'The Road Movie': Dmitrii Kalashnikov on Crafting an Insane Dashcam-Shot Feature
Where they're going, they don't need roads.
Try to picture a voyeuristic video camera that gleefully records the following: a bear that attempts to outrun a car, a car that runs into an unsuspecting cow, two gentlemen who solicit prostitutes one late evening, two men who get into a fistfight, two men in awe as they observe a blinding meteoroid descending from the sky, a mentally disturbed man holding on to the hood of a car as the driver freaks out and starts to speed away (with the man still attached to the hood), road-raging drivers who get out of their car to intimidate and subsequently shoot at people, a moment of group vandalization while stuck in traffic, and lest I forget, numerous cars veering and ultimately sliding off roads. If you can imagine these visuals in your head, Dmitrii Kalashnikov's The Road Movie will still shock and surprise you. If you can't, Kalashnikov is determined to make you a believer.
A found-footage film composed entirely of online dashcam videos, The Road Movie is completely entertaining; you will laugh and scream throughout. As the film opens in theaters today, director Dmitrii Kalashnikov spoke with No Film School about finding these crazy dashcam videos, diversifying the material to sustain a feature, and how cow color-correction played a key role in unifying the final product.
No Film School: Not that it's always the most up-to-date resource for film credits, but IMDB lists The Road Movie as being your film debut (this includes short films as well). Could you tell me a little about your background and interest in the visual arts?
Dmitrii Kalashnikov: Well, The Road Movie is my debut feature-length film. Before that, I did one short documentary called Film about Love and one “mid-length” documentary called Waiting for the Show. As for my background, well, I received my MA in documentary directing from St. Petersburg State University of Cinema and Television, and had one multimedia project featured in the Moscow International Biennale for Young Art in 2012. I'm interested in modern art and, in a sense, The Road Movie can be seen as modern art. It took part in the 2017 Ural Industrial Biennale of Contemporary Art! At the moment, I’m primarily working as a motion designer and animator for commercials.
"My personal views changed: these videos were unique as a [representation] of documentary cinema. I became hooked."
NFS: As The Road Movie’s closing credits make clear, the featured dashcam footage was first freely uploaded onto the internet. It's extremely addictive to watch these moments of extreme mayhem and gleeful schadenfreude, and I imagine you got pretty hooked before this project even came together.
Kalashnikov: I actually didn’t want too many of them before beginning the film. I'm not a big YouTube viewer and I don't tend to search for crazy videos. I just watch what my friends repost and maybe some videos that are currently “trending.”
Before starting this project, I had seen a few dashcam videos, but not too many, as I lumped them in with all the other entertaining but crazy stuff out there on the web. And then my personal views changed: these videos were unique as a [representation] of documentary cinema. I became hooked. Soon after that, I began work on The Road Movie.
The material is really unique. You know how there is the "fly on the wall" aspect of documentary filmmaking? Dashcam video is 100% that. Without any outside interference, the dashcams record real life. People around them aren’t even aware. Their other awesome feature is that no one has to control the camera. Everything is happening by chance and only by chance. I’m not merely speaking of the events and dialogue the camera captures, but also the composition of the frame, the lighting and so on. Each of these qualities gives off an enormous feeling of reality. You totally believe what's happening, what you’re seeing. I suppose it's quite a rare quality nowadays.
I was also hooked by the relationship between sound and image in dashcam videos. They are quite independent. We can see what's happening in front of the camera (in front of the car), and we can mostly hear what's going on behind the camera. They’re both very powerful. For example, there’s this episode in the first part of the film in which two cars crash right in front of a car sporting a dashcam. We see that two cars are awfully damaged but we don't know if the people in these cars are injured. We hear a woman and her mother who are commenting on what they see, and yet we can’t see that because the camera is in a fixed place. At first, they remark that there’s an old man being taken from the car and that he has died. Right after, they say he is alive. And while watching this video, it’s like I’m witnessing the resurrection of this old man right in front of me, [killed and then resurrected] thanks to these women’s comments. I can’t find the words to explain the power of this effect, but even now, I get chills watching that video.
NFS: Were you steadfast in maintaining that all of the footage be Russian-specific? Is there something about Russian dashcam footage that's particularly outlandish in its extremity?
Kalashnikov: Most available internet dashcam footage is from Russia or another post-Soviet country. There’s some footage from the U.S. and a few Asian countries, but not a whole lot. That’s the first reason I used Russian footage specifically. The material is enormously chaotic itself, and so I decided that I didn’t want to add additional chaos by featuring difference languages and cultures.
Another reason for exclusively featuring Russian footage was because I myself am Russian. The footage is therefore a bit closer to me and easier to correlate with. But honestly, I’m not sure that Russian dashcam footage is much different from other countries’. While I didn't do profound research, I’ve seen American-based footage of meteorites, alligators, forest fires, etc. and falling airplanes in Thailand, and so on.
My main point? There was just more Russian dashcam footage available, and that brought me endless possibilities for choosing the right ones.
NFS: How many hours of material were you sorting through when you began production? Were you looking for a wide diversity in material, i.e. police footage, automobile-crash footage, road rage footage?
Kalashnikov: It took me a year to make The Road Movie and, throughout it all, I was searching for new material constantly. I’ve seen tons of these videos now. It’s really hard to count the exact number. I made sure to download the footage I found most interesting, and I had about 1,300 videos on my computer and edited dozens of rough cuts. I was attempting to organize all of this chaotic material in the right way.
When I began my search, I was watching everything with the word “dashcam" in the title. After I got through those, I searched within special categories, like “natural disasters,” “fights,” “animals,” “weapons,” “chases,” “speed racing,” etc. When I decided to order the film as a timeline of a full a year (winter, spring, summer, and fall), and with a few groups of evening episodes between seasons, I became more precise in my search. I sought out emotions and the mood of the footage. That was really important to my process. For example, I would often get specific and search for “insanely funny evening-set episodes in summer,” You're right, I wanted the material to be diverse in all senses including the situations, the locations, the reactions, and the emotions.
"I was more interested in the reactions of the drivers and the passengers than the crazy situations themselves."
NFS: How did you decide on the material to include? And after you came to that decision, can you take us through how you decided on its order?
Kalashnikov: The dashcam videos feel really unique to me in their purity and truthfulness. My primary aim was to not ruin that effect. That's why I decided against doing any kind of narration. I didn't want the viewer to see my manipulations. It had to be purely observational. The tough thing was that, without traditional narration, it’s hard to combine the material and keep the audience engaged. So I decided to concentrate on the emotional level of the footage. Throughout the film, I’m trying to be on the edge of funny and tragic, constantly altering the degree of each. I was more interested in the reactions of the drivers and the passengers than the crazy situations themselves. This influenced how I chose which episodes to include.
And as for the order of the footage? In addition to the four seasons, there are four groups of "short cut" episodes with music that I put in myself. They are quite recognizable and I think they don't ruin the effect of the longer sequences in the film. I believe they add rhythm to the whole film, that they help with the structuring of the material and emphasize the diversity of the footage.
NFS: This may be an obvious statement, but the film is almost constantly in motion. As you cut from the POV of one dashcam speeding down a congested road to another, the filmgoer (sharing the POV of the dashboard camera) is always physically placed in front of the characters heard off-screen (in the passenger seat). How do you feel that continuous movement works to emphasize the unexpected, often nerve-wracking thrills that come out of nowhere?
Kalashnikov: It sounds banal, but I find the road to be a great metaphor for life. The dashcam footage provides an opportunity to create some kind of eternal movement. The structured year-long cycle in the filmworks on this level as well. No matter what happens with the collective character (the drivers and passengers behind of the dashcam), that character keeps going. The journey is always on the edge of life and death. I tried to emphasize this while structuring the film, reminding the viewer of death’s presence before providing a pause. Dashcam footage is inherently suspenseful. If it's uploaded to the web, you can be sure that something extraordinary happens in it. And while that belief drives the whole film, it's hard to be in a state of nervousness for a whole hour, and so I included a fair amount of pauses and funny dialogue.
"The best videos are the ones where the combination of sound and image create a new meaning."
NFS: While your film is a viscerally visual experience, what also makes it unique (and humorous) are the conversations taking place inside the cars as these events unfold. It's profanity-laced and anger-fueled. As an American viewer, my eyes darted quickly from the top of the screen to the bottom, as I wanted to simultaneously catch the subtitles and make sure I was prepared to see the next disaster unfold. How do you feel the dialogue adds to and contextualizes the footage?
Kalashnikov: The best videos are the ones where the combination of sound and image create a new meaning. And as I've said, I was interested in the reactions of the people in extreme situations. To my surprise, most Russian drivers and passengers are calm in every situation. They drive into a river [as seen in the film] and and that’s okay, they’re ready to sail in the car. They adapt to everything in the moment. Maybe that says something about us.
NFS: In addition to the dialogue brought about by their reactions, there’s also music and "talk radio" playing in many of the scenes. How did that background, ambient noise work to add tension to the story your film was telling?
Kalashnikov: Some things just had to be lost in translation. There is a lot of dialogue and "talk radio" shows playing throughout my film, and yet it was impossible to translate song lyrics, for instance. It would require the reader to read too much. Lyrics can often provide meaning and contrast to the given situation you’re watching. For example, in the episode with the guy who jumps on the hood of the car, there's a song about a bride playing. It's a humorous detail. Another example of contrast is apparent in the episode with the two guys fighting in front of the camera. During the fight, we hear sounds of a talk show in which a man says that "we're a very ignorant nation" and then says some crazy stuff about cannibals and Lenin and so on. This combination is enormous and it was recorded by accident. I was looking for a combination of everything I could in this footage, and that included all of the different sounds.
NFS: Color-correction was applied to your film. Given the found-footage nature of the film, how did the act of color-correcting help to give this material a consistent visual identify?
Kalashnikov: The footage was shot on different cameras and so quality of each clip was very different. Some of the videos were 1080p and some were 720p. Each of the the videos had different color temperature, brightness, contrast, etc. The main aim of our color-correction was to then unify the look of all of these pieces. We didn't want the eye of the viewer to twitch on each cut. I believe that color-correction really helped to combine all of the footage and that it was important for our effect of eternal movement. All you have to do on this journey is change cars and companions.
NFS: Will your next project be found-footage based? Nonfiction in nature?
Kalashnikov: Found-footage is not a primary aim for me. I want to try different styles and approaches. This project was done mostly because of the uniqueness of dashcam footage. If I eventually find something of the same quality, then I'll work with found-footage again. I'm really interested in the combination of documentary and animation right now, and I also like the idea of web-docs and I want to try my hand at that. Nonclassical narrative is of great interest for me. As you see, it's all nonfiction in nature. Maybe I haven't found the right idea or plot for fiction yet. I'll try that a bit later.
The Road Movie is now in theaters.