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Returning to the screen after a brief gap, Director Illdikó Enyedi’s On Body and Soul won big at this year’s Berlinale. To find out more, HOME’s Artistic Director of Film, Jason Wood, speaks to Enyedi about her inspirations and crafting the award-winning finished product…
Jason Wood: On Body and Soul represents a return to feature filmmaking after a lengthy hiatus. You had written scripts during this period that you believed in that for various reasons were not financed. What did you do to keep your sanity during this period and what were the various elements that combined to ensure that the script for On Body and Soul was put into production?
Illdikó Enyedi: Although I started to teach directing at the University of Film and Theatrical Art in Budapest and although I became quickly surprisingly passionate about teaching (I start a new class of 6 students this September) I felt during all these devastatingly long years like an unemployed steel worker. More and more clueless, lost, out of touch with my own reality. During the last 5 years, when, first I started to work for HBO Europe, then I prepared then shot On Body and Soul even teaching became more fulfilling, less absurd. But, even if it was in certain periods really dark, I am lucky to have a character to be able to be immersed, lost in the moment. The time spent with my family, just one of those early morning breakfast with my husband speaking passionately about literature or hiking, biking with my kids kept my focus on the really important things – that I can be thankful just to be alive, to live in a peaceful corner of our globe and with people I deeply love.
I don’t know why On Body and Soul was financed and the other five projects not. It is the first film I did not make in co-production, the Hungarian Film Fund covered the whole budget. They, and my producers as well trusted me, let me, let us work freely and in calm, safe conditions. I am very thankful to them for this. The shooting of this film was the most beautiful working experience I ever had, although I worked with amazing people also beforehand.
JW: The film was selected for Berlinale and then won the Golden Bear, some 28 years after your debut feature My Twentieth Century won the Caméra d’Or at Cannes. What personal emotions did the reception that your return to filmmaking was met with inspire?
IE: In fact, during the nineties, even if my films were not awarded so highly as the first one, each of them had an impact and got very passionate responses from spectators and also from some critics. Magic Hunter (1994) was in competition in Venice, won several other prizes and brought me the proposition from David Bowie (who was executive producer of the film) to invent visually his next show and follow him on a tour in India making a documentary of the tour (I couldn’t accept it being 8 months pregnant with my son at that time). The film is buried under the ruins of Alliance which bought the rights but we will try to resuscitate it. Tamas and Juli won best French film in Beaune and Simon the Magician a film of mine I deeply love got, among many others, the special prize of the jury in Locarno. So, I was an active and relativement successful filmmaker during the nineties. The tough part came only after 2000.
About Berlin: I am very thankful to my producers who decided to raise the money to bring nearly all important crew and cast members to the Berlinale. Instead of glamour, we stayed in a rather simple hotel and enjoyed to be together in this wonderful moment. This film, at first view, has nothing predicting big festival success, it is a low key, soberly passionate story. I was extremely touched and happy to sit, with 27 members of my great team, in the darkness of the Berlinale Palast’s cinema feeling, hearing the reactions of those many unknown people to drama, humour, emotions – exactly the way we hoped for. It felt to be alive again, to exist again, because I wanted to share something important for me and I felt that I was fully and deeply understood. I think all human beings are longing for that, the shy ones try to create something, showing themselves through that work to their smaller or larger community.
I am truly thankful to the main jury not just for the prize but also the way they explained it. There again, I felt they draw attention to the hidden core of the film, compassion.
JW: In an earlier interview you mentioned that for you the idea for a story begins not with a story but with a wish to share a personal view or insight about the human condition. What was it that you wanted to share about the human condition with this project? Central to the film seems to be a concern with the subject of loneliness and isolation but also for the capacity amongst even the most ordinary people for love.
IE: I wished to encourage people to take risks by trusting each other, opening up towards each other
JW: When I viewed the film in Berlin three things struck me immediately: the motif of the shared dream, the beautifully drawn and very unique two central protagonists and the choice of a slaughterhouse as the central location. I wondered if you could comment on these elements and in regard to the slaughterhouse how you chose to depict it. You avoid a place of blood and guts but instead present a very clean, modern place that observes strict methodology.
IE: The idea of the shared dream came to my mind in a quite unretraceable way. What is for sure is that without intending to make a “Jungian” film, his approach to the common unconscious which connects us all is very meaningful to me. In our dreams we reach out directly to this hidden layer of our psyche. This is the place where the very personal and the universal meet. I remember being struck by the realization that the most important personal moments of every person (the birth of your child, love, death of your beloved ones or your own) are exactly those experiences one shares with all mankind. It can help to make our big ego more humble.
Yes, the slaughterhouse is a very decent, well organized and efficient, EU-conforming workplace where there is a wall to cover the killing from the eyes of the cattle waiting to be killed. It was not very different when I gave birth to my children or when I had to say goodby to my dying father. Our well organized life is full of the silent horror of not acknowledging what is happening really with us – instead of living through important moments of our life we want to resolve neatly, them with efficiency and expertise.
JW: I have also heard you mention that the character of Maria is someone to whom you have a very close personal affinity. Could you talk about this a little more, perhaps in relation to the subject of introspection and how, if applicable, society dictates that we mix well with others, both in the work environment and in other social situations.
IE: Well, yes, I am by nature a very shy person (not the only filmmaker with this “deficiency”) and share some traits with Maria. I communicate quite effectively and with pleasure if the conversation has concrete. In these situations I am resourceful, convincing and even my sense of humor has a chance to appear.
In contrast, in smalltalk and casual conversations I am desperate, stiff, quite boring and I get quickly exhausted because of the constant tension I feel. I just want to survive these dreaded situations. I think, small talk is one of the most wonderful human inventions. Hanging about together is beautiful, even if the conversation is meaningless. Underneath the actual words about weather or food there are more meaningful ones: these chit-chats say to the other person “I am curious about you, I enjoy spending time with you, your company is precious to me”. I long for this warm and simple reassurance of each other”s existence. So, on set I am flourishing. This is my real social life, in fact. Every shoot is like an expedition to some unknown land, all who lived it through together remain connected for the rest of their life even if they never meet again. During work I am somehow allowed to show all my love and respect to the people I work with, I can break out from a shield of loneliness, I connect with the world around me with extreme intensity and I love it. This is what Maria is doing. The first time in her life – because of her attraction towards this man – she sets on a thrillingly dangerous personal expedition to discover sensually and emotionally the world around her and huge, unknown territories of herself as well.
I just wanted to show how difficult it is to step out from behind our shields, to stand there naked and vulnerable, but also how wonderful it is, how rewarding, what a full, overwhelming experience it can be. I just wished to encourage people, not only the shy ones, but also the extroverts to risk themselves as bravely as Maria and Endre.
JW: Géza Morcsányi is terrific as Endre and I understand this is his screen acting debut. How did you come to cast him and what qualities did he have that enabled you to see the character of Endre in him?
IE: Endre’s role is rather monolithic. It needs first of all a convincing presence on screen. I wished to find a man with a silent charisma, a secret, a person with intelligence, wry humour, an effortless consistency, class, and with real weight to his personality. I also sought an elementary masculinity, a bit in decline, in all its vulnerability. In a way a much younger version of Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino…
Géza, who is not only a very important literary publisher (he has just retired from his position of director) also worked for decades as a dramaturg in the best theaters, knew very well that it would be a big mistake if he would try to “act”. I fitted the role to his personality so he could be true and authentic in every situation. He was fully present and therefore acted with the unpredictable but truthful richness of a real person in a real situation. Amateurs, if the role really fits them, can be as convincing as only the best actors but you shouldn’t push them outside of their natural boundaries. Very wisely Géza completely switched off his dramaturg self. I used to rework the dialogues with the actors but he just wanted to play what was written down, unchanged. He protected in this way that fragile state, that total openness and defencelessness what is a basic need for acceptance.
JW: Finally, I wondered if you speak about your relationship with cinematographer Màté Herbai in terms of achieving the distinctive visual aesthetic. Did you point Màté in the direction of specific reference points?
IE: Máté Herbai was such a precious partner because he is not only very talented but also a sensitive, intelligent person and a very decent human being. As is everybody else on the film by the way. How we crew members treated each other on set infiltrated into the film or, perhaps, the script, the intensity of the presence of these two actors infiltrated into the mind of the crew members, I don”t know. But everybody without exception was very present and somehow very open and tender towards each other. Apart the big laughs – there was an air of ÜNNEPÉLYESSÉG.
When we sat down the first time with Maté there was only one real film reference: In the Mood for Love. But, not as a direct reference to any visual tool he used. We had to find, create a radically different visual world, but the hidden purpose is the same: I wished the same, nearly unbearable tension, longing, passion simmering under the surface, under the very simple everyday actions in this marvelous film.
We constructed very carefully Maria’s and Endre’s world. We wanted to immerse the spectator in the way they perceive the world around them. For Endre, I showed him the photos of the amazing Saul Leiter who quite uniquely made street photography full of meanings without ever losing that exciting feeling of spontaneity.
For Maria, this well disciplined young woman frozen into a safe routine in order to shelter herself from a world too overwhelming for her, I showed the paintings of Richard Estes. Without making it stylistically explicit (any concrete style would have worked arrogantly against the presence of the actors), we tried to create in Maria’s apartment the same alienating, uneasy effect that hyperrealist paintings have on us. We are amazed how real everything seems but our guts tell us that something is wrong. It is the lack of perspective. We used lots of light so that we could work with a big depth of field. It is not by chance that Maria’s apartment is on a very high floor, having around her just the sun, the wind. People are living down below, somewhere in the distance. The noise of the city is just a murmur. Endre lives on the first floor, the apartment is shadowed by surrounding houses. There, in his apartment stuffed with objects from different periods of his past life we used a smaller depth of field. Everything out of his immediate reach surrounded him in a soft blur.
For the slaughterhouse we tried out three different options. First of all, we knew that we do not want to interfere in the slaughtering process in any way, even with lighting. For the scenes where we had to focus on the actors we shot outside of the slaughterhuse working hours. The approach was generally quite minimalist but also ended up being quite dramatic with the distant sunshine seeping in in thin stripes inside these big, empty, clean and silent spaces which some minutes before were filled with deafening sound of machines and blood. This approach lends these scenes a certain elevated mood, an importance – as if we were in a church. It wants to show that where we are is a serious place, in a way a mythical place.
Find out more about On Body and Soul and book tickets here.
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