László Nemes took the risk to create a very special first feature, following his own rules. In the latest Cannes 2015 issue of World of Shorts , we asked him about his way there: film labs, scriptwriting and expectations. His film Son of Saul is the only first feature in the Official Competition at the Cannes Film Festival this year.
interview by Dániel Deák
What do you think about pitching in general? According to my impressions it is very useful to learn how to tell your story in a compressed way. On the other hand, sometimes it is self-serving with all the preparations and travelling.
The pitch tourism? Yes, there is certainly something like this. I realised that a pitch can work if we summarise the story itself in no more than 6-8 sentences. More details are just too much for the audience. It is quite strange when directors turn into pitch clowns, or stand-up comedians. Of course it has good aspects, but it is not necessarily good if a filmmaker has to expose himself in too many places. You should always be selective and avoid burning out the project.
And what are your experiences regarding film labs, where you can develop your project?
In general I don’t really like trainings, which consider participants as if they were kids out of elementary school. I don’t think one should develop their ego, but rather to deal with concrete tasks. I participated in the Jerusalem Film Lab with Son of Saul and I worked with Torino Film Lab’s Script and Pitch on my other project, Sunset. Script and Pitch is perfect to start working on a project or to come back to the foundations: to brainstorm, to develop the idea, to work on the first creative phase – there is a place for hesitation. In Jerusalem, I tend to think that the filmmaker should arrive with a more developed idea, possibly a solid first draft, and work towards a new version. In my case, I was glad it happened this way – otherwise it might have been quite frustrating.
It is also a risk to over-develop the projects. Sometimes I have the feeling that after all the scripts become too sterile.
Me and my colleagues try to avoid over-development as much as we can, keeping a steady pace of development and space for changes and contingency – to let the screenplay breathe until the shooting. It’s also crucial to involve external help by script editors at the right time. The most difficult is to get started – during development one has to work the hardest until a solid final version of a treatment is reached. It can also be difficult to keep the material alive within you when you are the creator. One should be used to putting the material aside and letting it grow by itself.
Why did you choose 35mm instead of digital technologies?
The digital image is a regressive, deceitful technology. With film, the combination of darkness and projected image induces in the viewer a physical reaction, which is absent from digital projection. In a sense, projected physical film hypnotises the viewer. On the side of acquisition, because of the incredible amount of shot raw material, the time and significance of post-production has disproportionately grown. It is absolutely inexplicable why so many directors accept this and why they don’t fight more for 35mm. A few of us still fight against television mentality and aesthetics entirely taking over filmmaking and the experimental attitudes attached to it.
In order to consult about the visual style of my film I met Garrett Brown, who invented the technology of steadycam – he contributed so much to make the camera mobile in modern filmmaking. He argues that with the uncontained triumph of visual effects, the camera, in many cases, has become dematerialised. It has stopped to exist as a physical object, going through bodies, walls, etc. Leaving reality, the images thus obtained decrease the emotional response of the audience. In Son of Saul we tried to convey a more physical sense of space in order to create an existing, believable world for the audience.
As a first feature director did you have any expectations of yourself?
Some filmmakers start their career with films similar to other contemporary works – and then, slowly some of them find their own tone and style. there are many examples – including Antonioni, one of my main references – of directors who started like this. Or – and this is the other way – you can take a huge risk and do everything differently starting with the first film. Both approaches can work, and yet, I decided to take the second road. We tried to work consciously against beauty. The aestheticising approach of former Holocaust films served as counterexamples. We made our own dogma with my director of photography, Mátyás Erdély. Hand-held camera, the importance of POV shots, the recurring use of the same lens, no classic film-style dramatization: these were a few of our founding principles.
Do you plan to make shorts anymore?
Yes, I would love to. I like short formats. But I think it is only worth making shorts if we can commit ourselves to a project and are able to invest the maximum effort into it. This is the only way one can make short films and try to maintain it as a valid and compelling art form.
I am not particularly happy about the large number of shorts produced nowadays. We are simply unable to absorb so many films. At the same time I see fewer breakthrough masterpieces. I have the impression that most of the filmmakers don’t take risks, they just want to create something good, but not an original, excellent work. With my short films I always wanted to cross boundaries, take risks, find my voice and at times, I wanted to experiment with new forms and styles to tell stories differently from the current trends.