Interview with Alan Nafzger
Nafzger on Ukrainian Casablanca
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
Kateryna Shevchenko interview of Alan Nafzger on Ukrainian Casablanca
Interview May 25th, Kyiv, Ukraine – International Press Building
Kateryna: Thank you for doing this.
Alan: Not a problem. But I have to say most of the time it’s really an insult to ask a writer to explain what he’s written, but Hollywood doesn’t want to hear a lot of explaining; understanding a script just complicates things for them I guess.
Just tell us which of the forty-seven available plots you want us to film; tell us the location and the time period too. How much is it going to cost? But because all forty-seven plots have already been done, please realize we don’t regard anything you write as original, so listening to you is entirely optional. In fact, this isn’t right for us.
And I’m saying, “Wait a minute; before I leave, you want to hear my idea?”
K: You’re pretty sarcastic.
A: I have a license.
K: I’d like to ask… well, there isn’t much exposition.
A: No, it’s sparse; I’ve been burned on that too often by Hollywood types.
A: Well, what you have in Hollywood are dumbasses that tell you there is too much exposition, or they tell you there isn’t enough. It’s all just too convenient to trash your script that way. To me, it’s a lame-ass argument to sit on your ass and get through their daily stack of scripts without really doing anything.
K: Can you explain?
A: Well, you seem to think there isn’t enough. Nothing personal. But I had a different reader, totally ignorant of history say, “I knew that.” I had a three-sentence passage about the Holodomor. She didn’t know what that was; she was just too defensive about it. Maybe she went and looked it up. Or she didn’t. Of course, you know what it was.
K: I think I was in the fourth grade when I first heard the story, but I’m Ukrainian American. My grandmother told me.
A: That’s why you are sitting here.
K: Thank you. How do you know she didn’t know what it was?
Well, we were talking about genocide in history and the only thing she wanted to talk about was the Holocaust. So I brought up some other examples. She didn’t know about the Ottoman genocide of the Armenians in World War I or Rwanda in 1994 or Cambodia in the seventies. She never saw The Killing Fields; didn’t it win an Oscar or two? But she’s making decisions for a major studio; how is that?
I’m sorry; I take it a bit personal because It’s my script she’s shitting on.
Get this, she claimed to know all about the Holocaust. But when you mention Ravensbrück, her voice lights up and I think maybe she does know something. She says, “Isn’t it terrible what they did to the LGTBQ people?” I’m sure there were lesbians at Ravensbrück, but she was under the impression it was a camp for gays?
K: It was a camp for women; really more like a prison with relatively not many executions. A few.
A: Correct; it wasn’t a death camp for gays.
K: Maybe she was trying to communicate how woke she was? I mean LGTBQ opens a lot of doors in this town.
A: She was nearly a moron in my eye. Listen, people pretending they know what they’re talking about is all too common in this town. What you have are arrogant dumbasses influencing what movies are made and how writers write. It’s the worst element of Hollywood. They are generally ignorant of the subject matter, but if you explain anything you hurt their ego, and then you’re out of there. They’ll find a simple script that doesn’t insult them and believe me, there are plenty of those floating around out there.
What is the industry slogan, “keep it simple, stupid.” I thought that was politics?
K: Well, maybe you’ll have more luck with this one.
A: One more story, please. I got to the director level with a script once and he said, “you haven’t left me with anything to do.” What? I guess he was accustomed to adding his understanding to the scripts.
K: Yeah, they want to put their own label on everything.
A: He wants to put his label on my work, okay. That’s clear. I talked to him for half an hour trying to learn how directors think.
I guess that’s the way it works with film; I mean someone has to be the boss, but he’s passing on my script because he can only see fifteen per cent he could possibly influence, or corrupt? What did he do in the end, choose a script to film that allowed him 80 per cent leeway? It was totally predictable; later I found out the guy was a big-time socialist, someone without any trouble controlling others. Socialists, they like very little exposition. I noticed.
K: You’ve had a lot of rejection?
A: Only in the U.S. I know who people are by the way they reject a script. The arguments they make and the critique. It tells me exactly who they are and if they paid attention in school. It’s a simple test; here read this and tell me what you think.
K: In the U.S. we’re pickier, you think?
A: No, you’re more arrogant and certainly less able to listen. I think it’s basically anti-intellectualism. It’s not always true, of course, but with Hollywood I don’t think your colleagues liked school. I think, you guys typically didn’t like your teachers; maybe you kept that on the downlow, but why else would someone be so adverse to three sentences of exposition, they didn’t know already?
K: It’s like a car factory with a conveyor belt, only we make movies. The exposition only slows the belt down.
A: Understanding a script slows things down? Interesting analogy. You seem bright. I’m happy about that. But, doesn’t anyone take their time making movies?
K: They’re out there, somewhere.
A: Part of capitalism, I guess. Everyone clawing their way to the top. Running. Racing. Missing the point; their million movies, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing.
K: You prefer quality over quantity?
A: Doesn’t every artist?
K: Andy Warhol?
A: I think he was a silkscreen artist.
K: You write about a lot of different areas. Philippines, Russia, the buffalo soldiers, surfing, baseball.
A: I guess no one likes to be lectured. I mean surfing and baseball and Russian history are such “simple” subjects, they want to just wing it with a simple script? But it seems like there is a collective dislike of academics, or instruction in general. Insecure people, intellectually. But either they claim they already know the information or it’s not needed in the script when it’s relatively clear they don’t know shit, and they’re two years out of college and swear they will NEVER sit in another classroom or be forced to listen to someone else; it’s the epitome of arrogance.
K: But they think you’re arrogant.
A: Well, I earned my arrogance, if you think about it.
K: You want me to stop?
A: No, ask away. You don’t have anything to do with them. If anyone understands the story it’s you. You’re Ukrainian and you saw Casablanca.
K: You said on the phone a reader hadn’t seen Casablanca?
A: She said there were too many references to Casablanca. I think you know what I’m saying is generally true. This reader, she said, “Not everyone saw Casablanca.” My response was, “You didn’t see it either?” She said that she, “hadn’t gotten around to it yet.”
A: I thought it was required. My niece is a theatre major and it was required in a freshman class of hers. She knows all about it and she’s there to study the drama, the stage. So, I think people are aware of the inadequacies of Hollywood; readers are the Achilles’ heel. Ironic they’re called “readers,” because evidently they don’t read much, or watch much. They haven’t seen Casablanca or North by Northwest but they can write a freakin’ dissertation on how much they hate USC fraternities. They don’t make movies like Animal House anymore, but fraternities are the only thing these readers seem to know about. Crazy huh?
Do you get that sort of job at the studio by hating the right people or what?
But forget all that. You read the script.
K: Reading the opening scene, I would guess the movie is about two unlikely friends that work together to break out of their war imprisonment to expose the war atrocities.
A: It’s not a buddy movie. Yuri escapes a Russian filtering camp. His friend, the photojournalist, is shot and can’t make it. He hands a phone or camera off to Yuri. Obviously, it’s important, it’s the photojournalists dying words. The camera/phone is part of a subplot.
K: You were there you said?
A: Like an idiot, I drove down there from Kyiv and got caught up. I saw a guy, literally jump over the fence and disappear into the trees. It was dark. They said he was a professional soccer player, but I didn’t get a name or particulars. But of course, that’s my character, a guy who can do a “Fosbury flop” over a six-foot razor fence.
K: How’d you get out?
A: I showed them my blue passport. They jumped about an inch. I told them, in Russian as best as I could, why I thought Russia was right. I can bullshit, either side equally well. They told me Zalensky invited nuclear weapons onto soil their grandfathers had died to take.
I told them about a woman I met in Krsnodor 1996, her grandfather had died during WW2. I’d asked lady, “where” and she said, “in the Crimea.” I said, “Oh, in Ukraine.” She immediately corrected me, “that’s not Ukraine!” And she added that the Ukrainians surrendered and “after your boys bleed out into the soil; it’s not their land anymore.” The Russian’s made two hours of phone calls and let me go. I’d sold some scripts that were on Russian TV.
K: How did soccer player wind up as a prisoner?
A: Well, we’re not certain. He could have been a combatant or maybe he’s just a soccer coach in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was in a set of Adidas warmups, black with bright yellow tennis shoes. I guess he could have been a spy. Maybe there was a soccer match and he figured the Russians would leave him alone; he miscalculated. It doesn’t matter. He sure as hell didn’t want to be executed.
K: What is with the references to soccer in the script?
A: Yuri’s not Rick Blain from the 1942 movie. He was a professional soccer player and all that stereotypically comes with that job. I think we should use soccer songs. It’s haunting Yuri.. his glorious past, goals, cheering crowds, post-game wine, women and song. Compare that with his pitiful bumbling performance since then. But the music wouldn’t be up to me.
In the 2006 World Cup, Ukraine lost one and won three before being eliminated. They defeated Switzerland in the sweet sixteen. Europe loves soccer; it’s a big deal there. It would naturally have been Yuri’s finest 90 minutes. Soccer is box office in the EU.
K: His wife left him?
A: I’m making that up. A wife that may or may not have been killed on a ship that she was known to have boarded. It’s a plot element in Anna Seghers’ novel and of course, there is the Lusitania. The Russians aren’t sinking Ukrainian passenger ships, yet. But there is always the possibility they might stop, board and search ships leaving Odesa. That sort of thing happens in war. Her ship isn’t sunk, so at the end of the story, she’s out there somewhere. Not that Yuri cares, but it does cause him to hesitate.
I thought about putting the wife’s story in there; I chose not to. She’s beautiful, of course, you don’t get to marry a professional athlete without that. Probably, she was a soccer groupie, I image; and Yuri’s no longer a professional athlete. Maybe I should add a line, “You know I can’t remember a single conversation we had or one interest we shared, but still.”
The wife isn’t in the script; I guess she could be. But to me she’s expendable. She laughed at his jokes and insisted on paying for her fair share, so Yuri would think she wasn’t interested in his money. She was young and living at home, and her parents were both successful, comfortably off. Yuri liked that; less likely she was a gold digger, but she probably was in the end. Yuri and the missing wife were the same age but they had very little in common. She pretended NOT interested in soccer or sports; it made him feel better about her. Mostly it was about sex. They watched a lot of televison.
K: So Yuri now has a mission to complete?
K: Sverts is found dead, either by suicide or he’s been killed?
A: It’s suicide. Yuri reads the email that triggered it. Vika, the supermodel was bored and has let him go.
K: I was so hoping that Yuri would find a clue, get some more information or find another piece of the puzzle that leads to the Russians being involved.
A: Well, he has the photojournalist’s camera/phone and he has Shvets’ phone and his laptop. He flips through the emails, photos. He has a day or two on board a boat (leaving Mariupol for Odesa) to read it all. I’m not sure the audience needs to know it all. It doesn’t matter who Shvets really is. He’s a former fashion photographer and a dead husband. But primarily he looked similar to Yuri; Yuri will be able to step into his shoes and escape the war if he chooses.
K: Yuri assumes Shvets’ identity in case the Russians come after him?
A: That makes sense… He’s gonna be hunted by the Russians, both as himself and also as Shvets. But, I was thinking he just sees a way to emigrate and he flirts with the idea of leaving. He could leave for Poland or the north of the Ukraine on a train. But of course, Vika is the most beautiful woman in Europe, surely in Ukraine.
K: Should this idea that Russians are after Yuri should be more developed?
A: Creapy FSB looking guys hanging around. The Russian army is on the way; the Russian operatives can’t be too aggressive. I mean the Ukrainian police are still in charge. They don’t want caught, jailed or executed as spies. I thought of putting him in a fight with them, but they’d have Glocks and they’d just kill him and exit the area… end of movie, if that happened.
The bottom line is the Russian intelligence agents aren’t going to make their move until the chaos arrives. Maybe I should add a fight scene after he leaves the ship? Yuri stabs one in the neck with a broken broom handle and he overpowers the other and shoots that Russian with his own gun?
And of course, maybe they are just creepy and watching everyone, or they are watching Vika. I mean she is a high-profile model.
The creepy Russians might know Yuri’s not Shvets, I mean he was a high-profile soccer player and they might not realize he’s escaped from the filtering camp. I’m not sure who was in charge of the camp, the FSB or Army intelligence.
K: Filtering camp, I heard that on the news.
A: Well, they put everyone (Russians and Ukrainians) in a field surrounded with razor wire, until they are sorted, for a day or two. They’re checked out by intelligence. The ethnic Russians are released and the Ukrainians… well I’m told they are being relocated to more permanent camps inside Russia. Of course, there are tons of rumours about summary executions. A 35-year-old Ukrainian male might not fair so well.
K: There is a lot of drama surrounding the romance.
A: It’s calculated that way. First of all, war increases the demand for a man. Safety and security, which is naturally what women want and war only brings that out into the open. Secondly, Russian and Ukrainian women are socialized to put up with, to need a man. It’s societal; their grandmothers ALL went without a man.
Twenty-five million, mostly Russian, males died in World War II. Russia was so depopulated the Soviet government gave out patriotic medals for childbearing. Russian women aren’t feminists who need to be independent. They are dependent and very loyal. They tolerate rather a lot from men; famous for it.
The storyline of Yuri meeting Daria and Vika and also meeting Tazagul and Ocean, and some other women I hope creates some tension. Who will he rescue? Daria because she’s pursuing him? Vika because she’s beautiful? Or does he want Taz, because she has a son who likes sports, and he needs a protégé to coach?
K: Yuri feels guilty for Tazagul’s suicide?
A: Well the son, Ocean, certainly blames Yuri. But to be fair, Yuri is stumbling through this entire script. He’s not your atypical film hero. He’s a former professional soccer player; if you want, he’s a stereotypical jock. He looks good, there is a lot of testosterone involved. Of course, there’s a war and a lot of people are confused. Yuri is lost, with his emotions flying about from woman to woman; the same as when he was a player.
But to answer the question; Yuri’s hesitation with Tazagul and Ocean, causes the tragedy. He’s wanted to emigrate with them, but he didn’t vocalize it.
K: So why does he hesitate?
A: He just assumes she’ll/they’ll be there for him. She’s a single mom, recently widowed; Yuri knows not many men will want Taz. He knows that but he’s arrogant. He’s become acclimated to women wanting him, waiting for him outside locker rooms; he was a footballer and learned to take women for granted.
K: I would like to know what ends up happening to Ocean.
A: His family comes to take him away. I’m sure he’ll NOT be a New York Yankee or a Met. If you’ve ever been to Kazakhstan, you know what is in store for him.
K: What’s that?
K: Is Ocean’s family somehow connected to the Russians?
A: Somehow they got through the lines. I guess they are loyal to the Russian. Kazakhstan is their own nation now, but under Russia’s protection.
K: We don’t know anything about the Kazakhs?
A: Sure we do; they’re Kazakhs.
A: Hey, I’m not sure this is really a “western” movie. Very very few westerners know anything about Eastern Europe or Central Asia. Of course, there is a wall, an Iron Curtain, still keeping us out. They know far more about us than we do about them. I’ve been in Russia and they want to know about hillbillies; they already knew more about deep-woods Kentucky than I did. Couldn’t help them at all.
K: Is Ocean safe with them or will he be found dead by suspicious circumstances?
A: No, he’s safe. They probably want him for the labour. But he’s NOT going to America to play baseball. That’s the point. Listen if they were putting me in a station wagon bound for Kazakhstan, I’d try to get away too.
K: Daria has eyes for Yuri.
A: Daria has eyes for nearly anyone who is male. Single mom and of course the Russian Army is coming.
K: Yuri has eyes for Vika?
A: Everyone has eyes for Vika! But Vika’s only focus is to find her husband. I don’t have much to add about their storyline. She’s sort of like Elsa in the 1942 Casablanca. Elsa is probably more developed, but Vika has her looks and she’s just determined to be reunited with her husband.
K: Why would she engage in a relationship with Yuri if she still believes her husband is alive?
A: Vika and her husband did split up; it happens. But now the war has started moving in their direction, she’s looking for him again. She’s changed her mind; it happens. She visits the consulates and hotels and asks about him. She hears that Shvets was “just there” and that she has “just missed” him. Of course, it’s not her husband that is at hotels, cafes and consulates; it’s Yuri using her husband’s identification.
I think what you want to ask is, “Is Vika using him.” Of course, she is, but not to escape and start a new life. She’s “using” him to find her husband. I hope for a time the audience believes that she’s using him to escape; if they do that they’ll be in store for a surprise at the end.
People liked the character of Elsa, why not Vika?
K: What was it that caused Vika to change her mind about going to America with Yuri?
A: Well, the FSB goons hanging around.
I’m not sure it needs to be 100 per cent clear. But you may be right; maybe we need to add a scene; maybe the FSB got to Vika and revealed to her something that makes her think that her husband is alive. The FSB are always full of dirty tricks. If they are looking for Shvets, maybe they want Vika to (unaware) lead them to him.
When people get a whiff of the FSB, they’re just as toxic as the KGB. People nut up around the FSB. Russians actually change their gait around the FSB; they walk calmly so they don’t attract the agent’s attention.
Or, maybe she just develops a conscience for a day or two. Maybe she’s as “Charlie Brown” (wishy-washy) as Yuri.
Maybe the console-general has told her the name of the ship they are using to evacuate her husband on.
Let’s let the director and actress deal with that. I really don’t care to speculate. I believe a woman is a mystery, and in particular, a leading lady shouldn’t be overexposed.
K: What’s up with FSB?
A: They ARE mean as hell. But maybe they aren’t FSB, but Russian Army intelligence. If the FSB were looking to cover up serious war atrocities, they wouldn’t be looking to eliminate witnesses or photographers; they would simply eliminate the guilty Russian soldiers involved, leaving no one to prosecute. They would produce bogus battle reports and pre-date them and say the soldier couldn’t have been responsible when they died days or weeks before the war crimes took place. Easier that way. However, the Army intelligence would not typically kill their own. The GRU might be looking to find Yuri or Shvets. It doesn’t matter; these guys don’t walk around with the unit patched identifying them. They are just Russian goons, black leather coats and Glock 9mms.
K: Shvets never let her be involved with his business or financial dealings?
A: She’s a face and a body, a supermodel. AND, it’s Eastern Europe; the man is going to be in charge of the money; it doesn’t matter who made it. It’s not a “western” movie; emancipated women in Los Angeles just won’t get it. Forget that they never have been to Ukraine and forget they want every woman to behave and feel the same way they do. Supermodel or not; Vika’s only job is to be pretty and be a good wife.
K: Shvets was really a good guy? He could be a Russian spy and was killed because they could no longer trust him. Or something to that effect?
A: No. He’s just a dead guy. Yuri’s ticket out.
K: The Belize consul was way pushy. Why?
K: But why is this consul so involved with Shvets (Yuri) being reconnected to his wife?
A: Vika herself has also had conversations with the consul-general. Maybe he likes her. Maybe he’s another Don Quixote (many Latinos are) and he’s gonna save the lady. Twenty-first-century chivalry. But mostly he’s Catholic. Marriage is a sacrament.
K: I don’t know about Catholics. Did he want to force Yuri to reunite with Vika?
A: Actually, I saw that in Ukraine. A guy I met wanted to go to Belize; they were ready to let him in, but he couldn’t find his wife. He ended up going to Poland. Now Yuri, or Shvets, has a wife but he just doesn’t want to take her. He can’t without being discovered.
Hollywood isn’t religious or pro-family; many people just won’t get it. Maybe I threw that in there so I could identify who I was dealing with. No actually, it’s in there because I saw it happen. True part of the story. Are you shocked a man (or country) would not accept a man who abandons his wife in a war zone?
K: She never tells anyone that Yuri isn’t her husband. Why is that?
A: She doesn’t know that he’s using her husband’s identification. She sees him at the various embassies but she doesn’t put two and two together. Remember she’s a supermodel, not a mathematician, or logician.
K: Don’t get me wrong, I’d just like to know what the consul has to benefit if Yuri and Vika end up together.
A: A supermodel for his home country. Or family reunification. Because I saw it happen, I really didn’t look into it too much. Belize was only allowing families to immigrate, maybe. Married men without their wives… it sounds a bit dubious to me. Not you?
You’re Hollywood; many of you you won’t get it. Let’s let the people in Wichita Falls, Texas decide, huh? The flyover states, they have good judgement on things like this. Or maybe you can just believe me; I mean that is my field, government. Latin America, except for the godless states – Cuba and Venezuala – are like that.
You guys might make the movies, but we buy the tickets (or we don’t buy them), so it’s our way (or listen) the film may bomb.
Hollywood doesn’t have a monopoly on the truth and ESPECIALLY not in a war, a geography, languages or cultures that are on the other side of the world. This industry can’t even get a grasp of what’s happening in Watts; how do you expect them to understand Latin or Slavic culture.
K: It just feels like there’s more to the story.
A: No. It’s a five-minute scene. I guess it’s in there to show people he can’t be with or leave with Vika. She’s the woman that’s just out of reach. Tradeoffs are inherent; the only way he can have Vika is to stop pretending to be her husband. He’ll have to give up his exit visa if he wants to enjoy her. Hell of a trade, wouldn’t ya say?
K: We know why Vika goes to different consulates, but why would Yuri? Does the same consul work in both consulates?
A: No, each consulate has its own consul (the guy in charge), it’s like an ambassador, but in a city that isn’t the capital. The guy from Belize is something of a hardass. The American consol is a pushover and has been told to give Shvets anything he wants.
Shvets has letters, invitations, and positive letters. Shvets had written to various nations about emigration, but Yuri doesn’t have a visa. You have to go into the embassy or consulate to get a visa.
K: Yuri and the writer lady; She framed him for attempted murder?
A: No, she’s just crazy. She tries to drown herself and when that doesn’t work she cries wolf. It’s bazar, but again. I saw something like that in April. A woman jumped off a three-story building, hit some trash cans and only broke her legs. Before the ambulance got there, she was screaming that she was pushed. I doubt that story.
K: Yuri gets accused of attempted murder. Writer lady reported it to the police, but there’s no other action taken.
A: No, it’s a war. The Russians are coming. All that justice thing is out the window. What I saw was a combination of chaos and normality. The cell phones were working in Odesa. Youth were playing competitive sports. You could order a pizza delivered. But many people were packing up and leaving. People were committing suicide. They said about 40 people per week (mostly ethnic Russians) were being killed. But really, just being Russian wasn’t enough to bring that on; it’s my understanding that they’d have to be “argumentative about it” to get dead. I didn’t witness any ethnic murders or violence, but it makes sense, given the situation.
K: What happens to Yuri?
A: Well, he’s gonna die. He has a rifle and he’s walking in the direction of the Russian army (east). What generally happens to soldiers? Yuri’s not Rick Blaine from the 1942 Casablanca, savvy enough to survive a war. But this is a different movie; it’s similar, but it’s a Ukrainian movie set in 2023.
Compare and contrast Yuri (2022) and Rick (1942).
Rick was a sophisticated businessman. Rick makes a point of broadcasting his aloofness, stating on several occasions, “I stick my neck out for nobody.” Rick has a façade of cynicism.
Yuri is a former professional athlete, a bit rough around the edges. Yuri makes a point of broadcasting his masculinity, stating on several occasions. Yuri also has built a façade. The photojournalist’s words to him are, “You’ll always have Switzerland.” As a professional athlete, we can guess that Yuri is a carefree and innocent womanizer. As the war progresses Yuri becomes a dazed and conflicted character. When he’s confronted with the opportunity, he seriously considers exiting the war. By the end of the script, he’s a committed, self-sacrificing combatant. Big character arc.
K: Thank you.
A: I’m sorry if I frightened you. I’m not accustomed to dealing with smart people like you.