Spotlight: An interview with Elvira Sinelnik and Alex Fedosov ("Lifeless")
The great chemistry between Elvira Sinelnik and Alex Fedosov, the co-directors of "Lifeless", helped them create a beautiful, inspiring drama that touches the viewers' hearts. Together, they wrote the screenplay, directed and produced the film, and Elvira even played the lead role of Elza ("We had a wonderful team. I call it the Russian-American dream team!").
After Lifeless won Best Indie Film at LAFA, we invited Elvira and Alex to join us for an interview.
First of all, congratulations on winning Best Indie Film with Lifeless. Before we dive into the film and the team behind it, please tell us about your background- how did you both get into visual media and who are some filmmakers that influenced your work?
Alex: Thank you! How did I get into media...? Well, at first I thought I would become a psychologist, but I really liked the phrase “A director is a psychologist without a scalpel”. Immediately after graduating from school, I found myself working in television. I worked as an assistant director. The director’s grandmother died, and she had to urgently leave the city. Overnight, I learned how to broadcast a news release. The very next day I was a television director. I was 19 at the time. Okay, so influences. Luc Besson, because I like his unique style, vision, sense of humor, and editing. David Fincher’s style of storytelling is my favorite. I like the movie Tron: Legacy by Joseph Kosinski for its amazing sound design and music by Daft Punk. Quentin Tarantino for his style and storytelling, and because I have been blessed to be on his set and see the way he works on set. It’s stunning. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind by Michel Gondry. Michel is a true artist. I can watch his music videos and commercials nonstop. Wes Anderson is also one of my favorites. So there are lots of amazingly talented people that have influenced me.
Elvira: My history with film started much later than that of Alex. I received an excellent education at the State University of Management, completing courses in both National and World Economics. After, I worked on the Federal Council of the Russian Federation, and subsequently in a number of commercial companies. However, that dream of cinema, that dream of an acting career lived on, as it has since I was a child. I suppose my lack of courage in pursuing acting in my younger years can be attested to an uncertainty in myself and strong conviction that nothing would ever work out. Only once I turned 27 did I feel like I had matured, and thus began to follow my dream, and so I flew with my husband to Hollywood in order to study. I graduated from the LA Film Academy’s acting courses, and then studied at three different studios. I studied the Stanislavsky method at the William Burns acting studio and Meisner with the excellent Anthony Montes at James Franco’s Studio 4. Then I was accepted by the famous Hollywood coach Bernard Hillier into his studio. He is my lifelong mentor, and I thank him for everything that he has done for me! As would have it, I found that you meet an array of fantastic people once you start off on your own path. So I feel very blessed!!! After getting a work permit, I starting working as an actress 24/7! I had no desire to sleep or eat. Only work. I was lucky enough to visit very serious productions and meet tons of talented people!!! Then, I returned to Russia to continue acting. I Studied at the Laboratory of public speaking and Acting - REFORMA Lab with fantastic teachers. Also I am a member of amazing acting trainings at Carina Romanova Lab: Camera for Acting & Business.I developed an everlasting love for directing while filming our Russian-American film, “Lifeless”, where we meet Alex. That being said, I still have huge inspirations that are actors – Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Marlon Brando, and Audrey Hepburn, to name a few. I could go on and on forever about my idols and list examples, but I suppose Meryl Streep is the best choice to encompass all of what I wish to be!!!
What were some memorable highlights in your career so far?
Alex: Once, I directed a docudrama about the World War. It was an unforgettable experience with historical costumes and props. It was this incredibly story about the life of people a hundred years ago. That’s the project where I learned to be very picky and attentive to details.
Elvira: Given the fact that memories of “Lifeless” take up the better part of my brain, I’d have to say that that’s the most vivid highlight of my career. Now I’m able to grasp how crazy the process of a Russian-American production can be, and how fatefully the stars aligned to get this film shot and shown to the world. The Universe was on our side. I can say that with full confidence and gratitude!!!
How did the two of you meet, and what sparked this collaboration? How did you divide the production and directing responsibilities?
Alex: It just happened. I moved to the US to get more experience and to see the inner workings of Hollywood. My first step was to go study at the New York Film Academy, and that’s where I met Elvira. She’s stunning. I was walking down the hall and I was taken aback by this beautiful blonde with a unique look. That was Elvira. Since then, we have become good friends. And I don’t feel like we are dividing anything. It’s all teamwork. We feel each other on some mental level. She has these crazy ideas, and I know how to bring them to fruition. She gives me everything I need to create, and she pushes me to not be lazy and to work a lot.
Elvira: We met at the academy and, to be honest, I immediately felt that this would be someone with whom I one day create something really worthwhile. As Alex said, “We feel each other on some mental level.”
Were there any creative disagreements, and if so, how did you solve them?
Alex: As I said before, there weren’t any disagreements, because we really feel each other and understand each other. She’s a much deeper person than I. I’m a more technical and creative guy. She brings me the subject matter, and I make something of it. She’s the one who’s trying to make the world a better place. I’m just helping her. This was a team effort from start to finish. Everyone has gone above and beyond to make this film better.
Elvira: You know, I don’t think I could have gotten luckier with a more subtle, sensitive, and creative friend and partner. I was really fortunate. Alex is hugely professional, and treats his profession with love and respect. He’s a director sent from above! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again! When you’re on the same team as Alex, you can be sure that no problem goes unsolved. And people like that are always surrounded by other magical people. Cinema is a collaboration, and our dream team is proof of this!!! Every member of our team worked constantly at 100%. To be honest, teams like this are one in a million.
No spoilers, but the movie deals with suicidal thoughts, a topic that is not often discussed. How do you approach such a serious topic? Where did the idea for the story come from? What kind of research and prep did you do during the early stages of pre-production?
Alex: Research… I think the best stories are true stories and personal experiences. (Or the experiences of those close to you.) Elvira brought this particular subject matter to me, and you know that social media right now is a huge part of our lives. It’s everywhere. And there are some people that look so happy on social media but are so unhappy in their real lives. So we need to raise our stakes. One time I straight-up called Elvira and told her “I want this girl to die in the end”.
Elvira: I tried to live with this idea for a long time at first, but then I said absolutely NOT! But now, in hindsight, I think I realized how such a deeply philosophical end could provide grounds for reflection. And yes, there is nothing better than real stories… What triggered me to create this project was a story told to me by someone very close to me… And in the writing of the script, I conducted a survey amongst friends about the importance of social media and their attitudes towards them. God! You wouldn’t believe how shocked I was when I received these answers from young people around the world. Young people!!! Do you know what I mean?? A good friend of mine said, ‘the main thing is that this addiction doesn’t turn into a cancerous tumor’…
The performances felt very authentic. How did you work with actress Erin Michele Soto to achieve such good chemistry with Elvira? Did you have many rehearsals? Was there any improv on set?
Alex: It’s interesting, but I saw these characters in my head a little bit differently. Then, on set, I realized that Erin is such a nice person in real life that I can’t push her into doing something that won’t come to her organically. If we want to make it real, we need to be providing real emotions and real feelings. So, I began rehearsing with the girls and studying them. I wanted to understand their inner world in order to figure out a way to make the film work.
Elvira: As an actress, I completely trusted Alex and his professionalism.
Elvira, what was the most challenging part of Elza's character, and what did you take away from this role?
Elvira: Oddly enough, for me it would have to be the scene where I leave home. That was the most difficult… Too many triggers in one scene… History shows that hindsight is the only way to understand what and why exactly something happened, but the scene itself was not easy for me… When Alex said “CUT!”, it struck even more emotions in me… Having lived in that character, I understood and felt what it was like to live and not appreciate what you have…
Alex, you've brilliantly edited this film, but you don't edit all of your works. In your opinion, what are the advantages and disadvantages of editing projects that you're directing?
Alex: I directed most of the projects in my career by myself. It’s really nice to do a project and then give it away to someone to be edited. Maybe the editor will bring something new that you’ve never thought about. As for my upcoming projects, I think that I’ll probably have someone else edit them. Then I’ll take a look at it, and do the finishing touches. I’m very passionate about every project I do, and it’s really hard to trust someone else to take care of your baby.
Elvira: With our project, I think I probably became that person that just ruthlessly – well, almost ruthlessly, tries to cut scenes… That wasn’t easy for Alex…
Were there any challenges or unexpected things that happened during filming?
Alex: I think the most unexpected thing for me was the cold night weather on the bridge. During the day, it had been really hot, but at night it got unexpectedly cold, so we weren’t able to shoot this scene on the first try. It was a challenge for the girls, especially Erin, since she was in a short dress. We had to stop shooting the first night and try a second time the following night.
Elvira: And one more difficult moment for us was a few days before filming. We lost two main actors due to illness…So, really, Erin is super professional. She was able to jump into the project and so perfectly capture the role in her own way and play it as she felt necessary. As a result, the work was rewarded with festivals. My stage husband, Ian, also did a great job with his character. Ian also had to jump into the project just days before filming began, so I have nothing but endless thanks!!! There was also this mystical story with the bridge… but, like I said, the Universe was on our side and everything that happened, happened for us!!! As for the cold, I’m no stranger to the cold. I’m from Russia. So it was a little easier for me to get used to the cold on site, even if it also proved to be trying.
Who are the key crew members that helped you made this happen, and how did you bring them on board? Are they long-time collaborators?
Alex: First of all, I want to thank everyone in our crew and everyone who was involved with this project. Everyone was really fantastic, and I know that I can rely on each and every one on this team. The most important thing on set is the atmosphere, and everyone there was super comfortable to work with. Alex Flash, our DP, is a very enthusiastic person that provides me with a lot of positive vibes. He is a big guy, and he would probably carry me anywhere I needed to go. Another Alex, our sound guy, made me really happy with the sound quality he produced. He’s incredibly picky and pays attention to detail. For him, each noise has to be perfect and has to create a sense of atmosphere. Right now, I’m working with both of these guys. I’ve worked a lot with others before. Some people, like our 1st AC, Tolya, had his first time with me on this project, and I was incredibly glad to have him on board. Our backstage photographer, Elkhan, wasn’t just a photographer. He did a lot for this project and was very helpful in crucial moments. I could keep answering this question forever and talk about how much I love these guys.
Elvira: My GOD!!! I agree with everything Alex said!!! The Russian-American dream team!!! Everyone proved themselves 100%!!! Everyone wanted to bring a story to life!!!!! And as we like to say, “We’re a team!” With a team like this, we can do anything!!!!! I LOVE EVERYONE!!!!
What do you hope the audience will take away from Lifeless and how was it received so far?
Alex: I feel like the strongest message to take away from this movie is “If you don’t like your life, change your life. Change yourself. Stop crying and thinking that someone else somewhere is happier. Just be happy doing whatever you need to do to be happy. You need that one moment. You need that one night to rethink your life and behavior and to become stronger and start changing what you call reality. Suicide is not the answer.”
Elvira: Alex, thank you!!! That’s a brilliant answer!!! You know, now I’ve been getting a lot of feedback from viewers and friends and strangers…and I realize that we still managed to get the message across to the world…We did something good…and I really want the film to make people think that if you want to be happy, then be happy!!! Life isn’t just what’s in a picture. It’s what’s in your heart!!! That deceptive illusion can be really addictive, but happiness? Here it is! It’s always with you…it’s in you…don’t be afraid to be left alone with your life. It’s your life, and it’s not for show. It’s to be lived with your heart!
Looking back, is there anything you'd change in the film?
Alex: Every time I look back on my projects, I like then, but I want to reshoot them or re-edit them to make them even more perfect. However, in this case, I don’t think you can really ever finish the film. This one is done, and we need to leave it as it is and keep moving forward.
Elvira: Let’s keep everything how it is.
Tell us about your next projects. What are you planning for the short term and the long term? And what is the plan for Lifeless?
Alex: I think Elvira can answer this question better than I can. Right now, I’m pretty busy with other productions. I’m working on some feature films and TV shows. I hope that our creative duo is able to create something more ambitious very soon.
Elvira: “Lifeless” has begun its own journey now. It’s own, independent life. It’s being shown at many festivals in LA, Italy, Toronto, Prague, India, and Russia it’s being shown on the largest platform there is. My dream is for our film to be seen by as many people as possible!!! It’s a labor of love for sure!!! And I dream of continuing working as a creative duet!!!
Is there anything you wish to add?
Elvira: Create! Inspire!!! Never stop! Be unstoppable and unflinching!!! Be passionate with your art!!! Everyone can make this world a better place!!! Believe in yourself and in your talent!!! You are unique!!! Just remember this!!!