What is it about the long take that you love so much? You're famous for this and your long takes are sinuously eloquent. Why do long takes serve your vision?
There are several reasons. First of all, the long take has a different tension. If you are shooting short takes your actors have a chance to escape. Short takes are terribly boring for me.
It becomes more editing than filming?
No, no, it's just boring. I don't feel I'm creating something. With long takes, you build together the actors and the situation and the camera movement. Building step by step is what I enjoy very much. Here is the first thing, and then you move from here, and this is the turning point, and then here comes a close-up, and then in the next moment, we open the picture wide to the landscape, and then another close-up cutting this wide picture, then we move further, and finally, we will arrive to the entry. It has to be very well-composed. The technicians have to be very well-trained. Everything has to work together in a long shot. This is a special tension for the technicians, the camera crew, the actors. The actors have no chance to leave because we are watching their eyes. We are watching longer and longer and longer. That's why everybody is really under pressure. That's why you can watch something finally; what you cannot see if we do the movie in a different way, or the traditional way.
I found it incredibly suspenseful when Inspector Morrison (István Lénárt) is deducing what's happened, replicating the actions of the opening murder sequence, which is being filmed with the same camera movements as the opening sequence. However, there's this added layer of the audience (as Maloin) watching Morrison figure it all out. When Morrison goes down to the dock, looks in the water, and then looks back up at Maloin's signal cage, you know he's got it and that Maloin (and you as the audience) have become incriminated.
It's a similar shot but it's not the same shot.
Can we talk about your score? The music for your movie? You have a hypnotic accordion that keeps playing the same melody throughout the film. It's as if you're purposely mesmerizing your audience through a prolonged contemplation. Would you consider your films to be contemplative cinema?
In the press notes you use the term "pure cinema."
Can you explain what you mean by "pure cinema"? And would pure cinema be comparable to contemplative cinema?
[A deep, patient breath.] I'm able to tell you only one thing. What we are trying to do is more and more and more pure cinema, which is maybe less and less and less story, less and less details, and of course, I really would like to go deeper and deeper and deeper in the human soul. I want to understand something because I'm always just discovering, discovering, discovering something, some new thing, some new possibilities in the film language. Of course, I keep some things but I'm always finding new things I can use. I really like to listen to people. I don't like the artificial anymore. I want to go in like a miner, deeper and deeper. That's what I think. That's why I think I can do it always in one way if I'm more and more simple. What we are doing, it's really on the edge. It's a risk.
Returning to your music if we may. Most scores in films are manipulative. They signal what the audience is supposed to feel. Your music, however, is not manipulative.
It's a part of the movie.
It sets a tone of attention. It says, "This is where you mind has to come to in order to absorb the images that are on their way." How did you decide on the music?
It's a very simple step. I've been working with the composer Mihály Vig since 1983, about 24 years. He's a poet and a rock musician. He's also writing something. He's a very energetic man. He's a part of my family. We are always together when we are working. Before the shooting, I tell him what we think about the movie, how we believe, and I ask him to do some music. He goes to his studio, he records something, and then he comes back to me with his disk. We listen, we choose, we discuss. Maybe he goes back, maybe several times he goes back to the studio to change something. Maybe he just changes an instrument and then he comes back. Afterwards, the music is ready and we use the music during the shooting.
So the actors are actually listening to the music while you're shooting?
Yes. The actors are listening, the camera crew is listening. When we watch this stupid, small monitor, we see immediately the movie. We know how it will be. There will be differences of course, because some of the actors will have to be dubbed in; but mostly, the whole staff is ready during the shooting. The post-production is a short period of time. When we finish the movie, it's ready. We cannot change anything on the editing table. We use the editing table only for a few days.
I don't know how you'd be able to edit some of your long shots.
No, no. We just put it together. That's why I have to know, and everybody has to know, how is the whole movie going to be? We have to know, okay, this take is going to finish in a white out and how will the next one connect and how will we do the lighting?
The lighting in The Man From London is phenomenal; the term being commonly used is "noirish." I especially liked how you lit the night scenes with the buildings in the background illuminated from ground level. Is your lighting designer, Fred Kelemen, another individual in your production ensemble with whom you've been working with for years?
The director of photography, the gaffer and me, this is our job. I have a strong imagination and we are always discussing the lighting. It has to be perfect.
It's lustrous! You've perfectly captured night's luster. Throughout the film you fade to black-outs and yet you make the choice in the ending close-up shot of Mrs. Brown's face to fade to white. Why that choice to fade to white?
Because while I was shooting her face, I noticed her face was getting whiter and whiter. So we put the lamps a little bit closer to her face and a little brighter and then finally we did it in total white.
Not having read Georges Simenon's novel upon which The Man From London is based, I don't know whether the scene where Maloin takes the food to Mr. Brown is as it was written. Was it your choice not to show us what happens?
Something has to happen but you don't know what, yes.
Why that exclusion? Why not show us?
Because I think it's much more powerful if you don't see. I'm really not an action director. I really don't know. If I tried to direct action, I would become ridiculous. What we wanted to show you was how he went into the shed and then how he comes out. The difference is what is totally important. Afterwards you can understand why he confesses.
What I was trying to say earlier about how your characters move in your films - they carry the burden of their own truths. The gravitas is embodied. They don't have to show it all in their faces. Their bodies express the weight of who they are. This is particularly evident in Maloin's body language when he emerges from the shed. He's a different person for what has happened in there. You don't necessarily have to see what happened to know its effect. My final question: Your casting of Tilda Swinton as Maloin's wife. How did that come about?
She immediately said yes when I called her.
Was it her face you wanted?
Yes, her eyes. Her personality. I must say that, for me, she's not a Hollywood actress. You know she was working with Derek Jarman, she played Orlando, she did some serious acting in Europe, and for Europeans, she's not just somebody from Hollywood. She's really a European intellectual. She's a very clever, well-educated, intelligent woman who is full of sensibility and that's why it was totally natural to work with her. There was no question. It was really nice to work with her and we still love each other. This work couldn't destroy our relationship.
You really helped me focus on just how beautiful and unique her face is through this movie. Well, Béla, they're signaling me to stop. This has been one of the highlights of my filmwriting career. Thank you so much for your time, your kindness, and your beautiful film. I hope it's received with an open heart and an open mind.
I hope so too. That's important. Thanks a lot.
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