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A film based on a novel about a 1930s writer gains surprise popularity in Russia

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The film "The Master And Margarita" has been a big hit in Russia. It's based on Mikhail Bulgakov's novel of the same name about a popular 1930s Moscow writer suddenly canceled by Stalin's Soviet regime. Almost 4 million Russians have seen the movie, but it has been criticized by supporters of today's Putin regime. And there can be consequences for that. "The Master And Margarita" is now searching for a distributor in the U.S. It is directed by Michael Lockshin, who previously directed the 2020 Russian film "The Silver Skates." He joined us from our Culver City studios earlier this week, and we asked him how he felt about the film becoming so popular.

MICHAEL LOCKSHIN: You know, I was working on it for the past - over four years. And up until a few months before it came out, I didn't know if it would come out. And a year ago, I didn't know if it would be finished. So it's kind of a miracle for me.

SIMON: But I gather there's been some what I'll just refer to as pointed reaction, also, from some people in Russia.

LOCKSHIN: Oh, yeah. Well, that's something we - I mean, after the movie came out - you know, a movie usually comes out on the Thursday - the first couple of days was just, you know, great reactions from the critics and audiences and better than I could have expected. But many people were pointing out the timeliness of the story and how much it commented - even though it's about the 1930s and Stalin's purges in many ways - how much it commented on what's happening in Russia today. And this sort of was picked up in the next couple of days by Russian propagandists.

It started with just a few, and then quickly, that kind of blew up into all the top propagandists on TV channels sort of talking about this. And then even in the State Duma - which is, you know, like, the Congress - congressmen speaking about this movie, calling to ban it, calling me a criminal and terrorist, etc. And this was all very, a, unexpected and nerve-wracking, to put it mildly.

SIMON: Well, I mean, I've - this - I don't need to point out to you, Mr. Lockshin, to be called a criminal and a terrorist in Russia - I mean, this doesn't just get you a bad day on a social media platform. That can have consequences, can't it?

LOCKSHIN: It can if I was in Russia, definitely, or in countries that have extradition sort of laws with Russia. But I was in the U.S. I have been living here for many years and had come back to edit the movie. I shot the movie - it should be said that I shot the movie before Russia's invasion to Ukraine in 2021. And I came back to LA in October of 2021 - that's about four or five months before the war - to edit. And I just started editing when the war happened. I haven't been back to Russia since.

SIMON: Well, let me ask you about the film as a film, too. The premise at the heart of the story is, of course, the writer, the master, writes a play about Pontius Pilot. Why would the Soviet state in the 1930s see a play about Pontius Pilate as saying anything about Stalin's Russia?

LOCKSHIN: You know, there's a saying in Russia, and it goes like this - that everything changes in a few years in Russia, but nothing changes in a hundred years. And in this sense, I think that Bulgakov was going for a similar sort of, you know, metaphorical analysis of historical facts. And analyzing in a historical way, sort of Pontius Pilate's decision to execute Jeshua - that's what the Jesus character is called in the book - was a way for him to speak about the purges that were happening in the 1930s.

SIMON: What about the argument we hear in the film from the head of the writers union, I believe, who says...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MASTER AND MARGARITA")

EVGENIY KNYAZEV: (As Berlioz, speaking in Russian).

(APPLAUSE)

SIMON: ..."Look, our task is to help the writer channel his talents to help working people." Now, you've been in the U.S. a few years. There are people in the U.S. who believe that the task of everyone is to advance certain goals in their job, whatever it is, aren't there?

LOCKSHIN: Well, you know, that's why I think the book and the movie is about Russia and authoritarianism in its extreme form. But in a wider sense, it's about artistic freedom, per se. And I think that the questions of the relationship of an artist and social pressures can be extrapolated and seen in the context of many different cultures, including the U.S.

SIMON: May I ask you about your family, Mr. Lockshin? I mean, it's an interesting history. Your father, Arnold Lockshin, an American-born scientist, who asked for and received political asylum in the USSR in the 1980s. You were a child, but you grew up Russian?

LOCKSHIN: I was in the U.S. for my first four or five years of my life. And then I went to school in Russia and went to university in Russia, studying psychology. I had a master's in psychology and have since been between sort of Europe, Russia, and then moving to the U.S. about seven years ago.

SIMON: Boy, this is an open-ended question. How do you feel about Russia?

LOCKSHIN: That's - wow. That's a very complex question. I'll try. You know, I always had an outsider's view a little bit on Russia. And having that outsider's viewpoint, I think, always let me see both the beauty that is inherently in there and also the problems that the country had. At the moment, I'm very pessimistic about any prospects of Russia, in any foreseeable few years, to come back to a sort of state that would be accepted in the world. It's - I think it's very dangerous. I think the West should do everything that it can to help Ukraine. And to - ultimately helping Ukraine is to help Russia, in my opinion.

SIMON: So why aren't we seeing this fantastically popular film in U.S. cinemas now?

LOCKSHIN: Well, after the invasion, most Western companies and all the Hollywood studios sort of pulled out of Russia - Universal Pictures, Disney, Warner Brothers - all of them did, and rightly so, I think. At that moment, distribution fell apart. And also, with my antiwar stance, the producers didn't really know if they could finish the movie in Russia. So for a year, in 2022, the movie was in limbo. In 2023, we got - finally got back to finishing it.

And at that point, even though the movie was originally seen as a European movie. It has European stars in it. We shot in Croatia. It had Universal Pictures originally, it is, in essence, a Russian movie. And only now, I think, when the movie came out and proved itself to be the - you know, a movie that has nothing to do with this regime - and I think there's hope that we do get international distribution.

SIMON: What do you hope any American who might be able to see this film, one way or another, eventually, might see there?

LOCKSHIN: I would ask you that since you watched it. But my hope would be - you know, we're talking about politics here, Scott, but actually, the movie - and the book as well - is quite entertaining. It has fantastical settings. It has a mix of real world and a phantasmagorical world, right?

SIMON: And a love story.

LOCKSHIN: And a love story. Yes.

SIMON: Yeah.

LOCKSHIN: And a love story, yeah.

SIMON: A nice one, a good love story. I liked it.

LOCKSHIN: Thank you. Yeah. So that - but all of that is tied into kind of philosophical themes - right? - together with this unique world that's created. And it will be interesting to a wide audience.

SIMON: Michael Lockshin is director of the film "The Master And Margarita," now playing in Russia and searching for an international distributor. Thank you so much for being with us.

LOCKSHIN: Thank you so much, Scott. It was a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF BONOBO'S "DAYS TO COME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.