An Englishman in Transylvania

Interview with Peter Strickland, director of Katalin Varga

There aren’t many people who heard about Peter Strickland, but that’s going to change. A few years ago he made an account for Filmtett of his days as a stunt on a Spielberg-shooting. Back then, he was just planning his first feature film, which he shot in Transylvania – with Transylvanian crew, Transylvanian cast and Transylvanian story. And now he’s competing for the Golden Bear in Berlin.

Peter Strickland

How was the money raised?

I inherited the money from my uncle, Edward Strickland. He was a tax inspector in the town of Aldershot, England. He died on the 18th September 2001. It was a huge loss and the end of a long chapter in my life. From the sale of his house, I inherited what I thought was enough money to make a film. I was wrong. We got through the shoot on around 8 million forints, but my money quickly dried up after editing and I lost my job. The irony was that we had a very quick shooting period – 3 weeks, but a very long period of post-production – almost two and a half years. They were very lonely times. The shooting became a distant memory. Other people started their films after me and ended before. In May 2008, Tudor and Oana Giurgiu from Libra Film provided completion funds for the sound mix and blow-up from Super 16mm.

Who helped with the production?

There were a few producers loosely involved at the beginning, but for various reasons, nothing worked out. I was indecisive for two years and in early 2006, I just decided to do the film no matter what and force myself to continue even if it felt as if I would lose. For the shoot, Páll Zsolt and Bordos Anikó were essentially assistant producers as well as assistant directors. They were great to work with – very organised and calm - and I’d recommend them to anyone. It also helped that they know the area very well and have good local connections. Zsolt is the kind of person who can pull up at a gas station somewhere in Erdély and bump into someone he knows. We shot all over the place: Sepsiszentgyörgy, Bélafalva, Kommandó, Gyilkos-tó, Szelindek, Sepsibesenyő and Zarnest. And you really need someone who knows the area and how to behave respectfully towards locals. You see sometimes with foreign productions in Central/Eastern Europe that the crew treat local people like dogs. It was very important that we were polite and built some form of relationship beforehand with locals.

Since last year, Libra Film have taken over.

Peter Strickland: Varga Katalin

Is Transylvania an easy place to make a film?

I could think of worse places, but I could also think of better. In some ways it’s easy in Transylvania because you can avoid all the bureaucracy and regulations associated with shoots in England. I’ve heard that you need papers for this, papers for that – insurance and all that nonsense. Everyone is so paranoid about Health and Safety and the threat of getting sued in the UK, whereas in Romania you can just get on with the job without all that. You get the other extreme in Romania. Many people don’t want to commit to an agreement. Most of the people I dealt with were not involved in film, so naturally they had no concept of the responsibilities on my shoulders. It could be very hard making it clear what the consequences were for the film if they didn’t bother to let us use a house on a certain day. But usually it was fine. The only major headache in Transylvania is dogs.

What is the origin of your Transylvanian obsession?

There is no obsession. It was a place I chose to shoot in that could perhaps offer the right atmosphere for my story. During this process, some very good friendships developed. That’s all.

Why this story?

I had six scripts at the time. Two scripts I didn’t like, two were too expensive, so it was either Varga Katalin or another script, which was about the life of a group of people in a small town. It had to be Katalin – why shoot in a town for your first film? It felt much more exciting to go into the Carpathians. Even if we failed, we would fail in style.

The story itself is nothing new, but it’s something I still have a great interest in. What’s exciting about working with something that’s been done before (the rape-revenge genre) is that you can really surprise an audience within the framework of something they’re familiar with. Audiences usually associate the rape-revenge genre with exploitation films. I wanted to take this genre and take away the two obvious main elements and just have this very intense ‘middle’ between rape and revenge. And then there was the idea to slow everything down and put the film in a ballad context. Originally, I wanted the film to be even slower with a donkey instead of a horse. But after one year of looking for donkeys, somebody told me that no true Szekely rides a donkey.

For me what is central to the film is the idea of redemption. One man did something terrible to another human, but he never does it again, and is essentially a good man and very loving to his wife. How do you judge this man? It was very important that the audience didn’t see his crime and they can only judge the character on what they see of him now. I’m not playing some psychological game, this is life. Every ‘bad’ guy is not always a ‘bad’ guy and can often bring great happiness to others. If one man destroys one woman’s life but brings great happiness to the life of another woman, how do you feel about it morally?

How did you go about the casting?

I had a friend called Pál Béla Vendel who kept insisting I work with ‘pure’ Szekely actors. Originally, I planned to work with actors from Budapest, but I was warned that audiences in Erdely would laugh at their accents. So Béla kept saying ‘I have the perfect Szekely actress for you’ – Péter Hilda. It was very simple. We met for a drink. She read the script and that was it. I met the other actors through Melkuhn Andrea at the theatre in Sepsiszentgyörgy. Everyone knew each other. This was Hilda’s first film, so she had no reference to what was normal or not regarding the conditions of the film. She just threw herself in and produced this enormous intensity for three weeks. We both struggled at times with our own doubts and there were occasional conflicts, but I’m very proud, not just of her acting, but also of her attitude. She was never a prima donna. She was very tough and could handle living conditions that would drive most Hollywood actresses insane.

The szekely question was daunting me all the time. I was fully aware how some people hold on to a very precious representation of East Transylvania and I knew that a foreigner’s interpretation would not be welcomed. I tried my best to stay authentic, but realised that it’s a joke, even if I did all the szekely research in the world. I’m an outsider and my duty is to bring in an outsider’s vision and not pretend to be Hungarian or szekely. So what I brought to this film was something not real and almost fairy-tale like, especially with the sound design. Kovács György, Erdélyi Gábor (ifjabb), Székely Tamas and I spent a month artificially creating layers of breeze, goat bells, insects, owls, etc. Most of those sounds were not there during the shoot and what I see with this film is a cinema Transylvania, something that isn’t really there in real life.

Peter Strickland: Varga Katalin

What about the crew?

11 people: me – producer, director; Bordos Anikó – assistant director; Páll Zsolt – assistant director; Győri Mark – camera; Szőke András – focus puller; Ványolós Csaba – camera assistant; Karaszek Zoltan – sound recording; Gálfi Dezső – boom; Marek Szold – still and Super 8 photography; Kiss Zsolt – chef.

I knew that the only possibility of shooting on a low budget was to have a small crew. It’s quite logical: if you have a big crew, you have the people to do all those small jobs, but then you need more money and time to move them around, house them, feed them, etc. It’s absolutely essential to have a small crew if you are on a low budget. We could move around so quickly, needing just three cars. We all lived in Páll Zsolt’s father’s house and we shot much of the film in his neighbourhood. It’s a memory very close to my heart. It was something very pure and amateur. Of course it was difficult at times and there were frequent arguments, but it was something totally unique for all of us and it will never be repeated. Kiss Zsolt often had a very hard time making food with very limited resources. He had various assistants come and go, but he always stayed with us and cooked amazing dishes. Nobody ever talks about the catering on a film. Without these guys we wouldn’t have a film. It makes me sad that people like Kiss Zsolt can’t get regular work on films when they’re so good. He never once complained about the conditions.

Has the film changed since May 2008?

It’s pretty much the same. We went back to RDI Studio in Budapest for another two weeks to fix some things with the sound. That was a great highlight for me. György Kovács is one of the masters. His sound design on ‘Sátántangó’ is phenomenal and I was honoured to work with him. I would run to the studio every day. It never felt like work. I always had a rucksack full of recordings from friends and each day was an adventure for us. For me, this film is at least 40% sound. My next film will be 70% sound.

How did you direct? In English?

I’m embarrassed to say that I directed in English. I thought I could learn Hungarian before the shoot, but it didn’t happen. It’s always embarrassing – the English are the worst in Europe at languages. But by the end of the film, I knew the dialogue really well, but in a parrot fashion. Watching the film hundreds of times definitely helped with my learning of Hungarian, only most of the words in that film aren’t very useful in daily life. When would you need to say ‘nagy lator’?

Peter Strickland: Varga Katalin

How did you get into films?

I saw David Lynch’s Eraserhead at London’s now-defunct Scala Cinema on February 10th 1990. I was only sixteen and didn’t know much about film, but the poster looked so strange and other-worldly. I didn’t understand the film at all, but it made me want to make films. The early 1990s were an incredible time. I was totally hungry for films, especially anything unusual or perverse. The Scala was THE place for underground and obscure cinema. It was much harder to see films then (before the internet), but the desire to see stuff was much stronger. Tarkovsky, Paradjanov, Brothers Quay, Bunuel, Herzog, Fassbinder, Warhol/Morrissey, Argento, Anger, Brakhage, Jarman, Greenaway, Scorsese, Jodorowsky, Roeg. Just finding some of these films was an adventure in itself. Sometimes it would take years of waiting to see certain films by people like Alexandro Jodorowsky or Jordan Belson. Allures by Jordan Belson is one of the most beautiful films ever made. Why doesn’t anyone talk about him?!

Did you have any formal training?

I studied Fine Art at University in England. That was bad enough. Total bullshit.

No relation to the real world. If I could go back and study again, I would do history or a language, but not film school. I hated my tutors and every single person in that establishment. I did whatever I could to avoid going to classes and to just produce films in private. That was my training – to make Super 8 and eventually 16mm films. That’s the best way to learn. But there were huge gaps. I made a film called, Bubblegum in 1995/96, which did the festival rounds, but I had debts to pay after. I didn’t make any films for another six years. To stay active, I started a band with a couple of friends from school and University – Tim Kirby and Colin Fletcher. The band (The Sonic Catering Band) is still going and some of our music made it into Katalin Varga.

What are your future plans?

If somebody gives me money and creative freedom, I am ready to make a feature-length version of my short film, Berberian Sound Studio. If I can’t get money, then

I have no idea. When I began ‘Varga Katalin’ it was a very different time. I had money and time. Now I only have enough money to watch films but certainly not enough to make them. Whatever happens financially, I’ll do something, even if it’s a Super 8 home movie or radio play. I’ve been doing this since 1992 and it’s normal for my work to be ignored, so if Katalin Varga is a disaster, then I’ll do something on a smaller scale.

Will you return to make another film in Romania?

I would like to. Maybe not immediately. There are certain things I don’t miss – the dogs and those smelly trains that take forever. But people were mostly very good to me. People in Transylvania (both Romanian and Hungarian) are quite open and not judgemental. They are willing to give you a chance. In other places nobody takes you seriously unless you’ve been to film school or have a famous daddy.

Are you hopeful about getting a Golden Bear?

To think about a golden bear is just greedy. Damn, I’m just happy to be in ANY part of Berlin – Competition, Panorama, Forum! I’m just so relieved for the film to be finished and in a great festival.

A Varga Katalin rendezője és szereplői a Berlinalén


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