That was my next question, because that show had been on air since 2015. Was it set up as a way to test the waters, or was his real-life political ambition something that followed the success of the show?
I think only four or five people actually know whether or not that show was designed as a lever into a political career.
Zelensky is credited as a co-director on Me You He She. The director of photography on that film, and many others of his, is from the U.S. as well—Bruce Alan Greene, whom I know a little. Was there ever a question of what he’s doing with all these Americans around? I mean, once we print this, I can easily see some maniacs out there saying you are his CIA handlers.
Honestly, I’ve been accused of that by Russian commenters.
I’m sure you have!
Here’s what I can tell you about this. Cultural chauvinism in Russia is so much more powerful than cultural chauvinism in Ukraine. In Ukraine, all of the American colleagues were treated as family, without any sense of “what are you doing here” or “why are you taking Ukrainian jobs.” And that’s an essential part of the Ukrainian character. They are, in many ways, much more European than Russia. Everyone who says otherwise, clearly has not spent time in both countries. In Russia, the camera operators and the crew were generally very nice, but you got a distinct feeling you were suspect.
What language did you even use on the set? Do you speak Russian or Ukrainian?
No, I don’t. And I’ve edited 15 Russian-language movies and directed three.
You know a good take. You can see when an actor is being emotionally honest in any language. And, of course, my wife speaks four languages, including Russian, and she is my script supervisor.
I agree that Ukrainians are more chill in dealing with other cultures. At the same time, both Russian and Ukrainian mainstream humor is—how do I put it delicately? Not exactly woke.
(Laughing) Yes. There’s no denying that so much of the humor there, especially in sketch comedy, is what we would call Borscht Belt humor.
Literally, because they invented borscht.
Exactly. And that’s something to work on. There’s a great deal of homophobia and racism in both places. But with the way Ukraine has been determined to look Westward, you can see palpable progress in the culture on some of these issues. It’s all there, no question about it. But in Ukraine, you feel like they have a way forward to get past it.
Do you feel like Zelensky’s brand of comedy was part of that Westward movement?
Yes and no. The Kvartal 95 comedy shows were very much in that vein of Borscht Belt, mother-in-law humor. But the movies—regardless of what one may think of them as works of cinema—had a much more Western model. Marius, who directed many of them, went to the USC film school, lived in LA for 15 years. His dad produced Tarkovsky’s movies! He’s a cosmopolitan, worldly Russian who embraces the West. So those Hollywood romantic comedies that he idolized were the models for the movies he made with Volodya.