Acclaimed French director Regis Wargnier was a little exhausted after five days of non-stop back-end movie business in Los Angeles. The day before settling in for this interview, for example, he spent all day recording director's comments in English for the American DVD release of "East-West" -- his absorbing, emotional epic about a French woman trapped in communist Russia after World War II -- which didn't even open in theaters until six weeks after the forward-looking recording session. (Of course it has opened now, which is why you're reading this article.)
Last night, before flying to San Francisco on a promotional tour for the film, he was at a cocktail party at the French council in L.A., so he might be a little hung over, too as he enthusiastically discusses his Oscar-nominated picture. But he's used to keeping odd hours after the extensive traveling he's been doing for more than two years in conjunction with this film. In fact, if it wasn't for his wanderlust, there might not be an "East-West."
The seed for the story came from a desire to direct Catherine Deneuve again after their Oscar-winning 1991 collaboration, "Indochine." He imagined her playing a diplomat traveling in Central Asia, but while researching the picture, he began to hear heartbreaking stories of Western families trapped in Stalin's iron fist and forgotten by their native governments in the wake of the Cold War.
"Traveling in these republics I met people who spoke really good French," Wargnier said, speaking fluid English himself with only a slight accent -- but looking subtly Continental in dark blue Levi's and a sweater from Armani Exchange. "I asked them why, and they told me the were born in France and taken to Russia by their families.
"These people have now melted in and become Russians, but they remember getting off the boats, they remember people being separated, they remember people being executed. Some remember being separated from their parents on the arrival day."
Very similar events unfold in the first few minutes of Wargnier's film -- which he wrote with three collaborators, two of which (Roustam Ibraguimbek and Serguei Bodrov) are Russians who lived parts of their lives in the kind of dilapidated, alien world of tenement housing and rampant suspicion depicted in the film.
Told from the point of view of Marie (Sandrine Bonnaire, "The Ceremony"), the beautiful French wife of a Russian doctor tricked into returning to the Motherland after the war, "East-West" is a personal epic of a kind of post-war strife, despair and obstinate hope that has never before been explored on film. Every frame of the film is heavy with Marie's fear and desperation as she watches her husband reluctantly become a spiritless Soviet stooge to save the lives of herself and their young son.
"Two of the writers, both of them lived in this conditions," Wargnier said, explaining that during many of their writing sessions, "they weren't writing. They were just remembering and I was taking notes."
It was the writers' similar memories of cramped living in a large, decaying, former bourgeoisie homes, that gave birth to one of the central elements of the film: The once-grand communal house, now shared a dozen residents (including Marie's family) and overseen by a wearied, broken babushka who had grown up in the house in another lifetime, the happy daughter of a wealthy family before the Bolshevik Revolution.
"I knew establishing a big part of the story in this community flat would be really interesting because it was like a theatrical situation," the director explained. "You have love, betrayal, solidarity, desperation, hope. You have all that human drama in one place."
Such real-life details were gleaned for every aspect of the film, from the handsome teenage Olympic swimmer (Serguei Bodrov, Jr., son of the aforementioned screenwriter) who plans a daring defection to help save Marie, to the licentious neighbor (Tatiana Doguileva) willing to turn the family over to the KGB as a foreign agents when she fails to catch the doctor's eye.
"I would say everything is true in the movie, except the characters," Wargnier said proudly. "All the stories are true, but we had to create the right people to embody them."
"You know how I came to learn this word, embody?" he ads slipping off on a tangent. "I wanted to learn for 'Indochine' how to say Catherine Deneuve was embodying France. In French it's encarnate."
As Wargnier originally intended, Deneuve embodies France once again in "East-West" as Marie's one true hope of returning to Western soil -- a political activist and stage diva traveling in the USSR who likes to dabble in minor intrigue.
Shooting the film completely in Russia, French natives Wargnier, Deneuve and Bonnaire found they were outnumbered on the set by Ukrainians, Bulgarians and several other nationalities. The cast and crew mostly found their common ground in English, although that didn't always help.
"Sometimes when I talk English, I wonder what I say," Wargnier laughs, then proceeds to tell a story about how he's easier to understand speaking English with a French accent than is Patrick Doyle, the very Scottish composer of the film's haunting score. "Sometimes it's really difficult to get him," the director says, shaking his head.
But apparently they understood each other perfectly when it counted, because Wargnier depended on Doyle (who did music for "Indochine," Kenneth Branagh's "Hamlet" and "Sense and Sensibility") to create a stirring march for the movie's title sequence -- a simple, dark and uncommonly foreboding shot of a churning ocean liner wake on a cold, gray sea -- without seeing a single frame of footage.
"I had nothing for the credits," Wargnier recalls, "and Doyle said, 'You should have a shot of the sea that says trouble and a journey.' I tried stock footage, but it was all Caribbean. I spent three days shooting water on ferry off the coast of France.
"(I had to tell him) 'I can't give you the images, because I'm filming them now.' But I got exactly what I wanted: Two minutes of music that says journey, hope, motherland."
It's a vital moment that sets a mood Wargnier carries through the entire film, which received a much-deserved Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film this year.