"The Duelist" is the story of an army officer who returns from exile to 19th-century St Petersburg after escaping from captivity on the remote Aleutian Islands. In order to avoid apprehension and re-arrest, he is forced to adopt a fake identity. His purpose is to reclaim his lost title and clear his good name, and have his revenge upon the antagonist that had framed him for a crime he didn't commit and publicly dishonored him. To achieve his goals the young officer Yakovlev, played by Pyotr Fedorov, sells his services as a duelist's representative, taking the mortal risk upon himself for eye-watering amounts of money. He aims to become wealthy enough to buy back his title and exonerate himself from the crimes for which he had been found guilty. The role of the antagonist, the man who had come into conflict with Yakovlev and who had destroyed him, is played by Vladimir Mashkov.
From the very first meeting with Alexey Mizgirev, the director, I was amazed by his vision. Rather than using a particular epoch or genre to inform our creation of the production design, from the outset the director communicated his vision to us by demonstrating the similarity of ideas and feelings conveyed by images drawn from vastly different contexts. Paintings by Bacon were shown together with old photographs from the 19th century and fashion photographs from popular magazines were exhibited next to photographs from a crime scene. The resultant emotive response was surprising, almost shocking, which, I think, was the director's intention. He wanted the set that we designed to have that effect on the viewer.
The director didn't want to show the city as it usually appears in historical dramas but rather to create a fresh view and show the viewers something that they had never seen before. The idea behind doing this was to make the viewer relate to the historical context as though it were a current reality, and in that way gain a deeper or a new understanding of what had happened in the past. Usually, historical productions rely on paintings and images from the period, but in this case, we tried to create a historical context using architectural, artistic, and cultural vocabulary which would be understood by a modern audience. We didn't want the audience to feel that they were in a museum interacting with people and places long dead, we wanted them to feel as though they were in the time themselves.
So, from that moment on, we decided that everything that would be seen in any shot should strike us by the contrast caused by the unexpected reality of the juxtaposition of surprising elements in the shot and the energy that was created thereby. Alexey wanted to keep the viewers in a state of shock! The main inspiration behind this was the photo of a huge barge lying in the middle of a street, something one would never expect to see. It developed into the idea that we were seeing St. Petersburg after a flood, with the repercussions of the flood becoming the permanent state here. And so was born the concept of the market which was built on the water next to the cathedral. In every location, through surprise, we tried to challenge the viewer's accepted version of reality.
To encompass the whole range of objects and tasks to be included in the construction I made a series of fast ink sketches. That gave me the opportunity to develop various elements simultaneously while comparing them with one another, allowing me to find similar traits, set contradistinction, and find accents. But those sketches were only for me, to help me find the structure and the spine of the film.
In the final presentation, because the rough sketches were really only for me to understand my own thinking, I created a series of photographic montages, more detailed and complete in terms of what was shown, to explain my thinking and my vision to the team. These were photorealistic sketches that included all the improvements and enhancements necessary to adequately inform the shootings. It was prohibitively expensive to build all our sets and all the various elements from scratch and so we used real locations as much as possible. We repurposed these spaces completely, and we endeavored, at all times to enhance the sense of contrast by placing elements representing almost opposite ideas in the same unique and new environments. For example, the neighborhood including the market and the cathedral, luxury with simplicity and greatness and power with something rough and dirty.
Street scenes, because of the scale, require more comprehensive artistic development. For this reason, we grouped our street scenes into three and developed these locations so as to allow for various permutations which allowed us to maintain our quality standard without breaking our budget. We were able to make the location genuinely realistic. To demonstrate the scale of our production, in St. Petersburg, we cordoned off a significant piece of ground and prepared it in such a way that we were able to flood it for shooting. This could not have occurred in Moscow, where the idea of completely blocking a busy part of the inner city would be impossible.
The main idea that informed the visual style of the movie was based on an image of the city after a flood that actually occurred in the early 1860s in St Petersburg. As discussed, the barge left behind in the silt, mud, and peat produces an unexpected vista for the viewer. The decimation left by the flood creates an almost surreal effect, creating a wholly unexpected backdrop to the historical action. At the same time, the presence of all the water makes the scene very real and contextualizes the action in a very normal kind of way. Similarly, we used the street in front of the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, a great world museum and very fine, and created the contrast by building a set on the street covered with mud and horse manure. This was based on our intention to create a contrast to engage the audience. We felt, however, that even this was not enough, so we duplicated the existing Atlases, holding the world on their shoulders, or in this case the museum balcony, and built a second tier of Atlases above the existing ones forming a kind of pyramid of Atlases.
Our main visual reference, the barge, was recreated on location on Tchaikovsky Street in St Petersburg. The screenplay did not include a significant role for the location itself. It was, in fact, just the street in front of the armory goods shop. But for us, any object was an opportunity to create and depict a unique world. We flooded the junction of two streets after being granted permission by the city to do so. They gave us a week to install everything, do the shooting, and return it to its previous state. Even a working trolleybus line was permanently removed. Horses running over the water against the backdrop of a magnificent cityscape with a huge barge lying on the street behind them provided us with exactly the image we wanted to imprint on the viewers' memories.
The water theme became an integral element of the general design and was most wondrously implemented in the market set. The process of conceptualizing and realizing the design entailed a real evolution in our thinking. We didn't start off imagining what it became, it occurred as we went along. Initially, we took as our starting point a photo of temporary market pavilions standing just in front of the Isaac Cathedral. We were impressed by the contrast created by the squalor of the market in relation to the most magnificent building in the city. We built a model and came to an agreement with the Kazan Cathedral and we were given permission to build our sets in front of the cathedral. Unfortunately, soon after our agreement they started reconstruction of the cathedral, and the most precious feature, the patina, was wiped off the walls. Fortunately, we were unable to negotiate a deal with another cathedral and we moved the complex to a backlot studio construction.
Being free of any rules in the new location, we decided to go further in our creative process and place the entire construction on water, pretending, as it were, that the flood was not an isolated or occasional event, but a returning set of circumstances which the citizenry had to adapt themselves to. So the market was built on poles which could have been a practical solution to the problem. In the absence of mechanized transport, moving goods by boat was a much easier and more efficient solution in those days. At that time we retained the cathedral as a neighbor, but in the end, we used CG to create large columns which connected it with the market.
Above all Alexei battled with the producers over livestock to be included in the scene. He insisted on having at least 8 cows in the market and the number of cattle became the basis of the scale dimensions of the market as a whole. If there were ten cows, there should be at least 10 pigs and 500 kgs of cabbages, and so on. This set was an excellent example of how you can achieve a great effect on a small budget. Although the construction was huge, the elements were quite simple and easy to make. 80% of the set was made up of water, and the built structures were sufficiently rudimentary that any person with a hammer and nails, basically, could have done it. The market was a home to buffoonery where Yakovlev performed his amazing and dangerous exploits and skill in using weapons.
We were not able to build because of the sheer scale. It had to fit 400 viewers and the scene itself. We hit upon the idea to use a location, but not a shed as one might expect. To enhance the contrast we placed the market in one of the magnificent buildings clothed in marble with a huge patio with a glass roof. The whole perimeter had a balcony, which was ideal for spectators, and we used the ground floor for the performance itself. We covered the area with mud and added wooden boards. Members of high society could enjoy the wild and violent spectacle taking place in the mud below from the luxurious safety of the surrounding marble balcony.
One of the fundamental concepts behind the movie's visual approach was to include history in every object. In our search to find the buildings we needed, we viewed all the mansions we could find in the St Petersburg area. Unfortunately, all of those that we were able to find had been renovated and or reconstructed and looked almost new. They didn't give the impression of having been occupied previously, and so were inappropriate for our concept and therefore unacceptable. We needed the decayed luxury and traces of use to make time visible. Ten years before there had been many such interiors, but over the previous decade they had become gentrified and the authentic spaces had all but disappeared. The main location that we required in this category was Yakovlev's mansion.
The mood of withering aristocratism is manifest in the rooms of the protagonist, The officer Yakovlev. He has returned to St. Petersburg from exile aiming to clear his good name and regain his noble honor. His rooms are like a 19th-century squat. Due to the circumstances, our hero finds himself in, he is unable to return to his family mansion and instead is forced to occupy an abandoned and derelict palace, which he fashions in accordance with his noble character, albeit being now subject to social ostracism. The whole interior was repurposed and we created the presence of the character using very few elements. We imagined his place to be more like a fashion photography studio than a 19th-century residence.
The main prop was luxury drapery hanging on the windows in a frivolous, modern way, but the rooms themselves we left almost empty, so as not to cover the magnificent patina on the decorated walls. In the middle of a huge guestroom, a copper bath was installed. We can see distinctly the contrast between his property and the interior itself which served to underline that he was only a temporary guest here and emphasized the transience of his presence.
The bedroom was organized in a former cabinet with a bed, an armchair, and a small table all standing in the middle of a big carpet, like an island. But the core of his apartment was an armory. We placed it in the dining room as it had an enormous table. All the walls were covered with carved mahogany wood, making it the most expensive space in the palace. Numerous pairs of dueling pistols, rifles, and exotic revolvers were lying on the table for regular maintenance by Yakovlev. His collection would have been worth a fortune in those days.
It must be admitted that the beauty and diversity of the weapons were fundamental aspects of The Duelist. We had guns of all kinds: dueling pistols, revolvers, army rifles, tiny self-defense pistols, a six-barreled gun, and a mini-pistol concealed in a finger ring. We obtained the weapons from a variety of available sources. Some we found in antique markets on a special journey through Europe, there were replicas manufactured in Italy, and some guns were custom-made by Russian shops. We also borrowed guns from state museums and from private collectors. Alexey insisted that all shooting be done with real live fire, rather than using CG fakes. This was to ensure that the actors would react appropriately in response to the shooting.
Guns were present in almost every scene, with the greatest concentration in the weapons shop. The set for the shop had to be built in a Lenfilm Studio. Our movie is set during the technological revolution, at the dawn of the mechanical age. We wanted to reflect that, especially with the weapons, stressing the achievement of complex engineering expressed, as always, in the military technology of the time. For that reason, we built cabinets rolling out from walls that allowed us to store 50 times more weapons than traditional weapons cabinets did. In addition to the rails we built to facilitate the roll-out cabinets, we also had rails above that allowed us to fit kerosene lamps to them, giving us great flexibility in terms of rearranging the space for multiple purposes, at the same time as creating that unexpected contrast which was one of the main features of our visual approach to the film.