Jesse Chambers, B-Metro Magazine: "The surprising part of Russian-born filmmaker Yuri Shapochka’s personal story is the city where this dashing director with long, brown hair and intriguing now world-view lives and works. It’s our own sleepy burg of Birmingham. I wrote a profile of Shapochka for the June 2012 issue of B-Metro magazine in Birmingham, where I’m a regular contributor. Shapochka left Russia, where he worked as a journalist and TV producer, 15 years ago to come to America. He wanted a chance to make film and believes he made the right choice in coming to Birmingham, though it’s not a film capital. “To me it was a good place to start,” he told me in a phone interview. “Nothing is easy, but I saw open doors. I saw support of the local people. I saw a friendly attitude.” And now Shapochka, will for the first time have a full-length feature film to peddle at markets and festivals. The film is Clubhouse, a revenge play and morality tale filmed in Birmingham and featuring Shapochka’s characteristic black comedy."
Odd situations occur in three short films — Game Shop, Waiting and High Expectations — made by writer, director and producer Yuri Shapochka.
You probably won’t be surprised to hear that Shapochka is from Ukraine in the former Soviet Union and was deeply influenced by the black comedy and ironic plot twists so abundant in the film and fiction of Russia and Eastern Europe.
And you probably won’t be surprised to learn that Shapochka was invited to screen Waiting and High Expectations in a showcase of shorts at the Cannes Film Festival in France in 2010, or that Waiting (written by Mary Catherine Wendt) won a prize at the New York International Independent Film & Video Festival.
The surprising part of Shapochka’s personal story is the city where this dashing director with long, brown hair and intriguing world-view lives and works. It’s our own sleepy burg of Birmingham. He left Russia, where he worked as a journalist and TV producer, 15 years ago to come to America. He wanted a chance to make films, which was tough to do in Ukraine. Shapochka believes he made the right choice in coming to Birmingham, though it’s not a film capital. “To me it was a good place to start,” he says in a phone interview. “Nothing is easy, but I saw open doors. I saw support of the local people. I saw a friendly attitude.” And now Shapochka, who has made six shorts, will for the first time have a full-length feature film to peddle at markets and festivals beginning in the fall.
The film is Clubhouse, a revenge play and morality tale filmed in Birmingham and featuring Shapochka’s characteristic black comedy. Clubhouse deals with nefarious plots made against the life and property of a wheelchair-bound Iraq War vet living in his family’s magnificent old Shapochka filmed Clubhouse on high-definition video in only 12 shooting days in January and February 2012, with a local crew, including his regular cinematographer David Brower, and a mix of local and Hollywood actors. The film’s successful completion is another example of how Shapochka, who grew up behind what we used to call the Iron Curtain, has flourished in the Deep South — putting down roots, producing films and, it seems, making lots of friends.
Shapochka is charming, but that’s not all, according to Brower, who also photographed most of Shapochka’s short films. “It’s not just charm,” Brower says as we chat in a Homewood cafe. “It’s engagement. When Yuri’s in a conversation with you, he’s really in a conversation. It’s genuine. He has a way of engaging with people on a level. Everybody becomes his friend.”
In addition, Shapochka abides by a simple principle that sustained him in the Ukraine and now in Alabama. “For an artist, it’s never easy, but if you love what you do and have good people around you, you can find creative ways to do your art,” he says. Shapochka heaps praise on his adopted home. “I tell all my friends how I love Alabama,” he says. “When I go somewhere, to New York and L.A., they always hear good stories about Birmingham.” When he left Ukraine, Shapochka could have gone to New York or Birmingham, since he had family in both cities. He was leery of settling in New York because the city has a huge Russian community. “I could live in a similar environment, and I didn’t see the point of going from one Russia to another Russia,” he says. He decided that going to Birmingham would force him to learn English and make the other necessary adjustments to American life more quickly.
Clubhouse is inspired by events in the life of Shapochka’s close friend Bob McKenna, who — like the lead character in Clubhouse — uses a wheelchair and lives in a big house on Highland Avenue. According to Shapochka, McKenna “is a very spiritual, inspirational character himself, and so from my conversations with him and episodes from his life, and people I met at his house, I had this idea. It’s a loose adaptation of some events. However, it is 100 percent fiction. I didn’t make a point to make a documentary or life story, but I took some quotes and episodes, and Bob helped us with the location.” The Clubhouse script “started out as a revenge story,” Brower says. “But as [Shapochka] gets to writing it, it becomes a commentary on the society and life in general. It couldn’t be just a simple revenge play.”
Brower adds, “The funny thing about Clubhouse is that there are moments in that script that are totally unbelievable that come out of real life. Nobody would believe it, but in fact it actually happened.” Shapochka offers high praise for Brower, who has 30 years of experience in high-end commercial work and recently photographed two indie features for other directors.
“I have this absurdist view on the world, and it’s never easy to express things that way, and David supports me all the way in realizing and presenting this style,” Shapochka says, adding, “The way he does his lighting [is] like poetry.” Shapochka “almost can’t help but turn anything into a dark comedy, which I love,” Brower says. “He embraces absurdity. He’s not afraid of it. It’s a way of magnifying reality so you see it for what it is.”
Veteran TV and film actor Tim Abell portrays Robert, the Iraq War vet, in Clubhouse. Abell met Shapochka on the Los Angeles set of the film Cross in 2010, when Shapochka visited a friend who was working on the picture. It was about a year later when Shapochka sent Abell the Clubhouse script. The actor was impressed. “One thing I liked about the script is that there are scenes that come out of nowhere and are so unexpected,” he says during a phone interview. Abell was also struck by the range of Shapochka’s vision. “It was a story of good and evil, of greed, of pride and lust, of almost every sin you could imagine,” he says. “The true nature of man is really what this is about — the goodness of one man and the other people who can’t accept what he is trying to give them.” Abell became an actor and co-producer on the film and helped convince veteran actors Leslie Easterbrook (the Police Academy series) and Christopher Murray to take part. Murray’s brother, Sean, a composer who wrote music for a recent Call of Duty game and numerous films, is doing the score.
Easterbrook says she thought Clubhouse was the best script she had read in a long time. “The audience doesn’t know where you’re going in every scene,” she says by phone from her Southern California home. “Nothing is ever what it seems on the surface. The characters are complex… and it says so much about human nature.” Both actors enjoyed working with Shapochka. “He never once yelled or screamed,” Abell says. “He keeps himself sane. He does yoga. He always has a lot of Russian friends on the set. It keeps him grounded.” Shapochka continually solicits comments and suggestions from his cast and crew, according to Easterbrook. “It’s never direction, it’s conversation,” she says, adding, “It’s great for an actor because you feel like you have a voice.” The director is reluctant to talk about possible distributors for the film. “We’re going to bring it to film markets, distributors, but before the project is finished, I don’t want to go there,” he says. “My goal is to finish [the film]in the best possible way.” Shapochka is also reluctant to talk about future films. “I have several projects I’m planning to do,” he tells me during our second interview, this time on the front porch of the old house where Clubhouse was filmed. “I wouldn’t call myself superstitious, but it’s too early to announce. Everything is so sensitive and vulnerable, so I don’t like to talk about the plans that much.” Whatever stories Shapochka decides to tell, you can assume they’ll continue to evince his characteristic cosmic irony. “Whatever story line I do, it doesn’t matter, [it’s a] mix of absurdity and paradox,” he says. “This is my style. This is what I love in other artists — in movies, in literature and even music. It’s a glimpse of truth.” These glimpses of the truth are important to Shapochka. “I’m an idealist, and I want to improve things,” he says. “I want everything to be perfect — for my friends, my family, my town, my country. And when you see something imperfect, you make fun of it. This is the most peaceful way to criticize things and to improve things. So when it’s dark, even when it’s shocking, it makes you think.” Shapochka wishes to thanks his Clubhouse executive producers, Marina Bolshinskaya and B.K. Goodwin III, and local businesses Rojo, Intermark Group and Good People Brewing.
By Jesse Chambers, B-Metro Magazine