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Interview: László Nemes on “Sunset”



László Nemes, director of Sunset, courtesy of Sony Picture Classics

We all remember the impact of Írisz’ “Son of Saul“. I myself alone can’t describe in simple words why Nemes’ first feature film was one of the best of our times. With his new feature film called “Sunset“, it takes the audience to Budapest before World War I where Juli Jakab’s Írisz Leiter must fight her way through her own fears, obstacles created by the circumstances, and the past, you can trust me on that, which has its own trick to play.

Last year I had an opportunity to sit down with writer/director Írisz to discuss “Sunset”, his approach to it, and get an insight of his overall vision, the way he sees and creates his characters.

MOVIEMOVESME:  What was the source of inspiration to come up with the thought of making “Sunset”?

László Nemes:   For me, my main inspiration was my willingness to find out about the birth of the twentieth century. How our lives were shaped on the level of civilization, it made sense. I really was fascinated by the fact that only a few years before that people were still walking around in nice hats in a world of optimism and beauty. And this world of so much promise at the turn of the century had such a great impact which could’ve lead us to different times. What interested me the most is to see how at the height of civilization, in a place where everything is boiling with creation and cultures and nationalities and ideas, how at the Zenith there were forces already that were there to undo it and take these people into mass murder first on the front lines and the mass murder of civilians in the second world war. It just that mesmerized me and I really wanted to know more about the soul of civilization being linked to the soul of human beings. it’s how these things are connected and interact.

MOVIEMOVESME: “Sunset” is rich not only with the characters. You can pick any of them and play with their lives or fates. Is that how it goes for you when it comes to writing complex stories with the ability to have control over them?

László Nemes:   But that was my goal and role, how to make, I watch these films of the beginning of the century where people would put a camera in front of, you know at the front of a streetcar and going through a city and you grass something of the atmosphere, the way people lived and it’s a mess, it’s a mess and it’s a whirlwind of things and how, where did this go and where are these people and why were they so full of optimism. Where-as we know that a few years later we committed suicide on a civilization level. So I guess I want to immerse the viewer in a reality that is believable, that has layers. It is not, it takes place more in your mind as opposed to just, put it flat in front of you as in postcards or as in books. It has to do with the emersion, it’s a labyrinth. It has to become a Labyrinth because, for me, our personal experience as human beings has more to do with a limited point of view, and Labyrinth like existence is opposed to the godlike vision that cinema nowadays conveys so much. The objective of things. So I was really interested in that I guess.

MOVIEMOVESME: This is the second time you have collaborated with Clara Royer and Matthieu Taponier. Can you talk about your work with them?

László Nemes:   We are friends. I mean we are a trio of friends. We are, I grew up partly in Paris, my French is even better than my Hungarian and I have a sort of mixture of languages that I’m involved in. Hungarian, French, English, it’s very exciting and they were on board with Son of Saul. Matthieu Taponier was script consultant and editor in Son of Saul and Clara was co-writer in Son of Saul. It’s very natural that I turned to them because they didn’t have access to the time to people, I have to have trust and I know these people have ambition and know and understand me and understand the vision that I have and give even more to the vision. So its actually I’m expecting from all my collaborators to deepen, to deepen even more, or to allow me to deepen even more the thought process. And they can help me with that. So it is very, these are, these were the development of the script, are exciting times, all the more that it goes all the way into production because on the set they are there. And try to help me to adapt to the situation, to the new situations that arise.

MOVIEMOVESME: So there is another complexity and some said that it’s because not just investigating but going back in time and see what happened and that is the kind of fascination you have got. But you also made the character go to the past and that kind of decision. Like later Iris, she wanted to dig deep and find out about her past. So it’s not just that you made a period drama but considered the current time as it’s more again like the past is in the past.

László Nemes:   It’s true, that is true, the layers, I’m talking about layers in the film of layers in the image that constitute the labyrinth. It is a sort of perspective or curtains as I see. Is the main character trying to open the curtains and finding even more curtains and this labyrinth is actually at the very heart of the film and the fact that we have space and time in my films I guess have or not just flat things. These are you have to immerse yourself into them and accept the fact that you have limitations as a viewer, and frustrations as a viewer you have to make the journey with the main character who herself has limitations. So I’m really interested in those fragments of humans existence as opposed to total existence that more and more of today’s imagery presents us with.

MOVIEMOVESME: It’s like there is no such thing in the film that you say, I’m sure you read the book. As soon as you start to read the book, the first line or the first page is very important. If you are into it you are there. If you are not there, that is it. So your film, as a first chapter, the beginning is very important and that is how you continue writing.

László Nemes:   Well the film itself is a way of getting into my mind. It is a labyrinth. Not because I wanted to create a labyrinth, but I really think that I’m interested in what you can add as a viewer to my own vision. I don’t want to tell you everything. I don’t want to spell out the whole adventure for you because you have to be part of it and you have to accept those limitations, and when we make the film, when you write it, it’s, we had in mind the very basic principle was a woman arriving in a strange and a city she doesn’t really know and not having access to her own story, she has to discover her own story and her own layers. And I think that has resonance on so many levels that it is hard for me to analyze it too much because it is very instinctive. But what we do is stick to one very basic feeling, one very basic idea of a woman who is not even aware of all the forces that lie within her. And we see it, we constructed it in a way of someone lost between the light and darkness, between herself and this brother, between the feminine and masculine, it’s a sort of a world of contrary forces and her being lost in it.

MOVIEMOVESME: Juli Jakab did appear in a small role in “Son of Saul” and landed the lead role in “Sunset”. How did you decide it will be her and not someone else?

László Nemes:   It’s interesting because you see in “Son of Saul” the face of a woman in a barrack, that is undone and desperate and you see her picture in the sunset with this beautiful hat shining with light. And you put the two pictures side by side and you have the conflict of the twentieth century, the tragedy of it. It is like two different planets, it’s not even, you cannot reconcile the two. And this is the mystery that I’m really interested in. This continuity of existence that cannot be continuous, there is a big gap between the two. But she was, in herself without even knowing it was carried or embodied some kind of very contrasting forces that couldn’t be reconciled, this innocence but at the same time this ominous presence, this possibility potential for destruction, the promise, and the downfall. I feel it in her. She is, you know I really believe in taking people for films that can have direct communication with the audience on a very invisible level. And I don’t believe in performance, classical performance as a showcase of human emotions, but I really believe in different frequencies. For me it was a great adventure because the actors have to rely on the fact they are in the unknown, it is now we are in a way fragile as actors because we cannot have the usual methods, we just have to exist on a different level.

MOVIEMOVESME: So you always try to go to the past. But have you ever been interested to make a film about a present time where they hit the world as it is, and isn’t as perfect as it used to be?

László Nemes:   Yeah. And the thing is if I make a film very much truer than the contemporary. The thing is 20 years from now it is going to be the best. So it is very relative. I think I try to make films that are universal because they talk about what lies within our souls and less about the topical. I know it is very trendy to make things about a topic, this and that, the circumstances, everybody in a way separated because everybody defined by their background or ethnicity, whatever, but I’m really interested in human beings.

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