Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev

Can you pull in Leviathan with a fishhook or tie down its tongue with a rope?

Can you put a cord through its nose or pierce its jaw with a hook?

Will it keep begging you for mercy? Will it speak to you with gentle words?

Will he make an agreement with you for you to take him as your slave for life?

 The basis of the plot is the conflict between the hero, Nikolay, and local government officials who plan to evict him and use his property for their own interests. Thus, the search for the location of the property was key to the movie's visual design as the property itself, was, in effect, a main character in the movie. Because the house itself is destroyed and replaced by a church in the movie, we had to find a place that was suitable for the construction of both.

The original script envisaged a place somewhere in the middle of Russia, in a more urban and developed environment, far from the majestic beauty of the ocean and natural wonder of the Kola peninsula. Scouting for an appropriate location in central Russia proved fruitless, however, and so, in search of visual purity, we turned our attention northwards. Our mission was completed when we came across the town of Teriberka, situated on the very edge of the European continent in the wild tundra of the Kola peninsula. Although within the Arctic Circle, this region is affected by the North Atlantic Current, an extension of the Gulf Stream, and is consequently significantly warmer than is usual at that latitude. Permafrost limits the growth of trees, and so the region is dominated by grasses, wildflowers, and shrubs. This, along with the diverse topography, created a panorama that immediately spoke to our artistic vision, and the decision to film there was obvious.

To be authentic and thus believable, the set construction had to be realistic. To achieve this impression, we had to conceptualize and build the house in alignment with the plot. We worked with our scriptwriters, Zvyagintsev and Negin, to write an original piece of script describing the supposed history of the settlement. This temporal contextualization gave us the reference we needed to guide our art direction and create a convincing environment. The house had originally been built by Kolya’s grandfather in 1920 and had subsequently been rebuilt and redesigned by his sons, dividing, splitting, and forming new entities organically, much as a cell divides and grows. That gave life to the house, making of it a kind of organism in its own right. Apart from the spatial dimensions, which gave the house its unique character, the way we used different colors and textures had a big impact on its uniqueness. The combination of different materials, patinas, and traces of use created the unmistakable feeling of reality. The shot of the house’s demolition by a bulldozer laid bare the innards of the construction, and it really had to look like a demolished house, not a demolished set. We had to ensure that all the elements were real, we were unable to build it as a set. It was for this reason that even inner structural elements were artificially aged.

We were very aware that we had to pay attention to every detail. Even the placement of the house was calculated to reflect the character of our hero, Kolya. Separated by a river from the village and other built structures, it stood, like Kolya, apart from the rest of the community. It is not usual or traditional in Russia to live solitary lives, and so the house was visually connected to the village by a bridge that crossed the river. We wished to harness the power of the imposing, rugged landscape and make it recognizable to the viewer, and so the majority of the main scenes were filmed using the veranda as our primary shooting location. It was open to the surrounding countryside and allowed us to create a unique and immediately identifiable character for the place. The veranda was also, quite obviously, the heart of this home, the heart so ruthlessly and violently ripped out when the house was destroyed.

To ensure that the house was not lost in or dwarfed by the vast natural environment surrounding it, we magnified the visual presence of the homestead by constructing additional elements including a garage, a greenhouse, a shed, a road, and a transmission tower and powerline. Nestled together amongst the rocks they combined to create a complex and contrasting silhouette against the mountains and the coast of the Barents Sea. We also built the house bearing in mind that its last appearance, in the most expressive shot in the movie, would be its destruction, when the bulldozer tears down one of the walls, leaving the interior naked and exposed to the exterior.

In order to enlarge the apparent scale of the settlement we constructed all the elements standing side by side. This made the whole seem much larger than it actually was when viewed from the front by the camera. No matter the shooting angle the objects never overlapped, thus creating a chain of visual elements that helped to convey the impression of size. Positioned on a mountain ledge, the formation was intended to express a defensive function, representing Kolya’s defensive character in the story. The house was an inanimate aspect of the hero’s persona. We included some larger elements to complement the house including boats and cars. We built two roads connecting the settlement to the village. All the trees, bushes, and mosses on the site were mounted in their positions by us.

Long before the actual construction began, we staged something like a dress rehearsal for it. We built a full-scale model of the entire set using light and easy-to-mount materials. It was our intention to define precisely how the finished set should be constructed – the exact orientation of the house, the height of the windows, the scale, and the overall shape and size of the structure. This brilliant idea was the brainchild of our set designer, Nikolay Rybtsev. By doing this we were able, firstly, to meticulously plan how the set could be constructed to conform with our initial conception, and secondly, we were able to address the challenges posed by the location’s remoteness. Teriberka is 1500 km away from the nearest big city, making changes during construction a real nightmare. Careful planning helped us avoid having to make such changes.

 It was only after we had completed the construction of the house that we found this photo in local archives. We were gratified to discover that our decision had been the right one. The original house that had previously been in that location, had stood in almost exactly the same place and had been the same shape. Of course, we hung the photo on the wall alongside the portraits of the hero's ancestors, the same wall that was torn down by the bulldozer.

 The house, at the moment of demolition.

Teriberka provided an endless source of textures and architectural elements. Thanks to the extremely active environment, characterized by high winds and deep frosts as well as the uncharacteristic high humidity, materials age very rapidly. This creates a range of awesome deep and rich textures. At the same time, the timber used in the architecture was standard and mass-produced, cheap and functional, and used only in a strictly rational and utilitarian manner.

Kolya’s occupation and his garage were inherited from our original inspiration – they echoed Martin Heemeyer’s rebellion against the authorities.

As with so much of Zvyagintsev’s work, many of the themes in the film were drawn from the bible, such as the concept of Job and leviathan. Leviathan was a great sea monster, indomitable, like the all-powerful establishment that faced Kolya in his battle to keep his house. The original script had not included the idea of a Leviathan. The idea came to Andrey while we were scouting for locations to shoot in. Some local boys told us of a skeleton that they had seen on the coast. When we visited the site we found that the skeleton was rather small and unimpressive. Nevertheless, the idea of a whale had germinated in our minds and we decided to make the whale skeleton a central theme in the movie. This is how the movie got its name. Constructing a whale skeleton, which was to be set in the tidal zone and had to remain in place from fall through winter, was a real trial. Despite a lot of metal being used in the construction, the skeleton ended up with positive buoyancy and floated on the water. Twice a day the tide would come in and the structure would come loose from its moorings, which was a problem that we had to solve. To this end, during the low tides, we dug pits beneath the structure and placed heavy anchors under the skeleton to prevent it from moving from its place. The construction team, who camped in tents close by, took a week to finally overcome the problem.

Building the whale skeleton proved to be a greater challenge than originally anticipated. The set had to remain in place throughout the fall and winter and was to be positioned in the tidal zone. Although we used large quantities of heavy metal in the construction, the whale skeleton itself ended up with positive buoyancy and floated on the water at high tide. This caused the structure to come loose from its moorings twice a day, and we needed to find a solution to this problem. During low tides, our team worked on digging pits beneath the whale skeleton and we attached heavy anchors underneath the skeleton to weigh it down and keep it in place. The team spent a hard week camping on site, and they eventually solved the problem.

After the destruction of the house, a church was built on the site of Kolya’s stolen dream. The church entirely covered where the house had been, eviscerating any memory of what had been there before - the presence and memory of the hero and his ancestors. In order to achieve this we built a large platform around the church which served as an assembly point for churchgoers in the movie. Doing this allowed us to build an appropriately scaled church that covered all the previous buildings without it being lost in the overwhelming and mighty landscape.

The Teriberka and Serebryanskaya roads were the focus of many other shots including the prologue and epilogue stills for the movie. This remote and magical environment was not only an incredibly strong backdrop, this world acted, and still acts, as a being of endless power, a spirit in its own right, indifferent to the destinies and fates of people – pure and eternal. That place became a hero even stronger then protagonists of the story.

Director Andrey Zvyagintsev

DOP Mikhail Krichman

Production Designer Andrey Ponkratov

Set Decorator Maxim

Props Alexandr Losovsky

Set Builder Nikolay Ryabtsev

Text edited by Robert Kursten