It was a sign of things to come when Egor Abramenko tucked in a big idea into his short “The Passenger” that became a favorite on the festival circuit in 2017, imagining an astronaut who finds that he became the vessel for an alien arrival upon his return to earth. “Sputnik,” his feature debut, takes the premise a few steps further, checking in with the cosmonaut Konstantin Veshnyakov (Pyotr Fyodorov) after experiencing a crash landing in which his partner on the mission is killed and the small suspicion of foul play lingers enough for a commanding officer (Fedor Bondarchuk) to seek out the services of a psychotherapist (Oksana Akinshina) known for pushing people to their limits to reveal their truest selves.
Akinshina’s Tatyana Klimova gets more than she bargained for when she is led into meet with Veshnyakov at a research institute off the grid in Soviet-era Kazakstan, but Abramenko is intent on making sure that’s even more true for the audience when “Sputnik” seems to take its cues as much from Cold War spy thrillers as the kind of body horror films that the young writer/director was weaned on in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Playing with ideas of infiltration and the notion of the dual lives that can sit side-by-side in one person, the film gives new meaning to wrestling with oneself as Tatyana’s exercises pull out a side to Veshnyakov that is entirely alien to him as he deals with the grief of not only losing his partner but concerned for the welfare of an illegitimate son he fathered just before taking off to space and now has no way of seeing.
As impressive as “Sputnik” is technically with its high-end visual effects and recreation of brutalist USSR architecture on a spartan budget, Abramenko crafts the kind of engaging chiller that has more on its mind than scaring you, but will frighten the wits out of you nonetheless and shortly before it lands in America on digital and VOD, the filmmaker spoke about developing the feature from a short, finding the perfect location to house the shoot and how he overcame a difficult first day of filming.
The whole project was a long process that started almost five years ago and I came up with this idea to do this sci-fi horror about the alien from outer space. We came up with this proof-of-concept short, just to show the character and the main time period and when my colleagues saw the proof-of-concept short, everybody was quite amazed with the concept. It’s a very familiar setting, which is the USSR in the ‘70s and ‘80s about the cosmonauts and the space program, which is very common for a Russian audience, but unexpectedly, there is an alien there. This is the contrast that everyone fell in love with and this proof-of-concept short convinced other studios and other producers to invest the money to eventually make this movie happen.
We didn’t have a specific idea about about the feature [when we made the short]. We just knew we wanted to maintain this concept to unfold our story in the ‘80s during the space program, so we had a writers room where we’d gather with producers and our writers and start spitballing ideas. Eventually, the story about this rogue Soviet doctor Tatiana came up and we decided to proceed with it.
Oksana Akinshina, who plays Tatyana, has said she visited a real neurologist in preparation. Were there real psychological studies that informed that character?
Yeah, we’ve been closely working with a lot of consultants and Oksana spent a lot of time with a real doctors and real neurologists, but mostly when we were creating her character, we’d been thinking mostly about universal human qualities. We tried to be very specific in the scenes that somehow connected with the science and rely on what really existed in terms of the facts. And all that research that we did with Oksana and the screenwriter during preproduction, it really helped us to take a look at the story from the scientific point of view.
Did that specific time of 1983 come immediately?
We were really attracted to the ‘80s in terms of visual aesthetics. It’s a very rich time period in terms of architecture and costumes, and it’s [also] a quite crucial period for Russian history. It was the year when [Yuri] Andropov was head of government and he was tightly connected to the KGB, and it was a period right before the Perestroika started, so it wasn’t the Soviet Union yet. It was a period somewhere in between and we thought it would be a great environment for our story to unfold because it has a few metaphorical [connections].
We discovered it just by chance. We knew from the start that the story that unfolds mostly in interviews, so from the beginning we wanted to create these walls where the action or the story unfolds within these narrow corridors. It’s quite hard to find a very authentic interiors in Russia that still exist and discovering this Biochemical Institute was like finding a treasure. It’s a huge, huge complex that’s preserved so well and when we discovered it, we realized that’s our place. That’s our secret base. And the [cinematographer], production designer and I worked hard during preproduction to connect the color palette with the time period, so we also tried to find the specific colors that would express the characters’ feelings that would reflect the specific part of the story. For example, we understood that these greenish-yellow tone is a great representation of horror, so we filmed the scenes where the most terrific things happened, we filmed them this color.
What was it like to design the alien?
Designing the alien was a long and painful process because it was hard to come up with something really original. We quickly realized we exist in the world where the Xenomorph and the Predator exist and we can’t compete with them, so we decided to think about the alien from the story’s point of view and tried to match some physical images of our alien with our [human] character.
Fedor Bondarchuk definitely lends some gravitas as the general who brings Tatiana in, and I understand you were an assistant director for him on his film “Attraction.” Were you thinking of him for the role from the start?
I was always a huge fan of him as an actor and he was producing the movie, so during writing the screenplay and talking to the screenwriters and trying to define this character, I was immediately thinking of Fedor and I knew he hadn’t done such a character before. When I proposed him this part, he read the script as an actor and he thought, “Yeah, it could be great,” and he immediately came up with this idea to do Colonel Kurtz from “Apocalypse Now” like a crazy war god. I really loved that idea and that was our blueprint that we’d been following during the shooting.
Was there a particularly crazy day on set? I understand it was pretty cold and a pretty relentless schedule.
The schedule was quite tight and when we were shooting the first scene — when the cosmonauts are landing in this desert at night — it was quite a hard shooting day because at one point it started to snow. We had just maybe three or four hours of nighttime and we couldn’t use it if we had snow, but we kept shooting, and somehow through a sort of miracle, we managed to assemble a cut where you can’t see the snow. We covered it with haze, so we got pretty lucky with that, but that was quite a challenge. I thought I wouldn’t survive that, but eventually I did and I’m really happy. The whole project was quite a long journey for me. It was tough, but it was great.
“Sputnik” opens on August 14th at select drive-ins, digital and VOD.