For "White Tiger" director Karen Shakhnazarov, Captain Ahab was a scrawny Soviet tank driver and his Moby Dick was a dusty Nazi tank.
Shakhnazarov said he wove Herman Melville's classic whale tale into his story that takes place at the end of World War II.
"I really love 'Moby Dick,' it's one of my favorite novels," he told the audience at TheWrap screening series Wednesday night at the Sundance Cinemas Sunset 5 theater.
"White Tiger," Russia's official Oscar entry for Best Foreign film, follows Red Army Sergeant Ivan Naydenov who, after barely surviving a brutal battle with a mysterious Panzer tank, becomes obsessed with destroying it at any cost. The German tank, which picks off its Russian opponents with ease, appears impervious to the Soviets' counterattacks. In a flash, the so-called "white tiger" routinely disappears into forests too thick and swamps too wet for any ordinary tank to tread.
The Panzer is like a ghost — and its this mystical quality that Shakhnazarov hoped to capture.
"Life is mystic," he told TheWrap's awards editor Steve Pond during a Q&A after the film's showing. "You have no answer. Why? What for? And what happened?"
Shakhnazarov said he had long wanted to film a World War II movie as a tribute to his late father who served in the Red Army during the war.
The director said he had served in a tank battalion as a young man in the Soviet Union, but was mostly inspired by his father's tales of fighting the Germans in the 1940s.
"He was a real guy that fought," Shakhnazarov said. "For me, it was important to make some tribute to his memory and his friends with whom he won the war."
It was no easy feat.
Forgoing any computer animation, Shakhnazarov enlisted scores of actual tanks for the battle scenes. And, the logistical challenge of finding disposable World War II relics aside, he had to make fights between the lumbering behemoths look, well, exciting by conventional action standards.
"Generally, tanks are very slow and usually the fights of tanks are at a big distance," he said. "So for cinema, you must find a way to make this…" He paused to find the right word in English. "I'm sorry, you understand. It was enough of a challenge, yes."
The $6 million budget also paid for elaborate, if destructible, sets.
There was the tiny wood cabins in the Russian village. And the cobble-stoned East German city and the ornate chamber where a disgruntled Adolf Hitler reflected on the Nazis place in history.
"Everything was built," he said. "The village was built, the German city was built, the place of the battle was built."
He paused, laughed to himself, then told the crowd: "So, welcome to the Russian Federation."
Budgeting was likely the least complex element of making the film, which serves as a meditation on the senselessness of war and the violence that spawns in its fog.
"Everyone hates war, but war exists. War is going and going, today it's war somewhere yes?" he said. "Is it part of our nature? Or, like Leo Tolstoy, as he said in 'War and Peace,' it's something out of human nature?"