David Bezmozgis’ drama Natasha tells a story of a Russian teenager’s arrival in North Toronto, the heart of the Russian Jewish community. Her presence has far-reaching effects, as the community reaches out to her but she chooses to carve out her own path. She wreaks havoc on the tightknit community, to say the least. Her prior life in Russia was sketchy at best, but her behaviour in Toronto is beyond the pale. Natasha moves in on her mother’s friends as a way of hurting her, and turns their world upside down. Sasha K. Gordon, an American actress of Russian descent plays the mysterious Natasha opposite Alex Ozerov who plays her cousin Mark. Bezmozgis, the writer and director spoke with us about this complex coming-of-age story.
David, this is a stunning character study of Natasha and yet she is only seen through someone else’s eyes. We don’t understand the extent of her manipulations until he does. Did you think there was an underlying malevolence in her?
I think I have a more sympathetic view of her. She does what she does not out of malevolence but out of conviction. She’s engaged in a war with her mother. Many teenagers feel like they’re at war with their parents, but Natasha’s rules of engagement are more extreme. So are her mother’s. The mystery at the heart of the film is which of them is telling the truth.
She has a real ability to find people’s weak spots and use them..
Let’s not forget Natasha’s own vulnerability. She doesn’t escape unscathed. Don’t you believe that the feelings between her and Mark were genuine? Don’t you think her attraction to the Berman’s normal home life was sincere? If the film works, it’s because it’s not so easy to point to any one character as the villain.
Everyone has a hand in this drama. Some because of good intentions and some misplaced. Some because of self-deception, a reluctance to see other people and themselves as they truly are. And aren’t we all guilty of that? When things go wrong in our lives, don’t we recognize that we were also somehow culpable? Maybe that’s what it means to grow up, to come of age. Maybe that’s what Mark learns in the end.
Is this is any way your story?
It’s my story only insofar as I grew up in this kind of community, the Russian-Jewish community in Toronto. The rhythms and attitudes of the Berman family aren’t that dissimilar from my own. Not that dissimilar, also, from anyone who’s from this background, and not too dissimilar from that of most immigrant families, as I’ve heard from people who’ve read the original story and seen the film at festivals.
Sasha K. Gordon as Natasha is insanely terrific in this complex role. How did you find her?
Yes, she is gifted. I think the entire ensemble was strong. But Sasha was a real discovery. This was her first film role. I wish I could say we found her, but the truth is she found us. It’s only by a stroke of luck that we cast her. She happened to visit the office of our executive producer. She asked what he had in the works. He happened to have a film about a Russian girl that was desperately looking for a Russian actress. She returned to New York and put herself on tape. Pretty much from that moment, the role was hers.
Alex Ozerov has the gift of nuance. He has to operate on a multiple levels, with her, with family and with friends and not allow them to collide.
Unlike Sasha, I knew of Alex’s work. I’d seen him in a film called Blackbird and was really impressed by his performance. It was a very different role but Alex was magnetic in it. I basically had him in mind for the role from the time we started to cast. He’s an excellent film actor. So much of what he does in Natasha is reactive, and that’s incredibly difficult. Alex has the intelligence and the emotional nuance to pull it off. But also the energy and the charisma to operate on those more dynamic levels, as the role demands.
This quiet neighbourhood of modest homes and apartment blocks takes on an unusual piquancy, a reminder that behind closed doors, there are stories. Please comment.
I think that’s it exactly. Natasha is about a community and a part of Toronto that’s rarely if ever depicted. But there’s plenty of drama there. Plenty of drama behind the suburban façade, as anyone who’s lived in the suburbs knows. Natasha just offers its own particular twist, both comic and tragic, in the Russian style.
You shot in a neighbourhood in Toronto, which one? How was that logistically?
We shot mostly in the north end of Toronto, known in the local idiom as Bathurst and Steeles. We also shot north of the city in Thornhill and King City. There are some scenes downtown too: on the subway, on the ferry to Toronto Island, at the Art Gallery—but these serve as counterpoint. I know this neighborhood well. It’s where I grew up. Many of the locations were donated by friends and family.
Often, we just walked into a space and shot as is, without changing too much. The film couldn’t have been made any other way. We didn’t have the budget to recreate much although a great deal of work went into creating Mark’s basement by my production designer, Peter Cosco and his team. The guiding principle for the film was to be authentic. It was as true for the casting as it was for the locations. Our big get—and here the credit goes to my producer, Bill Marks—was convincing Pearson Airport to let us shoot a scene in the international arrivals area as people were actually arriving, their friends and family waiting to greet them.
I’m working on an adaptation of my last novel, The Betrayers, and some other film and TV projects.