The National Contest of 47th Kyiv International Film Festival Molodist (May 27 – June 3 2018) hosts the first run of the Weightlifter – the short film by Dmytro Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk. The film was made in co-production (Ukraine / Poland), with a help of Studio Munka and Ukrainian State Film Agency. 30-minute film tells the story of a young athlete, his personal life and the price of victory.
On the eve of the premiere, the director explains some personal stories and classic paintings which provided the basis for this film. How to turn a professional athlete into a leading actor and how to make him look 100% convincing on screen?
The plot of the Weightlifter is based on your real-life experience?
I was engaged in powerlifting when I was studying at the architectural college. My trainer (Yurii Churikov) was a weightlifter. He told me a lot of stories about this sport. Writing a script, I was often considering these stories. As for an actor to play the trainer’s role in my film, I was looking for a person resembling my mentor as much as possible.
Weightlifter: pre-production activities
I really like the philosophy of weightlifting. Everything is clear. There is a loaded barbell, and anyone in the audience can see whether the athlete managed to lift it or not. Each athlete has only three attempts. Each attempt lasts a minute or two. And in these few minutes, the years of very hard work are concentrated.
I wanted to make a movie with an extremely primitive plot. At first glance, it should look like a story about the price of victory.
For a long time, you’ve been looking for a suitable gym to shoot the film. Which cities did you have to visit during these searches?
We visited about 20 weightlifting locations throughout Ukraine. As a result, the shooting took place in Kyiv and Lviv, but according to the plot, the story unfolds in Chernivtsi.
Weightlifting, as well as large part of Ukrainian sport in general, remains basically unchanged since the Soviet era. These gyms weren’t repaired since 80’s. They make some kind of a time capsule.
Weightlifter: backstage photo
What about actors? It’s not easy to find a professional actor with suitable athletic body
The problem is not only the stature, but also a very specific ability to pull the bar in a real way, as professional weightlifters do. I didn’t even try to find such actors. From the very beginning, I looked for suitable guys among the true athletes. In order to lift the bar and to make it look realistic on screen, the athlete should train for at least a few years. You cannot learn this in haste.
Also, I couldn’t engage the guys who did bodybuilding – they were unfit for this role. In bodybuilding the main goal is a body sculpture. This is some kind of narcissism in its pure form. And in weightlifting, the main thing is the bar raised above the head. Weightlifters of super heavy category may seem to be just stout. In their case, it is not about good-looking muscles, and it makes them more attractive for the film: at first glance they are ordinary.
It makes the task even more complicated. How did you pick up athletes for the role?
I just went to competitions and recorded on video the performances of weightlifters who seemed suitable. I came to Kharkiv, Khmelnytskyi, Chernihiv, Kyiv… For the leading role I needed an athlete with a face where you can’t distinguish sorrow from joy – something monumental.
Unfortunately, when I found the right athletes, it turned out that they took part in the team activities, and it was much more important for them to exercise. Such people simply do not have time to participate in film projects. So, I just walked around the gyms. Also, we announced a casting that lasted three months. The Ukrainian Weightlifting Federation and personally Oleksiy Torokhtiy, an Olympic Gold Medalist in weightlifting (London 2012) helped to engage a lot of professional weightlifters.
For me, it was important to make the athlete exist naturally in front of the camera, to avoid acting. I began to work with one athlete. Then I had to replace him because he lost weight and no longer looked the right age and weight. Then I found Oleksandr Loy who twice became the champion of Ukraine.
In general, there are no professional actors in the film, except for the Mother’s voice which belongs to gorgeous Larysa Rusnak. And all athletes who appear in the film are professional weightlifters.
But to do well in the film, you need to learn and to train as much as in order to professionally raise the bar. How did you work with an athlete chosen for the leading role?
Oleksandr Loy lives in Chernihiv. During four and a half months, he came to Kyiv for rehearsals. I did not allow the actors to read the script. That wasn’t necessary. I explained key events and phrases, and on this basis they improvised. They did not memorize dialogues, but simply lived through every scene. Only sometimes I focused their attention on some phrases that were important to say.
According to the plot, the protagonist lives with his girlfriend played by Valeriia Khilko, who also had no acting experience. In one episode her character should be sewing. For this, we sent her to vocational school, where she was sewing for two weeks. When she went to classes, she behaved like the character of the film: introducing herself, she took a name of her character, she talked about her boyfriend-weightlifter, and so on.
Before the film, Oleksandr and Valeriia did not meet. Once, preparing for filming, they went together to Oleksandr’s competition in another city. Before that, I gave her and him the tasks to fulfill, and they did not know about the tasks of each other. This way, I provoked the situations and the interaction between them. We recorded the whole process.
As a result, we got some 300 GB of video where they discussed their tastes, preferences, interests and shared memories. Once I left Kyiv, and they stayed together in the apartment where I lived. I gave them the task to rearrange everything as if they were living together there. They even repainted the walls in the kitchen. They had to accomplish these tasks together, and it set between them the bond necessary for our film. I wanted to achieve a sense of absolute truth, as if they were a real couple.
Weightlifter: rehearsals before shooting
After each scene, the actors sent me their notes outlining what they felt, what emotions they had and whether they had a similar experience in their lives.
Well, they can communicate privately, but doing it in front of the camera, and surrounded by dozen of the camera crew members, is the whole new story
As for the leading characters, nobody had the right to talk to them except for me and the casting assistant. The rest of the crew did not even have the right to say hello. I tried hard to preserve the feeling that they live in their world, and we all live in our own one and just came to visit them. We did not have any plate, etc. The shooting took place without all these distracting rituals. Professional actors who had come to casting did not manage to handle the provocations. They are accustomed to using a certain acting method. And I needed the actors to be wax in my hands.
Weightlifter: rehearsals before shooting
However, even after such rehearsals and training, working with nonprofessional actors was definitely not easy
Before shooting the final version, I made two preparatory ones. First, I was arranging provocations, modeling each scene with the performers of the leading roles. We called these rehearsals Dogville. After that, I assembled this material to see how it looks like. Then it became clear which scenes should be modified, and which are not necessary at all. Then we filmed some episodes again. And the process went on until every episode satisfied me. Broadly speaking, it was a draft.
For the second time I shot this movie with the stand in actors, in order to work out the composition of each frame. It was also very important for me to work with dimensions of the character’s figure on screen. In this case, I used as a reference The Appearance of Christ Before the People by the Russian painter Alexander Ivanov.
This is a large canvas where characters are painted in as large scale as the viewer. So when you are in front of it, you feel as if you were on the same level with people in the foreground – some kind of participation effect. As for the film, I had a similar goal.
After that, we printed the footages of the first and second preparatory films. And this was our shooting board. Before the third, final shooting the whole crew reviewed these two films. So everyone understood exactly what to do.
Preparing to shoot
Producer of the film was Valentyn Vasianovych. He worked the same way on his own film, the Black Level: he was modeling the life situations and shooting them again and again. And in his Twilight he also provoked the characters to create situations.
Vasianovych is a great producer because he understands why all these experiments are useful, and gives freedom to work on the film.