Hungarian cinematographer Matyas Erdely put himself on the movie map this year with two movies filmed 4,000 miles apart. The first, Josh Mond’s “James White,” stars Christopher Abbott as a troubled New Yorker whose casual attitude to life is challenged when death and illness intrude. Making its debut in January at Sundance, where it won the audience-voted Best of Next award, Mond’s film began a sweep of international festivals, gathering serious word-of-mouth in the indie community as an awards-season dark horse for its cast and director.
Not one to be pigeonholed, Erdely swapped the immediacy of digital for his second film of 2015: Laszlo Nemes’ “Son of Saul,” a disturbing and intimate attempt to convey the horrors of the Holocaust — described by Variety review Justin Chang as “a masterful exercise in narrative deprivation and sensory overload” — by focusing only on the lead character as he strives to bury his murdered illegitimate son. The film won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival, as is Hungary’s entry in the foreign-language film category of the Academy Awards.
This time, Erdely worked with 35mm, a format he vastly prefers, even though he shows mastery of both. Why 35mm? “Imagine if you went to the Louvre,” he reasons, “and they took all the paintings down and put up super high-res digital prints instead. It might be 4k or 8k or however many ks you want, but it wouldn’t really given you the same feel.” He laughs. “I can’t really describe it any better than that.”
Variety: How did you become a cinematographer?
Matyas Erdely: I’m from a family of artists and I couldn’t really draw, so I picked up a camera — a still camera. I was really lucky because I had some family friends who were photographers and filmmakers, so I got in touch with them. I realized very quickly that this was what I wanted to do, and they were extremely helpful, almost like mentors. I took it very seriously, then I applied to the Hungarian film school when I was 18. Usually they take people who already have a degree, but somehow I got in. They take eight people in every four years — it’s super-competitive to get in. But once you were in, you could do what you wanted.
Variety: Did you already have film work to show them?
Erdely: No, it was based on my photography. You didn’t have to have films to show. It’s a really complex entrance exam, with a 100-page test about art. Then you have to shoot photography on assignments, which was really great, and the last round is a 16mm black-and-white short. It was a very elaborate exam — and I enjoyed it! After I graduated in the year 2000, from a five-year program, I went to the U.S.A. and went through AFI as well. I graduated again in 2005.
Variety: What kind of work were you doing in Hungary?
Erdely: I did a lot of shorts. That was my school, basically. I did, like, 30-40 shorts. I never counted them. But I did a lot of shorts with people that I still admire. While I was at AFI I was approached by a director called Kornel Mundruczo, who was really the most interesting director in Hungary of his generation. He was shooting a film called “Johanna”  and his DoP had to leave, so he called me back from the States to finish. I shot, like, 25 per cent of that film. After that we started collaborating and we did another two films together [“Delta” (2008) and “Tender Son” (2010)], both of which ended up in competition in Cannes. That brought me [Gerardo Naranjo’s] “Miss Bala” and my agent in Los Angeles — that’s what really started me.
Variety: What was your experience with “Miss Bala” like?
Erdely: It was fantastic. It was like a dream come true in many ways: it was a much bigger budget than anything I’d done before, the script was something that I really enjoyed and the concept was great. My crew in Mexico was fantastic.
Variety: You have a very distinctive style. Are you aware of it?
Erdely: I am super not aware if I have a style, I have to say. And I’ll be really worried if I ever have a “style.” I really hope that my style changes according to the script and the story. Obviously, I have sensibilities and preferences, a certain taste, and that probably shows in my work. If that’s style, then I guess everybody has a style. I’m hoping I can form my choices and form my approach from film to film, because every project needs a different approach, in my mind.
Variety: “Southcliffe” was another unexpected turn: a British serial TV drama. How did you get involved with Sean Durkin and the Borderline team?
Erdely: We had films in Cannes at the same time. [Antonio Campos’] “Afterschool” was there when “Delta” was there, and then [Durkin’s] “Martha Marcy May Marlene” was there when “Tender Son” was there. I never met them, but they saw these films and they got in touch with me when Sean was in England. I really, really admire their work. I’m a huge fan of these boys, and I was extremely excited to work with Sean. I have to say that “Southcliffe” was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had shooting anything.
Variety: You then worked with Borderline’s Josh Mond on “James White.” How did that collaboration work?
Erdely: It was a very interesting process. The script, I think, was really flawed, but what it had was a huge power of honesty and I related to that. Basically for the whole of the prep I kind of became his psychoanalyst, and I spent a lot of time trying to figure out his intentions in the scenes that didn’t make sense to me. I tried to figure it out because my process as a DoP is that I need to understand every line in a script — why every character says this and why every character does that. I just have to. [Laughs] We spent all that time talking about stuff, and I ran out of time to do my job — all the practical stuff you have to do.
Variety: It seems like a very intense and physical approach. Was that your reaction to the script?
Erdely: It was there in the original script — the tightness and the physicality were hinted at, and the long takes as well, which were cut up at the end, sadly. But it wasn’t really clear. It was more like a stream of consciousness. So we had to find a language, find a structure. We shot a lot of stuff that did not end up in the film — which was really good — because those were the scenes that I didn’t get! But it was an amazing collaboration. Christopher Abbott is a brilliant actor and a very, very intelligent guy. He gets it. My approach with actors is always to involve them as much as I can, so they understand what we’re doing — so they’re not going, “Get that camera out of my face!” But they get it. It’s difficult but these actors are not dumb: they know it’s going to add a visual power that is helping the performance. In a way, the camera almost becomes like another actor.
Variety: Which brings us to “Son of Saul” — the camera almost is the character on screen. How did that film come about?
Erdely: Laszlo [Nemes] and I have been working together since 2007 — we shot three short films together, and in the first film we did, which I shot, he already had a very precise idea of this very unique approach, which we developed for “Son of Saul.” So he already had a very strong idea, eight years ago, and then when we were shooting it we knew that the story and the form had to be developed in parallel — we knew that this story and this film “language” were inseparable. They couldn’t exist without each other, so it was a constant back and forth between the content and the form.
Variety: Was it a difficult shoot?
Erdely: It was. We had a small budget — around $1.4 million — and 28 days to shot the whole film. We were shooting on 35mm, we had built sets, we had hundreds of extras. It was tough. And it was a first feature, so there was a huge amount of pressure on Lazslo. What I did is, I basically stood by him throughout the whole thing and made sure he got what he wanted and what he needed. I supported him in each and every argument. We became comrades, fighting against the elements. It was a very unique concept, and nobody really knew if it would work on not.
Variety: When did you realise it would?
Erdely: Once we started to shoot and we had our first rushes, then a rough assembly, it was obvious that it was extremely interesting and extremely powerful. But nobody really knew. We never shot any coverage, we never shot any close-ups. We shot what we set out to do and that’s all. [Laughs] If we’d failed, we’d have failed big time, because we had no Plan B whatsoever.
Variety: How did you feel about the reaction in Cannes?
Erdely: Whatever is happening to this film is way, way, way beyond our wildest dreams — on every level. From the amount of people watching it in Hungary, to Cannes, to all this madness about it even being considered for an Oscar. Sony Pictures Classics are flying me to Los Angeles to do Q&As and photoshoots, and it’s crazy. It’s incredible and it’s fantastic.
Variety: What’s next for you?
Erdely: I don’t know. It’s actually pretty tough after a movie like “Son of Saul” to find something as exciting. So I’m hoping I’ll have a project by springtime that has a close enough strong concept behind it. I’m looking for something bold.