The winner of Karlovy Vary’s East of the West prize for her debut, “The Wednesday Child” (2015), Hungarian multihyphenate Lili Horvát screens “Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time” at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival after its world premiere in Venice Days. Her unusual love story explores the role of projections in love and the fine line between romance and madness.
Your first film boasted a gritty, neo-realistic look and this one feels mysterious and dreamy. How did you decide on the visual style and why did you decide to shoot on 35mm?
The key element of “Preparations” is insecurity, the fragility and precariousness of reality. While researching that, Róbert Maly, the DP, and I came upon the work of Saul Leiter, an American photographer, at an exhibition in Vienna. The mysteriousness hidden in his photos, in their texture, color, lighting and framing, became our first point of reference. We realized that, in order to bring a world similar to the atmosphere of Leiter’s photos to the screen, it was essential to shoot on celluloid. With our pictures, we hoped to capture the nearly inconceivable: a gut feeling, intuition, the secret of our irrational choices for love.
Why did you make the lead characters neurosurgeons?
The medical setting is meant to be the counterpoint of madness. We see a seemingly crazy woman race after a guy, but then the story takes a turn: this crazy woman happens to be a leading neurosurgeon in an American hospital. Flesh, blood and bone are in contrast with our story’s floating, dreamy world. The first “love scene” between the two main characters takes place during a difficult operation, where the two doctors operate in incredible harmony — I really liked the low-key romanticism of this situation. But there is also something very mysterious about brain surgery — its almost poetic side — that the doctor is holding a living person’s feelings and thoughts in his/her hands, literally between his/her fingers. That thinking and feeling are physical processes is a fact on the edge of comprehension. This resonates very well with the essence of our film.
Your fantastic lead performers are primarily theater actors. Was it different working with them versus the young non-professionals in your first film?
The face, the physical appearance of Natasa Stork [playing Dr. Márta Vizy], as well as her minimalist and direct style of acting practically predestine her for the film screen — I’m really happy to be the first one who offered her a lead film role. She’s a super-sensitive person of sublime beauty, who has a relentless intelligence in her, and a tenacious capacity for work. I am attracted to the mix of strength and fragility both in life and on the screen. It incites a good kind of tension, it suggests a secret. The first time I met Natasa, at the casting for “Preparations,” I immediately felt that she has that duality, as well as an intense internal world which was indispensable for this role.
Viktor Bodó [who plays Dr. János Drexler] hadn’t taken an acting role for more than 10 years — he works as a theater director, putting on successful productions all over Europe. I saw him a number of times on stage in my teenage years — I knew he was a great actor, with an astounding presence. So there was no question about his acting, only whether he felt like doing it again. I think our meeting occurred at a lucky moment. Our project arrived in his life at the very moment he became open to the mental challenge of giving his all as an actor to a different director’s project.
Preceding the shooting of “The Wednesday Child,” I held an intense acting training for Kinga Vecsei [the lead performer]. But otherwise, there was no big difference in the way I directed the actors in the two films. I treat non-professional actors also as equal partners, and those professional actors who approach a role with the tricks of their craft don’t really interest me. We start building together from zero, even with an experienced actor. We still have to explore all the motivations, to find the character’s walk, tone of speech, and all the fine details that create the truth of a role.
As I was watching “Preparations,” I was thinking about Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “La Vie Double de Véronique” and also Ildikó Enyedi’s “On Body and Soul.” Are there some filmmakers that you think have influenced you here? Or writers?
Kieslowski’s female characters served as references in the development of Márta’s character, as did other obsessed female figures, such as Kleist’s Käthchen von Heilbronn, Madeleine in Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” or Truffaut’s “Adèle H.”
Ildikó Enyedi was an important professor of mine at film school, and I’m very lucky I can call her a friend. I am sure her attitude to filmmaking and to life has influenced me a lot.
The long, poetic title feels like an outline for the film. Does it mean the same thing in Hungarian?
”Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time” was originally the title of a 1972 underground theater performance directed by Péter Halász. I read this long, secretive and enigmatic title in an art book many years ago, and never forgot it. When I had written this story, it came to mind — I felt like you just said, “It’s an outline for this film.” So, well, we acquired the rights.
Why did you decide to form a production company and produce this film as well as write and direct it?
In Hungary, producers don’t put their own money into film production. They apply for state funding and manage the production of the film. In spite of this, I feel they often have too much power in the series of decisions in the making of the films, and also from the aspect of film rights. With producer Dóra Csernátony, we founded the Poste Restante production company in 2016. Dóra also became the dramaturge for “Preparations” — she’s a creative partner who helped me immensely to get my thoughts the most precisely articulated on the screen. Our producer partner, Peter Miskolczi, was also an enormous help with his decades of film production experience. Since the film was our own production, all the budget considerations and various production decisions could be exclusively dictated by the needs of this specific project, and not by any interests unconnected to it. We’d like to follow this principle in our next projects as well: creative attention on the production side, and decisions expressly tailored to the given film.
What is your next project?
It is a contemporary, twisted adaptation of Ovid’s “Pygmalion,” still at an early stage of development. I’m interested in what happens to Pygmalion and his woman: his creature, once they had actually started their life together.