In Conversation with Kornél Mundruczó

August 14, 2015

As you’ll know if you’ve received the newest version of the program, but it includes conversations with some of the foreign artistes who’re presenting work here. And guess who’s been tasked to document their chats?

Here’s Kornél Mundruczó, director of Dementia. He’s also the director of the film Johanna, which we showed as part of The OPEN! Film.

Yeah, he’s a sullen son-of-a-bitch when photographed, but he opens up once he starts talking.

KM: We are waiting for Keng Sen to introduce me, but maybe it’s better that I introduce myself.

I’m coming from the theatre side. My family is really into the arts. When I was 18 I applied to the university but I wasn’t successful, so I applied the actors’ school. You don’t need a special skill – I cannot draw, I cannot play music – and I’m 180 [cm], that’s good for acting.

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KM: When I was a teenager I didn’t care about art. I was only interested in heavy metal, batching [?]. But when I was in acting, that was when I realised that theatre is an attempt to melt all of the other genres.

And slowly I understanded that as an actor you are slave. You are not the decision maker, somehow. And this is the traditional concept in the Hungarian theatre system. And I became quite depressed over that, and I felt that was not me. And when I started to create a figure in theatre, that was the task from my master – I create the opinion and they create the opinion, and I am playing out that opinion.  It’s most of the time criticizing, and most of the time it’s bad criticizing. And so he’s stupid, and the other woman is stupid, and they’re both stupid together.

So I totally lost myself. I quit after four years. And I thought I would never go back.  But on the other hand, I started to love directing, and I applied the film directing school. And the examination day, with a camera and two actors, that day I decided that’s me, I am a film director. Before that I was quite lost. Then I became myself.

In movies, you cannot play theatre. In movies, you are very close to documentary. If you are totally artificial, then your camera is an outsider eye and your perspective is totally cold. If your characters are super warm, your camera eye is totally cold. And then in the editing, all the bigger episodes you can impact your material.

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So I started to do movies very fastly. First I did Pleasant Days, then my second movie was Johanna, that was last year in the school. And I did feature movies which were in the arthouse distributed. And I was happy with that. I would feel myself as a film director.

But why did I do theatre? In between the financing, one and a half years, when you are waiting for the financing, I was bored. What do filmmakers do? Either commercials, television or teaching. And I am not a commercials or television person...

It was really important for me to find a group and somehow a place that you cann think different. Your ideas about acting, about theatre, on stage, your ideas are different from others, different from the slave world.  And then I found a group , and there was a bunch of actors, like ten actors, who were working differently. And then I do my first piece with them where I can try my style somehow, which is somehow the same process.

I put a lot on the actors, we do together a long research period. So we find the theme, I write a treatment, then we do a research part, and we are working with sociologoists and normal people who have the same lives, and then we start to co llect the material together. And then we are polishing, the last period of the piece. And one hand, immediately the responsibility of the actors is changed. 

So on the one hand I almost don’t write dialogue. I write arguments they must use, research materials from the Internet, from anywhere, that they use.
And on the other hand I really don’t like documentary theatre, because it’s also a strepe forward from the truth. So when the whole collage comes together, it’s sometimes a melodrama, sometimes a thriller. I put it in a genre. And the actors I have a lot, it’s really important for me what you can see tonight. It’s really research for me, that they can understand the cirucmstances, the contradictions behind the circumstances.

At the end of the day, that is what I want to tell, the statement. If I can say what is the message, the message is I want to find those contradictions. Not you have a better life or not. It’s not this way. And at the end the actors understand like I understand the process.  So at the end of the day, the actors understand. They are adults, not slaves. 

And it’s important for me. Why? Because I really believe quality. I really believe art. So it’s not I am the God, I am the director, I say everything. Vecause by vision is I can create together with some people. And if those people we can’t create, if I don’t meld, then it’s not authentic. It doesn’t become living material, it becomes dead material. 

And it’s important in a collage, when the artists want to tell something about contemporary life. And it’s remembering me also, the performance from the 70s, 80s in Hungary, there was really radical criticism by artists, not just actors, usually not. Usually by fine artists, happening artists. And I really like it, their surreality is in it. They are really there, their personality. They do not step behind the figure. And they are present. They are on stage. And they are immediately theatre.

And that is the main responsibility for me. They can clear talking what’s in their mind. So that was really important to me, to find a group that’s enough trained for them. And luckily I found almost the same persons you can watch tonight. And we are walking with Proton Theatre together, five six seven years together. 

Bystander: Six.

KM: Six years. She’s the head of Proton Theatre. 


Mundruczó also talked about genre films, adaptations (he likes adapting books he likes, like Coetzee's Disgrace, but never pre-existing plays), the lack of support for alternative theatre groups like Proton in Hungary (cinema funding is OK though), and the way they're much more celebrated abroad than at home (as always).

But perhaps one of the most interesting exchanges that happened was when he was talking about the difference between casting actors for film and for theatre. You see, when he first started auditioning for film as an actor, he was really frustrated by the director's silence:

KM: They are not directors. They are just there. They don’t say anything to the actors. And I felt very very uncomfortable with that.

But then I realised that when you tell the actors more and more, they become badder and badder. And I thought must I become like one of those directors? For me it is important that they are there. You select the actors because they have a presence. In a way it is about the star system. You select Chaplin or Marlon Brando because they are Chaplin or Marlon Brando.

For me it is like the icons, which is part of my Eastern European roots. What is behind the actors? All the spiritual energy. So I quite believe in this star system, in a way.

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  • 2015