Arkady Strugatsky

Working with Andrei on the Script of Stalker

The following is an excerpt from: Arkady Strugatsky, As I Saw Him, translated by Sergei Sossinsky. Published in About Andrei Tarkovsky, Memoirs and Biographies, Progress Publishers, Moscow 1990. ISBN 5-01-001973-6 (also available in Russian, see this site's Bibliography section).

I think the following happened in July 1978. Andrei Tarkovsky was shooting Stalker near Tallin, and I was with him as one of the authors of the screenplay. Andrei would return from the set exhausted, and we would sit down to work on the screenplay. The episodes that proved to be unneeded were crossed out and needed ones were thought up. Dialogues which had become unimportant were edited out and important ones planned. Occasionally we argued and attempted to reach agreement deep into the night, but when I got up in the morning Andrei was already at the set.

Remember that, until that tragic July, Andrei had not seen a single piece he had shot. The film was awaiting its turn to be developed at Mosfilm Studios. I remember being amazed and even frightened: it seemed to me that he was working in the dark and that this would inevitably result in trouble. And so it happened, only the trouble came from completely unexpected quarters.

When the film was being developed, the machine went haywire and the film was largely spoiled. It seems that the film of Siberiade by Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky was also damaged. But Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky suffered purely moral loss. Either the damage was minor or they compensated the material losses, the film, budget, etc., including the deadline. I don't remember exactly. I was busy with other matters.

Andrei found himself in dire straits with virtually no way out. As a writer I understood his state very well, it was the same as (if not worse than) a writer losing the only manuscript of his new work with no rough copies left. But the circumstances were even worse. Half of the film Andrei had been allotted had been lost and two thirds of the money. The State Committee for Cinematography politely but firmly refused to make up for these losses. It was suggested that he regard the spoiled film as properly developed and continue shooting the picture, and when he refused outright, it was hinted that all the losses would be generously written off as being a result of a creative setback provided, of course, he drop the picture and set about to work on something else.

These were truly grim days. Andrei went about looking black as a cloud. The team was numb with horror. Of course I was also distressed, since I presumptiously ascribed the troubles to the usual bad luck of the Strugatsky brothers. On one of those days I told Andrei this, but he brushed me off fiercly and impatiently.

And all of a sudden - many things happened suddenly with Andrei - more than a week after the incident, Andrei dropped in brightened up. He seemed to be walking on a cloud. He beamed. Frankly speaking, I took fright when I saw him. He entered the room, glued himself to the wall with his legs, back and head - he was the only person who could do it, I tried once but failed miserably - stared at the ceiling and said emphatically:

"Tell me, Arkady, aren't you tired of rewriting your Picnic for the tenth time?"

"I am," said I cautiously and quite truthfully.

"There you are," he said and nodded kindly. "And what would you say if we make Stalker a two-part film?"

I failed to understand what it was all about right away. Actually it was quite simple. They would allot money and film and shift the deadline for the second part. Adding this to what was left from the original, it would be possible to save the day. And another important circumstance: by that time I intuitively felt what was obvious to Andrei as an experienced professional: his intentions, changed and multiplied in the process of the work, were too severly restricted within the limits of one part.

"Would they allow it?" I asked almost in a whisper.

Andrei only glanced at me and turned away. I learned later that a few days earlier he had sent an inquiry (or demand?) to the relevant quarters and there, hesitating and grating their teeth, they granted permission.

"Now then," he said in a matter-of-factly tone. "Go to your Boris in Leningrad, and I want to have the new screenplay in ten days. For two parts. Never mind the surroundings. Only write the dialogues and short comments. And the most important thing: Stalker must be quite different."

"What should he be like?" I was taken aback.

"How should I know? But I don't want that bandit of yours in the screenplay."

I sighed and pulled myself together. What could I do? I don't know how he worked with other screenplay authors, but with us it went as follows. I bring a new episode. It had been discussed the day before. "I don't know, you're the author, not I. Go and revise it." I would revise it. I attempt to catch the tone and intention as I understand it. "It's even worse now. Revise it." I sigh and trudge along to the typewriter. "Now that's something. But not what we need. You lost it in this phrase. Try and elaborate on it." I stare dumbly at "this phrase." It seems a phrase like any other. I might not have written it, even. But I go and revise again. He reads and rereads for a long time, his moustache bristling. Then he says hesitantly: "Well, it'll do for the time being. At least we have something to start on..., and then we can rewrite this dialogue." It's like a bone in my throat. Make it conform to the episode before and the episode after. "Doesn't it conform?" "No, it doesn't." "What don't you like in the dialogue?" "I don't know, just revise it. Have it ready by tomorrow night." This was how we worked on a screenplay which had long been accepted and approved at all official levels.

"What should Stalker be like in the new screenplay?"

"I don't know, you're the author, not I."

I see. Actually, I could see nothing, but that was the usual thing now. But even before the work started it became clear to my brother and me: if Tarkovsky makes mistakes, they are brilliant mistakes and worth a dozen correct decision by ordinary directors.

On a sudden urge I asked:

"Listen, Andrei, what do you need the science fiction in the film for? Let's throw it out."

He smirked: just like a cat that has eaten its owner's parrot.

"There! You suggested it, not I! I've wanted it for a long time, only was afraid of suggesting it, so you wouldn't take offense."

To make a long story short, next morning I was flying to Leningrad. I won't tell you how it was with Boris, because I'm writing not about us but about Andrei Tarkovsky. We wrote not a science fiction screenplay but a parable (if we understand a parable as a certain anecdote whose personae are typical of the age and carriers of typical ideas and behaviour). A fashionable Writer and a prominent Scientist go into the Zone where their most cherished dreams might come true, and they are led by the Apostle of the new faith, a kind of ideologist.

I returned to Tallinn ten days later. Andrei met me at the airport. We embraced. He asked: "Have you brought it?" I nodded, trying not to shake. At home he took the manuscript, retreated into the next room in silence and shut the door firmly behind him. The wives began to look after me, offered brandy (it was my birthday). Naturally, we couldn't eat anything.

Some time passed, perhaps an hour.

The door opened and Andrei came in. His face expressed nothing, only his moustache bristled as it always did when he was immersed in his thoughts.

He looked at us absent-mindedly, came up to the table, caught a piece of food with a fork, put it in his mouth and chewed on it. Then he said staring above our heads:

"The first time in my life I have my own screenplay."  end block

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