Mild spoilers ahead, beware!
Congratulations on the film – tell me about how you got involved in it.
It was an interesting project, and a tough one to make. George [Mendeluk], our director, first came to me as an actor, and then later I came in as a producer as well, so first and foremost what I did was throw myself into research. Hours and hours of it. I play the villain again, as I’m kind of the go-to guy for villain roles, but this one was different because he’s a true life character. He was Stalin’s enforcer, a mass murderer, a truly disgusting kind of person, but you wanna look at why this man became this person. They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and you’re the product of your environment, but there’s a bit more to it than that. Those two things are one side of the coin, but the flip side could be, what has this boy suffered, to make him like this?
That’s what I wanted to ask: the scene in which your character drops his facade and is deeply vulnerable. There’s obviously a story there which we don’t get to see in the film.
Of course there’s a backstory. In this case the character was inspired by real historical figures, so I researched people in his position so I can understand him. Men who witnessed their mothers or parents be executed, and were then taken and bred to be ruthless enforcers for Stalin’s regime. I added some elements to that, fleshed it out, and then I spoke to George about the character and my vision for him, and told him that I wanted to find a moment, even a millisecond in the movie, that the audience will have a different look at this man, and maybe feel sorry for him. Because through all the terrible things he does, what is he searching for? Love, companionship. He never wanted to hurt Natalka, he wanted to love her, and thought he could do so by force. And then there is that moment where she poisons him and he hallucinates, and he’s crying like a baby in the corner. I’ve had people say they actually felt sorry for him in that moment, and that his end is fitting, dying in a church which he so despised. A tragic ending for a man who only knew how to get the things he wanted with murder and suffering.
What about the wider historical context of the film’s events? Were you aware of it at all before becoming involved?
I was part of that 95% of the world that had no idea about any of this, not until I read the script. I thought, “how do we not know about this?” I knew some things about Stalin, like most people. “Stalin the Horrible, he had something with the Ukrainians, right? His body count is something like 60 million, right?” It’s so flippant, the way people say “60 million” like it’s nothing. To learn that he created a man-made famine, the Holodomor, which literally translates to murder by starvation and it’s absolutely the worst way a human being can perish, was staggering. When you look at the numbers, it works out to something like 30,000 deaths a day, and Stalin was paying the international press to keep quiet about it. Even his own people, he put a gag on them so no one could talk about what was happening. It was absolutely horrific, and it was heartbreaking for me to read about it. George [Mendeluk] and Ian [Ihnatowycz, producer] are both Ukrainians and they were so passionate about the film, and they kept sending me more and more information and the more I read I thought, “why isn’t this taught in schools?”
That’s why I say this is a must-see movie. Not because of myself, or Samantha or Max or Barry Pepper or the great Terence Stamp, or any of the actors and crew that worked so hard on it, but because it will hopefully prompt people to look into this, find out more about it, see what happened. When you think that we didn’t know about this until the early ‘90s, and that there’s countries out there now that don’t accept that it was a genocide—UK not being one, USA not being one… We’re even thinking about editing it down into a dramatised documentary so it can be shown in schools. Why shouldn’t kids know about it?
We were very lucky, because sometimes with love stories set in historical tragedies you can lose focus of the big picture and focus on just the romantic side of it, and I’m not a big fan of that. But when you look at this film, even the love story is about survival, honour, dignity, respect, and it feeds into what’s going on as a whole. We screened it in the Ukraine to survivors of the Holodomor, and they said it was so on point, that even the love story resonated with them personally.
We were lucky enough to be able to shoot in Ukraine in the first place, because when you deal with terrible events like this you’re very rarely allowed to shoot where it actually happened. But with this film we were blessed with a lot of support, and with a great Ukrainian crew and cast who came on board and made the film what it is. It drove us even more to know that we were working with people who had heard the horror stories of the Holodomor from their families, and that we had their support in this.
There was a point when I was acting where I thought, these people are going to absolutely despise me… and I was talking to the crew and they said, “how would we tell this story without you there driving it forward?” I was so humbled by that. It didn’t make these things my character was doing alright, but when you have that kind of responsibility, you have to keep it in mind the whole way through. So I decided that I was going to be the worst I could be, bring out that malice that these people’s grandparents faced in their real lives, because I was there for that reason, to drive that story forward the best I could.
Any stories from the set that have stayed with you?
We’d broken up for Christmas and when we came back we needed the snow. There was four or five inches of it, minus 17 degrees outside, and the Ukrainian crew were throwing hot water in the air and it landed as ice. Miserably cold weather—but we got through it, and as you can see it was a long time coming. It was four years in the making, we just couldn’t get it right because when you’ve got two Ukrainian heads of the movie, our lead financier Ian and director George, they both wanted the film to be perfect. The first cut was, I think, three hours long, and we were battling it out because they wanted everything in. I even cracked a joke about making “Harvest 2”, get all that lost footage in there, make a franchise out of it.
It was at that point we brought in Stuart Baird, who edited Skyfall and Casino Royale, and we had to do reshoots and make dialogue changes so it’ll all make sense. That was tough for me to go back to, because I had to revisit all the dialogue and scenes which were hard the first time but even harder the second. He’s a tough boy, Stuart, and he talks all stern and can come across a bit rude at times, but when you look at what he’s trying to achieve, you realise you’re dealing with a professional who knows what he’s doing, and that it’s time to shut up and do as you’re told.
And it worked!
It did work. It’s been so beautifully received. It’s not a film to be enjoyed exactly, but it touches people. There’s never a dry eye in the cinema. When we did the New York premiere, some big name producers would come up and congratulate us on even making a film like this, because Hollywood just doesn’t do it. The movie industry is no different to the real estate business at this point. But when you have a financier for whom this is a passion project, who is giving you an open cheque to do what you need to, it becomes less business and more art. Hopefully Ian’s gonna make his money back, though I don’t think he was ever driven by that. No one’s going to make a movie like this and expect money to pour in. It was more important for him, and for all of us, to tell this story.
Myself, Chad Barager and Camilla Storey who were the UK producers, we were very lucky to be entrusted to get this right. It was tough at times, because we had to battle each other on what stays in. We wanted to make a movie that is watchable, not just accurate. You’ve still got to find that perfect balance of accurate and interesting, you’ve got to follow a journey, because if there’s no story to keep the audience engaged, they will switch off. So we worked hard to make it engaging, and in the process some of us actors had to swallow our egos and leave some of our best work on the cutting room floor, because it just didn’t serve the film right. Everyone did their part: Ben Wallfisch, the composer, made music that was beautiful; the way it was shot by our cinematographer Doug Milsome; its colour and its grain; the way it was edited; George’s direction—everything blended in beautifully together to bring it to the silver screen.
Can you give us a glimpse into what it looked like before the edits and reshoots?
Well for one, we had so many different endings! Everybody was sitting around the table, and we all wanted our vision in there. Chad would say something, and Camilla would say something, and Ian would want something else and George as well… but I think the ending we have now is the right ending. There was one where they died, where everyone died. But then, where’s the hope?
Or there was one with me and Max [Irons] where we had this big fight and Max cut me to pieces, and I said “look, my character is a trained general and Yuri is a painter. He would never overpower this man.” But we filmed it, this huge scene that cost a fortune, we had these burning buildings in the background and me and Max were having a fight, very Hollywood style. But it would never happen! So we scrapped it and we gave my character a fitting death, and left Yuri and Natalka to float up to the dragons, maybe. That’s up to the viewers to decide.
Bitter Harvest is in cinemas now. Read my review here.