LETO (2019) – Interview with Michael and Lily Idov

by Logan Myerz

It’s officially the first day of Summer and there’s no better way to celebrate the hottest season of the year than watching the new film Leto. The films title which is Russian for “summer,” tackles a rock ‘n’ roll daydream based on the early days of the famous Soviet-Korean musician Viktor Tsoi, his musician friend Mike Naumenko, and Mike’s wife Natalia. This creates a somewhat complex music love triangle between the three individuals that adds substance to the early 80’s Soviet music scene. The black and white frames used in the film is painted beautifully to describe youth, rebellion, freedom, love, and the oppression that was occurring at that time in the Soviet Union.

If you’re like me, you probably haven’t heard Viktor Tsoi’s music, but I can assure you that after watching Leto, you will want to look into his music catalog. The music, story, and cinematography is what grabbed me and never let me go, but also it was the writing of these characters and the way the story unfolds is what makes the film riveting.  With all the rock biopics coming out as of late, this film goes to places we haven’t seen as an audience and what sets the film apart from the others. If you like David Bowie, The Talking Heads, or Lou Reed, then you will absolutely love this world that Michael and Lily Idov created. There’s different messages and themes that the audience can get from the narrative, but this film will definitely move you in ways you haven’t experienced yet.

Today, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael and Lily Idov, who wrote the screenplay for Leto with director Kirill Serebrennikov. We discussed the concept and writing the script for Leto, the movies atmosphere, the collaborative process, music, and their upcoming projects.


Michael and Lily Idov

Cinephellas: How did you come up with the concept of LETO?

Michael and Lily Idov: The producers, Hype Films, has the rights to Viktor Tsoi’s song catalog and had been considering a film about him for some time. There had been several attempts to write it before us. For us, however, the project snapped into focus when we pared everything down to a single source — Natasha Naumenko’s memoir about this semi-innocent, bohemian love triangle she had with her husband Mike Naumenko and the 19-year-old Viktor. We had no idea if this take on the story was true — and still don’t! — but we found it delightful and evocative. And then Kirill Serebrennikov took it from there and made it into this wall-to-wall rock’n’roll fantasy. But our hats are perennially off to the producers for agreeing to go with this weird and delicate angle instead of doing a more traditional biopic. We’re not even using any of Tsoi’s big hits!

CP: The film is in black and white. As the writers, was that in the script or was decided later on in the production process?

MLI: That’s all Kirill. I think we almost fainted when we first heard it was going to be in b&w. But now, of course, it’s hard to even imagine it looking any differently.

CP: I love how this film captures youth and rebellion in a way we haven’t seen before. From the writing standpoint, was it important to capture those aspects to set the tone or atmosphere of the film?

MLI: Absolutely. This is what the film is about. To us, and it may sound strange, its Soviet setting and real-life connections are practically a bonus. The story Leto tells could have easily been an American or British one – it would just have to take place in the 1960s instead.

CP: Music is a huge part of this film as well. How involved were you with the songs and did anything change in the music throughout the filming process?

MLI: The version of the script we did before Kirill got involved was a backstage musical — the songs would be heard only when people were playing them. Kirill pushed it into a completely different territory where we’d fear to tread, by adding all these jaw-dropping sequences on the train, on the trolley bus etc.

CP: I absolutely love the way this film is shot and was one of the things that really sparked my interest from the trailer. Did you have an overall vision of how the film was going to look and how the scenes were going to be filmed?

MLI: We’re huge fans of Vlad Opelyants, the DOP, and from the moment he got involved we knew the film was going to look amazing. But we didn’t know exactly how. Because of the bizarre circumstances of Kirill’s house arrest – he edited the film alone, stuck at home, which is both ironic and enraging in light of the film’s subject matter – we didn’t really see any in-between versions. But then, we saw the finished thing along with everyone else in Cannes, and wow. This was a moment that might never be replicated in our lifetimes.

CP: What is the overall message you wanted to accomplish with this film?

MLI: We’re not huge believers in cinema with a single message, and we always try to write from the characters outward; if we do our job right, the big themes will naturally attach. But you’ve nailed it in the beginning: it’s a film about youth and freedom, and about the possibility of this freedom even in the most stifling circumstances. It’s what the Russians call “internal immigration” – learning to live in an oppressive system while ignoring it. The film also asks a few questions about the ethics of such an arrangement. And these are tough – we don’t pretend to have all the answers to them. After all, since we work in the Russian market, one could argue that we implicitly collaborate with the Russian authorities, or endorse the (steadily worsening) status quo. But our devotion and our obligations are to the audience, not the state.

CP: Have you seen the film with a live audience and are you satisfied with the final product of ‘LETO?’

MLI: Many times, in different countries, and we’re beyond pleased. Especially when the film is screened somewhere where people don’t know or care about the real-life prototypes of the characters. It’s great to see the viewers respond to LETO purely as cinema. That’s the ultimate test for any film like this. Imagine watching Bohemian Rhapsody not knowing anything about Queen!

CP: What is your collaborative process when writing a script?

MLI: In the early stages, we walk and talk constantly. We just let the film or series completely overtake our normal life. But then, as soon as we get to a scene outline, we kind of drift apart and each works alone for a while. We don’t do the whole George and Ira Gershwin thing of, like, one of us at the keys and the other pacing around smoking. (That would be cool, though). And when we’re done, we edit each other’s scenes. Other people might have different setups, though. This just happens to be the one that works for us.

CP: Do you have any advice for up and coming writers?

MLI: Honestly, the best advice we can think of comes from David Bowie, who said something like “Just go ahead and imitate your idols. While doing this, you’ll make mistakes, and in time these mistakes will become your style.”

CP: Do you have any other projects in the works that we should be on the lookout for?

MLI: Yes! Michael has just finished his feature debut as a director, The Humorist: https://variety.com/2019/film/reviews/the-humorist-review-1203234605/

CP: Can you let our readers know where we can find you on social media?

MLI: Happily. We’re @michaelidov and @lilyidov on both Twitter and Instagram, though we’re kind of on-and-off users of both.

We would like to thank Michael and Lily Idov for taking the time to get interviewed by Cinephellas! Leto is now playing in L.A. theaters!

I am giving LETO a 3.5 out of 5 Hairpieces!

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