Fresh from directing Annette Bening and Jeremy Irons in theatrical drama Being Julia, the Hungarian director of 1999's Sunshine and Taking Sides in 2001 tells us about his career, his inspirations and what he really thinks about film critics.
Why did you become a director?
I became a film director only because in our high school a friend of mine created a theatre and they invited me to work with them, and I loved the atmosphere and so on. Then I read a book about the cinema and I thought that was even more interesting and so I entered film school. It was so easy. Well, so many people asked to be accepted by the film school - 600 people in fact - and they accepted only 10. And so imagine the challenge when I was accepted; it was enormous. This thing changed my life.
If you weren't a filmmaker, what would you be?
I was born in a family of medical doctors - even my parents and grandparents were doctors - so I wanted to be a one and would still like to be. But the lessons I learned at home I try to use in films. I think, or hope, that when I make films, people find them helpful in their own lives. I want to show people they can be liberated from the mask given to them by society, so I think helping people this way is near to the medical thing.
What other director would you like to see at work?
It’s changed several times in my life. Of course as a child I always admired [Sergei] Eisenstein from Russia and John Ford from America. Also, DW Griffiths and Orson Welles. When I was a student I admired the Italian neo-realists, [Luchino] Visconti and Vittorio De Sica. I wanted to follow in De Sica’s footsteps and then there was the Nouvelle Vague and [François] Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. Of those two I most admire Truffaut because he was the most poetic. Later I learned to love [Luis] Buñuel and [Federico] Fellini and [Akira] Kurosawa. Today I think the most fantastic thing is to be so simple and precise and so great like Ingmar Bergman. And don’t forget John Cassavetes or the simplicity of [Yasujiro] Ozu. I could mention many names.
What was the last movie that you paid to see?
It was last week... a Russian film... a beautiful one... Coming Home or something like that? I’m very sorry I forgot the title, but it was beautiful. It was a first film for the director but I can’t remember his name.
What was the last movie you walked out of?
I've never walked out of any film. This is my profession and, even if I don’t like a film, I like to stay and ask myself, "What is my problem?" I cannot walk out. If I’m in, I’m in.
Do you believe in God?
Yes, I do but it’s very personal. I don’t like to speak about it.
Who's the most famous person in your contacts book?
I love Glenn Close who became a really, really close friend, even like a sister of mine [Meeting Venus, 1991]. Or Ralph Fiennes who became like a brother of mine [Sunshine, 1999].
What's your favourite movie quote?
Oh, it’s very difficult because there so many - in Ingmar Bergman’s films for example. But maybe the most important line comes from Vittorio De Sica’s Miracle In Milan. Poor people fly away to find a country in which, "'Have a good day' means, really, 'have a good day'."
Which filmmaker do you consider the most underrated?
Of course the funny answer is: myself. [Laughs.] But I think that the filmmakers that I love so much are not underrated. Vittorio De Sica, for a time, was underrated but I think everybody today knows how fantastic he was.
And which filmmaker do you consider the most overrated?
There are many directors who are overrated. I'm not going to mention any names but I think critics and distributors, they tend to create people into something they are not in order to make them interesting to an audience. Then after two or three years they throw the person out of the window. There are some directors who accept this challenge and they think too much about themselves and that’s why they will not last. There are some critics and distributors and a snobbish part of the audience who admire these people so much. This is a disease and it’s very difficult to cure until they fall down and then, maybe, they'll find themselves.
Who's the biggest pain in the arse you've ever worked with?
Nobody. I love actors.
What's the dumbest question you've ever been asked?
My job is to answer, so I’m open to every question.
Do you believe in test screenings?
Very much. Yeah, I learned this from David Puttnam. First I was very confused because I thought I knew exactly what to do. Then I learned that it’s not important to follow how they answer, it’s important just to know how they accept your film. If the film goes in a direction that goes against what the audience expects, as long as it is with your knowledge then it’s fine. Believe me, sometimes the audience is not bad.
How seriously do you take reviews?
I absolutely do not read reviews. Critics are working for somebody - an imagined audience. They like actors to follow expectations. Before, critics like David Robinson helped us to find our mistakes and helped the audience to understand our values. I can mention other names of great English, French and Italian critics. But this period is over and now critics are giving only stars and following what they think an imagined audience would like to have. Forget them!
What's the best piece of advice you've ever been given?
The greatest thing is what Erland Josephson - a Swedish actor - told me about Ingmar Bergman. I asked him why, even if he was so good in every film that he made, why he was better with Ingmar Bergman. And his answer was: "Listen, I am always the same. Ingmar puts the camera in the right position to show the audience what it is that I would like to express." So the great advice is, to find the best position for the camera to show your actor’s talent.
And the worst?
I can’t think of it...
What's your biggest regret?
Probably not to have become a medical doctor. Also, I did a film that I liked very much, but it was a mistake and I know why. I learned only a year later that it was my biggest professional mistake. It was called Hanussen . The first part of the film is acceptable but the second part is not. It was my fault.
There are five minutes left till the end of the world - what do you do?
Try to see what’s happened to the world. Why and how.
Which performer would you love to work with?
With everybody who has already made films with me because I love them.
What film makes you want to spit?
I don’t remember any films that made me want to spit.
What are your three favourite films and why?
I don’t have three; I have more than three. If I have to give you an improvised answer, Persona by Ingmar Bergman because it’s so clear and so... beautiful like a glass of water. Then 8½ of Fellini because it moves my heart even just to speak about it. And Ashes And Diamonds made by Andrzej Wajda - the Polish director - because this is one of the best films I have ever seen. There are so many others I could mention to you.
What do you think of Norman Wisdom?
Being Julia is released in UK cinemas on Friday 19th November.