Artist interview: Placebo: Alt.Russia
Director: Charlie Targett-Adams
Festival & Distribution Manager: Dr. Rebekah Louisa Smith
Placebo: Alt.Russia is a rockumentary that follows Placebo on a 10 city tour through Russia. Fronted by Placebo’s Stefan Olsdal, the film explores the alternative cultures that are present in Russia’s major cities. As the tour traveled through the country the band went out and met various artists, architects, animators, and musicians, finding out about the alternative creative culture and celebrating all they have to offer.
Placebo: Alt.Russia is screening soon at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival.
Can you tell us how the documentary came about?
Charlie - I’ve been making films for Placebo since 2007. I had already made a feature doco – Coming Up for Air - about the band that was shown at Sundance in London in 2012. Placebo’s manager Alex got in touch in 2014 saying the band had a great opportunity to play 10 cities in Russia and to travel for part of it on the Trans-Siberian Express and would I make a film about it. The previous documentary was looking inwards towards the band so I thought for this one the band should look outwards. Russia was all over the news in 2014 with Crimea and everything I was hearing through the Western media was about its politics. I thought it would be better to focus not on the politics but on what was happening in current culture and the arts and look into something that is rarely covered in the west.
How would you describe the aims of Placebo: Alt.Russia?
Charlie - The main aim was to go out and meet people. Talk to them first hand and hear about their lives and what they are doing in Russia. What was it like to be a creative in Russia in 2014 and how did they work and operate? We didn’t set out with a specific agenda or story to tell. We had a method and we would then build the narrative as we went and through the people we met. I feel the story that we tell in the film is a specific story of that time and the places in Russia.
What is it that drew you to this particular project?
Rebekah - When I'm evaluating a film to represent as the Film Festival & Distribution Manager, it has to be strong. What festivals want are documentaries that are innovative and groundbreaking. As soon as I saw PLACEBO ALT RUSSIA my gut instinct told me that it's a winner as this was a very creative and beautifully shot film that had to be seen. The fact that it's a music documentary film about Russia and not just the band is something very special.
Was it difficult to arrange the interviews? Were there unexpected barriers to overcome in the making of the film?
Charlie - The biggest barrier for us was time. We had two weeks of pre-production before we left to go to Russia and by the time we stepped on the plane we had only secured 3 contributors. I brought Stephanie Fyfe onto the project as a producer to help research and contact the contributors. Stephanie and I would get a list together of a variety of contributors that we gave to Stefan Olsdal and Brian Molko from the band. They would then choose who they would want to get in touch with and find out more about. Stephanie would then start the ball rolling on getting in touch with them and we would go from there. We mostly managed to reach out to everyone we had on our hit list. Petr Pavlensky was definitely the hardest to contact and it wasn’t until the last day of the tour that we were told to go to a book shop in St.Petersburg and he would meet us there.
What is your target demographic – music/Placebo fans, or artists, or some other group? Are Russians an important audience to access?
Rebekah - All of the above and yes absolutely re Russians. However I would add festival audiences, those who are seeking alternative films to the mainstream selection, are also extremely important. The people who have seen this film so far have discovered something very different and original to what they would normally see on TV or elsewhere.
Did you have any restrictions placed on you by Russian authorities or anyone else in terms of who you could talk to and what you could film?
Charlie - None at all. We never had any issues with anyone whilst out in Russia and like most places in the world, when you actually go there and speak to the people you find them very welcoming and open. I do feel that the Russian people love to dress up in uniform though. At every venue, the local venue security would wear a type of military camo so at first, it felt like there was a constant military presence around. However, when we asked the locals about this they pointed out that all the uniforms were different and, as in the UK security seem to wear black, in Russia they love camo.
Did traveling with Placebo open doors that might have been otherwise closed?
Charlie - Travelling in the circus of an international rock band always opens doors. Especially when going to cities far away from the capital that rarely get to see a band like Placebo play. The Internet has allowed a huge number of people access to information and get more informed and closer to interests they have. Therefore, when a band rocks up to your city, people know about it. I would say only three contributors knew who Placebo was before we asked to interview them but as soon as they searched on the internet about Placebo they definitely wanted to be part of the film.
Did you do much work with Stefan Osdal before the interviews? He seemed quite comfortable in the role of interviewer.
Charlie - Stefan really stepped up to the challenge when filming the documentary. Because Coming Up for Air was narrated by Brian (Molko) we knew that this doco would want to be lead by Stefan. Stefan from the off was really into the idea of the documentary.
Did he write the questions or did you?
Charlie - We would give Stefan research on each of the contributors and then a few guide questions to make sure we are getting answers that overlap with each contributor. However, Stefan always did his own research and when we started the interviews Stefan would lead them all and take them in whatever direction suited the conversation. From what I knew, he had never really done any work in front of the camera like this before, leading the conversation and giving personal insight into difficult subjects on camera. Usually, people would be asking him questions instead of the other way around but I feel he managed to fall straight into the role and get his own naturally inquisitive and engaging character across on camera.
Did the central idea change as you interviewed the artists?
Charlie - The central idea of the film was the method more than a narrative when we started. Therefore, because we didn’t have a central idea to pin us down when we started, the central idea constantly moved and changed as the film was made. The film then had many stages that evolved as we went. From the written treatment to the initial research, the people we met and then the final selection in the editing process, all through these different stages the film meandered through different paths until we ended up with what we have now. It was a constant process of writing as we went and refining things to make sure we came out with a story to tell.
How involved is Placebo in promoting the film? Are you involved in that or is Placebo’s team taking care of their side of promotion?
Rebekah - It's teamwork. We are all involved. I’m promoting the film to my network and Placebo and their management are reaching out to their fans via social media.
How long did it take to make the documentary, from idea to completion?
Charlie - I first started working on the documentary in April 2014 and the festival version of the film was delivered in June 2016. We are still remixing the sound at the minute in 2017 so you could say the process hasn’t finished yet. Rockumentaries like these are always a hard graft of perseverance due to budget, schedule and other commitments. The process is always a long one but all worth it once you finally see it up on a big screen.
Music documentaries tend to have a long life after the box-office, are there particular strategies you have put in place to make the most of the long legs of a music documentary?
Rebekah - Yes indeed. We are planning a theatrical release in several territories for the film once it's toured the festival circuit.
In the film, what is the ‘money shot’ for you – the visual moment that brings it all together?
Charlie - Ha! I like the angle of this question. Obviously, there is one shot near the end of the film that is the one. It has been all over social media but I feel the film is a crescendo that builds up to that moment. So best to watch the film and get the impact for yourselves.
How important are film festivals to a film like Placebo: Alt.Russia?
Rebekah - Extremely important. Festivals provide an alternative distribution network & platform for independent films like these which audiences wouldn't otherwise see.
In addition festival awards are also highly important as the three which we have won so far have certainly helped create a desirable high-quality image of the film to our peers and has helped it gain interest and further nominations from other festivals.
In a world where theatrical distribution is incredibly expensive for distributors, festivals offer an abundance of choice and opportunities for filmmakers & sales agents to showcase their films on the big screen at a variety of different audiences for a lot less money. This is just one of many reasons why festivals should be an integral part of any film's distribution strategy.
When can audiences outside of film festivals expect to see the film?
Rebekah - Towards the end of 2017 early 2018 when we've finished touring the festival circuit.
Are there any plans for a follow-up film about the artists that you interviewed?
Charlie - I do feel that a film like this is great because it captures a period in time. It tells what was happening at that time and as more time passes the more of a historical document it becomes. It is not just the story we tell and the subjects we choose to tackle but everything from the clothes people were wearing, the haircuts they had and the accents they spoke with. A documentary like this always gets better with time and I feel it is great to leave it like that for us. So to answer your question there aren't any plans for a follow-up film by me but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be great to make.
Placebo: Alt.Russia is screening at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival. For tickets and session info hit the website.