In director Andrei Khvostov’s first feature film, St Petersburg, premiering in the city on 16 September, relationships are fraught with complexity. First there’s protagonist Elliot’s relationship with his newly discovered half-brother, Fyodor. Then there’s a love triangle with Fyodor’s girlfriend, Anya. Both experiences, says Khvostov, are based on his own life. But it is the city of St Petersburg, to which the film is dedicated, that takes centre stage. Khvostov returned to St Petersburg in 2011 after a five-year stint in New York to create a personal film that shows his native city in all of its glory.
What is it about St Petersburg that made you want to set your debut film there?
Even though I hadn’t lived in St Petersburg for a while, I still knew things about the city that only a true insider would know and I wanted to share those with the audience. Everyone I invited to work on the project wanted to tell a story — simple and intimate, with our beloved city playing the lead role. Because we’re all from here, everyone had their own experience to offer, from their favourite places to more personal stories. Crucially, we all felt the responsibility to make something that would represent the city abroad. So it was part pragmatism, part patriotism. There are quite a few films shot in St Petersburg such as The Stroll and Piter FM, to name a few Russian examples. But it always felt to me that the city deserved to be an even bigger part of the story.
St Petersburg director Andrei Khvostov
What are origins of the story and what inspired you to make it?
The story formed after I returned to the city in 2011. The plot revolves around Elliot, who moves from the UK to teach English and discovers that his father has a love child in St Petersburg from a visit decades earlier. All of the film’s storylines are in some way based on my own life. Elliot’s relationship with his father and the love triangle with his half-brother’s girlfriend, Anya. No matter how different they seem on the outside, there’s plenty of me in both brothers. It was an interesting challenge. One represents how my father sees me — a pointless slacker — while the other is how I see myself — an uptight workaholic.
This was your first feature film. How did you turn your idea into reality?
I turned 25 and felt that it’s time to do it. I had the right education, experience and friends who happened to work in film so there was a crew right there. Plus I personally knew several amazing actors who I really wanted to work with. Then it was just sharing my idea with everyone involved and getting their approval. I don’t think I heard one single no. The story was that universal. I was especially lucky with my friend Mikhail Pogolsha. I showed him the synopsis and asked him to find out if anyone would invest. He read it right there and told me he would. He did and then found other people to finance the film as well. Everybody I worked with wanted to tell a story that was simple and intimate with our beloved city playing the central role.
“Everybody I worked with wanted to tell a story that was simple and intimate with our beloved city playing the central role”
Given that you directed your first feature at such a young age, what surprised you the most?
That it actually happened. Of course, I knew that after we’d locked down the financing and scheduling there was no turning back but I was still worried because I’d never done it before, right? I knew so little when I started, despite having scriptwriting and theatre experience.
Still from St Petersburg
How would you describe the style of the film? Where did you look for inspiration?
I love what Sergei [Yevtushenko, the film’s composer] said about it: “It almost feels like the director is stepping aside to get out of the way of the story.” This is exactly what I’ve tried to achieve. It’s very simple and very pure. It’s quite old-fashioned in that way. It’s very true to the story and characters, or at least that’s what people have said. I was inspired by my favourite films — Lost in Translation, Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Once and Russian Dolls. They’re all very simple love stories with no melodrama. Yet they address issues very true to life, raising questions that keep you up at night. But they do it subtly without shouting. That’s what I tried to copy from then, this quiet manner of telling a story.
Do you regard yourself as part of a new wave in Russian cinema?
For the crew and myself, it was about telling this story and that’s what kept us going. I feel that Russian cinema needs to find a way to sell itself internationally and given that I used to live in the US, I hope I’ll be able to help with this. That’s the primary aim behind the name of my production company, Bear in Mind Films — the idea is to bring together Russian talent to create films that will have international appeal.