The Making of Doctor Zhivago
Interpreting a classic for today
Behind the Scenes | Interviews
Behind the scenes
Adapted by prolific British screenwriter Andrew Davies and directed by Italian filmmaker Giacomo Campiotti, Masterpiece Theatre's dramatization of Doctor Zhivago breathes new life into an epic story of love during the Russian revolution.
Set against the tumultuous background of World War I and the Russian revolution, Doctor Zhivago tells the gripping story of the anguished poet and physician Dr. Yury Zhivago. Torn between his love for his wife Tonya and his passion for Lara, his life is thrown into turmoil by social forces which change his world forever.
"Zhivago is a thrilling, moving, love story about two people caught in terrible times," says Davies. "The Great War and the Russian revolution... Most people know it through the David Lean film of the sixties -- but it was exciting to go back to the book and find so much fresh material there that never made it into the film, which people can see now for the first time. Cinema can give us spectacle -- but the intimacy of television can let us to get closer to the heart of the relationships."
Campiotti hopes his version of Doctor Zhivago doesn't remain completely faithful to the book. "It's impossible. It's such a massive piece that you have to betray it in some way. I hope to have been faithful to the spirit and soul of the book as it's very visual and there are a lot of images we wanted to keep. One problem is that English-speaking people know the Lean movie better then the Pasternak book. So the idea was to start with the book and to try and put some of the Russian soul that is missing from the earlier movie into my film. We know Russia much better today then when Lean first showed his film. Russia was a mystery then, a forbidden place, but today we know more about the kind of country Russia was. So, in our version, we have tried to have a more authentic ethnic background."
Campiotti's Lara and Yury are both younger than their counterparts in the Lean film. "At the beginning of the novel, they are teenagers, so it was very important for us to keep the idea that these are young people ready to embark on life. Yury comes from quite a rich family and is not expecting anything will change. But when the Revolution comes... It's a little bit like what happened after September 11th -- after something like that, life changes completely. If younger people see the story now, I think they will already have an understanding of some of the emotions."
Other key elements were Campiotti's decision to use real locations, and not sets built in a studio and to portray the love scenes in a more explicit way then Lean did.
"Today there is still some taboo about sexuality. On TV we see thousands of people being killed close up but we are not supposed to speak about sex. In the book, there are some very strong images and I tried, without offending anyone, to show how love could be wonderful or horrible -- like it is in human life. We have tried to show the depth of love because this is a million-dollar love story. The love between Yury and Lara is much more important than the war they are living through."
The story of Doctor Zhivago takes place against a vast landscape and spans every season from deep winter to high summer. The first headache for the production team was where to find the snow. Filming in Russia was too expensive, as were Norway and Finland. Canada was an option until the weather office in Alberta admitted that they had only had one inch of snow the previous year. In the colder Canadian provinces, the team was told it would be too cold to run the needed equipment.
Filming was scheduled to begin in March and after consulting the weather maps, Slovakia was chosen with a 95% chance of snow. There was a blizzard two days before shooting started. But as Keira Knightley explains, things did not go as planned. "The first day in Slovakia was fabulous," she said. "We had a blizzard and I have never seen snow like that. It was perfect for shooting but unfortunately the sun came out the next day, melted all the snow, and it didn't snow again! We had to use fake snow!"
The production team ended up with 1000 bags of artificial snow.
"We had trucks going up and down the Slovakian mountains the night before filming to bring down tons of real snow because the troikas couldn't run on paper snow. We even had two icemakers, but they turned out to be useless because it was too cold for them to work!" explained producer Anne Pivcevic.
In the end, 570 bags of paper snow, 284 bags of cellulose dust, 60 cans of frost crystal aerosol spray, 10 bags of "snowdown potato starch snow", ten 25-liter drums of "snowboy solution" and 2 snow blankets were used.
Hugh Warren, co-producer, said, "It was a difficult time for the team. We had all the expense of going to Slovakia as well as the trouble of crossing the border, and then there was no snow. It was more than a little ironic."
Anne Pivcevic agreed. "We had to be very bold about changing landscapes with fake snow. One day we had to film a group of partisans arriving at a ruined village in the depths of winter. Except we were filming in May in hot sunshine on a bright green field outside Prague! We used snow candles to create the effect of drifting snowflakes and we have done work in post-production to make the scene look more wintry. I'm pretty confident we'll get away with it!"
Another important feature of Doctor Zhivago is the costumes. More than 3000 costumes and 35,000 individual items of clothing were made by costume designer Annie Symons and her team. 500 of the costumes were made from scratch.
Two of the principal characters (Hans Matheson and Keira Knightley) had at least 90 costume combinations each, and Hans had doubles for all his costumes. Six other principal characters had an average of 15 changes. The other 73 speaking parts also required changes.
Symons explained, "There were times when we had to get up at 3:30 in the morning to work in the pitch dark, freezing cold or pouring rain with costumes which weighed about 90kg each having been soaked with mud and rain from the previous day's battle scenes. But because of the heart-attack inducing amounts of coffee we drank, we got to the end of each day feeling quite pleased with ourselves! One of the most curious aspects of our job is that we spent weeks producing beautiful costumes which we then had to spend further weeks "distressing" so that they looked aged and lived in. One member of our team grated a beautiful eau de nil linen smock almost to death and we had to tidy it up again -- it was supposed to be five years old not 50!"
Symons and her crew would get soldiers dressed and tell them to literally go and roll in the mud. "Which is all great fun until you are told the schedule has changed and those uniforms have to be cleaned and dried ready for the next morning's parade ground scene!"
During the preparation and shooting of Doctor Zhivago the costume department tallied their supplies:
Ultimately, the success of Doctor Zhivago rests on the strength of its foundation -- in this case on a strong script by Andrew Davies. "...Reading Zhivago was a delight," he said. "It was also a relief to find so much in the book that hadn't found its way into the first movie and could make great drama -- like Zhivago's father committing suicide and how Komarovsky was involved in that. Then I took a deep breath, did an outline of 15 to 20 pages, and then I felt we had something to work with.
At first it was daunting because the book is reckoned to be a masterpiece and the film is a great movie and one that I admire very much. Robert Bolt is the king of epic screenplay writers in my book. But as I got further into the book I kept thinking that I didn't agree with Robert Bolt about how to tell the story... and I began to feel much more excited.
Zhivago is a great love story and, watching it again, I thought the film does the spectacle really well. Rather surprisingly, it also explains the politics very well, but I thought it could do a better job on the relationships. It's probably a bit controversial, but I thought we could say more about Lara and Yury and how they get together; about Lara's extraordinary situation at the beginning of the story and Yury having a dreadful start to his life with his parents dying. None of these things really came out in the movie, but they are there in the book.
I think that if they look at both versions now, people will probably think that this version in a lot of ways works better for our time. It's more contemporary. I think they'll find the performances are more subtle yet speak to us in our time. Maybe my script will seem out of date in 20 years time because a lot of them do, but watching the original film, I think the central performances look stilted and dated now, which is a mean and controversial thing to say... Julie Christie looks very 1960s girl I think.
Yes, we have some love scenes but we are not trying to be salacious or pornographic. In fact they are very tender and moving and bring tears to your eyes. People will remember what first love feels like. That's what I hope anyway.
The first couple of weeks after Giacomo joined this project were horrendous for me because Zhivago has always been one of his very favorite books. He has always dreamed about filming it and has his own interpretation in his head. I can actually remember thinking after one long, long day, where we just didn't agree about a single thing, that it wasn't going to work -- it's either got to be him or me. Somehow, we arrived at a compromise and I have almost forgotten what we were arguing about now, as now we are both very pleased with the script. I always knew that he would make it look beautiful because he has got a poet's vision and now, having seen the rushes and some cut footage, I feel like he is my favourite director of all time. Everything is delightful now.
There is always a tendency to say that the one you have most recently finished writing is your favourite, because I always hate the one that I'm struggling with the first draft of. But Zhivago is going to be a really special one. When I see the rough-cut footage, I think this is just not like television, even the best of television, it's like a great movie. It's got that poetic vision, scope and scale. Maybe not so much my script, but Giacomo Campiotti's direction makes it extraordinary."
Italian filmmaker Giacomo Campiotti (Il Tempo dell'amore -- English title A Time To Love) directed. Campiotti began his career in the theatre, assisting legendary Italian movie director Mario Monicelli at the Teatro di Piazza. With the support of film director Ermanno Olmi, Giacomo was part of the Ipotesi Cinema, an organization of young filmmakers.
Screenwriter Andrew Davies has many previous adaptations to his credit, including Pride and Prejudice, The Way We Live Now and Bridget Jones's Diary. He wrote the Banff-winning contemporary drama Othello (Best Program of 2002 and Best Made-for-TV Movie) and most recently adapted Daniel Deronda. He also wrote Masterpiece Theatre's Warrior Queen.
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