As part of the Russian promotional campaign for Universal’s big-budget summer action picture Wanted, director Timur Bekmambetov and his team unleashed on the Internet a two-minute video featuring a manager laying waste to his office.
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Night Watch man: Timur Bekmambetov
“Over the next few days, millions of people downloaded it,” says Bekmambetov, a short, round, friendly Kazakhstan-born Russian in his mid-40s, unassumingly dressed in shorts and black-and-white print shirt. “It was so touchable for millions, and I think this story will also be.”
Wanted — which stars James McAvoy as Wesley, a dweeby accountant who, via a secret society of assassins dedicated to bringing order to the world’s chaos, discovers his true calling as a killer — is crammed with arty, effects-laden set pieces involving torture, curved bullets and occasional pauses to ponder identity, freedom and the bountiful lips of Angelina Jolie. Bekmambetov happily agrees that the movie may be the year’s fastest, bloodiest and chattiest Hollywood picture, but he denies that it’s a celebration of ruthlessness. To him, the superbly executed scenes of mayhem and special effects are merely extensions of what he sees as a deeply existential drama larded with ancient Greek tragedy and contemporary social commentary.
Bekmambetov, who’s based in Moscow, talked to a lot of young Americans like Wesley about their situations and their dreams. “Unfortunately,” he says, laughing, “their imaginations are very bloody, very violent. They don’t say so, because people never say what they think, but there’s a lot of aggression and anger. But I like this generation, they’re very smart, and I’m very sorry that they are spending their lives in such predictable ways.”
That’s a fate Bekmambetov, who grew up in a small town on the Caspian Sea in a family with little interest in the arts, only narrowly escaped. Though he remembers being impressed by the 1969 Gregory Peck Western Mackenna’s Gold, American movies were mostly forbidden under Soviet rule. Growing up, Bekmambetov saw mostly Italian films — Fellini, Pasolini, Visconti. After a brief stint studying electrical engineering when he arrived in Moscow at age 17, he became a painter, attending an academy of art, where, following in the footsteps of his much older brother-in-law, Bekmambetov got into theater production design. “Then one day I went to a movie at 10 in the morning after a hard night out with friends,” he says. “I had a headache, and when the movie finished, I smoked a cigarette and decided I had to change my life.” The movie was Italian director Marco Ferreri’s Dillinger Is Dead (1969), a bloody, quasi-experimental meditation on the horrors of everyday life. “I found it very mysterious,” he says. “It’s exactly the story of Wesley.”
Bekmambetov turned to directing because he couldn’t find a director to work with, and to producing for the same reason. His hectic, immensely entertaining sci-fi horror movies Night Watch and Day Watch, released in the United States in the past two years, blew away the Russian box office (Night Watch outgrossed The Lord of the Rings in Moscow), turned the hidebound local film industry on its head and put the director on Hollywood’s radar. But, Bekmambetov says, it was the arty commercials his production company made for hungry post-Soviet consumers that shaped his frenetic, self-reflexive aesthetic and his populist commitment to pleasing audiences rather than critics or other filmmakers.
“Commercials taught me how to make multilayered things,” he says. “You know that people will see your ad 10 times or more, so you have to add mythology or characters that can’t be seen the first time. In Wanted, it’s the same. It’s an entertainment, a bouffe, a show. But underneath are real characters. Angelina’s character has a very touchable, tragic story,” he insists. “You can understand why she’s a killer — she’s not just cool.”
In keeping with its comic book roots, Wanted — whose three female characters are Wesley’s fat, hostile boss; his unfaithful girlfriend; and Jolie, whose Fox trains Wesley by running him through punishing torture routines — isn’t what I’d call girl-friendly. “I’m sure women want to be Fox,” Bekmambetov insists.
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“She creates this man and helps him to be free. She’s a feminist, there’s no cheesy love story, but their relationship has romantic tension. I think this was subversive, because she’s a warrior, a soldier, and it would be too silly if they suddenly fell in love.”
Whether female audiences will embrace Wanted remains to be seen, and it’s the audience that matters to Bekmambetov. That may be par for the course among American studio directors, but in Russia, which was dominated for so long by arty, government-funded cinema most of the public ignored, it’s fighting capitalist talk. Just as making commercials was a kind of drug, Bekmambetov says, so “the feeling that you are talking to a big audience is unique, and even now, when I make a movie, I still need this kind of relationship with an audience.”
The filmmaker doesn’t enjoy writing: Wanted is adapted by Michael Brandt, Derek Haas and Chris Morgan from the comic books by Mark Millar and J.G. Jones. “I like to talk and have dialogue,” Bekmambetov says. “When I make a movie, I imagine the audience, and I can feel when I have to change the subject. It’s witchcraft, you know? And it’s not just the money. It gives you the courage to do the next thing.”
Will he do his next thing here in the States? “The audience will decide,” he says, grinning broadly. Could he put down roots here in Los Angeles? He gazes out the window. “The weather is good,” he says, shrugging. “But that’s not a reason to be here.”