“Part Psychologist, Part Priest, Part Bastard...” Writer-Director George Mendeluk Discusses ‘Bitter Harvest’
[This Interview originally published in Creative Screenwriting Magazine.]
Bitter Harvest is set during Joseph Stalin’s genocide in 1930s Ukraine. Against such an evil backdrop, two young lovers struggle to survive while keeping their honor.
As Stalin furthers his ambitions, a young artist named Yuri (Max Irons) endures famine and imprisonment. Meanwhile, his sweetheart Natalka (Samantha Barks), is also trying to survive “Holodomor,” a death-by-starvation program developed by Stalin that replicated natural famine.
Creative Screenwriting spoke with writer-director George Mendeluk about pruning your script, why going to film school is a waste of time, and why writers don’t make good directors.
[Note that this article contains minor plot spoilers.]
How did you first get involved with Bitter Harvest?
The original writer, Richard Bachynsky Hoover, was an actor. I had worked with him years and years ago as an extra, and he remembered my name. He had written the script, but was having a difficult time getting it off the ground.
Then he found an investor, Ian Ihnatowycz. He told me, “I’ve got the money.” And I said, “Well, the script needs a rewrite.”
In particular I wanted to flush out the theme of it.
The theme was that the artist becomes a warrior after his journey as a hero, to use Joseph Campbell’s terms. So, Yuri starts off as a peasant kid who is an artist, and his darkest night of the soul, if you will, after he crosses the river of no return, is in the jail cell. Then, symbolically, he kills the guard with a brush, and that’s when he transforms into the artist-warrior and comes back home with the elixir. (That’s a boon or something similar, which changes that particular village or his relationship with it, which was that of the little boy.)
I like that paradigm, and then we went through twelve drafts, until we finally shot it.
How long does it take to write twelve drafts of a script?
Well, I got his script in August or maybe September of 2012, and then we were going back and forth with different ideas. Originally, I’d thought of having the story told from old Yuri’s point of view, and he has Alzheimer’s. But he escapes from the hospital, and he goes to see his wife (and that’s Natalka, of course). And that was a subplot.
We approached several actors, but I think they felt that maybe it would be cut. And they were right, it would have been.
So we just made it “time present”, beginning with the Bolshevik Revolution and then ending with the Holodomor. I started the treatment in October, and I finished it in March. But I directed a movie in the interim. So I probably did the treatment in about two, two-and-a-half months, on and off.
Once I got the treatment and it was approved, I got the script finished by August because we had to: we only had one day to film all the golden harvest scenes in the movie. That’s the sort of idealized Ukraine that the little boy grew up in.
Then the rest of the movie began prep in October. So we started to shoot late October, and we finished beginning of December when the demonstrations and the war in Ukraine basically began. We did not shoot this after the war, it just happened to coincide.
So, to answer your question about simply the script, it took me about three, three-and-a-half months to write the script, with about two months to write the treatment.
Tell me about the logistics behind the writing. Did you ever work in the same room with Richard?
This is a delicate subject. I would write a draft or some scenes and send it to Richard, and he would make his comments, and Ian might make his comments as the Executive Producer. Then I would make changes or not, and go on.
I did the actual writing, and then we collaborated over the phone because he was in Ukraine. So, there was no sort of ‘let’s sit down’.
I like collaborating, incidentally. I’ve collaborated all my life on various projects with other writers. When I do movies, usually the script needs a lot of work. When I come in, they say, “You’ve got two weeks to prepare,” and I say, “But I need about a week to rewrite it because of this, that or the other.” So, I’m used to it.
But it was a collaboration. I basically did the final draft, the one that went to screen. And Richard did the first draft, you could say, the initial draft that got the funding.
Really, what I did to begin with during the outline, during the treatment phase, was just to prune it down so that the themes were very clear: which is an artist who becomes a warrior, and that love transcends all, including the greatest sort of tragedy and heinous evil. So that’s what I plumbed out of his draft.
Sometimes you’ll see historic stories like this shot on back lots. How important was it to shoot this film in the Ukraine?
Well, I’m Ukrainian, though I grew up in Canada, and my mother and my aunt went through these events. So I grew up listening to some of the horror stories.
When I arrived in the Ukraine, the very first thing I went to was the Kiev Monastery where my ancestors were buried from the 1600s. So it was like coming home, in a way. It was nice to go back, but it was also kind of sad at the same time.
And then, of course, the war broke out.
The end of the movie is very open…
If you see the movie, which I hope everyone does, you’ll see that I’m not going to tell you how it ends, but I leave it up to the imagination of the viewer. Billy Wilder was a great fan of Ernst Lubitsch, who did screwball comedies in the ’30s, and he used to say, “If you let the audience add one and one up, they’ll love you forever.” So, the point is, you’ve got to leave it open for interpretation, and for the audience to become invested in the characters and in the plot.
Tell me about the historical research involved in writing and creating the film.
I think I went through about seven different books, and also researched online. And also drawing from what Richard was providing as well, because he was living in Ukraine, and he was at the Maidan Square when the revolution was going on.
Were there any cinematic influences on the film?
I think that one of the movies that inspired me greatly as a young man was David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago. I’m not comparing myself to Lean, or my movie to Doctor Zhivago. Only in the sense that, story-wise, you have this love story that’s in front of something that’s really kind of revolutionary and nasty, and that was the end of the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution. So, from that standpoint, I would say Doctor Zhivago really inspired me. I love the music of it, I love the emotionalism, and so I wanted those to be components of my film.
I also was inspired, in terms of the look, by Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. It’s a period piece and all the interiors are lit with candles, so it gives it that real painterly antique look, really soft light. There’s nothing like it, and the British are very fond of it.
I also was inspired, in terms of the look, by Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. It’s a period piece and all the interiors are lit with candles, so it gives it that real painterly antique look, really soft light.
When you have low, low light, and there can be no light lower than candlelight, you need special lenses. Kubrick had them made for Barry Lyndon, and I think they were used by NASA, too. Douglas Milsome, our Cinematographer for Bitter Harvest, was the Focus Puller on Barry Lyndon, so and I think, cinematically, Barry Lyndon was another cinematic influence.
Schindler’s List, as well, for the subject matter. And I would say those are sort of the main films that inspired this particular script.
You have over 70 directing credits on IMDb. What has changed over the years?
That’s a good question.
I’ve always liked to work with actors, and I’ve just gotten more experienced doing it over the years. I mean, I’ve been directing for 45 years, believe it or not. I sometimes look back and I can’t even believe that it’s happened to me. Though it hasn’t been easy, believe me. These things didn’t fall into my lap. Remember, I didn’t speak English until I was five or six.
What mistakes do you see novice filmmakers making?
I’ve basically been an indie filmmaker all my life, except for my work in television, so I’ve actually written, directed and produced most of my feature films. I think a lot of time is wasted in rewriting and rewriting and rewriting. I think at some point you’ve got to say, “This is the movie I want to make, and I’ve got to go out and do it.”
Raising the money is the hard part. I’ve been fortunate, but there have been many projects I’ve written and developed, that never got off the ground.
People don’t come to you, you’ve got to go and find them. Just like I met Richard on set once 20 years ago, and then he contacts me and says, “Hey, I remember you. I’m Ukrainian, you’re Ukrainian. I want you to read this script.”
Now, on set, writers don’t often make good directors, because you’ve got to be somehow a general, and you’ve got to marshal all these disparate disciplines of crewmembers, and wardrobe, and writing, and lighting, and all that stuff. You’ve got to know a little bit about everything, and the only way you learn about it is by just doing it. I never went to film school, I just learned doing it.
I think you can waste a lot of time going to school and getting your degree, and learning who created the close-up and all that nonsense. Because all that stuff goes out the window when you’re standing there and an actress is having a hissy fit, and she hates her leading guy, and the leading guy won’t come out of the makeup trailer, and she’s pissed off because he’s got more lines than her. Nothing prepares you for that. You’ve got to be part psychologist, part priest, part rabbi, part magician, part bastard, part whatever, General.
And here’s where the writing sensibility may not always jive with the directing sensibility. What I found out really early is when they say, “All right, guvnor, where does the camera go?” You can’t hem and haw, ever. For better or worse, you’ve got to say, “It goes here with this kind of lens, and we’re shooting this way. Thank you very much.”
Now you’ll have about an hour or two, usually, to figure it out, if you haven’t already: how you’re going to block the actors and whatnot. But nobody wants a director to say, “Well, maybe we could do it this way,” or “What do you think?” The moment you do that, you’re going to get 150 people giving you ideas on how to direct the movie, and it’s frigging anarchy.
Finally, is there anything else you’d like to share about the film?
You know, I think it’s rare to have an opportunity to do a movie that educates without being dry, and hopefully, we’ve achieved this with Bitter Harvest. Because we tell a story that’s never been told before, and that’s rare.
And the film is more than a movie, it’s basically a calling. It’s to provide a voice for the 4 to 7 million people who perished under horrible, horrible, brutal circumstances just to implement a regime.
I also think it has a direct relevance to what’s happening in the Ukraine today, with the overtaking of Crimea and the war that’s going on in the East. I think it’s basically the same situation, just a different leader trying to subjugate Ukraine, and not a lot of people are helping. So, I think that’s important to draw that analogy, because it’s very fresh.
Finally, and most importantly of all as far as I’m concerned, it’s not a political movie. As far as I’m concerned it’s a love story, and the message and the theme from a storyteller’s point of view, which I fancy myself to be, is that love transcends and conquers all, no matter what.
Those are the things I hope that the audience takes away.
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