Envisioning Crime and Punishment: an Interview with Andrew O’Keefe

Alexander Burry discusses film making, Dostoevsky, and a new Crime and Punishment film with Australian director Andrew O’Keefe of Apocalypse Films.

Director Andrew O’Keefe’s Crime and Punishment (Apocalypse Films, 2015) is being screened this year at film festivals worldwide. His adaptation of Dostoevsky’s 1866 novel has already won “Best Crime Feature Film” at the 21st Indie Gathering in Cleveland and “Best Narrative Feature” at the International Independent Film Awards, and has also been nominated for several other awards. As an independent film that follows Dostoevsky’s basic plot while setting the novel in a contemporary western society, it offers a fresh and stimulating recontextualization of Crime and Punishment.

crime-and-punishment-film-2015

Q. What attracted you to Crime and Punishment, and more broadly, to Russian literature and culture?

A. I definitely would say that it was this particular story rather than Russian literature per se. I’m not a huge reader of Russian literature, other than some of Dostoevsky’s works. It really was the story, the characters and the personal appeal that the story had for me. It’s funny. It took me three attempts to actually get into Crime and Punishment and enjoy it. I’ve now read it perhaps five or six times. When I was younger, I tried twice. Then a few yeas ago I was going to visit St. Petersburg and felt obliged to try again. Thankfully, I did as I absolutely love it and read it twice on that trip. I knew by the time I’d come home I wanted to make the film. I empathized greatly with Raskolnikov’s plight. I too have felt his desperation at beginning half way through life and not having achieved what I had hoped. Being a filmmaker I had hoped to make four or five films by now. This is my second. I wouldn’t commit murder to fund a film but the desperation is there.

With regards to Russian culture, well, my wife Tuuli, who produced the film, is half-Finnish and our kids are Finnish citizens. St. Petersburg is right next door, so perhaps it’s destiny?

Q. What challenges did you face in adapting Dostoevsky’s novel? How did you decide which aspects to emphasize (or deemphasize) in the film?

A. It was a very, very tricky process and I had to work fast. Too fast probably but the timing of the shoot made it so. One of the main reasons that I decided to make this film was due to my relationship with two actors: Lee Mason (Raskolnikov) and Christopher Bunworth (Porfiry). I felt they would fit their roles perfectly. So that guided my approach. The part of the story that appealed most directly was the theory of the “extraordinary man” and Raskolnikov and Porfiry’s relationship embodies that subplot. The difficulties came, mostly, in placing the contemporary setting yet remaining faithful (to a point) to the novel. For example, Raskolnikov is almost forty years old yet, in the book, he is closer to twenty. I did not believe that, in this modern time, a twenty-year old could be desperate enough to commit premeditated murder to test a theory and to pay their university fees. In the novel Raskolnikov had reached almost half the life expectancy for a male in St. Petersburg in 1866. The equivalent would make him forty, here and now.

Another deciding factor was the political structure of Australia. So much of the plot of the novel depends on the class system, the poverty, and the bureaucratic officialdom being what it is. So, a lot of that had to be left aside, which was fortunate, as that also allowed me to remove many of those characters. But, I tried to keep a taste of them.

Q. Your first feature film, The Independent (2007), also starred Lee Mason, though in a very different role. What has your experience working with him been like over the years? What makes him well suited to the role of Raskolnikov?

A. Yes, Lee and I have worked a lot together. I love that fact and it gave me the confidence to attempt this adaptation. I’m not naïve enough to think that there wouldn’t be some kind of backlash for messing with a Dostoevsky novel! And, in small ways, there has been. But none of it has questioned Lee’s performance. That was the thing I knew from the start – he would excel in the role, give it the seriousness that it required, and leave his blood on the floor. Because I’ve worked with him so much, it actually freed me up to work more with the other actors. That’s the relationship we have. I trust Lee’s dramatic instincts and he trusts mine. So, aside from really early discussions before we started shooting, we didn’t talk character all that much during the shoot. I knew the central role was in good hands. I can only know that because I know him as a person so well. I know his temperament. I know his feelings about his family. I know what makes him happy, sad, angry… We’re very good friends after all this work we’ve done.

Q. Making an independent film of a lengthy novel with so many characters can be challenging budget-wise. But did producing it outside the major studio system offer some advantages as well, for instance in terms of expressing your personal vision of the novel? Do you think Crime and Punishment in particular lends itself well to independent production?

A. To be truthful, I now feel that the film was too ambitious for the money that we had. It is a big book. I did have some big ideas. Poverty, for example, is ironically a very expensive thing to put on screen when filming in and around a University campus. We lacked the budget for that. But, the lack of budget meant total freedom in other ways and that was terrific. The key people involved (cinematographer, production designer, composer etc.) could really take risks and express themselves – myself included. I was keen to set the film around a university as it’s the world I know. The novel downplays this element as Raskolnikov has already left, but I could play it up as I had access to a university! I was in a unique position there. The lack of money also dragged out the post-production path. The film took a very long time to finish. The original score, which is brilliant, took Amy almost a year to complete as she had to work around her paid composing work. The editing took me six months as I was working too. So, there were constraints but, overall, the great thing about having no money was that we surrounded ourselves with a community of people who loved Dostoevsky and we all had that in common. The book was the reason that people gave up months, if not years, of their lives.

Q. Much of the film was shot at the Parkville and Victorian Arts College campuses of the University of Melbourne. How would you describe your experience shooting at the university, and working with the staff and facilities?

A. Well, I am a full-time staff member at the Victorian College of the Arts film school. I am also currently doing a PhD on the Parkville campus. I’ve worked at Melbourne University for almost ten years so I knew all the locations very well. I knew the time of year that we could access buildings without hindering students. Almost every building in the film is on the University campus. There are only a few exceptions. Even Raskolnikov’s room is a set we built in the studio at my film school. Most of the crew were current students of recent graduates of the film school. Most of the film equipment was given in-kind by the film school. I knew all the security people, many by name. My university email address opened a lot of doors. So, the University was incredibly supportive of the entire endeavor. I really can’t say enough.

Aside from that, Dostoevsky opened a lot of doors too! We are the only film crew to have been allowed to shoot at Melbourne’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The Dean of the church is a great Dostoevsky lover, so he shut down the grounds for three hours for us to film. He locked out the tourists! Also, the National Gallery of Victoria allowed us to film their exterior “Napoleon” artwork because of Dostoevsky. Also, we managed to crowdfund $20,000, a lot from people we didn’t know but because of the book.

Between the University of Melbourne and Dostoevsky’s name, the film was possible.

Q. Your title sequence mentions the extremely high costs of an education at the University of Melbourne today. This is not only a very thought-provoking way of introducing Raskolnikov and his murder plot, but also directs the viewer to consider the novel within a contemporary context. What resonance do you see between nineteenth-century Russia and present-day Australia, and between St. Petersburg and Melbourne?

A. Well, to be clear, it’s not actually meant to be set at the University of Melbourne. We filmed there but it’s meant to be an unnamed, non-descript city in an uncertain time period. People have cars but no televisions. There are no mobile phones. The currency is Roubles. We avoided many of the recognizable Melbourne landmarks too. So, it’s a general Western setting.

But, yes, I did see a modern dilemma reflected in the book. In Australia, for the time being, we have a very good university payment system called “HECS”. Basically, the government pays your university fees and when you graduate and get a job, you start paying back as a percentage of tax. That system is under threat from both sides of government here looking at deregulation. The logical, pessimistic, extension of that idea is that knowledge is power and, therefore, people will commit violence to gain power. This means people may become desperate enough to commit violence to pay for their education. This was the way I wanted to frame the film as it is possibly the most important dilemma in the world today, outside basic living conditions. Access to education can change everything: health, happiness, wealth, future. Everything. I think that’s the most important thing to be taken from Dostoevsky’s novel.


Alexander Burry is an Associate Professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at The Ohio State University. He is the author of Multi-Mediated Dostoevsky: Transposing Novels into Opera, Film, and Drama (2011) and is currently working on a book on Don Juan in Russian culture.

Andrew O’Keefe is a filmmaker from Melbourne, Australia. With Tuuli Forward he is a director of Apocalypse Films. You can see the trailer for his 2015 film Crime and Punishment here: https://vimeo.com/113887597.

This interview appears as part of #cp150, a celebration of the 150th anniversary of Dostoevsky’s Crime and PunishmentCrime and Punishment (Apocalypse Films, 2015) will be screened at the #cp150 conference in Vancouver, Canada on Oct 20, 2016. 

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