Hello and welcome to this week’s episode of Ukraine Calling. I’m Oksana Smerechuk for Hromadske Radio in Kyiv and we’re bringing you our feature in-depth interview followed by some new music from Ukraine.
And in our interview this week, Bohdan Nahaylo talks to Richard Bachynsky Hoover, Canadian-Ukrainian executive producer and screen writer. He wrote the screen-play for the first Western-produced dramatic film about the Holodomor.
FEATURE INTERVIEW: BOHDAN NAHAYLO INTERVIEWS RICHARD HOOVER
Nahaylo: I am delighted to have as a guest this week Richard Hoover, a Canadian filmmaker, scriptwriter. Perhaps he is not as well known as he should be, but he the man who is responsible for bringing us the first real film produced outside of Ukraine dealing with the Holodomor, “Bitter Harvest” (2017), with western stars and an epic tale. Richard wrote quite a lot of screenplay. He was also the executive producer. I hope he will tell us a little bit more about the issues involved in making the film and about its successes and challenges. So welcome to the programme!
Hoover: Thank you, Bohdan, my friend. Glad to be here.
Nahaylo: Traditionally we start by asking our guests to tell us about their background. You were born in Canada, I assume.
Hoover: Yes, I was born in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. I went to Robert Meek Public School. Came from a family of nine boys and one girl. My father was Ukrainian – Yaroslav Bachynsky. His mother mother was Madeleine Kachanovska. She died when my dad was 7 years old and he was an orphan in Manitoba for many years until as a teenager he ran away and hit the box cars. He had a hard life in orphanages. Actually, the Communist Party in Canada in those days snatched him and lied, changed his documents around. He lost his identity, his language, his culture. Even his name…
Nahaylo: So you did not grew up in Ukrainian environment?
Hoover: No, not at all. It was a big mystery with a big shadow over my father all my life. Ever since I watched Taras Bulba, as I was discussing with you in a café earlier, at the age of 10, I guess.
Nahaylo: Taras Bulba, the Hollywood production of the early 60s with Yul Brinner and Tony Curtis.
Nahaylo: The first film that showed Ukrainian kozaks, even if riding through the Argentinian mountains, not the steppes.
Hoover: That’s right.
Nahaylo: It had an impact on me too in England.
Hoover: It had an impact on me and helped me realize that I had Ukrainian blood in me. I said, “Look at the guys on horses”. Maybe that’s where I get my energy from, those people. Maybe that is where I get my artistic, self-taught, talent to draw and paint ever since I was a child. I was on a journey at the age of 30 and was inspired by a Ukrainian history book by Orest Subtelny, our producer’s best friend who passed away a couple years ago.
Nahaylo: He was a very good friend of mine.
Hoover: Excellent man. He read my script in and said “you have something there”.
Nahaylo: This is the script about the Holodomor. I understand you attempted to interest people in other scripts before.
Hoover: No. I came to Ukraine during the Orange Revolution and I hooked up with Stepan Bandera, because I had met him in Future Bakery I Toronto, which was owned by Borys Wrzesnewsky.
Nahaylo: Stephan — this is a grandson of Stepan Bandera?
Hoover: I came over and I thought, “He went and I am going there too”. We were warned not to go because of the tensions and possible danger. We actually lived together in an apartment. And there were police everywhere and I got an idea on a very snowy day when I saw them. I had been to Ukraine several times before that. You can always can see stories locked up in elders’ faces.
There is a lot pain there and it always bugged me how they do not speak about it. But I came across some that did speak about the hunger. I would be drawing people on trains, sketching and giving character drawings to them. As I was doing that, this energy, power, got inside me. I was an actor for quite a few years, had read a lot of scripts. Maybe I could write a film, I thought, because I was a good writer when I was at school.
Nahaylo: So you moved from Manitoba and ended up in Toronto.
Hoover: No, my father was in Manitoba and he ended up in Ontario working on tobacco farms as a teenager.
Nahaylo: Did he arrive in Canada after WWII, or was one of the earlier settlers?
Hoover: Earlier. His father came in 1906.
Nahaylo: Among “the pioneers” as we call them.
Hoover: From the Ternopil region. They descended from the Yulian Bachynsky family.
Nahaylo: A very famous Ukrainian. Author of the book Ukraina Irredenta.
Hoover: One of the first people to call for independence of Ukraine. He died in Stalin’s gulag in Karelia. Never returned, [was killed] for being a Ukrainian writer and creative person.
Nahaylo: Let’s stick to the theme of film now. So you had an idea. You were an actor, you had connections presumably by this time in the film world.
Hoover: Not for financing. I was top-bottom, everything by scratch.
Nahaylo: You had an idea. How did you develop that idea? Did you sell the idea?
Hoover: The idea came when I was sitting in a café, writing on napkins and putting them together like a puzzle, like pieces in my head. I would put them in order, which looked like organized confusion. It was an order in my head and I knew where every little event or doodle would belong. Then I started to write a screenplay based on formats that I read about screen writing by different screenwriting teachers and in books.
Nahaylo: Did you have to do a lot historical research?
Hoover: I read quite a few books. I read Paul Magocsi …
Nahaylo: James Mace?
Hoover: Yes, some of him, and of course Robert Conquest. That was the book that had the biggest impact on me.
Nahaylo: Harvest of Sorrow.
Hoover: Seeing archival footage, and hearing about Walter Duranty and Malcom Muggeridge, whom you interviewed in early 1980s – all had a big influence. A story that was never told in a feature film. Never told in 80 years or more. Nobody has done it. Nobody in Hollywood. Someone had to do it.
Nahaylo: And it was you…
Hoover: I’ve got the passion. I‘ve seen the county. I’ve seen the pain. I‘ve got the history in my head. I‘ve done acting. I know the format of writing. It was a monstrous challenge from that point on.
Nahaylo: Let’s just say in parenthesis, so our listeners appreciate what you are saying: it’s really the commitment, enthusiasm, and sense of duty of one individual that made a difference. You actually had that idea, you persevered and you managed to get studios, producers, international actors involved.
Hoover: Here is what happened. When I completed the first half of the draft. I had knocked on many doors here and there – oligarchs’, government doors. Under the Yanukovych government — the State Film Agency of Ukraine. I never got any support whatsoever. Finally, lady that worked in banking in Toronto that I met at the church at an event selling arts and crafts and varenyky on Bathurst Street suggested I approach Ian Ihnatowycz. I asked, “Who is he?” Everyone knew who he was, but I was an outsider.
Well, I did that. Here is how it happened. I had two dollars in my pocket. I wasn’t going to eat for a week. I’m not kidding you. And I decided, I’m either going to buy that coffee, and that apple, that morning, or I’m going to put it in that telephone, payphone. Because I couldn’t even afford a cell phone. OK, because acting was rough. I was getting down to the bottom. The roles that I got only came once in a while. It was great, I acted with Michael Moriarty, Michael Pare, but the money only lasted so long. And then you wait for your next gig; you know how it is. It’s one of those old-fashioned stories, you pay your dues. Well, I decided to take those two coins and put them in the telephone booth, and call Mr. Ihnatowycz.
Nahaylo: And thank you for doing that.
Hoover: And I faxed. I didn’t have money to fax, I’m not kidding you.I went over to the Ukrainian Credit Union and used the fax machine that a man there helped me out with. He said, go ahead, send it, no problem.
Nahaylo: And the feedback? The response?
Hoover: And I got my development funds, and I was off to the races to develop that film. And Mr. Ihnatowycz kept an eye on my progress. He believed in me. He believed in my talent. He saw a powerful story to be told. He didn’t commission me. I had already started. It was my vision and I got going with it. I had got to the point where a few bits were done. And then I had my son in Smila, in Ukraine, and I was trying to raise him; he was only an infant. And I thought I would change the story to Smila, and have a little boy with a sword in it, which is my son. The little boy in the beginning of the film is really my son in Smila. So, in the story it’s Smila. And the little boy with the sword fighting dragons at the beginning, with the sunflowers, that’s my own boy. And the diving in the river, that’s the Tyasmyn River.
Nahaylo: Well, the psychological undertext, of course, is that Smila, or smilyi, in Ukrainian means…
Hoover: Courageous. Yes.
Nahaylo: So, smilyi khlopets. A brave boy.
Hoover: Another element of Smila, which I thought was perfectly appropriate, was that of Natalka being very brave. I wanted to show the bravery of women during the Holodomor. That they fought back. They never just took it, were starved to death, and were thrown around like garbage. They fought back in the villages. The Babski bunty [grandmothers’ revolts]. I wanted to show that. And in Smila, the story, the legend, is that a girl showed the Cossacks where the Tatars were. And saved their lives.
Nahaylo: That was hundreds of years ago.
Hoover: That’s right. And she was killed. They tracked her down. But she saved all their lives. And the symbol there is the broken arrow. They shot her with arrows. And that’s how she died. So that’s very fitting for Natalka in the film. And Natalka is my son’s aunt’s name, who lives there. My father Yaroslav, is played by Barry Pepper, as a tribute to my father’s name. And the mother, the loving mother, believing in her son’s talent, it was my dream.
Nahaylo: So now we get very close to production. How did you find the producers? How did you find the director? How did you find the actors?
Hoover: OK. So, what happened there was that I had the script done. And Ian said, if we can get this off the ground it would be great. Next thing I know I got a contact through on-line and I actually sent it to Mel Gibson, to his reader, and talked to him on the telephone. And he said, “you’ve got something here. You’ve got something very powerful going on here. Ukraine needs support. This is a story that needs to be told.” And the only reason I believe, today — I still have the letter from Mel Gibson’s office, his consultant for projects, Nick -t hat he didn’t want to get involved was because he was going through a problem at that time, his wife being Russian. And it was bad timing.
Nahaylo: But he was interested?
Hoover: They encouraged me, saying”‘ don’t give up on this. You’ve got something there. Keep the transitions minimal. Don’t go overboard with the political side of things. You’ve got to find a balance there”. Now came another task, to balance all that out.
Nahaylo: So then?
Hoover: Then I went hunting for locations. And crews. And teams…
Nahaylo: So, you were actually involved in all of that?
Hoover: Yes, I did all that too. I thought if I could put all of this on the table maybe Ian Ihnatowycz might say, “you know what, I’ll invest in this”. And I didn’t have to ask him. I just thought if I do the hard work and put it on the table, he can see it. I won’t have to push it.
Nahaylo: Who’s idea was it to have fairly well-known up and coming western actors involved, rather than simply Ukrainians?
Hoover: That was my other idea, that we need to show this internationally. And the only way tha tit was going to happen is that we had to have faces on the front of it that sell. It’s not about sales, it’s about getting recognition through popular faces, popular actors. And that’s going to generate the buzz.
Nahaylo: Please remind us who you managed to attract.
Hoover: Jeremy Irons’ son Max Irons. It’s his first leading role in a feature film that we gave him. George Mendeluk cast him in London. Then from Les Miserables, Samantha Barks, who played Epinone. She is our leading lady. And Tamer Hassan, a gangster-type villain, popular actor in England, Great guy, met him on set. And Canadian Barry Pepper, who played in Saving Private Ryan, and with Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger.
Nahaylo: How did you succeed in getting the eminent British actor to play?
Hoover: Oh, Terence Stamp! He jumped right on it!
Nahaylo: Playing an old Cossack, on a horse! He fell off, I understand, had an accident?
Hoover: Yes, he did. And you know what? He got right back up on that horse and went to a doctor. And got back on and finished the job. Like a good Cossack would do, get back on the horse, and finish the film.
Nahaylo: Good Cossack professional?
Hoover: Yes. And I had given him an old, original, brass tryzub ring [tryzub is a trident and Ukrainian national symbol], from the time of Petliura [Ukrainian leader during World War I] and the Kholodnyi Yar [a site linked with Ukraine’s national struggle at the end of World War I]. I had bought that, and had it for a long time. And I thought, you know what, he’s playing Cossack Ivan, he’s the hierarchy of the film.
Nahaylo: He deserved it.
Hoover: He’s the Otaman [Cossack leader]. And I wanted to give it to him.
Nahaylo: He was good. In the process of filming, did you have your doubts? You were watching the scenes. Did you think, it’s not going the way I want it? Or were you fairly confident throughout?
Hoover: Well, you always have differences with the director. Because, let’s face it, everyone has their ego. And everyone wants to see it the way they want to see it. I wrote it the way I wrote it. Some things didn’t make it to the cut. But Ian Ihnatowycz was also at the helm with Stuart Berrit in the editing in London. We used the James Bond pool there. Stuart Berrit was very effective in his editing. And the music by Benjamin Wallfisch, who suffered the Holocaust ancestry. His grandmother was at one of the Holocaust memorial events recently, and was given; a medal in London.
Nahaylo: OK. Plusses and minuses. The film comes out. It may not be exactly 100% what you wanted, but you’re proud that it’s in the can.
Hoover: Yes, I’m proud that it’s been shown in more than 100 countries. That it’s opened up a door to people in an entertaining way. Much like a franchise movie would do in a comic book, and make it believable. You can see it with your innocent eyes and your open mind, and say, did that really happen? Or could that happen? It actually did happen.
Nahaylo: And now we’ve got another film on that theme coming out about Gareth Jones, and I believe that you inserted a small element into the film where there’s a correspondent on the train who may have been him.
Hoover: Yes, Gareth Jones was a character that I thought had to be in the film. I had talked to his nephew, who just passed away recently, and who attended our premiere in London, and talked to his aunt on the phone many years ago. Gareth Jones is on the train and Yuri’s drawing him, which is really what I do in real life, drawing people on trains and giving the drawings as a little gift.
You know like: “‘I like your face, and I like what’s in your soul,” And you can see that in the film where he’s drawing the villain in the prison, the warden, and he says “can I see the soul in your eyes? We have to see the light in your eyes”. Like the great artists do. And then when he escapes from prison, killing him, he has no choice because everyone’s being executed outside the prison, and he’s going to be next. It doesn’t matter what he’s being promised, he knows they’re going to lie, and they’re going to kill him.
Nahaylo: Richard you’re a poet as well as a screenwriter. We had poetic cinema here in Ukraine, which is more about the technique, but also the content is very poetic. Your passion, your emotions… At the end of the day, now that some time has gone by since the film came out, it has been shown all over the world, are you happy with the results?
Hoover: I am pretty happy with the results, yes. I mean it’s dynamic, it’s powerful. I’ve seen the reaction of Ukrainians, who I believe should be the first to decide if the film is good, or if it’s bad. When they come out with tears, and clap, and give standing ovations, which I witnessed myself firsthand here and in Toronto, and non-Ukrainians there…
Nahaylo: Recently a school here watched a screening…
Hoover: Yes, had taken it to some army fellows here in Irpin, and students in Irpin, in Bucha, doing some private, you know free of charge activity, working with the culture department of the city, and they had tears in their eyes. Stuff like that tells you everything. You don’t have to say anything, you don’t have to say bravo, nothing. It’s that tear in the eye, you see it…
Nahaylo: Richard I want to tell you on behalf of our listeners, Richard Hoover Bachynsky -
Hoover: Bachynsky Hoover
Nahaylo: Bachynsky Hoover. I thank you very much from our hearts for the vision, for the perseverance, for the commitment and investment of time and energy, and frustration that went into it. Your final thoughts; what message do you want to share with listeners?
Hoover: I want to thank Ian Ian Ihnatowycz for believing in my talent. And my mother who never got to see this film; neither did my father, who died a year before the Maidan revolution. He always believed: “you’ve got something, never give up, kid’. You know he was a pretty tough guy, and he battled cancer for 15 years, as well my mom did, she died of cancer. You know there’s been a lot of death been around me; I lost four brothers, too.
Nahaylo: Holodomor is about death. But it’s also about survival.
Hoover: Yes, saw parallels, not to compare or anything, but I think of myself and [Ukrainian filmmaker] Oleksandr Dovzhenko. He lost a lot of people in his family during the Holodomor; I lost a lot of people in the modern day. In my family – four brothers, my cousin was a player for the LA Kings with Wayne Gretsky: he passed away at the age of 32; he was like my brother. I’ve lost four brothers in 20 years.
Nahaylo: Like the Holodomor.
Hoover: Yeah, and so you know. You see the part where the mother is telling Yuri “go find your dreams, go to Kyiv” Well that was my dream to be an artist at an academy. I wanted to go to the art school here, but I couldn’t speak Ukrainian well enough. And I thought I would love to be an artist and learn art in Ukraine, at the Art Academy. But we actually filmed there, and my dream has come true because artistically, as a writer, and a visionary: I made this film.
Nahaylo: Richard, thank you very much, you’re a very inspiring human being, and I think an exemplary Canadian Ukrainian — Ukrainian Canadian. Thank you very much.
Hoover: Дуже дякую. Слава Украіні!
Nahaylo: Слава тобі, for what you’ve done.
Hoover: Thank you Bohdan, I appreciate it.
Now here’s a song for you: Young Kyiv musician Andriy Dmytrenko, who formerly performed in a group called “The Yeah Bass”, has now released a new song with his solo project called “Admit.” He sings the vocals and performs on bass, as well as on sopilka, which is a traditional Ukrainian flute. The song is called Lisostep, which means “Forest steppe” in Ukrainian. Enjoy!
Next week we’ll be back with more commentary on events in Ukraine with interview host Oksаna Smerechuk. We would be happy to receive any feedback from you. Write to us at: [email protected]hromadskeradio.org. This is Oksana Smerechuk in Kyiv. Thanks so much for listening.
Interview transcribed by Marta Dyczok, Larysa Iavorenko, and Caitilin O’Hare. Music by Andriy Izdryk. Sound engineer Andriy Izdryk. E-mail distribution Ilona Sviezhentseva. Web support Andrii Kobaliia.