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EXCLUSIVE: Paul Schrader Talks Biopic of Legendary Tiny Dancer Kschessinska

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood May 20, 2012 at 2:32PM

While he didn't make the schlep to Cannes this year, writer-director Paul Schrader has some skin in the Cannes game. He's announced that he's writing an English-language biopic of Kschessinska, the legendary prima ballerina and mistress to the last Russian Tsar, for a film financed by the Kremlin-backed Culture & Arts Fund. Never before has an A-list American screenwriter written a Russian film about an iconic figure from Russian history. The film will star a mixed Russian and American cast. A director has not been signed.
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Kschessinska
Kschessinska

While he didn't make the schlep to Cannes this year, writer-director Paul Schrader has some skin in the Cannes game. He's announced that he's writing an English-language biopic of Kschessinska, the legendary prima ballerina and mistress to the last Russian Tsar, for a film financed by the Kremlin-backed Culture & Arts Fund. Never before has an A-list American screenwriter written a Russian film about an iconic figure from Russian history. The film will star a mixed Russian and American cast. A director has not been signed.

On a Skype call from New York, Schrader calls the prima ballerina assoluta Mathilde Kschessinska the "ultimate femme fatale." As the Russian Empire was imploding, the ballerina wreaked havoc inside the Royal family. Rising from poverty through the ballet world to a life of luxury, the ambitious and charismatic dancer was mistress to four aristocratic players in the crumbling Romanov dynasty, including Tsar Nicholas II.

"She was quite a notorious figure is pre-Soviet Russia," says Schrader. "She was the first local prima ballerina, and was also quite conniving. She had a son whose patronage has never been determined. She liked people to believe it was Nicholas's son. It was probably his cousin's son; at one point his uncle claimed him. In court life she was a player."

As for the Revolution, "Nicholas was a real fuck-up, not up to the task of surviving, and had bad judgement, took bad advice," says Schrader. "It was a bloody period. When the Bolsheviks came in they commandeered Kschessinska's house, those photos of Lenin were taken on her balcony. She had a great investment in the ancien regime. She was no lover of people's rights. She died at age 99."

Meanwhile Schrader is developing several other projects. He and Bret Easton Ellis are doing a DIY in July, getting money from Kickstarter. "The Canyon" is on Facebook, Kickstarter, and raised $70,000 the first week. "It's The Ed Burns model," Schrader says. "Everyone works for free, we're casting on Let It Cast, we've done 300 auditions and some screen tests, and will shoot four weeks in July."

This article is related to: Cannes Film Festival, IN THE WORKS, Festivals, Festivals


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.