Ilya Naishuller: Young Russian is the Next Quentin Tarantino
Ilya Naishuller, a 29-year old Russian director and front man for the Moscow punk band Biting Elbows, won the Internet this week. His band’s latest stunning music video, Motherf*cker, which he directed, earned the attention of Hollywood agents and a Tweet that says “so well done”—written by Oscar-winner and fellow cinematic groundbreaker Darren Aronofsky.
This is Naishuller’s second viral music video and a sort of sequel to The Stampede (Insane Office Escape), which also thrilled the blogosphere. Shot using affordable cameras (GoPro 1 and 2, respectively), both monstrous productions are clearly the work of a fearless, crusading director who has a lot to offer the world. His collaborators are just as dauntless and include his tenacious producing partner Ekaterina Kononenko and CGI artist and director of photography Sergey Valyaev. Together, over the years, they have reached collaboration gold, persevering on this latest video after their initial sponsor backed out.
Thanks to a camera super-glued to a "strike ball" helmet, their latest work of art straps us into the POV of an indestructible hero, and pays homage to Tarantino and first person shooter video games. After calling him up in Moscow, I chatted with Naishuller about music, film, and Pussy Riot, and it soon became clear that there’s an energetic heart of gold behind all this crowd-pleasing.
Our conversation has been edited for the sake of clarity, brevity, and to protect his father's taste in music.
Who are your musical influences? What music did you obsess over while growing up?
I grew up listening exclusively to punk rock. I think I was way past my twenties when I realized that there was a lot of other music out there, that I should open my mind. The first band I actually cared about was Sublime. I always cared about the lyrics, and their lyrics are pretty damn good. That was my entryway into music: [also] all the English punks—The Clash; and I liked the California scene—Rancid, NOFX. From there, I started listening to all sorts of indie music and all the old rock. I can listen to anything as long as it’s good. That’s my main criteria.
Who influenced you to be a musician?
I was fourteen. There was a girl in my class named Louisa who was really into music. At that particular time I didn’t care for music at all. One time in class—we had a particularly boring teacher—Louisa gave me headphones and said "Listen to this song—the lyrics are amazing." And I listened to the song and I was like, "I could do better." She said, “Well, you try.” I sat down, she hummed the melody, and I started writing down some random stuff, and I gave it to her, and she said, “Wow, that’s actually really good.” So I started scribbling stuff down, just writing angsty teenage songs. Then a friend of mine—a Swedish Rastafarian guy from an Anglo-American school in Moscow—he wanted to get a band together. So he asked me to find a rehearsal space. I found him a little studio, and then they said, “We don’t have a singer—why don’t you sing?” And I said, I don’t sing, I suck probably. But I tried, and I sucked, but they didn’t have anybody else. By the time I was fifteen, we started playing.
What’s the indie music scene like in Moscow?
Compared to what it was like a decade ago, it’s completely thriving. People have started picking up instruments and playing music that isn’t terrible. And that’s amazing, because we’ve always had trouble with taste in Russia. It’s a big issue for us. People started looking to the west, and now that you have the internet you can get whatever you want and you don’t have to pay a cent for it. People started listening and started getting ideas. There’s not a majorly thriving scene compared to a typical big city would have. But we’re slowly and surely getting there. There are places to play and there are bands to play with, and we’ve had the fortune to play in some great line-ups.
The filmmaking came out of making music videos?
It’s the other way around. Music was always a hobby. I’m not a musician first, even though I like to think so.
How did you get into filmmaking? And what do you do now as a filmmaker?
I was actually in pre-pre -production for a (feature) film I’m going to be shooting in autumn. It’s a film we’re shooting in Russia for an American audience. It’s a cool spy film.
How did you develop your network of film collaborators? Where did they come from and how would you describe how you all work together?
I used to go to film school for a year and a half before I dropped out, because it was pretty useless. But there were some great people there. The guy who did the CGI, Sergey Valyaev, he was a year above me. Our producer Ekaterina Kononenko is the goddaughter of the dean of directing at my film school. It’s sort of a long circle of how we got together.
On this particular video, there weren’t many professionals; it was pretty much just the stunt team. We have DPs [director of photography] ready to shoot all the time and to work for less than they’re worth, because they like the idea. That helps us out a lot, because we don’t have the financial means yet.
But it looks expensive.
Everyone asks me this. And I can’t divulge the budget, because we have a sponsor covering it. [The budget] is about two to three times less than what anybody would expect.
What do you most enjoy about collaboration?
The professional guys. Forty people on the crew were friends, but we had a great stunt team that made everything very safe. That was completely key. You have cars blowing up and you have people falling down elevator shafts. So you do need to be really safe. We were thinking about doing [the stunts] ourselves without professionals for a second. And I was like no. What was going to happen was somebody was going to die, and I would rot in jail. And I don’t want to do that. So we got a great team, a team of guys called Stunt Art, based in Moscow. They do a lot of movies here. Great guys, very professional. They didn’t let us down once.
What do you find frustrating as a director?
We’re sort of a weird industry here in Russia. People make big films and some people make money. But the trouble with this country—not just with the movie industry—is a lack of understanding of what the word "reputation" means. [For example] you have a guy who does props for you, and he’s a nice guy but he has no idea what he’s doing. So you have to fire him. And you fire him for not doing his job at all and not calling you early to warn you that you’re not going to have a critical piece of the set or a prop for the next day. So you fire him, and the next day you see him across the lot working for another production, because there’s no understanding of the word "reputation," because nobody cares, and that’s incredibly frustrating.
Do you think that will change?
I like to think so. But nothing signifies that change is coming.
For your latest video, was there a script?
No, there was no script. Before we had a sponsor or any idea of how much money this would cost, Sergey and I sat down and thought about all the cool ideas that we’d like to film, and we didn’t worry about how we were going to film them or pay for [the production].
In the video’s first bloodbath, you show a German shepherd thrown out of a window, which got you temporarily banned from YouTube until YouTube understood it was not a real dog.
Of course we didn’t throw a dog. I have two cats and a dog. I would never throw anything out the window. We actually threw a stuffed toy dog and we stuffed it with 12 kilograms of bricks to break the window. And it took us five attempts to actually break the window with the dog.
The dog is obviously fine. It’s a trained police attack dog. And the ex-officer’s arm is seen being bitten. Some of the scenes required very specific talents. We of course didn’t teach one guy to do them all. We had five guys do their bit.
So now that Hollywood is calling…
I am physically unable to answer to everybody. I’ve been fielding calls from agents for the last day and a half. Everybody is very polite. They know how to pitch. It’s a high class problem to have. But I’m not going to rush into anything, that’s for sure.
Who are some of the filmmakers who have most inspired your work?
My favorite film of all time is probably The Usual Suspects. I love Oldboy, the Chan-wook Park movie from South Korea. I loved Tarantino ever since Reservoir Dogs. I lived in England as a small kid and English theaters are very, very strict. It doesn’t matter if you have a guardian, you can’t go into an eighteen and older movie if you're a kid. I had to read the scripts, and I made do with the script of Pulp Fiction. The first stuff I read that was actually interesting to my future career was Tarantino’s stuff. All his films, even the ones I don’t like that much, they’re still amazing. He’s a big influence. I’m also a huge fan of District 9—it blew my mind.
Your late-mother was a surgeon, and your father is a businessman who was also a surgeon. When you were younger, what did they say when you started pursuing filmmaking?
Mom was always a big believer in me. My dad started believing when I got into the Tisch School of the Arts. I didn't go, [but] he started becoming a believer then. He’s a big movie buff and he calls me three or four times a week to ask what he should watch or if I want to go to a movie with him. His biggest concern is music. He says, “You’re not going to have a movie out until you’re fifty if you don’t put down the guitar.”
In the West, we followed the arrest and trial of the three members of Pussy Riot. What are your thoughts on the trial?
There’s either two ways of saying this. One way would be to go into politics, and that’s a very long conversation. You should never talk to a Russian about politics; that’s a twenty minute conversation. But the easier way of saying it is that I think it’s completely messed up. Everybody who’s in their right mind thinks it’s completely messed up. It’s a complete showcase for the utter disregard for the law and the court system in Russia. And I’m glad that the world got a chance to peek in a little bit and see how messed up things are. To everybody who’s a thinking man who’s not a part of the corrupt government, it’s just another low point for us. I’m glad that it went worldwide.
What’s next for Biting Elbows, maybe a tour in the US?
Hopefully on the strength of this video we’ll be able to go on a small tour somewhere.
Where does the name Biting Elbows come from?
In Russian, it means to miss out on opportunity and to kick yourself over and over. Since we were a punk band we wanted to have a negative sounding name. But then Western audiences hear it and say, “It’s great. It sounds like you’re achieving the impossible!”
Political activism may get people invested in politics, and affect urgently needed change, but it comes at the expense of tolerance and healthy democratic norms.