The company of wolves: how we made snowbound mystery January

In a remote location in the Bulgarian mountains, sleighs are returning without their owners. In their place is a frozen wolf. Here the creative team tell us why shooting January needed realism and a touch of lunacy.

27 January 2023

By Josh Slater-Williams

January (2021)

In snowy January, two men and a bird in a remote mountain cottage complex are greeted by a series of strange guests. Each one seeks an audience with Petar Motorov, the residence’s owner, who has disappeared in the woods with his sleigh. Then his horse brings back the sleigh minus its owner, but carrying instead a dead, frozen wolf. As various members of the group make their own journey into the mountains, the sleigh continues to bring back eerie, stiff wolves in the place of human drivers. What is going on? And is Petar Motorov ever coming back?

An international co-production, January presents an unusual proposition on paper: a black-and-white absurdist tale, with folk horror leanings, by a Bulgarian director who’s previously only made documentaries, and co-written with a British filmmaker who’s veered between fiction and nonfiction. Andrey Paounov (Walking on Water, 2018) is the director, with his co-writer being Alex Barrett, whose last feature was the modern silent film London Symphony (2017). Together they reinterpret Yordan Radichkov’s allegorical play of the same name for a universal audience. But, as the above synopsis may indicate, that doesn’t mean they’ve made it any less weird.

How have you found the transition from documentaries to fiction features?

Alex Barrett: There were things that happened on set that were supposed to happen differently. And Andrey, you incorporated that into the film, in the way you approached the set build and filming on the mountains in Bulgaria. There was a level of reality to the film because of Andrey’s doc background.

Andrey Paounov: You have to create the real world: you have to let the actors experience this real cold mountain, really far away for a very long time. We had a deal that no one was to leave the set. So, we all lived a completely new life for 23 days. This brings a lot to the sense of authenticity. I wouldn’t say truth, because truth is a more complex term, and I am not interested in truth in cinema.

January (2021)

Do you think documentary experience helped when you had to improvise in the remote locations?

Paounov: Definitely. What helped the most was this knowledge that when I jumped from a cliff with the right crew, I’m going to open that parachute. This is a very important feeling to have inside, in order to pull off a really crazy, small production, because if you’re not completely convinced that you can pull it off, no one else believes it. You need to have this lunacy.

How did you two come to collaborate?

Barrett: I had written a script for a UK producer – it never got made, but the project got selected for something called EAVE, which is a pan-European producer scheme. I was there representing that project, and Vanya Rainova, who is the producer of January, was there looking for a writer. At that stage, they just had a treatment of a few pages. It was quite different from what we have now; it had a framing story. After they hired me off the back of that, I spent a week with Andrey, who fired so many ideas at me.

Paounov: I wanted to bring in someone who was completely unaware of the context, because this is a very classical Bulgarian take. At the same time, the idea was to incorporate Beckett and Pinter into this play, because there’s a theatre of absurdity in it; a comedy of manners in it. I was thinking I’ll bring in someone who has zero idea what we’re doing, and, at the same time, organically carries Pinter and Beckett into his work.

January (2021)

What are the major changes you’ve made in adapting the play?

Barrett: I was lucky in that there was a book of four Bulgarian plays that had been translated into English. So, I could read the original play, but I feel the whole process of the film was that Andrey saw the play as a kid and what we were actually trying to adapt was his memory of the play, rather than the play itself. Over the years, it had morphed into something slightly different in his memory. The first draft I wrote was much more faithful to the original. Then, we slowly chipped away to get back to Andrey’s feeling of memory.

Paounov: The best way to bring literature to the screen is to really go through it and keep in the initial engine, the fire that this gives you, and then try to forget everything and put whatever’s left on the page.

Barrett: You’d been talking about the idea that if you reduce the play down to essentials, you kind of get Waiting for Godot – which was the first professional play I ever saw. I think our approach to the play was to chuck out anything that felt like it didn’t belong in a Beckett universe.

How early did you decide that it would be in black and white?

January (2021)

Paounov: Oh, from the first second. The snow and the whole setup were saying yes, it’s black and white. Probably the main reason why we felt it would be black and white in the beginning is because it gives you this level of abstraction that can suit the strange text and dialogue. As I remember, we watched Kurosawa with my cinematographer [Vasco Viana], for probably two weeks straight. And then we said, “Now we have our fire, let’s forget all the references and just go there and see what’s left.”

Barrett: We looked at Kurosawa at script stage, as well. Andrey said he wanted it to look and feel like a western, but an eastern version; all those samurai films that are basically westerns.

Paounov: It’s a very strange thing to say, but the main inspiration for me was Yojimbo (1961). For some reason, I wanted to make a Yojimbo made out of Beckett somewhere in Nowhere, Bulgaria.

January is in cinemas and on demand 27 January.

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