“A person learns more from their mistakes than from their successes”
Hungarian film received significant attention at Cannes this year: László Nemes’s drama Son of Saul (Saul fia) was screened at the grandiose festival, where they also presented a remastered version of The Round-up (Szegénylegények). In memory of Miklós Jancsó, who passed away last year, there will also be a three-day retrospective in Frankfurt, focusing on the director’s foreign co-productions. Among the guests invited to take part in the series will be the director’s past collaborators. We spoke with cinematographer János Kende (Silence and Cry [Csend és kiáltás], My Love, Elektra [Szerelmem, Elektra]) about his work with Miklós Jancsó.
Interviewer: People often say that Miklós Jancsó’s films are had to digest and that this can deter viewers. What do you think about this?
János Kende: I would say that it really doesn’t matter to me who thinks what about the films that I have made. For the first film we worked on together, Silence and Cry, I was concerned with that, but since then, not so much. For me, my relationship with a film ends when they put the print in the box. Maybe I go to the premiere to take a bow. The size of the audience no more concerned me back then than it does now. I consider it far more important to have ten intelligent viewers than to attract greater financial returns, which, if the audience likes the film, would only cover about a quarter of the cost of making the film, anyways. My only real experiences with criticism are tied to my university years, when we discussed films within a smaller, more vocational context.
Interviewer: Do you find criticism to be more inspirational than praise?
J.K.: The praise for a cinematographer takes up two sentences in a review. People don’t usually analyze a film from a cinematographic point of view, with a couple of exceptions. I personally haven’t had much of a history with reviews, but I must say that when David Robinson published an article about My Love, Elektra in the Times stating that he considered me to be one of the best cinematographers in the world, it felt good. The first time I heard praise regarding my film work I was on my way home from Venice, still in Italian territory. At first, when I realized that it was my name that I was hearing, I was worried for a second, because I thought that there was something wrong; the political business with Gyuri Konrád (George Konrad) was going on and that’s why I was listening to Radio Free Europe. As I listened on, I was relieved when I heard what they were talking about. I’ll tell you a secret: I used to tell my university classmates that I was going to start spreading the word about what a good cinematographer I was, so that by the time the Times said it, no one would realize that it was me who started the rumor in the first place. I’m glad that it actually worked out that way in the end.
Interviewer: Miklós Jancsó often mentioned his collaboration with Gyula Hernádi in interviews, but rarely brought up his cinematographers. Why is that?
J.K.: With Jancsó’s films, the actual filming wasn’t the creative process, but rather the discussions that took place in the preceding three or four months, at which time he would decide with Hernádi what the film would be about – even if it was just in principle and not as an actual screenplay. I was often present at their meetings, but afterwards I didn’t really discuss the film itself with Miklós.
Interviewer: Do you mean that on set the contents of the film weren’t discussed?
J.K.: During filming, we spoke about how to realize the film, but it was no longer necessary to discuss the film’s fundamental message or intrigue. All I knew about that I found out in the course of Miklós and Hernádi’s discussions at the Intercontinental or the Astoria hotel.
Mari Törőcsik in My Love, Elektra
Interviewer: Considering such a compact film as My Love, Elektra, that’s difficult to believe. The way the story is told is wonderfully visual and camera-centric. It seemed like the two of you were really in sync.
J.K.: At that time, we were still in a world where it was impossible to replay the footage on the cameras; because of that, Miklós really had to trust me with the image. In effect, My Love, Elektra was the most perfect of that kind of Jancsó film, of which Silence and Cry and The Red and the White (Csillagosok, Katonák) were the precursors. It was during the making of Elektra that I really became an adult, and I clearly understood both what Miklós wanted and what I wanted. We worked with increasingly complex tools, cranes, and 12-minute takes, but we didn’t really have to discuss anything; with that film, everything was already figured out in advance.
Interviewer: For My Love, Elektra, how many takes did you need for each shot?
J.K.: Usually, we would practice for a 12-minute take all day. That time was not just for rehearsal; we needed that much time to experiment with the camera movements and practice those. Afterwards, we would record it three or four times, and usually the second and third takes would be good. The first take would be full of technical errors, while the last one would have started to become too mechanical. With Allegro Barbaro, for example, where we could hardly afford to complicate our lives, we took eight days to capture one image. On the first day of recording, we got it perfect, but unfortunately one of the actors was standing in one of the window frames taking a photo. Today, that wouldn’t have been a problem because we could have corrected it digitally, but back then (1979) it wasn’t possible. The recording was also made more difficult by the fact that in the eighth minute a parachute team had to jump to the right place just as the sun was going down. We filmed this same 300-meter take for eight days, and by the end everyone knew what they had to do so well that the whole scene ended up being two and a half minutes shorter than in the first recording.
Interviewer: Were you there for the editing of the films?
J.K.: I went into the editing room, but more as a friend. My presence didn’t really have an effect, especially since with such long shots the editing didn’t really change the material much. The audio post-production had a greater impact, since these films were always overdubbed in post-production.
Interviewer: Who’s work inspired you when you were working with Jancsó?
J.K.: We talked about books and films, but for me, the biggest inspiration was of a more technical nature, for instance, when I found a camera that could fit twelve minutes of film instead of five on one cartridge, or when we discovered that the camera didn’t have to stay at one height – on one track – on the dolly, but that we could also add a hoist; we always complicated our lives a bit. When we finally got television monitors for the filming of The Tyrant’s Heart (A zsarnok szíve) and Miklós could finally see what we were filming, that created a whole other way of working, because we didn’t have to argue about the footage after the fact. This development really simplified my work, because Miklós could offer his opinion right away as to whether the shot should be tighter or wider.
Miklós Jancsó and János Kende during the filming of Winter Wind [Sirokkó], 1968. Photo: Gyula Szóvári
Interviewer: You teach at the University of Theatre and Film Arts (Színház- és Filmművészeti Egyetem). Do you take part in the admissions process? If so, what criteria shape your decision?
J.K.: The admissions process is very long; it takes three months. Many people don’t make it past the general knowledge test. Then, closer to the entrance exam we start discussing and reviewing the admissions materials. You need to be able to sniff out talent. There are a couple of people who clearly display a talent for visual thinking, but they are few and far between – usually only one or two in a class. With others, it is not so clear, and the committee has discussions throughout the admissions process in order to come to a decision. I make recommendations and listen to the opinions of the others. When it comes down to the last couple of people, more serious arguments break out.
Interviewer: What personal characteristics does a good cinematographer need to have? You were younger than Miklós Jancsó, yet he still took you on as a cinematographer.
J.K.: I was 20 years younger than him. It is difficult to put your finger on the secret of a good working relationship. With Miklós, for example, he didn’t need to tell me when something was good. Nor did we have to praise ourselves or each other. We just looked to see whether we had done something wrong, and if so, we figured out how to fix it. Of course, there are those directors who expect the cinematographer to say something wonderful after the filming, but I was never willing to do that. It depends on the person. It’s like smoking a cigar: there are those who smoke the best cigars and those who smoke the worst, but the box is the same. Miklós and I were alike in that respect that we didn’t give each other praise, so much so that when we were no longer working together, but still good friends. Zsuzsa Csákány said to Miklós, “You’ve still never told Kende that he’s good.” Miklós asked me whether this was true, to which I replied, yes, but it’s fine, because I knew he was satisfied and that’s why he asked me to work on subsequent films. I never missed the praise; it would have been a burden on him. I studied alongside a French cinematographer who, when he finished filming, always said, “pas mal,” in other words “not bad.” I really like that attitude, but there’s no formula as to what will work for every director.
Interviewer: Do you think it’s important for a cinematographer and a director to have good chemistry? Do you try to teach your students the ways in which they can approach a director?
J.K.: No, I encourage my students to be independent. I want them to always think freely and try to realize their own vision. As a teacher, I am not outcome-oriented. It doesn’t matter to me whether their final film project is ruined or less than successful. In my experience, a person learns more from their mistakes than from their successes. I can list all of the bad shots I’ve put together since college; the beautiful and good takes don’t always stick in my mind, so much so that sometimes when I’m watching TV, I’ll see a film that seems familiar and it will turn out that I shot it. For a long time, I was the assistant to my mentor Sándor Sára, for Father (Apa), Ten Thousand Suns (Tízezer nap), and Current (Sodrásban). Sanyi thought through the images in different way – he dreamed of a geometrical world; that’s what he wanted to achieve. That kind of compositional rigor was really foreign to me, but to this day, we are good friends. Actually, there were times when we actually traded places, for example with the film Twelfth Night (Vízkereszt), which he also directed, I recorded some of the geometric images while he followed the actors with a handheld camera.
Interviewer: So what you did with Miklós Jancsó grew out of the French New Wave: a freely moving camera, a freely told story…
J.K.: It grew out of it, but with Miklós one shot was never constrained by time and space: you could step out of the world that had been created in the film thus far and return to it; you could die in it and be resurrected; it could begin in the twentieth century and end in the nineteenth. A 10-minute take doesn’t really unfold in real time, but rather is an abstract agglomerate of many thoughts.
Interviewer: Do you follow current developments in film or the industry-related press?
J.K.: Not so much the industry-related press, but I do follow current developments in film. It’s kind of unavoidable, since I am often a judge or advisory board member at cinematography competitions. Luckily, I am able to assess the films from a cinematographic point of view and gloss over the other aspects. Often, the cinematographic work can be good even if the film isn’t.
Interviewer: Was it difficult for you to transition into being a teacher or evaluator at a certain point in your career?
J.K.: No, as I’ve been doing it for a very long time. I have many years of experience; I was on the advisory board for both the National Cultural Fund (Nemzeti Kulturális Alap) and the Hungarian Academy of the Arts (Magyar Művészeti Akadémia), so I have read a ton of screenplays. It has never been difficult for me to offer criticism; in fact, I’m pretty quick to say if I don’t like something.
This interview with cinematographer János Kende was originally published in Hungarian on Kulton.hu. Interview by Yvonne Kerékgyártó. English translation by PPM Hungary.
PPM Film Services is a Budapest-based film company offering an inspiring and creative work atmosphere for its host of clients from around the world. Since our inception, our focus has been providing the best of the best in terms of local production resources, locations, cast and technical teams to ensure that whatever the production we’re charged to create, we do it with no compromise. To sign up for the PPM Hungary newsletter, have a look here.
Read Full Post »