Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Found in Translation: an Interview with Peter Strickland about his debut film Katalin Varga

It is ironic that British expatriate Peter Strickland – writer and director of the lauded, soon-to-be released Katalin Varga, is getting a lot of attention abroad, from invitations to film festivals in Taipei and Mumbai, to the cover of Sight and Sound magazine suggesting he has made the best British film of the year. His first feature, seeded with his own money, has made barely a ripple in Hungary, his adoptive home. Indeed, the Budapest film community should have been the first to champion Katalin Varga (shot in Transylvania with a Hungarian-speaking cast) for no other reason that it is destine to reflect well on local film-making. Instead, a film that has already won a coveted Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, has thus far been ignored or subjected to hostile attacks regarding its politics. But I don’t want to dwell on the negative, because I have seen Katalin Varga on video and at a screening at Urania, and there is a much better story than the predictable local cynicism.

The film Katalin Varga is an enormous artistic achievement, and the making of it is a triumph of will and commitment to a dream. Though Strickland and his producers bill the film as a ‘revenge movie’ Katalin Varga really defies genre pigeon-holing. It is something a horror movie without a monster, or one of Grimm’s darker fairy-tales without supernatural intervention. It is an Eastern European gothic, which derives as much from Flannery O’Conner as Tarr Béla. The powerfully told story of a woman traveling across Transylvania to confront the man who raped her is told with minimal reliance on dialogue. Instead, the elegiac, forebodingly beautiful landscapes of Transylvania almost appear to narrate the story. Like baron, icy Nordic panorama in Lars Van Trier’s Breaking the Waves, the setting is a character in itself. But the most notable aspect, from this writer’s point of view, is that Katalin Varga is a work of outsider art which was written and filmed without compromise, and is succeeding in commercial release. Every aspiring filmmaker should take note and draw inspiration: despite the manifold obstacles and nay-sayers, it can be done.

Below find a brief interview with Peter Strickland about the making of Katalin Varga, and some of the reaction the film has received thus far.

Mókus: What has been the difference in the reaction from Hungarian film community and those at the international festivals?

Peter Strickland: Katalin Varga has yet to come out in Hungary, so I can’t gauge or compare the reaction. In general, the film has already fallen into some ridiculous and protracted arguments about its nationality or identity. It’s really tiresome and pointless, but one that always comes up. For me, film is mostly meta-national in that it's beyond nationality. With co-productions now, film-making is such a fluid process in terms of countries involved. If a story is specific to a country, locale or culture, then it can be national, but if we’re talking about a story non-specific to its environment, then that question about nationality really isn’t relevant. Some people say Katalin Varga is not British because it’s in Hungarian and Romanian, filmed in Romania with a Hungarian crew and post-produced in Hungary. Some people say the film is not Romanian because I’m not Romanian, the film is mostly in Hungarian with a Hungarian cast and crew and post-produced in Hungary. Some people say the film is not Hungarian because I’m not Hungarian and we filmed it in Romania. It’s quite surprising how rigid some people can be. Even national football teams are more flexible than this. For me, the film takes place in my world. I embraced some elements from the Szekély region – the rhythm, the Catholicism, the connection to the earth, but overall I would be an impostor to say I made a film about Transylvania. The characters you find in my film could be found anywhere. We portrayed the region as this hostile, forbidding world, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. I chose to make the film in Transylvania because it had that epic canvas, it had the ingredients needed for a ballad already embedded in its bloodstream and most of all, because of Hilda Peter and the actors in whom I trusted. Even if we had millions of pounds, I still would have chosen Transylvania. The question of authenticity will always come up when making a film and as an outsider, I had to think very carefully about how I portray an existing place even though the villages in the film are fictitious. Ultimately, audiences in Hungary and Romania will be the harshest critics simply because they know the region and culture. Film-makers have to accept that wherever they shoot. If someone from Hungary or Romania expects to see an authentic representation of Transylvania with this film, then the chances are that they'll be disappointed. Saying that, outsiders have an advantage as they can offer a slant on an existing landscape. One can't deny the formidable influence of foreign blood on British cinema starting with Emeric Pressburger.

Mókus: How would you respond to questions of misogyny in your film?

Peter Strickland: Almost every man in Katalin Varga is flawed with pride, aggression, chauvinism, and hypocrisy. Yet nobody has once accused me of hating men. True, the female characters in the film do suffer because of men, but if someone wants to equate that with misogyny, then there’s not much I can do to change that opinion. Contempt towards women is certainly present throughout Katalin Varga, but does that mean the film itself embodies misogyny?

Mókus: How much of the film (particularly in atmosphere, scene, and sound) did you discover on set once shooting began?

Peter Strickland
: The film I wrote and the film that we made are two entirely separate things. The roads, houses, and terrain that drove the script never existed and it is very strange to force myself to think back to how the film looked in my head prior to shooting. Because I spent a lot of time preparing for the shoot, I knew what to expect in terms of the environment we were shooting in. So much of the time, we took advantage of the spaces we were shooting in and I chose them because they served the atmosphere of the film. We didn’t dress or design any sets. Everything is how you see it, apart from moving a few logs every now and then. The weather in the Carpathians is unpredictable. You can have four seasons in one scene. The film was difficult to grade in post-production because of the sun and the clouds being so volatile. If you look at the rushes of the lake scene, the light continuity is all over the place. This is probably one of the few films where thunder had to be taken out instead of put in. There was so much thunder during shooting, that it felt too Gothic to leave it all in. However, we were very lucky and at times the weather almost became a collaborator. When it rained during the lake scene, I almost shouted ‘Cut’ from the other boat, but since I noticed how Hilda was so lost in what she was doing, I just stayed out of it and that’s the best thing I didn’t do during the shoot. I thought it would look ridiculous with the rain, but what was on the screen was so serendipitous in terms of the ripples and the refraction of the light at just the right moment. It seemed as if Hilda and the weather had made some secret rehearsal together.

With the sound, most of the film was artificially constructed. We didn’t get so much good atmosphere during the shoot. The dialog recordings by Zoltán Karaszek were fine, but to get good atmosphere takes time and luck. We only had seventeen days of shooting. We put a few hours aside one night to record some frogs and general atmosphere, but the police stopped us and they took forever checking our ID cards, so I had to source recordings from elsewhere in post-production.

I went to Transylvania in 2004 with Clive Graham to start on insect and goat bell recordings. Clive recorded some good material and we combined that with a few of Zoltán’s pieces. The sound team during post-production also brought in their field recordings. György Kovács had some incredible recordings he made of wind, dogs and other things. Some elements that you would think were just there in the background during shooting took months to fit in. There is one scene with a scops owl hooting in the background. I spent months looking for the right sound, partly because I wanted to pay tribute to Luc Ferrari’s Presque Rien, which is one of my favorite records. I found the best scops owl recording through the National Sound Archive in London and the owl comes from Cserépfalu in Hungary recorded by the English ornithologist, Alan Burbidge. Quite a lot of birdsong comes from my record collection. The lake scene is 90 percent artificial when it comes to sound. Hilda overdubbed her lines a year later. The rain, the wind and the oars are all carefully positioned and layered on Pro Tools. I love that process of making a film and there is a high degree of sonic artifice to what we did. Transylvania does not sound so intense.

Mókus: Why did you elect to subtitle with Hungarian speakers rather than dub or use English-speaking actors?

Peter Strickland: There was no question about doing the film in any language other than those spoken by the actors. I remember speaking to an English film person about the project and as soon as I said the language would not be in English, he backed off and told me to forget about it. One executive in London refused to even look at a 3-minute clip of the film because it was in Hungarian and Romanian. I had the DVD on my person. I was in his office, which had a DVD player and he still said ‘no.’ One can’t deny that you lose a certain audience once you have subtitles in a film, but equally you lose another audience if you have non-English characters speaking to each other in English.

Films should be in the tongue of the characters’ nationalities. It’s not about authenticity or understanding, but it is about entering the mindset of a character through the tempo, the texture of language. Characters should be universal, but they can only be made so when they are true to their own voice and train of thought, and only then can we believe in them. Hilda and the actors brought something unique to Katalin Varga with their language. It would have been a very different film with a different rhythm alien to that region, had we made it in English.

Foreign literature has to be available in English because we only have text, but with film it’s different. The timbre of the voice when it is in its own linguistic environment conveys something far richer than when speaking in English if it is not the mother tongue. Spoken language corresponds with body language and everything is so intertwined when it's in the language it should be in. If we're having non-English actors speak in English because that's what their characters do, then that's fine.

Paradoxically, making a foreign character more accessible through English language only serves to distance the audience. So many historical films do this. It’s bullshit and I hate the way that they patronize an audience in this fashion. It’s a dictate purely fuelled by commercialism. How about we make a film about Winston Churchill talking to Franklin Roosevelt in German, but with the accent of an English person speaking German? It sounds ludicrous, but no more ludicrous than what we do with our representation of foreign characters. Saying that, I’m quite a fan of ‘Dad’s Army’. I’d forgive that show anything.

In terms of how challenging it was for me to direct a film in a language I didn't know well? It was fine for me, only because the cast and crew spoke such good English and they were incredibly astute in terms of understanding what was needed for the characters. The credit goes to them.

Mókus: How have you balanced day-to day needs of living and making money with the huge commitment of the film?

Peter Strickland: Throughout the ‘90s, I balanced day jobs with film and music activities. It was possible then because youth was on my side. When you’re in your twenties, you can go to an employment agency and pick up a basic job whenever you need to and with relative ease. When I moved back to Reading in 2007, at the age of 34, it wasn’t so easy to find a job either there or in London. The law states that you can’t be discriminated against because of age, but the reality is somewhat different. If you’re moving between jobs within your chosen profession or field, age can almost be to your advantage. However, if you have a complete career change or start looking for a job when you have huge holes in your CV, then age is definitely against you. After Katalin Varga failed in September 2007, I just tried to think about staying afloat financially and getting work in. I’d had enough of film and being treated like a prostitute by certain people in the industry. I tried to go for something similar, such as copy writing and built up a CV of fake paper adverts. The reaction in London was, ‘why hire someone inexperienced who is 34, when we can get someone fresh out of university?’

When applying for regular jobs, I learnt my lesson during the ‘90s, and that was to never put down more than a cursory interest in film on my CV. Once you claim any aspiration towards film-making on your CV, at best you are regarded as a dreamer. Even if they like you, from their point of view, they will see that your heart is not in the job and you’ll jump ship when something better comes along. So for me, after having spent years away making Katalin Varga, constructing a CV was a real challenge. My CV basically consisted of elaborate lies and fake firms with friends disguised as employment contacts. I couldn't say I had made a film. It was a crushing time for me to go back and plead for the most basic data entry jobs and be treated like a drifting loser by people ten years younger than me. Some people were very supportive, but the usual reaction was to regard a thirty-something, bald, unemployed man living with his mother as something that blew in with the trash. Who gives a hoot whether you put all that effort into a film? People only pay attention once you have some kind of ‘branding’ – be it an award or distribution company behind you. Everyone loves to champion an underdog, but it’s a lie, as one has to already be a successful underdog in order to be championed. A huge difference. ‘Katalin Varga’ is now a comparatively successful underdog story, but what about all the other people struggling to make films? I don’t think my story and situation is so unique, and that’s why I talk about it at length. It is relevant to other film-makers. We delude ourselves that we break into the industry because of our talent, but it’s more because of luck than talent.

The conventional route during the ‘90s was to do work experience if you could afford to do it. I saved up enough money to work for a pop video production company for free for one month and it was thoroughly wretched. You think that you’ll gain some kind of useful computer skill or on-set experience, but you’re just told to copy from one Beta tape to another and go to the post office. If you complain, you’re very aware that there is a whole queue of people desperate to take your place. You're at the butt-end of the industry and that reinforced my idea about getting away from some vile people and being independent, taking a good day job unrelated to cinema and just doing film and music stuff with my friends during the evenings and weekends. It was an amazing and empowering time for us.

I did have some great day jobs – Edexcel, the examination board in London was one. Because it’s run mainly by ex-teachers, there isn’t the usual preoccupation with status and money. The majority of them were incredibly supportive of employees who harbored their own passions. When I worked at that company, I could work with my friends on music. With music you could do that because it was relatively cheap to produce. We could afford to be uncompromising and make financial losses. I put a huge amount of work and love into producing a seven-inch single of entomology recordings by Jim Reynolds and David Ragge, and we only sold around fifty copies. It didn’t matter and it was very liberating that we could act as purists. Film is too prohibitively expensive for that. So you are forced by its very financial nature to network, to get in there somehow and to convince people that they will see a return on their money.

I wasn't any good at networking or meeting people and when I ended up with an inheritance of 30,000 euros, I used it to shoot and edit Katalin Varga. That money went a long way. I had a steady and very flexible job in Slovakia at that time, so I could support myself and pay rent with my earnings and use the inheritance purely to fund the film. That was a very strange period of my life. I had lost my father and his brother within a few years. That was the only immediate English side of my family (my mother is Greek), so a huge change was forced upon me. A whole way of life had gone, so going further into Europe made sense. A few years later, the inheritance from this fuelled an incredibly optimistic bout of aggressive energy to make this film and just do what was always denied to me. I just felt I could work. It was so liberating to actually work and do what I always wanted regardless of future consequences. The chances were clearly that we would fail on the lack of money and experience we had, but I was so fired-up, I just threw myself into it. I was lucky in a sense because my family never discouraged me, even though they feared the consequences, so there was always a sense of good will despite the ridicule I faced outside the home. My uncle refused to watch any film made post-1960 and only cared about Jacques Tati or the Marx Brothers, so it's somewhat ironic his money went towards this. However, that money dried up during post-production in 2007, I lost my job in Slovakia and the rot set in very rapidly.

I fell into teaching in 2008 and that became a revelation for me. With all these data entry jobs, I could get away with being stubborn, lazy, and irresponsible, but with teaching, one has to embrace the inherent responsibility it entails and it does force you to forget your own troubles and give something of your personality and experience to other people. There is no space for one to dwell and consequently it does become uplifting and enriching. The danger with teaching abroad (and you really feel this when some English teachers you meet are also struggling musicians, writers, artists, or film-makers and often beset with alcohol problems) is that it’s viewed as a stopgap instead of something that can enhance your worldview, especially when teaching adults. Teaching is something I would never want to give up entirely.

The mistake I made during the ‘90s was to settle for non-committal data-entry jobs in offices. Easy to get into, easy to do, and easy to get out of, and the rest of the day is yours. However, that denied me a back-up career. One could argue that a back-up career is self-defeating because you can inevitably fall into it out of comfort, but at least you can pay the bills. The last decade was strange for me. I envied my friends with regular jobs because they had security and comfort. They envied me because I was pursuing my dreams. It would be difficult to advise others on what to do. One piece of luck got me to where I am now and that plays such a vital part. I gave a new script to Oana and Tudor Giurgiu from Libra Film along with a rough cut of Katalin Varga as an example of previous work. They didn’t like the script, but asked why the rough cut wasn’t finished and from that moment on, they sourced money to finish the post-production, a sales agent came on board, Berlin invited the film and so on. It had been eight months since I blew my money and abandoned the film, and suddenly it very quickly sprang back to life.

I’m slowly trying to piece together a comprehensive CV of all my jobs, which so far total over fifty. This is the reality for most people who are middle or working class and without connections or luck. The grip of elitism and nepotism in some places is stifling, and there are some very talented people I know who sadly have all the odds against them just because they don’t have connections through their families. Of course there are hugely talented film-makers who come from film industry families and they can put maybe 60 percent of their perspiration into making great films, but the one thing some of them fail to recognize is that for the rest of us, the act of making a film is only a fraction of our work. 99 percent of our perspiration goes towards getting into the position where we can actually begin to make a film – the endless application forms, waiting, rejection, phone-calling, hustling, and balancing that with day jobs. The whole of the ‘90s flew by on that generic response to an application — ‘you’ll get your answer in another two weeks.’ If you’ve spent a decade waiting ‘another two weeks’ for that letter, phone call, or e-mail, it’s very easy to understand how you’d use an inheritance to make a film instead of putting a deposit on a flat.

Saying all this, I've known of some people who just get that insanely lucky break at a young age — right place, right time, and that's it. Yet strangely I don’t regret that struggle. I’m a big fan of the TV series, ‘The Office’ and part of its power is in transforming such a frustrating part of my life into something very funny. I’m almost nostalgic for those endless weeks typing in codes into computers in sterile offices, dreaming of escape and what I could do for my first film. Those hours and hours of bone idle dreaming definitely fuelled that drive to make a film.

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