Now few people will be interested in this post I am sure, but allow me some self indulgence. Gulag is a 1985 prison drama set in Russia, starring David Keith and Malcolm McDowell. It is rather obscure, but was a favourite of mine as a teen when I had it on a large box format VHS. I managed to get some questions to its director, and here are his vivid answers.
Do you recall how you got involved in directing Gulag?
I believe I was offered the film through my agent. The producer, Andrew Adelson contacted my agent and asked if I would be interested. I read the script and thought it was great. So I signed on.
What view did you take to directing the film? Did you plan much ahead?
One of my favorite memories in all of my work was the day that Andy and I boarded a plane in Los Angeles, flew to Oslo, which was about eleven hours, took a taxi to the train station in Oslo, boarded a train, took it five hours straight north to a tiny town where we got off. It wasn't even a town. It was about four buildings, if I remember correctly. One was a two story hotel, if memory serves. We were met at the train by three or four people from the Norway production company. They walked us across the tracks and into the hotel. They told us to drop our bags there, and that they'd like to take us scouting. We said; "Fine." So they handed up some snowmobile suits. You know, those all-in-one-piece kind of coveralls. We pulled them on over our traveling clothes that we had worn from Los Angeles. They gave us some heavy boots. We left our shoes in the lobby. They said; "This way." And we walked out the back door of the building. There sat four or five snowmobiles, and a SnowCat. A big sort of tank with tank tracks, that would seat about six people, I believe. It was running quietly. It looked very powerful and even a bit military. They asked if we would like to ride in the SnowCat, or take a snowmobile. I choose a snowmobile because it looked like fun, and Andy kind of reluctantly agreed. They gave up rudimentary instructions: "Start it here, brake here, accelerate here." Okay. "Follow us." They all got in the SnowCat and Andy and I swung our legs over our snowmobiles and started them up.
The Snowcat pulled out and we followed. After just a minute or two we were out of sight of the buildings and the railroad. Nothing but mountains everywhere, and all were covered with snow. I looked over at Andy and began to laugh. He and I were running our snowmobiles beside each other and it suddenly hit us that about seventeen hours ago we had been in Los Angeles, California. Now here we were, on snowmobiles, following a Snowcat, in the mountains of Norway! Hilarious! We couldn't stop laughing. The life of filmmakers can be fascinating !
I took a lot of scouting trips on the snowmobile. One almost killed me and Andy, and another almost killed me. Andy and I went on another scouting trip a few days later. This time he rode on the back of my snowmobile, with me. It had always been sunny when we took the scouting trips, and the sun on the mountains allowed us to have a rough idea of where we were in relation to the hotel, and in relation to the area we had chosen as a shooting location. So, this time instead of following the slow SnowCat, I told Andy: "I know where the location is." and I veered off from the SnowCat, reeving up the snowmobile to maximum velocity, and off we went. It only took a minute for us to be out of sight of the SnowCat and all alone in the mountains. But then something happened that I had not anticipated. The clouds came in. Now everything... and I mean everything.... looked the same. No sun on the mountains, meant no landscape to guide by. Everywhere you looked all you saw was white. No peaks to guide by. Just blank white. I turned back toward where I thought the SnowCat was. No sign of them. We drove around for more than an hour. Andy asked me if I knew where I was and I shouted back; "Oh yeah." I kept looking down at the fuel indicator. It was dropping fast. We were lost, and night was coming. Spending the night out there could easily be deadly. The temperature was already below zero and dropping fast.
Finally, after I don't know how much time, I came over a hill and I saw a tiny, tiny dot in the distance. I shoved up my goggles and stared at it. Was it the SnowCat? I took off toward it, and as it grew larger, I realized we were saved. I stopped the snowmobile for a moment to pretend that I wasn't racing toward the safety of the SnowCat. Andy said: "You were lost, weren't you?" "Yes." Nothing more was said. We took off to join that slow SnowCat with a driver who knew what he was doing. Not one from LA.
Another time I was out scouting with the main scout, a man who had grown up there. We were at the base of the glacier. He had taken me there at my request. It was dramatic. Tons of ice moving slowly. You could hear it moving. Groaning as it pushed its way across more tons of ice.
I was walking around the base of the glacier when he said to me: "Don't go too close---" That was as far as his sentence got before the ice gave way under me. I fell in up to my chest. I had grabbed at the ice as I fell, and was holding on in some way. The hole was small, so my body was kind of being supported by the ice. He ran toward me and then laid down and crawled the last few feet. He said: "Take my hand." He got close enough that I could grab for him. "I'm going to pull you out." He yanked on me and I started to come out. I fought to get a better grip on him, and finally got both hands on his body. Somehow I got out. I can't remember actually how. But when he got me out he kept dragging me on my stomach until we were several yards away from the hole. I heard the ice give way in the hole, and I could hear it falling. The hole got bigger. Probably three times bigger. And then silence. We crawled further away, and then he said: "Okay, you can stand up now." I looked back. There was a blue hole where I was standing before, and "knives" of ice surrounding the hole. I said: "What would you have done if I had fallen into that?" He sort of screwed up his face for a moment, and then said very matter of factually: "Gone back to the hotel."
While we were shooting up there two cross country skiers died. They had gotten lost apparently, and had not done the necessary thing, which is to stick your skies in the snow, standing up. They had laid their skies down, which had allowed them to get covered with snow very quickly. Skis sticking up to almost their full height can be seen at some distance. But skis laying down, and skiers laying down get covered with snow quickly. They froze to death.
I learned a lot about snow while I was there. At one point in the film we have a scene where the boys cover themselves with snow in order not to be seen by a Russian helicopter. After the helicopter goes over, the boys are supposed to stick their heads up out of the snow. So, I set the cameras and we dug a shallow hole in the snow. They boys got in, and we covered them in snow. They were only just barely under the snow, but not visible. We rolled. I waited until enough time had gone by for me to establish that the helicopter had gone by (to be shot later), and then I yelled "Action", for them to stick their heads up out of the snow. Nothing. I yelled again, louder. Nothing. Louder. Nothing. I moved as close as I could to where they were buried without getting into the shot, and yelled as loud as I could. "ACTION!" Nothing. Finally I cut the camera and we rushed in and uncovered them. They were fine, but they said they never heard a thing. I realized how people buried in an avalanche could never be found. I don't remember how I finally made the shot work. But we got it.
We had some problems while shooting, as one always does. One of the big ones was that the day we were supposed to begin shooting in the Gulag camp the Production Designer came to me and said: "We're not ready." I had never heard that before or since. Not ready? I have a crew and actors ready to move into this set, how can you not be ready? We lost a whole day, as I remember.
We shot some of the film's interiors in one of the studios in London. We had lots of Russian extras for those scenes. And I remember being amazed that they all seemed to be drunk on vodka by the afternoon. But I never saw anyone drinking. I was fascinated that they could smuggle it in every day.
How did David Keith come to be cast and how was he to work with?
David and I were not particularly simpatico. He took direction fine, and we never argued, that I can remember. But we were not buddies. I remember that Andy and I had tried to get William Hurt to star in the film. We even went to New York and met with him in his apartment. He said he was very tempted because of the scene where his character would jump in the tank of shit. He thought that was a great scene. But he turned us down for some reason.
Malcolm McDowell is a favourite of mine. How did he get cast and was he good to work with?
I LOVED Malcolm. He was great. Funny. Happy. Lovely man. I remember he was having trouble with one line on a particular day. I don't remember if he couldn't get the line right, or if I wanted him to do it differently than he was doing it. Maybe both. But he got so frustrated and I thought maybe the extras were making noise that was distracting him, so I asked for total quiet. He said: "It doesn't matter, Roger, I'm hearing the M5 in my head." The English crew laughed. I didn't really get it, but we were hundreds of miles from the M5.
I wish I could have worked with Malcolm many more times.
What kind of reaction did you get when the film was released?
Don't remember. I remember being quite proud of the film, and thinking that the weakest part was before David's character was arrested. I wished I had done a better job with that section. But I thought the prison and gulag scenes were well done.
All these years on, do you ever get people mentioning the film to you or any feedback?
No. I think very few people ever saw that film, unfortunately.
So let's readdress that...
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(Note: The text here is from my book, MALCOLM McDOWELL ON SCREEN, 2018 EDITION