LETO: Rock N’ Roll And Perestroika in 80’s Leningrad (Filmmaker Interview)


Special to AMFM Magazine by Savannah Class

Based on true events, LETO depicts a story about love, friendship and music in 1980s Leningrad, Russia, a time when the underground rock music scene was at an all-time high. With music influenced by western rock legends, the biopic follows the story of a young Victor Tsoi on his way to stardom. We got the chance to speak with co-writers Michael and Lily Idov on the making of this Cannes Palme d’or nominee.

AMFM: Thank you so much for being with us, I watched LETO and am a huge fan. What inspired your decision to write the screenplay for the film?

MICHAEL: We are both big fans of Russian rock band KINO, especially Victor Tsoian KINO. I mean, this is the music of our childhood. We’re both kind of the last generation of truly Soviet kids and we grew up on this stuff.

LILY: Victor Tsoi was such a huge, all encompassing figure in our lives, that it was almost impossible to write a film about him. What inspired us to write this particular story about him was memoirs by Natalya Naumenko, who wrote about the love triangle between herself, Mike and Victor and it’s a very short, very beautifully written story and was really the start of the whole idea for the film.

Irina Starshenbaum as Natasha and Teo Yoo as Viktor in the film LETO. Photo courtesy of Gunpowder & Sky.

MICHAEL: Right, at least in the phase that we took it over. There were several attempts to write a movie about Victor Tsoi and none of them really clicked. Part of this is because the real, historical Victor was such a closed off character and it turned out that the only way to really get to him, would be before his “iconic star” facade was cemented. That meant going back to where these guys were really, really young and working on their very first records. We’re actually incredibly grateful to the producers of the film for not blanching from such an anti-commercial move as taking such an iconic figure in Russian music and then not using any of the hits in the film, you know? It only uses his juvenilia – the songs he wrote when he was 18 and 19 years old. So this is, in many ways, the very anti-Bohemian Rhapsody approach to the “rock biopic” – it denies you the easy pleasures of watching how your favorite songs were written and instead, it becomes about people, which is what we really wanted.

AMFM: That’s exactly what I love about the film – you really get a sense of their lifestyle and the dawn of their journey as musicians. The film was shot in black in white with accents of color during the musical sequences. Is that what you envisioned when writing the film or was that something that was added later?

LILY: No, that’s Kirill’s genius. That was his vision and was something he was very adamant on executing from the very beginning and it came out so beautifully, thanks to Kirill.

MICHAEL: Our version of the script before it got to Kirill wasn’t even a musical. I mean, there was music in it but only when it was performed or listened to. Kirill was the one who made it into this full-blown, musical fantasia that we can now see on the screen. The first time we saw LETO in all of its splendor was actually at the premiere in Cannes. As I’m sure you know, Kirill was shockingly arrested during the making of the film and ultimately ended up editing the film by himself during his house arrest. So the first time we saw the movie was when it was completely finished and it was so much more than we could have possibly imagined – we were just completely blown away. Kirill also wrote many of the words himself and we admire his creative work as a co-writer of the film very much. Kirill is a unique talent and now, as I’m beginning to direct my own films, everything I’ve learned is something I’ve learned from watching Kirill.

AMFM: The film is often considered biographical, however there are fictional storylines and characters that shape LETO and hold a true presence throughout the film. How were characters the Skeptic created?

MICHAEL: This is a really interesting case study of the interplay between the script and what Kirill did with it. We wrote the Skeptic as just a member of Mike‘s entourage who would ask him uncomfortable questions, which would ask him uncomfortable questions,  helping to create dialogue within the film. Questions like “We want to be like Dylan, but Dylan writes about the Vietnam war – what are you writing about?!” are asked, allowing the audience to understand what was going on beneath the surface. Kirill took the character and made him into this almost metaphysical figure who guides us through the movie, adding his own comments and winking at us as we go along. It’s a kind of ingenious preventative answer to those people who were overly concerned with the documentary qualities of the movie.

AMFM: I could feel the internal struggles of the musicians with the Skeptic character. I love what Kirill did there.  An important topic I noticed throughout the film was the lack of freedom of speech and self-expression. Was that your intention when going into the making of the film?

LILY: It was part of our vision to convey it and the whole perestroika movement. In order to play a song, it had to be approved. You couldn’t share songs on your own, about rock music or about young people back in that day. Unfortunately, modern events made this much more prominent, and much more important for there to be a change.

MICHAEL: It’s true, it’s not the first time in our lives we started writing something that ended up being more political than intended because the event would kind of catch up to it. Her story about how the Soviets tried to control something as spontaneous as rock and roll and self-expression ended up being another story about how the modern Russian state silences creators. Obviously this the unintended second layer of the film was Kirill’s own struggle to be a free creator in a totalitarian society.

AMFM: You both didn’t start out in screenplay, is that right?

LILY: I studied law!

MICHAEL: Yeah, Lily’s the former lawyer and I’m the former journalist! I actually did go to film school for screenwriting but sort of chickened out right after graduation and since I was writing movie reviews for the college newspaper at the time, I just kind of used those reviews in order to proceed as a journalist. Fast forward 20 years and I finally started doing something as a screenwriter and then Lily joined me in that sort of self-reinvention. We could never get that this would happen in Russia and that our first films that would be produced would be in Russian but here we are! It’s so amazing that LETO is finally opening in the United States because despite us being these kind of, perennial expats, we’re still Americans and it’s kind of amazing to see anything we do come home, in a way.

AMFM: And of course we as Americans are so grateful to have a film like this that sheds some light on life in Russia during the 80s and everything that LETO represents. Is there anything else you’d like viewers to take away from the film?

LILY: It’s an emotional story about being young, being in love, about friendship and creative collaboration and we really hope that this story resonates with even those who know nothing about Victor or about Russian rock in general and can still find a connection with the film.

MICHAEL: Exactly, that would be the best case scenario!

…And that’s just what it did. LETO is a film for everyone – whether you’re a history buff, an ’80s rock enthusiast or simply a true romantic, this is a film you won’t want to miss. LETO first hit theaters in the US in New York, June 7, 2019 and will be released in theaters in Los Angeles this Friday, June 21, 2019.


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