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In conversation: Natasha Merkulova & Aleksey Chupov

On Russian drama 'The Man Who Surprised Everyone'

man lying on the ground with people standing around him
4 Dec 2020
4 min read

New East Cinema curator Olya Sova talks to writers and directors Natasha Merkulova & Aleksey Chupov about their film The Man Who Surprised Everyone, available to watch on Cinema On Demand until Thu 31 Dec.

Olya Sova: How did The Man Who Surprised Everyone come about? Is the story based on real events?

Natasha Merkulova: There was a time I  lived in Irkutsk, and once I heard a story that there was a person who was diagnosed with cancer, and who began to cure himself in this way, by changing clothes, changing from one personality to another. I heard this about 20 years ago, although the story itself had happened even earlier, in Soviet times.

OS: What attracted you to the subject matter?

Aleksey Chupov: When the script was being written, each of us - as is so often the case - wanted to talk about something different; Natasha wanted to talk about closed communities…

NM: Yes, for me this community is a very important topic. I myself am from a Siberian village; in fact, the village shown is very similar to the one where I lived. I lived in a village of about 600, and until the age of 16 I was formed by and lived in a very closed community, where the neighbour’s opinion was paramount, certainly above personal comfort and personal happiness.

AC: Perhaps it’s something to do with age, given that I’m over 40 – I was concerned with the topic of death, that is, when your acquaintances are already beginning to die, and so on, because you’ve now lived to an age where you’re already going to funerals.


Death is of course incredibly infuriating – it is and always will be – and it’s one of the sources of intolerance, you know, human intolerance; because intolerance is born from fear, and our main fear is the fear of death.

The thought occurred to me that it’s possible… the thought that our life is a struggle with death; that our life itself is a protest against impending death; that as long as we feel alive, we keep saying: “we are not dead, we're still alive, there is no death”. And then, since we’re all very different creatures, each of us has their own way of fighting death – that is, a way of life; and you need to respect someone else's way of dealing with death. If we begin to respect each other's ways of dealing with death, perhaps society will become more tolerant...

NM: Perhaps we’ll even begin to respect each other…

a young woman stares into the distance

OS: How do you work together, for example, how do you write scripts?

AC: Our roles are split so that I am the main screenwriter and Natasha is the main director. Natasha is also in charge on set; I’m only her advisor there.

NM: And I’m the advisor when the script is being written; that is, Lyosha [diminutive of Aleksey] can very clearly plan it out and build the plot; if I wrote the script alone, then all the scripts would be plotless, there would never be a plot. Thank God Lyosha is there keeping the dramaturgical side of things going. I also help with the characters, psychology and a bit of editing.

AC: But in general, of course, it does not happen like that, and everything happens in conflict; scripts are born from conflicts; it’s always the most difficult period - writing the script can be a complete mess and is very, very bad for the relationship. Working on the film, shooting, on the contrary, strengthens the relationship

NM: No…

AC: No? Well, Natasha doesn’t think so.


Scripts are born from conflicts; it’s always the most difficult period - writing the script can be a complete mess and is very, very bad for the relationship
photo of two people in the bushes

OS: Continuing the question of women. Yegor, when he dresses as a woman, there is a scene in the forest where he immediately becomes a victim of violence. In the context of the ‘Me Too’ movement, what is happening in Russia?

NM: Everybody’s trying to make a joke about it. Most people want to turn it into a joke. You know, it's amazing, I've been in several of these masculine societies... in the company of top managers, for whom this is a joke at the boardroom table, and as a woman you still have to shake off these jokes, not least so they don’t perceive you in a different light. It's very strange you have to spell it out to people, to adult men, who, in general, all have good educations, who have wives and daughters, girls in their families.

AC: Russia is a patriarchal country but in my opinion, today the main conflict (in the world as a whole) is the conflict between the outgoing male world and the incoming female one; the incoming world of female power; and the male world, in my opinion, has outlived its usefulness and led humanity to a dead end; the time has come to find a new way and a new path. NM: I also wanted to say – remember, Lyosha? - remember your observation on the set, when we were filming with [lead actor] Evgeny Tsyganov: we put him in a dress, and Lyosha says, well, you’ve put on a dress and immediately faced, at the exact same second, the circumstances in which a woman lives; that a man can come to you, impose his will, can catch you in the forest and twist your arms and do anything with you. You seem to immediately feel in the circumstances in which a woman exists: don't go out in the dark, don't wear short red dresses, don't tell men no, and so on, it seems that you simply put on a dress, but in fact you put on a social dress, and received all the stories with which a woman lives constantly.

AC: And it is interesting that Evgeny, who is one of the main alpha males of Russian cinema, got into this skin here and had such a completely unforgettable experience that his view of women was changed in many aspects.

OS: The Man Who Surprised Everyone is a multi-layered film. As you said, there have already been about nine different interpretations of this film from the audience. As the directors and creators of this film, what do you want the viewer to take out of this film in two sentences?

NM: For me this is primarily a movie about love.

AC: I would like the viewer to become more tolerant, and to have an even deeper understanding of how complex the world is.


Translated by Felix White-Thomson from Russian to English.

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