Night Watch: Russia’s Blockbuster Fantasy-Horror

NIGHT WATCH (NOCHNOI DOZOR), the stylish fantasy horror film, has revolutionized post-Soviet cinema. The movie brings to the fore the cutting-edge vision of director/writer Timur Bekmambetov (whom Russian director Nikita Mikhalkov called our Tarantino) and is the first instalment of a trilogy based on the best-selling Russian sci-fi novels of Sergei Lukyanenko, which also include Day Watch and Dusk Watch.

Featuring a dazzling mix of state-of-the-art visual effects, adrenaline-fuelled action sequences and nail-biting terror, NIGHT WATCH was an instant smash hit in its native Russia when it was released in July 2004 shattering all previous box office records. Made for a mere $4 million, the film surpassed both LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING and SPIDER-MAN 2 at the Russian box office. In a country that had not seen a native film make more than $2 million, NIGHT WATCH went on to gross eight times that number. Internationally acclaimed, it was also Russias contender for the 2004 foreign language Oscar.

Set in contemporary Moscow, NIGHT WATCH uncovers the other-world battle that upholds a 1000-year-old truce between the forces of Light and the forces of Darkness. For centuries, the undercover members of the Night Watch have policed the worlds Dark Ones “the vampires, witches, shape-shifters and sorcerers that wage treachery in the night — while the Dark Ones have a Day Watch that in turn polices the forces of Light. The fate of humanity rests in this delicate balance between good and evil but that fate is in jeopardy. Ancient prophecy foretells that one day a Great One will arrive who can end the apocalyptic battle between Light and Dark conclusively. That time has arrived in Moscow ” but which side will the Great One choose

NIGHT WATCH stars Konstantin Khabensky, Vladimir Menshov, Valery Zolotukhin, Maria Poroshina, Galina Tunina, Victor Verzhbitsky and Dima Martynov. Directed by Timur Bekmambetov from a screenplay by Bekmambetov and Sergei Lukyanenko, NIGHT WATCH is produced by Anatoly Maximov and Konstantin Ernst. The behind-the-scenes creative team includes Director of Photography Sergei Trofimov, Art Directors Valery Victorov and Mukhtar Mirzakeyev, Editor Dmitri Kiselev and Costume Designer Varya Avdyushko. The score is composed by Yuri Poteyenko.

Fox Searchlight has acquired international distribution rights to both NIGHT WATCH and its sequel. The third part of the trilogy will be filmed in English and will be produced by Fox and the Russian broadcaster Channel One Russia, which produced the first two films.

The Film’s Origins

Sergei Lukyanenkos novel Night Watch–and its sequels Day Watch and Dusk Watch–marked a watershed in Russian literature. The books story of supernatural battles breaking out on the frenetic, everyday streets of modern Moscow struck a resonant chord with a whole new crowd — young Russian readers, fantasy fans and Internet users — who turned them into instant hip, cult classics, selling 500,000 copies. Since the Russian release of the feature film of NIGHT WATCH, the trilogy has gone on to sell another 2.5 million copies.

A prolific author who was originally trained as a psychiatrist, Sergei Lukyanenko had always wanted to write an epic tale of ancient magic set loose in our modern times. Id been eager to write fantasy for quite some time, but neither gnomes nor elves were of any interest to me, explains Lukyanenko whose other books include the trilogy Line Of Reveries and Knights Of The Forty Islands. Then, I had an intriguing notion: this idea of the Night as a battlefield for magicians who live in hiding among us ordinary people and can only fight when it wont disturb humanity. From this came the further idea of the Night Watch, a special unit created to control the magicians. This then led to the development of the Night Watchs antagonist, the Day Watch, and their eternal battle against one another.

Soon, the supernatural beings who run the Night Watch and the Day Watch ” beings with devastating magical powers who operate just one step away from the normal urban reality of rundown apartments and crowded subways–were captivating readers across the nation. Among those readers was leading Russian film producer Konstantin Ernst, who is also the General Director of Channel One Russia, Russias biggest and most successful television network. Ernst wasnt usually drawn to works of fantasy, but when he picked up Night Watch, he found that he couldnt put it down. Now, fuelled by a passionate enthusiasm for the storys cinematic possibilities, he immediately dove into development, along with fellow producer Anatoly Maximov. Nine months later, shooting began with a screenplay adapted by Lukyanenko himself in collaboration with Timur Bekmambetov.

To direct Lukyanenkos tale of witches, warlocks and vampires set loose on city streets, the producers knew they would need a true visual innovator. They started looking for someone with a distinct and original sense of both story and style ” and someone who could combine the powerhouse thrills of modern special-effects filmmaking with a personal understanding of the Russian soul. They found what they were looking for in Kazakhstan-born Timur Bekmambetov, an acclaimed creative powerhouse in the fields of commercials and music videos, who has helmed more than 600 ads for brands including Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Apple, Microsoft, Ford and Procter & Gamble. Bekmambetov made his feature film directing debut in 1994 with THE PESHAVAR WALTZ, an art-house film about the war in Afghanistan, and his second film, GLADIATRIX (2000) (also known as THE ARENA), was filmed in English and co-produced by the legendary Roger Corman.

Timur is highly visual, says producer Anatoly Maximov, and he also goes very deep with the characters, in a Stanislavski way. Its from this combination that the films style was born. Konstantin Ernst first met Bekmambetov when the former was the host, producer and director of a Russian monthly arts and culture TV show called Matador. The two men often shared an editing suite and discussed making movies together. One of my biggest aims has always been to recreate the Russian film industry, and we talked about that, explains Ernst. I explained to him that I wanted to forge a new image and get to a new level in Russian movie making that would make it a real part of the international movie arena — not just for art-houses or for festivals, but with exciting films that appeal to a mass audience. With NIGHT WATCH, we had that opportunity.

Bekmambetov brought to the project a deep personal love of modern Hollywood masters of action, counting among his major influences such filmmakers as James Cameron, Ridley Scott, Roger Corman, the Wachowski brothers and Quentin Tarantino. Still, he was initially skeptical about creating a fantasy horror that would appeal to Russian audiences. Unlike in America, there were no fantasy movies shot in Russia before this one, the director points out. But in reading the book, I suddenly realized Sergei had managed to distill magic and miracles, the transcendent and the supernatural, into our way of life. I found that the story really was something special because in it, fantasy not only meets reality ” but Russian reality ” and its the first Russian movie that has this unique point of view. The story takes place in the real world, in real Russian life, but its also fantastical. So my idea was to make it feel as real as possible on the screen, while also finding a context for the mystical and the fantastic in contemporary Moscow life. It was a wonderful challenge.

The more he read, the more Bekmambetov was hooked on the vision of vampires roaming the often chaotic and troubled streets of current-day Moscow. The books became poetry. They were cool. They were funny, he says. It woke me up because I started to think about how you could connect these things: Red Square and vampires, vampires and the Russian ballet, etcetera. It was such an interesting mix and I found that it produced in me a very personal feeling because one half of me is the filmmaker who loves vampires, Roger Corman and THE MATRIX. Meanwhile, the other half of my mentality is a Russian reality where there are lots of problems ” where there are very bad cars, very dirty houses, very rich oil barons and very poor people. This story brought these two sides of me together: Russian reality and American movies.

Bekmambetov began to see the film as a way to mesh all his influences together into one original entertainment ” and he peppered the film not only with wild chases, hair-raising stunts, powerful explosions and other-worldly creature effects but also with that particular mix of sly humor, rich philosophy and human insight that has always marked Russian literature. He was especially drawn to the storys allegorical exploration of the fragile balance between good and evil in the world today.

For Bekmambetov, the members of Night Watch and their opposite members in the Day Watch represent two different, competing social philosophies. They represent two different ways to live ” total freedom versus responsibility, he comments. The Day Watch are the Dark Ones and they represent a kind of totally free independence, but the Night Watchers are all about responsibility and conscience. Its a dualism thats existed for a thousand years. Its a very old idea that you must consider the consequences of your actions.

Bekmambetov worked closely with Lukyanenko to adapt the novel to the screen ” and found Lukyanenko more than willing to play with his creation, even adding in new elements to heighten the moviegoers experience. We added in the subplot of Anton (Konstantin Khabensky) and his long-lost son Yegor (Dima Martynov) to make it more dramatic, more emotional, more Russian, explains Bekmambetov. On top of the action, you have this tale of a father who lost his son, feels terribly guilty, and then spends his life trying to solve this problem that is plaguing his conscience ” its a very Russian story.

In preparing to shoot the epic story on a far less-than-epic budget, Bekmambetov always kept in mind what his friend and mentor Roger Corman once told him was a vital lesson in filmmaking. He said the most important thing for the director is to think about how to imitate a bigger budget than he has, Bekmambetov recalls. Its all about creativity.

Key to Bekmambetovs creative vision of the film was an omnipresent and intense realism laid over the pervasive and inventive special effects. Indeed, the director says he wanted the films hair-raising vampires, witches and warlocks to seem at once menacing . . . yet as real as a persons next-door neighbor. Russian audiences dont have any experience of this kind of film, because weve never had any fantasy movies or comic books ” its all new. So the only way for me to begin was to make everything very realistic, so the audience would believe in it enough to accept the fantasy, he explains. For me, this meant I too had to believe in a world where vampires exist, even if I know that they dont.

For Anatoly Maximov, Bekmembatovs approach brought to the film an undercurrent of relevance that made it even more exciting. The world he creates is hyper-realistic but recognizable, he says. The characters, the social situations and the psychological elements are all familiar to us. It becomes a movie about a mans moral breakdown and the forces of Light and Darkness fighting for his soul ” its big stuff.