Michael Lockshin, Director of Anti-Censorship Russian Film ‘Master and Margarita,’ Talks Unlikely Success and Navalny’s Death

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Director Michael Lockshin has heard many different things from Russian citizens who have seen his new film “The Master and Margarita,” which is lighting up the Russian box office. But the one response that stands out for him is how people are seeing the movie as a gateway for truth. The film and the book it’s based on both follow a writer (Evgeniy Tsyganov) whose play is canceled and banned for how it depicts the story of Jesus Christ, only to see him write a satirical novel wherein the devil seeks revenge on those who have wronged the writer.

In a landscape that’s become oppressively censored, Russian audiences look at Lockshin’s adaptation of Mikhail A. Bulgakov’s novel and see someone interested in telling the truth about where things in the country are headed. And there’s an added, dark sense of irony in discussing the movie in the wake of Russian political prisoner Alexei Navalny’s death earlier this month.

“Some people are associating Navalny as the martyr and symbol of truth and hope with some of the characters in the film itself, in the novel itself,” the filmmaker told TheWrap during an interview conducted after Navalny’s death. “As news in Russia is unfolding there are things that are resonating for people in the movie, and hopefully it’s giving them sort of emotional outlet.”

Since the release of “The Master and Margarita” on Jan. 25, the movie has been screened by 3.7 million people, according to the New York Times. Its Russian box office total currently stands at over $19.4 million and counting, enough to place it among the 30 highest-grossing Russian films in the country of all time.

All of this despite the fact that state-run networks didn’t promote the film like they normally would, and Lockshin and the film have been the target of criticism and conspiracy theories from Putin supporters.

“The movie doesn’t need promotion. It was the most trending topic for weeks,” Lockshin said from his home in California. “The reason why was because audiences picked up and felt how not only timely but just emotionally resonant the movie was for today.”

During TheWrap’s interview, Lockshin went on to discuss telling a story of censorship in Russia and the challenges of bringing the film to an American audience.

TheWrap: You’ve been very vocal about Putin and Russia. Some directors often fear being outspoken about their political beliefs.

Michael Lockshin: I was the opposite. That’s one of the key themes. That’s not the only theme but censorship and the relationship of, not even free speech, but artistic freedom and what it means to be an artist. It’s especially evident in a state that represses any freedom. Like Stalin’s 1930s that the movie is about, or Putin’s Russia of today, which is literally on the verge of being the same as Stalin’s. America is in a very different situation but there is an internal censorship here that has been progressing in the past years and this movie is a statement that there is truth, and if you know that truth you shouldn’t censor it. That is a simple message.

I couldn’t censor myself if I’m making a movie about censorship. That was something that just dawned on me in March of 2022 where I was told if you don’t censor yourself the movie might not be finished. I said I can’t censor myself because I’m making a movie about censorship. People were telling me ‘You should cut a few things here. Censor yourself a little bit there. Just get the movie out.’ I was really fighting back.

Did you foresee this success in Russia when you embarked on this project?

I believed in the movie and I persevered. I believed in the concept when I went into it, and I believed in it as all the hardships came on with the war and the movie went into limbo. I spent more than four years working on this movie, every day. There were months where we didn’t know if they’d [the producers and distributors] finish the movie or if they would ever release it. But I had an intuition.

What was the opening weekend like?

We didn’t know until two months before the release of the movie if it would be released, which is a very small window. And then they didn’t have any support for promotion from any TV channel because people were scared of this movie even before it came out. Another thing was they couldn’t use my name in any promotional materials, so I wasn’t on any poster because of my stance against the war and against the regime. And they were positioning the movie, [by not showing] exactly what the movie was. They were trying to fool the government into thinking it’s more of a love story. It is a love story, but it has so much more. It has many philosophical and political elements to it as well which are very critical. So I had no presence at all. I was working on the movie until the last week on post and finalizing sound, but I wasn’t at the premiere. I hadn’t even seen the movie on a big screen. I had been doing everything from this laptop. I only saw the movie on a big screen one week after millions of people had already watched.

Nobody was expecting this. Even though they were keeping my presence low and not promoting the political aspects of the movie, nobody could expect that it would blow up the way it did in the sense of the political controversy around it. I was very happy to see the reaction to it, the reaction was overwhelmingly positive. Everybody picked up on all those political aspects and just how timely the movie was for everybody there. Both critics and audiences were marveling at how it was possible that this movie was made and released at that time.

I was worried because [the book is] such a cult classic. My main concern coming in was what was the fan base going to say? Because we did take the text and heavily reworked it to make it work as a movie. It has multiple storylines, it has stream of consciousness. That’s why it’s considered one of the hardest books, at least in Russian literature, to make into a movie.

We captured the essence of it, that was the most important thing for me. So the first few days the reaction was overwhelmingly positive. There’s always going to be hate but they were the minority … and then the political backlash started three days afterwards because the movie had blown up so much.

It’s interesting that this is coming out around the same time as “The Zone of Interest.” Both movies are period pieces and, at least in the case of “Zone of Interest,” focus on time periods that we believe society has moved away from.

That’s a very good point. That’s exactly what me and my co-writer at the time, Roman Kantor, were thinking about. We couldn’t have expected that it would become so tragically relevant for today as it has in just two years. We took it on not just because it’s the favorite novel, but we saw a way to make it relevant for what we were thinking about and going through today. “Zone of Interest” is one of my favorite movies of the year, but it’s very important that it came out. There’s this phrase, “never again,” but that never again, it seemed very real in my childhood. It seemed like that could never happen again. Today, I’m not so sure about it. Movies like that are very important and hopefully our movie as well will be a chime that we thought we were in the 21st century and we’re in the Fukuyama world where there’s no more wars, but I don’t think that’s the case as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shown us.

There was a screening for this held at UCLA that had people scalping tickets to get into. Can you talk about that?

The reason I did it was I was interested in having a screening here, it was more for the faculty and students at UCLA. It wasn’t an open screening. Most of those people were familiar with the book. It was important for me to see that the film works. It’s hard to narrow it down to what sort of movie it is. Obviously for Americans the themes of censorship and repression and the authoritarian state resonate in a very different way than for Russians at the moment, or for many in Eastern Europe. They still pick up on that but it doesn’t become the most emotional part of the movie.

Have there been talks about getting a US distributor?

Very preliminary, that’s all I can say at the moment. Because nobody was dealing with sales until the movie came out. It’s a weird situation, usually you take the movie out to the markets like EFM. Nobody was doing that until the movie came out. I’m the writer and director. I’m not a producer or salesperson, but I’m having to deal with it a little bit now. It’s such a weird situation because of the war and because there are some producers still in Russia. They are in a hard situation and they can’t really be dealing with international sales at the moment. They have other problems to deal with.

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