Q&A: Chad Gracia

South Milwaukee native Chad Gracia, director of the documentary “The Russian Woodpecker,” discusses his Sundance award-winning film, which screens this week at the Wisconsin Film Festival.

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Chad Gracia.

It’s safe to say that 2015 is shaping up to be quite the year for Chad Gracia. He traveled to Sundance with his first film, The Russian Woodpecker, and left the festival on a wave of critical adoration along with the World Cinema Documentary Grand Jury Prize (he describes the whole experience as “very surreal, unexpected, and spectacular”).

Believe the hype: The Russian Woodpecker is a seamless blend of biographical portrait, social history and conspiracy thriller, following Ukrainian multimedia artist Fedor Alexandrovich, a wild-eyed, shaggy-haired child of Chernobyl. Alexandrovich’s theories behind the disaster that left him with radiation in his bones lead him to research the giant metal superstructure that the film derives its title from, a Russian behemoth meant to jam signals in the Cold War era that looms large over Fedor and his homeland.

Gracia is a native of South Milwaukee and a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. On the eve of returning to the state with his documentary for the Wisconsin Film Festival, he talked with Milwaukee Magazine about The Russian Woodpecker’s beginnings, influences and much more.

Milwaukee Magazine: What drew you in more this project, the chance to examine the story of the “Russian Woodpecker” or the opportunity to collaborate with Fedor Alexandrovich?

Chad Gracia: At the very beginning I had no idea if it would turn out to be an interesting story or if there would be anything worth researching, but I knew that Fedor was just a fascinating, charismatic and interesting guy. The chance to spend time with him and to film him drew me in. He’s so filmic – he seems like a person from a different age.

MM: Were there are other documentaries or films that you drew on for inspiration as a first-time filmmaker?

CG: Not really. A lot of people said that the film has a unique kind of approach. That’s all accidental because I didn’t really know what the limitations were. Fedor himself also influenced a lot the way the structure evolved. While we were doing the project, he said “Listen, you know we have to pursue this in an artistic way as well as in a sort of scientific way.” He had this inspired, strange notion that if he reenacted his dreams, we would get closer to the truth. And I wanted to do it by interviewing individuals on screen in a classic way. So the necessity of merging his approach and my approach was the main influence on the style and structure.

I did see The Act of Killing just before I started working on this and that gave me a little bit of a sense that it would be okay to put in some of Fodor’s dreams. I love all of Werner Herzog’s work, so that gave me some inspiration as well. And of course American Movie, the Milwaukee classic (laughs).

MM: You had all of these different story threads to bring together – the conspiracy thriller, the social history between Ukraine and Russia, this personal portrait of Fedor and his artistic expressions – in a very compact running time. What was the editing process like in making sure you balanced all of those interests?

CG: That was the most difficult part of the whole project – unexpectedly so for me. The editing and balancing those different stories took more time and more stress and more effort than anything else by far, even more work and more stress than filming the war scenes. I had a very smart co-editor with me, who helped a lot – Devin Tanchum – and I constantly drew diagrams on big sheets of paper with different colors representing the different storylines to make sure they were weighted correctly and that they came at the right time. I spent a lot of time mapping out the per-minute emotional response that I wanted the audience to have. I looked at it very scientifically.

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Fedor Alexandrovich. Photo courtesy Chad Gracia.

MM: When both the cinematographer and the star of the movie are literally risking their lives to make sure the story is being told (the cinematographer was shot while filming on the frontline), what kind of pressure does that put on you to make sure you’re doing their story justice?

CG: It’s not something I thought I would have to confront when I started working on this film. It was a year before any violence broke out; I thought that Ukraine was one of the most peaceful places on Earth. Obviously, the primary concern would be keeping everyone alive. I told Artem Ryzhykov, our cinematographer, to stay away from the front lines, but he said “No, I want to record this for the future so people know what happened – that we were attacked and were peaceful,” and that’s when he was shot. For those war battle scenes, I was there for one day but it was so frightening that I didn’t go back to the front lines, but Artem did.

The second issue was Fedor and Fedor’s fears. In the beginning I just thought he was paranoid. I didn’t think there was a real danger. But the more we moved forward, the more I thought he may very well be in danger. So then I realized as a storyteller that that’s the story as well – it’s not what we planned, but it’s the new story.

It was only in retrospect that I really realized when we were in danger and how close we came, and you still don’t know. That’s the thing with these KGB agents, it’s impossible with a police state like Russia to know where the red lines are. Before (Boris) Nemtsov was assassinated on the street right outside the Kremlin, no one would’ve expected that an opposition leader would just get shot in cold blood right in the center of Moscow. So, we didn’t know what the real danger was for Fedor. We didn’t know if there was someone tracking him. We still don’t know. Now, Kiev is a safer place because the anti-Russian government is in charge. And the danger is not over – the more popular the film becomes the higher profile he becomes.

MM: What would you like audiences to take away from seeing your film?

CG: For me it’s less important whether or not people believe Fedor. I tried to give him a platform to present his theory to the world, but it’s more interesting as a psychological portrait and portrait of the Ukraine. Fedor is wounded in the same way that Ukraine is, and Fedor is paranoid and hostile to Russia in the same way that Ukraine is because of the past and what happened to his family and his country. This film is about the psychological problems that Ukrainians have – these ghosts that haunt all of Ukraine that are going to be difficult and are going to prove to be an obstacle to Ukraine moving into the 21st century.

The Russian Woodpecker screens at the South Milwaukee Performing Arts Center on Sunday, April 19 at 2 p.m. Gracia and Fedor Alexandrovich will be in attendance, and the screening will be followed by a talkback. The event is free.

The film also screens twice this week as part of the Wisconsin Film Festival at Madison’s Sundance Cinemas, tonight at 6:30 p.m. and tomorrow at 4:15 p.m. (only rush tickets are available), with Milwaukee screenings later in the year a near certainty. It receives my highest recommendation.

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Tom Fuchs is a Milwaukee-based film writer whose early love for cinema has grown into a happy obsession. He graduated with honors in Film Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and has since focused on film criticism. He works closely with the Milwaukee Film Festival and has written reviews and ongoing columns for Milwaukee Magazine since 2012. In his free time, Tom enjoys spending time with his wife and dogs at home (watching movies), taking day trips to Chicago (to see movies), and reading books (about movies). You can follow him on Twitter @tjfuchs or email him at tjfuchs@gmail.com.