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Fantasia ’23: “EMPIRE V” writer/director Victor Ginzburg on making his confrontational vampire epic

Monday, August 14, 2023 | Uncategorized


One of the highlights of the international programming at this summer’s Fantasia International Film Festival was the world premiere of Russian writer/director Victor Ginzburg’s EMPIRE V. The big-scale saga of a vampire underworld caused quite a stir in Russia due to its metaphorical criticism of that country’s society, and Ginzburg explores how he created this controversial work–and the reactions to it–in this exclusive RUE MORGUE interview.

EMPIRE V, adapted from a popular novel by postmodern author Victor Pelevin, is set in Moscow, where a disaffected young man named Roman (Pavel Tabakov) is lured into joining a secret sect of bloodsuckers. He and we learn that these vampires (imbued with a parasitical worm called the Tongue) have long been exercising an “anonymous dictatorship” over humans, and Roman, now called Rama, goes on an odyssey of potentially dangerous discovery about his new world. While presenting a different approach to vampire lore on an expansive scale with eye-popping visuals, EMPIRE V also presents a sharply satirical take on the Russian oligarchy. One of its most confrontational elements is the casting in a key supporting role of Miron Federov, a.k.a. Oxxxymiron, a hip-hop performer whose concerts in support of Ukraine during the war led him to be condemned as a “foreign agent” by the Russian government. The Ministry of Culture also ensured that EMPIRE V will never see release in its home country, and even though the film is defiantly critical, its status as a Russian production has been an obstacle to getting it seen in other countries as well.

How did you first discover Victor Pelevin’s novel, and had you been familiar with his writing before that?

Yeah, because I had already adapted his most famous novel, called GENERATION “P”. That was my previous film, and EMPIRE V is in fact somewhat of a philosophical sequel to that book. EMPIRE V actually answers the questions that were posed there, like, who is in charge of the world?

Was Pelevin involved with the adaptation?

Not at all. He’s a great contemporary writer, and during production of GENERATION “P”, I proposed to him to write the EMPIRE V screenplay. He read a book about how to write a script in 30 days or something, and then came back to me and said, “I’m not touching this. Screenwriting is not literature, it’s a completely different world.” And that was so smart of him, because it is. Screenwriting is brutal to literature; you have to change and mold characters and storylines, and it’s quite a challenge. You have to be detached on many levels. So he wasn’t involved at all.

Did you make any significant alterations from the book in your EMPIRE V screenplay?

Well, significant inasmuch as the book deals with a lot of interior dialogue that the main character has with himself, analyzing this new world he has found himself in, and the knowledge he’s receiving. So of course, that was a big difference, because I needed to visualize that stuff, and there were a lot of shortcuts and changes that took place in the adaptation. The poetry duel in the film–the poetry is completely fresh. That’s not Pelevin, it’s someone else.

Does the book have the same expansive scope and scale as the movie?

Oh yes, it does. That’s one of the things that attracted me to the story, that epic quality–the global view of this world ruled by the anonymous dictatorship of vampires.

Can you talk about the unique background and presentation of the vampires in EMPIRE V? Was that all derived from the book?

Well, of course there are certain nuances that are not in the book, but basically it is the same story. His interpretation of the vampire genre was one of the things that attracted me to this; it’s a completely fresh take.

Considering how critical EMPIRE V is of Russian society, was it difficult to get a movie this big financed there?

It was incredibly difficult, and we went with crowdfunding, actually. Since GENERATION “P” is kind of a cult film in Russia, and has a huge fan base, that really helped us, and we raised a record amount of money crowdfunding, which allowed us to launch the production–casting, development. And then, because one of the main themes of the story is money, and how it is used to seduce and rule humanity, and because the production took place during the whole crypto craze with all those ICOs, we had a team of fans who created a cryptocurrency called bablos. Bablos is this magical substance that the vampires in EMPIRE V feed on to sort of discover something divine; they live for that. The name is a derivative of bablo, a slang word for money in Russia. So we created a coin, an absolutely legitimate cryptocurrency, and raised the rest of the budget.

What was the budget?

Eight and a half million dollars.

It’s amazing what you pulled off with that.

Thank you. One of the main reasons for that was the artists who worked on the film, and the CG companies that invested their labor and creativity into a lot of the scenes. There’s a company called BUF in France–they’re the best–and another called LOGAN in Los Angeles that does a lot of high-end commercials, as well as Fractal Artists, who did some experimental, never-before-seen fractal animation for the film. We were able to work with their artists and turn very abstract algorithmically based animations into something manageable and structured, as the result of literally dozens and dozens of tests. It was a creative challenge for these people, and that contributed to the production value of the film tremendously.

Did you have trouble shooting at any of the locations due to the nature of the movie?

Well, first of all, the film was shot entirely in Moscow, and it was my intention to show it in a whole new light, as a whole new city, because it has evolved and changed from the Moscow that everyone knows. It’s the new capital of this vampire cabal, and it’s almost like a character in the film. I loved shooting Moscow, and we did a lot of aerial cinematography with drones, because the main characters turn into bats and there are a number of flights over Moscow. So that’s where we had some issues, because we were breaking a lot of the rules, a lot of laws. We actually flew over the Kremlin, and that was a question of literally staking out the building, and squeezing shots in when they weren’t jamming the signals. We used some pretty sophisticated equipment for that stuff, and the drone guys were so into that idea [laughs].

And we used some amazing Moscow locations. For example, the underground castle of the main vampire happens to be a crematorium that’s located at one of the central cemeteries in Moscow. It’s a Brutalist structure, and that was one of the interesting places that were very specific to the city of Moscow.

What was the timeline of the production in relation to the invasion of Ukraine?

It was done. The film was shot well before the invasion, and we were in postproduction for two years. We shot for three years; we had stoppages because we ran out of money, so we’d stop and raise more, which is a very dangerous concept in filmmaking; thank God it worked out. The production was finished in early ’21, and we were already involved in post simultaneously. It was supposed to come out on March 31 of ’22, and then the war started. Sony was our distributor, and they stuck with it–and then a week before the premiere, there was a press screening in Moscow, and the next day we lost our release permit. This was a way of censoring us, because there is no censorship in Russia, of course–it’s written in the constitution. But they pulled our permit, effectively banning the film.

Did Oxxxymiron’s anti-Ukraine-War concerts have anything to do with that?

Yes. The war started on February 24, and I think literally a couple of weeks after that he started staging the concerts in support of Ukraine. So Oxxxy was one outspoken reason why they banned the film.

Did his casting cause any trouble before that?

No, he was not a controversial figure at that time. He is an intellectual rapper, and he was expressing pretty anarchistic kinds of ideas, as any rapper would. And he was somewhat political, not terribly, but that’s what made him Oxxxy. And he wasn’t censored in any way; before the war, there was the illusion of a certain amount of freedom of speech. Literally, Russia changed after the war started, and now people are being put in jail just for expressing themselves.

Where does the film go from here internationally? Does it have distribution outside Russia at this point?

This is the world premiere, finally, so I’m truly grateful to Fantasia and to Mitch Davis for supporting this film. The film is subject to this blanket cancel-culture concept, as long as it even sounds Russian, irrespective of what the story’s about. We had a year of rejections from various festivals, and I’ve had festival directors write me letters explaining how much they like the movie, but they can’t program it. They looked at it and literally wrote me letters of apology, saying, “We can see what this is, we love the movie, we understand that it’s critical, but given the political situation right now, we can’t show it.” It was that bizarre. I guess I understand it on a certain level, but it’s still very odd that we weren’t separated from the rest of the pack.

The film ends with the suggestion that there are more stories to be told in this universe. Has Pelevin written any follow-up novels, and if so, do you have any plans to film them?

He did; there is a sequel novel called BATMAN APOLLO. It’s a tremendous work, like all of his novels, and it’s on my shelf, and it’s definitely something that I’m considering. But I’m also developing two other novels by him, so I don’t know which one will come together first. It’s about screenwriting and financing and development, so we’ll see. But there’s no question that there’s a potential sequel there.

Has the reaction to EMPIRE V in Russia affected your status as a filmmaker there?

I don’t know. First of all, the film has not been released. There was a pirated version of the unfinished movie that got out there, which was an act of sabotage by, I would think, certain elements of the Russian film industry. So my status right now is probably not very good, but we’ll see how things work out. I’d love to keep making films in Russia, because Russia, in an odd way, is much more open to experimentation. It’s not as commercialized, it’s not as segmented in terms of film genres, and you can make very experimental, radical films with high budgets, and be able to raise the budget independently. That was one of the reasons I’ve enjoyed making films in Russia.

Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold (RUE MORGUE's Head Writer) has been covering the world of horror cinema for over three decades, and in addition to his work for RUE MORGUE, he has been a longtime writer and editor for FANGORIA magazine and its website. He has also written for BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH, SCREAM,, TIME OUT, DELIRIUM, MOVIEMAKER and others. He is the author of the AD NAUSEAM books (1984 Publishing) and THE FRIGHTFEST GUIDE TO MONSTER MOVIES (FAB Press), and he has contributed documentaries, featurettes and liner notes to numerous Blu-rays, including the award-winning feature-length doc TWISTED TALE: THE UNMAKING OF "SPOOKIES" (Vinegar Syndrome).