Paul Weston was the first person to mention the name Darko Skulsky to me. This was in 2012. He spoke of a guy he met in Cannes, who had a service company in Kyiv, only 80 miles from Chernobyl, called Radioaktive; a wild, charismatic, make-it-happen type of guy with a book full of amazing location pictures. The name really struck me. Darko. It’s a fucking cool name. I believe the etymology is proto-Slavic, derived from the word ‘dar’, which means gift.
So we took a Stella Artois job to Kyiv with Nick, a period piece, recreating the 1964 New York World’s Fair. The locations were indeed amazing as were the faces. And the crew. And the people.
We stayed in touch with Darko and bid more jobs with Radioaktive. For one reason or another they didn’t work out as can happen. The service game is hard.
Then came the Euromaidan protests in 2013, culminating in the Revolution of Dignity, the ouster of President Yanukovych, the overthrow of Putin’s puppet government, and Russia’s eventual annexation of Crimea.
Throughout this upheaval Ukraine’s service industry effectively shut down. Advertisers tend not to like revolution and war.
In April 2014 we started pitching on a music video for a Paolo Nutini song called ‘Iron Sky’ with Daniel. We were bidding a few different countries, but despite the recent turmoil, Lee and I had a hunch about the Ukraine. Darko kept sending us these location pictures, pictures of haunted architecture reminiscent of the Zone, limen to almost extraterrestrial spaces. Absolutely magical images.
That summer Daniel, Matthew, Lee, Robbie, and Deepa went to Kyiv to shoot the video. I believe it was one of the first productions to go back to the Ukraine. We worked with Tanja, Nick, Igor, Olya and Anya. It was the usual music video chaos: a fluid idea that kept evolving, exhaustive casting, too many scenarios, too many locations, not enough time. But the Radioaktive team believed in Daniel and Matthew’s vision. It soon became clear that they were all cineastes and artists. They truly cared.
After that we went back again and again and again. Different producers and directors and execs. We all went. Kyiv was a place that nourished creativity. It made things possible. We made friendships and formed bonds. We connected with the warmth and spirit of the people. When Tanja tragically died in 2017 we all grieved like siblings. I will never forget when the Radioaktive team invited Aoife and me to accompany them to lay flowers on Tanja’s grave. Their openness and intimacy always cut through the bullshit and phoniness of our industry. There’s a photo of Chris Massey and Tanja, on set with Autumn, taken by Sally that I look at regularly. The business is so hard. It’s only really worth doing it with people that you love.
These experiences are replicated across so many production companies. Everyone has their own stories, their own memories.
But also their work.
I know I’m not alone in saying this, but any success we may have had is in no small part due to the work we made in Kyiv.
We owe a huge debt of gratitude to the Ukrainian film industry.
And now we look on in horror as Putin’s unconscionable act of war brings violence and terror to a population that has endured much hardship, as missiles land in streets we’ve scouted, as friends shelter in metro stations, as their friends and relatives are forced to bear arms to fight for the sovereignty of their land.
As an industry we have a moral obligation to help in every way we can. And judging by all the conversations that I know are happening, we will.
In our outrage we must also continue to recognise the suffering being inflicted upon civilians in Yemen, Palestine, and Syria, to hold the mainstream media to account for white supremacist coverage of conflict that dehumanises people of colour, and to acknowledge our governments’ — both US and UK — past atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I watched the ‘Iron Sky’ video the other day for the first time in many years. It completely floored me. Like all great work the video has lost none of its power as it depicts, with unnerving prescience, a people in Bardo, oppressed and in agony, but filled with resistance and hope, and, so it seems to me, acts as a mainline into the human condition.