Attention: Benedek Fliegauf, Milky Way and a Cinema of Meditation

By John Bradburn

milky-way-benedek-fliegauf.jpgMilky Way, 2007

Benedek Fliegauf is one of the foremost filmmakers in the new wave of Hungarian Cinema. Working within the metaphysical traditions of Tarkovsky and Bela Tarr he is also a dedicated experimentalist within cinematic form, from the Dogme-informed intimacy of Forest – his first feature – through the long trancelike takes of his second feature Dealer. A highly thoughtful and involved film maker, Fliegauf is heavily involved in the technicalities of film making alongside the metaphysics of moving image creation. Here he discusses his work and influences as well as his most recent feature – the episodic and expressionistic Milky Way – in more detail.

John Bradburn: What is your background in film making? Milky Way especially could be equally at home in a gallery or a cinema being as it is created from 10 single long takes, each shot from a static camera position.

Benedek Fliegauf: My first feature was a Dogme movie (Forest) with non professional actors and was quite a successful film. We won the Wolfgang Staudte prize at the Berlinale 2002 which, for a first feature, I was extremely lucky with. Then I made my second feature, Dealer. This was a little bit over awarded as a movie by film festivals. It was a more conventional film but it was 160 minutes long with an epic story line. It had a similar mosaic-like structure to Forest. Milky Way happened while I was preparing my new film Womb – which I have been working on for four years. It was taking such a long time that I wondered what was going on, as I am usually quite quick at making films. So I decided I was going to make a film before Womb and that was Milky Way.

JB: Forest was shot on digital video and a very low budget. Was it something you set out to do alone with no funding?

BF: It was very low budget. The actors were friends of mine. The audiences think that the actors are professionals. Forest has been compared to Festen but Festen was made with professional actors whereas Forest was not. They are normal people who were from my surroundings. With non actors I cast very close to the character but I had to change my attitude for using professional actors, where I work with someone who can pretend to be this character. I am a little nervous about this process but I respect the actors and the actresses. I was in a very hard situation when I started to make films. I was a self-made man and I had not been to university. I wasn't professional. I had been working as a first assistant director before I made my first film.

The film community was very difficult to get into and so my position was not so good to make my first film and so I had to use non-actors. But I always want to learn something new. When I finished Forest they said to me that I should make more Dogme movies because I am the only one making these films. But I said no; I want to work with professional actors. It is a lesson. When I finished Dealer, which people think is in between Bela Tarr, Roy Andersson and Tarkovsky with these very long shots and lots of doom and gloom, they said to me, this is very unique. You are the new Bela Tarr. I said, no way, I would like to do something else – Milky Way – and now I am doing something totally new with this film also. I am a student of film.

dealer-benedek-fliegauf.jpgDealer, 2004

JB: As you have been compared to him with Dealer, how do you feel you relate to Bela Tarr in Hungary?

BF: From my twenties I was absolutely obsessed by his films, especially the works as Director of Photography. He is unbelievable as a DoP although he always uses someone to actually make the pictures but when you see him work he knows absolutely everything about the image and about the lens. He is truly incredible as he knows where everything should be.

JB: With Milky Way, what was it that you were setting out to do that was different to Dealer? At least on a stylistic level it is a radical departure from Forest.

BF: At first I did not set out for it to be very different or to be something very experimental. I did want it to be episodic or mosaic-like in its structure. I thought it would be something like Iosseliani. I didn't think that it would be something as meditative as it turned out. When I made the first studies I realised that this film was not just about the stories but about the psychological position of meditation. I am very happy with the result because I think it is very complex and there are so many levels on which the film is working. We were not sure about the film when it came to convincing the producer about these very bizarre, sometimes funny stories told with a very fixed camera. So that is why we needed to make some early studies and then we figured out what we could do once we watched them back. The producers and I were totally satisfied with the results and we decided to make the final film. It was a very short picture to make.

JB: The film is very precise. How many takes did you do of each piece?

BF: First of all I would use a very simple video camera and we would make very detailed studies and rehearsals at the locations. Then, when we arrived at the locations with the full crew and the super 35mm camera I would know exactly what needed to be done because I had already made it with the studies. It was quite simple because one scene would be done in one day, sometimes two.

milky-way-benedek-fliegauf-2.jpgMilky Way, 2007

JB: How involved were you in the sound mix and scoring of the films? Forest, Dealer and Milky Way all have very detailed sound design and score.

BF: Of course I was very much involved. I have this company, not a real company but a collective, Raptors Collective, and with this I am the sound designer as well and I invest a lot of time into the sound design; a job which I have done from my first film onwards. I believe that the effect of the cinema on an audience is not 80% picture 20% sound. I think it’s 50/50 and this is why sound is very important for me. I really like it when the timeline on the Avid is mute and we have no sound at all and then we build it up slowly. This I enjoy very much.

For Milky Way we composed a real orchestral score. It was very hard work and took three months or something like that. We enjoyed it very much and the musicians were very supportive because there was no budget. I felt that it just did not work but during the credits I wanted to give the audience some of the original music from the movie. I think it was a good decision with the sound design. This type of sound design is timeless, it is never out of season or out of fashion.

JB: Can you tell us about some of the other challenges of making Milky Way?

BF: The hardest part of the film was to find the locations. The atypical Hungarian landscapes. It was very hard to find these in the Budapest area. As we found new locations the concept itself changed. For me there is a parallel between the story, the image and the metaphysical. There are three different languages on top of each other. I was very deep into Zen Buddhism when I made this film. My wife was pregnant with my son and somehow I was totally crazy about the Buddhist philosophy. In both Forest and Dealer there is a hypnotic, meditative feel to the film. In Milky Way there is a lot more of the meditative rather than the hypnotic.

JB: The music has a similar meditative quality, especially in Milky Way. Was this something that was influenced by your interests in Zen or did you become interested in Zen through your interests in music and film?

BF: The people who saw Dealer and who read my interviews said, “are you a Buddhist?” and I told them no, what is a Buddhist? And in looking for Buddhism and Zen I found out that yes indeed I am a Buddhist. Which is very interesting as the Buddhists say that this is the most authentic way to find the Buddhist path, when you find it alone not through any books. This is a parallel to me as I was always crazy about minimalist art and minimalism in music and painting in a metaphysical way which is almost Buddhist. Interestingly I do not like the music of the Buddhists, the Zen music as I find it disturbing. It is not a line. It is a shape. But I am crazy about Joanna Newsom. She is unbelievable – a genius.

Unfortunately, I am not able to use her talent in this film as she is American and I need to find someone here in the UK. I am crazy about Beth Gibbons, although I do not like this new album much. I really like the last track from the Rustin Man album. This I think would have been an amazing way for the new Portishead album to go as it is electronic but in a very analogue way. That is totally unique. I respect their direction though. This album and the first two Portishead albums were amazing – a big influence on me. If you watch Dealer you will understand I was crazy about them when I was making it. We work with Warp films on this project too. We are hopefully going to work with them on the music. I mentioned Beth Gibbons and Tunng to them. I like their sound design very much. I would like to make music as Raptors Collective with Beth Gibbons and Tunng for this new film.

dealer-benedek-fliegauf-2.jpgDealer, 2004

JB: What kind of film makers do you think you are influenced by? Milky Way seems to be so unlike anything I have seen recently that I wondered what traditions you felt you were working in.

BF: That is very interesting also. I can tell you a lot of artists but not in film. I think Laurie Anderson has had a very strong effect on me. And Kurt Vonnegut, especially as he wrote stories about Earthlings and not human beings. I think this is a very important distinction. If you watch Milky Way you can watch it in this way, as if you are an alien watching these strange creatures on another planet. Alan Watts also, a favourite philosopher of mine. He was very sophisticated in his approach and was one of the first philosophers from the West to try to synchronize the philosophies of existentialism and Buddhism. I like his works because they are always very funny and ironic and still very beautiful. People usually say to me that Milky Way is like a Roy Andersson movie, but recently in Bergen they said to me that the new Roy Andersson movie is like my movie! I was very proud. But Roy Andersson is also is a great influence.

JB: Who else currently working do you admire?

BF: I love the Dardenne Brothers – this pure realism is amazing. But from the UK I love Garage by Lenny Abrahams. This film is a masterpiece. In Cannes there was 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days which won the Palme d'Or and at the same time Garage was in the Cine Foundation and went on to win the Critics Prize. For me I think it should have been the other way around and Garage should have won the Palme d'Or. It is a realist film but why I really liked it is that it is very lyrical. it is unbelievable, unique, and the acting is very authentic. Can you imagine a picture where a teenage boy blushes within one shot and you can actually see it? I find this an absolutely amazing image.

milky-way-benedek-fliegauf-3.jpgMilky Way, 2007

JB: Can you tell me more about the Raptors Collective? How does it work and who is involved?

BF: Basically I am alone. I just figured out this idea. I have two reasons. One of them is a little weird. Usually I am involved in the set design, sound design, the art direction, writing and directing. Almost like an amateur filmmaker. I believe that you should always credit yourself with work done and that this would be a little tasteless so I credit my company, the Raptors Collective. I also feel that the creative process should be open so that the editor can comment upon the sound design or vice versa. Those people who are spirited and get a connection with their soul to the production, usually they get into the Raptors Collective and it becomes a shared idea. I try to respect them as much as possible and inspire them to give their best work.

JB: Will you be working with any of these crew members again?

BF: No, my producers here and in Germany will be providing crew from where we shoot. In Hungary when I was making these very low budget films it was almost easier to become the production designer than to find someone. But here and on the next project it will hopefully be a lot easier!

JB: So is the new film set in Germany?

BF: Basically it is a German movie. We got an English partner in Film Four and a French Partner too, as well as some money from Hungary. We are shooting in the north of Hamburg with English actors and in English. The film is a love story, my first, about eternal love. Mostly my first and second features were about death. I am happy to be investigating a love story.

JB: Considering the wide spectrum of roles you adopt on your films are there any other art forms that you are involved in?

BF: I have so many plans for fine art, music – mostly the experimental music – but I have no energy to finish them as I always concentrate on the films. I became a film director accidentally and the producers came to me and helped me to make the next films and so on. I have been very lucky with this. Yet if you ask me what I am I would say I am a writer. Three years ago I started to write this script which was a novel at first and in the middle part of the novel I started to work on the script as the novel was a bit much for me. I think that at some time I will calm down with the film making and get some free time to write a novel.

It is hoped that a UK distributor or DVD label might release Milky Way.

John Bradburn is a lecturer and filmmaker.