This is what makes him so powerful. There is a feeling of coded communication, which resembles the general theme of the film. And then there is so much more emotion in the last scene with Wynne and Penkovsky.
When I first read the script my first thought was that it was “Brief Encounter”. It’s platonic. But it’s still a love affair, which is intensified by the secrecy around it, and the fact that these two can’t share what’s going on with anyone. But there was, both in the script of the film and in the real story, an extraordinary bond between these two men. They helped each other evolve. Penkovsky transformed Wynne’s sense of who he was and what he could be. Penkovsky was actually a real hero before the movie started. He sort of fought the Nazis in Kiev, he was leading that and was decorated 13 times. And he really was a hero by anyone’s standards, and incredibly upset. He had a huge ego, incredibly upset with the system he grew up in with all kinds of blockages. But he was an extraordinary man. And they really loved each other. And I think it was a very intense relationship.
So he’s a Russian and a Brit, from very different cultures. I’ve spent quite a bit of time in Russia and the Russians are kind of the opposite of the British in that they express what they are feeling at the moment and then it goes away. They move on to the next sensation.
We really feel immersed in the viewing period of the film. What details were particularly important to you?
The pitches were difficult because we couldn’t shoot inside Russia. We were going to shoot in a few days in Minsk, Belarus, which is an incredible place. It was rebuilt immediately after WWII and still has the 9-meter statue of Lenin. It really evokes this monolithic society in architecture. So we were really looking forward to doing that, and at the end, at the very last minute, we just couldn’t get the commitment from them to let us shoot.
The art directors were amazing. They traveled to various countries in the Eastern Bloc with a big truck and brought back all the genuine accessories. They’ve done a tremendous amount of research to get it right, even on the food. It has been carefully studied so that you can feel it from the inside out. I didn’t want it to sound like a bunch of Westerners making an inaccurate film about Russia at the time.
We had to reluctantly retreat and do everything with blue screen in Prague. I visited Soviet Russia on a school trip in the early 1980s. It was such a different culture; as soon as you landed there was no advertising anywhere. The film shows how harsh and cruel this diet could be. But at the same time, I didn’t want to dehumanize these people. I wanted to show a system with human beings operating within that system, and not turn them into caricatured “bad Russians”. or something like that.