Miloš Radovic kindly gave us his time to talk about the intricacies of filming on the tracks, and how to find the perfect balance between tragedy and humour. James Baxter-Derrington and Elliot Burr were on hand with the questions.
I saw Train Driver’s Diary yesterday, and all I knew before going in was the statistic of how many people a train driver kills in their lifetime. I had no idea what I was going to be walking into, and I was pleasantly surprised to find the comedy that I saw. How did it end up as a comedy?
My grandfather was a famous train driver and the father of my producer was also a train driver. When I was a kid, I was home with my grandfather, and there were, at that time, some mysteries which I couldn’t recognise or give the answer to – what was really going on in that house? From time to time, there were some family gatherings, but there were several families gathered in my grandfather’s home, always bringing one young boy to that lunch or dinner. So after ten minutes maybe, they took the boy to some room, close the door, and I didn’t know what was going on there, in that room. So, when I was preparing this film, I discovered what was happening in that room. The older train drivers were preparing that young driver for his job, and for everything that was expecting him on the rails. So Lazar Ristovski, who is the main character, he had the same experience in his home. We finally decided to make a film about that and try to discover all the secrets about the train drivers and their job. We needed… two or three years to decide how to make that film. We knew that we wanted to make that film about train drivers, but we didn’t know how. I was afraid that if we wrote the dark side of the train driver’s life, the film would be too tragic, too dark. On the other hand, if you use the humour that train drivers use when they are telling stories about their experience, I was afraid that we are going to make some grotesque black comedy. I was trying to make a balance between those two things, you know? I really needed two or three years to decide, finally, ‘Okay, I will does this like a drama-comedy, but a small fairy tale about the train drivers’. So when we finally decided we’d do it that way, we started to make the film.
When you landed on that decision, was there a lot of research with train drivers?
I spent a lot of time, maybe four years, driving with these train drivers. In the morning I jump into the locomotive with the train driver, and we go 500-600 kilometres away from Belgrade. We come back after midnight. During that session, I was researching, listening to their stories, and trying to define the film a bit. There are a lot of suicides on the rails, drunk people who don’t care about the barrier. That’s why all these things happen. There is a special cure that train drivers are using to cure themselves of those traumas.
“When I saw his face, I saw a Russian poet from the 19th Century. This is the guy I want for this film”
Jumping to the film, you had one of the biggest actors in Serbia alongside a non-actor. How did you reach the decision of those two as your lead pairing?
First of all, I wrote the script for Lazar Ristovski as the main character. He is an actor, but at the same time, my very good friend. So we discussed together long before the script was written – what should we do? Are we going to try to describe that very sensitive subject of the film? Both of us, we were very afraid of the result, a lot of mistakes were to be accepted. If you choose the wrong side of the story, it can go down badly. So I wanted Lazar Ristovski for the role of the main character – I was sure it should be him. And for his adopted son, I organised a casting which a lot of young actors…. I was not happy with them, there was something missing in their acting. They were too… educated in a certain way. Finally, I saw this young boy in a commercial on TV. They just took him from the street to shoot him for some commercial. I saw this commercial accidentally, and then when I saw his face, I saw a Russian poet from the 19th Century. This is the guy I want for this film. I didn’t know anything about him. Finally I find out he’s a student of sociology. I asked him to come to casting, and he came, and he was very good, the right thing for this film. And now, in these past two months I’ve told him, ‘You see? There are a lot of people who say you are brilliant. Are you finally going to study drama and acting?’ and he said ‘No, I’m absolutely not interested in that. I will continue in sociology.’
So you’ve got very lucky – the one director who’s managed to get him! He was fantastic, both of them were able to handle the two very different tones blended in the film. Were they easy to work with? An actor and a non-actor?
It’s not easy for the actor to act with a non-actor, because non-actors are acting very naturally, they are working from their feelings. They don’t use their mind, they’re reacting. It’s not easy for the actor because the actors doesn’t know what to expect from this guy in the next line. They’re coming from different bases. It was not easy for the actor, he also told me, but this young man, he was not an actor, obviously, but there was something in him, something special. He was so right in every reaction, so precise that he was like an actor. I think the collaboration between the two was very good.
Stylistically, the film was very… stylised might be the word there! There were a lot of choices that weren’t in a documentary style, some very bright moments… Stylised is the word I’m looking for! Is that a decision that you took when you reached the drama-comedy balance, or was the one that came as you started working on the production?
Since I didn’t want to make some social drama or a tragedy about someone’s job… I didn’t want that. From the other side, I didn’t want the real comedy. I was in the middle, I was in the position to mix those genres into one. But they needed some stylistic frame for that, a light fairy tale. So, we are making fairy tales, you need to put it visually in some space and time that you cannot recognise. Is it happening in the fifties, sixties… when? So from my point of view, I wanted the audience not to recognise when it is happening, because it is happening all the time since the railways were invented. In every country it’s the same. You can have a modern railway like France or Japan, but those accidents happen.
You had the premiere in Belgrade, then you went city to city, town to town showing the film. Has the response from the train drivers been a positive one?
The response has been very good. I was afraid of the response when I saw the film the first time with the audience. I wasn’t sure it was obvious that they’d understand it. I was afraid the humour would be too much for someone’s taste. With the subject of so many deaths and you put the film over that, I was afraid the audience might make a little wall between them and the film… Maybe a moralistic wall, who knows? The world premiere of this film was in Moscow, and we got the audience award there. The theatre was gigantic, maybe 1500 people there, and it was full. The applause was big and long. So there, I understood that there is a communication between the film and the audience. The audience understand what we wanted and why we used humour in it: to relax.
“it was dangerous, it was stressful”
With the practicalities of filming, there were a lot of shots that were either in locomotives or on the railways themselves. Was it a difficult shoot to get everything working?
Shooting was a nightmare. Especially because of the fact that the Serbian railways are completely… destroyed. When you are shooting under those 28,000 volts power cables… A lot of people from the railways die on the… You know, when you go up to the roof of the locomotive and the power is not off – you don’t have to touch the cable, you will die anyway. The power is spreading through the air. Every time when you wanted to shoot on the railway with a real locomotive, they must send an email from that place where we want to shoot, to someone in the railway to disconnect the power, because of the crew, actors… Once, I saw what they were doing. The mail is like this: ‘We are informing you from the point 2229 that we need to disconnect the power from 11 o’clock.’ They send that mail to 1500 addresses. So they wait for 1500 answers. Everyone needs to say ‘Okay, I received your mail, I am disconnecting this part’ the other guy says ‘I am disconnecting this part.’ So every day we were waiting two or three hours to receive those answers. When we receive 1500 answers that the power was off, then we could do it. You are never sure if one of those 1500 people made some mistake and the power is on! So it was dangerous, it was stressful.
A lot of early starts then! You were saying earlier, the future of the film, there’s a lot more festivals to come. Are you looking for releases in any other countries?
Our film is nominated as a Serbian candidate for the Oscars. So now, the Serbian Ministry of Culture will give us some money, and we will go to Los Angeles, and we will promote the film. We will organise four or five screenings, we will organise two or three parties for the important people. In that way, we will try to… to introduce our film to important people. I don’t expect an Oscar, of course, but a lot of people will see the film. So I hope we will find a distributor for Europe, and maybe USA.
Fingers crossed for you, best of luck! Seeing as though you’ve been nominated as the Serbian film for the Oscars, do you think your film is typically Serbian in its sense of humour?
I think this film is not like other Serbian films. There are a lot of Serbian films that are dark comedy, black comedy, but this one, I think, is not the same. There is a lot of emotion in my film, the love between father and adopted son, love between father and his wife. We made this film with a lot of love and empathy for the train drivers. I think it’s very emotional. Also I don’t think that this kind of film can do anything at the Oscars, because the Oscars are something very different.
Is there anything else you wanted to say about the film or a future project?
You know, I make films one in ten years. I am not a real… honestly I’m not very much interested in film directing. If the script comes or some interesting idea comes from somewhere to me, and if I like it, I will do that. But I’m not a real passionate film director. I work in a lot of other things. I’m writing for the theatre, I’m shooting commercials. I’m not a real film man.