Working Against Predictability – Interview with Lili Horváth

Following short films showcasing strong directorial concepts and memorable performances by professional and amateur actors, Lili Horváth’s debut feature has been widely anticipated both in her native Hungary and abroad. Her new film The Wednesday Child (Szerdai gyerek) premieres in the East of the West section of the Karlovy Vary film festival. (Interview from the Karlovy Vary issue of Hungarian Film Magazine.)

Your short films have been on the spectrum of film professionals from the beginning. How long was the road from short to first feature?

Considering the number of years it took, it wasn’t a short period: my graduation film Sunstroke (Napszúrás) was finished in 2009. However, there has been much to do in the past 6 years. Writing The Wednesday Child’s script took time – it didn’t just materialize overnight, ready for filming. The first draft was completed in 2010 and the final version in 2013.

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Photo by Bea Kallos (MTI)

It is also my most extensive work as an author so  far. It was a formative experience writing a feature- length film after my shorts however long they were for the format and stretched its boundaries: initially, I thought I would be naturally comfortable in the full- length form but when I actually started working on The Wednesday Child, I realised I still had to learn how to construct (and at times deconstruct) a building of considerable scale.

At the time when the story was conceived, the film funding system in Hungary was in a transitional phase: it was quite impossible to try applying for a grant in Hungary. Nevertheless, we were lucky: the project was selected for Cinelink in Sarajevo and later I also received the Nipkow Programme fellowship, which enabled me to work on the script in depth. I felt that our film was alive. After the creation of the Hungarian National Film Fund, we received script development support – it was becoming more and more certain that the film was going to be made.

As you can see, the preparations for the film never really halted. Besides I had other jobs too. Just before the shooting of our film, I had the chance to be part of the crew of Kornél Mundruczó’s White God as casting director. This was an enlightening experience: I was able to observe the way the director and his staff put together a feature film, from the first staff meeting to the last shooting day. This is something one cannot learn at film school.

You mention casting and, judging by your previous films, you do seem like a very actor- centric director.

I am definitely very interested in this aspect. Every casting process is stimulating intellectually: at first you only see the list of characters as a blank page which you have to fill with content which is living and true. I strive for solutions which don’t seem trivial – this doesn’t mean that I want a dissonant cast or neglect well-known actors, but I try to keep my eyes open. I don’t want to choose someone just because I have seen him or her in a similar role. I like the thrill of discovery: to find an unexpected role for one of the most prolific Hungarian film actors, Szabolcs Thuróczy – or to find an amateur or a wonderful stage actor whom you’ve never seen on the screen before. The consideration of the interactions between personalities to faithfully represent family relations, couple dynamics or antagonism always fascinates me.

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Over your short film years, a group gathered around you. The people in this group have become your regular collaborators: first of all, cinematographer Róbert Maly and producer Károly Fehér.

This creative community – including editor Dániel Szabó, costume designer Szandra Sztevanovity and sound designer Rudolf Várhegyi – provides me with a very stable ground. I was lucky to have so many friends in the crew. This is especially reassuring when it comes to a first feature: it meant a lot to me that I didn’t have to prove to strangers that I am the director and that I can do this job. That would have been a great waste of energy.

Describe your collaboration with Róbert.

We’ve been working together for a long time during which we changed a lot and so did our friendship.

I consider our collaboration on this feature particularly successful. Róbert read every single version of the script, well before creating the shotlist. On the one hand, he always told me his opinion, which led to further discussions lasting for years with long pauses, while on the other hand, we started sharing photos, pictures, films to inspire each other and to find points of reference. As we approached filming, we created a shotlist of every single scene – we wouldn’t have dared start shooting otherwise, since this was the first feature length film for both of us.

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How did you create the style of the film?

In the case of The Wednesday Child, we clarified the basic rules right at the beginning: for example, how the close-ups should always have special significance or that the aesthetics cannot overrule the story.

Also, that this theme of “being on the road” has to be represented in a visual way. We formed our own filming method, which meant that we started shooting and then watched the material at the end of the second week and modified things then. We started taking the camera off the track and moving more freely, shooting more incidental footage with different camera equipment. Rigid planning simply didn’t suit our material. Although the story is strictly fictitious, the presence of the amateur actors makes it in a way documentary-like. A carefully composed tracking shot didn’t feel appropriate.

As a filmmaker, you seem deeply devoted to the most oppressed layers of society, but you don’t live your own life in that milieu. Why are these people so important to you?

It would be difficult to answer this, because each of these stories I’ve chosen to tell for different reasons. In The Swimming Pool Thief (Uszodai tolvaj), I was inspired by a character as well as a space encircled by eight buildings. In Sunstroke, I had my own premise: the meeting of two women and a gesture where one of them gives her child to the other. I wanted a confined space for the scene of this fateful meeting – I chose an orphanage. In The Wednesday Child, my main focus was to carry on with the main character of Sunstroke.

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Is it more difficult to become successful as a female director?

So far I haven’t really experienced any discrimination. This might be due to the fact that being a woman isn’t an issue for me: I’m very grateful to my parents for teaching me as a child that girls are equal to boys. They never expected more from my brother than from me. I think this is why I find it absurd when someone’s professional competence is judged based on their gender.

At the University of Theatre and Film Arts of Buda- pest, there were more girls than boys in my class, so as a filmmaker I got used it, to see girls who want to make films. I think there are many problems with the film industry in general, but you have to admit that they’re a very accepting group. When they can see that you work hard, the teasing-and-testing stops. Making films is very expensive and thus the responsibility is great: if one is not capable of standing up to the task, the industry will reject them. But when one is, they will be accepted – regardless of their sex.

How are you feeling now, before the Karlovy Vary festival?

I’m nervous! I have a lot to do because, thank God, there’s a kind of buzz around the film right now. We wrapped audio post-production a few days ago, the screening copy will be completed soon. Soon I’ll have to finally believe that The Wednesday Child will really be in front of the audience, and at a very prestigious festival.

Are you concerned about the reception of the film? Are you picky when it comes to festivals?

Which director would not feel concerned? In the world of film festivals I’m a newcomer. I have no idea what is coming after Karlovy Vary for me. But what  I concentrate on is that the film is finally out of the box. We, the creators of the film and the Hungarian National Film Fund, were hoping for an A-list premiere, so we’re very happy now.

by Dániel Deák

issuu.com/hungarianfilm

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