"It’s a great responsibility to decide what we pass onto our kids"
Loránd Banner Szűcs is one of the most sought-after casting directors in Hungary with a string of Hungarian and international feature films and commercials to his name, many the recipients of leading industry accolades.
His latest film, Sandwich, recently won Best Picture award at LAFA. The lead judge, Joel Hogan, described it as a "brilliantly executed short film of amazing quality".
In the following interview, Loránd takes us to a journey of his career, through his childhood in communist Hungary and until the making of Sandwich.
Meet a passionate filmmaker who truly cares about the messages in his films and how they affect the younger generation.
You were born in a small, provincial town in Hungary. Can you tell us a little bit about your background, what was it like to grow up in a small, provincial town in Hungary, what was the general approach to filmmaking at the time?
Yes, I grew up in a place called Szentes, that’s a real water town – we could all swim by the age of 4 or 5, and all the games we played had a wetter version. If we weren’t at school, we were at the pool. I just loved it. We had a really free childhood. My family was a very mixed lot and my parents came from very different backgrounds. My mother’s family were typical academics – teachers, doctors, protestant priests – while my dad’s family were “sons of the soil”. The most obvious thing they shared was that the Communist regime took everything each family had: land from one side of the family, middle-class values from the other. But, despite this, these still formed a part of our upbringing as our parents did their best to pass them on. I remember that going to visit our grandparents was like stepping into a parallel dimension. The difference between town and village was less geographical and more to do with the way people thought and the values they claimed as their own – it was thrilling and definitely shaped my youth. They were very different, but I am certain of one thing and that is no one would have ever predicted that a member of that family would go on to pursue a career in the arts. We didn’t know any artists as children. My grandfather was a skilled painter but we sadly lost him very early on and so I never knew him. We had the odd painting around the house that I was told my grandfather painted, but that was really all. There was one man in the town, who dressed a little differently, looked typically bohemian, and cycled around with a smile on his face. Now, he was the one they said was a famous painter and that his works were exhibited in the capital. He was an artist to me, because they were strange types. That’s as much thought as I gave it, and then it was straight off to the pool and sports. So the fact that I became a filmmaker is something that no one would have ever banked on back in the day.
How and why did you get into visual storytelling?
I was introduced to filmmaking at high school, oh, hang on a minute, that’s not right, I had a really weird experience before that. I was at home, when my dad arrived back from work and said that they were making a film in our town. He’d seen all sorts of comings and goings and something that looked, at least to him, like a car chase down the high street. What? I hurried out to see for myself. The street really was packed with people and they were all thronged around a police car that had the lead character at the wheel. I sat down on the curb and watched them. They were shooting a scene where a moustached policeman was talking to a young couple. I can even remember the dialogue. - Is there any other way out? the cop asked. The young couple exchanged looks – Of course not. Then they set off into the building and the policeman threw down his half-smoked cigarette. By the time they got to the tenth take, there was a molehill of cigarette stubs on the ground until a man hurried along and swept them all up. I just sat there, staring, and couldn’t work out why they had to keep doing it over and over. The crew couldn’t have been in the town for more than a couple of weeks, but I kind of tagged along and sped around on my bike showing them locations down by the river. Then they packed up and left and I forgot all about playing filmmaking that summer. Then high school started and my mother enrolled me for the biology year. We used to flock into school in white lab coats like mini doctors called to a crisis. I think that’s what my family wanted for me, but our school was a little different because it was the first institution in the country to run a drama year, and kids came from all over the country to live in and study the dramatic arts. They were very different to us, and were forever singing and dancing in school and in the street. Our little town took them in and I think I can say that we were even proud of them. – There go the actors! they used to say. It’s interesting that they were instantly accepting of those kids despite their different approach to life. Then an arts class started that concentrated on all things to do with film. I distinctly remember walking down the corridor in my white coat, with a pipette in my pocket, and I stopped to glance into the room and saw a bunch of cool kids starting and stopping a film and discussing it with gusto. The next year, I got myself transferred to the arts class and left the white coat at home for good.
Who are some filmmakers that influenced your works? What are your favorite movies?
We could only ever really watch films form other Communist countries when I was a kid. Some of them were good, but it’s only a slight exaggeration to say that most of them were about heroic Russian soldiers or proud partisans. Sure, there were also plenty of films for kids but they were similarly packed with Young Pioneers. Oh, and, I mustn’t forget to mention the cowboy films from East Germany and Yugoslavia. I can remember being at home on my own one evening, though I forget why, and there was a yet another Russian film on the TV about soldiers scouting in a forest, helped to survive by a local “man of the mountains”, without whose assistance they would surely perish. The cool thing about the old man was that he spoke to the Sun and the Moon like they were his brother and sister and he wasn’t event scared of the Siberian tiger, but instead behaved like one of the creatures of the forest and so became one with that same forest. I watched with wide eyes and I can still feel the feeling I had then – it was a fantastic film! I didn’t know back then that there are good films and bad films, but I knew that I loved that movie. It was like nothing else I’d ever seen. And so that was my first real experience of film. It was a good fifteen years later that I learned it was a Kurosava film: Derszu Uzala. I’ve got the poster up on the wall in my office and I see it every day, and I love looking at it.
What training did you go through, and why did you decide to quit and simply start working at the industry a very young age? Do you believe basic training is essential, or most things can be learned 'on the job'?
The fact that my professional career started so early on is largely due to luck. I was still studying at high school when another film set up camp in our town, and again needed a runner. They contacted the school and suggested they take someone from the film class, and being as I was the only local boy, they plumped for me. It was beyond cool to be working on a proper film with proper wages that were, at least for me, astronomical. It’s funny that I went back to my hometown as first AD on a film about fifteen years later, and also called runners from the film class as a gesture of gratitude and in the hope that they might get the bug, like I did, but that’s a different story. So I worked on the film that whole summer long, and when we wrapped, the first AD asked me if I’d be interested in working with them on their next film. What? Another film? Are you joking? Sure! I packed and moved up to Budapest that same month. I only knew a handful of people in the big city, and they were the folks I’d worked with on the previous film. But now I was employed at, what in direct translation, was called the “Film Factory”. It was a truly magical place. I even lived there for a while in a girl’s bedroom on the set of a costume drama that we were shooting at the time. I slept surrounded by plump armchairs and rocking horses. But now we were making movies, and I scurried from one studio to the next, learning all the time.
You ask if filmmaking is best learned in college or on the job, and the only answer to that is that we all find our own way in. I don’t mean to avoid the question but both can be good. Film school gives a greater degree of freedom because you can mess up and there are no real consequences. In my case, a music video going wrong or a short not making the grade could make or break your career, because you were playing with someone else’s money and they were not best pleased to have people learning the trade on their project. So, I guess the full answer is that those who are learning the artistic aspects of film should sit in a lecture hall for a year or two before they go out and make movies with producer’s money because it is easier than you think to get things wrong and second chances are hard to come by.
You've worked with some renowned Hungarian and international filmmakers, including Bacsó, István Szabó, Maro Ferreri and Philip de Broca, very quickly working your way up to a first AD position. What were some of your responsibilities as an AD, and what did you take away from this job?
I have been fortunate enough to work with some fantastic directors, and I don’t have to tell professional filmmakers what an incredible responsibility it is to be a first AD. I wouldn’t say that I became a first AD very quickly, because I worked as a runner and then a second AD for 7-8 years, but I was young to be working as a first AD, because I started so young in the first place. My first job as a first AD was on the second unit on a local movie called Out of Order, a romantic comedy based on the Hollywood model, the first of its kind in Hungary. Now that was deep water and I very nearly drowned in the process, but we did it. And that’s kind of how it’s been… we learn to swim early so we’re not afraid of jumping into deep water later on in life.
When did you make your first short films as a director, and what were they about?
My first was called The Fifth Room. It was meant as something of a joke and a reaction to Four Rooms. We shot one more part. It was about a quirky, little guy who was always getting into some kind of scrape and who, despite acting out of good will, managed to change the course of history. We made several versions. In the first he was a bellboy in a hotel, where he found the stolen Turin Shroud in one of the rooms, and while the whole city was out searching for the thieves, he took what he thought was a dirty sheet to the laundry. In the second part, he was postman and stumbled on an elite residential development where he saw that Elvis, Elton John and a whole load of vanished superstars were hiding from the public eye. He was so worried that they were lonely, that he placed an ad in a lonely hearts column in Elvis’ name that naturally landed in the hands of the “Colonel” himself. It got a good reception and we were lucky because these films were commonly shown before the main feature back then.
Why did you decide to found Banner Casting, a casting agency, and how were you able to establish it as one of the leading casting agencies in Hungary? What is the scope of your work today?
Banner Casting came about in a very interesting way – my daughter had just been born and I thought it was time to take a break. I no longer wanted to spend months away from home staying in hotels or long nights on set. I wanted to see her take off in life. And so my daughter and Banner Casting were born at pretty much the same time. They both learned to walk and talk together. I now work as Senior Casting Director in my own company, and have been joined by some new guys who carry projects on their own. I keep an eye on things and my door is always open should they have a question, but I prefer things to work as independently as possible. It’s good that things have freshened up. Of course, projects still come along that I’m keen to keep my own hands on especially if it means working with an old friend
Tell us about your experience as a commercials director. What have you worked on, for example, and is working on a commercial very different than working on a narrative film?
Directing commercials doesn’t play such an important part in my professional life although I recently directed a commercial for a leading supermarket chain that was a real thrill – we created a musical world in a store with an orchestra, dancers and lavish scenery.
It was a good gig, but telling a story for the purposes of selling a product is typically too restrictive for me. Narrative filmmaking is still my first love.
Let's talk about Sandwich. Was inspired this film?
Sandwich is a film about love and acceptance. It was written on Love Street, and I don’t mean that figuratively. I started to write it on the terrace of the Lauren Canyon Country Store. I had a totally different story in my head when I sat down, but it somehow took on a life of its own. Maybe Jim Morrison popped out to the store and whispered in my ear. I’m joking, of course, the film is very contemporary. It’s hard to talk about it without giving too much away, but we have many screenings before us and I don’t want to spoil it for anyone. I can’t wait for film festival judges to pass the film onto real audiences. It is about to be shown in Florida that will be followed by London and a series of other festivals. But if I had to sum it up, I would say that the film wants to say that racism isn’t a trait with which we are born, but is behaviour we learn. And so it’s a great responsibility to decide what we pass onto our kids.
Tell us about your collaborators, producer Gergo Angyal, cinematographer Imre Juhasz and editor Wanda Kiss? How did you meet them, and what was the creative collaboration process like? how did you work with them to achieve your cinematic vision?
The people you have listed are all good friends of mine and this film could never have been made without a great many more friends. We’re fortunate to be enjoying a period of renaissance in the Hungarian film industry, with some great films coming to the silver screen in recent years, many doing very well indeed at international festivals. We’ve come close or actually collected an Oscar three times in succession now. So the industry is running on all cylinders here with new and old faces alike making movies, and that has to be a good thing. Despite this, we didn’t seek funding to make this film and it was financed independently with plenty of help from old friends and producers. We didn’t ask for funding because we were impatient. I was perhaps the most impatient of all and I didn’t want years to pass as I ploddingly prepared to shoot a short after so many years in the profession. I’ll have to slow things down a little to make a feature.
What was your favorite part of the process, and what is your favorite scene in the movie?
My favourite scene is the puppet show. This is when we meet our other adult main character for the first time, when he stages an improvised show for the children with puppets he has made himself in a ramshackle tent. I absolutely adore this scene when the two young lead characters sit watching the show with a cluster of kids, and all sit staring at the shadows as if they are sitting in a real cinema. I’m in love with this scene because I think it says so very much about people – about people who think but people who still want to play, want to dream, want to love.
How was it like to work with a child actor? Have you previously had any experience working with younger actors? What was easy and what was difficult about it?
Sandwich has two very experienced adult actors working alongside the children. Szabolcs Thuroczy, who plays the Captain, is one of the country’s most popular actors with a wealth of theatre and film experience. I saw Richard Peppler in Beasts of No Nation, and gave him a call to ask if he wanted to join the cast. So having experience next to youth was great as it helped guide the kids and helped them along when they were flagging at the end of what, for them, was a long day on set. Emma Bercovici comes from a true film family and has an extraordinary talent that I trust will take her far. I think a child actor can only work on the screen if they go back to being a kid when they’re not working, and hurry off to play with dolls and kick a ball with all the other kids. I have met a number of child actors over the years who have already turned into tiny adults by the age of ten. Thankfully, Emma, is not one of them and she can concentrate on camera, but goes back to being a typical seven-year-old in the break. She instinctively knows how to leave the scene behind and I think that’s what gives her such authenticity.
What do you wish people knew about your work?
The most important thing about this film, for me, is how much we can learn from children. We have a tendency to think that we are the ones raising them but I think that’s where many of us go wrong. Anyone who sits and watches kids play in a playground can clearly see for themselves how they all get along and don’t favour other kids based on the colour of their skin, the clothes they wear or the language they speak. They all play along and create something together. If we take time to watch them, we can see the direction our world should be taking. It’s important that we should listen to one another and that we open up to each other. I’m not suggesting that this would solve all the world’s problems as differences will always exists and we each get along with people in different ways. We shouldn’t make judgements based on habit but step out of our comfort zone and regard one another with an open heart. That’s the most any of us can do, and the rest will happen on its own. I’m not naïve and I don’t think this will bring the world peace the beauty queens espouse, but we can all add in our own little way.
What's next for Sandwich and what's next for you? What are you currently developing/ working on?
At the moment, the two most important things for me are seeing that Sandwich gets seen at as many festivals as possible and that Banner Casting continues to do what it does well. I will want to make a film when I have something that I want to say. I have been talking to a producer a lot recently about something I have in my head, and it may come to something sooner rather than later. But that is definitely a feature film project. I very much hope I’ll have the chance to make it. Everything fit so well into place with Sandwich – written as it was in L.A. and now about to appear at a film festival there. There’s still so much in front of us, but for now I would like to thank the Los Angeles Film Awards for their recognition and film goers in Los Angeles for being open to the film. I would also like to say a special thank you to Joel Hogan, the head of the judging panel, for his kind words, it was a great honor to read them.