Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 3
 Issue 4 
3 Mar

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It takes a
lot of cunning

István Nemeskürty interviewed

Nemeskürty explains to Graham Petrie why being a studio head in like running a bookstore and being a psychiatrist and complains about too much introspection in Hungarian film.

István Nemeskürty has played an important role in three major areas of Hungarian cinema: as studio head (until 1984); as film historian and author of Word and Image: History of the Hungarian Cinema (Budapest: Corvina Press, 1968; revised edition 1975); and, most recently, as head of the Hungarian Film Institute.

Kinoeye here presents a previously unpublished interview by Graham Petrie, made in 1985.

Could we begin by discussing the whole process by means of which scripts are chosen and then filmed in the Hungarian system? From speaking to Péter Bacsó about his work at the Dialog Studio, I got the impression of something like the old Hollywood studio system where several people are employed full-time on preparing scripts that are then offered to directors for filming. Is this a normal pattern?

Not really. Each studio works in a different way. Let me explain how this whole system developed. When I first became a studio head in 1959, the whole system was very centralised and there was only one studio, the Hunnia Film Studio, which is now called Mafilm, and it was not until 1963 that it was decided it would be a good idea to have several studios. At the time, Hungarian film-making was very script oriented and the director thought of as being like a conductor conducting a piece of music. I was probably the person who was most responsible for the idea that films should be made by directors, and I was one of the first to allow the script to be handled much more freely, and not strictly adhered to during shooting. That's the pattern that has developed since, though Bacsó's studio perhaps still represents the older approach.

The director has to believe that the basic theme of the film is his own invention and that the film is his own creation if he is going to produce good work. It takes a lot of cunning and experience on the part of the studio head to have an idea grow and develop like a plant and then have it transplanted so that it becomes the intellectual property of the director and he considers it his own creation. This has been the case with Jancsó, Gaál, Gábor and other directors I have worked with.

Once a director has finished a film, I usually spend a couple of weeks thinking about an appropriate subject for his next one. To do this, I have to put myself in his place and empathise with everything he has done so far. Of course, I find out from him too, informally, over coffee or a meal, if he has a subject of his own he wants to work with, and when I begin to have an idea about what subjects might be suitable, I call a meeting of several dramaturges—do you know what a "dramaturge" is?

Vaguely, but perhaps you could explain it more fully.

Their role is similar to that of a reader in a publishing company: they don't write the scripts, but they look out for potential material and they have ideas about who might be suitable to film it.

Meanwhile, I have been keeping mental notes of remarks directors have made about what they have been reading recently and what has interested them. So, at this meeting with the dramaturges various themes are suggested and these are passed on by the dramaturges to the director. And a couple of months later the director will come to me and tell me he would like to make a film on a theme which almost always turns out to be one of those which we have cast out for him as "bait." Then he starts working with the scriptwriter, but always in close consultation the dramaturge.

Of course, this is not how it is done in every studio: in some cases, the director might come along with a completed script and say, "Do you like this or not?"—but that never happened in my studio. This kind of work is very complex: you have to be a combination of a priest hearing a confession and a psychiatrist.

Let me give you a concrete example involving Márta Mészáros. She made her first film, Eltávozott nap (The Girl, 1962), in my studio and then she went to work somewhere else. I didn't like the films she made after that and I became harsher and harsher in my criticisms of them, and on one occasion I criticised one of her films at a meeting at which she was present. She came up to me afterwards and asked if I really thought it was such a terrible film. I said yes, and she said we should work together again because, for years, people had been too afraid of her to tell her what was wrong with her scripts, and what she needed was someone to stand up to her.

I remembered that she had told me 15 years before this that she wanted to make a film that dealt with her father's life, and I suggested that we work on that. She said she would like to, but I wouldn't be brave enough to have it authorised. I told her to leave that to me, but she shouldn't try to write the script by herself because she was no good at it, and I recommended a playwright who could write the dialogue for her. She wasn't too pleased about that, but she agreed, and that's how Napló gyermekeimnek (Diary for my Children, 1982) came to be made. But the problems didn't end there because, when the film was completed, there were political objections to it from the Ministry.

We talked it over and Márta made some minor changes to it, but there was quite a long delay and meanwhile Márta made another film for my studio, Délibábok országa (The Government Inspector aka The Land of Mirages, 1983), which was based on Gogol's play of the same name. It wasn't really very good, but it kept her from worrying too much about the fate of Napló. Now, of course Márta is the one who made the film—she directed it and it is her film—but it would never have been made without me: I just wanted to give this example to show that I am not speaking empty words

I've always considered a studio head as being rather like the coach at a sports club: it's the athlete who wins the races, but it's the coach who tells him what to do and how to set up his programme. If the studio head does nothing more than provide the finances and other resources for the film, then there's not much point in his being there.

You've stressed that this is the way your studio operated; in other cases, however, might a director choose for himself a completed script that the studio approved, or might he be assigned a script prepared for him by the studio?

That last method is very rarely employed. It's no use unless a director is working with a theme that suits him completely.

Once the script is approved, how is the budget decided? Is it completely the studio's decision how much is allocated to any particular film?

If the method I described has been followed, then the studio head already has a pretty good idea of how much the film will cost. I need to have some idea, however, which director and which theme really deserve more money than another one might. As far as possible, the directors themselves shouldn't be bothered with questions of this kind, and they certainly shouldn't be pressured by means of financial considerations. Nor should they try to put pressure on me for more money once the shooting has started.

Does the script go to the Ministry of Culture for approval before shooting starts?

Yes. After I have read it, it goes to the film section of the Ministry of Culture. You could call it a kind of censorship if you like, but, on the other hand, it is the state that provides the resources for film-making through this department, and I feel they have a right to have their say. In 26 years of experience I found that, if you really want to do something and you are prepared to take responsibility for it, you can do it. What you must not do, as studio head, is to pretend to want to do something because you don't want to offend the director, but knowing in any case that it's not going to be approved, and then say that it's not really your decision what happens to it.

Once that approval is given, is the director left to work on the film as he wishes? And only then, when it's completed, does the film go back to the Ministry for final approval?

No. What happens is that there is an official screening, where the following are present: the head of the film section of the Ministry of Culture; the director and staff of Hungarofilm, which handles exports; the director and staff of Mokep, which looks after internal distribution; the heads of the other studios; and the director of the Hungarian Film Institute.

After the screening there are discussions about how the film should be marketed, what festivals it could be shown at, and so on, and the head of the film section of the Ministry also gives his opinion. The discussion is chaired by the head of the studio which made the film and he gives a summing up that might include suggestions for possible changes. Then the film is accepted or rejected and, if it is accepted, it is sent on to the laboratory.

When the studio head is planning the total production for the year, how important is it to take financial prospects into account? Are the decisions made largely in terms of artistic quality, or do you decide to make a few films that may have little artistic merit but may have commercial success?

My own opinion is that not enough attention is given to market considerations. A studio head is usually judged in terms of artistic successes even if no one goes to see the films [his studio produced], and I've always tried to make films that would have a wide popular appeal. And I always made sure that each year there was one director making his début. It's like running a bookstore: you have to sell both Tennyson and Agatha Christie in a good bookstore. One of the greatest dangers facing the industry is this increasing introspection: too many directors aren't interested in what anyone beyond two or three personal friends think of their films.

There appear to be serious problems now, with less money available for film-making and fewer films being made. Is this a temporary situation, or is it going to be a long-lasting one?

It's a very big problem. I'm really quite glad that I'm not a studio head any longer. Hungary should be making not 20, but 40, films a year if the industry as a whole is to flourish, and it could do that if the money available was properly distributed. But nobody wants to understand this and the best-known directors don't care because they know they will always get the chance to make their own films, and it doesn't matter to them.

Do you think there has been an overall decline in quality from the situation 10, or even 5, years ago?

You can't really judge whether there is a decline over a period of just a few years. Certainly, the range of interests of Hungarian film-makers is becoming narrower, but each year there are always at least a couple of good films. And 2 out of 20 is 10 percent—it's not that bad.

Graham Petrie

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Also of interest
About the author

Graham Petrie is the author of History Must Answer To Man: The Contemporary Hungarian Cinema (1978), a book on Jancsó's Red Psalm in the Cinetext series (Flicks Books), books on Francois Truffaut and Andrei Tarkovsky (with Vida T Johnson), and Hollywood Destines: European Directors In America, 1922-1931.

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