István Szabó Master Class

When Jenő asked me to write some notes on the class István Szabó held, first I wrote black and white about the raw, technical side. Jenő is a perfectionist, he wasn’t satisfied. He asked me to add the emotional side to it, how I felt in class. Well, what does it feel like to learn boxing from Mike Tyson and take piano lessons from Beethoven?

In the first, introductory part of the class, the director’s tasks were listed. István said, the director’s main duty is to dictate the direction. When making a movie, it’s not enough to have just a good idea, you need consistent and coherent direction given to the crew by the director. First, he makes the idea his own, then he has to make it everyone’s, the crew’s, so that every person works on the project with passion.

The director’s job is to ensure that everyone feels the same way towards the film during the shooting, because it’s very important from the film direction’s stand point. What is the direction of a movie? It’s what the film’s about, the content of the movie. This leads us to the question that can’t be answered in an exact way. Why do we go to the movies? What does the audience get? A feeling they can take home with themselves, the miracle that happens there and then in that 90 to 120 minutes when the lights go out. A separate little piece of life that the director gives them. In that two hours, you forget about the checks you have to pay, the fight you had with the missus, so basically every real and presumably real problem you have at that time. Instead, you get to enjoy an other life, someone else’s on the screen which you can relate to.

István Szabó also mentioned the ever changing rules of filmmaking. But some rules remain: for example you cannot have the same type of shots following each other, because it’s redundant and bores the soul out of the viewers. Except when we want to transmit something, for example, we want the audience to strip naked from the preconceptions built up in the previous shot. But in this case, the new shot needs to tell more, to go further. Such examples can be seen in Dead Poets Society.

Then all of a sudden, like a storm, the mood changed. Silence fell to Room -137. István Szabó asked us to refresh our memories and said some film titles. We needed to signal with a raised hand if we’ve seen them. Hands remained mostly unraised.

We failed, I mumbled some words here and there, it was awkward as hell. István Szabó’s rage was justified, because without the knowledge of basic film history you can’t be a director. In our defense, there’s one thing that’s bigger than our uninformedness: our determination. I can only speak in my own name, but since the class I have watched the mentioned Jules and Jim (François Truffaut) and Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard). Ashes and Diamonds (Andrzej Wajda) and The Man with the Movie Camera (Dziga Vertov) didn’t make my DVD collection, because it’s hard to get hold of them. But hey, there is the internet!

After a peacefully silent break, we went on to list the main questions of directing:
1. What is the permanent mark, the picture, the shot that will remain with the audience?
2. What is the shot that pushes a scene forward?
3. What is the dominant feeling/tone?
4. What is the moment that needs to be emphasized?
5. Where are the dramatic climaxes?
6. What are the main attributes of the major characters?
7. What is important to us?
8. Where does the lighting come from, what does it emphasize? (A director must know how to think with a cinematographer’s mind).
9. What is the moment that needs to be shown in extreme close-up? (A director must know the major philosophies of editing).

We talked about the first question in great detail. What is the permanent mark that stays with the audience? What do they take home with themselves? As a director, what kind of tools can you use to create and to direct? This is the most important question, because here is where it’s all decided: the film’s message and the stake. The number of directors, the number of different director’s concept. Everyone is sensitive to different sentences and situations rooted in the director’s personal experiences in life. In an adaptation or an original screenplay, you have to determine which will be those emotional moments that the director will want to emphasize with close-ups or other film techniques.

The good director is adequately sensitive and open to this, he feels where is an emotional leakage, a break in the voice, where lies the true connection between two characters. Often it is not said explicitly, or it’s not clear where the climax is in a story, what needs to be emphasized. How do you build up a situation, how do you portray a character? What’s the tension in that particular shot? What should the composition be like, or even decomposition?

If it’s not enough already, the director also has to possess something which can’t be taught: exploring the energy exchange of the actors. The real struggle in the inward space. This is when the spoken words are just empty tools, when the emotions surface, words are just the surface: what lies beneath them is what really matters. I noted István Szabó’s statement with a noticeable nod when he talked about the changing emotions displaying on living human faces. We know since Bergman that the face is the most exciting landscape on people. It can tell you things about its wearer that even they don’t admit themselves. (Since I know that a director is a basic psychologist, too, I call the face “the big subconscious-mirror”). István lets the emotions bloom in front of the viewers’ eyes. The point is not “what”, but “whereof”.

After class, I went up to István Szabó. I said to him that a famous actress, who plays in my first film, and actually played in his thesis film too, sends her greetings. He wished me good luck and shook my hand. So what did it feel like to attend István Szabó’s class? What do we take away, what do we leave there? Well, what I would emphasize in a close-up was the handshake, because this is what I’m taking away, taking gárdonyi edithome after a great movie. 🙂 And we can only hope we didn’t leave him with a bad taste in his mouth due to our uninformedness.

Edit Gárdonyi
Budapest Film Academy student

On Tuesday, we welcomed Academy Award winner director István Szabó as the guest teacher of the Directing class.

He directed a number of films (and wrote as well), thus with his great experience he shared most useful information in a form of a presentation. Because this semester’s topic is the connection between director and actor, his lecture was about that relationship.

There are people who don’t consider films as an individual art form, but the mixture of more. István Szabó is not one of them. This is because film can show something no other art forms can: the living face. Everything can be painted, written or drawn, but the living face and the changing emotions can’t be shown anywhere else. Not even in a theatrical play, that’s why the actors compensate with heavy gestures.

In the theatre you have to play a part, but in film you have to live in front of the camera. If someone can’t move and exist naturally with the cameras there, then his performance will not be true. The face appearing on the big screen must be genuine. Apart from the proper emotions, the character must have the attributions matching his profession, his personality, his age, for example: a carpenter’s skin and hair is completely different from a teacher’s.

István Szabó for smaller roles prefer civilians who are practiced in their profession, for example he won’t ask an actor to play an animal vet, but a friend who as a veterinary knows perfectly what is he doing, so he’ll look authentic on the screen. For a bigger role he’d choose a professional actor, who has to acquire the knowledge about the character’s profession before the shooting.

For the main roles, it’s very important that the actors have charisma and energy (the looks doesn’t matter). You have to pay attention that the opposing partners have the same energy level. A charismatic, interesting face can grab and maintain the attention. This is an attribution that can’t be taught. Without charisma, an actor doesn’t offer anything with his looks in a close up. A genuine look equals with the ability to exist. Those who can exist in front of a camera can represent the audience’s desires, and make them feel safe. People’s secret desire is to hold on to their own identities so they empathize with people who are just like them.

Every major change in the world brought a new actor/actress, who at their time gave people this feeling of safeness. Such charismatic individuals are Ingrid Bergman, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Marilyn Monroe, Jane Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave, Catherine Deneuve, Fay Dunaway or James Dean, Humphrey Bogart, Anthony Perkins, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. They weren’t chosen by filmmakers, they were chosen by the audience that trusted them.

During casting you have to pay attention that your actors represent reality and the given era. To the hero you have to find a matching antagonist that can take up the pace with him. At most films, it’s the casting director who finds the actors, but István Szabó likes to pick his own actors. In an ideal world it would be the director’s job as he imagines the picture later on. The chemistry between the living faces is very important. What makes a director a director if he can’t even choose the two opposing faces?

It’s hard to paint real emotions on the big screen, you have to grab the moment when the miracle happens, the passing of the real emotion. If it doesn’t come, or it gets lost somehow (e.g. it happens during a rehearsal), then you can only do it from an another angle. The text is not that important, more important is that who and when says it. The actor needs to be helped to get in the right mental state, a small thing (e.g. a piece of clothing) can help to make them feel their part. The power of the original picture is very important.

Filmmaking is a collective art form, you can’t do it alone. It’s the director’s job to make everyone from the crew feel as if they are part of the project, so he has to remind everyone that they are important. If everyone is talented, and wants the best, putting a piece of himself into the film, it makes a huge amount of creative energy. This energy has to be channeled in the right direction, and that’s not going to happen without love and kindness.

The director’s job is to keep the objective, the goal of the film in front of his eyes, and to drive the crew into that direction when they wander off. On the other hand he must be always open to ideas that can make the production better.

To monitor whether they are heading into the right direction, István Szabó uses a so-called checklist. This is very similar to the list that an airplane’s pilot checks with the co-pilot before taking off. István Szabó works with a principled and a technical list to see how accurate the finished job is compared to the original goal.

Matters of principle:

  • What do I want to give to the audience? In other words, what’s my objective with the film? What’s the message that I want to tell?
  • What is the permanent trace that will stick in the audience’s memory?
  • What makes the film go forward?
  • Where is the moment that needs to be emphasized because of its importance? What are the dramatic climaxes, twists?
  • What are my main character’s attributions? The audience is grabbed by the character’s internal qualities in the first place. What is that attribute that causes the conflict?
  • The characters’ physical state.  You have to find in case of the actors the proper state which is the closest to their character. This means if someone in the movie is cold, the actor needs similar conditions to be able to live the part.

The technical list has some matching questions, but in this case you have to think about the use of tools.

Technical questions:

  • What makes the scene go forward? What kind of settings do you have to use and how to connect them so the storyline goes forward and makes a round, complete narrative?
  • Which human emotions are there to pay attention to? Choosing the right image.
  • What is the permanent trace? Do you have to underline something in the setting that is so interesting it will stick to the audience’s memory?
  • What is the ambivalence? How does the audience relate to the character? Our task is to decide whether the characters should be thought as good or bad. The audience has a desire of searching, this means at the beginning of the film he has assumptions about the character’s personality, and as the story progresses he collects evidences whether he was right about them or not.
  • Every scene must be analyzed by the people on the screen. Whose side does the audience take? The reaction of the audience – how do they react? (reaction shot)
  • What kind of an effect do I want to cause?
  • Where does the light come from?
  • Should it be shot in a close-up or from far?farkas barbara

At the end of the lecture there was time to ask a few questions, but I feel like the three hours passed swiftly. It was a pleasure to listen to and learn from István Szabó.

Barbara Farkas