The internet is filled with urban legends, myths and horror stories that may be, but probably are not, real. One popular horror story is called the "Russian Sleep Experiment." The myth is about a 1940 Soviet Union study to see what would happen if people stayed awake for 30 days (it does not go well). Now, Minnesota-based director Barry Andersson has taken this story, built a set in Lakeville, and is turning it into a full-length film.
The majority of the cast and crew is from Minnesota. The exceptions are the leads: Eva De Dominici, a popular Argentinian actor, plays one of the scientists carrying out the experiment. Her husband and fellow experimenter is portrayed by Rafal Zawierucha, a Polish actor who recently finished shooting for Quentin Tarantino's next movie, "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood." Russian actor Evgeny Krutov (who will be in season three of "Stranger Things") and Chris Kattan of SNL fame also star in the movie.
The set for the movie is surreal. When arriving, actors and crew walk from sunny, snow-filled Minnesota into a mostly empty warehouse with a boat, a trailer for makeup, and piles of director's chairs and other movie-making equipment. Upon taking a sharp right at the makeup trailer, one is plunged into a 1940s Soviet bunker: walls are dark gray and close together - leaving just enough room for a broad-shouldered person to walk through the hallways without rubbing either wall with their elbows. Lights hang low from the high ceiling, casting dim light.
Another right leads to the main set, where "the magic happens." It's compact. In the far left corner is a medical table surrounded by instruments that look like they would do more harm to a body than good if used. The area is also lit by dim, low hanging lights.
Throughout the room are wooden desks covered in old, dusty books, wires, machinery and technology that is unidentifiable. On the main desk in the middle of the room is a small brown mouse who continuously tries to escape from her glass jar.
The mouse is only in the jar while scenes are being shot. Between takes, Zawierucha opens the lid to say hello and make sure that she has enough oxygen. When the cast and crew break for lunch, a crew member returns her to a cage that is equipped with food, water and a thick bed of shavings. If she were not a biter, crew members said they would love to play with her.
In the center of the room, the thing that demands everyone's attention, is a giant, rust-gold chamber covered in wheels, nobs and wires. The front has a wide, short window that allows viewers to see into the chamber. The interior is filled with fluorescent light, making anyone in the tube look as though they are glowing white light.
The chamber is what houses the four patients being experimented on in the movie. Inside, there is one long bench that has just enough room for four people to sit side-by-side and a metal urinal.
Though the film will show much of the set, there are many things that will not (unless someone makes a mistake) appear in the final cut: walls lined with half empty coffee cups, crumpled water bottles, scripts, trash and the slippers that De Dominici wore while shooting a scene instead of her 1940s-inspired shoes. There are also four pairs of slippers near the chamber. Those playing the patients are barefoot when shooting. The chamber has mats and blankets on the floor, but the concrete floor of the set is cold for a sockless foot.
When the tank was ready and feet were slipperless, Andersson called for the scene's first take. The scene was shot from outside of the tank looking in at the test-subjects through the long window. Most of the crew was behind the cameras. The director, however, was hiding behind the tank watching the action on a monitor.
As the scene played-out, those behind the tank could hear the patients falling, hitting the sides of the tube and pounding on the window. After each take the door was thrown open, usually by the production's photographer, and a fan was turned on to air-out the metal tube that, according to the four actors playing the patients, got really warm really quickly when they were running around inside of it. By the fourth or fifth take, actors were emerging with rosy cheeks and sweat beading their foreheads.
Between takes the cast and crew offered ideas about how to tweak the scene or solve a problem.
One issue was that the patients were unable to hear what was happening outside of the chamber and were thus unable to react to it. The script manager, Rachel Weber, who had a headset that allowed her to hear what mics were picking up, wedged herself into a corner of the chamber to give the men playing the patients their cues.
Another issue was how to shoot the scene with Kattan being gone. He was unable to shoot for one day because he flew out to New York to be on "The Late Show" with Jimmy Fallon. So, crew member Nick Houchin, who is about Kattan's size and build, agreed to dye his hair, put about a gallon of hairspray in it and act as a stand-in.
Eventually, Andersson was done trying to fix every problem that came. "I stopped thinking what's going to happen so we'll shoot what we're going to shoot," he told Weber as he plopped into his director's chair and covered his ears with a pair of headphones.
"The Soviet Sleep Experiment" is an independent film. Producer Sara Leeper is hoping that filming will wrap in the beginning of January and that the movie will be complete by the end of the spring. Then, it will be pitched to streaming services, networks, etc.
When it comes to pitching the film Leeper stated, "We have a unique approach because our story has a groundswell of followers already." While a horror/psychological thriller that takes place in the Soviet Union in 1940 and that began as an online urban myth has a niche audience, that audience is quite passionate about the myth and, as the cast and crew hopes, this movie.