In keeping with the spirit of iF On Film we this is the first of a series of guest blogs from film makers sharing their experiences of films they've made.
I'm very excited to have our first guest post from the inimitable Peter Strickland. His first feature film Katalin Varga premiered at Berlinale and announced a very special new British film maker to an unawares British industry.
Strickland's second feature, Berberian Sound Studio, was made through Warp X, and will premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival.
Field Notes from Transylvania
Even after having sat down and gone through all the sums spent, it’s hard to know how we reached a rough cut of my first film, Katalin Varga with only £25,000. Luck played a huge role. Nothing went majorly wrong in terms of illness, accidents, etc. Very few people in the cast and crew had children then, which meant both time and money wasn’t an issue. Beyond this, I was desperate and angry. Not the kind of traits to endear you to any producer or funding body, but in the isolated world of low-budget filmmaking, that negative energy probably got me through some of the hardest and most doubt-ridden moments. Considering some of the blunders made during the making of Katalin Varga, it would be inappropriate to offer advice here. The shooting might have been quick at seventeen days, but the whole film took five years to make, which proves that we got it wrong more often than we got it right.
Too much happened between April 2004 and December 2008 to put in a blog entry, but I hope some of the highs and lows recounted here can give readers hope that it is possible to make a film on your own terms without any help from the establishment.
The single most important factor in prompting me to actually get out of my bedroom and make Katalin Varga was that I had a substantial amount of money in the bank. Throughout the ‘90s, I was permanently in debt and could only pay off the interest each month. When my uncle died in 2001, my relatives and I sold his semi-detached home in Coronation Road, Aldershot, which meant I could pay off debts and have around £25,000 spare to either put down a deposit on a place to live or finally make Katalin Varga. Since I became somewhat used to either rejection or indifference towards my film applications since 1993, I figured that this would be my only chance to make a film. I had enough resentment and disillusionment in me to think it possible to make a feature for £25,000 as long as I got out of London, which was stunting me creatively and financially due to the usual reasons – rent and feeling too tired to do anything in those few hours away from the day job.
I was lucky enough to find work in Bratislava writing monster dialogue (in English), for a computer game that never saw the light of day. My boss was supportive enough to allow me generous amounts of unpaid leave for my film. Prior to shooting I usually took one week off from work per month, and went to Romania to look for people and locations. On and off from April 2004 until July 2006 I took the train to Sfantu Gheorghe in the eastern part of the Transylvanian region, which became my base, and from there travelled to wherever I needed to go. The cost of a return train ticket from Bratislava to Sfantu Gheorghe was around £60. The journey took 17 hours each way. Everything was gloriously slow and when I was fortunate enough to find people who could show me their homes (for shooting in), or secluded forests, I couldn’t just thank them and leave. It was expected of me as a guest to stay, eat and drink the home-made brandy and talk about life in the UK. Even when obliging my hosts, I was often accused of being in a rush. Life had a drastically different pace and logic in the rural parts of Transylvania, and it took time to adapt. If someone’s cow was giving birth, I was expected to help and before you know it, hours have passed. I had the freedom to immerse myself in these local dramas, but it’s not something you can do on every film. Another aspect of pre-production that would normally be an anxiety was the near disdain for anything resembling a diary. There was no point in asking for someone’s email or phone number if I wanted to ‘reserve’ their home for shooting in. “Just turn up,” was a common response and I had to trust in that mentality. Nobody let us down in all these phoneless arrangements.
If we needed to shoot outside, we had to obtain permission from a mayor, public official or a pastor in smaller villages, which could become a run-around. On one occasion, I came down from Bratislava to one village to get permission from an official. After 19 hours of travelling, my local friend rang his office around noon only to be told that he’s drunk and he’ll spend the rest of the day sleeping it off. As frustrating as that incident was, the flipside of that chaos was that people were very adaptable at the last minute. If one plan fell through, someone would quickly come up with another option. I found the people I worked with to be remarkably resourceful along with displaying a healthy disregard for rules.
Within Transylvania buses and trains were infrequent. If I couldn’t find someone with a car, I hitchhiked and paid some petrol money. Waiting for a car to pick you up in deepest winter is agonising, but in warmer weather, you could enjoy the unpredictability of it all. Some of the locations were staggering. We had to climb mountains, travel by horse and wade through rivers to get to some places, but even if the odd location was too gruelling to come back to for the shoot, it never felt as if I was wasting my time.
Once we found everything we needed, we tried to double-up on interiors. One house we shot in became four houses in the finished film. By shooting wide, and close, changing the sheets or drapes and trying different lighting, we could get the most out of one tiny room.
Another factor that kept the film within budget was finding ‘ready-made’ sets. Most interiors in Transylvania don’t need ‘dressing’ unless you want to smarten them up. We didn’t need a production designer and art director because everything we needed was there and it looked incredible. The old furniture, the bizarre shed tools, lamps and the dirt was just what we needed. I remember one man tried to clean up a barn we were shooting in and we had to convince him we needed it as it was. For some of the locals, they couldn’t understand why we wouldn’t want to clean the interiors for the shoot.
The big mistake I made was choosing exterior locations that involved excessive travelling. We filmed in eight different villages picked for their beauty, but not for their convenience in terms of distance. We wasted hours travelling every day. Two locations couldn’t be reached by car and instead we had to hire horse carts, but some of our best memories are from those ‘wasted’ moments. It was only during the last week of shooting when we settled in the same village where we had our lodgings.
We shot the film in seventeen days in July 2006. The cast and crew knew in advance what to expect in terms of payment, schedule, hours per day and living conditions. The agreement was that we’d work until we dropped. With the exception of the two assistant directors and the cameraman, I paid everyone on a daily rate instead of a fee for the whole project. I didn’t pay for overtime within any day, but the agreement was that I’d carry on paying per day if we went beyond our schedule. The fees varied. All actors received around £45 per day; a derisory amount for London, but above average for where the actors came from. Travel, food and accommodation were all paid for by me.
On reflection, it was unfair on everyone to work all hours even though this was agreed in advance. Boundaries weren’t set and hence, resentment set in and ultimately the crew were too tired and sluggish towards the end. We probably would have achieved the same amount by working less and the morale wouldn’t have soured so much.
Another mistake was letting two people in the crew work for nothing. It seems to be fairly common to have a few ‘interns’ on a film set, but it didn’t work out for us. It does breed resentment on a low budget film when the living conditions are cramped, everyone else around you is earning money and the only thing in your favour is gaining ‘experience’. The money issue on low budget films is very precarious, especially in countries such as Hungary and Romania where you do hear a few stories about crew returning home unpaid even on big films. It’s a very sensitive subject and people are very wary of being exploited. With the exception of the focus puller and stills photographer, I paid everyone in cash either per day or on the hour of the completion of their work. Some of the cast and crew had past experiences of waiting months for their money and screaming down the phone, so immediate payment in cash made up for the other hardships on set. This meant that I had to bring a lot of cash with me over the border – far more than what was allowed back in pre-European Union days. I had thousands and thousands of pounds denominated in Romanian lei notes stashed in my satchel and a few other places. The fear of losing that money gave me indigestion a lot of the time, but there was no choice since it would take hours to find a cash machine or a bank.
The extras received far less money than the actors, but still they just about had enough in their pockets to justify taking a day off work. Most of the extras were either unemployed or lived off their own land. Some were alcoholics and preferred to be paid with brandy on the condition that it was unlimited. Home-made brandy was so cheap that it felt like a good short cut, but it backfired in a big way. The final bill was much higher than I could’ve imagined. Everyone was drunk during a couple of scenes we shot, one extra had to be thrown out and two others were falling about laughing when our lead actress had to do one of her more emotionally intense scenes.
To keep within budget, I let the whole cast and crew stay in my assistant director’s father’s house, which was next door to the rapist’s house in the film. Almost all of us slept in sleeping bags on the floor or mattresses. Occasionally we ventured too far away from our base and had to share beds in guest houses. To compensate for the discomfort, I went to great trouble to find the best local chef. The man I found was a genius and a resourceful one at that. He and his assistant didn’t need a kitchen. They could prepare and cook everything outside with a campfire and wash dishes in the shower or the stream when we were away from our base. The food was fantastic and you felt that any bad tempers were neutralised by the great dishes. To keep up the morale, I hired a folk band to come out of the bushes between takes and sing a song about the previous scene, but this idea was short-lived. Not enough money. Regardless, it soon became apparent that the on-set entertainment came quite naturally from my spats with Mark, the cameraman.
Having a very small crew of eleven people helped. It meant less people to feed; we could all fit in one house along with the cast and squeeze into three cars. Two cars belonged to crew members and I hired an extra one. Apart from me, there were two assistant directors, a cameraman, camera assistant, focus puller, sound recordist, boom operator, stills photographer and two chefs. We didn’t have any producers, line producers, production managers, location managers, production designers, art directors, prop buyers, prop handlers, costume people, hair and make-up people, drivers, script supervisors or anything else you see in the credits of a film. Either we didn’t need those people for this film or we just did those jobs ourselves. Zsolt and Aniko, the two assistant directors I worked with did so many of the above jobs that the film would never have made it past the first day of shooting were it not for them. I remember when we shot a scene in one town without a permit and needed the road to be clear of traffic. Zsolt had a fluorescent traffic vest in the boot of his car and put it on with such conviction and good posture that even a passing cop stopped for us until we finished the take.
In terms of the camera set up, we used an Arri SR3 with 54 rolls of 16mm. Mark brought three lamps with him for interiors and night scenes. We had a tripod and nothing more, which meant some of the moving shots suffered from shake. It wasn’t ideal, but we had no other option. Tracks or a steadicam were too expensive. Working with natural light in wide open spaces made it relatively easy to change camera angles, as opposed to working in a studio where you have to move walls, props and lights. Mark and his team could set up a shot at great speed and would be prone to flashing me a ‘we’re ready and you’re not’ look. We didn’t storyboard or discuss shot lists prior to shooting mainly because both Mark and I were too busy with our other jobs, but it went against us as some of the most intense arguments on set arose over this initial lack of communication.
There weren’t any big mishaps. Many small problems and mistakes, but nothing that sticks in my mind too much. Aniko, my assistant director had to go to hospital for a few days after a dog attacked her, but apart from that, most of the setbacks could’ve been avoided had I been more communicative. I usually agreed fees in advance with everyone, but I forgot to do it with one old woman whose house we were shooting in. Cold Mountain was shot in the same village and the woman obviously found out how much ‘movie people’ pay. We were taken aback by how much she wanted and gave up explaining the difference between an Anthony Minghella film and a film by us. We offered what we thought was a fair amount, but there was no way out of it. After her tears failed to convince us, the woman turned violent and started to kick our camera equipment and throw things. We had to pay what she wanted and leave.
The only other incident that left me kicking myself was failing to tell the owners of a dormitory in one village that we were bringing our own chef. They allegedly killed some farmyard animal for us and were not best pleased when they realised that the preparation of all this meat was in vain. I had to take an hour off shooting to go to the mayor’s office with my chef and apologise.
Developing rushes wasn’t an option. Bucharest was too far from where we were shooting and there wasn’t enough money for couriers. I took the risk of hanging onto all 54 rolls of exposed footage and taking them on the train across the border to Budapest. Nothing lost en route and no cans opened by border guards. The only drawback was pulling a muscle in my lower back. Every two or three years, the pain comes back to haunt me and I have to lie down for a few days and hope an anti-inflammatory pill is within crawling distance.
The post-production of the film was not a happy period. The money dried up and it was a long and depressing process to find help. Probably best to stick to recollections of happier days during the shoot. The film was eventually completed two and a half years later in December 2008 and sold to many territories within Europe. The money wasn’t as much as some people thought. To put it bluntly, if I worked full-time on the British minimum wage for three years, I’d still have made a few thousand pounds more than with everything I received from Katalin Varga (including prize money). But still, despite financial woes, doors did open for me, which is something you can’t put a price on. Finally, there was a chance to continue doing what I love. Within two years, I was lucky enough to have my second film fully funded and in production. The whole irony is that I never saw Katalin Varga as a ‘door opener’. We immersed ourselves in something knowing that it might be our only chance and there was nothing outside of that. As melodramatic as that sounds, that climate of uncertainty was what fed into the film’s troubled heart. Things wouldn’t have been the same were it not for that.
Peter Strickland, June 2012