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Astana, Kazakhstan • 13 March, 2023 | 18:18

Behind the scenes: Assistant Director Shares How Kazakh Neo-Noir Is Made

Mariya Issitova on working on Adilkhan Yerzhanov's films 'A Dark, Dark Man' and 'Goliath'

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Mariya Issitova
Mariya Issitova

Mariya Issitova has been involved in the Kazakh movie industry since 2018, when she was a filmmaking student at Turan University in Almaty. A series of projects that summer had served as a career launch pad for Mariya, who now spends most of her time outdoors keeping the production cycle and film crew in check.

Industry insiders and movie lovers know her as the first assistant director to award-winning director Adilkhan Yerzhanov. It won’t be a stretch to say she has played an instrumental role in the rising wave of Kazakh cinema through the creation of neo-noir films like "A Dark, Dark Man" and "Goliath".

QazMonitor had the opportunity to ask Mariya about her experience as a first assistant director, what it takes to make a movie, and what it's like working with Adilkhan Yerzhanov.

Mariya Issitova
Mariya Issitova

The intermediary

What is the role of an assistant director?

An assistant director is already involved in the pre-production phase. They plan the film production schedule and prepare daily call sheets. In other words, the assistant director coordinates between different departments, telling each person when and where they need to be, so that everything runs smoothly and the movie or commercial is filmed on time.

Mariya Issitova
Mariya Issitova

In my mind, this type of work is similar to what producers do.

I’m somewhat of a liaison between the producers and the creative team.

I listen to the director’s and the cameraman’s preferences on how they want to shoot and discuss them with the producers. My job is to make the process as comfortable as possible for the creative people, while also making sure it’s possible from a production standpoint.

Memories from the set

You've participated in almost all of Adilkhan Yerzhanov’s recent films. How did you become a part of the crew?

Yes, I was a part of it since "A Dark, Dark Man”. This is what happened: In 2018, I started out as second assistant director. Later, I was second assistant again for another project called “The Daughter-in-law Is Also Human”. But before that, in the summer, my classmate asked me to help him with a web series. I said, “Okay, I will help but only as a first assistant”.

Mariya Issitova on the set of "Goliath"
Mariya Issitova on the set of "Goliath"

We didn’t really know exactly what a first assistant director did. I had some understanding, so I just started doing things like timekeeping. We had help from a student of Serik Abishev [producer of “A Dark, Dark Man”]. So when Serik Abishev was looking for a first assistant director for the movie, the student told him: “We were filming a show in the summer where we had Masha. You could hire her.” I got a call from Serik and I said, “You know, I have zero experience”. And he said: “That’s fine – you’ll learn.”

“A Dark, Dark Man” was my first big movie as a first assistant director. I was so anxious. I didn't sleep at all before the first shift; I had planned out the whole day. But that movie was still a warm memory – I remember it was really great. Even though there were times when we were snowed in and the weather threw obstacles in our way, it’s a project that’s very close to my heart.

Mariya Issitova on the set of "Goliath"
Mariya Issitova on the set of "Goliath"

Did you have any memorable incidents that happened on set?

We had some moments when we were filming “Assault”. We got to the set – we were filming in the winter, by the way – when all the snow was blown off the steppes. I hadn't seen anything like that before. We had been filming scenes with knee-high snow before; it was all gone.

Almaty had little to no snow at the time, so I called the producer and said, “Look, there's just no snow, I have no clue what to do. And he just went: “Alright, let's just eat first and go look for snow”. So we drove around the Almaty region looking for snow for two days straight. We found some, filmed the scenes, and everything was alright.

Mariya Issitova on the set of "Assault"
Mariya Issitova on the set of "Assault"

Producer or director?

In the credits for “Goliath”, you're shown as the film's line producer. Does that indicate a shift in your career path from directing to producing?

It just sort of happened that way. While working with Adilkhan, we developed a system, where everyone knows their roles clearly. But I would often share tasks with the producer. We didn’t have a line producer for most of the time, so I handled some of the work. It was like this for a few movies, so one day I asked the producer if I could be credited for it, and he said “sure”.

Mariya Issitova
Mariya Issitova

It started with "Assault", but when we shot "Goliath" I had a lot more responsibilities, like hiring staff or negotiating deals. Now, do I want to be more of a producer or a director? I think about this a lot and, honestly, I don’t know the answer. I like doing both. For example, this past summer I tried my hand at shooting a commercial as a director. I think I lean more toward directing.

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