Interview: 'Son of Saul' Writer/Director László Nemes on Filmmaking
by Alex Billington
October 29, 2015
"It was very intense." One of the best films I've seen this year is called Son of Saul, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and won the Grand Prize of the Jury and a few other awards. Then it went on to play at the Telluride, Toronto, Vancouver, New York and London Film Festivals and will be opening in theaters this December (the same day as Star Wars). It's a masterpiece, and I said that in my glowing review, since this film totally blew me away. Let me now introduce you to its director - Hungarian filmmaker László Nemes (as seen above). He has made a number of shorts previously, including The Gentleman Takes His Leave, but this is his feature debut and it's astonishing. I had to meet László to talk about this film and so much more.
Son of Saul follows a man working at a concentration camp during WWII who is a "Sonderkommando", a group of prisoners with secret information who assist the Nazis in their terrible deeds. In my review of Son of Saul, which screened at the New York Film Festival, I wrote: "We think we know how bad it was in these places, but we have no idea. Instead of making us look directly at those horrors, we are forced to watch the face of a man experiencing it all around him first hand, holding back his emotions or he'll be killed, too." It's a technically remarkable cinematic experience, and a brutally honest look at just how horrible the Holocaust really was. But it's an extraordinary film that I hope many will see. Here's a look at the trailer for reference:
I met up with László Nemes at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center at the Lincoln Center, where he was just about to speak to the press who were screening the film that morning for the New York Film Festival. I had seen the film earlier and as soon as it ended, I thought, "I have questions to ask." So I approached this interview with László from the angle of discussing the filmmaking and logistical challenge of making this very complex, and very harrowing, but impressive film. The interview begins when I mention this to him…
László Nemes: You should also talk to my cinematographer [- Mátyás Erdély].
So was the framing, that setup to follow this man through the camp… was everything in it completely from the start?
László: Well, the strategy was there - not the exact positions and exact framings. But the overall strategy that is to make a portrait of a man, that was there from the beginning, before the script, actually.
Where did this idea come from? The reason I ask is that I'm, and this sounds weird, but I'm a big World War II nerd, in a sense.
László: That's good. Me, too.
There's so many movies made about it that I'm always wondering what new stories can be told, and then we see something amazing like this, and I realize there's still so much more about World War II we can learn. Why now tell this kind of story?
László: Because I think that cinema did so much to actually… lie about the experience of the camp.
You mean be dishonest about it?
László: Yeah. I mean not necessarily in a conscious or evil way. It's just more - giving the wrong picture, and not necessarily on purpose. But my premise was that the individual was so limited in the camp. It's like talking about the individual on the battlefield. Do we really know what this experience is, how visceral it is? Maybe you can say maybe Spielberg in [Saving Private] Ryan captured something of that. Although, we stick to the main character but still kind of jump around in points of view.
What I wanted to say was that the visceral experience of the camp is not as simple as what you can read about in survival tales or stories or see in cinemas and films about The Holocaust. This kind of narration is based on several point of views. The angles that are presented, the showing and telling of a lot of details, making it understandable for the audience. You know, trying to explain a lot of things.
But what I say is that the viewer is never shown the extreme limitations of it and how little can be known and how little can be seen as a [single] human being. So I wanted to forget this kind of distance that was invented by the post-war period and go back into the middle of it. Really, in an immersive way to be in the here and now of one person in the concentration camp.
Did you find that there was resistance? Was it hard to finance? Where people saying, "We don't need to see this anymore"?
László: Yes! Absolutely. "We don't need to see this. We don't need to see this anymore." Yeah. It was very hard to convince people that it would be an experience worthy of interest.
Was there anything you kept telling them, like, "Stick with us and you'll see it…"?
László: Yes. Absolutely.
How much of it was designed… Did you have it storyboarded out at that point?
László: No. We had… on an iPad we had the camera positions for all scenes. So, from the beginning, to the middle, to the end - camera and character positions. That's how we… it was more like an overview of, not storyboarding. It's very hard to storyboard this kind of thing…
What I was so impressed by was just the intricacy of all the movements. Is it one big set?
So every piece you are moving from here to here…
László: We didn't want to cut from the exterior to the interior or interior to the exterior just because we're changing places. So we had to find a way to… I wanted to have an organic character to the set so it's not a set, it's a place. Actually, we also integrated a lot of lighting into the set, because we wanted the viewer to have the feeling that it's a real place. It's a real factory. Because it's a factory of death, but it's a factory. So we wanted to make it as low-key as possible but with all the elements already there.
So cast and crew had the feeling, while being in the middle of it, that they were not in a movie set.
That must be a chilling experience for everyone on it.
László: It was very intense, I think. It was very intense.
That's one of the things that blew me away, it felt like you were at the actual concentration camp… like it was fully in operation and you were capturing it.
Another aspect that impressed me is the hierarchy between every person within the camp and all the subtle facial tics, the little expressions between certain people based on their ranking.
László: The different capos and the hierarchies, yes. We wanted to convey that as well. It's not only about the hierarchy. It's also about how the centers of power [that] are not necessarily based on hierarchy, but also maybe the among the Sonderkommando members, how these evolve and how these exist.
How did you pull this off? Did you have extensive rehearsal? Did you have a lot of discussions with every cast and crew?
László: Yeah. We had a lot of discussions…
Everyone seemed so extremely natural in every little moment. Not even "Oh, he's supposed to be doing this." It's like, "This guy just does it."
László: Well, I had, I guess, a directorial approach that was based on not making a film that's in a post-war period, even if, of course, we are… but let's go back to the very basics and let's go back to the here and now. For that we had to take away all the circle, the codes, established by films that were there—the Nazi salutes, the flags, the usual ways of depicting the camp. Because, also, what we read, in the documents that we read, communicated different things than the ones that were communicated by the films.
So, yeah. We had to make extensive research. And also, our historical advisors helped us tremendously to understand, to the very smallest details, all the things that were in the camp. The camp usually, in films, is depicted in a way that's all about organization. But we say, and it's – I think, based on what we know about the camps – it's not only an organized place, it's also a chaotic place. It's chaos and organization at the same time. It's constant – the individual is caught between those two beasts, the chaos and organization. And it's there all the time.
Was it setup in full to simply operate, and then you go and film this guy in it while it's all happening? How many people total did you have on the set at one time working?
László: It depends. You mean crew?
Well, crew as well, but also cast?
László: Extras and everything?
László: It varies from 10 cast and background and usually 70 crew members, to around 300 extras. So it's sometimes 300 or 400 people. But the crew is very good. The crew is very experienced, because I can have very good crew members in Hungary even for a first feature, which is very good. They know how to make these complicated shots. And we knew that we could do 10 minute shots. It's doable. I know how to do it. But for this film it had to be different. We had to give a sense of immersive or organic quality to the scene, giving the sense that it's here and now, but, at the same time, not making an over choreographed scene. I didn't want to do that, because it would have been too perfect. And we wanted to keep the sense of mixture between chaos and organization. So that's what guided us also in designing the shots.
These shots, saying that we do a portrait of a man and we stay around this man throughout the film, that means we are like this far from his face. That means that sometimes we have to go into a truck or into the water – places that are difficult to reach. We had to have the preparation and technical skills to pull it off.
It sounds like, from the way you are describing it, every last person on set was completely in tune with what you were trying to pull off. Is that rare? And – was that a key to the success of this film?
László: I think it was key. It was absolutely key. It's interesting, because we have a creative crew that's very strong. The DoP, the editor was on the set. My co-writer was on the set. The production designer came whenever it was possible. We actually knew that it was an ambitious film to make. But everybody had this feeling that this was – the ambition and the scope of it, were worth it.
So we were on the same page. We did several short films together. Some of the crew members are very experienced. So I'd like to have younger people and more experienced people as well. My production designer is very experienced. He did dozens of feature films. But also, for him it was a fresh experience. So it's a mixed crew of different skills, but at the same time really constantly concentrated on the film and also making the same film.
But for that, they ask questions. So the thing is: they always ask questions. The DoP, for example, he always intervenes very early on, on the screenplay level. He gives his thoughts. He asks his questions. So I think it's very organic in the way that people work for me. And also, they don't spare me. And they always put the obstacles on my path. So I have to overcome these obstacles, and answer the questions they ask, because they are not "yes men" people. It was very important having people who are difficult. They always ask questions. They are not scared of asking questions.
I totally understand. It sounds like that made a real difference in the end.
László: Yeah. It really made the difference.
Before you showed up at Cannes, did you know what you had? Did you know you had this great film that everyone was going to love?
László: No, on the contrary. When I was first editing it or sound editing it, I had this feeling that this film would never reach the audiences, because I was so frustrated by all the things that I couldn't accomplish. It was so difficult to make. This film was so difficult to make. We encountered so much resistance. And every shooting day was a different difficulty. Every day was a different difficulty.
And I knew that we were making a prototype. This is not the usual coverage kind of film. We knew that it was stylistically very different from the usual films. I think we were more terrified than confident, but also because probably I don't have enough experience.
Right, and that's usually the response I hear from filmmakers. It's interesting to me as a viewer, because we have no idea what to experience, we go in and see something and be amazed. And then we're sort of looking at everything in reverse.
László: That's interesting. But also, I believe that cinema is interesting when… you have to take the viewer on a journey that's unexpected. Also, I like that. I like not to surprise the viewer for the sake of surprising the viewer. But still I think there's something of a journey in the cinema that should be there. And I like films that are journeys.
What kind of films or filmmakers have inspired you in your life or have given you a direction for what you are trying to do?
László: Well, a lot. But I would say [Andrei] Tarkovsky did at an early age, when I was in my 20s. And then Kubrick has been with me it seems for a long time now, just sort of a reference of how you make a film; how thoughtful you have to be to make a film. And [Michelangelo] Antonioni I think was also very important to how to make films that are not like the others, just to be open to the metaphysical world. But Kubrick I think also is very open to that. That's why I'm so attracted to that.
What do you want to do in the future? Do you want to keep making features…?
Do you want to keep making experimental features or do you want to jump into Hollywood?
László: Well, what is experimental? Hollywood is very interested in this film…
Here's an interesting question - can you make an experimental film in Hollywood?
László: I think you can. Hollywood, on the margin, has always been experimenting with new ways. So I think yes. It depends on how and when, I guess, and for how much money.
True. Best of luck. I hope you have an illustrious career, and not one where, as a watcher from the outside, I'm wondering, "Oh, why do you take this?"
László: Actually, I'm trying to keep control - I think it's also important. Next film is probably going to be in Hungary. It's a 1910 film. It's also very immersive, but in a different way. It's a young woman in 1910 Budapest before the war, the First World War. And it's a thriller. So we will see what happens.
Sounds good. Looking forward to it.
László: Thank you.
A big thank you to László Nemes for his time talking with me, and to Gluck PR for arranging.
László Nemes' Son of Saul will be released by Sony Pictures Classics in theaters starting December 18th this fall. It first premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May, and also played at the NYFF. Read Alex's review and go see this in theaters when it opens. It's a masterpiece, and should only be showing in 35mm.