Kirill Serebrennikov on Directing Ben Whishaw as a Russian Punk Poet ‘Who Wanted to Start a War Against the Entire World’ in ‘Limonov: The Ballad’

Russian auteur Kirill Serebrennikov (“Leto,” “Petrov’s Flu,” “Tchaikovsky’s Wife”) is back in the Cannes competition with “Limonov,” an epic about Russian punk poet Eduard Limonov that the director describes as “probably the most complicated project in my life.”

Based on the best-selling book by Emmanuelle Carrere, “Limonov” delves into the story of its titular character who lived many lives. He was an underground writer in the Soviet Union who escaped to the U.S. where he became a punk-poet and also a butler to a millionaire in Manhattan. “Eddie” then became a literary sensation in Paris before returning to Russia where he morphed into a charismatic dissident party leader with rock star status, only to be incarcerated by Vladimir Putin.

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Serebrennikov was shooting “Limonov” in Moscow on Feb. 24, 2022, when Russia invaded Ukraine. The director – who himself has had troubles with Putin – was able to leave the country and eventually complete the rest of the shoot in Europe. Serebrennikov spoke to Variety about how history came crashing in on set and what it was like to direct Ben Whishaw to play this quintessentially Russian character.

Talk to me about having to relocate the “Limonov” shoot when the war broke out

I remember when were forced to stop we were all crying on the New York set that had been built in Moscow. Because of the war, all the actors and the crew just left and we didn’t shoot. It was like empty New York City, the New York set. And I was thinking: “never again, it’s the end of the film.” It was such a sad moment. And then cut, after six months, the producers, Lorenzo Gangarossa and Mario Gianani, called me, and said “Okay, we probably can continue. Let’s find a time when we can build a second New York set.” And then we started again in Riga. After that there was quite a long period of editing and sound and CGI. works.

Why is it important for “Limonov” to be an English-language film?

Look, of course, we decided to shoot at international project. The book was definitely written for Western readers. So we had no other choice but English. That’s why, after Ben was cast, this journey, this approach to grasping Limonov as a character took time. Because I needed to explain to an actor from the other side of the world, from another reality, the reality of a Russian writer; of Russian Imperialist; of a Russian poet who wanted to start a war against the entire world.

How did you work with Ben so that he could grasp Limonov’s complexities?

We translated numerous interviews by Limonov. He read all the books. The time he used for absorbing the spirit of this character was quite long. But from interview to interview, from book to book from talk to talk, I understood that he was becoming Limonov more and more. And it was kind of the magic his talent. It’s magic how a person can just become another person. I normally say that the best actor is like a clean slate. So for me, it was a miracle how Ben Whishaw, a British guy, who had no idea about this character beforehand was creating this creature. This new creature called Limonov, and the new creature was frighteningly similar to the original.

Do you feel Limonov’s story is even more relevant today because of the war?

As I mentioned, all events, everything happening around us, like war, leaving the country, completely the dramatic events we are witnessing right now with this terrible, bloody war. All of this, more or less belonged to Limonov’s universe. And it’s quite scary because it’s always scary if you find yourself in a horror movie. Or in some type of zombie apocalypse film. So that’s terrible, of course. But after all these terrible things started and the war started, I thought that probably it gave us a better understanding on this character and a better understanding on what the story is about, because everything becomes more concrete and dramatic.

Would you like this film to be seen in Russia?

Look, I’m not sure that they [Russians] are ready to watch it, and react to it. Because look, this war is very toxic. I mean, in general, people living in a state of war, they can’t react normally, they can’t accept an art film without any propaganda. And I’m afraid – probably I’m wrong – but I’m afraid that their acceptance or their reaction to this film wouldn’t be the same as it would be if it took place in a peaceful time.

Because right now Russians are living under a toxic cloud of propaganda. The craziness of war and the craziness of propaganda has poisoned everything there. Because of fear of being arrested; of being punished; being shamed or banned or something else; and cursed by ultra-patriots. Even though the ultra-patriots, of course, know that Limonov is on their flag.

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