Interview with Szabolcs Hajdu at the 14th FICMBy: Ma. Cristina Alemán (@mcristina)
Hungarian filmmaker Szabolcs Hajdu attended the 14th edition of the Morelia International Film Festival (FICM) to present his most recent feature film It’s Not the Time of My Life (2016), winner of the Crystal Globe and of the award for Best Actor at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.
In an interview with FICM, the director, who also plays a main character in the film, talked about the process of making It’s Not the Time of My Life: how the film was photographed by his students, how he managed to make it with a really small budget and why he would rather show the film in people’s apartments than in the cinemas.
Although the camera never leaves the apartment and the script was originally a play, the film does not feel theatrical. How did you manage this?
It is important to share that the film was photographed by 13 of my students from the Metropolitan University. Before the shooting started, I prepared the students for a year with special exercises for this movie. They were supposed to work with simple dialogue based scenes in a very unconventional way, because I feel this is usually the weakest point in most movies. When the idea of making a film adaptation of the play came up, I immediately called my students to be the cinematographers. They are really young, they are 22 years old. I divided the script into 13 parts and each young cinematographer received one segment. With each one of them I discussed where the emphasis in the script was, what were the parts on which they needed to focus on and, most importantly, what was the relationship between the characters in the scene. So the camera’s attitude is not like in other films, based on frame composition, instead the camera focuses on the relationship between the characters. If the focus was on the composition of each frame, because the space is really limited (they are inside the flat throughout the whole movie), we wouldn’t have interesting pictures, but if we focus on the relationship between the characters, then we have an unlimited source of images, we can do more. As you point out, this was very important for us, we saw the risk that we might end up making filmed theater and this is what we tried to avoid.
In the theater each viewer chooses what to see on the stage, in the case of film the viewer can only see what is shown by the director. This means that many things stay off screen, in the theater you would see these omitted parts as well, but not in the cinema. I believe that, in most cases, when a theater play is adapted to film the main mistake made by filmmakers is that they don’t distinguish between the important and the non-important and they try to show everything at the same time. So usually the filmmakers try to show every single sentence in the dialogue and they try to film every single reaction. We wanted to avoid this, which meant we needed to omit important parts and this was a hard decision, but in exchange we received the style of the movie.
The film was made in your own apartment with yourself and your family playing the lead roles, how important is the autobiographical aspect of your work?
It is exactly as autobiographical as any other work of art, so of course my personal life is a source of inspiration, but in fact the film is fiction. The decision of shooting the movie in our apartment was not really a choice it was our only possibility because we had no budget. The cost of this movie was 5,000 dollars, a sum that seems impossible. In the theater, the children were played by actors but in the film the kids are played by my own children simply because we found this easier. Many viewers mix up reality with fiction and I understand, because it is filmed in our home with our children, but this is not reality. I don’t mind if people mix it up because I don’t care what people think. On the other hand, we received an authenticity in this movie which was great.
The crew consisted of the small group of people who you see on screen. The method we used to come up with the story was to take pictures of every single member of the crew and project the images on the wall. Then we thought about each character’s personality: what would be his or her name? His or her profession? We imagined their personal stories, their background, their hobbies, what they like and what they don’t like, what car they have, etc. Then we matched these characters and figured out their relationship with each other. Can these two characters be siblings, friends, relatives? This is how I ended up playing the character that I do in the film, and the same goes for the rest of the characters. First we created the characters and then the whole story was created around them.
When we were taking these photos of each other we stopped for a cigarette break, we started our private conversations and we realized that generally we talk about two topics: what we think about the news we read online, society in general, migration, racism, the dictatorial methods of the government and so on; and the other direction our conversations take is usually our private life, what happened yesterday in the kindergarten, etc. The topics that come from the Internet, come only from a secondary source of information, we don’t have a direct connection, a personal connection, to these news. I have an opinion, but I’m not prepared enough to talk about these social issues directly. But the other topics, the personal topics, I could talk endlessly about them because I have a personal connection. So getting back to the question of how autobiographical the film is; I see something happening and I reflect on that, or somebody is telling a personal story to me, a friend of mine for example, and the whole film consists of these told stories, these observed stories and our personal stories.
What advice would you give to someone trying to make a film with a small amount of money?
They should not wait for anything. They should immediately set the date for the shooting. I can only speak about how we did it. I had made six feature movies which had international success and that does not mean anything. For political reasons I didn’t want to apply for state funding at the Hungarian Film Fund so my only possibility was to make the film with private funds. I spoke with several film producers in Hungary but none of them wanted to risk their own money, they tried to convince me to apply for state funding. I had enough of this advice, so I decided to find a time for the shooting, without worrying about the funding we decided that whatever we managed to gather before the shooting date would be the whole budget of the film. And from the moment we set the date of the shooting we thought of the film as something that already exists and then people started to join the project. Faith is more important than money.
The film won the Crystal Globe at Karlovy Vary and you won the award for Best Actor, I imagine this opens new possibilities for the film to be seen by more people. What are your plans for its distribution?
I believe festivals and awards are traps. They can lead us to a different direction than we originally intended. This is a small, simple, low budget movie. This film is really personal and we want the distribution of the film to also be personal. For us the audience is not an impersonal homogeneous mass, they are individuals and we want to have a personal connection with them. So after we received the award in Karlovy Vary the first official screening of the film in Hungary was in our flat for 20 people. The press screening of the film was also in our house and this was very much reflected in the Hungarian press. After that, we started to organize screenings in private apartments all around Hungary and a member of the crew is always present in every screening. Once we finished with this series of flat screenings the film was showing in cinemas and, after the cinemas stop screening it, we are going to return to flats. We are also going to distribute the film in Rumania but only in flats, not in cinemas. So the flat owner who would like to participate and organize a screening of our movie needs to meet three criteria: they need to have a projector, they need a a white wall and they need to guarantee at least 20 viewers.
We didn’t want to attend this really snobbish world of festivals were everybody is dressed up in suits and ties and it is only about appearance. We really wanted to avoid this for It’s Not the Time of My Life, because the atmosphere in this movie is very different and even if it received this big award in Karlovy Vary and it was invited to many festivals, we shouldn’t change this attitude.
You say you wanted to avoid the festival circuit and now you are here in Morelia. How did this happen?
We received much more festival invitations than we accepted. We accepted only those that were really interesting for us. I really like Mexico. I have been here before, I was a teacher at the CCC [Centro de Capacitación Cinematográfica] three or four years ago and I really liked it. I felt a very personal attraction to the country and I wanted to show it to my wife because we were thinking about moving here. Usually there is something personal behind our decision to attend a festival; so first of all we came here because of the country and the culture, but in the case of Morelia we also came here because this festival was recommended by many friends of ours.