17 December 2018

"I Wish an Artificial Intelligence Had Written It" – Interview with György Pálfi

Taxidermia’s director György Pálfi shot a visually stunning, diverse movie based on Stanislaw Lem’s His Master’s Voice, which had its world premiere in the competition of the A-list Tokyo IFF this fall. As the film will debut in Hungarian cinemas on December 20th, Tamás Soós sat down with the director and talked about strange canned music, about the James Stewart of Eastern Europe and the impact of the disciplined yet wacky anime series.

Stanislaw Lem’s sci-fi novel about encountering an alien civilization is filled with cultural and scientific-historic reflections. Why didn’t you intend to make a classic science fiction story from it?

We had to depart from the scientific historical anecdotes because they wouldn’t fit into the frame of a feature film. We had partly kept the sci-fi but it became only an element of the family story – a Hungarian boy searching for his scientist father in America who emigrated in the ’80s. Unlike Lem, we didn’t put the emphasis on whether the scientists are able to decode the messages coming from outer space, but rather on how to bring the human issues with those of the universe on a common denominator. We wanted to get from Hársfa street, Budapest to the galaxy to demonstrate that perhaps humans and the world itself face the same communicational barriers, that we are wired the same way. We wait for signals from outer space but once we receive them, we are unable to decode them – as we don’t necessarily find the common communicational ground with our family either. That’s what Peter’s search for his father is about. Can his father still be considered as his father, with whom he shares the closest biological bond, but hasn’t seen in 40 years? Can lost time be made up for? The unbought comics, the playdates that never happened? These questions about our origin, and what behavioural patterns we repeat over and over again, stretch back to the past but also point to the future. What will happen if we encounter not just an alien person, but an alien civilization? According to Lem, the more advanced civilization destroys the less advanced one, because this is the pattern we see in history. Stephen Hawking advised us not to be so foolish as to send out signals into space because a more advanced civilization will wipe us out. Our only chance is to go to them first because chances are we encounter less advanced civilizations that way.

You construct the story from a diverse range of genres, mockumentaries, news reels, Skype talks, VHS recordings. Why?

Because Lem toys around with several genres too – he borrows from science, philosophy and literature as well. He infuses philosophical reflections into a science fiction story, then he continues with diary entries, then elaborates on a scientific experiment. In a similar way, we mixed different aesthetic genres to reflect on the image flood that surrounds us too: mockumentaries, visions, news reels, YouTube videos, super 8 archive recordings.

Csaba Polgár and György Pálfi on the set of His Master’s Voice (Photo: Tímea Sághy)

The protagonist’s investigation is supported by a documentary about the US government conspiracy. Did you intend to give a satirical take on the Michael Moore-style documentaries?

Michael Moore verifies his opinion through documentary elements and sells it as authentic documentary. He only knows one tiny segment of the truth and he builds a grand theory on it which is therefore often distorted. In case I use his character or style, that should automatically be treated with caution, since his films are already mockumentaries.

There is a lot of black humour in His Master’s Voice and switches quite unexpectedly at several points to a comedic tone.

We wanted to make a humorous film, because a story that encompasses a whole universe should be balanced out with a light-heartened tone, to feel more human. Humour is the fundamental communicational tool of the film. I am very fond of grotesque; when someone cracks a joke in the midst of something awful.

For a long time, you worked with amateur actors. After Freefall, you went back to casting professional actors.

I had to learn how to instruct actors. And of course, part of that knowledge comes with age. I have bigger authority now as director than I had when I was 25 years old. I still love working with amateurs because they can provide an authenticity to a story that is extraordinary; however, in the last years I reached back to classical storytelling which demands professional actors.

György Pálfi on the set of His Master’s Voice (Photo: Tímea Sághy)

Why did you choose Csaba Polgár, Diána Magdolna Kiss and Ádám Fekete in their respective roles?

I was familiar with Ádám’s poetry and I saw him in Kills on Wheels (Tiszta szívvel) and he was brilliant, I knew immediately that I want him in the film. It was also necessary to have one of the boys to be wheelchair-bound because it deepened the father’s guilty conscience on leaving them at an early age. I knew Diána from Freefall and loved her performance. She was just the right fit for this role too. Dóra is in her mid-thirties and evades the baby-question; she is an emotionally vulnerable yet strong and independent woman. She can switch from slick businesswoman to a shopping bimbo in no time, when all the while she just wants to be in a stable, loving relationship.

We wanted someone for the main role who is a hero but doesn’t necessarily looks like one. Csaba is an extremely talented actor with compelling looks: With his huge eyes and strong facial features he resembles James Stewart in an old Hitchcock movie. But this appealing look can quickly transform into something conflicting, dissonant. I was drawn to this Eastern European James Stewart character because it made a striking contrast with the other, perfect, all-American son and it demonstrates the difference between growing up in America and in Eastern Europe.

The music of the film is quite diverse: you incorporate industrial noises but use pieces from Bach and Chopin too. What were the main aspects to consider while putting together the score?

I knew right away that I want to use some strange, industrial canned music for the film. I wish an artificial intelligence had written it! During editing, we added Kraftwerk to the scenes but then we discovered Ábris Gryllus and Miklós Farkas. You can easily get used to temp music while editing, but the FOR. formation replaced Kraftwerk and we didn’t miss it at all. FOR.’s music has an important and felt presence in the film. In scenes where we made some cultural-historic references we used classical music: Bach, Chopin, Dvorak.

Csaba Polgár on the set of His Master’s Voice (Photo: Tímea Sághy)

You also used a lot of CGI in the movie.

There are two fundamental scenes at the beginning and at the end of the film where different shapes, molecules, genes transmorph into each other. Our goal was to link the universe of humans to the universe of galaxies, that is, linking the different layers of the film by a visually organic, unified camera movement. We had other scenes set in space too and these were also quite fun to come up with and develop.

It’s like figuring out a mechanical puzzle: it has a solution but it’s tricky. In the scene with the giant, we played with perspectives a great deal and as the protagonist is sitting in the car and copies the movement of the figure, we also had to recreate it through camera movement. We put 3-4 layers on each other to make this night vision work.

Your previous film, Freefall debuted in South Korea and His Master’s Voice had its premiere at Tokyo IFF. Where does your Far Eastern connection originate?

I like Japanese and South Korean filmmaking a lot, because they know something that we really should incorporate in our work too.

Such as?

Such as daring to experiment even though you’re already a professional. This can be traced in those wacky anime series which, despite their craziness, demonstrate a certain sense of discipline. These are developed by genius minds who are probably on the verge of madness and sobriety. America has David Lynch, but Japan has loads of David Lynches. They release their inner demons and put them on film in a way that is still considered strange or too far-out in Europe. Just think of animes like Fullmetal AlchimistBrotherhood or Death Note; another good example is the movie Teuton with its groin-drilling machine. You think that it’s just sick, but still, it somehow resonates with the deepest parts of your soul. I watch a lot of anime with my wife and screenwriting partner, Zsófia Ruttkay and these impressions surely make their way into our films. The fact that His Master’s Voice has such a fragmented story arc yet wants to capture a lot in time and space is definitely a Japanese influence. That’s why it was such an honour that the Tokyo IFF embraced our movie. Finally, someone understood what we aimed for!

Tamás Soós