We recently received a remarkable request to our Expat Group. Multi-award-winning Swiss-Hungarian film director Tamás Yvan Topolánszky asked if he could post his casting invitation. It turned out he is looking for actors and actresses for his first feature-length film, which he is making on the world-famous director of Casablanca, Michael Curtiz.
We posted last year on our Facebook page about Tamás’ DVNA project, so we jumped at the chance to invite him for an interview. Have we inadvertently become involved in the preparations for a new successful Hungarian film?
The post-apocalyptic film DVNA has the most viewed Hungarian trailer on YouTube. When can we see the finished film?
The Curtiz project is the priority at the minute as we have just received the funding for it. DVNA is taking a breather for now. This is a great opportunity for us, it is really rare to be able to tackle our first feature-length film this young. It is the first one for my producer, Claudia Sümeghy, as well. But we have the right professional background that is needed to carry this through. DVNA will be produced after the Curtiz film.
How far have you got with the Curtiz film?
We have been working on it for two and a half years. We hit a dead end at the beginning when writing the screenplay, but then we found screenplay writer Zsuzsanna Bak. This is her first feature-length film too, but she has done many short films already. One of the most talented professionals I’ve ever met. We argue a lot, but that’s ok. Her diligence is something you seldom see.
We have a partner, Ward Parry, who commutes between Boston and Los Angeles and works at Legendary Pictures. He joined the film, helped edit the story and adapt the screenplay for the American market. While we have never met, and only speak on Skype, he has become a great creative partner. The locations have been found and the casting is underway.
Who are the main characters and who is playing them?
We have three Hungarian characters. Michael Curtiz, his daughter Kitty and Szakáll Szőke (Sándor Gärtner, artistic name Gerő Jenő, Hungarian cabaret actor – Ed.). These are the three people through whom we want to present Hungary in Hollywood.
Ferenc Lengyel will play Curtiz, he also appears in the mood film.
The casting is a really exciting period. We took on one person who had no experience whatsoever, such was the credibility of their performance.
Can people still apply for the Curtiz casting?
Yes. We are filming from 9 October until 3 November. We already have people for the main roles. But there are many side-roles that we are still looking to fill. What is important is that we need English native speakers with American accents. This is the “golden age of Hollywood” in the 1940s, and the accents need to be very accurate, Mid-Atlantic at the very least. As far as possible we would like to make a Hollywood film under Hungarian circumstances. To my great delight we are able to choose from excellent English native actors and actresses living in Hungary.
You can apply here: crtzcasting(at)gmail.com and just send us a headshot and a short introduction.
Audiences were enthralled by the images of the dried-up Danube and deserted Budapest. Did this project start out as a feature film too?
Everything was shot illegally – you can write that down quite happily – I’m still proud of these events. We loved every minute, for example, it was funny climbing the Gellért Hill at 4-5 in the morning and shooting the film with drones.
We went down into the underground where you are not allowed to film, but the camera looked like it was just for photographs. They asked us what we were doing, we said we were just taking pictures. We weren’t really lying, shooting film is photography after all.
It was just a dissertation film. It was made with sweat, effort and help from friends, without costing a penny. Letter To God was our first short film that cost money.
Letter To God enjoyed great success in Los Angeles and New York, immediately collecting many international awards.
Four I think. We were really pleased about the awards. But particularly that HBO noticed it and bought it. That was great feedback to get.
You are one of the founders of the visual workshop Halluci-Nation producing and distributing the afore-mentioned films. Alongside Curtiz, what else are you working on?
Besides DVNA and Curtiz we continue making visually forward-thinking commercials and further one-minute mood films as a proof of concept for our future film ideas. This is a method that has really worked for us, visually communicating a mood. It becomes clear through a mood film just how much we can realise a mood or an idea.
Tom McCarthy, Oscar-winning director talked about his profession as being lonely. “(…) you’re so in your world, you’re back by your little camera alone, no one around me.” But you often talk in plurals, and do not seem introverted at all.
By “we” I mean my team, those who take a creative part in making the film. It is the vision of one person that is displayed, but we work as a team.
For Curtiz the team consists of Claudia Sümeghy producer, Barnabás Hutlassa producer, Zsuzsi Bak screenwriter, Dorka Kiss, Kata Kiss and Rajk László production designers, Zoltán Dévényi and Balázs Révész cameramen. The team also includes composer Gábor Subicz, one of the most talented musicians I’ve ever met.
This is your first feature-length film, but do you feel some kind of cohesive strength that always takes you forward? Or are you still experimenting?
I don’t want to think about what films I should make. I want to tell stories. I don’t want to narrow myself down from a stylistic or any other perspective. And I don’t want to repeat myself at all either. I want to discover things. I was asked for example whether the water motif is a common thread in my films. I had never thought of that.
It is truly difficult to accomplish films about a Hollywood great and a sci-fi depiction of the Danube. Besides all this you made a documentary about Hungarian para athletes called The Edge of Impossible.
We made a fifty-minute documentary together with the Hungarian Paralympic Committee. This was in the run-up to the Rio Paralympics. The film premiered at the National Theatre at the same time as the athletes gave their Olympic oaths. We set them off on their way with the film. We interviewed three current and two former para athletes, all of whom are Paralympic champions. They put in a huge effort for Hungarian para-sports and for those with limited mobility.
We got on so well with Gitta Ráczkó and Katalin Engelhardt that they brought us gifts back from Rio.
Why this topic?
We had close relationships with the Paralympic Committee, and there was also a personal reason on my part. One of my grandfathers, who died one year before I was born, was paralysed at the age of twenty-seven by polio. At the age of twenty-seven he started learning to live again. His fiancée at that time was forbidden to see him, saying that his life would be too tough. My grandfather went to Switzerland for treatment thanks to a special permit, as this was still at the height of Communism.
There, he fell in love with a nurse, my grandmother. They got to know each other and had three children – including my mother – without anyone seeing my grandfather stand on his two legs.
So your grandfather fell in love with a Swiss girl, Gerda.
My grandmother hailed from Germany, but worked in Switzerland as a nurse from a very young age. My mother and her two younger brothers grew up there, I was born there too. My mother is Swiss, my father Hungarian. My father was on a scholarship in Switzerland, and this is how they met. After the political changes they returned home to Hungary, and my three siblings were born here. I’m the oldest.
Are there any other artists in the family apart from you?
My youngest sister is studying to be an opera singer and attends the Academy of Music. I’m really interested in this genre too, as a director.
While he is not a relative, I know the other Tamás Topolánszky, who is a ballet dancer. When we made Letter to God and submitted it to the film archive, they told me there was another Tamás Topolánszky, and he was older. So I had to choose another name. I took my grandfather’s name, Iván.
It was actually at the Paralympic Committee event that I met the other Tamás Topolánszky, and we were delighted to see each other. It turned out he had heard of me. Both of our families were there and so the Topolánszkys introduced themselves to each other. It was quite funny.
We could even have made a film about it, with the title Tamás Topolánszky.
Have you always been a visual thinker?
At the age of 5 or 6 I knew I wanted to work with films. I often say that I saw Forrest Gump and Jurassic Park within twelve months. For years we lived on quality popcorn films like Jurassic Park. It was ingrained in our memories. The story and the technology swept us along such that it was amazing just what can be communicated through film. Obviously I didn’t know that I would be a director, but I wanted to devote my life to story-telling.
Letter to God is based on a Mexican tale.
Yes, but the tale is not the main thing. A man was out walking his dog and we started to chat. He said, if I am a filmmaker, then I need to hear this story that he read in a newspaper in 1972. He told me the story, I laughed a lot. I didn’t pay any more attention to it, but two weeks later I found myself thinking about how it could be brought to the screen.
I don’t like to say that a topic finds me. I find a given topic. A man did perhaps come over to me, but it is your decision as to which topic you sacrifice your time for, which you want to make a film about.
To what extent do you create things for the audience, and how much is it for yourself?
What is most important is for the topic to move me to the core. And Hollywood in the 1940s does that for me. I find the filmmakers of that era very exciting and I hold them in high regard. But it is also important for me not to forget that I make films for the audience, not for myself. It is equally crucial for the creation to be lasting and have value.
Is that also your ambition? To create something lasting?
I make films because I like having an effect on the audience. It’s not about telling them what to think, but what is it that leaves them feeling impressed.
A film can convey many messages. And the audience decides whether it left a mark or not. I would like to make films for the masses. So many people find out how we think.
Who in the profession has the greatest influence on you?
I have a lot of role models. I can watch any number of the early Spielberg films. Zsigmond Vilmos, while not a director, is hugely impressive with what he has achieved and how he thinks. Michael Haneke is an amazing director. It would be good to make films of this standard one day. But they have decades of experience behind them. Chaplin is also an indelible role model for me. The more I watch his films, the more layers I discover in them.
I’d also happily choose a Milos Forman career. For instance I don’t like musicals but if I found a good screenplay, I wouldn’t rule out such an opportunity from my life either.
That’s my plan. Make films, read, and gain a wealth of experience. This will take me to a level where I can convey deep messages to a wide-ranging audience.
But the focus will always be on story-telling.