To Russia, with Keanu: ‘Siberia’ director Matthew Ross shares tales from the set

These days, actor Keanu Reeves is back in the Hollywood spotlight as the hit man hero of the John Wick franchise, but that hasn’t stopped the veteran of The Matrix franchise from appearing in the occasional independent film and passion project.

This month, Reeves appears in the romantic thriller Siberia, which casts him as an American diamond seller who travels to Russia in order to facilitate a deal involving some rare blue diamonds. When the transaction begins to fall apart, he finds himself stuck in a remote Russian town, uncertain of both his own safety and the intense feelings he develops for the owner of a local diner.

The film is directed by former entertainment journalist-turned-filmmaker Matthew Ross, who earned considerable acclaim for writing and directing 2016’s Frank and Lola, a dark romantic drama that was both his directorial debut and a breakout hit at that year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Digital Trends spoke to Ross about working with Reeves, the pressure of following Frank and Lola, and filming in one of the coldest cities in the world.

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Director Matthew Ross and stars Pasha Lychnikov and Keanu Reeves on the SIBERIA set

Digital Trends: Your first film, Frank and Lola, was really well received. What brought you from that film to Siberia?

Matthew Ross: Good timing and happenstance really. My agent had shown Frank and Lola to Keanu, who had been developing the script for Siberia for at least a year, maybe two years. And he happened to be in New York. We were set up for a coffee meeting in the city and it went really well. I was thrilled that he was such a fan of my first movie because I was such a fan of his and had been for such a long time. A month or two later, I signed on to be the director of the movie.

Did you feel some added pressure after how well Frank and Lola did?

I mean sure, there’s always pressure. Making movies is a lot of pressure. You’re front and center, good or bad, whatever happens with the film. So you have to embrace that and enjoy the pressure. Of course, with the second film, you just want to keep growing. I want to just keep growing as a filmmaker, to keep exploring storytelling, and to keep exploring the technical aspects of filmmaking. [I want to] take what I did with Frank and Lola and build upon that and become a better filmmaker.

“I want to just keep growing as a filmmaker, to keep exploring storytelling, and to keep exploring the technical aspects of filmmaking.”

You wrote and directed Frank and Lola yourself, and Siberia is a film written by someone else: A Simple Plan writer Scott Smith. He’s an Oscar nominee who has done pretty well for himself, certainly, but what was the adjustment like for you in directing from someone else’s script this time around?

Well, I didn’t have to spend the time writing it. That’s one big part of it. It was an interesting process, though. You need to work with somebody else’s words and ideas. This process was very much a collaboration between Scott and Keanu and the other producers involved in creating the film, though. They needed me to take that text and that script and make it my own, and to have my own vision attached to it. You’re not simply an interpreter of the screenplay, because that’s not really directing as far as I’m concerned.

So it was an interesting challenge that I just embraced. The thing is, Frank and Lola was a very personal movie for me, and for that reason, I found this to be a wonderful new challenge.

Keanu Reeves is such a talented actor and such a compelling person to watch on the screen. What did he bring to this particular role for you? Watching the film, it feels like he brings a lot of extra depth to the character even when he’s not talking.

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Yeah, he is a phenomenal actor — and a phenomenal screen actor — and his physical presence is tremendous. That’s something that I wanted to play with when we were making the film. Obviously, there’s his history as one of the best action actors of all time, but I thought it would be an interesting sort of sidebar to explore that persona a little bit, or create commentary on it, because this film is not a mainstream action movie. And yet, at the same time, it involves some action. What I really want to do is show people what Keanu is capable of beyond the action sequences and show exactly how intelligent a performer he is, and how sensitive a performer he is, and how emotional a performer he is. That was really the goal of this, because I think sometimes a lot of your focus is on the sort of bigger movies that he’s done, and the sort of big acting and his incredible abilities as an action film star. But he’s also a deeply intelligent, deeply sensitive performer, and I wanted to explore that.

As you mentioned, it seems like we’ve been trained to anticipate that action scene in Keanu’s films these days, and it’s fascinating to watch him outside of that, even though he’s been in so many movies that weren’t action films.

“…exploring Keanu’s range as a romantic lead is something that I was really excited to do.”

Yeah, you don’t want to compete with those other action movies. I mean, The Matrix as a whole franchise is wonderful, and that John Wick series is fantastic. It would be a very dumb idea to try to make a knockoff version of those films. I wanted to make something totally different. Of course, there’s some of that physical acting in this film, too — but it’s very much a love story, and exploring Keanu’s range as a romantic lead is something that I was really excited to do.

On that subject, in both Frank and Lola and Siberia, the films rely heavily on the romantic chemistry between the leads. A lot of that is, of course, the actors themselves. But how do you sort of nurture that chemistry as a director?

Well, first and foremost, it’s the actors. I just have to repeat that, even though you said it. It’s worth repeating. What I try to do is simply to create the safest possible environment for actors to explore complex and sometimes vulnerable emotions while feeling like they are being treated with trust and with respect and being allowed to explore and play, despite the intensity of being on a movie set.

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Ana Ularu [who plays diner owner Katya] was just fantastic in this film, as a friend and collaborator. We spent a lot of time rehearsing before we shot any of those scenes. Everything from the more standard scenes to the love scenes, every single one of them, was really worked through in advance, which I was very lucky to do. That’s not something I had a chance to do on Frank and Lola because of the schedule on that, so those three or four days of rehearsal that we were able to have [for Siberia] proved to be so essential to how we were able to execute it.

So much of the film unfolds in this bitterly cold environment. How did the filmmaking experience change for you with this project? It’s a huge shift to go from Frank and Lola in Las Vegas to this film, set in the Russian winter.

We shot the Siberia part of the film, as well as the interior St. Petersburg parts of the film, in Canada. It was shot in Winnipeg and the environs of Manitoba. I think it’s the coldest city in the world, with a population of over half a million people. So it was freezing out there. Even when the snow melted and we were shooting some scenes where there’s not snow on the ground, it’s permafrost a quarter of an inch beneath your feet at every moment. It’s cold and it’s tough out there.

You just have to stay warm. You have to make sure that when you bring your actors on the set that you are prepared and ready to work because they’re wearing a lot fewer clothes than you are most of the time. So while you’re sitting inside the relative comfort of a tent with a portable heater, they’re out there. … It’s really tough. It makes it imperative to really be prepared as a filmmaker when you’re shooting under those conditions [and] to know exactly what you want and exactly what you need, because the elements are so unforgiving.

Siberia stars Keanu Reeves and Ana Ularu, and is directed by Matthew Ross. The film is scheduled for release July 13.

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