175 years after Hungary’s most defining moment, the National Film Institute of Hungary undertook the challenge to tell the epic story, in the most expensive Hungarian film to date.
1848 was the year of revolutions in Europe, resulting in both peaceful rebellions and aggressive uprisings against obsolete monarchical structures in over 50 countries. 15th March 1848 marks the start of the Hungarian Civic Revolution and War of Independence, one of the most significant events in the country’s history, the ideas of which still serve as the cornerstone of Hungarian national identity. On this day, key figures of Hungarian literature like Sándor Petőfi and other poets marched to the steps of the National Museum in Budapest, to recite the National Song, written two days prior the start of the revolution. “The time is here, now or never!”, goes the second line of Petőfi’s poem (László Kőrössy’s translation, 2004).
Balázs Lóth, director of “Now or Never!” told us about the preparation and shooting of the upcoming historical adventure, hinting what we could expect from film:
BPR: You’re directing the most expensive Hungarian film ever made – what did it feel like when you were offered the director’s chair?
B. Lóth: It was the usual process: the producers approached me, roughly after the premiere of my previous film, Budapest Heist. Frankly, I felt honored, because making an adventure film about the most important day in Hungarian history is truly something, to say the least.
The first and most important thing to me is always the script. When I read it and spoke to the producers and key creators, I’ve given it some thought, then I decided to take on the project.
BPR: I think it’s fair to say that this way your biggest project to date – were you confident when production started?
B. Lóth: In my early years, I worked as a director and cinematographer. I made hundreds of music videos and commercials, which has proven to be quite useful in this case, because “Now or Never!” was just as much of an artistic challenge as it was technological. No Hungarian film like this has ever been made before. We had to design sets a year before filming so it would perfectly serve our storytelling intentions later on. The project went through a unique, extensive 3D previsualization and storyboarding during the preparation year. 80% of the film was designed with both traditional and the most advanced virtual production tools way before pre-production launched.
To answer your question: Yes, it was easily my biggest challenge as a filmmaker, but that’s easy to say in this case. In fact, no one has ever directed, photographed or designed a Hungarian film like this before. Hollywood blockbusters with budgets six, eight, or ten times larger than ours are made in Hungary, and our goal was to at least match their visuals and atmosphere. I think it’s long overdue that a film about one of the most important events in Hungarian history is becoming a reality, but this also meant that we had to carefully consider every single step.
BPR: Were there particularly difficult periods during filming?
B. Lóth: I think this film would be an enormous challenge for every director living and working in Hungary. Not only due to its unparalleled budget, since in the end, low and high budget films are just that: films. However, _Now or Never!_ is complex in the sense that it is both a spectacle and a very personal film, that deals with a lot of characters, which made every day a challenge. Even on slower days, we worked with 14 actors. Every day was full of fireworks.
The whole process was complicated by the fact that due to the size of the project, usually we could only shoot 8-15 setups per day. Between these setups, five or more cranes had to be moved, to shade 12×12 meter areas. Our previs material not only determined the exact position, angle and lens of the cameras, but also the size of the sets to be built and how many extras we could move. We also had to decide on the time of day in advance. This was a work that required thorough planning and enormous concentration, not just for me, but for all creators involved.
BPR: How is post-production going? Will reshoots be necessary?
B. Lóth: Filming lasted for 80 days because we shot every scene not only according to the script, but also with a lot of coverage and alternative footage in mind. It’s funny to read in the press that we didn’t shoot this or that. That’s not true at all, since we shot everything in different visual aspects and artistic interpretations, with our DoP Tamás Dobos. It would have been unacceptable to find out in the editing room that something didn’t go according to expectations. We worked by a precise vision, but we also shot alternative versions of many scenes. We’re currently editing 104 hours of footage that will soon become an over 2-hour long film.
For a long time, we wanted to shoot the film in Sopron and other original locations, but then we started to think about how the days around 15th March really went. Those days were cloudy, it rained a lot. We started to calculate how many rigging cranes and green screens we would need for this, and where to place all of them in the sets. We compared this to the original locations and the number and size of the logistically available streets there. It quickly became clear that we needed to build a set where we could realistically achieve the desired outcome. Designed by our wonderful production designer Beatrix Pető, the production built an amazing late medieval city film set that will last for decades and generations of filmmakers.
BPR: Will _Now or Never!_ be a more of a historical drama or an adventure film?
B. Lóth: The screenwriters’ – Márk Kis-Szabó, Philip Rákay and Vajk Szente – intention was to show what happened as faithfully as possible, albeit sometimes a bit dramatised. We’ll also introduce a fictional antagonist, a secret police officer, which is something that could have happened because the Hungarian secret police was already forming at that time. There are elements of the story that are fictional, since during this period, literature was history, so we enjoyed a relative poetic freedom, as our information are not exact.
From the very beginning, this was an adventure film, not a dusty historical movie. Besides historical accuracy, it is a pure adventure film. Our goal was to make the audience feel what it was like to live in this era, to fight for a just cause, to be a revolutionary. This kind of entertainment, based on historical events, is something that you haven’t seen in Hungarian film production before, and we have spiced it up with lots of adventure, stunt work, and spectacular scenes.
BPR: You mostly worked on projects without state funding before – did this huge budget complicate things for you?
B. Lóth: On the one hand, it’s a heavy responsibility. On the other hand, the historical theme itself have put a tremendous pressure not only on me, but on everyone on the staff. Everyone participated in a massive planning effort, to make every cent of that funding visible on screen. I mean, what else should we make a big-budget movie about if not the most important and least divisive event in Hungarian history? This film has been my sole focus since September 2020 and will be until fall this year.
BPR: There is a certain antipathy towards Hungarian historical films currently, mainly for political reasons. Do you think this can harm your film?
B. Lóth: Regardless of whether the viewer is interested in history or not, this story is a spring blockbuster that will pump up your adrenaline and appeal to the average moviegoer, too. I can guarantee this, because the editing is already in an advanced stage. I don’t know much about the antipathy towards historical films, but I know that this is a pathfinding process for Hungarian film, in which we will hopefully be an important milestone. We made a commitment to reach out to a wide audience. We would like it to be everyone’s story, not a divisive one. The script tells the story from a personal perspective, using very subtle and nuanced tools, while painting the era with very broad strokes.
We aimed to convey to the modern viewers what it was like to be a revolutionary, something that not many people are able to experience today. To tell the story of these boys, who are just like your friends in the beginning, but you find their faces on the walls of galleries by the end. If we have done nothing else besides giving them this experience, then I think we’ve accomplished everything we wanted.