With the coronavirus forcing cinemas around the world to close their doors, many films are not getting the theatrical release they originally planned. While that affects countless directors, perhaps no one deserves to feel more disappointed than a first-time filmmaker who was about to see the culmination of years of hard work on the silver screen. But Russian filmmaker Kirill Sokolov is surprisingly upbeat. He’s just excited for people to see his debut feature, Why Don’t You Just Die!, which releases on Blu-ray and Digital HD in the UK and US today.
And it couldn’t come a moment too soon—because Why Don’t You Just Die! is the perfect movie for this unprecedented situation we currently find ourselves in. Not only is the film primarily set inside one small apartment, something which is all too familiar to many of us right now, but it’s such a deliriously good time that it makes for the ultimate distraction. You will gasp. You will wince. But most of all, you will laugh.
An extremely bloody black comedy, Why Don’t You Just Die! opens on a young man, Matvey (Aleksandr Kuznetsov), trying to gain entry to his girlfriend’s parents’ apartment. His objective? Kill her father (Vitaliy Khaev) with a hammer to restore her honour. Of course, things don’t exactly go to plan—and as dark family secrets are revealed, the blood begins to flow.
I was lucky enough to catch the North American premiere of Why Don’t You Just Die! at What the Fest!? in New York City last year (read my review here). Ever since, I’ve been eagerly awaiting the opportunity to share this film with others.
So, to celebrate the film’s release, I caught up with Sokolov to discuss his bold debut—and to find out exactly how much blood, sweat, and tears goes into making such a bloody, brilliant film. (Mild spoilers ahead!)
SCREAM: First of all, congratulations on your debut feature! Can you tell us a little about your journey as a filmmaker and what led you to make this film?
KIRILL SOKOLOV: I’m a physicist, I even worked in a lab, and I finished university in 2012. During my studies, my friend and I decided to make short movies just for fun with ketchup and chicken guts—kind of Troma movies without any kind of screenplays. We made one, two, three and then I decided it could be nice to write a script. So I wrote a script and we continued. And when I finished university, I understood that this hobby brought much more fun than a regular job, so I decided to take the risk and try to become a filmmaker. And six years later, voilà—Why Don’t You Just Die!
But yes, it took six years. I made a lot of short movies, I worked as an editor on a few feature films, I made music videos and commercials, so I had a lot of practice. Why Don’t You Just Die! was my sixth full-length script, because each year I wrote a script, and they were not very good. It’s a good thing that Why Don’t You Just Die! was the first one that turned into a movie, because the previous ones were shitty. But it was a good practice, because I believe you can only learn to make movies by making them. And then, finally, I met the right producer, and he made this movie happen.
A long journey but definitely worthwhile. I know the film was supposed to get a theatrical release earlier this month, which obviously isn’t possible anymore, but it did very well on the festival circuit last year. Were you surprised that the film has resonated so much with foreign audiences?
You know, it was a really big surprise for me because I thought that it would be interesting for Russians mostly, because it has really Russian characters and a lot of Russian mentality. But when I wrote the script, I used very understandable genre cliches—things from revenge movies, movies about getting money back, corrupt cop movies, and all this stuff—and put these genre cliches into the Russian culture and Russian mentality. I think that because the core of this movie is familiar to everybody, people understand this picture very well and react to it.
But of course, when I saw how people laughed in the cinema in the same places as Russian people, it was the best present for me as a filmmaker. I knew that, okay, my picture works everywhere and people understand it very well. That was a big surprise and I’m very happy about it. You know, when you spend two years—three years including writing—on your work and you put your heart in it and all your soul, you really hope people will see your work. And when it travels all around the world and it makes people from different cultures and different mentalities feel something, laugh… It’s amazing.
I can certainly attest that when I saw it in the cinema in New York, the whole audience was roaring with laughter. But in addition to being really funny and just a good time to watch, there’s some critique of modern Russian society. Was it important to you to tell a story that felt distinctly Russian even though some of the themes are universal?
It’s really strange because we are educated in this way that there are no things just for fun—that if you are writing or making music or making a movie, you can’t do it just for fun, because it will be empty. You always have to put some kind of pain into it—your own pain, or a reflection of the reality. And this idea seeps very deep into your mind. So even though I really tried to make a very fun movie that people would really enjoy watching, still, because I tried to make it very honest, you put your own reflection of the world you’re living in. Because I’m living in Russia of course, there are a lot of social and political comments in it. But I didn’t want that to be at the forefront. First and foremost, it must be a fun movie.
A lot of critics are comparing your work to the likes of Quentin Tarantino, which must be a very flattering comparison for a first-time filmmaker. Were there any other major influences that inspired this film?
Truthfully, there are a lot of them. You can find a lot of Sergio Leone and Spaghetti Western motifs in it—we even call this movie an “apartment Western”—and I’m a big fan of South Korean movies, so there are a lot of emotional colours and music that came from South Korean cinema. When I wrote the script, I was very inspired by Martin McDonagh, because he has a really interesting sense of irony and the things in his stories are so bad they become funny. It’s very close to my understanding of irony.
Danny Boyle, Guy Ritchie, [Robert] Rodriguez, Edgar Wright… There are a lot of different directors because I’m a movie geek. I’ve watched a lot of different movies throughout my life, and of course, you automatically put your experience into the work. But at the same time, I really tried to make it very unique and to put this Russian culture and mentality in it and to make it original. I don’t know if I succeeded. [Laughs] I tried.
I think it’s great. You talked about your sense of humour and irony, and one of the things that’s really interesting about the film is that no one is particularly good or innocent, and lots of bad things happen to them, so there’s a lot of ironic humour in that. But were you concerned at all when you were writing the script that the audience would have nobody to root for?
The thing is, all of them are not very good, but at the same time, they’re not very bad. They are bad people, but still, I feel empathy for all of them and I worry for all of them, because they are victims of their circumstances and their sins and their weaknesses. They are very human.
For example, when we meet the father, we see that he’s a monster. He hits a guy, he’s full of anger, he’s very rude to his wife, and we start to hate him. But there’s a very funny moment after he drills Matvey’s leg when he comes into the kitchen absolutely confused because of the information the guy gave him. He is like a big child. We immediately understand him and we start to sympathize with him, even though he’s just drilled a guy’s leg. But in this moment, he’s such a weak human. And of course, Matvey faces such an evil environment and struggles so much for his survival that for the audience, it will be interesting just to see if he will go through all this torture or just die in the middle.
It’s definitely one of those films that you can’t shut off—you need to see what happens at the end. And you do that with such a small cast. What was the casting process like for the key roles?
It was a long casting process because it was difficult to find the specific actors in Russia. The thing is, Why Don’t You Just Die! isn’t a typical movie for Russia. We don’t have too many genre movies. Mostly it’s very grey, monochromatic, slow dramas or political propaganda movies about the war. It was really difficult to keep this movie easygoing. It was difficult to find an actor, for example, around 50 years old who was willing to laugh at himself, because usually in Russia, if you are 50, you are very sad. [Laughs] So I tried to find actors who still had a sense of irony and who could do the horrible things in the script, but still look nice.
It’s not just the cast that’s small; the film is very contained, with the majority of it taking place within that small apartment which becomes increasingly beaten up. Was it challenging to shoot the film in such a small space?
I knew that I wouldn’t have a lot of money because it was my debut, so when I wrote the script, I kept this in mind. That’s why I wrote a story that was mostly based in one location with few actors. But you have to think about how you’re going to entertain the audience, who must look at the same walls and the same wallpaper for 90 minutes. And it’s not easy. So that’s how I had this idea about an “apartment Western,” and each scene, I tried to re-open the location and show the space from different points of view, with different camera movement styles.
The set was built, and each wall could move and be taken away just to have an opportunity to put the camera there to make the visual language very rich—because otherwise, the movie would be boring. Because if somebody told me they just saw a very fun movie full of action in one apartment, I would say, “Oh no—sounds like the most boring movie you could ever see.” So that was the challenge. And I tried to make it as fun as possible.
Certainly not boring. You mentioned that Russian films tend to be a little more monochromatic, whereas this film is very colourful. I noticed that red and green are prominent colors throughout the film. Obviously there’s a lot of red blood, but was there a deeper meaning behind this colour palette?
It’s a funny thing. First of all, it brings the sense that there’s something wrong in this apartment. Green and yellow… There’s so much illness inside of it, and you feel that the people in this situation are kind of sick.
The other reason is to stay true to my experience. I lived for two years in an apartment with the same wallpaper—the same very harsh green colour. You can easily find these kinds of interiors in Russia. So I tried to mix that subconscious feeling [of sickness] with a real apartment that you could see.
When it comes to the style of the movie, you’re always changing things up a little bit to keep things interesting. Is there one scene that you’re particularly proud of, either in terms of the style or the way it came together?
I can tell you the scene that I’m really proud of in this movie, because when people watched the movie in the cinema, they all had really crazy reactions to it—it’s the scene when Matvey manages to take the pin from the plughole in the bath. It’s so disgusting that people start to watch it, think “No, he won’t do it,” then close their eyes. But then it continues and your feelings are kind of broken—it’s so long and so disgusting that you start to laugh hysterically. And I really like seeing the progression of how people react to this scene. Always, in any cinema, it ends with hysterical laughter and people shouting loudly at the screen. So I’m really proud of it. [Laughs]
It’s been about a year since I saw the film and that scene is definitely burned in my memory.
It was very simple to do. But you can easily feel what the character feels in that moment, so it works very emotionally.
You know, that’s not the answer I expected you to give, but I love that answer.
Now, obviously things are pretty crazy in the world right now and production on most films is halted. But when things get back to normal, what’s next for you?
We were going to start shooting my next movie at the beginning of May, but thanks to the coronavirus, that’s paused. I think we are moving it to the summer. But yes, we were in the middle of pre-production, and I hope that it will be a really fun movie. In some ways, it continues the theme of dysfunctional family. It’s about three generations of women—a 13-year-old girl, her mother, who is 30 years old, and her mother, who is 50 years old. And these three women struggle with each other, and this struggle leads to a huge chase including a corrupted cop, stolen cars, wild animals, a river, and so on and so on. It’s the opposite to Why Don’t You Just Die! because everything is outside, everything is in nature.
I feel like after a few months of isolating at home, it’s going to feel real good to go film outside.
Yeah! It’s funny, when you asked what was difficult about shooting inside the apartment, the truth is, there was a lot of action in the bathroom. That meant five days on these three square meters in the bathroom. And that was very hard because you start to hate this small room. Let me out, let me out please!
Well it sounds like that won’t happen with your next movie at least! I have one last question for you: do you have a favourite scary movie?
Yes, of course! I think it’s obvious after you see Why Don’t You Just Die! that I’m a huge fan of Sam Raimi and his Evil Dead trilogy. Evil Dead II was the movie that, I think, changed my understanding of movies. I saw it in my very, very early childhood and it’s probably the movie I’ve seen most in my life, so it’s had a great influence on me.
I can definitely see that influence in the film, and Evil Dead is always a great answer. That’s all I’ve got for you—thank you so much for speaking with us!
Why Don’t You Just Die! is out now on Blu-ray and Digital HD in the UK and US, and will hit the Arrow Video Channel on May 4th.
Words: Samantha McLaren (@themeatispeople)