Tuesday, December 09, 2014

AIFF 2014 - Attila Szász Talks About His Film The Ambassador To Bern

The Ambassador To Bern looks to be a very good film.  Unfortunately, film maker Attila Szász can't make it to Anchorage for the festival - he's just starting filming of his next film.  But I got a chance to interview him via Skype recently.  I'm going to combine text and video here, because I think it will work best, particularly since there was some trouble with the Skype images for some of the video.  I'll give you enough video to get a sense of Mr. Szász.

The Ambassador to Bern plays

Today (Tuesday) at 5:30pm at the Bear Tooth and 

Tomorrow (Wednesday) at 5:30pm at the AK Experience small theater

There's nothing in this long interview with the director that should be a spoiler for anyone.

As I've worked with the video in preparing this post, I realize there are a couple of key themes of interest that are discussed:

  • The poetic license of fictionalizing a historic event.  Szász speaks of how the facts aren't all known about what happened, so they decided to write their own story about it.  And even though the ambassador in question was still alive - in his 90s - they decided not to talk to him before making the film. 
  • Using past events to get people to discuss current events.  Szász relates that while they wanted people to think about how people in government today have the same kind of complex relationships as people did in the past, he wasn't trying to make a point either for or against the current Hungarian government.  But people on different political sides saw statements for or against the current government. 
  • The story I hear from all film makers - the perseverance required to make a film.  

We spoke first, well after comparing the weather in Anchorage and Budapest, about how he got onto this topic.  He had a friend who'd stumbled onto the story of two Hungarian immigrants in Switzerland who stormed the Hungarian embassy in Bern, not long after the Russians crushed the Hungarian revolution in 1956.

1.  How he found the story
"Our screen writer Norbert Köbli who wrote two movies before regarding this subject matter, spent time in the library searching for those other two movie and he kept bumping into interesting stories from this time - 1956 and the surrounding year - and he bumped into this story he’d never heard of, actually no one had ever heard of it in Hungary, this attack against this embassy in Bern and he liked the idea of something that happened outside of Hungary regarding the revolution, it was the aftermath of the revolution."

2.  Fictionalizing an historical event   (this is the text of the video clip above)

"He realized what they had in the library was just the confessions of those people in the embassy and he realized they were synchronized confessions, synchronized reports, probably just one side of the truth.  Then he decided, ok, he takes creative freedom  and writes a version that’s a possibility that might have happened inside because nobody knows what really happened inside.  That’s why he created this hostage situation that never really happened in the embassy.   Because what happened according to the reports, the two guys broke in and started shooting and they were surprised the people in the embassy started shooting back.  They found at least 70 something bullet holes in the walls. So it was like a scene from a Western movie and we realized it would be too much to consume for the audience, the whole shooting, so we decided to go with a more intellectual happening inside."
Since I haven't seen the movie - only the trailer - I asked about what the two were looking for in the safe in the embassy.

3.  What were they looking for in the safe?
"No body knows what they were after but there were two versions, one is to get the attention of the Western media, because the former prime minister was just executed two months before this happened, and these guys who were immigrants in Switzerland,  realized nobody pays attention to what is going on in Hungary any more so they decided to make a blast, come up with something violent and loud, that’s why they used their guns.  They got what they wanted because the western media covered the event for many months afterward and again they started paying attention to what was happening in Hungary.     
And the other version was they were after the agent list which they kept in the safe in the embassy, because they heard that a lot of agents filtering in among the immigrants, pretending they are immigrants and finding out what all the immigrants are about and there were even attacks happening against the immigrants in Switzerland, so that’s why the guys decided to find out who were the agents among the immigrants so that’s the other version, but we thought that the agent list, even if it might be true it’s a little bit used for these kinds of movies, so we started the code book"
Q:  First shown on Hungarian tv?
Yes it was on Hungarian tv and came out on dvd and had a limited theatrical run and now on the festival circuit
Q:   Did people come out and tell you more about that time?
People wanted to find out what was true and not true.  After the gala premiere in Budapest, in the movie theater.  One of the relatives of one of the guys who died in the embassy came up to us.  

4.  Relatives of the two men contacted us after seeing the film  (Part 4 is in the clip above)
"Two guys were shot during the incident and we kept (???).  His relative showed up and  said it was very shocking to see the movie and told us her version of what happened.  A few months later, relatives of the other guy showed up.  They still lived in Bern, they said they liked the movie, they like the performance, but didn’t come up with their own version.  
The Ambassador was still alive, fictionalizing names of characters 
Actually the guy who was the ambassador in the film was still alive when we shot the film, but we decided not to contact him because he was over 90 years old and because we have a very strong statement in the movie that never happened in reality.We decided to change his names, to change all the characters’ names in the film, because it was not about them any more.  It was a story inspired by a real incident.  I think one or two months after the premiere he died." 
He had a very brilliant career.  He  became ambassador in Moscow and Prague and I don't know where else and he retired as a deputy prime minister I think.  He went far after this incident.  Basically we didn’t want to use him as a model.  We created brand new characters and we just wanted to show that there was a lot of conflict inside the embassy between the workers, between the secret police, between the ambassador,  between the secretaries, so it's all about people agreeing or not agreeing about how the system works and fighting for how things work.  The same thing that is happening today.  We wanted to reflect that as well, And of course we wanted to create a very tense and suspenseful thriller with all the twists. We realized whenever it was shown in a film festival outside Hungary, would have difficulty to understand the political and historical context because we used a lot of names that they don’t know who they are, but they enjoyed it anyway - 
Q:  but they’re all fake anyway -  

The Real Historical Figures in the Film
No the real names, because we're using the name of János Kádár  new prime minister at the time  of the incident who executed the former minister [Imre Nagy], so these were real historical figures, but outside of Hungary very few people know who they are, [but they kept hearing their names again and again. . .]
5.  Parallels to today 

Q:  You say the same thing is happening  today in Hungary.  What parallels are there?
It was fun to see that both parties said, this is a great movie for our party.  One party said because it is anti-communist it is a good election movie.  We told him that was not our motive, or goal at all.  We didn’t want to criticize or agree with the current government, just to show nothing has changed in the last fifty years.  Another crew member asked how could you get financing for this because you can see all the lines all the turns all the suggestions in the story and in dialogue are so much about what’s going on today.  So we enjoyed the situation that everyone kept hearing what they wanted to hear and read what they wanted to read between the lines, so it’s something that makes people think and makes people think about the recent situation, so that was fun.

How the film evolved over a decade

Q:  I understand that was your first feature film?  Yes.  
Q:  How does it feel having it done?
 I was working on getting my project off the ground for about a decade.  I directed a short film that has done pretty well all over the world. And so I thought ok the next step would be easier for now I have a   [hole in can?]   , but the one or two projects I was working on was too big to get financing in Hungary especially because we imagined  . . .

6.   A Script Appears
I wanted to shoot film based on my script, but it took a very long time that I got very frustrated.  My old friend Norbert Köbli, who wrote the screenplay, suddenly out of the blue called me and said I wrote this script and I know you aren’t interested in other people’s scripts but just read it and if you like you have a chance to direct it.  At that time I said I was interested in anything, Norbert just send it over.  He sent me the script and I read it and said, it’s going to be a tv film because it’s not financed by the film fund, but by another authorization who are usually financing tv movies and short films.  Yes, it’s a very little money, very low budget, but maybe you can take it one step further than a tv movie if you can get hold of the material.  Fine, I’ll give it a try, even if it is a tv movie, it is a narrative I can direct, because I usually direct commercials for a living and you know I wanted to, finally I wanted to film  . . . 

7.   Shooting the film and distribution
It was a very,very fast, crazy fast shooting and we enjoyed every moment of it, and the editing was brilliant. But we had a deadline.  We needed to deliver the film. 

Q:  Where did you shoot it?  

We shot it in Budapest.  So it was a great couple of months.  We had a limited run in movie theaters we gave it a chance, but the Hungarian tv had a premiere date, no distributors wanted to touch it because they didn’t have time to promote the film before it came out.  So we just went from movie theater to movie theater and they enjoyed it very much and they wanted to show it  so they organized special screenings all over the city and then we had the tv premiere and then afterward it came out on DVD because of the demand. 
Because the critics reacted enthusiastically and the audience loved it and so they all wanted to see it again.  So it is out in DVD and from time to time it is being shown in a movie theater in a couple of the cities in Hungary and we just had a rerun on tv so, we are getting good feedback and now we are in the beginning of our festival run.  We had the international premiere in Montreal with [?????] and we won an award in the first fiction film category, Bronze Zenith for the First Fiction Feature Film.  It was a blast.  It was a nice start with the festival.  And probably because of Montreal and the award, a lot of festivals have taken notice  and we’re happy to see it is doing well around the world and we are happy to see it is going to Alaska - We’re pleased -  Actually the short film I was talking about was also screened at this festival in Anchorage, it was called Now You See Me, Now You Don’t  In 2006 it was screened in Anchorage.  

Q: I started going to the festival regularly in 2007, so I don't recall it.  Is anyone from the film coming to Anchorage? -  
 I would love to go, but we are shooting our next movie.  Same crew and same producer, same production company, same writer, financed by the same authority.  And the same amount of money.

8.  The new project - assassination of a famous courtesan, financing the film

Q: What's the new film about?
The ssassinatrion of a famous courtesan….Years ago that shook up the entire city of Budapest, everybody was talking about it because the courtesan was very famous, everyone knew about her and they were shocked because someone famous was getting murdered.

Q:  Was that before or after the Arch Duke got shot?

It’s before.  It takes place in January, so it’s maybe a couple of months before the assassination [of the Arch Duke].  It’s a style piece.  It’s the Austrian-Hungarian monarchy.  So it’s very difficult to recreate the era, because we have to start from scratch, the costumes the props, set, everything.  And we have so little money again, but I just couldn’t refuse this chance because the script is again is something I love very much.  I was warned, do you remember the first time you had to shoot in 17 days with so little money, you suffered and you were frustrated, and you want to do it again?  I said, yes, because it’s a good script and we have now, nineteen days so it’s two more days, - piece of cake - probably it's a bit longer,  the story. so it’s very difficult to shoot again, but hopefully next time we’ll have the backing of the film fund and we’ll have maybe three or four times the time and money, because it’s normal that Hungarian films are being shot in 35, 40, maybe 45 days and we had less than 20 both times.
 Q:  So they got good value for their money?
Yes, and I’m afraid they are getting used to it that I am maybe being categorized as a guy who can make something good with very little money, so let’s not give him any more.
 Q:  That’s good and that’s bad
Yes, so we are very excited, we start shooting in two weeks, and we see how that turns out.   But otherwise we have now a lot of projects we want to take to the film fund

9.  Why the Hungarian poster just had the ambassador's face and the English poster had guns

Based on our success with the Ambassador to Bern, they are open to support us, and we’ll see how this second movie turns out.
 Q:  One more question - about the differences between the two posters
The first one was a teaser poster.  In Hungary the guy who plays the Ambassador is a very famous actor.  So his face alone is a very strong image for most of the audience.  But the producer wanted to something to put more actors, more action to show it has some real action, excitement, suspense in the film, so that’s how we came up with the second poster.  And we decided to use the second one internationally, because no one knows the actor who plays the ambassador outside of Hungary, so we wanted to give a feel of what is happening in the film.  I remember the first version of the poster even had explosions in it because the graphic artist got carried away so let’s not go the Indian way or the Thai or Korean way 
 Q:  The US way
So we don’t have any of that in the film so we took it off.  
 Q:  Is there anything I didn’t ask?
I don’t want to spoil anything for you, so I’d rather not talk about the story  , , I think  the first film it was a great experience but every film maker says that,  especially working with the actors, that was the biggest jump for me, to work with such good actors.  And we were very happy and pleased to see all the love we received.  We didn’t know if it would go anywhere.  We wanted to make a film that might be broadcast on tv once or twice and that was it and we’re happy to see the length it goes.  These are very good months for us.

Q:  Looking forward to seeing it. 

I asked again if anyone from the film might be able to come to Anchorage and he said unfortunately not.  Everyone is busy.  He's starting his new film and the actors are all involved in live theater in Budapest.  He said that right then Ambassador to Bern was at the Cairo Film Festival and they'd been offered airline tickets and free hotel rooms, but no one could even take advantage of that, even though none of them had ever been to Cairo, and it's a lot closer to Budapest than Anchorage.  

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