Last week Russian court sentenced Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov to 20 years in maximum-security prison on the charges of organizing acts of terrorism in occupied Crimea. When we talk about Sentsov as a prisoner of conscience, who even in prison stays more free than the people, who put him there, we tend to forget about Sentsov as a creator of “Gamer”. QirimInfo has asked people, who helped Oleg make his debut movie, what it was like to create a full-length movie out of sheer enthusiasm.
Before he took up directing films professionally, Sentsov was into competitive gaming. He was not an ordinary gamer, but a leader of the eSports movement in Simferopol: he organized numerous tournaments, trained players and helped them participate in large championships. One of his protégés managed to finish second on an eSports tournament in Korea.
eSports is a term for organized video games competitions. There are eSports tournaments all over the world. The largest events may feature thousands of participants.
Due to the popularity of Quake, a first-person shooter video game the protagonist of “Gamer” plays, the first league of professional players, Cyberathlete Professional League, was created in the US in 1997.
During that time, Oleg Sentsov met Evgenia Vradii, the future art director of “Gamer”. Vradii was interested in eSports and often visited the internet café, where she saw Oleg. However, it took some time before they got to know each other.
“I did not like him at that time — he seemed harsh and rude. Apparently, it is impossible for a leader to be liked by everybody, since one needs a certain temper to be able to manage people. But I did not understand that then,” Vradii confesses.
By a whim of fate, Vradii later married Sentsov’s friend.
By that that time Oleg owned an internet café. But the eSports movement started to die out. Sentsov started thinking about trying his hands at filmmaking. A couple years later he confided to producer Olga Zhurzhenko that at some moment he realized that he had so many ideas for films in his head that it was impossible to keep them there. He had to carry them over to the screen. At the same time, he had no relevant education — he just had a gift.
Unable to fund financing for the film, Sentsov decided to find a producer. He went to Kyiv and met Olga Zhurzhenko. At first Olga — a student of Kyiv National University of Theatre, Cinema and Television of Karpenko-Kary — hesitated about working together.
“He approached me and said he had a script: ‘This is film “Gamer” and I want to make it’. We talked and discussed details. It turned out he lives in Crimea and is planning to film there. I frankly told him that I would like to help him, but I didn’t see how I could do that in practice,” says Zhurzhenko.
That is why Sentsov had to film “Gamer” without outside financial support. Film’s budget was Sentsov’s own $20 000 — he sold his car and his internet café.
He invited Vradii, who already had experience of working as a photographer and filming two short films, to work on the film. Vradii and Sentsov made these shorts films together — he was practicing. Sentsov knew the theory well: he read and watched films a lot.
“Oleg watched a lot of different movies, mostly independent movies that won festival awards… Some people are called ‘wide readers’ and Oleg is a ‘wide watcher’”, says Zhurzhenko about Sentsov.
Teenager Koss lives in a small rural town. He is obsessed with video games and spends all his free time at the computer screen.
One time, after Koss participates in a local Quake tournament, the management of a professional team, which aims at the world championship, approaches him. He finishes second at the world tournament and it seems his dream has come true. But will the success bring him what he wants?
In 2007-2008 Oleg Sentsov and Evgeniya Vradii filmed their first 15-minutes short film based on J. D. Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”.
“We learned the basics of working process together, laughed at our naivety — it was not always as easy, as we would like. We made mistakes, but gained experience. Our second short film was “The Horn of a Bull” and we have improved a lot,” Vradii recalls their first steps in filmmaking.
When Sentsov invited her to the crew of “Gamer”, she agreed without hesitation.
The crew of “Gamer” consisted of five people and all of them were semi-professionals. There were no professionals among actors as well, except for Zhanna Biryuk, who played Koss’s mother.
According to Vradii, Sentsov does not like working with professional actors and especially theatre actors. He came to this conclusion during his work on short films.
“Oleg wanted the characters the actors create on the screen to be “real”. When actors have something in common with their characters, when they are not limited with acting rules and principles — then they stay on screen the same people they are in real life,” explains Anastasiya Chorna, who played Katya, Koss’s girlfriend.
Sentsov looked for actors for “Gamer” among real video games players he knew. All the gamers in the film are real-life gamers.
He also looked for actors among his friends and acquaintances. It was important that they answered the description of their characters. For example, they were looking for a thin guy with shifty eyes and gentle temper.
“Of course, we couldn’t tell the actor that he looked like a sickly four-eyed nerd. But you can see that he fits and you offer him the role. People rarely refused, since acting in a movie is a very interesting experience,” Vradii recalls the casting process.
Vladislav Zhuk, who played gamer Koss, the protagonist, used to play video games and participate in eSports tournaments. Sentsov visited one of those tournaments, made a photo of Zhuk and invited him to the casting.
“I ended up in the movie by accident, if accidents can be accidental,” says Zhuk. “I agreed to act because I was interested. But the filming process differed a lot from what I imagined: lots of people, cameras everywhere, noise and hubbub all around. In reality, I came to school and Oleg was sitting in one of the rooms with a piece of paper in his hands and said: “We are going to make a movie”.
Anastasiya Chorna had no previous experience of acting in movies as well, but she had some modelling experience and a diploma of theatre studies from a children’s art school. She was invited to the casting of “Gamer” by Vradii, who took pictures of her some time earlier and decided that Chorna may fit the role.
Everyone was working out of enthusiasm — and that is no metaphor. Film’s budget was $20 000: a quarter of that was spent on salary for camera operator and some of that was paid to audio engineer, who needed to feed his family. The rest was spent on current expenses — to get the crew to Kyiv for a tournament, to buy food, to pay for transport. The crew was trying to film at the locations, where it was free.
Vradii recalls: “It was hard, since ultimately we had no experience. We chose the actors by character type, but a person, who walked in on the set from the street, not always can act naturally in front of a camera. Therefore, I had a task of making actors feel at ease — doing everything so that they would understand that they do not need to play someone they are not. On average, it took five or six hours of working with an actor to shoot 30 seconds of the film. Since we had many characters, this job was huge every day. We were lucky to get Vladislav for the leading role. On the set he was the same person as in real life.”
Actors say that shooting “Gamer” was a fun and easy process — Sentsov’s enthusiasm was an example for them.
Vladislav Zhuk recalls how the whole crew went to Kyiv to shoot an eSports tournament: “The whole crew fit into one car. We even had all the equipment with us, so it was jam-packed. But it was nice and we had a good time.”
“Gamer” was made “on a kitchen table”, so there were many funny incidents.
“One might say the whole shooting process was one big curiosity,” Zhuk says. “We could not afford shooting in dedicated premises with hired extras. For example, if we had to shoot a scene in a tram, we shot it in a tram with real passengers. People would often get on the tram, sometimes they were drunk, so at times they reacted aggressively to the cameras. But we were able so solve these problems peacefully.”
Sometimes random passersby got in frame, but Sentsov said that these accidents did not spoil the shot and made it more believable instead. For example, Zhuk recalled how a hobo once approached the actors during the shooting — he was passing by and asked for a light. Actors refused. Oleg was very satisfied with this episode: everyone stayed in character.
“Oleg has a special method of working with actors: there was no need to memorize the lines, there was a goal — to show something specific on camera, but you could use your own words to make it look natural. None of the actors probably read the script, except for me,” Zhuk says.
Vradii was not fully satisfied with “Gamer” — there are many mistakes in the film.
“The most important thing is that Oleg sent the message and was content with that,” she notes. “Protagonist of ‘Gamer’ is Oleg — it can be seen from Koss’s mindset, his character type and the internal feeling from the film. As any creative person, Oleg creates everything through a prism of himself. It would be unfair, if it were any different.
Shooing “Gamer” took a year and, when the film was finished, Sentsov went to Kyiv to Olga Zhurzhenko and showed it to her.
“I watched the film, but I was not particularly impressed and frankly told him that. He replied with sacramental Sentsov words: ‘Hey, listen, there are few people like us anyway! Let’s stick together.’ I promised I would do what I can. At that time I could send the film to a couple of acquaintances in Europe and in Ukraine, who used to select films for festivals.”
Unfortunately, there was no reaction to the film in Ukraine, but while it was not chosen for Berlinale, movie selectors liked it from the start. As the result, “Gamer” premiered on International Film Festival Rotterdam.
The crew did not stop working on the film after the premiere. Its director and producer were looking for money to make better sound, Ukrainian audio, to pay for post-production and convert the film to formats needed for screening in movie theatres. In the end the budget exceed the initial $20 000 by far.
“For me it is a film about an ambitious person, who worked himself to the bone and sacrificed a lot to achieve his goal. He knew what he wanted and saw an image of that he was striving for. He was moving towards his goal. It is cool that the protagonist finished second on the tournament and not first — on one hand, he got what he wanted, but on the other hand, he did not. It looked like here is what he wanted, but what comes next? Let everyone come up with their own understating of the finale — it is the most important part of the film.”
Vladislav Zhuk, the leading actor
Sentsov was planning to make a new film, “Rhino”, after finishing “Gamer”.
“When people started talking about “Gamer”, I told Oleg that usually film directors use the screenings of their first film on festivals to promote the second project. Oleg already had an idea for a new film, he wrote the script for “Rhino” in three or four months — very quickly, as far as full-length films are concerned,” says Zhurzhenko.
According to Vradii, Sentsov decided to use a more responsible approach for “Rhino”. If the first film succeeds, it may be an accident. With the second one you have to prove that it was not an accident — that you are capable of something as a director. That’s why the second film is so important.
Sentsov shared his plans for the future with Vradii. He wanted to spend the rest of his life making films and good films at that.
Developing stories for movies was not a problem for Sentsov — he has amassed a lot of ideas and even scripts he has been working on for a couple of years. When he just started working on “Rhino”, he was already pitching the idea for his next film, “Kai”, and wanted to make a movie about war after that.
Zhurzhenko was in correspondence with Sentsov, while he was in Lefortovo.
“Judging by the letters, he is staying the same: stubborn, like all film directors,” says Zhurzhenko. “He know for sure what he wants. Not even stubborn, but persistent. We discussed, whether we will make “Rhino”, when he comes out. We decided that we will.”