Red Army may be a film about the rise of the Soviet Union’s hockey team in the 1980s, but do not tell its director, Gabe Polsky, that it is a hockey movie. He wants his critically acclaimed TIFF selection – you can check out our review here – to be a timeless film that isn’t quartered into a designated genre. Thankfully, the doc is insightful and supremely entertaining, even if you rarely tune into ESPN.
Due in theatres on January 22, Red Army was a passion project for the director, who played hockey for Yale before launching his career in film. One of his first projects was for the Nicholas Cage drama Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, where he became friends with the film’s director, Werner Herzog. Another doc that Polsky produced was My Way, about the life of legendary Hollywood producer Jerry Weintraub. Polsky must have had a large impression on those two moviemaking titans, as both Herzog and Weintraub serve as executive producers on Red Army.
At the Toronto International Film Festival a couple weeks back, we sat down with Polsky for an exclusive interview. We discussed growing up with a Soviet background in North America, trying to interview hockey great Slava Fetisov and working with Werner Herzog.
Check it out below, and enjoy!
What drew you to making a documentary about Soviet hockey?
Gabe Polsky: My parents are from the former Soviet Union and I played hockey pretty competitively. When I had seen the Soviets play for the first time, I had a VHS tape that I saw them play on. The way that they played was incredibly inspiring as a hockey player. They brought creativity to another level in sport. It was like a creative revolution. For me, a guy who appreciates the art in sport, my ears perked up and I was really curious about learning more about my history and my background. I was proud of this. I thought, “wow, these guys are amazing.”
When I became a filmmaker, I started doing more research and realized that this story goes much deeper than hockey. It’s about the entire Soviet Union, the people, the politics, how these guys were used as vehicles of propaganda and how hockey was created for such a specific reason, to influence people in their minds and spread socialism. It was a dynamic story, it was amazing. Because it wasn’t just about hockey, that’s what interested me. I knew that [a hockey] movie is very limited, but when you open it up, it becomes something much bigger.
And that’s what I wanted to do. I had an opportunity to interviews these guys. I had a short window to decide, and just said, “ok, I’m going to do this,” and then took the leap off the cliff and started the process.
How did you manage to get an interview with Slava Fetisov?
Gabe Polsky: It was difficult. He resisted for a while while I was in Russia. Finally, for some reason, I don’t know why, he said he would do it. He said, “I’ll give you 15 minutes.” Then we sat down and it became a five-hour interview. It was because he knew that I was doing something different, that I wasn’t telling that clichéd story we all know, of the bad Russians and the “Miracle on Ice.” He knew that I was going deep. He just kept going, you know. Then I interviewed him a few more times.
I mean, you give him the opportunity to talk about his career and the glory days of hockey. It must be something that is hard for him to stop talking about. Look at all of the honours and accomplishments he has received over the years.
Gabe Polsky: But he’s done a lot of stuff on television shows and Russian shows. This was a different approach, you know? He wasn’t used to the questions that I was asking him and where I was going. I think he may have been a little open also… I played hockey and he could tell I knew what I was talking about.
You idolized and were really fascinated by how the Russian played when you were younger. Did you look at the Russians as more of a foe or a friend?
Gabe Polsky: To me, I didn’t care who was on the ice. If I was seeing beautiful hockey, like the way that they played… as an athlete and as an artist, if you see something beautiful, you respect it. You think, “man, that is just incredible! I want to play like that!” It’s just amazing what they did.
But, how can I think of myself as a foe too? I am an American guy, but I have background there. I was embarrassed a little bit of my background. It wasn’t cool to be a Soviet kid [in the United States]. I felt that that’s how sport should be played. We should always look toward elevating it up to another level creatively – whether it’s film or sport or computers, it doesn’t matter. That kind of creativity was not being encouraged in North America with sports. They didn’t take it to that philosophical level that the Soviets did. Their sport, the coaches were kind of primitive and there wasn’t any kind of interesting training.