Russian Director Kirill Serebrennikov Talks ‘Limonov, the Ballad of Eddie’ With Ben Whishaw (EXCLUSIVE)

·7-min read

Iconoclastic Russian auteur Kirill Serebrennikov (“Leto,” “Petrov’s Flu”) will be unveiling footage in Cannes from his new work-in-progress film “Limonov, the Ballad of Eddie,” starring Ben Whishaw as radical Russian poet and dissident Eduard Limonov and Viktoria Miroshnichenko (“Beanpole”) as his wife Elena.

Serebrennikov, who will coming to Cannes with his latest completed work “Tchaikovsky’s Wife,” premiering in competition, was shooting “Limonov” in Russia when the war broke out. The director has since been able to leave the country and will complete the rest of the shoot in Europe.

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A “Limonov” promo reel will be unspooled for buyers in Cannes on May 17.

Based on the best-selling book by Emmanuelle Carrere, “Limonov” depicts the adventures of non-conformist poet and provocateur Eduard Limonov, who grew up in what today is the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. He escaped from what was then the Soviet Union for the U.S., where he became a switchblade-waving punk poet, and also a butler to a Manhattan millionaire before turning into a fashion writer and literary sensation in Paris. After the fall of Communism, Limonov moved back to Russia, where he founded the nostalgic National Bolshevik Party, becoming an idol for many Russian youths, and was incarcerated by Vladimir Putin.

Serebrennikov himself has had troubles with Putin. He was sentenced in June 2020 to a three-year suspended sentence on trumped-up charges that kept him under house arrest for a while and had prevented him from leaving the country. He says that history literally came crashing in on the “Limonov” shoot in Moscow where elaborate sets of New York’s Fifth Avenue had been built but were not used.

The plan is to now complete “Limonov” by shooting its New York-set portion during a six-week shoot in a still unspecified European studio starting in June or July. The goal is to then launch the long-gestating “Limonov” on the festival circuit in spring 2023, said the film’s Italian producers Mario Gianani and Lorenzo Gangarossa. They also noted that with a budget north of 10 million ($10.5 million), this is Serebrennikov’s biggest-budget film to date.

Written by Pawel Pawlikowski, Ben Hopkins and Serebrennikov, “Limonov” is produced by Wildside and Chapter 2 and co-produced by Pathé, Fremantle España, France 3 Cinema and Vision Distribution. France Télévisions, Canal Plus and Ciné Plus are the French broadcasters. The film is produced by Mario Gianani and Lorenzo Gangarossa for Wildside, a Fremantle company; Dimitri Rassam for Chapter 2, a Mediawan company; Ilya Stewart, and coproduced by Ardavan Safaee for Pathé. Pawlikowski will also serve as executive producer. International sales are being handled by Pathé in collaboration with Vision Distribution.

Serebrennikov is represented by CAA and Granderson Des Rochers LLP.

The director spoke exclusively to Variety about the project.

What is your connection to the book and to Limonov as a character?

I read the book a little bit late, after I got the script from the producers written by Pavel Pawlikowski and Ben Hopkins. For me, this figure is part of my life. I grew up in the south of Russia at a time when Perestroika started and later was transformed into something else, which is more or less contemporary Russia today. Limonov at the time was one of the figures who became of real value for the young generation. He was like a kind of avant-garde rockstar. Of course all young people who didn’t want to be part of the establishment or work for the “system” — and normally youngsters like to be “against” — [for them] Limonov provided a good example of how to do this. His Limonka newspaper and his [National Bolshevik] party became kind of the equivalent of a rock club for thinking young people who didn’t want to be part of Russia’s new political establishment.

How significant is it that Limonov grew up in what is today the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv?

When I heard in the news that Russian troops were bombing the city where he grew up and saw the pictures, I was shocked. When you work on Limonov’s story and read all his books and put everything in perspective, and then you see the reality crashing in and showing you fire, smoke, explosions and bombings — probably of the building where Limonov had his home — it’s something very striking and strange. I don’t know how to explain it.

If you watch Limonov’s interviews they tell you a lot about the war that is raging in Ukraine now. He somehow predicted the war. In a way, what is happening today is probably a realization of his dreams and his [nationalist] ideas. His idea of resuscitating the Soviet Union empire. But I have this strange notion, probably wrong, that since Eddie was so contradictory — wanting to be part of the established powers, but also as an avant-guard poet always wanting to go against the grain — that probably today Eddie would be somewhere on the sidelines saying: “No. It’s [the war that’s] wrong!” Because Eddie, the character Eddie, is always alone. He’s always against; he’s always outside of the crowd. His ego led him into solitude and loneliness and desperation.

Talk to me about casting Ben Whishaw (see interview with Whishaw)

Eddie needs a brilliant actor and Ben fits that description. Aside from reading the books and seeing millions of interviews, he comes to Eddie via his instinctive animal-like nature. Not from the head, but from deep inside his gut. Like a dog following a scent. It’s incredible how in front of the camera he starts being Eddie. It’s something that only great actors can do.

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

The book was written for Western readers, so the film should also be for the wider audience. English provides another lens for portraying Eddie. Kind of a distance. Reading the Carrere book probably provides non-Russians with a better understanding of Russia and what is happening there.

What was it like being on set in Russia as the war broke out?

If you asked me February 23, “Is it really possible that there will be a war with Ukraine?” Me and the people in my circle, we just didn’t think this this was a realistic possibility. I would have said, “no, never.”

When it started, we were shooting the film and people on set were looking at various news services on their phones. And there was this kind of pause. And silence. For a few days we were all speechless. [But] of course we had a task to carry out. And I pushed people, saying “We need to do our job.” But this inner silence became bigger and bigger [and turned into] this huge feeling of catastrophe. I immediately understood that we were inside Limonov’s dreams. It all somehow came together with the film that we were shooting. And we looked at each other in disbelief.

How were you able to leave Russia?

I was in Moscow without being able to leave due to the fact that I had been sentenced. But, in accordance with Russian law, after serving half the sentence I applied for permission to travel. And permission was granted. It took longer than I expected, but it’s given me the chance to be in Berlin and Amsterdam and attend festivals.

What can you tell me about the “Limonov” footage that will be shown in Cannes?

We managed to shoot half of the film. They [buyers] will see footage shot in Russia. It’s the beginning of Eddie’s life and the last part of the period of his life that’s in the film, which is up until the beginning of the new century, up to around 2004. The U.S. portion of the film, set in the 1980s, will be shot in Europe.

Of course, it’s a pastiche of his life; it’s not [linear] narrative storytelling. It’s a crazy biography of one of the most influential and controversial Russian writers and characters. Of course, Limonov started out as a poet, so it’s a poetical biography. We are using metaphors, pauses and other poetical tools to show a version of his crazy life.

We have this running joke on set. I always say: ‘The film is shooting itself by itself.”

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