Lisa Eichhorn: an American in ‘Riga’ How a U.S. actress living in England ended up producing Latvia’s biggest movie.

Patrick Kevin Day
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
December 22, 2008

“Defenders of Riga,” a post- World War I drama on a large scale, is Latvia’s submission for this year’s best foreign film Oscar. It’s the biggest film to be released in the Baltic nation, surpassing “Titanic,” the previous record holder, at the box office.

The film tells the story of the crucial battle for Latvian independence that took place against the Germans and Russians on Nov. 11, 1919. But how did an American actress (and one-time Golden Globe and BAFTA nominee) get involved with the film to the degree that she was credited with her first co-screenplay and co-producing credit?

Lisa Eichhorn, who got her start opposite Richard Gere in the 1979 movie “Yanks,” explains:

Q: How did you go from acting to producing Latvia’s biggest film?

A: In 2003 I moved back to England from New York City. I had decided I wanted to write and produce and I had an idea for a series. About a year later, I was asked to go to Latvia by a colleague to see how easy it would be to film some Western films there. I wasn’t working at the time in acting. I had taken time off from my script. In so doing, I met a lot of the producers and directors and a few of the actors. I was invited back in May 2004, to work with the actors on “Defenders of Riga.”

Their story precedes me by two years. They had a script and it was a story of obvious national importance to them. [Co-producer and co-writer] Andrejs Ekis had shot 30 % of the film and he asked me to look at what he had so far. He asked me to tell him what I thought and be brutally honest. I told him the shortcomings I felt the film had and they were many. He said, “I don’t care how long it takes, this is a very important movie for me, for Latvia, how would you fix it?” I told him what I would do and I left. I was called to Latvia five months later to work with the actors who were on the film. I was hired as a method coach.

The largest and most glaring shortcoming in the footage I saw was that the actors didn’t talk to each other. There was no depth. And a couple of the leading actors weren’t even getting along. They asked me if I could fix that. We worked and made great progress.

Latvia had a very vibrant film industry during the Soviets’ time, but when the Soviets left, everything fell apart. The skills that were a natural part of the system — designers, cameramen, film acting — all got lost in the subsequent 10 or 12 years. There were actors acting in a film who had no idea how to film-act.

Q: How long were they filming?

They started in 2003 ,and then they took a break and tried to address their problems. I came on board, and they still had difficulty. It was the most amazing thing. One of the things I said to Andrejs in 2005 [when we were still shooting] was that in Los Angeles you would never be able to start something over to get it right. You would probably never get another opportunity. There was a lot of money riding on it. I think it’s the most expensive movie ever made in Latvia ($2.4 million). We were absolutely determined to make a movie that people would want to see. Over 300,000 Latvians have seen the movie in a country of 2.3 million people.

Q: We know what the pressures would be like making the most expensive movie in Hollywood. What were the pressures like making the most expensive movie in Latvia?

There was a group of people who were very fearful that the movie would never get made and that all the money would be lost and all the people who had an emotional need to tell the story would be lost. Whoever could mount that again having had such a failure? On the other side, there was Ekis and his fervent belief that he would make the movie. But he was using the movie as a learning tool. He was really learning on his feet. The thing about making a film in Latvia is, during Soviet time, if a movie took six months, if somebody had to go away to work at the Moscow Theatre and return six months later, that was OK. Time is just a totally different thing in Latvia. In terms of pressure, there are no unions so an actor could be called at 6 a.m. and not be used until 10 p.m. and go home at 2 a.m., but be asked to come back at 6 a.m. There’s no structure as there is in the U.S. in terms of SAG or teamster rules or normal limits of human endurance. If everybody is available, they get together and shoot like mad. I think that’s why the film took so long. It wasn’t just the steep learning curve, but also the availability of the actors.

Q: Did you try to impose order or did you adapt to their method of filmmaking?

What I told them, and I was very firm, I came at it from the actors’ point of view. I told them they were responsible for everything they could do to make their characters better. The director had only done one film. It was a popular film, but he was also learning on the job. You have to know who your characters are. If you admire anything in Western film, that’s your homework. If your costume needs to have a pocket and six buttons you have to make sure they’ve got it because at the moment there’s no agency, no departmental structure. If your character needs brown gloves, you have to make sure you’ve got them.

The soldiers were coming back from war and every single actor’s costume was brand new. That’s a kind of fundamental example. I have to say, when I first came, they mistrusted me and they weren’t sure about my ability to help them. They came to trust me over the next 18 months or two years. They learned I didn’t come to take something away from them.

Q: Did you know anything about Latvian culture going into this?

I had never been to Latvia. I have no Latvian relatives. I had no Latvian friends at that time. But I have a willingness to travel. It’s absolutely astounding when you speak to someone about good acting, no matter the language, and they demonstrate it to you, they can see the difference. I think that’s the amazing thing about film — it transcends language.

Q: Did the actors teach you anything?

A: The older actors, who had lived through Soviet times and worked in Soviet films, were the most mistrustful to begin with. But they came around gangbusters with alacrity and joy. They got what I was trying to help them with.

Q: Did you feel overwhelmed producing your first film at this scale?

No. I believe if we’re lucky, we take the opportunities that are offered. Sometimes as you get older as an actor, the gifts and skills and knowledge that you have aren’t necessarily required. Everybody knows how the business works. And here were people who needed my expertise. I was like this big well that was an unending source. I had this experience, this career, time. I guess maybe I’m a workhorse or I love the challenge.

Q: Were you happy with your acting roles at this time?

No. As an actor, I love to act. I was always taught the story was the thing. I’ve had a very peripatetic career. I’ve lived in Los Angeles and London and New York and back and forth between all of them a couple of times. I think that I used to think if I got a job somewhere, I had to move there. That didn’t help people to know where I was.

I think it was a common feeling for me that I had failed in some way early on in my career. I think I had come to terms with the fact that I’d had this colossally large beginning. I didn’t have the education or emotional equipment to understand the business of show business. In my 30s and 40s I had to mourn my own lack of understanding. I had to let go and forgive myself. One reviewer said I didn’t live up to my early promise. But how did he know what my early promise was?

I think if you fall away from the main stage or if you suddenly find yourself doing different kinds of parts — I’ve always been grateful for every part I’ve been given. Did I wish I’d been re-remembered on the scale I began with? Yeah, I probably did. I think that was for all the wrong reasons. I think I wanted to show that person who said I didn’t live up to my early promise that I wasn’t a failure. But that’s like living in the present with one foot in the past. When I have an opportunity to act, I am grateful. I have lots of acting left inside of me.

I used to not know who I was when I wasn’t playing a character. Now I think I’m comfortable being myself and a character. I had to learn to accept all of myself and not look back.

Now I look forward to directing my first film and getting my first script off the ground. When your attitude changes, your life changes.

Q: Have you been back to Latvia since the film opened? Have you experienced its success in person?

No, but I don’t need to go there to see it to know that it is and that it was. I feel very grateful to have been in the right place at the right time. It was as much a gift for me as it was a gift for them. A lot of people in my shoes wouldn’t care. The gift to me is that they’ve allowed me to express another part of my artistic self. I’m really grateful to them for that.