My film is a love letter to Moscow, my home for 12 years
There’s so much drama in Russian lives, Johnny O’Reilly is never short of inspiration
Johnny O’Reilly: director of Moscow Never Sleeps.
For almost 20 years, Johnny O’Reilly has worked in one aspect or another of the film industry here and in Russia. The Dubliner has credits as writer, director and producer on such projects as documentaries, shorts and now feature films. His new feature film, Moscow Never Sleeps is released this week in Ireland. The film stars many of Russia’s best-known actors. It was written and directed by O’Reilly who has lived in Moscow for more than 12 years. The film aims to give audiences “a unique view of Russian humanity, to present a true impression of a vibrant culture overshadowed by egregious policies of a corrupt government and to capture the pulsating spirit of Europe’s biggest city”.
What is your background?
I grew up in Rathmines, studied Russian and classics in Trinity College Dublin. I lived in New York and Moscow in an extended year off before I returned and finished my final year in college. I then worked at The Sunday Times for 18 months after college and then started to work in the film business, doing what I could to earn money: teaching computers, scouting locations for films, designing websites and making corporate videos. Gradually, I started to make short films, then feature films.
Why did you decide to study Russian?
When I was filling out my CAO form in 1989, the Soviet Union was flavour of the month. After a couple of years of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) and the subsequent ending of the cold war with the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the vast Soviet Union finally opened up to an extremely curious world. There were daily reports of an exotic life behind the iron curtain that had been hidden from us all my life. Most of the glimpses offered were of an oppressed, but educated people eager to reach out to the world. I was inspired by this and decided to study Russian. Two months into my first year, the Berlin Wall collapsed and I’ve been following affairs in that part of the world ever since.
What was it like when you moved to Russia?
I first went to Russia in 1993 on a year off when I was a student. I spent eight months in Moscow that year. I remember not being able to speak the language well. I was met at the airport by two gruff men, bundled into a old truck that seemed to have been made out of corrugated iron and driven out into the darkness of Moscow’s suburbs in -20 degrees. I was deposited at Moscow State University building, the second-largest building in the world at the time, and shown to my student accommodation on the 33rd floor. The corridors were almost 1km (3,280ft) long and, because of the broken windows, hoar frost had spread along the floor. It sounds frightening now, but I was exhilarated. It was such a different world. It was vivid. It was cinematic. And it was just day one.
I visited Moscow many times through the 1990s and early 2000s, spending a few days, a few weeks and on a couple of occasions, a few months. I moved there full-time at the beginning 2006 and stayed until the end of 2015. In all, I’ve spent about 12 years there.
How did you get into filmmaking?
I always wanted to be a filmmaker and decided to study literature and philosophy in college instead of going to film school. So, it took a while before I got my teeth into the proper process of filmmaking. I began by making short films and corporate videos in my 20s. In my 30s I start writing feature-length scripts and directing longer works. My first feature was a collaborative art film called Co/Ma. It was a great learning curve, but it wasn’t until 2010 that I directed my first proper feature film, Russian thriller The Weather Station.
Moscow Never Sleeps trailer
Tell us about Moscow Never Sleeps
It’s been generously described by one viewer as “Magnolia with caviar”. In some ways, it’s a love letter to Moscow. It’s about the volatile intersections between love and ambition, and the hidden bonds that connect us all. The film interweaves five intimate dramas against the backdrop of Europe’s biggest city. All the action takes place over one day which happens to be Moscow City Day, when the whole city empties onto the streets and parks to celebrate itself with a massive outdoor party.
What is the film industry like in Russia compared to here?
It’s very hard to compare the two. On the one hand there are similarities. Producers complain about the lack of good scripts. Writers and directors complain about the lack of ambitious producers and only a small percentage of films are considered to be successful. In Ireland, we tend to punch above our weight in many art forms. We’re an independent republic, a culture with a clear sense of history and identity. I think Russia has reached nowhere near its full potential. The scale of talent, story content and money in the country is off the charts. But the Russian film business, like many sectors, is mired in corruption, censorship and bad governance. There are great films coming from Russia, but not enough to reflect the scale of its industry. You get a sense that if certain policies were put in place, the Russian film industry could flourish.
What is your life like in Moscow?
I love Moscow. It’s a 24-hour city. Shops, bars and even florists are open all night long. Despite what you might think the weather is great. For three months of the year, it doesn’t rain. A pristine blanket of white snow covers the city every three days. Everyone does outdoor sports – skiing or skating to work – or just walking over crunchy snow. There are trees and parks are everywhere. The weather in Moscow in the summer is like Paris: warm and beautifully sunny until 11pm at night.
What are the people like?
I like Russian people. They love to celebrate and they have a lot of soul. Given their unique history and sociology, Russians live like there’s no tomorrow. There’s more cruelty but there’s often more compassion. It feels like they have a higher amplitude of humanity that us in the West. There are two Russias, though: the people and the state. What I loathe about Russia is its feudalistic political system. It’s a system that needs to keep the majority of the people in poverty and ignorance in order to survive. The vertical power structures of the autocratic system has persisted for 400 years in Russia. No one person is to blame for its continuation today. But Vladimir Putin is the most potent symbol of this tradition. And corruption is the glue that holds this system together, it provides the basis of loyalty to the leader and its existence is a disincentive for reform. Of course the best way to deal with Russia’s political problems is through incremental reform, but unfortunately, there’s no sign of that happening soon.
Is there much of an Irish community there?
There are about 300 to 400 Irish people here. I’m involved as a founder and organiser of Irish Week in Moscow, a 12-day festival in March, which features dozens of Irish guests and performers in all arts. We routinely have 10,000 Russians attending the St Patrick’s Day parade.
Do you think you would have had similar opportunities if you had stayed in Ireland?
No. I don’t think I would have been inspired in the same way by the stories of people I know in Ireland. Now I’m a more experienced scriptwriter, I have more techniques for discovering and shepherding stories to fruition. But in Russia, they’re handed to you on a plate because there’s so much drama in the real lives of Russians. On the financing front, the Irish Film Board is a great resource forfilmmakers. The section 481 finance provision works very well. Half of the finance for Moscow Never Sleeps came from private finance. There is no chance I could have raised that money in Ireland.
What have you gained from working in another country?
It’s given me confidence to take on narratives that are not part of my personal background or even part of my culture. That opens so many possibilities for me. I feel I can take on any subject and make it my own.
Where is “home” for you now?
Home is where my laptop is. Right now I’m in Ireland, but will be spending more time in the United States next year, unless it implodes under some Trump-induced upheaval.
Moscow Never Sleeps opens in Irish cinemas on November 11th. For showtimes see http://www.moscowneversleeps.com/