About the Production
When co-writer/producer of Russian Doll, Allanah Zitserman first met co-writer/director Stravros Kazantzidis at a French Film Festival in Sydney in 1998 she asked him to help her with another project she had written with two girlfriends, KISSING FRIENDS, a contemporary romantic comedy. That fell through around the same time that he had decided to abandon the idea of making REVOLVER, a film that expressed his darker edge, which he sold to Mushroom Pictures. He started writing a script about a lonely private investigator.
Zitserman decided she wanted to focus her energies on something close to her own heritage: a story about Russian Jews in Bondi. Even though films about various ethnic groups Greeks, Italians have been made in Sydney, no one has attempted to capture a more recent wave of migration of Russians that had made the area around the famous landmark of Bondi Beach a colourful surfie, Jewish and tourist enclave – their home. The cultural collision offered wonderful narrative and comic possibilities.
She persuaded Kazantzidis to attend her grandfather’s 75th birthday party at the Russian Roulette Club in Bondi. "I wanted him to experience this unique world," she says. "It’s a pretty amazing place; they play all this tacky music and everyone no matter what age, gets up to dance, and there’s food everywhere."
Kazantzidis realized that Russian Jews and Greeks (his own heritage) had a lot in common. "They are both food-oriented, expressive, guilt-ridden, gregarious and emotionally volatile cultures," he says. "I’ve always been interested in honing in on sub-cultures in my work although previously these were more age-related (university students, young adults). I agreed that this vibrant sub-culture would make a very interesting film."
They decided to marry their respective concepts: RUSSIAN DOLL became a story about a private investigator that reluctantly becomes involved with a Russian émigré.
The first draft of RUSSIAN DOLL was completed at the end of April 1999. The story focused on a lonely private eye and wannabe writer to be played by longtime Kazantzidis friend and collaborator, Hugo Weaving, ("Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert," "Matrix") a very much in-demand actor in both art-house and commercial films. "We go back a long way," says Kazantzidis, "I love the mix of masculinity and fragility, credibility and integrity Hugo brings to a role."
But Weaving was scheduled to shoot Rolf de Heer’s "The Old Man Who Read Love Stories" in October. By June, Zitserman and Kazantzidis knew they had to move fast.
"We had no time to apply for funding through official government financing channels," says Zitserman. "We had to find the money independently and to shoot super low-budget." Kazantzidis was used to both scenarios. They scrambled to re-write the script, eliminating unnecessary expenses, characters, locations, sub-plots stripping it down to a leaner but more effective story."
Their next mission was to find a Russian actress in Australia to play Katia. "We wanted the real thing. After an extensive search we found Natalia Novikova in Melbourne," says Zitserman.
Weaving was instrumental in enlisting other actors on board. His agent, Anne Churchill Brown, suggested David Wenham for the part of Ethan. With this line-up they were able to secure financing for pre-production and the shoot.
The budget was secured through Kazantzidis’ personal financial investment along with seven Melbourne investors headed by executive producer Bruno Charlesworth. A four-week pre-production commenced in August.
They spiced up Harvey’s sensual potential through the character of a promiscuous Russian woman who finds him irresistible, jolting Katia to acknowledge her real feelings. One of Australia’s best acting talents, double AFI award winner Sacha Horler was enlisted for the cameo. The cast was by no means commensurate with budget; RUSSIAN DOLL was becoming a star-studded Australian A-list ensemble.
The four week shoot, beginning in early September 1999, was a major challenge especially the crowd scenes shot with a skeleton crew.
The crowd scenes of the shoot were manic. The filmmakers tiny flat production office, makeup studio, wardrobe and catering.
"Do you know what it’s like to have no first or second assistant director to control extras when you’ve got 120 Russians – between the ages of 5 and 95 – who have never made a film before, all dressed up in their Sunday best, dripping with jewels, who are screaming with excitement because they think this is there shot at stardom, in boiling heat with no air conditioning?" asks Kazantzidis, deadpan.
"To have 120 Russians on set but be losing count because they’ve brought more friends in to share the fun, many of whom don’t speak English, who don’t understand the meaning of silence, and refuse to read DO NOT EAT! signs because the food has been sprayed with preservatives?"
"Do you know what it’s like to owe favors all over Bondi?" Zitserman echoes. "Begging became my middle name."
Zitserman’s mother and relatives pitched in. The Temple Emanuel offered the synagogue for locations. But the problem was juggling the shooting around the Jewish holidays and Sabbath.
But the greatest value-for-money assistance came from Sydney’s top fashion designers and hairdresser to the stars, Joh Bailey, who volunteered his services gratis for the wedding reception scene. "We had to have someone who could do B-I-G hair," says Zitserman, "and he understood exactly what was recquired. He really got into the spirit of things."
Fashion designers Alex Perry, Carla Zampatti, Saint Theresa and men’s top Melbourne designer Callibre, all lent clothing to the production
"This was when the real struggle began," says Zitserman. "We showed the film to a number of government film agencies and private film investors to try to raise the money to complete it. For a few months it looked like we were never going to find the post-production funds as one rejection followed another."
Gary Hamilton, General Manager of Beyond Films, initiated the rescue package. "He loved the incomplete version of RUSSIAN DOLL and with his support we were able to get the Film Finance Corporation to agree to back the project with A$500,000.," says Zitserman.
They shot the end of the scene in January 2000. By then actors Sacha Horler and David Wenham were working on other projects. "We managed to get them for one hour," says Zitserman. The entire final scene was shot in three hours, shorter than most actual Jewish weddings.
STAVROS KAZANTZIDIS (Director/Co-writer)
Born in Cyprus, Kazantzidis moved to Australia in 1980. He graduated from AFTRS in 1992. His short film, "Road to Alice", was the winner of the 1992 Australian Film Institute Best Short Film award, also scooping Channel Four Young Filmmaker of the Year award at the Edinburgh Film Festival.
In 1997 he wrote and directed "True Love and Chaos," which was invited into official selection at the Venice Film Festival. He was also the producer and co-writer of the Cannes market hit "Love and other Catostrophes" (1996) and "Strange Planet" (1999).
ALLANAH ZITSERMAN (Producer)
Born in Russia, Allanah Zitserman came to Australia as a refugee in 1980. While studying marketing and communications at University, she worked at a radio DJ and managed a nightclub for two years. At 21, Zitserman set up Screen Artists, a film development and production company with Stavros Kazantzidis. RUSSIAN DOLL is there first collaboration. Currently she is developing "Highlights," a black comedy with Mushroom Pictures.
HUGO WEAVING (Harvey)
Multi-award NIDA graduate (1981), Hugo Weaving is one of Australia’s best actors who first gained acclaim in the Kennedy Miller mini-series "Bodyline" and "Bangkok Hilton". His prolific body of work spans across top caliber theater, television and film. He won his first Australian Film Institute award for "Proof," invited into official selection in the Director’s Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival in 1991. Three years later, he was catapulted into the international spotlight.
In Stefan Elliott’s outrageous comedy "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" invited midnight screenings at the Cannes Film Festival in 1994. He made "Bedrooms and Hallways" in 1997 in the UK. His Hollywood studio debut, in the Wachowski brothers international blockbuster hit "The Matrix," shot at Sydney’s Fox studios in 1998, which has consolidated his international cachet. He is currently reprising his role as Agent Smith in the upcoming sequels "Matrix II and III".
In 1999 he filmed RUSSIAN DOLL prior to traveling to South America for Rolf de Heer’s "The Man Who Read Love Stories". Weaving just completed shooting Peter Jackson’s "Lord of the Rings" in New Zealand as Elrond.
Weaving has adroitly juggled the media and an eclectic slate of film work in a diversely successful career.
DAVID WENHAM (Ethan)
One of Australia’s best known actors, David Wenham graduated from Theatre Nepean and was catapulted to international acclaim for his performance in Rowan Woods’ "The Boys," in competition at the Berlin Film Festival. A versatile theatre and television performer, domestically he enjoyed huge popularity as Diver Dan, the male lead in one of the country’s best-loved dramas, ABC series "Sea Change."
On stage he has worked with Belvoir Street director Neil Armfield, whose company B for years included Geoffrey Rush, Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett in its ensemble.
His Australian feature film credits include David Caeser’s "Greenkeeping" and "Idiot Box," Mark Joffe’s "Cosi," Peter Duncan’s "A Little Bit of Soul," and Jonathan Teplitzky’s "Better Than Sex." In recent years Wenham’s repertoire has broadened to larger international/studio films directed by antipodean directors, such as Paul Cox’s "Molokai," Alex Proyas’ "Dark City," Baz Luhrman’s "Moulin Rouge," and Peter Jackson’s "The Lord of the Rings."
Wenham has one won the Australian Film Critics Circle award for "The Boys" for which he was also nominated for an AFI award and the Best Actor in a Leading Role in a TV drama for "Simone De Beauvoirs Babies."
NATALIA NOVIKOVA (Katya)
Born and raised in Russia, Natalia Novikova moved to Australia in 1990 and graduated from NIDA in 1994. She has worked predominantly in theater including Belvoir Street Theater’s production of "The Caucasian Chalk Circle," and Sydney Theater Company’s production of "Pentecost," as well as numerous independent stage and school performance tours. Her television credits include a Starring guest role in ABC’s "Sea Change," which earned her an AFI nomination in 2000.
RUSSIAN DOLL is her first feature film. She has since completed the television movie "Balmain Boys," due to premiere in Australia in August of 2001.
REBECCA FRITH (Miriam)
Rebecca Frith gained international acclaim as the older of two sisters vying for the attentions of a lecherous DJ in Shirley Barrett’s Camera D’Or winning debut, "Love Serenade," which screened in Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival in 1996. For the role she was awarded the Leonardo da Vinci prize for Best Actress, Debut Performance by the Beaux Arts Society in New York.
Since graduating from the National Institute of Dramatic Art in 1987, Frith has worked with some of Australia’s leading theater directors, (Sydney Theatre Company and Belvoir Street) and appeared in a diversity of TV shows ("Water Rats," "GP," "Country Practice" and "Flying Doctors").
Last year she played the female lead in Manuela Albertis’ "The Missing" produced by Lynda House ("Muriel’s Wedding," "Proof"), support to Rachel Griffith in Pip Karmel’s "Me Myself I". Next she will be seen in "A Wreck a Tangle."
SACHA HORLER (Liza)
One of Australia’s most talented young actresses, Sacha Horler like fellow thespians Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Toni Colette, Judy Davis and Mel Gibson, trained at the prestigious National Institute of Dramatic Art, graduating in 1993.
Horler has worked in theatre and television. After minor roles in film ("Blackrock," "Babe 2") Horler was propelled into the limelight last year with an unprecedented double win at last year’s Australian Film Institute Awards, voted Best Actress for her performance as Cynthia in John Curran’s "Praise" and Nadia, one of the three sisters, in Christina Andreef’s "Soft Fruit."
Horler is soon to be seen in Mark Lamprell’s "My Mother Frank," selected for Panorama at the Berlin Film Festival and Shirley Barrett’s ("Love Serenade") "Walk the Talk," produced by Palme D’or winning producer Jan Chapman.