Building up Hope
Director Elena Hazanova tells DQ about making Russian drama Hope, an action-espionage series about a wife and mother living a double life as a brutal and efficient contract killer.
Meet Hope. She’s a loving wife and mother who unconditionally dotes on her family by day. But by night, she lives a double life as Russia’s most successful, brutal and ruthlessly efficient contract killer.
Hope is the main character in a series of the same name, produced by Start Studios for Russian streamer Start. Set between the 1990s and the present, 16-part action drama stars Victoria Isakova in the titular role, with Elena Hazanova behind the camera. It is written by Eldar Velikoretskiy, Ekaterina Suvortseva and Ruslan Doshaynov, and Yellow, Black & White is the international distributor.
Here, director Hazanova tells DQ about the central character, working alongside the writers and showcasing a side of Moscow not seen on screen before, while Yellow, Black & White’s Daria Bondarenko explains Hope’s international appeal.
How would you describe the story of Hope?
Hazanova: It’s a story of a woman who had to make a difficult choice 18 years ago. Today, she can’t stand living a double life anymore and wants to escape.
Tell us about the main character and how Victoria Isakova brings her to life.
Hazanova: Hope is a strong woman who’s led a double life for the past 18 years. This level of deception has required an enormous amount of management, emotional resilience and control, which Hope has adapted to a normal way of life. After decades, Hope’s dualistic lifestyle comes under pressure and begins to unravel. Hope can’t accept or unite the two very different sides to her personality, which raises questions in her mind to who she really is.
The producer, Alexey Trotsuk, had Victoria Isakova in mind for Hope from the very beginning. She’s one of Russia’s most revered actresses and has the ability to capture and portray Hope’s internal psychological battle in a visceral way. I had recently worked with Victoria on the film One Breath and we had a strong working relationship with a similar artistic outlook, and I thought it was a great idea.
How was the series developed?
Hazanova: First we shot a two-episode pilot. [After we got the green light], the writers wrote the whole season and we started to shoot all the episodes.
Tell us about the writing process.
Hazanova: Initially we had a writers room with three fantastic writers who wrote the first draft of the script, and then we worked on it together, ironing out any issues. Only then did we do a first read-through with the actors. After a few read-throughs, we could see areas where we could tighten it up. Finally, we arrived at the final versions, which seemed good to all of us.
What themes does the show discuss and how?
Hazanova: The main theme is the acceptance of yourself; to recognise your flaws and your strengths and accept yourself despite them.
How does the series play out across the 1990s and the present?
Hazanova: The narrative switches between young Hope – the circumstances that led to her becoming an assassin and how that manifests – and adult Hope, who lives in the present and is trying to manage and escape her double life.
Does the series have a particular visual style?
Hazanova: From the very beginning of this project, DOP Alexey Zaikove and I wanted to create a unique, separate world for Hope. We’d been inspired by comic characters and Marvel and DC, which create worlds that are familiar enough to feel real but different enough to almost be a character in themselves. This also gives a lot of flexibility to the production.
Where was the show filmed and how do locations play into the story?
Hazanova: The show was filmed in Moscow, but every scene is different. We tried to show a different side to Moscow, not the one that we are used to seeing in films and series.
What were the challenges in making the series?
Hazanova: The main challenge for me was the genre: action. Hope’s my first action series. In fact, it’s my first experience in this particular genre full stop. And I loved it. Of course, there are some special rules I learned during the making of the show, but it was a great experience and I’d love to do another.
What are your plans for further seasons?
Hazanova: The producers and writers have expressed a desire to create a second and a third season of the series. They are working on it. Watch this space.
How do you think Russian drama is evolving both domestically and on the international scene?
Hazanova: Over the last two years, the appearance of streaming platforms has opened up a new ground for content creation in Russia, which has brought amazing opportunities for the creative industry. At the same time, Russian shows are beginning to make an impact on the international stage and are being noticed and bought by big platforms like Netflix and Amazon. It’s a very new opportunity for Russian production, but an exciting and promising one.
How has the pandemic impacted your work?
Hazanova: This period gave me a great opportunity to focus on writing stories. Writing is quite individual and isolated in many ways. My friends say that nothing really changed for editors or scriptwriters! Basically, I have spent these past few months working on scripts and feature stories. And, of course, we all understand how planning is very precarious at the moment, so I hope that I’ll be able to tell these stories in the following months.
Why might international viewers be drawn to this series?
Hazanova: The story of internal psychological battles and uniting different aspects of your personality is something everyone can relate to, although Hope’s situation is extremely dramatic the themes of this series can touch anyone.
Daria Bondarenko, Yellow Black & White’s exec VP of international business development: There is fascination with Russia of the 1990s. Crime was rife, the country was reputedly lawless and violent, and fortunes could be made and lost almost in the same day. It wasn’t a safe place – but, of course, these situations in society bring great dramatic potential.
Additionally, at the heart of the series there is a very dynamic, strong woman who faces a never-ending series of orders and dilemmas resulting from a single decision she made when she was young. Victoria Isakova is brilliant as the lead actress; she really captures the dilemma Hope faces and the price she has paid for the life she leads.
Most people have made a wrong decision at some point and had to face the consequences. This series really examines choices, consequences and the impact of deception on the psyche.