April 3, 2005|I caught a late-night screening of Nimród Antal's Kontroll during the 27th Starz Denver International Film Festival that was packed thanks to buzz that had been spreading ever since the film was honoured with the 23rd Prix de la Jeunesse in the Un certain regard category at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. Alive with ideas and images, Kontroll combines western sensibilities and a peculiar Eastern Bloc social awareness--a little bit of surrealism and a little bit of Jungian archetype-building. It alone has the potential to rejuvenate a Hungarian film industry made moribund by the fall of the Iron Curtain, and it was written and directed by a California boy who moved to Hungary at the age of 17.
I chatted with Mr. Antal on the telephone from New York, where he was performing press duties in preparation for the North American release of Kontroll, one of the top-grossing Hungarian films in history and the first to be invited to Cannes in twenty years. Despite his pedigree (a graduate of the damnably stringent Hungarian Academy of Drama and Film (8 applicants are accepted in the director's track annually), he began there as a cinematographer before switching programs midstream), Mr. Antal is disarmingly self-effacing and polite, seemingly preoccupied with giving me the "right" or a "good" answer. It's a quality that's endearing but it could prove dangerous should he relinquish some of the unprecedented autonomy he had over this project for the bright call and dimwits of Hollywood. Then again, his instincts in recruiting cinematographer Gyula Pados (a student of Vilmos Zsigmond) for Kontroll suggest that Mr. Antal might understand the difference between collaboration and compromise. With the amount of attention he's getting for his hyphenate debut, he's going to need all the insulation he can get.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: Tell me about your graduation film, Insurance.
NIMRÓD ANTAL: (laughs) Wow, I didn't expect that. Have you seen it?
Only read about it.
Okay, yeah. I heard that in the '70s and '80s the way that Hungarian stunt men primarily made their money was through insurance fraud, trashing cars. They'd take a car and just drive it into a wall. And when I heard that, I thought it was the coolest thing in the world--the body aspect of it, the sort of fringe aspect of it.
The idea of groups of men on the fringe engaged in fringe activities is also the basis of Kontroll.
Well, with a name like "Nimród" you tend to root for the underdog. (laughs) Again, with Kontroll, I was fascinated by this idea of people who would, for a living, put themselves in the line of fire of all this physical and verbal abuse. I was very much attracted to the idea of doing a job, this idea of not being taken seriously while needing to take the job very seriously struck a chord in me, maybe existentially, you know, all the more so for the visual and thematic possibilities that shooting the picture entirely underground would provide.
I'm just thirty-one, I'm much too young to make any kind of strong, intelligent social commentary--to even try to do that, I think, is doomed to pretentious failure. I mean, I saw things when I returned to Hungary that really bothered me, for sure, some aspects of how society has sort of sheared off into haves and have-nots after the fall and I do try to portray a little of that in the picture...
When your hero Bulcsú runs into an old colleague, for instance?
Exactly right--that's the primary moment, in fact. But for the most part I tried to avoid making any kind of broad statement about society. The breadth of my experience is completely inadequate to form any sort of opinion that wouldn't come off as naïve or badly misinformed. I have a hard enough time figuring myself out.
Is Kontroll a means by which you were trying to figure yourself out?
Naturally in any kind of art or creation, you know, it says a lot about the artist in ways that the artist isn't aware of. Now I'm not calling myself an artist, understand, just that there's a lot of me in all my short films and commercials, and now Kontroll. Again, though, it's not conscious or else I'm afraid it would be self-conscious.
Why'd you leave the states for Hungary--career or personal?
I came from a broken home and--like all teenagers, I was 17 at the time--I think I just wanted to get away, to try something different for a while. Nothing about career at all, it was really just hot girls and beer in Budapest.
Tarkovsky's Solaris you've mentioned as a primary influence.
There are so many. Tarkovsky, Kubrick, Terry Gilliam, Martin Scorsese, Beat Takeshi...
Ah, you're kidding. I'm a huge fan of Kitano--Hana-Bi in particular.
"Fire Flower" is how it was translated into Hungarian, maybe the best film to be made in the 1990s in the world.
I just love the guy in general, you know, and he's such a survivor, too--he had that really bad accident, didn't he?
Paralyzed half his face.
Right! That tic! I love that tic. I remember when I first saw Godard's Breathless in film school and how Belmondo kept wiping his lip with his thumb in that way, you know, and how after I saw it I kept doing that, kept wiping my lip with my thumb. It was like a compulsion more than an affectation: I had to do it. Same with Kitano's tic--after his films I have a tic for like a month. That's power, man. Rapture.
A shot that reminded me of Tarkovsky--and Kubrick--from your film is the one where Bulcsú is sitting on top of a fan.
That shot, it was during location scouts, we had always wanted to use the behind-the-scenes stuff in the underground, the stuff that people on the platforms don't ever get to see. The show behind the curtain. We had a three-to-four day location scout, just taking this little diesel train around the system and getting out in the middle of the tracks now and again, walking around...
(laughs) No, could've been, I guess, but we were pretty careful. But anyway, we came upon this giant fan in what was called a ventilation tunnel, just overwhelming, and we walked in and there it was. Right away, it went into the storyboard before there was even a reason for it to be in the script. I knew I wanted to use it, but I also didn't just want it in there because it looked cool--we found a lot of locations that were amazing and, by the end, there were several we couldn't use because there wasn't a place for it in the narrative.
How did the fan fit in?
I think, as an image, it really bolstered this idea of loneliness and isolation--he's sitting on top of this giant machine that also represents a giant cycle: it's his life, it's always the same and it goes on in a circle forever. How he can't quite figure out how to break free of that cycle. And of course, Pados did a beautiful backlighting job on it.
I felt like I'd never seen anything quite like that before in a film.
Thanks for saying that--we were all trying to do that, you know, trying to do something familiar in an unfamiliar place in an unfamiliar way.
Talk to me about the dream sequence--it reminded me of images from a Vincent Ward film called The Navigator.
I've never seen that, but I've heard about it a lot. The dream sequence was one of the few scenes that wasn't shot on location, we built that tunnel on a soundstage and I just loved the claustrophobia of that. I remember I was really concerned about having Sándor [Csányi] in there with the flare because it really was filling up the entire set. I was afraid he'd get smoke inhalation or catch fire, you know, but it worked out okay with the ventilation we'd worked out.
Did you have in mind a birth canal for the scene?
Birth canal? (laughs) You know, Kubrick was really interested in birth imagery and I wish I could lay claim to the same thought process, but again, with that, with what Bulcsú finds at the end of the tunnel--look, let me start again. I had something in mind for most of the scenes and images in the film and almost without fail, people have interpreted those moments differently. Sometimes for the better, I think, like with your birth canal idea for the dream sequence. What I've really learned in this process is that it doesn't really matter what I think I'm doing, that's the beauty of it really, that once it's out and there are all these hundreds of other eyes trained on it, it becomes a conversation.
Do you have any background in surrealism?
No, none. (laughs)
I read that the rail-run towards the end of your film was done without any special effects, just stunt work.
That's true, and to be honest I'm not happy at all with how it turned out. The concept is good, but the execution was bad. It was very difficult. We had a little diesel engine pulling the camera crew, then the actors running after us, then another little engine pushing the metro car behind them. So while the actors are running, there's a ton of diesel fumes filling the tunnel: they can't breathe, we can't see--and it's almost impossible to coordinate shifts in speed between the camera car and the chase car and the actors. You want everything going full out, but to make one work in sympathy with the other--that was a really long day. I think what's in there in the final cut is fine, but it was so much better in my head. (laughs)
Are you coming to Hollywood?
I think of course any European director who says that he doesn't want to come over to work in America is lying--everyone wants to make an American film. And there are wonderful American films--Memento, Donnie Darko--but to get those films made, and this is true anywhere in the world, those guys are heroes. To maintain that voice in the face of all the budgetary challenges in the United States, just very, very difficult. It's understandable to a degree, you know, lots of money's on the line, jobs are on the line.
How much were you aided financially by the Hungarian Film Law?
About three-quarters. The budget was $800,000 and out of that only about $200,000 was private investors.
Was that $600,000 a grant, or did you have restrictions and guidelines you had to follow?
No, when we got the money they just cut us a check and told us to go make a movie. I know that since then there've been some changes to the law and there are more restrictions and guidelines, that now there's a guy they send out to the set which, I'm sure, creates some pretty interesting situations. The creative freedom that I enjoyed on Kontroll is something I know that I'd never, ever, have enjoyed as a first-time director in the United States.
Then again, under a million in the U.S. is a pretty small budget, they might have been hands off.
True, that's true, but with the script and with how culturally specific a lot of it is--a lot of the humour, especially, I think is hard to translate. I don't think I would have gotten in the door. "Hey Mr. Studio Suit, some Nimród is on the phone for you." Wouldn't fly. I know that everything about this production felt blessed--I felt lucky every single day and now for it to be opening in the United States...it's quite a trip to be here.
Why 35mm when DV or 16mm would both have been easier to work with in the tubes?
The DP, Gyula Pados, and I sat down really early and he told me, no equivocation, that he didn't want to use digital video. He was very adamant about that point and to tell you the truth, I was relieved because on the one hand that $800,000 would have stretched a lot farther with DV but on the other, I just love film. I love the way it looks and feels. I'm sure that Robert Rodriguez is getting angry right now, but I feel that film is still film. Digital is great for certain stories and, yeah, it might even have worked with Kontroll given that it's sort of an electronic-feeling movie, but I don't know, I didn't feel comfortable with it and attendant with that is this feeling that in ten, fifteen years it might all be different and I wanted to be able to tell my kids that daddy shot with 35mm, right there at the end when everyone else was going digital.
You mention your DP, Pados. What's the nature of your collaboration?
I was accepted at Academy in the cinematographer's track, I only switched to directing during my first year, and I had written a script for my graduation piece and heard about Pados at roughly the same time. So I sat down with him and my sponsor at school and we worked out a few things between us, found that we had a lot of the same ideas about how to shoot film, and it's a collaboration that's lasted now for about ten years. We've shot a few commercials together and now Kontroll. I want to say, too, though that nothing happens without strong contributors, everything that's good about the film is good because of the hard work of someone on my crew or in my cast and everything that's bad is because of my inexperience. I was surrounded by the best, you know, and that's another aspect of working in Hungary: in the United States I call up and say, hey, I want De Niro, it's not going to happen--but in Hungary, we got the top stars, the top stunt guys, in my opinion the top DP. So few films are made there that they were all happy to be involved, there's an element of pride.
Any fears about maintaining your identity should you cross back over the pond?
Some, sure, but I would just try to maintain--just keep doing what I'm doing thus far, you know, and to... (laughs) To be willing to compromise.