«Close Encounters» with Vilmos Zsigmond

Pierre Filmon’s compact biographical documentary «Close Encounters» with Vilmos Zsigmond explores the life and prolific career of one of the most outstanding cinematographers of all time who passed away in January of this year at the age of 85. Anyone attending Camerimage surely knew of Vilmos as he was widely

loved and admired for his vibrant presence, his lifelong passion for photography, and his steadfast convictions for enhancing the art of filmmaking. Based on interviews shot in 2014, Filmon takes us from Budapest to Big Sur to meet some of Vilmos’ colleagues and collaborators: John Boorman, Peter Fonda, Jerry Schatzberg, Nancy Allen, John Travolta, Darius Khondji, Mark Rydell, Isabelle Huppert, Dick Donner, Haskell Wexler, Vittorio Storaro (among others) and to hear close-encounterstheir personal narratives how he influenced and inspired their own careers in a period of American filmmaking called the “New Hollywood”. The film premiered in the Camera d’Or section at the Cannes Film Festival in May, was part of the Paris Cinematheque’s lifetime tribute to Vilmos Zsigmond in July, and will be on general release in November.

Low Budget, No Budget
Interview by Madelyn Most with Pierre Filmon, Director of “Close Encounters with Vilmos Zsigmond”

HOW DID YOU MEET VILMOS ?

“Every month at LE GRAND ACTION cinema in Paris where I am a projectionist , the Louis Lumiere film school organizes a screening where a DP presents a film they photographed and then discusses it with the audience. In December 2010, Darius Khondji came to present David Fincher’s “Se7en”.
Even though Darius is quite a star in France, the audience didn’t recognize him so I came out of my projection booth to welcome him and ask if he wanted to come up with me in the booth. He asked what I was showing in the other theater and got very excited when I said it was “The Swimmer” by Frank Perry. “ Oh, I’d love to see it, I‘d rather watch “The Swimmer” than present “Se7en”, he said. After the show I asked him if he really wanted to watch “The Swimmer” and when he said Ofcourse ! I closed down the cinema and and projected it just for him. Two hours later when I saw stars in his eyes I was happy to have given him this gift, this piece of cinema.”220115 vilmos  I by tad chamberlain

“After that we met regularly. Darius knew I had written a script based on a Budd Schulberg story to be shot in Florida and asked me who I wanted to shoot the film. When I said <YOU>, he said, <Oh, I don’t know, I’m very busy-Woody Allen, James Gray… Who else do you want?> and I said “I have a dream, my dream cinematographer is Vilmos” and he said <No problem, I can help you with that>. He sent Vilmos the script, (it was the 22nd of August 2013, one of those dates I’ll never forget) and 4 days later, I received an email from Vilmos saying fantastic things about the script and at the end he wrote <I want to be your DP>. I was overwhelmed. I was very impressed that such a master who reads so many scripts and turns down so many, had been touched by our story and its characters”.

“Then Vilmos came to France and we started to meet and discuss things and from this moment on, I knew I had to make a film about him. Vilmos immediately said <YES>. It was a long road, very uncertain, but I always felt confident because Vilmos was supportive from the beginning so I said <nothing can happen to me, I want to do it, Vilmos wants me to do it so we’ll succeed>. Because I had no money, I had to find ways to borrow equipment and to find people willing to work with us, but I was lucky (and I think I knew it beforehand) - to be making a documentary about such an extraordinary cinematographer. I wanted to have the best people behind the camera, and when I approached DPs in the ASC, AIC, and AFC, (the American, Italian, French societies of cinematographers) everyone knew Vilmos and were ready and willing to help out. Everything I got in this film was for Vilmos and thanks to Vilmos.
I wanted every interview to be shot with 2 cameras, and one sound engineer, and a boom operator, and once I had the crews organized, we started to film Vilmos at the Grand Action cinema, where I had organized a retrospective of his films in May 2014. “

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“I started shooting in a very simple way with cameras locked off on tripods, asking him questions just to capture his words. My job was to make him feel at ease and keep everything as smooth and as low key as possible. With AFC cinematographers, Mary Spencer and Olivier Chambon, we filmed John Boorman, then Jerry Schatzberg and later Darius Khondji in conversation with Vilmos.”

“Once Vilmos left for Cannes to receive his Angénieux Excellens in Cinematography Award, I didn’t know when and where we would meet again. After shooting one week of interviews, I said to myself <maybe, that’s it- I’ll try to make a film out of this material>. Then I was lucky to meet Dante Spinotti and Vittorio Storaro and carried on shooting with them in Italy thanks to AIC Luca Coassin, then Ivan Passer. I was also lucky to have Marc Olry of Lost Films on board who said he would distribute the film theatrically but that I must film in Los Angeles and Hungary. <Sure, I’d love to, but I have no money> I said, and he paid my ticket to Los Angeles. The shooting continued but it was always very hectic way. I never had any money so I had to find ways to do things differently, to invent things every step of the way. I never knew until the very last minute who we could film and who would not be available so I had to improvise most of the time… which Vilmos liked.”

“We used the best possible camera that was made available to us often at the very last minute, a camera that each DP felt comfortable and confident with. This meant at the end of the shoot, I had material shot on more than a dozen different cameras: there were Canons 1D, 5D, 7D, 100D, C300, xf105, a Legria HFG10, Sony F3 and F5, a Nikon D4S, a Blackmagic, a GoPro, a Panasonic GH4, and Vilmos was shooting on his iPhone 3 ! With so many different cameras, everyone told me I would have problems afterwards, but fortunately we did not have any major technical hitches in post-production, except for the color correction with the 5D which had a very poor signal.”

“I didn’t know who could shoot the American sequences, it was Vilmos who rang up James Chressanthis who immediately agreed. I was so surprised that James would accept to work with me because he had made that wonderful film about Vilmos and Laszlo in 2008 called “No Subtitles Necessary”. I was very scared at first, I thought-James knows everything and everybody, I know nothing - he’s gonna eat me up. I must say he was very respectful. While we were working I discovered that James had been Vilmos’ assistant in 1987 on “Witches of Eastwick”, so on the drive back to Vilmos’ home in Big Sur, I interviewed James unraveling a few anecdotes and amusing stories about Vilmos. James and I really worked together on this for Vilmos, I owe a lot to him.”

“Strangely enough in the States, I was welcomed everywhere by everyone. All the people who were in the film are there because they wanted to be. At the ASC in Los Angeles, I was with Haskell Wexler, Stephen Goldblatt, Caleb Deschanel- giants of cinematography for the last 50 years, who were very kind and supportive of me. Sometimes here in France I suffered from this attitude “Who’s this guy- a projectionist in a cinema, wanting to make a film about Vilmos Zsigmond ?” My response to that is, Well yes, if you have faith, and if you have passion, why not?”vilmos9FR085416042316

What about Laszlo? (Kovacs)
I didn’t ask questions about Laszlo because James’ film really explores their close relationship and ends with Laszlo’s death. They were like brothers. If you mentioned Laszlo, you could see the emotion, the pain on Vilmos’ face so I didn’t want to upset him. Once Laszlo died, I think something in Vilmos died. At the beginning of their career, if one of them couldn’t do a film, the other one would. There was such generosity between them. I regret not knowing Laszlo, he must have been a wonderful person too.”

If you were a projectionist, how did you have the ability to make this film?

“I love cinema, I am a passionate cinephile. I had made 4 short films before that were quite successful. It was time to succeed in making a doc. This was not my first project, it is my 5th or 6th film project. I come from a long history of failures: I wrote 4 fiction film scripts which took many years of work and are still not sold. I have 3 other documentary projects which I started to film, one on Venice and one about my mother, that are still not finished. So this is not my first film, it is the first one that I was able to take to completion. Now it is in competition for the Camera d’Or and I am so proud. It was a tough beginning but now it’s wonderful to be here at Cannes.
Cannes is the most fantastic festival in the world. It is not only the best contemporary art museum in the world for cinema for 12 days, but the best cinematheque in the world for 12 days.
I am still a projectionist. I have to earn a living and I have been doing this job for more than 20 years although it’s a long story of frustration. After showing other people’s films in a cinema and admiring them, at some point you want to make your own films. It is really a tough road to take but when it’s done it’s so gratifying you nearly forget how tough it was.”

What did you learn making a film about Vilmos, what did he teach you?

“Vilmos is an inspiration to everyone who meets him, how he lived his life is also inspiring and this was the most important thing for me to show. He was generous, open and modest. I was in awe of him as a human being. In the film, I deliberately did not go into technical things, not because I wasn’t interested or because I am not a cinematographer myself, but because I didn’t want to make a film dedicated to a cinematographer just for cinematographers. I wanted to make a larger than life portrait, at least as large as his life. I wanted the audience to meet the man, this great artist, behind the camera.
Vilmos told me something I will never forget…
“A good director is a good listener”. If you want to be in this business you have to listen carefully to what people say to you- the actors, other directors, producers anyone involved. You have to listen to what they say about you, your film project because they have ideas. Try to surround yourself with the brightest people because they will help you be brighter yourself“.

vilmos zsigmond - credit photo vilmos zsigmonds archiveHow did you finish the film?

“Back in Paris, there was the long period of editing, it took us 7 versions to get the edit we wanted. It was about 11 weeks of intensive editing spread over 10 months.
I feel it is important to capture the truth of the moment and to give the audience the feeling that they were there with me. I was in the cutting room in France when Vilmos passed away in Big Sur. He was so vivid in front of me on the screen… I couldn’t believe he died. It was so sad. My only regret is that he didn’t see the final film.
I was checking the subtitles until 12:30 on the Saturday night before the Cannes screening. All the decisions and choices I made- everything in fact, was done in a hurry. The film is 80 minutes long, I had 40 hours of dailies which is not that much but everything was rush, rush, rush. There was lots of pressure because of the costs. When you don’t have enough time, you can make mistakes, you can forget things, but the most important thing when you finish is to have no regrets, and I don’t. Now I completely love the film 100% . It is what I dreamt of. I hope this documentary can be an homage that is worthy of Vilmos.
I was extremely touched by the email Susan Zsigmond sent me. It must have been 2 days before Cannes. She wrote ”I watched your doc and I was laughing and crying at the same time”. It really blew me away to read that.”

Your next project?

I am working on a new film about and with Vittorio Storaro - that is the
documentary part of my life, and the fiction part of my life is my first feature I will make with Mélanie Doutey, Jonathan Zaccaï and Jean-François Stévenin. We will start shooting in Paris at the end of August.

How did this change your life?

Vilmos changed my life. This film has changed my life. I owe everything to Vilmos. Being in Cannes is a dream come true. It is so prestigious to be here. I am like a frog looking at a princess- and the princess says “Come with me, You are very welcome here.”

by Madelyn Most May 30, 2016

View trailer https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=98nskf2ih0Y