Ralph Fiennes • Director of The White Crow
“It was clear that if it were ever a film, it would be about the defection”
by Kaleem Aftab
- As he prepares to be honoured at the European Film Awards, Ralph Fiennes talks about his Rudolf Nureyev film The White Crow, his third outing in the director’s chair
British actor-director Ralph Fiennes is just about to be honoured with the European Achievement in World Cinema Award at the European Film Awards in Seville. At the recent Cairo International Film Festival, Fiennes spoke about The White Crow [+see also:
interview: Ralph Fiennes
film profile], his film centring on ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev’s defection from the Soviet Union on 16 June 1961.
Cineuropa: What was the attraction of making a film about Nureyev’s defection?
Ralph Fiennes: There are many biographies of Nureyev, but I became acquainted with a biography by Julie Kavanagh written in 2007. I read the first six chapters, which dealt with Nureyev’s student years, leading up to the moment of his defection in 1961. I have to say that I had no interest in ballet as such, but what this biography introduced me to was the force and the spirit of this young artist from this poor background, who had a deep inner conviction of his destiny as an artist and a dancer.
Did you immediately want to direct the story?
I had no conscious desire to direct, and I certainly did not think that I would be playing Nureyev. All I knew was that this journey of childhood, student years and defection was an extraordinary story. It was clear to me that if it were ever a film, it would be about the defection, that choice he had to make at Paris’ Le Bourget Airport. Beyond that, I had no interest in depicting his life as a film.
Why was it important for you to cast Oleg Ivenko – a dancer, rather than an actor – in the role of Nureyev?
I was pretty convinced that the actor should be a dancer who could act, and you don’t know who they are unless you look for them. We found Oleg, a Ukrainian who dances at the Kazan Theatre in Russia, where he is a leading ballet dancer. We auditioned many, many dancers, and I was fairly convinced that it should be an unknown face; I didn’t want it to be a face that the audience knew, and that made it challenging because distributors want movie stars.
The film is in Russian and English; what drove that choice?
I wanted it to be authentic in terms of the language, so I wanted Russian spoken where it would have been spoken. Mercifully, we know that Nureyev had English lessons, and in Paris he spoke English with his French friends. This helped us a little bit with our commercial appeal. I stuck to my guns on the language, which made it difficult commercially, as the film is over 50% in Russian.
When did you decide to make the film jump between three time frames – his childhood, his student years and the defection?
In my conversations with screenwriter David Hare, we felt that a purely linear telling of the story would not be that interesting. We thought that a more effective portrait of the spirit of Nureyev might be achieved by juxtaposing his childhood and his student years against the weeks in Paris, so that you are building up different aspects of his personality by aligning these three time frames. One is the childhood, one is the weeks in Paris, and one is the student years in Leningrad; they are all chronological within themselves. There is no flashback within any time frame, and these three periods lead up to the important moment at the airport.
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