Joining the grand tradition of globetrotting thrillers in which the hero has plenty of excitement in his life yet no one to share it with, as his questionable activities require him to be as elusive emotionally as physically, it is considerably exciting in “Siberia” to see the lonely Lukas Hill finally draw some romantic attention, though it was a problem offscreen for director Matthew Ross, when it came from fans of the actor playing Hill, Keanu Reeves, especially when the production had to shoot in the St. Petersburg Airport.
“[In] a country where Keanu is revered like a God among every single person in that place, to shoot a scene where he’s walking through crowds of people and not getting stared at as Keanu Reeves, but rather just walking through a crowd of people as if he’s Lukas Hill, an unknown diamond dealer walking through a St. Petersburg airport, that was a challenge for sure,” recalls Ross. “[It was] very stressful to have someone of Keanu’s stature walking through crowds of strangers, keeping him safe, making sure the scene was perfect and right. Getting him out of that airport was a relief once we were wrapped for sure.”
Of course, besides the not-so-small matter of his fame, Reeves is ideally cast as Hill, who heads to Russia with plans to sell a cache of exotic blue diamonds to a local gangster (Pasha D. Lynchnikoff), only to discover that his partner Pytor holding the gems has gone missing, leading him to the small Siberian village of Mirny to get in touch with his brother. While Pytor is nowhere to be found, Hill nonetheless discovers something of interest in Mirny, catching the eye of a local cafe owner named Katya (Ana Ularu), and although the two have little in common, their shared loneliness thrusts them into a torrid romance that comes to rival the adrenaline-fueled action required by Hill’s line of work. Not only is Reeves perfectly suited for the part, but so is Ularu, who is bound to feel like as much of a revelation to audiences as Katya is to Lukas, as well as Ross, whose debut film “Frank & Lola” centered on a tortured love affair in which the past is constantly rearing its ugly head and brings out the danger in “Siberia”’s core relationship when a coupling first entered into out of convenience starts to get messy once feelings get involved.
As “Siberia” rolls out into theaters, Ross spoke about making the small and intimate feel so big, both in terms of the romance and the production as a whole, as well as the ongoing collaborations behind the scenes that continue to enrich his work and working from a script that he didn’t originate himself for the first time, though knew was good when it came from “A Simple Plan” author Scott B. Smith.
How did this come about?
The process of making “Siberia” could not have been more different than the process of making “Frank and Lola.” “Frank and Lola” was a movie that I wrote and tried to get made for eight years and during that time, I was constantly developing the script so that by the time we went into production, it was baked into my DNA. With “Siberia,” I didn’t generate the initial idea for the film. I was approached by Keanu and his team to direct it because this was a project that they had been developing with the writer Scott Smith, a phenomenally wonderful writer and man. I was very intrigued not just by the script and its possibilities, but also the possibility of working with an actor like Keanu, who is somebody I had a tremendous amount of admiration for and [was interested in] specifically exploring a more intimate, vulnerable, tender side of him that I think audiences aren’t used to seeing. That possibility I found to be tantalizing and it was definitely a major reason for me to sign on to direct the movie.
It does seem to share some similarities with “Frank and Lola” in terms of how you approach the romance between Lukas and Katya as if their relationship was a bit of a boxing match. Was that something that was inherent in the script or something you brought out?
Structurally, the arc between Lukas and Katya from what I was given to where it ends up, it’s pretty close [to what it was originally], following Lukas to Siberia to try to track down his partner and these missing diamonds, getting stuck there and falling into an unexpectedly meaningful and passionate affair that becomes something bigger with Katya, a fierce character in her own right, but whose origins are less glamorous and opulent than Lukas’ are. But I certainly saw the intimacy, the rawness, the revelation of character through that relationship, things that I think are also there in “Frank and Lola,” although they are quite different as well.
How did you find someone who could measure up to Keanu Reeves in Ana Ularu?
She’s amazing, isn’t she? I found Ana through the wonderful Susan Shopmaker, a very well-known New York casting director who had cast “Frank and Lola” for me. Her taste is just impeccable and when we were trying to find Katya, she knew exactly what we needed, which was just a fiercely talented and fearless actor. Ana certainly checked all the boxes, and she put herself on tape, we interviewed each other and then I decided to cast her in the movie. It was among the best decisions I made. I couldn’t imagine this movie with anyone else but her. The chemistry between her and Keanu and the work that the three of us did together before we went into production was just as much fun as I ever had professionally, just workshopping with two fellow creative people and figuring out exactly what it was that made these two tick and how to find their arc and reveal their character through behavior. They were both just ideal collaborators and I think they both brought out things in each other that neither one of them expected. That kind of magic is what you’re trying to capture when you’re making a film.
During that time you spend together, are you working on the physicality of the performances as well? The sex scenes in the film speak a lot about the characters.
Yeah, we actually workshopped and rehearsed all the sex scenes alone, together in a room leading up to production, which was something I didn’t have the chance to do on “Frank and Lola,” and it was a really great experience for a number of reasons. To begin with, it helped take the pressure off. If you’re walking onto the set and having people take off their clothes for the first time, or kiss or make out or simulate whatever they’re simulating for the first time in front of everybody, it’s a lot more scary than if the three of you have done it or worked on it in private. It demystifies it, takes the pressure off and it makes things less tense.
And both [Ana and Keanu] were incredibly courageous and just wonderful when it came to the more intimate stuff. They were fearless and to be able to joke about that stuff while you’re rehearsing it takes the bad air out of a balloon in a really nice way so when you’re actually shooting it, you can explore it in a very safe environment on a closed set with a level of confidence and familiarity that was just essential. Everything they say about making those scenes is true – it can be really awkward. It’s not like all of a sudden a sexy vibe comes over the set. You’re still making a movie. It’s work. But it’s also very intimate and very emotional and that’s something that we’ve all signed up to do. We want to capture the intimacy and the emotion and have it be raw and real so that when viewers experience it in watching the film, that’s what they feel. But it certainly helped to prep for that extensively before we actually shot those scenes.
You’re also able to set such a great tone from the start with Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans’ score where there’s that deconstructed percussion as the film opens and then the bigger orchestral sound that hearkens back to ‘60s spy thrillers kicks in. What was it like to find that sound with them?
Danny and Saunder are just wizards and incredibly talented human beings who I’ve gotten the opportunity to work with twice now. I just love the music in “Siberia” and film score is something that I pay a ton of attention to. We were working with sketches of those ideas from very early on in the editing process, which was very helpful because that music really helped us discover the film in the editing room. I made it very clear that I wanted them to swing for the fences on everything and not to be afraid to just go big and go bold and to try things out. They certainly answered the call. We were going for this Tchiakovsky meets Bernard Herrmann with a little bit of Eastern European folk music thrown in there and the beauty of working with Danny and Saunder is they can take that little bit of bizarre description and turn it into something that actually reflects that and makes it even better than you thought was possible. I think the music in this film really, really plays an essential role in setting the tone very early on and I can’t wait to make another movie with them.
The choice of locations throughout also gives that grandeur of an international mystery, yet I imagine you had limited resources. How did you pull it off?
Matthew Ross: You know, we shot all of the interiors of Saint Petersburg in Winnipeg, and then we shot all of the St. Petersburg exteriors in St. Petersburg and that was really the challenge because St. Petersberg and Winnipeg really could not be any more different in terms of their visual aesthetic. Luckily, we had a phenomenal production designer in Jean-Andre Carriere to create those hotel rooms from scratch inside the ballroom of an actual functioning hotel in Winnipeg. Then of course I had my wonderful cinematographer Eric Koretz, who along with Danny and Saunder, I worked with on “Frank and Lola,” so the combination of Eric and Jean and their respective departments were just essential in creating that opulent, decadent St. Petersburg feel inside a city that certainly does not have St. Petersburg’s grandiosity. If you felt that, that’s a real huge compliment because that was something we really created from scratch.