Fred Schepisi & Vladimir Putin
Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz
As Fred Schepisi was whisked along the Rublyovka highway, past luxury car showrooms and Gucci boutiques, he reflected on how much Moscow had changed in the 18 years since he’d last seen it. Back then, Mikhail Gorbachev occupied the Kremlin, the USSR was a superpower and, despite the promise of perestroika, drab lines of people still waited outside shops. On that occasion, he was there to direct the Cold War espionage drama The Russia House, the first major international production ever filmed in the Soviet Union.
Now here he was, jury chairman of the 2007 Moscow Film Festival, on his way to lunch with no less a personage than the president of Russia, Vladimir Putin.
The setting was Novo-Ogaryovo, Putin’s dacha – opulent digs set amid the woodlands west of the capital. Behind its 4-metre wall, Schepisi found himself in a forest of birches and pines, its carpet-like floor conjuring up an image “straight out of Chekhov”.
As a kid, Schepisi lived behind the family fruit and vegetable shop in Toorak, Melbourne, just across the road from a movie house. He left school early, escaped into advertising and dreamed of making films. In 1976 he wrote, produced and directed his first full-length feature, The Devil’s Playground.
Waiting with the rest of the jury for the diminutive political dynamo to appear, Fred tried his best not to look tall. Putin entered at a brisk pace. “Violence achieves nothing,” declared the former KGB officer. “Culture is vital.”
Lunch was served and speeches made. Schepisi, introduced to the work of Sergei Eisenstein at 18, spoke of his thrill at having made a film in one of the crucibles of world cinema. Putin explained that he was headed for the US for a summit with George W Bush at Kennebunkport. Schepisi, who had just finished filming Empire Falls in Maine, said he could recommend a good restaurant in the area. This offer lost something in translation. Putin doubted he’d be at a loose end. When Schepisi commented on an exhibition of work by a Russian photographer, Putin thought he wanted a souvenir snap of their get-together.
Despite these stumbles, the man who turned Meryl Streep into Lindy Chamberlain found the scourge of the Chechens to be charming, articulate and well informed: “I felt like Chamberlain being schmoozed by Hitler at Munich.”
It was not a great year for Russian cinema. The festival prize went to Travelling with Pets. Vladimir Putin’s love of culture remains undiminished. Fred Schepisi has recently come to grips with Patrick White.