DramaQuarterly: Jean therapy

Stanislavs Tokalovs and Teodora Markova, showrunners of Latvian comedy-drama Padomju džinsi (Soviet Jeans), discuss crossing borders with comedy for this story of a rock music fan who starts an illegal clothing line inside a psychiatric hospital.

While communist agencies were naturally concerned with spies and nuclear weapons during the Cold War, the encroachment of Western culture, such as denim jeans and rock music, proved equally problematic.

Latvian comedy-drama Padomju dzinsi (Soviet Jeans) now takes that idea and runs with it, telling the story of a young rock music fan, Renars Rubenis (Karlis Arnolds Avots), who is sent to a psychiatric hospital for political reasons – and begins illegally producing US-style jeans with his inmates. But as Renars floods the black market with his new clothing line, the KGB sets about trying to discover the people behind the business.

An eight-part series set in Latvia’s capital, Riga, in the late 1970s, the show takes its cue from true stories from the time to blend absurdist humour with drama and a love story. Showrunners Stanislavs Tokalovs (What Nobody Can See) and Teodora Markova (Under Cover) wrote the series with Waldemar Kalinowski (What Nobody Can See), while Tokalovs also directs with Juris Kursietis (Modris).

“It was our primary goal to make the series international, and the second thing was to try to explore this period in a different tone,” Markova tells DQ in Berlin, where Soviet Jeans was screened during the Berlinale Series Market ahead of its international premiere at Series Mania in Lille. “The theme is really absurd because we have the jeans and the rock ‘n’ roll versus communism. At the time, propaganda against Western culture wasn’t about nuclear weapons or spies, it was about a pair of pants, so we decided to take this absurdity and try to project it over every situation and detail.

“Most of these asylums were used for political prisoners, and at some point you start thinking that all the people there are perfectly healthy and sane. We were trying to research how the normality is inside the mental institution while the craziness is outside, because the world is crazy.”

Tokalovs picks up: “For people who haven’t experienced the Soviet Union or, like Latvia, occupation by the Soviet Union, it’s very hard to imagine the atrocities, but grounding the tone allows you to be truthful. Then the humour can rise. First of all, you need to trust the story. Only then can you have fun with it.”

The project’s origins stretch back about 10 years, when Tokalovs found inspiration in stories of people who attempted to escape Soviet rule, only to be caught and adjudged by courts to be “crazy,” he says. In one case, an individual was admitted to a psychiatric asylum where illegal goods were being produced in secret.

Tokalovs pitched his story idea to producers, and partnered with co-writer and co-showrunner Markova after they met on a Scripteast course for screenwriters from Central and Eastern Europe. But Markova initially turned him down. “I liked the idea but I had no time,” she says. “It was on the second call I agreed.”

“I was running around with ideas,” Tokalovs says. “But when Teodora came on, she said, ‘Listen guys, what the hell? This is the best idea by far, let’s just work on this.’ It was the one about jeans produced in a mental asylum, but it needed additional work on the main conflict and the character’s journey.”

Mapping out the story together, they worked over numerous Zoom calls as development ran into the Covid lockdowns. “Teodora brings the structure to writing with all of her experience. My process is a little bit more suited to feature films, where I just sit and dwell on my writer’s block and the meaning of life,” Tokalovs jokes. “Teodora is more structured in the writing and brought good structure to the work.”

However, that structure meant that the moment described in the show’s premise – where Renars begins his denim production line – doesn’t occur until episode two. Furthermore, it’s not until the conclusion of episode one that he is whisked away by hospital staff, but that gave the writers the chance to establish the trickster Renars and his theatre group, where he meets and falls for Finnish actress Tina (Aamu Milonoff).

“We wanted to have more time with the love story before they get separated,” Markova explains. “To believe this love story and for it to become really powerful, and to trust Tina is going to stay and work with the gang to save him, we needed space to develop it, and we needed the viewers to want very much for them to be together and for the separation to be painful. In the first draft, we tried to build the setup into the first episode, but it didn’t work. It was very superficial.”

The realisation that the love story was the “backbone” of the series was key to working out how the rest of the drama would unfold. “Before that, we tried playing around with when the hospital is introduced, and it became clear the characters would have to be built up for a full episode,” Tokalovs says.

“It was also to establish the arena,” Markova adds, “because it might be quite unknown for viewers who come from different countries or for younger viewers who know nothing about communism.”

The pair conducted an “enormous” amount of research that fed into the KGB side of the story, as well as the asylum scenes and events within the theatre group – an approach that resonated with their ambition for the series to be truthful and authentic at every pass. Tokalovs’ co-director Kursietis was also an active part of this process, helping to localise the drama in its setting and further supporting the writing process with co-writer Kalinowski.

“We avoided explanatory scenes,” Markova says, “and right from the start, we are into the action, using details as tools to tell the story. We also decided to avoid all kinds of generic information we have seen from other shows or films. For example, in prisons, the currency is usually booze or cigarettes. For our asylum, it was toilet paper, because they had to use newspaper, so trying to find these very specific elements helped us.”

Once Renars enters the medical facility, the story explores how his incarceration turns a trickster and a scammer into a rebel. “It’s the system,” says Markova. “It tries to put him down, but it has the opposite effect.”

With Tina on the outside, the couple also become a target for KGB agents, who hope that Tina might reveal too much about Renars’ jeans operation.

“When Renars goes into the psychiatric institute, there are two clear choices for Tina – go away or stay – and she makes the decision to stay and fight,” Tokalovs says. “You see in the series how the fight happens.”

When it came to shooting, Tokalovs and Kursietis were confident there would be plenty of period-appropriate backdrops to film against, with Latvia under Soviet occupation for around 50 years until the early 1990s

“But it turns out the world is changing very quickly and actually there are not a lot of suitable places, so it was much harder to find something,” Tokalovs says. “Of course, the casting and acting for Juris and me is the most important, and we really devoted time to rehearsing. This is the only way the show can become international, because the level of acting needs to be on par with big shows from Europe and America, where the acting is usually brilliant.

“Coming from this small Eastern European country with a big theatre background, which sometimes really overcooks the acting, the actors need all your attention and time to free themselves from what they think they should do for it to be good. This was the main goal, and it always is when making a film from my country.”

Some locations that do feature in the series include the Laima Clock and the nearby Freedom Monument in central Riga, an area that used to be home to trolley buses but is now pedestrianised.

“On the last shooting day, our base was at the monument. We had the whole square to ourselves with cars and some stuff. I thought, ‘What a cool place to have the last shooting day,’ because it connects everything. Here is the freedom the show is talking about,” says Tokalovs, who also chose to use a “free and active” camera style to film the series. “It’s different from the classic period piece shows. It brings air to it, combined with the writing and the possibility of the humour.”

Produced by Tasse Film and co-financed by Go3 and TV3, Soviet Jeans debuted locally in cinemas – split into three parts – ahead of arriving on television later this spring. Beta Film is handling world sales.

Tokalovs credits Markova with bringing an international flavour to a show that is already a festival favourite. “Having Teodora is the reason. If we’d stayed inside our local bubble, it would have been darker with less humour,” he says.

“Waldemar is born in Poland and lives in US, I’m from Bulgaria and [Tokalovs] is from Latvia,” Markova adds, “so people ask, ‘How are you trying to do comedy that travels? It’s impossible, everyone laughs at different things.’ But this was best for the show because if the three of us found something funny, that meant it had a chance to be understood by an international audience.”