By Henry Rowsell.
Prior to the release of his debut feature length film, Peter Strickland was not a well known name in the British film industry, however Katalin Varga(2009), a harrowing vengeance noir cast against the dramatic and intermittently haunting landscape of Transylvania, has drawn the critical acclaim of judges at the Berlinale where Strickland was nominated for the Golden Berlin Bear, and later won European Discovery of the Year at the European Film Awards.
Strickland managed to achieve such success without the backing of any British production companies or a fluency in the local Hungarian dialect on a budget of under €30,000. Katalin Varga has helped to invigorate the increasingly stagnant vengeance genre through paradoxically slowing it down to a pace that forces the audience to dig deeper into their own psyche. Played off against the ghostly sound-scape the result is an intriguing and yet unnerving cinematic tour de force. Strickland discusses his debut feature-length film at detail, the unbeknownst difficulties of making a film on an independent budget and the highs and lows of filming in a foreign land.
Film International (FI): One of the film’s most striking features is the enchanted scenery of Transylvania, evidence of the modern world surround Katalin and yet somehow she seems isolated in its timeless landscape. What drew you from England to this part of Romania and at what point did you decide that is where it had to be fimed?
Peter Strickland (PS): Transylvania had the canvas I needed for this story. Not just the mountains, but you see a bygone way of life that runs concurrently with that of the modern world. In pre-production, I wanted a period film, but couldn’t afford it. After spending more time in Romania, I realised that shooting a film in one of the few places that is literally on the cusp between the old and new Europe can work to our advantage. Every anachronism is natural and adds another dimension to the film.
I had other locations in mind, such as the Tatras in Slovakia or parts of Albania, but I settled for Transylvania because of pragmatic reasons at first. It was easier in terms of travel and I knew some people there. I started looking for locations in April 2004 and we did the whole shoot in July 2006. I had a regular job in Bratislava, so I was already away from the UK. My boss found a way of giving me a certain amount of unpaid leave to prepare for and shoot the film, so I was very lucky. The hard thing was going back to work after the shoot. You can’t account for how much of a high you’re on after shooting, then suddenly you have to sit in an office again and stare out the window.
FI: The film was completed on an astonishingly low budget for such a well rounded feature length film. Were there any points where you had to sacrifice your design for the film due to budget restrictions? What were the greatest difficulties of making a film on €30,000?
PS: We were limited mainly in terms of time. We had to shoot everything in seventeen days. Each day, I had the costs for cast and crew, accommodation, equipment hire, car hire and food hanging over my head. I didn’t dare go a day over schedule. Overall, I was very happy with the sets. We didn’t need art directors or set dressers because everything looked so amazing in the first place. The hard thing was finding these places in pre-production and getting permission to use them for a reasonable price. We couldn’t afford tracks or a steadicam, but otherwise, it all worked out fine on the shoot. Only quibbles, not regrets. The mistakes I see on the screen are down to lack of experience and not anything to do with money or time.
The greatest difficulty was in post-production; a mixture of bad luck, not getting on with certain people and money drying up. It was a balancing act between my day jobs (teaching and data entry), and the day jobs of editors and sound designers (commercials). Editors changed, sound designers changed. Coordinating our free time became impossible and the gaps between work on the film became longer and longer. The longest gap was eight months. We also lost around 35 minutes of the sound mix and had to start again from scratch.
We could cut corners when shooting, but it wasn’t possible in post-production. Lab costs are lab costs and I was stuck until two Romanian producers, Tudor and Oana Giurgiu, saw the edit and put in the extra money in 2008 to complete the sound mix and blow-up to 35mm.
FI: The award-winning sound design of Katalin Varga is a rich, complex and occasionally haunting experience that plays an important role in the way audiences perceive the landscape and the film as a whole. What functions do you believe the sound design plays in Katalin Varga?
PS: I’m not being disingenuous, but we didn’t know the sound design would have such an impact. I had spent many years working with my friends, Colin Fletcher and Tim Kirby, on electro-acoustic music or sonic atmospheres, and Katalin Varga was just a natural continuation of that. I developed a habitual way of working and it was a case of doing what I always did. What is funny for us is that when we put out these sounds as ‘music’ in the ‘90s, it was just ignored or dismissed as noise. However, when we almost did the same in the context of a film, people took notice.
The beauty of working on a film you’ve written yourself is that you’re very intimate with the world you’re trying to portray. You instinctively know what works – not always, of course. To some degree, you can map out what certain scenes need in terms of sound. The most important thing was to keep the dramatic scenes ‘silent’ and focus only on the words. What is strange with Katalin Varga is that at least 70% of it is pre-sound designed. We used a lot of pre-existing music, but because it’s mostly non-melodic, it’s seen as sound design. Our job in post-production was to position the music appropriately and to make everything cohesive. There is a range of music in the film; folk, gypsy, musique-concrete, noise, improv, electronic, and the main goal was to make it all seem part of the same world.
FI: Was the sound design inspired by any other films?
PS: Only Alan Splet’s work on Eraserhead (1977) and The Elephant Man (1980). What we did was very different from his work, but we applied the same thought process, to heighten the sounds associated with the environment of the characters. The main inspiration came from music: Luc Ferrari, Faust, Iannis Xenakis, Nurse with Wound. There are very explicit references to ‘Bohor’ by Xenakis or ‘Why Don’t You Eat Carrots?’ by Faust. I often learnt much more about sound, editing and atmosphere from my record collection than from watching films.
FI: Katalin Varga is essentially a vengeance story and yet somehow it maintains a unique quality that sets it aside from other such films of the genre. What do you think this might be?
PS: At first I liked the idea of taking a genre or exploitation film and slowing it down like crazy. I was going to do it on a donkey until I was told that Szekely Hungarians never travel with one. For me, the fun is in hijacking genre and making it relevant to your own obsessions and preoccupations. I wanted to get under the skin of these characters and focus not so much on their actions, but on the consequences of what they do. The subject and structure is very traditional, but once you’re inside that world, the moral lights you’re familiar with turn off and you find yourself in the dark somewhat. What I found perverse about the ending was that it could be perceived as righteous from the point-of-view of the man who kills Katalin. He doesn’t know why she killed his brother-in-law, so in a sense, he is no different from Katalin, as are his religious justifications.
FI: One of the film’s most climatic and uneasy moments occurs during Katalin’s painfully detailed account of being raped. What were your intentions with this particular scene?
PS: I was hoping to reconnect an audience with their own imagination. Cinema is renowned for visually laying everything on the table for us, and as a consequence our collective nervous system has developed an immunity of sorts, especially when it comes to violence. How many of us are guilty of observing slaughter on the news whilst we’re buttering muffins? We have become alarmingly disconnected from the effects of violence, and it’s painfully obvious that the more we see, the less we feel. I hoped that if you captivate an audience with a talking head of one character and focus on listening to her more than watching her, then somehow you really do ‘see’ the violence and feel it. The imagination of an audience is something that filmmakers and producers often underestimate. That scene was met with hostility on the shoot and in the editing room. The crew hated that scene during the shoot, and told Hilda and me how boring it was. Hilda was really on edge and furious with the crew for putting her off and it kind of shows in her performance. I was strongly advised to put flashbacks, music, etc. That was a scene that I really had to fight for, but I’m very happy with it. On one level, it is a ‘talking head’, but because visually we have nowhere else to look, we enter those words and feel their resonance far more effectively.
FI: When Katalin speaks of the animals that take care of her after she is raped, the lines between a modern vengeance plot and traditional folklore become blurred. What did this mean to you?
PS: When I wrote that scene, it just naturally ended up in that realm. It wasn’t planned. That’s what I love about writing. It’s not something you can will into existence, but when you’re lucky, the characters do the writing for you. That’s an incredible feeling when a script just takes off and goes into autopilot. You spend so many hours of the day just trying to rinse out all your prosaic thoughts. That transition from wondering why the price of a kilo of onions has risen, to actually entering the mindset of your characters, is really something. In hindsight, I’m sure I can find a reason for why I wrote the lake scene the way I did, but it’s speculative. Intuition plays such a huge part in writing, and I’d never deny gut feeling in favour of anything more calculated. I think I must have been influenced by the boat scene with the animals in Laughton’s Night of the Hunter (1955). That film made a big impact on me. With Katalin, I love that ambiguity when we’re not sure whether she’s genuinely a couple of trees short of a forest or we are actually watching something in the vein of folklore or a fairy tale.
FI: What was it like shooting in Romania, what were your most memorable moments?
PS: The most memorable moments were just before and after shooting. A few days prior to the shoot, I was very high up in the hills trying to negotiate with a shepherd about using his box, which Katalin and Orban sleep in during the film. One of his cows started going into labour, and it seemed rude not to help. It was painstakingly slow and bloody, but to see the mother licking the calf clean as soon as it was born was priceless. I stayed for some food after and one of the local dogs also stuck around for the placenta.
After the shoot, five of us took the train from Sfantu Gheorghe in Romania to Budapest and then on to Bratislava, where I was living. I had 54 rolls of 16mm film in my rucksack and I was terrified that customs would seize and open the cans at the border. It was about ten hours of anxiety until we reached the border around two in the morning. Customs just shone torches in our faces and left. The whole future of the film depended on the mood of that one customs officer.
Shooting was very straightforward with hardly any setbacks. We had arguments, but nothing to tarnish memories. A dog attacked Aniko, the assistant director, and she took a day off to get rabies jabs. Otherwise, no major problems. The meals were always a good memory and the general sense of community. We all lived in one house and shared one bathroom. It wasn’t ideal, but the fact that the actors never complained about the conditions or the food really helped. The chef had a hard time cooking. He could only cook by campfire and sometimes had to wash our dishes in the stream. The food was always great, no matter what it took to make it. Directors and actors get plenty of acclaim for their work, but chefs get nothing. So a special mention for Zsolt Kiss – the most resourceful chef in Transylvania.
FI: Despite having a universal plot, Katalin Varga is loaded with a level of Transylvanian culture that is rarely seen of foreign films about the region. What were the greatest difficulties of filming in another country about a foreign culture? Would you like to continue filming abroad?
PS: The dilemma over authenticity was difficult. It was a constant balancing act. I definitely made concessions towards authenticity, but I’d never say this film is about Transylvania. It’s more a conglomeration of all the films I saw from the former Soviet Union and Central Europe. It also helps being a foreigner. You do focus on things that locals overlook. The story is by no way specific to Transylvania. I’ve never even heard of such a thing there, but I was definitely incorporating Transylvanian elements – the ballad, the Catholicism and the very strong connection between man and earth. It’s very common for people, even those in tower blocks, to have a plot of land where they grow their own vegetables.
I’d be open to filming abroad again. It depends on the story first and foremost. I would actually love to do something in Reading at some point.
FI: Hilda Péter delivers the role of Katalin with depth and an understanding of character. What prompted you to create Katalin as such a determined and fearless character? Were there any difficulties or confusions in translating to Hilda Péter what you had in mind for the character of Katalin?
PS: There were difficulties, but nothing major. Hilda knew from the script what was needed and knew that any transition from theatre to film involved going down a few gears in terms of the performance. So much of the character didn’t need explanation. I trusted Hilda immensely and she had exactly the right intensity. Because I was also producing, I couldn’t give Hilda all my energy, and sometimes that caused friction. However, she didn’t need constant guidance. Aside from Hilda’s intuition, the urgency of the shoot, the fact that we were tired and a little desperate gave this kind of natural intensity to her performance.
FI: It looks like the entire film crew were also Romanian. Did mistranslations ever bring improvements to the film that you had not originally intended?
PS: Six of the ten people in the crew were ethnic Hungarians from Romania, three were Hungarian from Budapest and one was Slovak. Five Romanians acted in the film. Mistranslations didn’t happen as such. The script is free of idioms, slang or expletives, so translation was relatively easy. It was first translated into Hungarian and then refined for the Szekely Hungarian dialect. Sometimes, various words didn’t feel right and that was harder to correct than a mistranslation. Hilda tried to find synonyms that felt right for her character. Since my Hungarian is basic, I couldn’t help her and that tended to snowball into general arguments. Apart from the lake scene, the main thing we had to do when shooting was to strip the dialogue down. The script is quite wordy. Not only did we cut dialogue because we were pressed for time, but also because it was more suited to how these characters speak. I am aware of this myth that Szekely Hungarians don’t believe in talking, but I’m not so interested in that.
For the Romanian scenes, it was a similar case of sitting down with the actors and going through it. The most important thing was to discuss the level of the scene in terms of intensity and feeling/motivation behind words. It was up to the actors to find the nuance within the translation or synonyms.
FI: Katalin Varga has uncovered you as one of Britain’s greatest new directorial talents, winning an array of prestigious European film awards including The European Film Awards ‘European discovery of the year’. What advice would you give to upcoming directors trying to make films on impossible budgets?
PS: Watch what you sign! Get a lawyer, even if you have to borrow more money. Selling the film is when you’re at your most vulnerable. You can make mistakes when shooting and still get away with it, but nothing will get you out of a bad contract. Don’t take the risk.
I would never want to say, ‘use all your money’ or ‘don’t use all your money’, because that is such a personal decision. The good news is that filmmaking has become cheaper and the technology is getting better at the same time. RED cameras are a viable alternative to film only if you are disciplined and don’t overshoot. As most of us know now, the emphasis has shifted from how to get the film made to how to get it noticed.
So much depends on what level one wishes to work on, but assuming someone wants their film out in cinemas, going to festivals can really help. Even if you’re not invited, just go and get the directories of visiting distributors, sales agents, et cetera, and individually target them instead of sending blanket e-mails that are seldom read. You do get knocked back. I’ve been doing it for years, but you just keep going.
€30,000 isn’t impossible in terms of shooting. We could shoot on Super 16mm and pay pretty much everyone on that money. The way to save money was to not have art directors, production managers, hairdressers, etc. I was blessed in working with actors who were not fussy about food or privacy.
FI: Finally, I’d like to ask if there are any plans for another feature length film in the future?
PS: There are plans. Keith Griffiths is producing, which I’m thrilled about. Griffiths produced the Quay Brothers’ Street of Crocodiles, which was one of the films that led me to Central and Eastern Europe. The UK Film Council have been involved in development/pre-production and they’ve been very supportive and sympathetic to the atmosphere that the script needs. I hope for the best, but you never know what lies round the corner. Whatever happens, I’ll carry on doing what I always did – Super 8, bits of this or that. Film is film, whether it’s the work of Jordan Belson or Luchino Visconti. It doesn’t matter what format or scale you’re working on.