwards, but the most important thing is that it didn’t leave anyone indifferent. The audience in London was very receptive, they were asking a lot of questions. I was surprised by the laughter in very unexpected places – it didn’t even cross my mind there was humour there. You sort of rediscover the film when you rewatch it with the audience.
It’s been two years since ‘Mama – Saint Sebastian’ came out. Does the perception of your work change over time?
Yes, a lot. You let it go, you forgive yourself the mistakes you made and the shortcomings of the story, and you kind of fall in love with the characters all over again.