Writer Roman Kantor and actor Kirill Käro tell DQ about Netflix Russian original To the Lake, a sci-fi thriller about a group of people who risk their lives – and humanity – when a terrifying plague threatens to end civilisation.
Eight-part Russian thriller To the Lake posits a world where a terrifying plague is threatening to end civilisation, following a group of people as they risk their lives in a brutal struggle to survive.
Launching worldwide last month as a Netflix Original, the series stars Mariana Spivak (Loveless), Kirill Käro (Better than Us, The Sniffer) and Anna Mikhalkova (An Ordinary Woman) and comes from Moscow-based 1-2-3 Production. It is directed by Pavel Kostomarov and produced by Valeriy Fedorovich and Evgeniy Nikishov.
Here, scriptwriter Roman Kantor and star Käro tell DQ more about the series and how Russian drama is breaking out on the international stage.
What are the origins of the series?
Kantor: To the Lake is based on Jana Vagner’s novel Vongozero, which started as a series of LiveJournal posts in 2010. Back then, she didn’t conceive of it as a novel; it was a journey she took against the backdrop of a major international news story about an outbreak of a new and lethal disease.
Gradually, these posts attracted readers and online fans, and eventually it developed into a novel. Various companies and TV channels had been planning to adapt it for the screen, until the rights were eventually passed to the producers of To the Lake – and they invited me to start the story afresh. I started developing the script from scratch along with the producers and Russian TV channel TV-3.
Did you take any inspiration from other series or films?
Kantor: My main source of inspiration was Russian films that are standard-bearers for a uniquely Russian approach to science fiction, such as Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker and Konstantin Lopushansky’s films. However, I was particularly influenced by the Russian cinematography of the past 20 or 30 years, specifically motifs from films by Aleksey Balabanov, Andrey Zvyagintsev and Boris Khlebnikov.
In a sense, To the Lake is a kaleidoscope of various characters and stories that have been circulating in Russia’s artistic space in recent years. We actually chose the music in a similar way – the soundtrack to the series is largely popular Russian music that’s mostly unknown in the West. We also tried to combine various layers of Russian culture, both popular and high.
How did you try to make the series unique compared with other shows in the genre?
Kantor: From the start, I knew that what made the novel Vongozero special was its realism and psychological accuracy. It’s less about the virus than it is about relationships between people, which are the main source of dramatic tension. To the Lake has no guys in bright yellow protective gear, wandering zombies or other tropes of the genre that audiences have come to expect. I wanted to rework the genre on Russian soil, so that it didn’t look like a straight borrowing but rather a genuine reconceptualisation of the genre, with Russian sources and Russian characters.
What were the main themes you wanted to include?
Kantor: The virus is itself a metaphor for a society on the brink of collapse. In To the Lake, we imagined what would happen if all the interpersonal tension there is right now, all the buried grievances and conflicts, suddenly began to make itself known in the context of some sort of catastrophe. That could be war or political upheaval, but an epidemic is an even more interesting metaphor.
The series is our study of how people should behave if they want to survive a disaster, of the conflicts they’ll face and the compromises they’ll have to reach in order to feel unified again. The series suggests that the single best survival tactic is to aim for solidarity and unity, while the only outlet for egotism should be altruism.
How do you compare the show to current events, where the whole world is battling a virus, though not on the scale of the virus in the series?
Kantor: When we were writing this series, almost six years ago now, the thought that this kind of thing could actually happen in one way or another didn’t cross our minds. That said, while preparing to start writing, I read a great deal of literature and popular-science articles about epidemics, and even back then, I was horrified. Never before has humankind faced the kind of epidemiological risks it’s facing now, given increasing population density, the development of transportation networks and the connectedness of the entire inhabited world.
Of course, if you compare To the Lake and what has actually happened, our virus is far more lethal than Covid-19, but [Covid-19’s] relatively low fatality rate actually played a nasty trick on us: it was because it seemed relatively benign that scientists and the international community didn’t respond as quickly and ruthlessly as they should have done. If they had, many lives could have been saved.
Kirill, tell us about your character, Sergey.
Käro: He is an ordinary, average kind of person who finds himself in a horrendously difficult situation he can’t find a way out of. Sergey is not strong or determined. He generally doesn’t make decisions: other people do that for him. He even leaves his family behind – not because he decides to do it, but because his wife Ira finds a condom in his pocket that was planted there by his new mistress, Anna.
The series opens with an act of heroism he performs: he saves all his family members, bringing his past and his present together in the process. But in doing so, he condemns himself to the misery of attempting to reconcile the irreconcilable. Throughout the series, he goes backwards and forwards between his two women and his two children, his birth son and his adopted son. Even worse, they end up stuck with Sergey’s dad, whom Sergey detests, and the family of his neighbour.
Against the backdrop of a global catastrophe, Sergey has to come to terms with his own catastrophe. He has to try to save his family and himself as part of that family – he has to save his love.
Why were you drawn to playing the character?
Käro: Sergey is an ordinary person who doesn’t stand out from the crowd. Insane, extraordinary circumstances force him to become a hero, although he’s no hero and never will be, as he continues to prove. That’s what drew me to him.
Roman, what is your writing process?
Kantor: Sometimes I write scripts alone, and sometimes with other writers, but there’s never more than one or two of us. In the case of To the Lake, I wrote the pilot episode and the second episode myself. Once the project was off the ground, I was joined by my co-author Aleksey Karaulov. We wrote four episodes together, and the others I worked on alone.
How did you work with director Pavel Kostomarov to bring the series to life?
Kantor: Pavel really contributed a lot to the script, including new plotlines and overarching themes. We did a painstaking job with the script: practically every episode had 10 or sometimes even 15 drafts. Next, we’d hold read-throughs with the actors, using their improvisation as inspiration for changes to the dialogue. On the plus side, we’d then film everything almost exactly as written, sometimes without altering so much as a single line.
Käro: I always try to make sure I’m in dialogue with directors, listening to them, taking their points on board, making suggestions or sharing my doubts. That’s how Pavel and I did it, too. He observed all the actors closely and worked with them patiently to get the results he wanted. We really were a creative team – a gang!
What were the biggest challenges you faced?
Kantor: While we were working on the scripts, the hardest thing was to keep a balance between the drama of the characters’ relationships on one hand and the thrills and spills of the genre on the other. We tried to fuse these elements to stop them getting in each other’s way, so that there’d be something for every viewer and so audiences could really form a relationship with the characters.
As for the production stage, Pavel insisted on the series looking as realistic as possible, and that was the source of the main obstacles we faced during filming. Almost everything was filmed on location, not in studios. In many of the scenes shot in cars, for example, the actors were actually driving the cars at the time.
Pavel also prefers to avoid obvious artificial lighting and over-saturation, and filming everything while there was still natural light was always a bit of a challenge. During Russian winters, the days are very short, which is one of the reasons why pretty much everyone prefers not to shoot exteriors at that time of year.
Karö: The series was shot in extreme weather conditions, but that proved to be the least challenging part for us. We were warmly dressed, the trailers were well heated and we even had foot warmers – thanks to our lovely wardrobe supervisors!
A far bigger challenge was to make all the twists and turns of the plot seem warranted. It’s one brutal scene after another. Just when the characters think they’ve dealt with an issue, another one pops up. Roman and the guys from 1-2-3 Production never let up.
How was the series affected by Covid-19?
Kantor: Filming had finished long before the pandemic began, but Covid-19 did have an interesting impact on what happened to the series post-release. To the Lake came out in Russia before anyone had heard of Covid-19, and attracted some viewers and fans but didn’t generate a great deal of excitement.
When the first wave of the pandemic hit, though, To the Lake started garnering more viewers. It got picked up by a new audience who, in different circumstances, would never have watched it or even heard about it. Then, articles and posts started appearing about the links between the series and what was going on in real life. So one way or another, it became a sort of commentary on current events, although it wasn’t originally intended that way, and eventually became something of a phenomenon.
Covid-19 has had a massive impact on the second season of To the Lake, which we’re currently developing and writing. After all, global pandemics used to seem like something from sci-fi or the olden days, but Covid-19 is most definitely going to be part of our history. Many generations are going to grow up with the knowledge and memory of the times we’re living through. This period is going to make its mark on the cultural and public consciousness.
Why do you think the series has proven so popular with viewers around the world?
Kantor: There are a few things going on here. The first is this unexpected overlap with the lived experience of people across the world. The epidemic is everywhere, in every country; it’s what people across the globe are thinking about, and the source of the fears they’re struggling with.
Secondly, the series has characters who audiences have really taken to their hearts. My sense is that the characters turned out genuinely quite universal, despite being very Russian. Audiences have been able to relate to them and feel a sense of connection to them.
Our series is also unlike most other works in its genre, and it’s precisely that sense of difference and alterity that draws audiences. To the Lake is different in many ways, including the attention it pays to the characters’ psyches and their inner worlds, which is characteristic of Russian literature and of people’s conceptions of it outside of Russia.
Russian dramas are starting to break out internationally. How do you think Russian drama has evolved?
Kantor: Russian TV series production has really taken off in the past five or six years. Before then, it would have been difficult to imagine Russian series going global and appearing on international streaming platforms, but now that’s more and more common.
There are a few factors at play. One of the big things is that we now have a group of people – screenwriters, directors, cinematographers and producers – who, through their work with advertising, video production, documentary films and feature films, have achieved a degree of mastery they’ve used to create high-end contemporary TV series.
While Russian dramas might initially have tried to imitate or straightforwardly copy American dramas and popular formats, there’s now a trend for original works that actually reflect our country’s culture and its focus on the human psyche.
Karö: I’ve starred in Sniffer, Better than Us and To the Lake. They have quite a lot in common. While these shows depict fantastical situations, they’re also about people – human nature and human problems. And each of these projects has a unique national atmosphere and colour to it. They’re different genres, but all have dramatic stories at their heart. I guess that’s what’s made them popular worldwide.
What you’d glean about Russian drama from these series is that the stories are getting more rough, depressing and hopeless. But the fact is there are all sorts of interesting films and series being made in Russia, in all genres.
What are you working on next?
Kantor: I’m currently working hard on the second season of To the Lake, which is about to go into pre-production. I also have several major TV series in development.
Karö: I’m working on a series called Passengers. It’s a story about a taxi driver who’s not really a person anymore: he helps dead souls come to terms with the issues that are holding them on Earth. They’re his passengers. He helps them find crossing points, and tries to uncover their hidden secrets, life traumas, and all the pain and grudges that are stopping them finding peace. Although our new series has quite the metaphysical side to it, it’s still about people and their mundane problems.