“Son of Saul” Director László Nemes on Spatial Strategies: A Conversation From the Past

“And now what?” It sounds like a genuine question to ask a director who has just won a prize in a “A list” film festival. It happened to László Nemes just a few days ago, during the press conference of the Award Winners in Cannes. His first feature, Son of Saul, won the prestigious Grand Prix and the FIPRESCI Prize with international acclaim, so everyone wanted to know what was next.

Yet, instead of talking about his recent exploit or future plans, I want to jump back to 2012, when I shared a few days with László in France and later in Italy. We both were attending the TorinoFilmLab programmes that year: I was taking part into the Audience Design sessions and he was among the emerging talent selected for Script&Pitch. László was developing a project called Iris, set in 1914 Budapest when war was about to break out.

Still from "Son of Saul"

Back then we had the chance to talk about different approaches to cinema. I was surprised that he wasn’t at all interested, to say the least, in what I was delving into: the many possibilities of digital media combined with audio-visual narratives, especially transmedia storytelling. For a while I even thought he was a bit out of fashion in resisting something that so many in his field were embracing.

Then I realised that he had such a strong vision for his story and that his “classic” approach to cinema was not classic at all, nor a snobbish faith in the power of 35 mm (which he chose for Son of Saul too). He was concerned about the integrity of that story and his idea of cinema was grounded in a visual approach that he described as “an organic spatial strategy” based on documentary-style realism, through which he was going to immerse the viewer in a “more volatile, unreliable flow of information.” Any doubts I had were then wiped out when he pitched his project by screening a teaser that clearly showed how talented he was.

László NEMES © BEA KALLÓS

I remembered that conversation while I was reading the director’s note written for Son of Saul. “We follow the main character throughout the film, reveal only his immediate surroundings, and create an organic filmic space of reduced proportions closer to human perception. The use of shallow focus photography, the constant presence of off screen elements in the narration of extended takes, the limited visual and factual information the main character and the viewer can have access to – these were the foundations of our visual and narrative strategy.”

When it comes to directors’ visions, there is no right or wrong. But I’m glad to see that what László was experimenting with his short films has now become such a powerful piece of cinema, a tale of horror and hope that now I am now looking forward to seeing on the big screen.

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Smart Thinking for Smart Audiences: Introducing Audience Design for Your Film Strategy

Let’s be frank: ideas need to circulate as much as possible, and new terms as well. So I thought I’d spread the word a bit again, given that “Audience Design” is a fairly recent concept introduced just a few years ago by the TorinoFilmLab to raise awareness of the need for a strategic approach to promoting independent and art-house films at an early stage of development.

The title of this post matches the master class that I ran last Friday in Belgium. It was a different format from the workshop Juan Morali and I conceived last November in Germany on behalf of TFL, as this time we were both invited to provide an overview on audience engagement strategies to filmmakers, producers, students and representatives of the Flanders Film Fund.

Adding memes to our presentation: a new version of Batman & Robin.

So we joined the TorinoFilmLab team at the end of the first residential workshop of the 2015 Audience Design Programme, which this year took place in Ghent. On Friday 20 March we delivered our master class at KASK Cinema, providing a wide range of case studies that spanned recent blockbusters as well as small and obscure gems; international projects with very consistent budgets and labours of love made for free; linear and interactive narratives; documentaries and fictional films.

Checking the presentation for the master class.

We provided an overview of some basic concepts of audience engagement, such as the difference between core and market niches, the creation of “personas”, and online vs digital communities. And of course we went through the difference between Audience Design and marketing, “the necessary evil”. The core of the master class was arranged around a set of key words that we believe are crucial when thinking of audience engagement: “Intensity and Scale”, “Interaction and Co-Creation”, “Tone and Pace”, “Immersion and Gamification”, as well as “Pertinence and Consistency”.

At KASK Cinema, about to start the master class in Audience Design.

We also addressed some “failures” and tried to understand what we can learn for example from an apparently successful transmedia project that is forced to close down because it is not economically sustainable in the long run.

One of the closing slides provocatively asked: “Where do we go from here?” It was meant to open the debate on how quickly the film industry needs to adapt to new need of audiences and react to alternative forms of consumption. On a more personal level, Juan and I are going to take part to the next TFL Alumni Meeting that will take place in Karlovy Vary this coming July. As we have many more stories to tell and exciting projects to discover together, expect a follow-up to this post from the Czech Republic.

“Don’t Feed Mogwais After Midnight” Is Still the Best Advice for Christmas

It’s Christmas week and everyone has already ranked their own favourite films to watch during the festive break. Those nostalgic for 1990s comedies for the whole family will probably play Home Alone over and over again; action lovers will opt for Die Hard; fantasy animation enthusiasts will go for The Nightmare Before Christmas; while fans of the politically incorrect will have a blast with Bad Santa-like pictures.

Poster for "Bad Santa"

As I’m back home spending a few days with family and friends, I’ve just checked the Italian TV guide for this week and felt reassured because I’ve found the same movies that have been regularly played over the past years during the Christmas break. John Landis’ Trading Places will be screened on television on the 24th December, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory on the 25th, Ghostbusters II the following day. We can easily say that they are all Christmas classics now (at least in Italy).

Poster for "Ghostbusters 2"

If you don’t have any ideas yet, choosing festive films is quite easy: it’s only a matter of taking sides. Do you share Frank Capra’s idealism? Then go for It’s A Wonderful Life kind of movies. Are you in search of a nastier mood instead, something capable of unleashing the evil spirit that lurks beneath these days? In this case you should definitely watch the 1984 classic Gremlins again.

Joe Dante’s black comedy about a mythical creature called “Mogwai” that can generate mischievous alter egos if its owner does not take care of it properly is still one of the most inspired horror movies of the 1980s. Disguised as a twisted fairy tale, it’s a film infused with dark humour that manages to criticise the revelry, the consumerism, and the irritating and patently fake “do-good attitude” reigning over Christmas, without giving up the enchantment of the festivity and flooding the market with merchandise at the same time. A perfect crime.

Poster for "Gremlins"

Whether you side with the cute Gizmo or the reptilian gremlins, you need to be aware of the rules listed in the minimal poster below. They’re simple: don’t expose a Mogwai to bright light; don’t get it wet; don’t feed it after midnight. Follow these and you’ll have a safe Christmas. Break them and you might not make it to St. Stephen’s Day alive.

Minimal poster for "Gremlins" by Quim Marbet