Publication: TheMovieWaffler 1st December 2017
The Russian screenwriter/actor shares her inspiring story.
Interview by Christopher Marchant
Born in St. Petersburg, Jenia Tanaeva moved with her two young daughters to Los Angeles and began to pursue a career in screenwriting. After years of struggle, her script for See You Soon caught the attention of former Disney CEO Michael Eisner, then entered production by eMotion Entertainment.
Tanaeva also plays the female lead in this classic romance, which stars Liam McIntyre (Spartacus) as a US soccer star in Russia preparing for the 2018 World Cup, and his agent and best friend played by Harvey Keitel (Mean Streets, Reservoir Dogs, Youth).
What is the background, and the influences of, See You Soon?
I love fairytales. We usually read them to the kids, so they believe in the good and in love. See You Soon is a fairytale for the big girls, and single mums like myself; sometimes they need a fairytale even more than the little girls. When you’ve had heartbreak it takes way more to start believing in love and that everything could be great again.
There was a stage in my life where I got divorced, and had two little girls. I know women that have children but their relationship didn’t work and they were in the state of mind that ‘I’m with a kid now and I can’t truly have a life full of love, liquor and family because I already have a child’.
But I’m a big lover of beautiful love stories like these fairytales and films like An Affair To Remember, and this is all how the story was came into my head. A Cinderella story where Cinderella is this time a single mum.
It took me three months to write the script. Everybody said that it was horrible, and it’s not possible to use it. I took me another two and a half years to rewrite it, to structure it properly, to put it in a good shape so a movie could be created.
I had a co-writer; he would come to my place every day, we would sit together. He would help me structure it, teach me how to write the script properly. To me it was so difficult writing the first act, being told it’s got to be 20 pages shorter, thinking how? We can’t throw that out, it is extremely important information. I felt that you have to make these choices, but as they say it’s ‘like killing babies’ to get rid of certain stuff.
While doing this I was raising my two little girls in LA and getting adjusted to a new country. My girls didn’t speak a word of English when they came to the US.
I was also going to acting classes the whole time I was working on the script. First to Eric Morris, who’s 86 now and opened his first acting workshop when he was 26, a true legend of method acting. He worked withJack Nicholson and a lot of major stars have been to his school. This gave me a fantastic chance to improve my acting skills. I was having to combine the acting with making money on my regular job, working on the script, and being a mother.
What was the regular job?
I was working for a Russian company arranging events worldwide. I was travelling a lot, but that gave me the opportunity to go where I wanted to live. I wasn’t tied to one place; I could move around, spend time and work making the dream come true.
Did that influence the international feel of the script, with a Russian setting and American lead?
Yes, I think so. I’m very well travelled, and there are certainly places I wanted to show in the movie. I always felt it would be so great if I could see St. Petersburg on the big screen; an audience could see how unique the city is, and how beautiful its White Nights are (a time of luminous night skies and festival celebrations). There is a lot of love for that place.
I knew the city so well, I knew where and how I wanted it. People said you can’t film here, you can’t get the permit for this place, you can’t go there. I got an appointment with a head of the St Petersburg cultural committee and explained what I was trying to do, and he was impressed enough to give the permits to go ahead and do it. It was very special to be able to put all those most majestic places on the screen.
Which places in particular in St. Petersburg did you get a chance to film?
Palace Square, one of the most breathtaking squares in the world. We were also able to get the Palace Bridge on camera, and one of the most important scenes in the film takes place there. Also the Spilled Blood Cathedral, which was built on the place where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated.
In St. Petersburg there’s a gorgeous new stadium, and security there is crazy. It was not completely finished and everyone was really careful. They let us in there and film our scenes that had something to do with soccer.
Speaking of soccer, there’s a snag that’s come up with See You Soon. The lead is a US soccer star, but the US didn’t end up qualifying for the World Cup?
Yes, true! But soccer is still the most watched sport in the world. In America it’s still getting started, with all the big problems the young guys have playing American football and now there is a vague movement of parents, mothers and schools to try and make soccer more popular with young kids.
Plus it’s a fiction. We could still give American sport and American young guys a good idea, a picture, an idea of being a soccer star and that career and I hope that it can have a good influence on that as well.
You’re starring alongside Harvey Keitel, who agreed to give another first-time filmmaker, Quentin Tarantino, a boost by starring in Reservoir Dogs 25 years ago. What’s it like working with such an influential actor?
I was overwhelmed when I heard that he liked the part and he wants to do it. When you’re a first time writer, it’s hard to believe that what you created could attract such heavyweight actors.
The first day, when we were filming in Romania, a person came to me and said ‘Harvey wants to meet that woman who wrote the script.’ And I’m like, ‘uh-oh!’ So I came to his trailer and he said ‘how did you write this character? He’s so much like me.’
I came to really like him. I told him about my process, we talked about St. Petersburg. He spends most of his screen time with Liam (McIntyre) and I only had one scene with Harvey. But he made me feel very powerful on set, he was a great person making other people feel great too. It was a huge honour.
For aspiring screenwriters looking for a big break, what advice would you give?
You have to really love and build your story. You have to know what that story is going to bring to people. There has to be a message, whatever the genre it has to have something that we feel could make others think and inspire them to change and become better, take some action.
This gives your material a lot of energy that other people feel when they read your material. There are way more chances to make a film out of it.
Any future projects you’re already thinking about?
I have some stories cooking in my head, but no script yet. I was also a producer on See You Soon, so it’s taken so much of my time and energy. We plan to finish post-production in February for entry in the Berlin Film Festival. So once that is done I will start working on other projects. Right now this is my baby and I’m giving all that I can to it.
See You Soon is set for release in spring 2018