Genre film has always offered the opportunity to explore the ordinary through the extraordinary, a slightly tilted lens that presents a new angle on our everyday triumphs and tragedies. Zoology, the late-life coming of age movie from director Ivan Tverdovsky (Corrections Class) draws the line between the phenomenal and the mundane razor thin in a sometimes touching, sometimes heartbreaking story about change, oddity, and self-image. Acclaimed Russain stage actress Natalia Pavlenkova stars as Natasha, a beleaguered middle-aged zoo worker who finds a new lease on life when she suddenly sprouts a thick, fleshy tail and catches the eye of handsome young doctor. Tvardovsky directs it all will a matter-of-fact blunt honesty as he explores matters of disability, prejudice, and lust through Natasha’s suddenly sprouted physical “deformity”.
With Zoology celebrating its North American premiere at Fantastic Fest, I jumped online for an email chat with Tverdovsky about using genre as a vehicle to make a serious statement, why movies are more than entertainment, why he created the role for Pavlenkova, the cultural subtext that might slip past American viewers on a first glance, and more. Check out what he had to say below.
Zoology is your second feature, and while it shares similar themes with Corrections Class, it marks a decided turn towards the fantastical. How long has this story been with you and why did you decide to approach it through a genre lens?
TVERDOVSKY: For me it’s not a fantastic story at all – rather quite mundane reality. I myself often feel that I have a tail in my pants. And I can see that many people do it as well, I am sure some of them simply wrap it around themselves… Seriously speaking, this is a metaphor and for me it’s a direction away from genre cinema to a more serious statement. In our story, the tail looks so realistic, that you get used to it 15 minutes into the film.
It’s somewhat unusual to see dramatic coming-of-age tales about women, and also somewhat unusual to see romantic stories about middle-aged women. Why were you drawn to that construct and what made Natasha the right character for Zoology?
TVERDOVSKY: Her age does not matter here at all. Age is merely a suit, and not a new dress – something she is wearing at the moment. This does not mean that she cannot put the new dress on and go for a walk. As the tail appears, Natasha begins a new life intuitively. The tail pushes her into this new life, to new feelings, which she embraces.
Natalya Pavenkova, who you worked with on your last film, gives a beautiful, heartbreaking performance as Natasha. How did you two come to be collaborators and why was she right for this role?
TVERDOVSKY: Natalia is a well known theater actress. She appears in films very rarely and says “no” to many film directors. Once I suggested that she plays in my film school shore, and she – surprisingly – said yes. After that we became friends, she played the mother in my previous film, Corrections Class, and I wrote Zoology specifically for her. I only wanted to work with her, and based on her biography I specifically constructed a character whose name – Natasha – is not a coincidence.
Both Zoology and Corrections Class deal with themes of disability and otherness, what attracts you to those stories? Why was the tail an apt metaphor for those circumstances in Zoology?
TVERDOVSKY: For me cinema is not primarily entertainment. I don’t watch fun blockbusters myself. Cinema for me is an area of philosophy and artistic statement. Since I come from documentary background and my father is a documentary filmmaker, for me the core essence of cinema is it’s social statement. It is somewhat similar to the work of a journalist, just on a different level. This is the kind of cinema I enjoy.
You’re dealing in a lot of genres with Zoology — coming-of-age, romance, drama, hints of body horror — what films and/or filmmakers inspired you?
TVERDOVSKY: There weren’t many specific references. I purposefully refused to try to find references and analogues for my work. I think the line between “inspiration” and “plagiarism” is often so thin, that you risk falling into the latter one. I am sure that some people won’t enjoy my film – and this is how it is supposed to be – but I am confident of its originality.
Along the same lines, Zoology is a rather unusual film, what was your experience getting the film made? Was it difficult to pitch and secure financing?
TVERDOVSKY: This is more a question for my producers, but I would like to say that I am very grateful that the Russian budget has a yearly budget for film. And usually this budget goes to “auteur” cinema, which actually needs this support and which indeed contributes to creating “national culture”. My film got such support, and this was a catalyst for getting it going – as of course this is not the most commercial story. We also found Arizona and Moviebrats – two great co-producers from France and Germany who also helped us create artistically a much interesting film – and “Eurimages” fund.
Whenever I watch foreign films, I’m always curious if there’s a cultural subtext or nuance that I’m missing. Do you think that’s the case with Zoology?
TVERDOVSKY: Of course! It’s hard for me to be in your shoes, but I know for a fact that Zoology has a lot of local satire, reminiscent of classic Russian comic writers of 19 century. It was quite common to laugh at social discrepancies, issues of medicine, relationship of church and the non-clerical society… Those are the subjects of classical Russian literature – Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Chekhov, Saltykov-Shedrin… I tried to make social humor so subtle in my story, that possibly people from the outside see it as a norm of “absurd” reality. For example, the scenes in the hospital. Or Natasha’s very religious mother.