An Interview with Director David Grieco
The Man Behind Evilenko
It’s screening night for Evilenko at a small theatre in Greenwich Village and a wicked wind is whipping outside the theater. Director David Grieco arrives in the empty lobby just after the sold out crowd has taken their seats to see his first foray into directing, at the age of 54, no less. The film is an allegorical work that meshes the madness of real-life Russian serial killer Andrei Chikatilo (played by Malcolm McDowell), who murdered and in some cases devoured 52 women and children between 1978 and 1990, and the chaotic crumbling of the Iron Curtain at the time of his capture in 1990. Grieco juxtaposes old-world and new-world communism by embodying each in Chikatilo (a staunch Stalinist) and magistrate Vadim Lesiev, the man who pursues and finally captures him (played by Marton Csokas), a moderate communist who is quietly resigned to the demise of his political system as he works within it to catch the killer.
At the conclusion of the film, a Q and A with McDowell, Grieco and composer Angelo Badalamenti, (who wrote the weirdly moving, chilling score) wraps up, and the fans surge out of the theater, engulfing McDowell and shoving an endless array of A Clockwork Orange memorabilia under his nose for autographs. Some give Grieco a quick, congratulatory pump of the hand, few of them aware of the 15-year journey that led to the realization of the film.
Grieco was raised in Rome in the thick of celluloid celebrity—his uncle, Sergio Grieco, was a prolific director of films that ranged from horror and crime thrillers to James Bond knock-offs, and his stepmother, Lorenza Mazzetti, also a director, won an award at Cannes in 1956 for her film Together. As a child, Grieco was recruited by his family’s influential friends to appear in films including Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, but acting was not his calling. (“I was terrible,” Grieco moans, “and each time the camera was on me, I become more afraid and more terrible because I knew I was so bad.”) Grieco’s uncle Sergio and his father spent their adolescence in Russia, where they were influenced by Communist ideology and where Sergio served as an assistant to Russian director Vsevolod Pudovkin. The young David went to foreign schools because of his family’s unusual lack of religious beliefs in the Catholic-saturated Italian school system.
Seated among the brightly-colored vinyl and chrome furniture in the theater’s frigid lobby and between dashes into the forbidding wind for a smoke, the youthful, silver-haired and slim Grieco chatted animatedly with us about the torturous path to bringing Evilenko to the screen; the tricky business of putting bloody child murders and rapes before squeamish audiences; his on-again, off-again relationship with filmmaking; and the imminent death of the Italian film industry.
Offscreen: You’ve been a journalist, a producer, a screenwriter-why suddenly a director at this point in your life?
Grieco: I started out as director when I was 18. I went to the National School to be a director and I was an assistant to many directors but I couldn’t make a living at it. So I became a journalist, which was more stable economically. And so I forgot about being a director and was a journalist for 12 years. At that time, that meant working 18 hours a day. I’ve done everything at a newspaper one can do, from foreign correspondent to film critic to music critic, whatever.
After 12 years, I was so tired I gave up and went straight back to film. I was a script writer, a producer and always tried to avoid dreaming about directing because I thought I was too old. Even at 50 it is really weird to take it up in my country. From the age of 35, 36, I thought, “Don’t think about it, you’re too old, there are a lot of jobs you can do.”
Offscreen: You have some political views that interested you in the fall of the Soviet Union. How did they influence your decision to make a film on the demise of the USSR?
Grieco: I was born a Communist and I will die a Communist. I wanted to make a difference; I always hated the Soviet version of Communism. I had a lot of trouble when I went there in the 1970s just because I was an Italian Communist and we were their enemies for betraying them. [Enrico] Berlinguer [National Secretary of the Italian communist party 1972-1984] was a great leader in Italy; we were by far the most important Communist party and he was a Catholic. This is why I fell in love with this story.
Offscreen: So you still consider yourself a Communist?
Grieco: No…but when I see George Bush, others…politics all over the world are just horrible. We don’t do enough to protest against it all.
Offscreen: How did you become interested in the Chikatilo story specifically?
Grieco: I went to Russia in May of 1990 and the trial of Chikatilo had just started. That was also the time the Soviet Union was collapsing. Six months later it wasn’t there anymore. When I got in touch with the magistrate, it inspired me for the character of [Vadim Timurovic] Lesiev although he’s not the real person who caught him. The real man is a very shy, very strange man, yet he shared from the very first moment, my point of view. When I met him, I just wanted to interview him to have some material and immediately we had such a connection. He said “I’m so sorry for this man,” which was something very hard to say at that moment. He said, “This is tragic, and it’s our tragedy, because everyone is going nuts.” So he in a way was really a collaborator of mine because I was so pleased to find a Soviet who shared my opinion.
He told me everything that happened, every single detail that I asked about Chikatilo. Right before I left, he said, “You know, I think we did a good job together, but there is one thing I didn’t tell you, and I’m going to tell you right now. We have another 16 guys like that.” And I said, “Do you mean you don’t think it was all Chikatilo?” And he said, “No, I’m going to show you something since we have 10 minutes left.” It was really terrifying because all the other killers had a different story, 16 different stories, and every one of them had killed more than 20 people. So the madness was all over the place. When I left, I said to myself, “That’s the way I really have to tell the story, the story of a nation, not the story of a single guy.” Chikatilo is so special; he can really represent the fall of the Soviet Union, in a symbolic way. So it really pushed me to write about it that way.
I wrote three newspaper articles in Italy—six pages total—about Chikatilo, which were picked up internationally. I can tell you the real story from the very beginning to the end, but at the same time I was trying to enlarge the story and trying to focus more on the context, even when I reported on it. In those reports, I made the decision to write a book before writing a script because my intention was straight on to do a movie. I felt that a script would just wind up being turned into a horror movie, and not what I really wanted to focus on.
And so that is why I wrote a book. I knew it would make good material for a script and would make it clear to whomever might finance the film what I wanted to do and so it’s been useful to go through it to prepare myself and the material I exposed in reporting on it. So, I really made it step-by-step.
Offscreen: It must have been difficult to get funding. Who wants to put money behind a movie about a man becoming sexually aroused while slashing children to death?
Grieco: I had been asked to sell the rights to the book many times, even in the United States and for quite an interesting amount of money. But every time I asked who would direct it, who the actors would be, how faithful would they be to the story, I realized that they really wanted to make a horror movie and that’s it. So I said no, I’m not going to give this movie to anyone who is going to make a stupid horror film. Why? I was very attracted by the money, but if the film wasn’t going to be done right, it wouldn’t be done.
Miramax was originally on board for the project and they loved the script, but in the end they said to me, “Let’s get rid of the kids, because you will never be able to do this film with children, so let’s put some prostitutes in instead.” And I said, “C’mon, this is the story! This is why this story is terrible but interesting, and why prostitutes? We’ve seen hundreds of serial killers killing prostitutes; we’ve seen that film a thousand times. And why use me as a first-time director when you have many skilled directors who make movies about serial killers?” It was absolutely nonsense and it fell apart.
If the film was going to be done, it had to be done my way. So I made a terrible mistake—I decided to write a script from the book. I had to do it because no one else would do it. I really tried to be a different guy than the one who wrote the book and really cut down and select from the material. I was still trying to find a director and I did find one, the Greek director [Constantin] Costa-Gavras, who would have been perfect because he would have focused on the political aspect. His wife, however, was kind of his manager; they ran his production company together, and she felt it was too dangerous because the Communist culture in Western Europe is a very well-respected culture.
So people were afraid to do an anti-Communist film, which isn’t what I ended up doing. In this film, you have two types of Communists —a Stalinist who is crazy [Chikatilo] and a man [Lesiev] who, although he is a Communist, understands that everything is falling down, understands that big mistakes have been made; this is the point of view of Western Europe about the Communists. So it was quite complicated. In the end, the only way was to take over the directing.
Offscreen: How does one get children to act in a film like this, and how do you work with them? How do you explain what is going on without traumatizing them?
Grieco: Every casting director said ‘I’m not going to even ask any parents to provide their child for this film. Don’t ask me to.” Everyone said that. So I decided to use my own kids, and three of them were in the film. I even used a niece of mine, so it was really a family film. After a week of shooting, I suddenly had all the kids I wanted. That’s filmmaking —-once they see you at work, see you laughing, making jokes, see it is relaxed, people started bringing their kids. Not all the kids were Russian kids, and it was even hard using my kids—after all, I am their father.
It’s very strange—one of my children who is 14 was just attacked by a pedophile. Can you imagine that? He is in the movie and then it happens to him for real. I talked to him, he’s a sweet kid, naïve, he’s very big, but they haven’t caught up yet psychologically at that age. Someone he knew who told him to come with them and at a point he did realize to just run away.
The way I handled the material is that I tried to be honest with them. Malcolm helped me so much; when I was shooting and looking right at my kid, Malcolm wasn’t saying his lines —he was just telling my son what to do.
I also had amazing luck with a child actress who is Australian but lives in Rome who was in a tough scene where Chikatilo starts to molest her in a classroom. I had nightmares beforehand about explaining the scene to her. At first, I thought I’d just tell the story in a gentle way, make up some weird fairytale, but then I realized that was just like Chikatilo and the way a pedophile would act. So I decided I should just be real, to say that there are a lot very sick and dangerous men who are attracted by children. And it took like 30 minutes, and she’s listening to me like, “I know that.” She was more grownup than I was! She was totally amazing! I told her that even though she knew Malcolm, the scene might have to be repeated many times and of course she wouldn’t really see his penis, but it’s worse imagining it. She told me she was fine —she was reassuring me! She was 10 years old.
So I thought okay, it’s going to work. So we started shooting, and the tension was very high. But she was so easygoing that Malcolm got embarrassed. I was feeling this energy between them, that she was really challenging him, and I was pleased because that was really very helpful to make the psychological aspects come out. Pedophiles are really cowards, and when a kid comes out and stands up to them, they are in trouble. It was a tough day, but at the end of it, we were all really happy. It was at that point I realized I could make this film. That was the first real scene —that was the test for me. If that one hadn’t worked, I knew it would be impossible.
I put it at the beginning of the film so the audience would know what the film was about, even if it was risky. I think it’s better, because you are dealing really honestly with the audience. If it starts that way, where can they think it is going to go? During some of the screenings, people just walked out after that opening scene. We are always trying to avoid the subject of pedophilia —let’s just face it for once.
Offscreen: Given your background and connections in Italy, why did you decide to cast English-speaking actors and make the film in English?
Grieco: The best thing would have been for a Russian director to do it in Russian. I can understand Russian, but don’t really speak it. I thought about it, but couldn’t see any other way. I had no choice. If I did it in Italian, that would’ve been nonsense. Russian characters in Russia speaking Italian, it would have been really crazy. Besides, English is the language of cinema if you want your film to be seen.
I also, of course, wanted Malcolm from the very beginning. I’ve known him for 30 years; he’s my best friend and we’ve worked together before. He was my neighbor in Tuscany. I had in mind from the very beginning that it had to be him.
Offscreen: How did he feel about playing Chikatilo? Did he agree right away?
Grieco: We’re such friends, he would never say no to me. And then he fell in love with the script.
Offscreen: How did you come to cast Marton Csokas as Lesiev?
Grieco: A casting agent mentioned his name to me and Malcolm knew him because he had happened to come to Malcolm’s house with some friends and Malcolm thought he was really interesting and told me to send him the script. So I did and after about a week Marton called me in the middle of the night and said he had just read the script and found it very interesting. We started talking and he really impressed me because he started talking more about the character of Evilenko and not his own character which is rare, because every actor focuses on his own character and not the others.
The other thing about Marton is that his father is a Hungarian Jew who escaped from Hungary and the Communists, so Marton knew quite a lot about what was going on there from his father and had the ability to understand the real subject of the film. So, I thought, “I’ll never find another actor like this.” And then he started talking about The Mirror [1975, Andrei Tarkovsky] and I was amazed because this guy of Hungarian origin and born in New Zealand knew The Mirror by Tarkovsky! And so after we talked for about an hour, I said, “Marton, I don’t know if I will be able to pay you what you’re worth, but I’d just like to meet you one day.” He had just done —Kangaroo Jack— and was offered a lot of money to do the sequel. He told me that the money wasn’t that important and after a couple of weeks he said yes; his agent was very pissed off but now we’re very good friends so it worked out. So it was a stroke of luck. He’s a good actor and interesting.
It was very important that Malcolm agree because they had so many intimate scenes, especially the naked one, so I would never put in someone that Malcolm disagreed with; otherwise, the relationship would fail and the film would fail. [The climactic confession of Chikatilo plays out in a scene that renders both McDowell and Csokas stark-naked in the interrogation room as Lesiev plays on the killer’s delusional fantasies by acting like a naïve child to entice Chikatilo to act out his pedophilic desires and reveal his guilt.]
Offscreen: Not only did you have children to deal with, but you had that scene with McDowell and Csokas—how did that work?
Grieco: I put it quite close to the end of the shooting so I could think about it and to let the tension grow among the crew and the two of them. Every day I heard, “How are they going to do that scene? Are they going to be naked?” Some of the crew were saying, “No, they aren’t going to be naked!” Everyone had their fantasies about it. I never said a single word. When we shot it, the costume shop had some fake skin-colored underwear for the actors and I said, “Do you think we’re going to do it like this?” And Marton, without saying a word, takes off his pants. And Malcolm says, “You sonofabitch; you’re making me eat tons of pasta every day and now you put me in front of this statue. You are a bastard!” As he’s saying this, he’s undressing as well.
I didn’t tell them what to do. I asked Marton to go first. Malcolm approaches, he didn’t know what he was about to do, and he acts like he’s about to kiss him, and then he bites his neck. Marton was absolutely…he didn’t know what to do. You could see it in his eyes. Then I said, Marton, it is your turn to do whatever unpredictable thing you want to do to him. So we were really all playing with hidden cards, which I think gave some strength and tension to that scene. I wanted to take every risk.
Offscreen: So you are shooting another film with Malcolm and with Badalamenti composing the score. What is it about?
Grieco: It is a film noir called Secrets of Love which I’m shooting in Malta proper. It’s a very old-fashioned film noir like Touch of Evil or Double Indemnity. It’s very dark, very passionate. It’s the story of a famous singer who is murdered and no one knows who the killer is three years later and the people in her personal life are consuming each other to figure out who killed her. Malcolm says it’s a Hitchcock-type movie, but I think it is more like an Orson Welles work —more about destiny and passion.
Offscreen: It doesn’t sound like this one would be as hard to sell as Evilenko.
Grieco: No, I am getting funding, it was not hard for this one. No men eating children.
Offscreen: From where did you draw the story?
Grieco: I wrote this story; I went directly from a script this time, not a book. I’m not a novelist. I can write a script in a couple of months but then I rework it a lot. I don’t need a producer telling me to make another draft–I do this myself. I just realized yesterday, after several drafts, that I made a horrible mistake that I’m going to change. You’re never finished.
Offscreen: So do you use storyboards, do you have scenes worked out in your head before you start shooting?
Grieco: You have to forget the script when you start shooting, really open your eyes and try to see if the world you’re creating is a world you want to live in and someone else wants to live in. I don’t even open the script when I’m shooting —it has to be in your blood. I don’t plan ahead much. Everything has to be different from when I was a critic, when I was a scriptwriter or when I was a producer It’s so important, at that moment, at 7:30 a.m., when you go on the set and check the weather, how’s the light, it all really happens in that moment. I would never be able to shoot a film with a storyboard –it’s all very nice, but it’s all theoretical.
Offscreen: I notice that in Evilenko, the weather, with a few exceptions, was beautiful. It seemed a stark contrast to the content of the film.
Grieco: Yeah, it never rained! I had to add rain in certain scenes. I thought Russia in March/April would be cold and rainy, but it was warm and it never rained at all. It really affected the film. We were really dying of heat! It’s beautiful that it came out that way. When you watch a film, you believe in certain things, the director did that because…The director is an element, but really it is a collective job in changing circumstances. From John Ford to Charlie Chaplin, whoever you want to mention, they had a great team around them. You always have to have talent. You are only as brilliant as the talent you surround yourself with. Directors are not a one-man show.
Offscreen: So despite the fact that you became a director under duress, you want to continue?
Grieco: It has been a shock to direct, but I’ll keep directing and writing. If I can make one film every two years, that would be great.
Offscreen: So overall, what is going on in Italian cinema—where is it headed?
Grieco: First of all, it is very important for the Italian government to put money into cinema. They used to, but they don’t anymore. Hopefully, if we get a new government, they will do it again. The media feels like it is a waste to put money into cinema. You have to put money into it, like you would hospitals or schools, or you lose your identity. When the government doesn’t want to put money into film, they ask the media to write that putting money into it is scandalous –a waste to make films in Italian for such a small amount of people in a small country. It’s very, very, very hard. Some filmmakers leave and go other places, especially L.A. Others give up and just find other jobs.
Filmmaking in Italy has always been made by families. I’m not talking about some Mafioso system; it’s just because a good cameraman will teach his tricks to his son. In every film, you have a tradition. But now, filmmakers are telling their kids to try to stay away from the industry, to find a good job, to stay away because it’s a nightmare. It’s a shame.
We are still in transition from handcrafted cinema to computer cinema. If we lose this tradition of how we used to do things before computer-generated special effects, we’re going to really lose a treasure. I don’t like special effects —they’re fake. The density of the film is affected. I prefer a scar to be bloody, hand-made. That’s what drama is all about. When it is computer-generated, it looks fake. When I see a crowd of a million knights, I can see it is actually the same five knights reproduced a thousand times. I think even the average audience can see that. People get used to it, from video games, etc. The drama gets completely lost. In a few years, we won’t know how to do anything without a computer.
All pictures copyright of Lise Millay Stevens and Fabian Cevallos