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Janos Szász and Sándor Pál, The Notebook

Screen speaks to the director and producer of Le Grand Cahier (aka The Notebook) which screens at Karlovy Vary and is one of the first films to come out of the new Hungarian National Film Fund

Having its World Premiere in the Karlovy Vary Competiton, Hungarian film Le Grand Cahier (aka The Notebook) is a powerful tale of twins who are taken to their uncaring grandmother to escape from the horrors of the oncoming war. But they soon learn that war is only a part of the horrors of the adult world and vow to become hardened to the problems they face. But as their resolve grows, their innocence fades.

Based on a book by prize winning Hungarian author Agota Kristof, Screen asked the film’s director s Janos Szász a little more about The Notebook’s genesis and how the book came to the big screen

“We learned that the rights were free to the book four years ago. Me and [Sandor Söth, one of the film’s producers] met her in Neuchatal and she was happy to give us the rights to make the film in Hungary. We become really good friends, she read the script and we had been working together. But she was very ill and she died. When she was sick, I was an idealist thinking the film may give her a longer life but it was not to be. I miss her very much.”

Part of the success of the film is due to the mesmerising performance by László and András Gyémánt in the central roles. Given that trying to find just one child actor to carry a film can sometimes be a thankless labour, trying to find twins must have been somewhat daunting

“We had been looking for the twins for a long time. It was a miracle when we found them in a little village that was far away,” reveals Szász. “They were living in poverty and it was crystal clear from the first moment that had found the right people for the part. They were mesmerising:  simple kids, not affected by any acting school or being in a big city etc. They were honest boys, with a very tough everyday life and they are strong kids, much stronger than city kids. It was crucial because more than 40 [shooting] days is unbelievably hard.”

“With the children it was wonderful and they knew the essence of a scene and I let them do a lot of improvisation It is also challenging to work with children and professionals actors together. But Piroska Molnar was a great help, support and teacher and I appreciate her very much.”

The Notebook is as much about the horrors of the adult world as it is the horrors of war. Was it a difficult shoot dealing with what is often a tough subject?

“It took 3 years for me.  I was going to bed and wake up with these problems. How do I show someone’s body  after an explosion? It was a nightmare for many years.  I did not want the violence to be explicit. The imagination of audience is a very strong part of the perception of cinema.  It was not difficult to shoot. The problem was how to show yet also hide these things in the film.

The film is one of the first to come from the new Hungarian National Film Fund  which – in 2013 – has more than €17m at its disposal to fund more films from Hungary and take an active role in their development and distribution.

“As this movie is the first one made with the support of the newly established Film Fund, there were some  rules and obligations for application that had not been tested yet in practice,” explained Sándor Pál, another of the film’s producers, to Screen. “But thanks to the Fund’s positive approach there was the possibility to shape the cooperation in a “movie-friendly” way. During the applying process, the Fund was flexible and took into account the actual situation (that the Ministry had already subsidised the production of the movie) and disregarded the use of the current one stop source system. Because of that the movie became possible.”

“With my present experience and the projects subsidised by the Fund so far, I trust that the fund is creating a Hungarian film industry that is coming off of a more industry-like, more effective and being more accessible to the public,” explains Pál. “It will ensure continuous work for the profession and could be the worthy continuation of Hungarian cinema’s fine traditions.”

Meanwhile, Szász is excited to fruits of his labour while also thinking about the future

“This screening is everything for me and I have wanted to come here for a long time. I have heard about the wonderful audience, the beauty of city etc but it will be the first screening ever for a big audience, I cannot wait but I am scared”

“I plan to move to US with my next film,” Szász told Screen in regards to his future plans “It’s called Michigan and was written by Mickey Solis a great actor and writer. Mickey was my student at Harvard, he told me stories from his teenage hood. Stories from his small city, about his friends, school and family. I told him to write them down.  Mickey wrote a tough story of his childhood in Michigan. It’s a thrilling story about a series of teenage suicides in a little town. We are now financing the film in the United States.”

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