Understanding the Whole Picture – Interview with Mátyás Erdély, DOP of Son of Saul

It was really hard to catch cinematographer Mátyás Erdély for an interview due to his constant travelling around the world for his work. His latest masterpiece, Son of Saul, is a huge international success, and after the Cannes premiere it was invited to Sarajevo, Telluride and Toronto. Interview in the latest issue of Hungarian Film Magazine.

Not many people know that Mátyás Erdély’s film career actually started with him as an actor when he played the main role in the adaptation of a famous Hungarian writer’s book entitled The Wondrous Voyage of Kornel Esti. There is a scene in the end credits where sixteen-year-old Mátyás is running towards the sea. Twenty years later he is among the best Hungarian cinematographers and is a frequent guest in Cannes, where he has had seven of his films presented at the festival, including his latest work, László Nemes Jeles’ Son of Saul, which won four prizes, among which the Grand Prix. “Cannes was a great experience and I still cannot believe we are talking about the possibility of the Academy Awards nominations. This is really happening! So far we have reached 80 000 viewers in Hungary, and counting. The whole Oscar nomination is great because we can reach more and more viewers with the buzz around it and that is the most important thing”.

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Photo: Gábor Valuska

Festivals are usually about the director, which Mátyás has absolutely no problem with, but the cinematographer’s work has to speak for itself. “I am so happy to see László emerging with his first feature, it is a beautiful story and still developping. Our next project is in pre-produciton. It will be a Hungarian period drama set in 1910, and I hope we can make it next year. The film language we are using needs time to think it through. The story in Son of Saul is very fundamental, almost like a Greek tragedy, but the film language itself is so strong that you have a whole other experience watching it”.

To understand their decisive style, we have to go back to their previous collaboration, With a Little Patience, which is basically a pre-study for Son of Saul. “Patience was a short film, so it was much easier and there was less responsibility: we had the story, we wanted to make it in one shot, in a close-up of a face, and that’s exactly what we did. But creating Saul took five years! We started working on it in 2010, and in the beginning we wanted to use steadicam. László even went to meet the inventor of the steadicam, Garret Brown. We had a long talk with him about what we wanted to do in Son of Saul, and in the end he actually advised us against using it. He was right, we had to use hand-held cameras to create that special style. We were just afraid of it because of all those stereotypic hand-held camera usages. We gave it some thought, though, and finally decided that that was the solution”.

Hungarian Film Magazine – The 2015 Autumn Issue

Son of Saul was shot on 35 mm, and both László and Mátyás are true believers of celluloid, “László’s work needs the celluloid, and I also believe that it is a deeper experience, a higher quality for the viewer. If a film-maker can work with analogue material, why would they choose less quality? 35 or even 70 mm is an option for film-makers not just for acquiring but also for projection, and I wish more and more directors and DPs chose this format for their stories so we don’t have to see blurry DCPs in the movie theatres. I respect Christopher Nolan tremendously for declaring he would shoot in IMAX in order to give the best available quality to his viewers. James Bond went back to celluloid too. And even better: the other day I was at the Hungarian Film Lab for the new 35 mm copies for Son of Saul when I heard that three new upcoming Hungarian films are shot on 35 mm. Digital technology is like watching a very good quality reproduction of a famous painting: it is not the same and it never will be”.

During those five years of working on Saul, Erdély simultaneously finished Tender Son with Kornél Mundruczó, Miss Bala with Gerardo Naranjo, James White with Josh Mond and a TV series called Southcliffe with Sean Durkin. “Pre-production is pretty much just about talking, but it is essential. László is very thorough, so there were no questions on the set, just answers. Every director is different to work with, and I very much enjoyed working with László because he understands every element of cinematography. He is fully aware of the quality of light and, as we were relying on natural light for our outside scenes, we had to wait for the perfect light and László was totally supportive. It is very important for me to get engrossed in the story; I have to know every aspect of it, I have to go through every little detail before I understand the whole picture, and only then do I know where to put the camera. Even if I work with so-called international stars, they are actually very good people. For example, Sean Durkin is a very sensitive, special and kind person. We are stilll in contact and I hope we can work together again soon”.

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Son of Saul

There haven’t been any turning points in his career, as from every project has come from a previous one, although he does admit that the success of Delta was essential in this process. “My work with Kornél launched my international career and I’m grateful for that. Without Delta there would be no Miss Bala, and without Miss Bala, I wouldn’t have my agent”. Mátyás Erdély is represented by United Talent Agency so he gets plenty of scripts all the time. Every script has an info sheet attached with the names of the director, the producers, the actors, the budget and the shooting time. “It is very difficult to find the right project and I feel very few scripts are for me. I’m looking for projects that are bold and have a unique voice and there are not so many like that. With foreign jobs, I also have to consider that I have three kids, so it has to be a really good one for me to leave my family for such a long time. In Hungary I work with a small group of people, most of whom are close friends and, as a matter of fact, I am still working a lot more abroad”. Mátyás’s next project will start in October: Hier by Bálint Kenyeres will be seven weeks of shooting in Morocco.

by Anita Libor

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