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Tue, 06/10/2008 - 20:00 -- Nick Dager

A Conversation with Producer/Director James Chressanthis No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo and Vilmos premiered as an official selection of Cannes Classics at the 61st Annual Cannes International Film Festival last month. The documentary tracks a 50-year journey with Laszlo Kovacs and Vilmos Zsigmond beginning with their arrival in the United States as political refugees from Hungary in February 1957. Person A with B and C at shoot for Great Movie               There is poetic justice in this film premiering at Cannes says producer/director James Chressanthis. Laszlo shot Easy Rider an ultra low budget counter culture film that was a favorite with critics and fans at Cannes in 1969. That was the film which finally opened doors for Laszlo in Hollywood. I am overjoyed that our film [screened] at Cannes. It is a perfect return to the place that launched the career of Laszlo Kovacs and then in turn his artistic brother Vilmos Zsigmond. They became legends in their own time. Kovacs' body of work includes such memorable films as That Cold Day in the Park The King of Marvin Gardens Paper Moon Shampoo New York New York Ghost Busters Frances and Mask. Zsigmond earned an Oscar for Close Encounters of the Third Kind additional nominations for The Deer Hunter The River and The Black Dahlia and an Emmy for Stalin. His other credits include McCabe and Mrs. Miller The Rose Deliverance and the upcoming birth-of-jazz film Bolden! No Subtitles Necessary includes excerpts from more than 50 hours of interviews with Kovacs Zsigmond and some 70 individuals whose lives they touched. They include industry-heavyweights Karen Black Peter Bogdanovich Sandra Bullock Richard Donner Dennis Hopper Tatum O'Neal Bob Rafelson Barbra Streisand John Williams Peter Fonda Jon Voight Irwin Winkler Ellen Kuras ASC Owen Roizman ASC and Haskell Wexler ASC. Their brotherhood and how they struggled and triumphed is the heart of the story says Chressanthis. When I asked Vilmos if he had one wish what would it be he looked at the camera and said 'All my dreams came true.' We lost Laszlo while we were in production. I am grateful we were able to portray his immense spirit on film before he died. Kovacs and Zsigmond were born and raised in small towns in Hungary during the Nazi occupation and subsequent imposition of a repressive communist regime by the Soviet army. Zsigmond had just graduated from the Academy of Film and Drama in Budapest where Kovacs was still a student when a spontaneous revolt broke out against the communist regime. They borrowed a 35mm Arriflex camera and film from the school and documented fighting on the streets. It was a dangerous endeavor. The Russians considered the camera a weapon Kovacs says. We could have been shot on the spot Zsigmond adds. After the revolt was crushed Zsigmond and Kovacs made a perilous trek on foot through a forest carrying thousands of feet of unprocessed film across the border into Austria. They were determined to bring the story of the uprising to the free world. Kovacs and Zsigmond arrived in the United States in a quest for what seemed like an impossible dream. They didn't speak English and had no connections or resources except for their natural talent and determination. Laszlo was put to work in upstate New York tapping maple syrup out of trees Chressanthis says. Vilmos was assigned to a sponsor who got him a job in a still photo lab in Chicago. What were the odds that within a dozen years they would begin to play a significant role in redefining the global art of filmmaking? Recognition for cinematographers in general is long overdue says film historian and critic Leonard Maltin. When it comes to Laszlo Kovacs and Vilmos Zsigmond it's clear that the American New Wave of the late 1960s and early '70s wouldn't have flowered as it did without them. Chressanthis traces his inspiration for this project to 1984 when Kovacs conducted a seminar following a screening of Paper Moon at the American Film Institute. Chressanthis subsequently interned with Zsigmond during the production of The Witches of Eastwick in 1986. Chressanthis has worked on documentaries in the past but he is primarily a narrative film cinematographer. He currently is filming and directing episodes of the hit TV series The Ghost Whisperer. There was no production company backing the project when Chressanthis put his plan into motion in February 2007. Some wonderful people who shared my admiration for Laszlo and Vilmos both as artists and as extraordinary human beings joined me in this endeavor ” he says. “In May of 2007 NC Motion Pictures came onboard with critical financing. I also received terrific support from cinematographer Anka Malatynska and editor/co-producer Elisa Bonora. We were determined to tell the world how Laszlo and Vilmos affected the art of filmmaking but that is just part of their story. This is also a story about their friendship and how they always supported each other. Kian Soleimanpour Zachary W. Kranzler and Tony Frere produced No Subtitles Necessary along with Chressanthis. Jimmy Conroy II and Dr. David Kaminsky are executive producers. Digital Cinema Report: Jim you are primarily working as a narrative film cinematographer with a busy schedule. What motivated you to initiate the making of this documentary? James Chressanthis: After I graduated from AFI I interned with Vilmos (Zsigmond) while he was shooting The Witches of Eastwick. That in itself was a wonderful experience. One afternoon in the middle of a busy production schedule he hosted a luncheon to celebrate the anniversary of the outbreak of the October 1956 uprising against the communist regime in Hungary. Laszlo (Kovacs) was there along with various other Hungarian expatriates. I remember thinking how important it was for someone to tell their inspiring story about what they did during the revolution their journey to freedom in the United States in pursuit of a dream their extraordinary friendship and their influence on the evolution of the art of filmmaking. I was just out of school and didn’t have any resources and couldn’t imagine tackling such a giant undertaking. I always assumed that somebody else would do it but the years went by and it never happened. When I realized that the 50th anniversary of their arrival in the United States was approaching I decided it would be a tragedy not to share their story with the world. DCR: How did Laszlo and Vilmos respond when you first approached them? JC: I think Laszlo was a bit skeptical at first. I believe that was because there were several previous attempts to tell their story in documentaries which didn’t happen for one reason or another. Laszlo didn’t dwell upon that but once we started doing research and filming interviews he couldn’t have been more enthusiastic. Vilmos told me at one point they were happy that I was producing and directing this film. I think they trusted me to tell their story because I’m also a cinematographer. I think they felt it takes a cinematographer to understand what they went through what they achieved and how they influenced the art and craft and filmmaking. Their success also inspired young filmmakers in Hungary and other countries behind the Iron Curtain. DCR: How many people did you interview besides Laszlo and Vilmos? JC: There were more than 50 interviews including directors and actors who they worked with other cinematographers whose lives they touched both directly and indirectly film critics and of course Laszlo’s and Vilmos’ families. DCR: How did people react when you approached them? JC: Everyone who we spoke with was enthusiastic about participating in this project. They all wanted to share their stories about how they felt about Laszlo and Vilmos the contributions they made to the cinema and also how they influenced them on a personal level. They touched every one of their collaborators whether they were actors directors crew members or students who they met at seminars. DCR: What kind of support did you get for this ambitious endeavor? JC: It was amazing. I received a tremendous amount of help from all corners of the industry. Directors and actors gave freely of their time for interviews. Various people volunteered to work on the documentary and just about every organization we contacted provided services and other support. I think people wanted to play roles in saying thank you to Laszlo and Vilmos for everything they have done as human beings and not just as artistic filmmakers. They are wonderful role models. DCR: What did you personally learn from this experience? JC: That is a very difficult question because I suspect that years from now I will realize how I have been affected by things I learned while making this documentary. I felt very sad that Laszlo passed before we completed the film. I wanted him to see what people thought of him. His spirit and the grace with which he handled his failing health made an indelible impression upon me. One of Vilmos’ very early pictures was called Scarecrow. I remember him talking with him about the roles that Al Pacino and Gene Hackman played. They were strangers who became brothers. Vilmos spoke about the underlying message of humanity that was woven into the fabric of that story. He spoke about the importance of supporting other people who return the favor. Otherwise it becomes a very lonely world. I think that was the biggest lesson for me. It reminded me of things I already knew but they bear repeating. DCR: Laszlo and Vilmos actually came from different backgrounds. JC: Laszlo grew up in a farming community surrounded by people who loved him. His mother and father aunts and uncles all nurtured and encouraged him. They all contributed to sending him to school in Budapest. He lived life intuitively and in the moment as though he didn’t had a care in the world. Vilmos grew up in a factory town with his father and stepmother. He didn’t see his mother for 25 years. His father was a soccer coach who went to work in Morocco when Vilmos was nine years old. When he visited his father he was put into a school where he didn’t speak the language. He was taunted by the other boys but within seven to eight months Vilmos was at the head of his class. His father demanded that he become the best at whatever he did. . His father sent him home to live with his stepmother who ran a bar. Vilmos was a self-taught still photographer who taught the other workers in the factory where he worked how to take pictures. The communist government rewarded Vilmos by allowing him to go to film school in Budapest. The plan was that he would come back to the factory and teach the workers how to make movies but history intervened. DCR: What reactions are you getting from people who see the film? JC: I think the most interesting reactions come from people who didn’t know Laszlo and Vilmos. Maybe they knew them as artists but they didn’t know their stories and what it took for them to achieve the American Dream… it’s a dream come true… their lives their imagery and the roles they played in making so many powerful and memorable films. They were fearless in translating their experiences either directly or intuitively into their visual grammar. I don’t want to give away the ending because it would spoil the experience but every time I see it tears come to my eyes. No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo and Vilmos