László Nemes’s masterful debut feature film, Son of Saul, won the Grand Prix Award at Cannes in 2015, and went on to win the Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th Academy Awards, setting the stage nicely for his newest work, Sunset. The Globe and Mail sat down with the director and screenwriter just after the film’s North American premiere at TIFF this past fall. Joined by his collaborator and Son of Saul and Sunset cinematographer, Mátyás Erdély, Nemes dove deep into the representational direction and history behind the film now playing in theatres.
First of all, Sunset is like nothing I’ve ever seen before – it’s very much not a conventional historical drama. Could you tell us how you came to develop this story?
Nemes: I wanted to go back to the beginning of the birth of the 20th century, which is something I’ve always been so fascinated by. Before the First World War, when cessation was at crossroads, people chose to follow an instinctive force within themselves and within civilization. Rather than fulfilling some sort of promise of the present, they chose instead to destroy civilization itself and go against its very values. My grandmother used to tell me stories about the early 20th century, so, in some respects, I very much experienced the hardships and totalitarian regimes of that time through her eyes. So it was very instinctive to me and, in this film, became a process of unfolding that into an entire cinematic experience.
The film is very much an experiential plunge into that specific history. It has this distinct and singular perspective which is, in a lot of ways, formally similar to both of your work on Son of Saul. Is there something in particular that draws both of you toward these formal elements?
Nemes: For me, form and style cannot be separated from the very essence of the material that we approach, and in this film I was interested in the personal labyrinth of one single person. In today’s world, we feel as if we have so much perspective, information and a sort of Godlike point of view on everything as it is conveyed by our technology. I think that, on the contrary, human experience has to do with limitation and a finite perspective, rather than an infinite one. And that is at the very core of the philosophy of the film. We wanted to go into these mazes wherein this experience would tell something about the film’s main character and the limitations she must face. We had to find a cinematic way to do that and, yes, there are similarities and continuations between those films, but it is definitely a subjective and immersive cinema. It’s a fragmentation of the world as opposed to a global perspective.
Erdély: I think the connection between the two films is how we come to deal with information. It’s a story that is told from a very subjective and limited point of view and it becomes labyrinthine in that sense. You are picking up pieces of information and realizing later that they are actually not important pieces of information. I feel it’s a very personal journey. This has been my experience: Life is such that you don’t necessarily understand everything, constantly, at the moment it happens. You become aware of something and oftentimes days, or even months, later you come to put the pieces together. I think there is a very powerful element in that where you can tell stories in a way that is true to the way some of us experience the real world. It’s the opposite of how films are usually approached, where blocks of information are given and then are structurally built up dramatically. This is a much more fragmented and, I think, much more organic way to be immersed in something. It is much more demanding from the audience – you really have to pay attention. You are as lost as the main character is. And that was very much a conscious decision by László and me – we wanted to put the audience in the shoes of the character, both on an emotional level and intellectual level. I find it extremely exciting and interesting to create a cinematic world where the audience is as lost as the main character. It’s very strange for most people as it inspires some discomfort, and that was the whole idea.
Absolutely! Initially, I was so mentally frustrated, in a very new and, truthfully, novel way, watching this film because it was experientially so different from what I was used to. In terms of the way subjectivity is conveyed through narrative and form, there are no rules in this film.
Erdély: And that’s the whole idea! Often times there are no precise answers to things and that is fine. Sometimes information is contradictory and fragmented and there is no clear or clean answer to things. And we really wanted to convey that.
The sound in this film is amazing in this sense as well. It’s so lush and layered and works so clearly on that level of intellectual subjectivity you were both speaking of, where it’s this very subjective process of discerning what is directly productive to the film’s story and what is pure experience.
Nemes: I’m so glad someone finally understands that! Our sound designer is constantly saying that he cannot do anything without an image. He is adamant in saying that there needs to be a strategy and very clear path in terms of image if we’re to have the sound resonating in the film in a multi-dimensional way. In today’s cinema, I think sound is very repetitive and serves directly to amplify the picture, but what we tried to do here was create an intertwined and layered dimension between sound and imagery. They have layers that resonate on different levels and work together in a very complementary manner.
Erdély: They enter into a dialogue, which reflects on each other. Of course, we are shooting the images first, but I know that we can rely on sound greatly while shooting. Whatever information is not necessarily conveyed in images, we know that sound can expand that limitation.
Nemes: You have to piece together the limitations within both sound and image. It’s visceral and it has to be in order to achieve that. There’s always the temptation to do more and to have a certain immediate impact, but we were always looking for more of a diffused image. A film’s image is more than just a pictorial moment and I’m very interested in how you can produce a complete mental image in the mind of the viewer, rather than in just a frontal or purely visual way.
I know that you’re a serious advocate for celluloid, how do you think analogue filmmaking has informed your realization of this experiential relationship between sound and image?
Nemes: I have to tell you, the first time I looked through a 35 mm camera, I knew that I had to work in film. It was a magical moment. Film is an image that is not our reality – it’s a window into another world. To take an audience on that journey, to make them believe in a world that exists, even if it’s not exactly ours, you have to rely on the physical world, the chemical world and the existing world. The digital and virtual worlds – 0s and 1s and 0s – are something completely different, and, for me, the accidents and textures of film processes are all part of a specific and meaningful experience.
Digital is a downgrading of our experience for mere industrial reasons that are actually based on lies, rather than real life. It’s simply a reorganization of industrial interests and I find it so appalling that the audiences are the ones who are having this downgraded experience. There’s no magic whatsoever. If I had to do a film in digital, I would quit.
Erdély: [Laughs]. In regards to this film, Laszlo and I were interested in something that is real, rather than something that was slick or “pretty.” Human beings are flawed and our worlds are never perfect, no matter what we create. And that’s what makes things real, and I think that film has that organic quality and, even more so, a stronger impact.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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