If there is ever a filmmaker you should keep your eyes on in the future, it is Egor Abramenko. Using his science fiction horror short, The Passenger, as a launching pad, he has expanded the universe in his recently released feature-length debut, SPUTNIK.
SPUTNIK takes place at height of the Cold War when a Soviet spacecraft crash lands after a mission gone awry, leaving the commander as its only survivor. It is up to a controversial doctor to try to figure out how to save the cosmonaut from the seemingly parasitic alien creature that’s taken refuge inside of him. But at what cost?
For the release of SPUTNIK, I got the chance to chat with director Egor Abramenko, where we discussed how the idea to expand The Passenger into SPUTNIK came to be, what went into conceptualizing the alien creature, and what it means to be a hero.
To start things off, what drew you to expand the story you told in The Passenger into what we will see in SPUTNIK?
Egor Abramenko: The purpose of The Passenger was initially to, they call it a proof of concept. The short was to make an introduction in that strange world where our main protagonist, the Soviet cosmonaut coexists with an alien, with the creature. So, the initial idea, the initial point was to introduce the audience with the character, with the setting, and – eventually – to do a full-length feature. So, The Passenger was the starting point for SPUTNIK and our initial plan was, from the beginning, was to do a full-length feature.
In terms of the setting, what went into the decision to set the film in the 1980s rather than present-day or the 1960s when Russia launched the first man in space?
Egor Abramenko: We weren’t considering the present day because our initial pitch was to combine [a] very common environment for the Russian audience, you know, the USSR time period with very weird things such as an alien from outer space. Our initial pitch was like it’s an alien in the USSR. Speaking of [the] ‘80s, first we were attracted by the aesthetics of this period. First, visual aesthetics. I mean, it is a really rich time period in terms of interior design, in terms of architecture, costumes, and all of this stuff.
And also, specifically 1983, it’s kind of a strange time for Russian history. It’s sort of a transition period. From the USSR as we know it, as we get used to it, into new times. It’s just a few years before Perestroika started and we thought, in terms of ideas, it would be a great time to unfold our story. As I said, it’s this transition period when everything happened. People’s minds, their perception of life has changed.
I think also for Americans as well, the ‘80s is such a nostalgic period. A lot of things were changing, so that makes absolute sense to me. So, don’t laugh…
Egor Abramenko: I won’t.
But I think the alien creature is cute.
Egor Abramenko: [laughs]
I wanted to hug it. [laughs] But I also appreciated the science that went into it and what got explained in the film. What went into designing and conceptualizing that creature?
Egor Abramenko: I’m glad that you said that. That he was cute. When we started to design it, we understood that we are coexisting in a world where the Xenomorph and the Predator already exists. And we can’t compete with them. We can’t beat them. They are iconic movie creatures and we needed to come up with something new and something original. When we started developing the creature, it happened during writing the script so it was a parallel process. We had been working with a lot with a team of concept artists.
And we understood that we needed to fulfill two criteria. First, it has to be kind of, on the first glance, it has to look vulnerable. Small. Like something that could live inside a human’s body. And, on the other hand, we should come up with a really aggressive and powerful alien that could destroy a squad of armed soldiers. That was two main goals for us, to combine these two things to work with these contrasts. That, at the first glance, this creature looks small. He doesn’t look scary at all. But, as the story unfolds, we realize that this alien is really dangerous and that he is terrifying. So, during designing the creature, we were balancing between these two points.
Well, if it helps you feel a little better, I also want to hug a Xenomorph.
Egor Abramenko: [laughs]
I like creatures. That’s just my thing. There are many themes at play in SPUTNIK. One of the things I noticed was that there is a constant referring to a hero. And, more specifically, the Russian hero. I was wondering if you could touch a bit on that.
Egor Abramenko: I’m glad that you mentioned that because you are absolutely right. The definition of a hero I would say is a very important part of Russian culture, of the Russian mindstate. I mean, in Russian history or USSR history, the definition of a hero, it’s hard to explain it. I’ll try. It’s sort of a benchmark for the Russian government. That during World War II, we had heroes. Then, when the World War ended, the Cold War started. We had another type of heroes that were the cosmonauts. When we started to do SPUTNIK, we asked ourselves a question, “What is it really mean to be a hero?” What does it mean? Not in terms of Soviet propaganda that filled the minds of Soviet citizens, but what does it truly mean to be a hero in terms of universal human qualities.
And we thought that this creature, the alien that lives inside our protagonist, would be, on the one hand, it’s a physical threat. But, on the other hand, it’s a great representation of his dark half. His second nature. We quickly realized that we wanted to showcase a real human being. He’s not a hero from the magazine cover. He’s terrified about his life. He’s scared. He doesn’t want to die. He talks about wanting to leave, wanting to go home. So, basically, we wanted to go on this journey with him and show this arc about how this human, this person, really becomes a hero. We’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to really be a hero.
The creature itself is a star in its own right. However, Oksana [Akinshina], Pyotr [Fyodorov], and Fedor [Bondarchuk]’s performances are really captivating. Can you talk a bit about the casting process?
Egor Abramenko: The casting was quite a long process. It was really hard to find these actors. We really wanted our actors, our cast, to fit these characters because, from the very beginning while working on the script, we tried to create really three-dimensional characters. Talking about the main protagonist, it’s not just a simple hero. He has his fears, etc. It was the same with Tatiana. We’ve been trying to make each character very, each one of the characters, each one of them having a second dark half. A second nature.
I recall this great line that our screenwriter Oleg Malovichko, one of the screenwriters who wrote the script, he told us this line that each one of us has its own passenger. This line became sort of the blueprint of creating these characters and really creating complex characters. While we were looking for the actors, when I was looking for, I was trying to find these qualities that these characters had in actors. I mean, when I met Oksana [Akinshina], we had a chat. Then we recorded the screen test. I just saw her. There she is. It’s my Tatiana from the script. She doesn’t act. It’s her.
To wrap things up, what would like audiences to take away from the film?
Egor Abramenko: One of the important things from this movie is to explore the definition of human nature in some way. As I said previously, this alien, on the one hand, it’s a physical threat. On the other hand, it represents this dark half that everyone one of us has. It’s complex that each person, each one of us, has this inside of us every day and trying to understand which one of us would succeed eventually. That was important for me to talk about that stuff. The key is in the very last scene of the movie and that is what I would like the audience to take away from this movie.
Egor Abramenko’s SPUTNIK is opening in select theatres, digital platforms, and cable VOD today! Interested in learning more, check out our review here.
[This interview was edited for length, clarity, and sanitizing for spoilers.]