Mónika Mécs started as a documentary filmmaker, climbed up the ladder, and now she works as a producer. Recently, she successfully collaborated with Bence Fliegauf, Forrest – I see you everywhere at the Berlinale. Now, she works on the film “The Story of My Wife“ with Ildikó Enyedi. They are waiting for the current pandemic situation to ease before the new film is released to cinemas.
Budapest Reporter: What made you choose this career path? What did you find enticing about it?
Mónika Mécs: After finishing high school, I’ve studied in Liberal Arts in a small university in Boston. The curriculum consisted of literature, history and languages, things I was always interested in. When I came home, I enrolled at ELTE (Eötvös Lóránd University), to an English and History course. Somehow, I felt, that I’m on the wrong path, I didn’t want to be a teacher.
In the meantime, I joined Fekete Doboz (Black Box), a team of young filmmakers.
[box] Fekete Doboz was established around the end of socialism, consisting of aspiring filmmakers, who documented the events of the regime change with their own cameras, including mass demonstrations, the establishment of new political parties and similar topics relevant to the era.[/box]
It was an exciting time for all of us, we felt the winds of change, the political processes on our very skin while working. As a beginner I initially just watched the crew work, as I followed them along. There’s been occasions, when my father (Imre Mécs, Hungarian politician) was giving speeches, and we were shooting it. So, I’ve had personal experiences of these historical changes, these moments and due to our family’s role in those, it made these shots much more intimate, personal for me.
Sometimes this kind of work was like war correspondence, we had to run a lot of times. Not just here, at home, but elsewhere in Central-Eastern Europe, where we also captured the changes. It was a great learning experience for me, I’ve mastered the craft of documentary making step-by-step.
Often, when the Western media was barred from entering certain spots in Eastern Europe, we documented the occurrences for them. We worked for the CNN, BBC and for Sky News too. We were the first to get to the most dangerous hotspots, then fled, when we had to, while protecting the precious footage.
After the change of the regime, we gradually shifted towards making analytical, sociographic documentaries. I always been interested in the fate of the downtrodden, the people living on the edge of society. We made many materials focusing on the homeless, Chinese immigrants and far-right movements. Actually, this served as the basis of my interest in feature films. I’ve noticed that the University of Theatre and Film Arts launched a producer course, and I thought that since I’ve got nothing to lose, let’s apply. That year they’ve only accepted 5-10 applicants out of many. I was lucky, I’ve passed the tests.
My past with the Fekete Doboz gave me a foundation, upon which I could build my career as a feature film creator. The people featured in those documentaries served as a good basis for the future characters. By the way, I still make documentaries, it’s just that feature films take priority.
Bpr: What was it like, being a famous politician’s daughter in this field?
M. M.: The era of the system change was exciting. While I was studying in Boston (‘86-88), my father regularly sent me letters, informing me about the events at home, and urging me to travel back, cause it’s really exciting there. I wanted to get back home anyway, but his letters were great for preparing me to know what to expect.
We were shooting a lot with and about him, since he was an active participant and an important figure of the regime change.
As someone, who took part in the 1956 revolution, after he was released from prison, they’ve treated him like a second-class citizen. We were wiretapped, surveilled, every aspect of our life was controlled and constrained, they knew everything about us. I’ve got used to it, but sometimes it was incredibly depressing. As the change came, he became an emblematic figure of that era, he was the deputy leader of SZDSZ (Alliance of Free Democrats – formerly influential, now defunct Hungarian centrist political party), and in those days it seemed to me just as natural as our formerly controlled life did.
I don’t think, that the fact, that my father became a well-known politician had any effect of my disposition as a budding filmmaker. And of course, I hoped to get by on the basis of my own performance, not because of my family connections.
Bpr: Which ones were the most important movies of your career, which ones would you highlight?
M. M.: The one that I’m doing at the time, is the most important. My first feature film was “The End” (“Konyec”), directed by Gábor Rohonyi. It’s memorable, because it was my first one after graduating, and I’ve learned a lot in this love situation. So, to conduct this movie was a huge challenge, but somehow every other one since then is challenging in a way. There’s always a new problem to tackle. “The Story of My Wife” (“A feleségem története”) was also quite a bar to jump, while giving me a lot of opportunities to learn.
I’ve also enjoyed making “Chameleon” (“Kaméleon”) and “Panic” (“Pánik”), too. “Just the Wind” (“Csak a Szél”) in 2012 received the jury’s Silver Bear Award. Finding the funds for it was really adventurous, since at the time, there was no tender for us to apply for, the National Film Fund wasn’t established yet, back then. Back in those days we had to gather our budget from numerous sources.
Or we could mention “Brazilok”, which is a comedy, revolving around the Romani people and non-Romanis, dealing with many important problems, sensitizing people, in order to make them ponder upon these issues, to think about who we are, to watch out for each other and try to look at things from someone else’s standpoint too. We tried to present it with humor and passion. For us it’s really important to get people involved, to make them more accepting toward differences or different lifestyles, that can be just as valid as their own. Our goal with the movie was to encourage this kind of acceptance.
Or I could say that “On Body and Soul” (“Testről és lélekről”) was the one, which is a wonderful love story. It was amazing to watch Ildikó Enyedi as she is working, the way she instructs the actors, as she inlays the movie with her fine nuances. It was a good job, managed to win the Golden Bear in Berlin and secured an Oscar nomination as well.
And there’s “Beast” (“Csicska”), a short film which was made possible from our own money and private donations. We made it together and then it received invitations to Cannes, won at Shanghai, it had an amazing run. Then there’s “Those Who Remained” (“Akik maradtak”), I loved to work on that too, especially because we filmed it on a small screen budget, and then we tried to market it as a big screen feature.
It was a rocky road, but ultimately it turned out to be a rewarding one. We managed to get invited to the US, to Telluride with that, which is commonly considered the doorstep of the Academy Awards. It managed to get to that shortlist but failed to be voted into the group of nominees.
What we just finished, “The Story of My Wife” (“A feleségem története”), was a truly international production. To this day, it was my most ambitious project of mine – a 3 billion Forint (about $10 million USD) project with 4 parties involved – with a German, Italian and French star-studded cast and crew. It’s the screen adaptation of Milán Füst’s novel of the same name. Since instead of Hungarian, we shot it in English, we managed to expand our marketing possibilities in order to be able to compete for the international market.
As I have mentioned the most important project of mine is the one I’m currently working on, I’m doing my best, as I think it’s natural.
Usually we work shoulder to shoulder with the director, I keep an eye on everything and together we keep the production together. I’m the kind of person, who works on these things all day and night. We submerge ourselves in the film, and if we’re stuck, we try to find a solution together, in order to be able to move forward.
Bpr: Are there offers you’re more likely to accept than others?
M. M.: Usually I don’t have to work on multiple projects at the same time, they follow each other without any overlap. That wasn’t the case though with “Brazilok” and “On Body and Soul”, and it was quite exhausting to coordinate the work on both of those simultaneously, there were only three weeks apart the two shootings. The thing to know about Europe, from a filmmaker’s perspective is that producers here compete for tenders, so the budget consists of funds we win at these.
So, if we want to make a high-budget movie we have to apply for the money in a lot of different places. Everyone seeks out their own respective national film funds at their own country. We do this at home with many projects. In the end we work together with whoever received the sum. Sometimes there’s conflicting schedules, or we have to wait bit longer for a new movie. The journey from an idea to the screen takes about 2-3 years. But when we can finally present our film, that’s always a wonderful feeling.
During my work it’s essential for me to understand the director’s vision, since he/she already has a well thought out plan to what to do. Then I have to do everything I can to support him/her during the implementation. If the need arises to create another screenplay, I’m going to help with that, just like at every other process. I’m there from the beginning to the end, and then more, since we need to market the movie somehow.
If I have to I’m going to be a manager or a dramaturge, sometimes a psychologist or an adviser. I’m encompassing the whole film, just as a good producer should, I think. I’m coordinating the work through the editing too, I watch the most recent version, analyze it, do the scripting and if I think that the dramatic arc isn’t working, we go through that with the director. So I’m there at every stage.
Bpr: What do you think, what kind of producer are you?
M. M.: I’ve always been drawn to the creative aspect of filmmaking. It’s fascinating to me how a simple idea can lead to something on the silver screen, that valuable or entertaining. I think about it as my calling.
Of course, there’s producers, who provide the financial background, and then let things go their way, and there’s those who are always present and participate in every step. There’s many ways to do it. Nowadays, it’s pretty common to work shoulder to shoulder with the director. That’s what I’ve learned at university; that as producers we have to be involved in much more things than financing and legal questions. They aimed for trained producers with vision, taste, sophistication and a refined approach when it comes to dealing with their chosen projects.
We are mangers, who are responsible for the movies – from the first letter of the screenplay to the way of distribution. It’s not just about making money, but to be able to orchestrate and manage a whole lot of sophisticated workflow processes. Of course, everyone has to make their living, the companies and the colleagues need to be paid, but this shouldn’t be the top priority. That should be the fact, that we can take part in a creative, artistic endeavour that hopefully will result in something long-lasting.
Bpr: Bence Fliegauf’s movie, “Forest – I See You Everywhere” (“Rengeteg, mindenhol látlak”) was highly successful at this year’s Berlinale. How did it feel to be a part of that?
M. M.: We started working with Bence a long time ago, before this recent one, we were working on a project under the name of Parázsember, which would have been a Hungarian-Ukrainian-German co-production about Chernobyl. We worked so hard on it, but our German partners couldn’t gather their part of the budget, so we had to give up. We all felt defeated.
It’s especially painful for a director, since they have to put an end to years of work. We thought about rewriting the script, to cut the budget a little, but then HBO’s “Chernobyl” came out, which told pretty much the same story as we wanted with amazing production quality and story. Of course, it turned out to be a loud success. That was the point when we decided to let the whole thing go. At the same time, Bence was able to gather himself, and create a brand-new idea on the ruins of Parázsember.
The first part of “Forest” won the grand prize in 2004 at Berlinale’s Forum section. The movie itself is made up of multiple separate scenes, stories. So, Bence suggested that the same format could be used in a sequel, with new, actual topics under the name of “Forest – I See You Everywhere”. Just like its predecessor, it consists of seemingly separate tales. Every scene is played out indoors, with a lot of close shots. This made it very current now, during the quarantine, where personal problems and conflicts are amplified by the confinement and the interdependency.
“Forest – I See You Everywhere” wasn’t an expensive movie to make, and we initially didn’t plan to compete with it, since we wanted to wrap things up quickly. So we found a way to finance it, and the crew worked heroically – some of them for a minimal fee, out of passion. The most wonderful thing about it was the enthusiasm everyone had. So then we sent it to Berlin, where it was invited to compete. Then the movie received a Silver Bear, courtesy of Lilla Kizlinger, and her performance.
Occasionally, we finance some films ourselves, hoping in the return of our investment. Those “Who Remained” was made with a small budget too, I even gave my fee and the overhead up. It later turned out to be a good decision, we were able to make money out of selling it. According to my own experiences, these investments are usually worth it in the long run.
Not to mention, that an award increases the value of a movie, festivals and distributors swoop down to buy them, and don’t forget the theatrical distributions and the TV premieres too. Hungarian movies rarely break even, but there’s still money to be made. “Son of Saul” (“Saul fia”) was probably a financial success, but then again, the budget wasn’t big either.
Bpr: Would you tell us about “The Story of My Wife”? How did it come about, why is it important? Is it because of Ildikó Enyedi’s role as producer?
M. M.: After “On Body and Soul” it seemed evident that we should keep working together, to do another project. “The Story of My Wife” was Ildikó Enyedi’s passion project for a long while now, she wanted to adapt it since decades. Earlier, the same thing occurred to other recognized directors too, like István Szabó, Károly Makk, Zoltán Huszárik. In the end, none of them did. As the hype and the award-winning streak of “On Body and Soul” calmed down, we started to think about the next one.
We’ve sent a request to the National Film Fund, and we started to improve on the already great first version of the screenplay. Since Milán Füst didn’t write the novel with Hungarian characters in mind, we decided to shoot the movie in English, as part of a co-production. We expanded our market with this decision. Then we only had to find partners. In the end, a Hungarian, German, Italian and French team came together.
It turned out, that we were really lucky to find each other, since we shared the same views about the film and filmmaking. We were like a large family, constantly helping and supporting one another. If there was some sort of cash flow problem, we helped each other out.
We divided the roles; who’s going to bring what to the production? Cast, crew, and money of course. Who’s responsible for which step, where will the principal photography or the post-production happen, who’s playing who and for what, and so on. The whole thing requires constant and precise fine tuning, flexibility and creativity. So this is how we pieced everything together, like a giant, complex puzzle. We had to deal with financial and legal restrictions, deadlines for the tender, and it took many people’s work to coordinate.
After we gathered the money – which was a race against the clock – we had to decide whether to start working without every paperwork, or wait. As it turned out, starting early was a great decision, because any hesitation would have meant that we couldn’t finish it in time, due to COVID. The pandemic messed our schedule of the post-production up, so we had to find creative solutions. The editing, the sound design and the color grading were all – as I’ve mentioned earlier – split between the co-producers.
The re-recordings were meant to take place in Berlin, but due to the virus, there was no way to arrange flying every actor to Germany, so we had to come up with something. Since we worked with a very experienced crew, adapting to the situation went quite well. For example: as Ildikó already went through the infection, she was fit to travel, so she visited the actors in Paris, Rome, Amsterdam, where we were able to rent studios to record the lines. Naturally, these meant extra expenses.
Marcell Rév, our cinematographer was working in Los Angeles, and got stuck there due to COVID. He was supposed to fly home to do the color grading, which we did remotely, for which we had to find a studio in LA and connect them with Berlin. Obviously, we weren’t happy about these, there were hiccups every day that we had to solve. But somehow, we always managed to.
Finally, the movie is done, and we’re about to introduce it on film festivals, if they don’t get cancelled, that is. We’re living in unpredictable times, nothing is for sure, we don’t know which event will be delayed or called off.
Our wish is to be able to premier our movie on a prestigious festival. Usually this precedes showing it in movie theatres, even at home. It’s because movies at this time “ride the wave”, especially after an award win, with some good publicity and PR, so it’s the right time to release it.
But now, who knows what’s going to happen with movie theatres? Maybe they never going to be the same as before. Although I think that most films have to be watched on big screens, since it’s an entirely different experience, as it pulls you in with the stunning visuals, sound effects and of course with the narrative.
Bpr: What are your plans for the future?
M. M.: We’re constantly applying for tenders, but now everything slowed down. There’re movies we’re currently writing, developing. Every director has new ideas, but these are still work in progress. I’ve got some plans with multiple directors.
And there’s a topic I’m really interest in and want to explore. We’re currently writing it with Klára Muhi (screenwriter of “Those Who Remained” and “Brazilok”). This is a great time for developments, writing, studying and to prepare a lot of ideas. I don’t know how much this current situation will shape the future of cinema and the attitudes of the audience, no one does.