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‘Hungarian Film Production is a National Matter’: Interview with Tamás Lajos, Producer of Eternal Winter

Fanni Kaszás 2019.02.25.

On the Memorial Day for the Victims of Communism, Hungary Today had the opportunity to interview producer Tamás Lajos about his film Eternal Winter, which commemorates the hundreds of thousands of Hungarians deported to the Gulag and Gupvi forced-labor camps. Since its debut a year ago, the film has won several prestigious awards at various international film festivals. The producer discussed some of the films – including Tall Tales, in theatres next month – he worked on with the Norbert Köbli-Attila Szász creative team and also spoke about the potential and current problems facing the Hungarian film industry.

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Eternal Winter was first presented on the Memorial Day exactly a year ago. We wrote an article about its success and as far as I can see, it’s very popular with both audiences and critics.

Yes, it’s very popular among audiences, and it also brings home very prestigious professional awards from international film festivals. At the end of last year, for example, the film was awarded the Prix Europa for Europe’s best television film. Then, perhaps an even greater professional appreciation — and this is very fresh news — the Film Academy’s chairman called us this Sunday and informed us the film’s cinematographer [András Nagy – ed.] was nominated for the main prize at one of the world’s most significant cinematography competitions, Imago. This is a truly amazing success as this festival awards the world’s biggest stars.

What is it about the movie that the audience finds so captivating? Did it help, and was it a conscious decision, to present the film on the Memorial Day?

I think the film’s specific theme is primarily what makes it so successful. If I’m right, a dramatic adaptation of the history of the Gulag and Gupvi camps hasn’t yet been made in Hungary or elsewhere in the world. The date of the presentation was a conscious choice; we wanted to tie the movie’s release to an anniversary or holiday, and fortunately, the rhythm of the film’s production allowed us to do so.

photo: Péter Csákvári

Could this be an interesting topic for foreigners as well? Do you think viewing the movie would get them interested in this part of Hungary’s history?

I think this topic is also a novelty abroad. I feel like, in the United States, for example, the film has had an exciting run; audiences have a very strong interest in it. This can also be seen by the start of the world sales. We just signed a contract with a North American film distributor. In connection with its popularity in Hungary, it’s important to emphasize that nearly 700 thousand people have experienced the horrors of the Gulag and Gupvi camps or other war camps. There’s practically no Hungarian family that hasn’t had a member deported to a Russian camp. I think the modest adaption of this period in history coupled with the lack of similar films, generates viewers, facilitates the spread of the film and increases its popularity.

How many people have seen the movie so far?

So far, more than 450,000 people have watched it either on television and internet forums or via download. I hope this number will rise significantly once the film is distributed worldwide.

With so much interest in the film, wouldn’t it be better to target cinema audiences? Your previous films with the Köbli-Szász creative team were all television films as well.

Actually, today there’s not much difference between films made for television and those made for cinemas anymore. Just think about the high-quality series flooding the Internet and television channels. We don’t care what kind of platform the finished movie appears on. The most important thing for us is to produce high-quality film-making and to make the most out of the money and opportunities available to us. We don’t differentiate between television and feature films. However, it’s a great thing to see your movie in the cinema. Obviously, this is every filmmaker’s dream.

So we can have a cinematic experience with all of your movies technically and visually? Would it be possible to screen them in the cinema as well?

I think so, yes. It’s no coincidence that the film, and our other films, are perfectly suited to any type of film festival. For example, at the A-category feature film festival in Montreal, the World Film Festival, Attila Szász received the award for Best Director for Eternal Winter. It is obviously not a coincidence that we can achieve these kinds of results in such environments. The boundaries and the technical and visual differences are becoming more and more blurred between the two platforms. I think the films we have created in collaboration with the Szász-Köbli creative team perform well on both. There’s the story of Demimonde, for example. After its debut on television, a movie distributor gave it a chance and allowed it to enter the cinema. Thousands of people watched it there. This is a very unusual and uncommon practice.

photo: Péter Csákvári

Returning to historical movies, how can historical events be credibly reproduced if fictional plots are included?

Well, we don’t make documentaries, so we have to adapt to the dramaturgy of feature films. Obviously, we can’t make significant alterations or add fictional parts that would fundamentally change history. This isn’t allowed and wouldn’t be right. What’s more, most of the time we approach the events from the common man’s angle via the characters’ personal drama. They are usually built on recollections, letters and stories, and completed using the writer and director’s imagination. Obviously, the historical environment is not altered or forged. We merely plant fictional plots that could have easily happened in the historical moment in question. With most of our movies, it works like that. However, Eternal Winter is fundamentally different. The film is based on a short story written by a friend, János Havasi and the protagonist is based on his mother. János was also involved in the film as an expert and we worked fantastically together. He commented on professional, historical issues but gave us freedom in artistic matters and let us work on the film in the way we wanted.

What is the secret to making successful historical films?

Three things are essential for film making: a good story, a good script and a lot of money. There are many other things that need to be done, of course, but if these three are missing you can’t expect to make a good movie. Good movies attract viewers. With historical films, it’s important to talk about historical situations in an exciting and credible way. I think our movies are like that. First, we never start a film that we don’t have the funding for. We always make sure we can produce the whole film under the conditions we deem worthy of film making. Secondly, we only make films with scripts that we genuinely love. From this point on, we only need a good director and, well, okay, millions of other things that are essential for a good movie.

Yet you deviated from this model with Tall Tales. You not only made it for the cinema, but it’s also a fictional story.

Indeed, this is a bit different from the films we’ve made before. So, we are anxiously anticipating its reception. Tall Tales is a feature film. We like to describe it as a thriller set in a historical environment. Though it’s fictional, we stuck to a historical frame. The base situation of someone returning home from the front lines in 1945 is absolutely real. We thought we’d try a feature film this time, and it definitely became an entertaining movie. But, of course, the historical environment and background are completely authentic and credible here as well.

Will you continue to work with the Köbli-Szász duo? What are your plans at the moment?

We have made four films with the Köbli-Szász creative team [The Ambassador to Bern, Demimonde, Eternal Winter, Tall Tales – ed.], each was a success and internationally and critically acclaimed. They warn not to change the winning team, so, of course, we are looking for opportunities to continue our working relationship. Obviously, it’s not easy to synchronize our schedules. We are talking about autonomous creators, after all. Everyone has their own lives and we all work on other, individual projects as well. For example, I am currently working on a script by writer Csaba Csurgó and would like to shoot it with a very talented first-film director, Péter Varsics.

photo: Péter Csákvári

Have you ever thought about making a historical series? I don’t think I’ve seen anything like that on Hungarian television.

This is indeed a big shortcoming. This is why the Parliament amended the media law last December and created a committee within the Media Authority. This film college’s task will be to finance Hungarian national and historical films and film series. It has to be said, and I think it’s very important to emphasize, that the Hungarian film industry has never received as much money as it has in the last eight to 10 years. I really hope that this will conclude in the production of high-quality Hungarian historical films and series. It has great potential and we have our own plans for Hungarian television.

What is the mood in the Hungarian film industry following the recent death of film commissioner Andy Vajna? How uncertain is it now?

Obviously, Andy Vajna was a stable point in the Hungarian film industry, so the situation is rather uncertain at the moment. There are many questions, problems and tasks yet to be solved in the film industry. However, now we expect to find answers and solutions. Andy’s passing obviously raises questions about where we’re headed and how we plan to get there. I am very confident in the wisdom of the Hungarian cultural policy and hope that the results achieved by the Hungarian film industry led by Andy Vajna will be maintained. Hopefully, the problems that he was unable to manage will also be solved. Beyond the fact that I am very sorry for what happened, I am confident that the progress and prosperity of the film industry in the last few years will continue. Perhaps, it will even rise higher.

No matter where you look, it seems that Hungarian films are snagging awards at foreign festivals and being watched in cinemas.

Yes, but obviously that is the case with the law of large numbers. More films mean we have a higher chance of hitting the target. Honestly, what I miss the most about the Hungarian film industry is being able to endear Hungarian films to Hungarian audiences. This hasn’t been so successful in the past decade. I think the number of viewers produced by most Hungarian films is no cause for pride. For example, 15 out of the 23 Hungarian feature films presented in 2017 did not reach 15 thousand viewers. Yes, the movies are more popular now than in the past, but the fact remains. There is still plenty of room for improvement in Hungarian film production and funding.

photo: Péter Csákvári

What would convince Hungarian viewers to watch more Hungarian films in cinemas?

That’s the big question. I have been consistently calling for Hungarian film to be made fashionable by building a brand around it. I only note this quietly, but countries of similar size, number and economic strength, such as the Czech Republic, have succeeded in it. In 2013, five of the 10 most viewed films in the Czech Republic were Czech. They know something; somehow they’ve managed to do it, and we should learn from them. The first step in this should be to promote individual films and the Hungarian film as a cultural product. I think it would also be very important to work out an action plan on this issue with marketing, financial and film experts. Obviously, it doesn’t happen from one moment to the next, but we should really start thinking about and working on it seriously, that’s for sure.

So we wouldn’t hear people saying, “Oh, this is a Hungarian film, I won’t watch it then…”

Yes, in the 2000s, the term ‘Hungarian film’ unfortunately became some kind of profanity for the Hungarian cinema audience. Fortunately, a change has already begun and it’s undeniable. Maybe I’m impatient, but I expect this to occur at a much faster rate. I think we should move forward more intensely; we should be forcing this process more. As the above-mentioned Czech example shows — and this is also the case in Slovakia, Poland and the Scandinavian states — national film production is a national matter. We really should look at how these countries accomplish what they have and start thinking about a solution because this is a very serious problem. The Hungarian state and the government shovel money into the Hungarian film industry and unfortunately, it still reaches very few people. In this area, a radical turn would be great. It is visible that the film industry is a priority of the government. They treat it as a central question and provide copious opportunities. Therefore, we have the simple task of doing everything we possibly can by spending this money and using these opportunities wisely and effectively.

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Reporting and translation by Fanni Kaszás

Photos: Péter Csákvári