Bringing the glitzy and glamorous from Hollywood to Moscow
The face of the Russian-American Alexander Panov never appeared in Hollywood smash-hits like “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” “Star Trek,” “The Social Network,” or “Spiderman.” Yet these spectacularly bright movies owe their special look to his unique talents as a movie artist, designer and art director.
A 20-year-old “Sasha” Panov came to America in the early 1990s. He received a tourist visa to visit his beloved sweetheart — but, by the time he got here, her sweet heart had been pledged to someone else.
Even so, going back home was not an option: Things had turned tough back in Russia. The country seemed to be collapsing. Poverty, unemployment, and violence were on the rise, and hope was melting away. And so he stayed — penniless, friendless and jobless, on his own in the huge breadth of America.
|Alexander Panov: "America perpetually suffers from a hero deficit, while Russia rejoices in its
heroic history. There's no historic character you couldn't film ready-made". Source:
He found a place to stay with a family in the sticks of New Jersey, learned English and saved up a little money. After a little while, with incredible effort, he managed to qualify for a scholarship worth $80,000 to study at Dartmouth, where he studied arts and cinema.
Everything would have been great, except for the U.S. rule that prevents foreign students from working for more than one year after they have graduated.
With his visa-expiry ticking ominously, unless he found an employer to sponsor him, he would be taking the plane home.
“By the time I finished [the university], I'd built up a big portfolio,” says Panov. “I had recommendations from contemporary art experts and the support of a number of galleries. I was living in South California then — a place where contemporary art is less popular than [in], let's say, New York. I was the black sheep of the neighborhood. To bring in some cash, I had to do house-decorating with a team of Mexican immigrants — it was a tough time.
“But one wonderful morning, Peter Selz wandered by chance into my studio: He was a professor and director of the Museum of Contemporary Art at Berkeley and had previously been the curator at the NYC Museum of Contemporary Art. I'd read all 12 of his books while I was at uni — he was the top guy in his field! And he just pitched up in my tiny studio; someone had mentioned some Russian artist to him, and he decided to check me out. Selz said he thought my work was amazing, and he punched out a one-paragraph letter to the Immigration Service — and it fixed my status. They confirmed my Green Card, and I was given permanent leave to remain [in the United States] under the category of ‘exceptional ability in the sphere of art.’
“Now I was free to move around; I moved to L.A. to start a career in movies, which had been beckoning me for many years. Film unites all aspects of the arts — literature, contemporary art, music, video and multimedia. It was exactly what I was looking for.”
Panov began his Hollywood career from zero. His first project, a music video, came out in 1997; he had to hammer the scenery, plane-down the floorboards and build everything himself. Little-by-little he built up a name, recommendations, professional ability and contacts. It would only be much later, after many years, that he would begin working with David Fincher and similar stars.
The idea of a Russian artist working in Hollywood was astounding. “There are very few Russians working in my line of work,” says Alexander. “Recently, when I was working on Star Trek 2, I met an assistant art-director from St. Petersburg: She was in the same profession as I am. Now and then, I bump into people who've worked with Timur Bekmambetov, the director of ‘Night Watch’ — he's the biggest Russian name around. There's no one else of his magnitude in Hollywood right now.”
Still, Russian and American directors have a lot of untapped opportunities for collaboration — shared scenarios, co-productions and actor exchanges. Panov decided to pitch in and fill the gap between the two countries, building bridges between two countries where he feels equally at home. For the past few years, he and his InTalentMedia company have been offering free consultation to Russian directors wanting to work on joint projects, and he searches doggedly for shared interest.
InTalentMedia has already established links with acclaimed producer Sergei Selyanov, as well as with Russian companies such as Moskino, Art Pictures and the Rossiya-1 television channel. Work has been done on projects like music videos and short films, which Panov helped to get shot on film and video in Los Angeles. Yet this just the start: Panov is eager to branch out into large-scale projects.
“As a Russian myself, I can't say I really like the distorted view with which some Americans characterize Russians,” says Panov. “You can still meet a few who think that Russians wander around Red Square with bears, that Russians can't work normally, and that Russians produce nothing on a professional level. They're very negative stereotypes, and many of them have their origins in movies. They're ideas people get from films.
“Sure, everyone knows that the movie business in the U.S. is way stronger than it is in Russia — but not everything is perfect there either. Hollywood is going through a genre crisis, and directors like Spielberg and Lucas freely admit this. Movies have gotten hugely expensive. Movie budgets are so high now that one accidental turkey could bankrupt the studio and end in finance collapse. Why are people now so busy with making remakes and sequels? Because they haven't got any new ideas. Or, even if they have, producers won't dare risk putting them into production. This kind of spending demands guaranteed results.”
“This gloomy situation offers an opportunity for Russia. America perpetually suffers from a hero deficit, while Russia rejoices in its heroic history. There's no historic character you couldn't film ready-made. And then there's all that amazing landscape! Why couldn't we make some Hollywood movies in Russia? Why not film present-day Moscow, with its fantastic restaurants, museums, historic buildings and the legendary Moscow Metro?”
“I've called this project 'Moscow — The Movie-Star City,’ and it's really pretty simple. I have the setup to be able to bring Hollywood companies — middle-ranking and even top-ranking companies — to film new projects. To make this work, they need to be offered the same tax breaks they get when filming in Canada and in many of the states of the U.S. itself. It's a win-win situation: Hollywood gets the tax breaks and the fresh ideas, while Moscow gets employers who require nearly everything, including the muscle, to make it all work. Russian film-makers will be able to expand their professional experience by working alongside Western pros. And, of course, the main thing — the city's tarnished image will be hugely improved. I'm greatly hopeful that this project will gain support in Russia,” Panov says.