Matryoshka – A Russian nesting doll. Simply, it’s a caricature-like wooden doll hollowed out containing several smaller dolls inside each other stacking as one.
‘Matryoshka’ is the title of Pacific Pictures’ new short film that we’re very excited to show you. The mastermind behind this marvelous piece is Kevin Shahinian and his crew at Pacific Pictures. We first interviewed Kevin awhile back after our editor-in-chief, Pye, had the opportunity to work with Kevin on a South Asian wedding.
The story is set in Los Angeles, California and Moscow, Russia involving a wedding that includes two families unfortunately unable to unite in celebration as each family resides in different parts of the world. Right off the bat, Kevin drops us into several possible story lines. Introducing the perfect combination of mystery, suspense, and character build up, we go for a swift dramatic story ride. As the story builds and the characters evolve, Kevin gathers all the character story lines together culminating in one beautiful ending similar to assembling a matryoshka doll.
Kevin was kind enough to share some of his time with us and answer some questions about the film. Personally, I love the work coming out of Kevin’s studio, so I was honored to pick his brain. He goes over some of his creative process and shares some of his inspirations. It’s a must read for any cinema creative. Don’t forget to check out the interview after watching.
Our Interview With Kevin Shahinian
SLR Lounge: In adapting a true event, what is your process when crafting the story, and specifically what do you feel is your responsibility to the source material?
Kevin: Great question. That’s one of the most critical decisions we make in creating these films for our clients. I think that’s a challenge we as photographers and filmmakers constantly face when creating art from a historical event: “Is authenticity lost in creativity?” “When, where and how do we take creative license?” As much as I feel a responsibility to preserve history and convey the truth behind a real event, I also feel a responsibility to honor the nature of my medium, which is one of engaging a wide audience. Many of my favorite movies recently have been based on true stories; movies like “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Captain Philips.” I’ve read the published accounts, but the dramatizations impacted me on a completely different level. The films also reached a wider audience through the promise of entertainment. Similarly, I remember watching Ken Burn’s great documentary “The Civil War,” and learning a lot, but movies like “Gettysburg,” and others that showed different and specific viewpoints from the same time period, like Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York” and Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” really stuck with me.
Cinematic dramatizations only allow us to preserve subjective points-of-view and emotional history, and share it with the masses like no other medium. We take the essence of our client’s true-life experience and condense it to its most fundamental parts. From there we ask: how can this be symbolized? And what are the opportunities to present obstacles/antagonists that will yield growth and change? We establish a start and end point, then use structure and turning points to flesh out the narrative. It’s a delicate balance and creative challenge, but an altogether fun process.
SLR Lounge: From our original interview, you told us about your influences and mentioned several Hollywood filmmakers that really focus on dramatic and intertwining characters. Although this is a short film, we can see that you applied your influences very successfully. When planning the story how did you achieve to create emotion and character build up so efficiently?
Kevin: This was a design of the opening sequence, the goal of which was to present a series of strong visual symbols and a very recognizable paradigm – the “damsel in distress” – where we quickly identify the main characters and establish a nonlinear motif via the home video footage, a convention that also served to bring us into the couples’ world quickly. Viewers also bring a lot to the table when such a recognizable paradigm is introduced, allowing us to be very efficient in what we choose to show. The hope by foreshadowing this impending moment of apparent danger was to carry it through the rest of the narrative, to keep us engaged through rising tension as the mystery unfolds. Another strategy was keeping the initial exposition to a minimum and only introducing it as a surface layer, while the tension acted to hold our interest and allow for more rapid character development.
SLR Lounge: In our past interview, you also spoke about the importance of the audio track with filmmaking. What’s your creative process when planning for your sound bed?
Kevin: It’s easy to forgive a poor visual, but impossible to forgive poor sound; our ears are much less forgiving in that way. In the case of “Matryoshka,” sound was essential to building a larger world where the budget limited visuals. A lot of the planning involved establishing a tone through background: will the birds in the forest sound happy or creepy? Will the traffic sound calm or frantic? At what point in each scene will these background elements fade away – to direct the viewer’s attention through selective isolation and bring us into a subjective moment aurally rather than visually? The approach here was to use sound to build on the visuals, expand the world of the characters, and use that to effectively inhabit our protagonist’s point of view.
SLR Lounge: As a follow up on your sound recording which piece of gear did you feel was most important during that scene?
Kevin: The entire forest scene was a mix of foley, ADR and bckground tracks; no actual production sound was used in the final cut of these scenes. In-studio we used a Senheiser shotgun mic and Zoom H4 to record the ADR and foley, and used various libraries for the background tracks.
SLR Lounge: Overall, which piece of sound recording gear did you feel was most valuable in creating the film?
Kevin: The pocket recorder-lavalier combo proved invaluable for most of the dialogue scenes. In this case, a series of Olympus DM-520s and Countryman Lavs. Since there was no sound recordist or boom op on set, I would often use a second redundant wireless system paired with the Zoom to keep an eye on levels and ambient noise while simultaneously shooting and directing.
SLR Lounge: Specifically for Matryoshka, where did you establish your inspiration?
Kevin: It always starts with the client’s true story: where and how they grew up, how they met and fell in love, significant moments in their relationship, and what the joining of their families truly means to them. When Yulia and Alex shared their story, how they both immigrated to the US from Russia and how they both felt strong ties to the people and places overseas that shaped them growing up, it was clear our conflict would stem from the fact that they would not be able to experience their wedding with these people or places back home.
Our stories are always of a personal nature, but we also strive to create original films with universal themes anyone can relate to; part and parcel of engaging a wider audience. Leaving and missing one’s home, especially one’s friends and family, is something we can all certainly relate to in some way. We’ll then employ the theme to redefine a wedding cliché, in this case the ‘well wishes’ video of faraway friends and family we’ve all seen play at weddings.
SLR Lounge: We know you’re based out of the LA area. Did the characters in the film and the setting of the story have any personal meaning to you?
Kevin: For me, it’s important to find a personal connection in every story I tell. I believe a passion for the characters’ journey through one’s own makes for a better storyteller. As far as “Matryoshka,” it was easy to relate to feeling connected to one’s roots as part of a Diaspora. As Americans, most of us are immigrants or descendants of immigrants with some friends and family overseas. While the details of this story were more specific to Yulia and Alex, I found a personal connection in this general concept and hoped to channel that passion to create a more emotional story.
SLR Lounge: Why did you decide to portray the driver as a mysterious character bordering on mischievous?
Kevin: The driver’s behavior was designed to play both ways and in that way it was a fun way to put the audience in the shoes of our main character. At first, the audience views his demeanor through the lens of the foreshadowed opening. We first see him chasing our main character – who seems to be in mortal fear. From this, we surmise he’s up to no good. But after we find resolution in the film’s finale, a second look reveals the same demeanor in a whole new light, allowing the audience to experience our main character’s interpretation of his motives first hand.
SLR Lounge: Working in a foreign country must have presented an added challenge, especially working in the foreign language. Did you use an interpreter? How many were in your crew?
Kevin: Along with the goal of telling an original story creatively, we try to add a new, uncharted technical element to every concept film we create. It’s a way to keep things innovative and inspired. Having shot many films in foreign countries around the world, working in a foreign language wasn’t new; our local casts and crews have generally spoken great English. But I’ve noticed as our technical ambitions grew, so have our crews and budgets. So, on this shoot, I wanted to test the limit of ultra low-profile on-location filming by shooting the film entirely on my own without a crew. The hope was to maintain high production values and avoid the look of a guerilla film. It was incredibly tough, but a fun challenge.
SLR Lounge: The acting is really great from all the cast members. The bride did exceptionally well. Had she acted before? How did you manage to get such great performances from all the actors?
Kevin: The cast did an amazing job and I can’t praise them enough. Evgeniy Volovenko and Olga Prikhodko are well known actors in Russia and performed superbly in our film. Yulia and Alex are not actors. The fact neither of them have any formal training or acting experience speaks volumes to how well they performed – not only for acting so well their first time in front of the camera, but for doing so alongside professional actors with whom they had no prior history. We did a lot of work together before shooting, talking in detail about each scene. We rehearsed quite a bit to get comfortable with the dialogue, blocking, emotional beats and overall process of shooting, and I think that helped set a high comfort level for the shoot.
SLR Lounge: As far as shooting the visuals was there one piece of equipment that you defaulted to to achieve the mood and feel of the story?
Kevin: The vast majority of the film was shot with two lenses: the Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 L and the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 L. The goal was to contrast the feel of the exteriors, shot with long lenses and a more voyeuristic approach, with that of the interiors, shot at medium focal lengths to achieve a more comforting intimate feel.
SLR Lounge: We don’t want to spoil the ending, but you left us with part of the story unknown. Personally I thought it was a beautiful ending with enough of a conclusion but still left part of the story untold. Why did you make that decision?
Kevin: It was a tough decision, but more than anything I wanted to drive the message of Alex’s words and not linger unnecessarily thereafter. It’s a bittersweet ending for a bittersweet message. To then add a “happy ending” would’ve felt forced. We can easily imagine what happens next, and from that point forward whatever the audience imagines will be better and more satisfying than anything we could show on screen. It’s never a bad thing to leave the audience wanting more.
Thank you to Pacific Pictures and thanks again to Kevin Shahinian for being generous with his time. To see more work from Pacific Pictures check out their site here.