It started off completely accidentally when I decided to learn Russian at school. I liked the language and Russian literature and carried on with it until I was 16. I then took my Russian exams and forgot all about it. About 20 years ago, I was working on a feature film in Warsaw, and made some friends there, who introduced me to an actor called Sigmund who was in Polanskyâs first film, âKnife in the Waterâ. At that time Sigmund Malanowicz was making films in Minsk as an actor and director, making films for $60,000, when the going rate at the time was $1 million-$2 million for even a low budget film. He didnât speak English, but he did speak Russian and I really wanted to talk to him but it was difficult. This whole experience made me want to get my Russian back again. Then the possibility of participating in a film, a BBC drama in St. Petersburg came up. So I made a real effort, found a teacher and got my Russian up to some kind of level, and found myself in St. Petersburg in 1993. We worked on that BBC drama production in St. Petersburg for nearly four months, and I worked as a film accountant.
By that time I had already decided that I would come and live in Russia and make films. I spent some time researching different themes, and eventually settled on making films about the Russian avant-garde of the 20s and 30s which I find to be very interesting. I then stumbled across Alexander Rodchenko, the great Russian photographer, artist and designer from that period. That gradually morphed into a whole series of six films about the avant-garde. After the âRodchenko and the Russian Avant-gardeâ, I made a film about Mayakovsky, then one about Vsevolod Meyerhold, the theatre director. A film about Kandinsky followed, and the last one was a film about David Burliuk who was the Father of Russian Futurism. We went to Japan to film that because I chose a period when Burliuk lived there for two years. Burliuk put on exhibitions of his own work in Japan as well as promoting the work of other Russian avant-garde painters, before he travelled on to America in 1922.
The next film was about Stanislavsky, which came about in a completely unexpected way. I was showing the film about Meyerhold to a group of people at the Rose Bruford College of Acting and Performance in London, and they suggested making a film about Stanislavsky because they have the biggest Stanislavsky archives in Europe outside of Russia. I said I didnât know if I could make a film about Stanislavsky, and they said: would you like to see our archives? I said OK, and they showed me a whole room with original posters and photographs, scripts, documents, all about Stanislavsky. We are hoping to premier it in London about the end of April.
How do you finance your films?
I am able to sell copies of the films I make over Amazon, and also on DVDs. Downloading is becoming more and more important. I follow and participate in exhibitions all over the world, for example in the Tate Modern in London, The Guggenheim and other galleries in Europe. There was an exhibition in London of Rodchenkoâs photographs which lasted for three months. In these sorts of exhibitions you have an already interested audience, and the DVDs were sold through the shop there.
So you are not making films for the silver screen, you are creating a product that you can distribute yourself?
Yes, this is completely different. These days you can make films very cheaply; because you can shoot and edit them yourself. I write everything, research the relevant material and basically anything I can do myself. The only real problem I worry about now is sound. Thatâs quite a specialist thing, but Iâve managed to do most of that myself. I have my own studio set up now in Moscow, which I use to make my films, and to help other people make theirs. All of this helps with finance. Some of my films have also been shown on television.
What do you want to do next?
I have just finished a mini-series of films on the Russian theatre. So there is a film about Meyerhold and Stanislavsky and Vakhtangov, who were the main players in that particular period. Iâm afraid I canât talk specifically about my next project today, but I am looking towards doing something more ambitious, maybe based on a specific play from that period which would fit in very well with all my other past projects. Of course there are finance problems, and the bigger the project the more problems there are, especially when you have been used to working the way that I have, when I am not used to people saying: âyou canât do that because it is going to cost too muchâ¦â
Which great film maker(s) do you really respect, who do you read about, whoâs films do you watch when you are exhausted and need to recharge your batteries?
I donât necessarily refer to people only from the film world. There are people from the world of Art, not only film makers but artists and writers from the period of Russian history which I am interested in. Out of the film makers that I like, I am most inspired by is Tarkovsky. I know this sounds like clichÃ©, however I do think that he was one of the worldâs greatest directors. If you watch a film like Andrei Rublyev, which is about a Russian icon painter in the 14th -15th centuries, you come to understand that this is something magnificent and visually stunning.
Western documentary films seem to run at a faster speed than their Russian equivalents. Russian documentary films seem to be â, but you are producing films primarily for the English speaking western market, is this a problem?
I have struggled with this problem since I got here. But all the films I make are very specific and are viewed by a certain niche audience. However, in some ways I am quite surprised that the films are accepted by the wide audience that they have, especially in Europe. It is difficult translating the Russian experience into western terms.
You have family here?
Yes, my wife is Russian, she has been a big influence in my life. Sheâs a ceramic artist and master of ikebana, and there are many over-lapping areas of interest. We went to Japan together and in a sense we work as a team. I also am very pleased to have Russian friends who help me a great deal. So that has been a big input into my work. At the same time I believe in paying properly for professionalism. I have worked with a well-known cameraman here on two films, Slava Sachkov, and I always pay him what the going rate is. He is at the top of the documentary film making world here.
You can purchase Michaelâs films on: www.copernicusfilms.com
More information about Michael Craig is available on:Â about.me/michaelcraig