Interview: Gabe Polsky On RED ARMY

Contributor; Toronto, Canada (@filmfest_ca)
Interview: Gabe Polsky On RED ARMY

In my original review for the film, I talked about how Red Army is a gem of a film, a movie about hockey that can be loved by fan and neophyte alike. Much more than simply a documentation of a particular era of the NHL, the film is a gripping, insightful and at times quite hilarious look and the decades that led up to the collapse of the Soviet Union and how the current climate of Russia continues to be shaped by those events.

The film is a must-see and made my best-of-year list. Finally, after a string of successful festival appearances Red Army is now making its way to theatres.

I had a chance to speak with the film's director by phone as he was driving through the streets of his native Chicago.

You're normally in L.A. - What brought you back home?

It's kind of relevant, but I was just with my grandma who is basically the only person that I speak Russian to now. My parents are, you know, it's too easy to speak English with, so the only surviving person that I really speak Russian to is my grandma. She actually was there in Ukraine during WWII, lived through the whole everything, Stalin, everything.

So is that you direct connection to the team? When you were a kid, were you watching these players come over and feeling a certain connection to them?

My grandma lived through, like I said, Stalin and the whole 40s, 50s, the whole rise and fall of the Soviet Union as she came over and basically the late 80s. My parents are also from Kiev, but they left when they were 26, and obviously I have this background and grew up with it, but I didn't really think too much about my background until I got so into hockey and saw how the Soviets. That made me interested even more to learn more about my culture and what was up with these guys. What's their story, this team?

I found out the story of the team is really the story of the country.

How did a project like this come together? Because the access you have is obviously remarkable, and you're getting people on camera, telling stories that they haven't told before, or at least with as much candor as they did.

Yeah, nothing was planned really to be honest!

I had an opportunity through family contact to get to one of the players, and it was [Soviet Goaltender] Vladislav Tretiak actually. Because I grew up in Chicago and he was a goalie coach [in the NHL], somebody over here knew him. He was the first guy, and then slowly, one by one, I went out there with a crew.

I had a very short amount of time to decide if I wanted to do this. No one wanted to fund it and so I had to take some of the risk myself. I didn't know who I was going to get, what was going to happen, but ultimately, I started getting these guys. Fetisov was the last one and he didn't want to do it. Somehow, I convinced him to at least meet with me and he said oh, I'll meet with you for fifteen minutes and he did and I started to interview him and it lasted five and a half hours!

It was all sort of intuitive. I'd never directed a documentary before - I'd produced one with my brother that got nominated for an Emmy, but I'd never directed one. I just kind of used my instincts and knew basically with a rule of thumb that if this is not interesting to me, then it's not going to be interesting to other people.

It takes a lot to get me interested. I don't like a lot of movies, and I'm pretty critical.

I just tried to get into these guys' souls somehow. Even though it was sort of a sideways approach and I might have asked inappropriate questions or pushed them a little bit but somehow it worked out. It turned out to be kind of funny at times, which I like in movies - a little humour, a little sadness, elation, excitement, it kind of runs the gamut, bringing the audience through a roller coaster of emotions.

That other doc that you're talking about is HIS WAY, right?


That's about Jerry Weintraub and the craziness of Hollywood, and he's listed as a producer on your film. So, what is more insane, corrupt, and influential on its people: The former Soviet system, or Hollywood?

I swear on my life, I haven't thought about this before, but this morning, I was thinking about that. I didn't know what's more corrupt and debased, Hollywood or the Soviet Union. That's a great comparison, I'll be honest with you. Talk about a propaganda machine, what's worse?

You've also worked with Werner Herzog, who is one of the world's great masters at doing something that could be incredibly serious, but also darkly comic.

He's one of the funniest guys, I'm telling you and he's not known for this, but to me, he's one of the funniest guys I've ever met.

In terms of you having the chutzpah to go on and make a documentary, was it working with him that pushed you over the edge, or was it simply that this project just came together?

Well, he didn't get involved until much later. I went ahead and made the film, more or less finished it. I showed him a late cut because I didn't want to show him something too early because I respect him and I don't want him to think I suck, you know?

I showed him a later cut and I wasn't done yet and he right away was one of the first people to really tell me this is very special, [that] it's very deep. It's about men, it's friendship and betrayal, these guys [are] the Russian soul. He kept going on and on and it gave me a lot of confidence, at least security that, listen, if I made a movie that Herzog liked, but it means that it's a movie that has some kind of power and soul.

He gave me advice throughout the sales process and dealing with festivals a little bit. I had a couple of setbacks from festivals and sort of confused and he just said hey, listen, this is, it's a grotesque world and we know what you made, and just keep going.

The fact that I got into Cannes was a total blessing. There are so few docs that they accept and you're on the world stage. It's prestigious, and they don't take [many] docs, [let alone] sport films about a sport that French people could care less about!

It was incredible.

As you know I'm from Toronto which should be a hockey city, but I don't give a shit about hockey because, well, look at the Leafs. As you've taken it from places in Southern France through to places like a hockey-mad TIFF how have the reactions differed? Were there any that stood out?

One big screening was in Moscow. It was the opening film of the festival, there were 3000 people. It was in [the] Pushkin theatre, it was huge. I was so nervous, probably the most nervous out of any screening because it was so important to me that they respond to it and feel that it's authentic. It's about them, it's about Russia, it's about the whole experience.

People gave it a standing ovation for 15 minutes, people were crying, and I was so happy. The journalists all liked it there, but who knows what they could have done. They accepted it, and they accepted it for a lot of very different reasons than Americans or French. They went through this, that's what they know. It was nostalgia, it was truth. It's somewhat of a bittersweet story but it was truthful [and] at the end hopeful.

It's true, they're trying to do what they can to make their country as good as it can be and they went through a lot of dark periods. They still are and the movie says that.

North Americans, they loved it because, I want to be humble, but it's just a good story, beyond the politics and ideology and so on. It's just an inspiring, very unique stor, something they thought they might know something about but they realized they didn't know anything about.

And the character, obviously - Fetisov is a unique guy and your eyes off him, [wondering] what's he going to say next?

Moscow was before Toronto?

It went, Cannes, and then I think Moscow, and then Telluride, Toronto, New York Film Festival, and then a slew of other ones. I went to Europe, Zurich, Saint Sebastian, everywhere.

It won the audience award in Chicago, it won the audience award at AFI.

Could you talk about the Toronto premiere with Wayne Gretzky there?

Oh my god. Were you actually at the screening?

No, but I was at the party!

Oh my god, it was like the most bizarre, exciting, nerve-wracking experience. I mean, obviously Gretzky, we know who he is, I loved him growing up, and it's insane, and he didn't just come himself, he brought his whole family.

Scotty Bowman and a whole slew of other Hall of Famers were there. I had to do a Q&A afterwards and I was so nervous because I thought, shit, I hope Gretzky loves it. I was so nervous - What if he doesn't like it, or feels that it's competitive? "Oh those guys, we beat them too . . ." You know? I didn't know how he was going to respond.

And what was the response?

I was doing the Q&A and literally, it was like he was the only guy I could see in the audience, as I was talking up there and I said to the audience, I said there's no better feeling than when Wayne Gretzky's in the audience watching your film.

He loved the film and I saw him afterwards behind the stage and he and his wife congratulated me and were so excited about it and thought it was just a great film. He went on Canadian sports radio afterwards and said so many nice things, that they loved the movie. He was really supportive, just such a great guy.

Have there been hockey people, or even people at the Russian screening that did not respond in such a positive way? Are there North Americans that think that you maybe are glorifying a time that doesn't necessarily need glorification, and are there those in post-Soviet Russia that looked at it, saw it that it might be a little too glib? A little too on the nose?

No, I never really got that. I mean there might be one article out there or something that might mention something like that, that maybe it was sort of propaganda for Russia. I don't care because it's just not true. If you watch the film, watch it over and over, it clearly shows the balance of oppression, bad stuff, limiting the individual, all of this stuff. At the same time, you can't deny the amazing contribution to sport and hockey that these guys did. To this day, it hasn't been repeated. You have to study this and wonder why that is. It's important. What they did was genius.

I don't care if it's the Soviet Union, or fucking North Korea. You have to notice when people do good things too, and bad things.

Have heard from Don Cherry?

I don't know if he's seen it, but Rob McLean was there at the screening. He loved the movie, thought it was brillian but I don't know if Don Cherry has. I'm [not] sure if he did, I'm really curious. That would be fun, to hear what he thinks!

Looking back, how the film itself has changed for you as you've been seeing it over and over again. At some point in time, it stops being the thing you're working on and the thing you made. What that's like, with basically your first big film?

The interesting thing is that I don't sit through screenings. If I'm doing a Q&A, I'll watch a little bit at the end, and I still get emotional even watching the story, I don't know why. This is like, a lot of who I am in the film too and the thoughts I've been having growing up and even afterwards. Talking about, I was a Political Science major, I went to Yale and played hockey there and my parents are from the Soviet Union, and there are so many elements that are part of me in this film somehow, that I don't even know how to answer this question. How has it changed? It hasn't really changed other than like I've got to think about, I don't want to live and die by this film, I want to make other things, like you make something, and you move on, right?

I'm assuming, I guess, that you get a certain distance from this thing that you've made and that you can look at it with a bit more objectivity

I guess it's been 7 months since Cannes and I sat through that, and the Canada screening too. To be honest with you, it hasn't changed that much.

Here's the thing, I had no idea that it was going to be as funny as people are reacting to it, no fucking idea. I obviously wanted it to be humorous, but right from the get go, people are laughing, you know? All the way through to a degree. Obviously it's not a comedy, but there are a lot of emotional moments. I'm glad that the humour came across like that because you don't have the money to have these big screenings in front of hundreds of people, so you get small rooms at your house, you can't really tell.

What was the best advice you got form one of those people you showed it to at one of your house screenings?

I had a few of them from my editor, but the last one added the component of me in there a little bit more. I was so resistant to it because I didn't want to be that guy that throws himself in the movie, and I thought I was sounding annoying and stupid, which I probably do, but it helps the movie, it really helps the movie. It took awhile for me to get over the idea of my being in the film because I didn't want to be in it, and finally, I just said,OK, let's do this and not only did we do it, but we kind of, I made myself sometimes sound dumber even to make it funnier.

I'm very glad you listened to your editor

[Laughs] Yeah.

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