Mayakovsky was probably the most problematical film to make from a number of points of view. Firstly Mayakovsky’s poetry is very specific and avant-garde although there are some very good translations in English. However I wanted to retain the original Russian to preserve the original rhythm of his poetry and this caused considerable problems. I had to understand the poetry myself in the first place before I could start working on the film. This is easier said than done when reading from the Russian. In addition to this I wanted to shoot in the The State Museum of Mayakovsky on Lubyanka and this required some delicate negotiations with the museum administration. In the end we agreed the terms under which I could film inside the museum but not without some restrictions. Also once again I had to find a new studio and also a new camera operator. In both these cases I was lucky. I found one of the most prominent documentary film cameramen in Russia, Slava Sachkov, who has long experience in the Russian film industry and is a director himself and a partner in the Film Company “Ostrov” in Moscow which made “Seven up” for the BBC and Granada TV, not to mention a host of award winning Russian documentary series. I don’t think I could have found anybody better and we immediately formed a good working relationship. We shot a lot of material around Moscow to start off with and then all the graphics, photographs and pictorial material from archives etc. On the agreed day we then went into the Mayakovsky Museum to film more material. Its one of the most original museums ever devised, designed in the a style of the Russian avant-garde of the 1920s and 30s, with sloping floors and iron girders poking out in different directions It’s a vast constructivist ensemble designed to house the collection of Mayakovsky’s work and life in a way that on the one hand arrests the viewers attention and on the other deconstructs their visual sensibilities. One of the good things about the museum is that it is like a film set albeit a little unconventional and so it made an ideal place to film, lending a specific emotional atmosphere to the film. Mayakovsky had a room in this building on the top floor in which he ostensibly shot himself in the heart. In the 1970s the entire building on Lubyanka was taken over and converted into a museum dedicated to Mayakovsky. With Slava’s professional camera work we were able to get some unusual shots which I was able to use in several sequences in the film. Slava managed to get exactly the right balance between light and shadow to give the film the edge and atmosphere which I was seeking.
One of the things I wanted to do in the film was to use an actor to read Mayakovsky’s poetry. I thought this would be an easy thing to do but I interviewed actor after actor. Sometimes they had the right kind of voice a deep velvety bass but they were unable to catch the rhythms of Mayakovsky’s complicated imagery. Also Mayakovsky had a very specific timbre, powerful and rich, as he said of his own voice it could hammer rivets into steel plates. Mayakovsky’s live performances were notorious and nobody could better him in live debates and the futurist evenings at the Polytechnic Museum where the read out their declarations and manifesto’s. At first I couldn’t understand what the problem was with these actors until someone explained to me that in this new era, i.e. since perestroika many of these skills are being lost and younger actors no longer need or wanted to study the necessary skills for this type of reading. I decided the next best thing would be to actually find recordings of Mayakovsky himself reading his poems. I went to the All Russian audio archive in Moscow. They had some recordings of Mayakovsky but also other recordings of actors from the 30s,40s and 50s reading Mayakovsky’s work. Some of it was excellent and just what I was looking for and I selected about ten large fragments from Mayakovsky’s larger poems plus several complete poems such as “Could you not”. I wanted to include a fragment from the poem “Lenin” but there was no recording of this work at the audio archive. In the end I found an older actor called and got him to do some reading. He had a perfect voice and actually knew most of “Lenin”off by heart. He knew exactly how to use his voice and tailoring his intonation and vocal stylistics to great effect. The recordings where Mayakovsky is reading himself are not in good condition but the power of his voice and personality come through and the recordings stand in the same way as visual archive footage, which although sometimes in poor condition have a dynamism and authentic amplitude.
The film took a great deal of time and effort especially as I decided to make a Russian version as well as an English version. I felt this was necessary and I hoped to show the film to Russian audiences.
As with all these films about the avant-garde one film almost seamlessly leads into another and because Mayakovsky wrote many plays as well as poetry and was championed by the Theatre director Meyerhold, as a new Aristophanes, it was natural that the next film in this series would be about Meyerhold. Mayakovsky wrote several plays for Meyerhold, The Bathhouse, The Bedbug and Mystery Bouffe and while Meyerhold liked to have complete control of his productions he permitted to Mayakovsky to be present at rehearsals at all times and valued Mayakovsky’s contributions and observations at all levels of the production process