Working with Andrei on the Script of Stalker
The following is an excerpt from:
Arkady Strugatsky, As I Saw Him, translated by Sergei Sossinsky.
Published in About Andrei Tarkovsky, Memoirs and Biographies, Progress
Publishers, Moscow 1990. ISBN 5-01-001973-6 (also available in Russian, see this
site's Bibliography section).
I think the following happened in July 1978. Andrei Tarkovsky was
shooting Stalker near Tallin, and I was with him as one of
the authors of the screenplay. Andrei would return from the set
exhausted, and we would sit down to work on the screenplay. The
episodes that proved to be unneeded were crossed out and needed ones
were thought up. Dialogues which had become unimportant were edited
out and important ones planned. Occasionally we argued and attempted
to reach agreement deep into the night, but when I got up in the
morning Andrei was already at the set.
Remember that, until that tragic July, Andrei had not seen a single
piece he had shot. The film was awaiting its turn to be developed at
Mosfilm Studios. I remember being amazed and even frightened: it
seemed to me that he was working in the dark and that this would
inevitably result in trouble. And so it happened, only the trouble
came from completely unexpected quarters.
When the film was being developed, the machine went haywire and the
film was largely spoiled. It seems that the film of
Siberiade by Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky was also damaged. But
Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky suffered purely moral loss. Either the damage
was minor or they compensated the material losses, the film, budget,
etc., including the deadline. I don't remember exactly. I was busy
with other matters.
Andrei found himself in dire straits with virtually no way out. As a
writer I understood his state very well, it was the same as (if not
worse than) a writer losing the only manuscript of his new work with
no rough copies left. But the circumstances were even worse. Half of
the film Andrei had been allotted had been lost and two thirds of the
money. The State Committee for Cinematography politely but firmly
refused to make up for these losses. It was suggested that he regard
the spoiled film as properly developed and continue shooting the
picture, and when he refused outright, it was hinted that all the
losses would be generously written off as being a result of a creative
setback provided, of course, he drop the picture and set about to work
on something else.
These were truly grim days. Andrei went about looking black as a
cloud. The team was numb with horror. Of course I was also
distressed, since I presumptiously ascribed the troubles to the usual
bad luck of the Strugatsky brothers. On one of those days I told
Andrei this, but he brushed me off fiercly and impatiently.
And all of a sudden - many things happened suddenly with Andrei - more
than a week after the incident, Andrei dropped in brightened up. He
seemed to be walking on a cloud. He beamed. Frankly speaking, I took
fright when I saw him. He entered the room, glued himself to the wall
with his legs, back and head - he was the only person who could do it,
I tried once but failed miserably - stared at the ceiling and said
"Tell me, Arkady, aren't you tired of rewriting your Picnic
for the tenth time?"
"I am," said I cautiously and quite truthfully.
"There you are," he said and nodded kindly. "And what would you say
if we make Stalker a two-part film?"
I failed to understand what it was all about right away. Actually it
was quite simple. They would allot money and film and shift the
deadline for the second part. Adding this to what was left from the
original, it would be possible to save the day. And another important
circumstance: by that time I intuitively felt what was obvious to
Andrei as an experienced professional: his intentions, changed and
multiplied in the process of the work, were too severly restricted
within the limits of one part.
"Would they allow it?" I asked almost in a whisper.
Andrei only glanced at me and turned away. I learned later that a few
days earlier he had sent an inquiry (or demand?) to the relevant
quarters and there, hesitating and grating their teeth, they granted
"Now then," he said in a matter-of-factly tone. "Go to your Boris in
Leningrad, and I want to have the new screenplay in ten days. For two
parts. Never mind the surroundings. Only write the dialogues and
short comments. And the most important thing: Stalker must be quite
"What should he be like?" I was taken aback.
"How should I know? But I don't want that bandit of yours in the
I sighed and pulled myself together. What could I do? I don't know
how he worked with other screenplay authors, but with us it went as
follows. I bring a new episode. It had been discussed the day
before. "I don't know, you're the author, not I. Go and
revise it." I would revise it. I attempt to catch the tone and
intention as I understand it. "It's even worse now. Revise it." I
sigh and trudge along to the typewriter. "Now that's something. But
not what we need. You lost it in this phrase. Try and elaborate on
it." I stare dumbly at "this phrase." It seems a phrase like any
other. I might not have written it, even. But I go and revise again.
He reads and rereads for a long time, his moustache bristling. Then
he says hesitantly: "Well, it'll do for the time being. At least we
have something to start on..., and then we can rewrite this dialogue."
It's like a bone in my throat. Make it conform to the episode before
and the episode after. "Doesn't it conform?" "No, it doesn't." "What
don't you like in the dialogue?" "I don't know, just revise it. Have
it ready by tomorrow night." This was how we worked on a screenplay
which had long been accepted and approved at all official levels.
"What should Stalker be like in the new screenplay?"
"I don't know, you're the author, not I."
I see. Actually, I could see nothing, but that was the usual thing
now. But even before the work started it became clear to my brother
and me: if Tarkovsky makes mistakes, they are brilliant mistakes and
worth a dozen correct decision by ordinary directors.
On a sudden urge I asked:
"Listen, Andrei, what do you need the science fiction in the film for?
Let's throw it out."
He smirked: just like a cat that has eaten its owner's parrot.
"There! You suggested it, not I! I've wanted it for a long
time, only was afraid of suggesting it, so you wouldn't take offense."
To make a long story short, next morning I was flying to Leningrad. I
won't tell you how it was with Boris, because I'm writing not about us
but about Andrei Tarkovsky. We wrote not a science fiction screenplay
but a parable (if we understand a parable as a certain anecdote whose
personae are typical of the age and carriers of typical ideas and
behaviour). A fashionable Writer and a prominent Scientist go into
the Zone where their most cherished dreams might come true, and they
are led by the Apostle of the new faith, a kind of ideologist.
I returned to Tallinn ten days later. Andrei met me at the airport.
We embraced. He asked: "Have you brought it?" I nodded, trying not to
shake. At home he took the manuscript, retreated into the next room
in silence and shut the door firmly behind him. The wives began to
look after me, offered brandy (it was my birthday). Naturally, we
couldn't eat anything.
Some time passed, perhaps an hour.
The door opened and Andrei came in. His face expressed nothing, only
his moustache bristled as it always did when he was immersed in his
He looked at us absent-mindedly, came up to the table, caught a piece
of food with a fork, put it in his mouth and chewed on it. Then he
said staring above our heads:
"The first time in my life I have my own screenplay."