Friday, April 06, 2018

PSIFF 2018 > SFFILM FESTIVAL 2018: JUPITER'S MOON—An Evening Class Question for Kornél Mundruczó

Kornél Mundruczó's Jupiter's Moon (2017) had its U.S. Premiere earlier this year in the World Cinema Now sidebar at the 2018 Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSIFF) with Mundruczó accompanying the film. As synopsized by PSIFF: "Thoroughly cinematic and replete with images that will take your breath away, iconoclastic Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó's parable-like drama offers up the tale of young Syrian refugee Aryan [Zsombor Jéger] who, after being shot while attempting to cross the border into Hungary, discovers he is possessed of a magical power: he can fly. Aryan wants to use his befuddling new gift to find his missing father. Before he can do that, though, he comes under the influence of unscrupulous refugee-camp doctor Gabor [Merab Ninidze], who sees nothing but dollar signs when considering Aryan's power.

"Mundruczó uses the men's burgeoning relationship and a thriller-like plot to skewer the narrow-minded socio-political attitudes of his fellow citizens, while Aryan's flights provide the director—and his gifted cinematographer, Marcell Rév—with ample opportunity to create some of the most lyrical and, frankly, astonishing visuals to grace cinema screens this year."

Arguably my favorite film from PSIFF's 2018 line-up, I was delighted to see it programmed into the 61st edition of the SFFILM Festival, first on Thursday, April 12, 9:30PM at the Castro Theatre (whose giant screen will best serve the film's exhilarating effects), then next on Tuesday, April 17, 3:30PM at the Roxie. SFFILM encapsulates: "Stepping over and through genres in giant leaps, the transcendent new film by White God's Kornél Mundruczó details the story of a Syrian refugee who discovers he can fly. This ability is not only explored literally, with marvelous long takes of Aryan floating above Budapest, but also metaphorically, as he is identified and exploited as a person to fear and possibly destroy. An extraordinary single-shot car chase provides one of the film's numerous highlights.

" 'The juxtaposition of supernatural thriller tropes and urgent sociopolitical issues in Kornél Mundruczó's latest movie—an original take on the superhero origin story set to the backdrop of the refugee crisis—might prove a delicate one for some viewers to take. Those unperturbed, however, should find much to relish in Jupiter's Moon, a film that somewhat lightly plays with themes of religion and immigration as it rumbles, crashes, and ultimately soars through the streets of the Hungarian capitol.'—Rory O'Connor,"

Mundruczó at the Cannes press conference.  Source: Getty Images
Of Jupiter's Moon, Mundruczó says, "When I was fourteen years old, I read a book called The Flying Boy, and I asked myself, should I believe in this or not? I wanted to create a story that continually makes people ask themselves the same question: 'Should I believe in what I am seeing or not?' "

If genre can be thought of as a mask that both conceals and reveals its subject, then Jupiter's Moon would aptly fit mythologist Joseph Campbell's assertion that certain masks are "transparent to transcendence." Doubt cast into any belief system can either contribute to faith or raise righteous anger to eliminate what it perceives as a threat. Mundruczó is just sly enough not to limit Jupiter's Moon to either a religious parable or a superhero origin story, but confabulates at its heart the very reasons why humans need to believe. Why—in the face of all reason—would we want to believe in the existence of an angel? And what in the world would we do if we encountered one? Granted, I see Aryan as more of an unwitting angel than a superhero and had a specific question for Mundruczó during his PSIFF Q&A.

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Michael Guillén: Jupiter's Moon is an absolutely thrilling piece of filmmaking! Thank you so much. I enjoyed it immensely. Could you speak about the scene where Gabor and Aryan are on the rooftop and it appears that Aryan grants Gabor absolution by touching him on the head?

Kornél Mundruczó: Dramaturgically, that was the end of the second act. For me, Jupiter's Moon is more about Gabor Stern than Aryan. Aryan is more like a silent someone who everyone is talking to; but, Stern is a bastard. He's really a lost soul. He's a loveless alcoholic. He's a strange character who—when he's at his deepest point and has lost his job and is at ground zero—meets Aryan, who (as he becomes a superhero-like figure, an angel) blesses him. That's when Stern's new life begins. That's when he becomes able to love and able to help. That was the logic behind that scene. We needed this key scene of blessing; but, it's not really a religious moment. It's a transcendental moment.

Guillén: Was it also a shift for Aryan? Because it seems that in this scene is the first time he accepts his agency.

Mundruczó: Exactly! Also, he's always saying he doesn't want to be a superhero like Superman who has come from another planet. This scene makes it simple. You have no understanding and no answer for the real miracles. You know they have happened, but as a human, thinking on that level, you cannot imagine what it is that God wants with us, why He is sending anything to our lives? But you have to leave belief open. For us, Aryan's superpower is that he gives exactly what you want. The Nazi boy wanted to be punished. The old woman wanted to die. In those moments he is doing exactly what is being asked for without any huge speeches explaining why. This is his power. At that moment on the rooftop Stern believed deep in his soul, in his heart, that he wanted to be changed. He wanted a new life.

The rest of the PSIFF Q&A

Q: How did you find and cast the remarkable young actor who plays Aryan?

Mundruczó: It's a very strange story because we had only one main conception before starting to cast this movie: I wanted the young man who played Aryan to be a real-life refugee, someone from Syria. That was our aim. As we started the casting, that was exactly the time when the refugee crisis was coming into Hungary. Everyone we cast didn't want to stay in Hungary. They wanted to go more to Western Europe. It was like trying to find gold in sand. It was totally senseless. We could like somebody who the next day wasn't even in the country.

But we were clever and went to Germany because all these refugees wanted to go to Germany, as you probably read in the papers. We did a huge casting there as well and found an amazing boy. I asked him and he said, "Yes, I would like to do this movie with you." Then we tried to make it legal that he would be working in Hungary as a German refugee and, of course, he couldn't be. If he left behind his status as a German refugee, he would have to become a Hungarian refugee and he didn't want that. So we lost him two weeks before shooting.

Yes, I went to the Hungarian drama schools to watch the newcomers and I found Zsombor there. And I determined the casting by the way he would be flying. We did a test with the rig and when I saw Zsombor's body language I knew he was the best choice for the movie. We had planned to use choreographers to stage the flights, but once we saw him, we decided not to because by himself he somehow created the levitation scenes. It was crazy because we were doing everything practically 50 meters high on a wire. But he just created everything and I'm so happy he did.

The only bit of levitation that was not practically done was the final scene at the window where he's alone above the city. You can't do that literally. But the rest of the movie is completely practical. For me, that was a main issue: to make a supernatural hero, a superhero, but as naturalistically as possible, and not playfully remembering the superhero genre. There are some moments in the dialogue where all of the Bibles, all of the holy writings, are filled with these kinds of miracles that are surrounding us somehow, but we wanted to make them real. That was of absolute importance to me. I like movies like Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), which used practical effects made by a 75-year-old director. I was like, "Wow" because that movie celebrated so much.

Q: Can you speak to the direction of the actors? What's interesting is that the shots are so choreographed but these amazing performances come out of them too.

Mundruczó: For me the main importance was to keep a freedom to dance. On one hand, we used long shots but the actors composed the scenes somehow. I'm not the kind of director who insists that something has to be in a shot because I know already a year ago what I have to create; but, much more to work with the present and creating material that is closer to life, understandable as life, and not just a perspective of a god-like director who knows the truth and tells the truth, blah blah blah. I'm quite tired by that kind of aggression, which is coming even if I shared the truth of the movie. For me, and also as part of the tradition of Hungarian filmmaking, I'm more interested in creating the reality of the present and creating alive material.

You need actors who are open to that and who are adult and responsible for their roles so that I'm left free to move on set, I know the DP will follow me, and I can create the situation, can change words, but at the same time it's not dogmatic. On one hand I would like to create reality, but also blur the reality, which I love. Like in the early films of the Dardenne Brothers where you feel that what you are seeing is happening and you are following the characters into their lives, even if you can't understand. That was the logic to the direction and you need a special group of actors who understand from direction in the past because I have worked with them sometimes.

Q: Can you speak to the cinematography and how the special effects come off so magical?

Mundruczó: All of the effects are practical. We used wires and cranes and riggings. As you can imagine, in a room you have four corners. In front of the character you have the wires going up to the ceiling and then you can deliver everywhere somehow the person who is rigged inside the room. We used the same logic, but just up in the air. We made a metal room. All of the riggers in the corners are also flying up high, as is the camera operator, and the camera and the character are both on wires. We also used a crane and the room can turn. When you lose your perspective in the film, it is because everything is moving, nothing is calculated, nothing is programmed into a computer; but, you can feel the human spirit inside.  The scene where the woman is dying in the glamorous apartment in Budapest was very difficult for us because of the spinning. And actually the most difficult was the first flight in nature.

Q: To achieve the look of the film, then, did you storyboard a lot with your DP?

Mundruczó: There was some storyboarding, but it was very primitive. As I mentioned already, we were more concerned with creating material that was alive. We did a lot of pre-shots with a primitive 5D camera and we rented a large hall to learn how we could do those shots. My conception was very straight. I didn't want to cut the shots. I wanted to make the miracles appear as miracles, even though we didn't have the money to do so. Also, I wanted to combine the horizontal and the vertical axis so that you're walking, fly up, then walking again. Literally, that was the idea and that was super difficult to create. I believe in my little camera. I don't believe so much in drawings. I'm not a video director.

Q: The credits say this movie was blessed by a rabbi? Can you explain that?

Mundruczó: Actually, my producer-husband is a rabbi. He watches me make all my movies and watches to see if they fit with his religion or not. We show him the movies and he blesses them because he can bless them, like he blesses a house or a door. He can bless art pieces as well.

Q: Is there a deep meaning to why the characters often lapse into speaking English?

Mundruczó: There's no deep meaning. As we say in Hungary, it's not even English, it's Globish. Which means that a Syrian refugee coming to see a Hungarian doctor, they speak English, even if it's Tarzan English, or Globish. It's also just close to reality and using this low-quality English between them somehow.

Q: Did making this film meet your expectations?

Mundruczó: That's a big question, and I have to say that it met my expectations, and even a little more because—though I was working with a fantastic team—I wasn't sure if we could create those moments. But everyone gave everything for this movie. We did it for $3.5 million dollars, which is really low for a movie like this, so we started to cut corners. When we came to the chase scene, we thought, "Let's cut out the chase scene." But then the stuntmen came and said we could do it all in one shot and save costs. Also, I'm close to this kind of style of filmmaking. It's less and less popular but still exists. I'm so proud that I'm on this side creating scenes like that. When I was growing up, that was the style of the Soviet sci-fi movies and Eastern European movies. They were always more blurry. That's my tradition and I quite like to do that.

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