Fantastic Fest Interview: Modern fable ‘ZOOLOGY’ sprouts an admirable tale of identity

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zoology_4guide__largePreston Barta // Editor

The sense of self we get from today’s world is astonishing. It is said we live in a narcissistic age because of the technology and forms of social media we have that give us an inflated view of what we should be and how we should look.

Realistically speaking, many of us don’t really walk around completely comfortable in our own skin. We each feel insecure about something, whether it’s our image, behavior or otherwise.

This is the notion Russian filmmaker Ivan I. Tverdovskiy (CORRECTIONS CLASS) explores in his second feature film, titled ZOOLOGY.

The film centers on a middle-aged woman named Natasha (Natalya Pavlenkova), who lives with her elderly mother (Irina Chipizhenko) in a seaside Russian city and works for a local zoo, managing the food supply. At her work, she is constantly ridiculed by her co-workers, causing Natasha to feel insecure about her life. This is until she mysteriously grows a tail.

Fantastic Fest held the film’s regional premiere last week and audiences seemed to admire the fact that the film is much more than a mere story of a woman who grows a tail.

Irina Chipizhenko and Natalya Pavlenkova star in ZOOLOGY. Courtesy of Fantastic Fest/Arrow.

Irina Chipizhenko and Natalya Pavlenkova star in ZOOLOGY. Courtesy of Fantastic Fest/Arrow.

“The tail represents something we each have. It’s a story of solitude, of growing up and of being misunderstood by society. I wouldn’t want to put a specific meaning in [the tail] or tie it to politics, race or something else,” Tverdovskiy said when we discussed the film via email. “The tail is primarily an attempt of self-identification. It is something that distinguishes an unique individuality from the masses.”

ZOOLOGY evaluates the most common self-critical thought people have toward themselves, which is that we are all different. We are part of a generation that compares and judges ourselves with imposing scrutiny — and the film highlights this idea with its heightened version of Russian society.

“The film is a hyperbole, exaggeration. Of course, we have very different people living in Russia, which is geographically the biggest country in the world. But my characters are exactly characters, not real people,” Tverdovskiy said. “They are cumulative images that help project social criticism not only on Russian society, but on society in general.”

ZOOLOGY is such a layered film, rich with content to wrestle with. Surprisingly, like Richard Linklater (BOYHOOD), Tverdovskiy doesn’t write out much of the film’s dialogue.

“I only start shooting when I feel that the dramatic structure is there. I only write a very detailed description of a scene, and we come up with actual words on set. I encourage improvisation,” Tverdovskiy said.

Sometimes magic can come out of this form of filmmaking– something that a pen to paper could never achieve. One such scene comes from Natasha visiting the primate section of the zoo she works at. In the scene, the monkeys become quite territorial and aggressive.

“It was not staged; it was certainly improvised,” Tverdovskiy recalled. “It’s very difficult to direct animals, almost impossible. Maybe this is why they are such a magnet on screen – as they are so harmonious and natural.”

But of course, most of the film’s magic and curiosity stems from the tail itself.

“It was extremely important for me that it is an animatronic, and not VFX. The actor must feel the tail,” Tverdovskiy said. “I adhere to the classical traditions of Russian theater that come from Stanislavsky, Chekhov, Vakhtangov. It’s impossible – according to those traditions – for an actor to exist in something he doesn’t experience.”

Tverdovskiy described Pavlenkova’s make up process as “painful,” taking several hours each day to apply. However, all that time paid off for both Pavlenkova’s performance and Tverdovskiy’s story.

“It was worth suffering for. [Pavlenkova] tried it a couple of times before shooting, but mostly she had to get used to it under cameras,” Tverdovskiy said.

ZOOLOGY is a coming-of-adulthood story or sorts that impeccably blends a plaintive drama with a hint of romanticism and science fiction. Tverdovskiy plays it quiet and doesn’t make the film larger than life. Instead, he offers a modestly scaled drama with much to admire.

ZOOLOGY premiered at Fantastic Fest, but was recently picked up by Arrow for a North American release. Tom Stewart (Acquisitions Director for Arrow) said they’re “working on the perfect release strategy for all territories, which should naturally see a date in the first half of 2017.” We’ll keep you posted.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.