• Interviews

Surviving Together: Valeriy Fedorovich and Evgeniy Nikishov

The Russian thriller series To the Lake follows an unlikely group of people dealing with loss and unresolved interpersonal conflicts, all the while struggling to survive amidst a deadly epidemic. Uncannily prescient, the show debuted in 2019 and its depiction of violence and grief shocked viewers, but they were even more shocked when a mere two months later Russia’s first cases of the novel Coronavirus appeared, and the era of lockdown began. The creators of To the Lake, Valeriy Fedorovich and Evgeniy Nikishov must have felt some kind of premonition, as they decided to adapt for the screen Yana Vagner’s 2011 novel, Vongorzero. The series is the first Russian production to be picked up by Netflix, garnering international success, making Netflix’s top 10 TV list in 72 countries including major territories such as the US, UK, Canada, Germany, France, and Brazil and is in the top 50 Netflix TV shows of 2020. Even famed American horror author Stephen King tweeted his praise about the show, saying, “TO THE LAKE, a pretty darn good Russian series on Netflix. Four things to know: 1. There’s a plague. 2. There’s lots of snow and cold (Russia, stupid). 3. Everybody drinks vodka. 4. Weak-ass spoiler alert: the little kid is a pain in the ass.”

One could attribute this success to luck and coincidence, were it not for Fedorovich and Nikishov’s subsequent limited series, Dead Mountain: the Dyatlov Pass Incident. Produced by the Russian production company 1-2-3 Production, the series is an extension of the duo’s fascination with survival and the search for truth. The miniseries has already been nicknamed by some viewers a “Russian hardcore version of Twin Peaks.” Dead Mountain features a harsher environment and the mysterious deaths of not just one, but nine students, and an investigation led by a less than optimistic KGB agent. The similarities end there, as the miniseries tells the story of the real-life unsolved mystery on the Ural Mountains in the winter of 1959 that has stumped the public for decades. Unlike other television shows and films on the subject, this mini-series shifts its thematic focus away from speculating what happened on the mountain all those years ago and instead finds purpose on humanity and the importance of helping others survive. Continuing the tradition of Russian philosophy, Fedorovich and Nikishov do not only ask how does one survive, but also: for what purpose?

Miraculously, the creator-producers seem to have intuited that the theme of survival would also be especially resonant in 2020. Speaking with Fedorovich and Nikishov on Zoom, we discussed the timeless endeavor for cooperation and unity. The pair speak in tandem, the same thought articulated from two different minds, which gives us a glimpse of the nature of their creative partnership.

Congratulations on finding international success. Where did it begin?

EN: We both began as producers for television. What we realized was that when you are working as a screenwriter or an editor, you don’t have complete control over what happens to your script. But as producers, you can control everything, from the story to casting to editing, and so on and so forth.

VF: We understood that we were control-freaks, and we need to have everything be just as we visualized it. And now we do everything ourselves.

And what about breaking into the international market?

VF: Every year there are screenings in Los Angeles that invite television channels from around the world where you watch about fifty pilots. This helps us understand what’s trending …

EN: …and is a convenient way to meet the makers of these shows. I will never forget how at one of these screenings, the president of Warner Brothers invited us to his villa and there we met Christopher Nolan’s brother, Jonathan, who had just made Person of Interest for Warner. We sat with him for three hours and talked about the making of that show.

VF: And everything was like a typical Hollywood movie. We arrived there in the cheapest taxi you can imagine, and we were met in small cars by long-legged young women who took us to а pool that overlooked the entirety of Santa Monica.

EN: We were so thrilled that Jonathan spent so much time with us, completely ordinary and unknown people from Russia, talking very frankly about work. It was great how he was interested in talking with other people.

How do you decide on an idea for a story?

EN: We have one simple principle: instead of pitches, we prefer to read the script of the first episode. If the script resonates with us, if it seems interesting or feels like it has potential, then we take it. With Dyatlov’s Pass, writer Ilya Kulikov sent us a script and it was one of the most powerful scripts that we have read. And immediately we realized that we wanted to do it.

VF: Our principle is very simple, we believe that if we like it for some reason, then there is a chance that others will like it too. In this sense, we have a tuning fork.

EN: “Like” is a rather abstract word. By “like” we mean there is something, some basic idea that is put into the text by the author, that resonates with us and is important to convey to others. What resonated with us about Kulikov’s script is that it wasn’t trying to understand what happened on February 2, 1959, like most documentary films and books on the matter. He wanted to tell people about why these students died, why they sacrificed themselves in an effort to save their peers. This idea of self-sacrifice is such an absolute embodiment of Soviet realism.

What happens if only one of you likes a script, do you have a debate or make compromises with one another?

EN: No, we don’t. We agreed on this many years ago. If we don’t like something, then we try to agree, but if it fails, then we just don’t do it. This is how we decide everything from scripts to the music we select for the series. But of course, we allow each other to argue for something that we believe in and the other person will try to understand their vision as much as they can.

VF: We once read that this was how the Spanish director Luis Bunuel and artist Salvador Dali worked together when filming the avant-garde film An Andalusian Dog. But obviously, we’re not trying to compare ourselves to them.

What are you most proud of?

VF: It’s hard to say because it seems to me that our best work is yet to come.

EN: Of course, it was very important for us to shoot Dyatlov’s Pass for the first time as directors. This experience was promising and got us excited about future directorial projects.

VF: And obviously, we’re really proud of the fact that To the Lake was released as a Netflix Original Series worldwide.

When did you hear about Stephen King’s tweet?

VF: Dreams do come true! That was pretty funny. Evgeniy and I were discussing after the release of To the Lake on Netflix that there was no special advertising campaign.

EN: We even discussed where to find some kind of star in America with Russian-speaking roots, so we were up all-night corresponding back and forth…

VF: I wasn’t even asleep yet, but at 1:47 AM I get a text saying that King is tweeting about us. It was so amazing like we sent a request to the universe (and) for some reason it was answered by Stephen King.

Is a second season of To the Lake in the works?

VF: Of course, we’ve had a lot of fans of the show tell us that because we’ve predicted so much that we need to write in a vaccine and a happy ending.

And any new projects to look for in the future?

EN: We’re interested in doing more international projects, creating stories not just for Russians, but for everyone. After the success of To the Lake, we were approached by Netflix who told us that they were interested in Russian stories told in Russian for an international audience.

Do you have something in mind?

VF: Right now, we’re currently developing a film on the Russian Five, the five Soviet hockey players who played for the Detroit Red Wings in the nineties. We want to explore the break from political stereotypes and talk about how Americans gathered for a vigil after one of the players, Konstantinov, was severely injured in a car accident. People are people, no matter where they’re from.