Appearing in this film was Russian actor Saveliy Kramarov who was a real life defector from the U.S.S.R. Kramarov had appeared in over 40 Russian films and was given permission to emigrate to the U.S. in the early 1980s. Kramarov gave up his Russian film career for small parts and religious freedom in the United States. This was Kramarov's first American movie and ironically, he played a KGB agent.
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In preparation for his role, for about a year, lead actor Robin Williams studied Soviet customs and learned the Russian language. Reportedly, Williams spent five hours a day learning Russian and had learned to speak it well within a month. By the time of principal photography, Williams was at a proficiency level where he could carry out a conversation. William's teacher was a Russian actor called David.
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The grandfather of director Paul Mazursky was born in Kiev, Russia. In 1905, he defected from Czarist Russia by jumping a Russian train troop. Mazursky's grandfather met his grandmother whilst emigrating, when traveling on the boat bound for the U.S.
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The music instrument that Vladimir Ivanoff (Robin Williams) played was a saxophone. Robin Williams spent months learning to play the sax and apparently according to his music tutor, got to a level of accomplishment that would normally take a student two years.
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The movie's title "Moscow on the Hudson" now lends its name to be the brand of a real life online Russian goods store and food supermarket based in Manhattan, www.moscowonhudson.com.
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Director Paul Mazursky spent a year's preparation on this movie by speaking with Russians living in the U.S., as well as ones still living in the then Soviet Union in Kiev, Moscow and Leningrad.
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On the DVD commentary for Moscow on the Hudson, writer/director Paul Mazursky said that he had written, and for many years tried to get made, a sequel to this movie titled "Moscow on the Rocks." Mazursky said that the plot would again center around Robin Williams's character Vladimir, who would now be a successful but cutthroat New York businessman who was exploiting his mostly immigrant workforce. The plot of the unproduced screenplay had Vladimir traveling back to Russia for his sister's wedding and falling in love there with a Russian doctor. During the commentary, Mazursky also said he despaired of the sequel ever being made at this point, for a variety of reasons, including the fact that Robin WIlliams was by that point a much bigger star than he had been while making Moscow on the Hudson (although Mazursky didn't specify the date on which the commentary was being recorded, he does mention in it that the Oscars are upcoming and he predicts that Gladiator will win, which most likely dates the commentary to early 2001). As of 2014 (and the deaths of both Paul Mazursky and Robin Williams) the sequel has still not been made.
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In one scene, a cinema is showing An Unmarried Woman (1978), directed by Paul Mazursky, the director of Moscow on the Hudson.
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One of the movie's main movie posters featured a long preamble that read: "America is sometimes a strange place even for Americans. Let alone for Vladimir Ivanoff, a Russian defector with a black roommate, a Cuban lawyer, and an Italian girlfriend. Who's learning to live with Big Macs, cable TV, hard rock, softcore, unemployment and a whole new wonderful word for him. Freedom."
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One of the film's main movie posters which was an aerial view of New York City was the subject of a successful civil lawsuit from artist Saul Steinberg. Steinberg sued alleging that the movie poster infringed the copyright of his renown 1976 ink, pencil, colored pencil, and watercolor on paper "View of the World from Ninth Avenue" illustrative cover of the 29/03/1976 edition of 'The New Yorker' magazine [See Case: Steinberg v. Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc., 663 F. Supp. 706 (S.D.N.Y. 1987)].
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Second of four writing collaborations of Leon Capetanos and Paul Mazursky. The pictures are Tempest (1982), Moon Over Parador (1988), Moscow on the Hudson (1984), Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986).
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Taking great care to create a feeling of reality and authenticity in the film, director Paul Mazursky set about finding the rest of his cast after the principals had been found. Through casting agents and then through Russian newspapers in New York and Munich, where all of the Moscow scenes were shot, Russian actors and actresses were found to fill the roles of Vladimir's family, the KGB, the Moscow circus performers, and extras and background artists. Nearly all of them became United States citizens who came to the US during the detente of the Carter Administration of Democratic President Jimmy Carter.
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In an early scene Vladimir attempts to buy three pairs of shoes in a state run store, even though they're not even his size. Soviet stores often had little or no merchandise for sale. People would queue up and buy anything that was available, even if they didn't need it. These goods could later be sold on the black market or traded for something they did need. They could even be used to bribe nosy government officials, as Vladimir later does with his shoes.
After scouting locations in Stockholm in Sweden, Helsinki in Finland and Vienna in Austria, director, producer and co-writer Paul Mazursky and co-producer and production designer Pato Guzman decided that Munich in West Germany would be their Moscow. "We first found the back-lot in a catalog from Bavaria Studios," recalled Guzman. "It was a little round picture of an Eastern European street. We had been considering a number of European cities but realized that to have full control of a street in any city in the world is almost impossible. Shooting at Bavaria Studios meant we could control the shots, control the lines, and not have to deal with the reality of city problems. In the meantime, Paul discovered that many Russians actually live in Munich, and he also learned that it has a one-ring circus, so it became even more attractive to us." Mazursky added: "Several months later, our cinematographer Don McAlpine, Pato and I made a trip to Munich with very specific concepts of how we would transform a German street into a Russian street. Don decided to shoot what we had in mind with a Super-8 camera. Using German tourists who were on a tour of Bavaria Studios, we created our street scene, shot it and for the first time saw our vision begin to come to life."
On a sound stage in Harlem in New York production designer Pato Guzman created the American apartment of Vladimir Ivanoff (Robin Williams) as well as re-creating the cosmetic department of New York's Bloomingdale's Department Store.
The scenes set in Russia were shot in Munich, Germany at Bavaria Studios. The studio had a large exterior set of an Eastern European city street that the filmmakers could dress however they wanted. This allowed them to shoot most of the exteriors without the added complications of shooting on real city streets. The street was named "Bergmanstrasse" because it had originally been constructed for Ingmar Bergman's film The Serpent's Egg.
After returning to the USA and polishing the script, director / co-writer Paul Mazursky began looking for the actors who would bring his characters to life. "I knew I needed a very smart actor to play Vladimir," said the director. "Robin Williams indeed understood the constant edge of irony in playing a character who goes from one despair to another without allowing the character to wallow in self-pity. It's frightening for an actor to undertake a role in which he has to undergo such a complete transformation, but I felt Robin could be extraordinary."
Star Robin Williams was given the most difficult task of all - that of becoming a Russian. No stranger to arduous preparation for the parts he had played, Williams' transformation involved far more than simply growing a beard. He learned to speak fluent Russian as well as how to play the saxophone for the role of Vladimir Ivanoff. Individual coaching in both Russian and the saxophone began several months before the film was scheduled to roll. "It is wonderful working in another language," said Williams. "It forces you to really be exact about what you want and what you need."
Production designer Pato Guzman elaborated about the street scenes set in Russia but filmed in Germany: "Once we actually started transforming the street, we took all the cuteness out and simply made it very plain. We took away the cobblestones and covered them with asphalt. We also changed the overall color of the street. Like Moscow, it became all terra cotta and gray. We added a trolley, some Russian cars, along with many other details, and we had it."
At the Bavaria Studios in Munich, storefronts were dressed with Russian merchandise, Soviet signs were hung, Russian cars were driven into place, fake snow was shoveled, and about one hundred and sixty extras and background artists in overcoats filled the street thus recreating Moscow, Russia in the winter.
Writer-director Paul Mazursky and his co-writer Leon Capetanos spent three weeks in Russia doing research for the production of this picture.
Director and co-writer Paul Mazursky admitted that this film project originated with a piece of family history. He said: "It all began when my grandfather jumped off a train in Russia in 1905," he recalled. "He was from Kiev, and he was in the Russian army. He eventually escaped the Czarist regime and got on a boat and came to America. He met my grandmother on that boat. The seeds of any story about immigrants, I guess, are way back there."
The concept for the movie was an idea that director and co-writer Paul Mazursky had been toying with for several years when he decided to call his 'Tempest' (1982) collaborator Leon Capetanos. "We did a lot of research," said Mazursky. "We talked to Russians in Los Angeles and New York, including a Russian musician, and our story began to narrow." Co-writer Leon Capetanos remembered: "We spoke to Russians who had emigrated. We asked them what it was like to go through immigration and discovered that they were overwhelmed by the most minor things like grocery stores, meat markets, the sheer opulence of it."
After completing a first draft of the script, co-writers Paul Mazursky and Leon Capetanos went to Russia, where they spent three weeks walking the streets of Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev. "We went over there with great trepidation because all we had to go on was the fact that we had read every book we had been able to get our hands on," said Capetanos. "Neither of us had ever been to Russia before, so we weren't quite sure if it was what we imagined."
Co-writer and director Paul Mazursky said: "Most Russians are just trying to survive. Yet, all Russians who leave their country leave behind something they treasure and love. It's a terrible conflict for them, so the act of bravery is overwhelming. I had to say to myself, 'All that's great, but how do I make it funny?'. I think the answer is not to get on a soapbox. I take the whole thing very seriously, but I've also tried to make it very entertaining."
Director Paul Mazursky said of actress Maria Conchita Alonso who played Lucia Lombardo: "Maria's first reading as Lucia knocked me out." He continues: "I couldn't stop laughing. She has a very strong combination of technique and instinct that gives off a lot of energy. If here's a modern combination of Sophia Loren and Carmen Miranda, it's Maria. She's got the beauty of Loren and the wackiness of a clown like Miranda."
Director Paul Mazursky said of actor Cleavant Derricks who played Lionel Witherspoon: "When Cleavant came to read for the part of Lionel, I was frankly in the midst of deciding between two other actors. However, Cleavant said about three or four words, and I knew it was over. He has a real awareness of who he is," said Mazursky. "He is a real person with a lot of dignity and warmth and, still, he has got the street in him. Cleavant goes so far beyond the cliches that it can be disarming."
According to Robin Williams' saxophone teacher, Williams learned in two months what an adult usually learns in two years, while his proficiency with the Russian language became immediately apparent upon meeting the film's Russian actors, many of whom spoke no English.
The rehearsal period on this picture ran for about two weeks.
Principal photography began on 11th July 1983 in Munich, West Germany which was experiencing the hottest summer in 100 years and was not exactly the best circumstances under which to simulate a Russian winter.
Star Robin Williams commented on the Munich leg of the shoot in Germany: "All of us, especially the Russians, were knocked out by what Paul [ director and co-writer Paul Mazursky] and Pato [production designer Pato Guzman] did in Munich. It was as close as you can get to Moscow without going behind the 'big curtain'."
The New York filming locations in the USA included Bloomingdale's, Times Square, Central Park, Lincoln Center, Greenwich Village, Harlem, Brooklyn, the Bowery and Brighton Beach.
For the first three days of principal photography the cast and crew shot at Arriflex Studios where production designer Pato Guzman had created the Moscow apartment of Vladimir Ivanoff (Robin Williams).
The street on the back-lot of Bavaria Studios was called "Bergmanstrasse" as it was originally created for Ingmar Bergman's 'The Serpent's Egg' (1977).
After four weeks filming in Germany, the cast and crew returned to director Paul Mazursky's favorite back-lot: New York City. He said: "When you are talking about America there's New York and then there are other places. The other places can be compared to each other but not to New York. In New York, the look is so much more dynamic than other cities. It's a very powerful place. And, besides, there's good coffee and good Danish."
Sameliy Kramarov, Elya Baskin and Oleg Rudnik worked together again in the film '2010' (1984) where they all portrayed Soviet cosmonauts.
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The German filming locations in Munich included the Circus Kronen, Leopoldstrasse, Ludwigstrasse, and a small street near the center of the old city, just off the Marienplatz.
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