Levan Koguashvili on Wrestling with Fate in “Brighton 4th”

When Levan Koguashvili had relocated from his home country of Georgia to become a film student years ago at NYU, he stayed for a few nights in a hostel in Brighton Beach where he was surrounded by fellow Eastern Europeans like himself. The cramped quarters full of gregarious characters were memorable enough that when he returned to the States to make “Brighton 4th,” he didn’t need to go too far to scout locations. Or to find much of the film’s supporting cast, for that matter.

“I talked with a lady who was running this place and I asked her and she gave us a very good discount,” Koguashvili said recently. “Basically, we shot in a place where people lived and we used the rooms of people who actually lived there because during the day they went to work and in the evening, I would shoot them in our movie.”

For every bit as efficient as Koguashvili was behind the scenes, the messiness of life gloriously spills over into the the tender and idiosyncratic comedy that he fashioned with his former NYU professor Boris Frumin. While the director now knows the terrain well, it’s all foreign territory for Kakhi (Levan Tedaishvili), a retired wrestler who crosses the ocean after learning his son Soso (Giorgi Tabidze) has gotten in trouble with the local mob in New York, gambling away any money he has when he should be pursuing a medical degree. Discipline didn’t make it past Kakhi in the bloodline, but he intends to bring order to the situation with his arrival in Brighton Beach, filmed in all its bleak beauty during the winter by Alexander Payne and James Mangold’s frequent cinematographer Phedon Papamichael.

“Brighton 4th” revels in the chaos Kakhi finds, observing the gentle giant quietly navigate the hostel where his roommate will occasionally break into an opera aria without impetus and his steel-framed bed with rustle against the shelves jerry-rigged from pipes as he tries to sleep or recognizes it’ll take more than wrestling exercises to enable Soso to feel as if he can breathe again. The film itself comes off as a breath of fresh air when the more Koguashvili leans into the authenticity of the community, the more endearingly surreal the film becomes and after having quite the homecoming last summer at the Tribeca Film Festival where it won prizes for Best International Narrative Feature, Best Screenplay and Best Actor for the nonprofessional Tedaishvili, it is now traveling across the country and recently, the filmmaker graciously spoke about telling a cross-continental story on a spartan budget, the collaboration that emerged with Papamichael after the DP had seen one of Koguashvili’s films as a juror at Karlovy Vary, and how limitations were continually inspiring creativity on the production.

You’ve said you had been collecting stories from Brighton Beach since your days studying film at NYU. How did they end up coalescing into this narrative?

It took some time. The collection was very active 10, 12 years ago when I was a student at NYU, and I did three or four films about immigrants, [which] mostly all were around Brighton Beach, so I became kind of an expert. Also I was lucky that my interest in this subject happened at the same time as when Georgian immigration was very active in America. We are mostly talking about people who came over on tourist visas and overstayed those visas and then stayed illegally in America, so [they had] no papers, bad jobs and very bad knowledge of English language, so all of that created lots of stories. Now, 15 years later, most of them have papers somehow because they married or they became legal. They have better jobs. They know English. When I was there, it was about survival. And survival is always related with amazing stories and when I was at NYU looking for stories, I was like a hunter going to this neighborhood and listening to the people living in these hostels and making notes.

Is it true Kahki hadn’t been a wrestler originally?

Okay, this is something Boris Frumin, the scriptwriter, created. In real life, during my research in Brighton Beach, I met this father during my research in Brighton Beach who came to New York to save his son who was a drug addict and he was just an ordinary guy from Georgia, more or less in farming, but it was Boris’ idea to turn him into a wrestler because [there is] something specific about behavior, about attitude towards life, this very specific sense of dignity. In a way, he’s a samurai and wrestling is an important sport in Georgia where lots of champions came from and the wrestling [itself] is very cinematic. You can shoot the exercises and all that kind of stuff, so it was Boris’ idea, which was great.

Levan Tedeshvili is an actual legend in the sport. How did you think of him for the role?

Yeah, a great two-time Olympic champion and he was once in a Georgian movie in the ‘80s and I remembered him from this movie. At some point, the main decision was to shoot a real wrestler in this role rather than find an actor who could turn into ex-wrestler, so I started looking amongst ex-wrestlers and when I met Levan, I was moved so much right away by his presence on the screen. We did a couple video tapes and how he looked up and how he behaved was a combination of some strength and some delicacy, which I liked very much. And Levan is a very unique person because he had great victories throughout his sports career, but also great personal tragedy because in 1992, he went to a war with his son, who died in his hands — he basically carried his son to the hospital. So when you have this life experience of a very strong man, a great champion with such a personal tragedy and with a very interesting physical appearance, you have this great character.

There’s many nonprofessional actors in this. Were you tailoring the script to them after they were cast?

Yes, I got used to working with nonprofessional actors on my other feature films that were made in Georgia, so I know how to work with nonprofessionals, especially the dialects because you adjust to how they talk and pretty much you ask them to come up with their own lines, but be very careful not to go too much. It’s about controlling, but at the same time bring as much from them as possible because they have this amazing true presence. Of course they have limitations, so it’s about how you shoot them. I can’t afford to do long takes with complicated mise-en-scene – it’s about mostly coverage when you’re working with them, so you change your style according to how you’re shooting and what they can do, but using them as actors enriches the film because they bring this amazing truth.

You’re working with one of the best cinematographers in the business in Phedon Papamichael. Did that make it any easier?

It was a great experience. I learned a lot being on the set with Phedon and I like [his movies] with Alexander Payne or the great film called “Pursuit of Happyness” with Will Smith, which I loved. Phedon generously agreed to work on the film for a very small fee and on our small budget movie, he brought this very interesting look and he’s used to working with a huge crew and with us, he was working with a very small crew, so how he managed to get the best quality out of this, it was amazing, working with minimal light and working very fast. Besides having a great cinematographer [for this film], I was learning a lot and it enriched me a lot as a filmmaker for future projects as well.

Was there anything that happened that changed your ideas of what this could be?

A couple of accidents. The main actor Levan broke his hands on day five of shoot because we shot this wrestling scene when it was a very nice foggy day on the beach. It was all in the mist and we loved it, so we rushed on the beach to shoot and maybe we rushed a little bit too much. Levan is a very, very stubborn person and I understand absolutely nothing about wrestling, so he did some trick because he wanted to show me how to do it and he fell down with another guy and he broke his hand. We only shot about 30 percent of what we needed for the scene and we had to stop, and I was absolutely devastated until the end of the shoot because how can you continue shooting a movie with someone who is 70 and who is not feeling well overall? But he is a very disciplined man and he told me, “I will come tomorrow on the set.” He really came with a cast on his hand [the next day] and continued shooting for another three weeks. We were always hiding his broken hand and it was difficult, and another actor Kakhi Kavsadze, who sings the song at the end, he suddenly needed surgery in New York, so it was another stop and we had some kind of health issues all the time, but overcoming obstacles is a part of the process.

I can’t imagine mounting a cross-continental shoot like this – how much of a challenge was it?

Many people in Georgia were skeptical that we’d be able to shoot this movie on this budget in New York, and when I was in New York in film school, it was easier of course because I was in this environment, shooting with my classmates, so I knew how to do it on a low budget, but after moving back home and coming to New York again after eight or nine years, it was a little bit difficult to go into the same river. Somehow we got used to it pretty [quickly] and found our way how to make it.

And you actually made it to New York for the premiere at Tribeca. What was that like for you?

It was amazing because it’s a movie shot in New York and somehow it’s about New York. This city gave me so much as a filmmaker and as a person, it’s a place where I learned to be a filmmaker and I love this city very much. In my strange immigrant way, it’s my expression of my love to this city. [laughs] So having a world premiere in New York was very special and it was also one of the first festivals that took place more physically [during the pandemic], so it was great to be there.

“Brighton 4th” is now open in New York and will open in Los Angeles on February 11th. A full list of theaters and dates is here.

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