ISA award-winning Lorand Banner Szucs: “Racism is a learned behavior”

Hungarian filmmaker Lorand Banner Szucs guides us through “Sandwich”, a disturbing and at the same time compelling film about the acceptance of difference. Awarded by ISA Best Film of the Month in June season. Absolutely mandatory.

Lorand Banner Szucs

Lorand Banner Szucs

ISA: What budget did you have for the film? Scary or enough for the project? Did it restrain some ideas?

Lorand Banner Szucs: I was fortunate to shoot the film in excellent circumstances. The film industry in Hungary is simply sensational nowadays with global stars on every corner 24-7. The whole profession has had a massive boost, financing in Hungary is world-class, and this has brought great improvement to Hungarian films, too. The last few years have been a real success story. My film’s an independent film and it doesn’t have any state funding and yet it’s still a part of and a result of the rise and rise of filmmaking in Hungary. So many international productions coming to Hungary has provided a previously unfamiliar buoyancy to the industry that means those of us in the profession are more ready and able to help each other out when a strong independent project comes along. My film is a 100,000-dollar short but this was largely provided in kind in the form of equipment, lighting, catering… and more or less everything that makes making movies such an expensive undertaking. The producers paid the wages but the rest was provided by rental companies, to whom we owe all our gratitude.

Sandwich

Sandwich

ISA: How long was the shooting and which were the main challenges on the set?

LBS: We shot for an exhausting 8 days and I was really fortunate that the crew fell in love with the film in the first couple of days. The whole crew was incredibly sensitive and each section played their part to the best of their ability and breathed in time with the film as it progressed. It only takes a couple of days for a crew to decide if it’s just another shoot or something more, and when they decide they’re behind the film, there’s nothing a united crew can’t overcome. They all spend the first day watching the director to see if he knows what he’s doing (or she, of course), because they know the trade inside out, as they roll from one production to the next. They watch and absorb. I often get the feeling as a director that the first audience I have to convince is the crew. And if they’re with you, they’re with you, even if you’re unsure from time to time. Sometimes it’s enough to cast a glance around the crew to see if the scene hit the mark or not.

Sandwich

Sandwich

ISA: What made you decide to make this film?

LBS: Eventually getting to make this film was the result of a very interesting inner journey for me. The original idea came to me on a trip to L.A. I found myself sitting in the famous grocery store in Laurel Canyon with Jim Morrison’s house right behind me, down on Love Street. I adore that place, it’s got a really inspiring vibe. My young daughter was sitting by my side: I sat sipping coffee, she sat staring out at the world around her. And I particularly remember that there was a lady with a little, white dog that my daughter ventured over to stroke. Then another guy came by with his daughter. He’d also come for a coffee just like me, and his daughter seemed set on stroking the little dog just like mine. I sat watching the two girls playing with the dog. My daughter doesn’t speak what you’d call perfect English, but I suddenly saw the two of them giggling at something and chatting away. An American girl and a Hungarian girl had found each other and were actually communicating. It was less an exchange of words as a sharing of souls. They made a connection and seemed to understand each other perfectly. It was a wonderful thing to witness. The other girl was the first to leave with her dad, and my daughter stood to wave them goodbye for the longest time, and, when she came to sit back down, I was stunned to discover that she seemed to know everything there was to know about her new playmate. They’d even arranged to meet each other again. Neither had any reservations about the other, they related to each other with their hearts and understood each other in an instant. That’s the moment that I saw the seed of the film.

Sandwich

Sandwich

ISA: You follow the main story but in the middle, you pay attention also to some disturbing events. In a first moment, they look a little detached. Why did you want to include these scenes?   

LBS: The opening scene really is heartbreaking. It was hard for me, too, and a couple of my colleagues standing by the monitor actually turned and looked away at certain points. It’s never simple to show gratuitous violence, you have to battle past some pretty rigid internal barriers, and if you’re too reticent, you won’t get the reaction you want. You have to force yourself as a director to portray something in the hope that it will never happen in reality and yet you still have to make it happen to a disturbing degree of authenticity with the tools of the trade and skilled stuntmen. I think it’s very tough, of course it’s not only true for this kind of scene, because you’re reaching for something that flies in the face of your own moral code. It is still a very important scene because it shows adult human beings torturing a fellow human being simply because of the color of his skin, and yet it still prepares us for the final conclusion of the film. Racism is a learned behavior. People are not born racists by nature but created by “nurture”. I’m convinced that is the very first thing that should be completely eradicated from our thinking. I’m not saying that we should all be bosom buddies, but we should give much greater thought to our thoughts, our words, our deeds, and not let “factors” such as skin color and gender identity shape the way we approach the world and others.

Sandwich

Sandwich

ISA: What did you want to tell to the audience with “Sandwich”?

LBS: When my daughter was first born, it never occurred to me quite how much this little person would teach me about life if I opened my ears, my eyes, my heart. We’ve been traveling this road together for eight years now and I learn something new from her every single day that passes. This film is inspired by the essence of that process: all people are equal, all people are a miracle in their own right. I’m a grown man now and I’ve wounded and been wounded by others. I’m also capable of seeing the world through a veil of prejudice because that’s the message life seems to teach us all. “Sandwich” is telling us to listen to our kids and raise them, of course, but at all costs avoid reinforcing our own dogmas in them because then society will forever fail to develop in a positive direction but be stuck in a retrograde spiral that will bring on horrific but totally avoidable consequences in the years to come.

ISA: There are several different types of borders in this film, physical but also emotional. These issues have something to do with your own identity as an artist and as a Hungarian filmmaker?

LBS: I think that today’s world suffers from very much the same problems and we have most definitely entered the age of migration. The impoverished and persecuted are leaving their homes in their masses in search of a better life for themselves and their offspring. Many solutions have been sought in recent years but time is running out and we need to find an answer much sooner than later because the actions we take now will definitely define life on Earth in the 21st century. My own opinion is that mankind would be far better served by solving the problems where they originally occur and that force so many millions to migrate. I feel for sure that none of them happily set forth into the unknown, but their survival instinct is stronger than their inhibitions. I so very much hope that all of us in this world can come up with a solution together that suits us all, but, until we do, we still owe a responsibility to each other. There is a certain scene in my film when the hunters force the illegal “border transgressor” to say what they think: “This is not my country!” This is one of the most challenging moments in the film. It’s an important phrase for me because the idea of national borders is one that has figured heavily in my thoughts since childhood. I grew up in a communist country with closed borders. I never managed to understand why we couldn’t move freely from one place to another and this is something that I still can’t fully comprehend. I think you should be able to live anywhere in the world if we accept and abide by a given country’s laws and contribute to its daily development in the larger world. That’s when it becomes “your country”!

Sandwich

Sandwich

ISA: How difficult is to to make the audience believe in the characters and feel emotionally linked with a short film?

LBS: Making a short film is a real challenge and it is especially tough to find the right dramatic solutions in a film like mine when you have so very little time to show character development. I have always been in awe of filmmakers who excel in short films because I think the short is one of the toughest genres to crack at the same time as providing the perfect learning process. You need to keep your thinking tight and let scenes go. This is now the fourth short I have made, and a producer once said that he’s curious to see if I could keep this energy up for a full feature. It’s a very valid question but making shorts very quickly teaches you to not insist on stuff just because it shot so well on set. If something needs to go, it’s better that you say your farewells early on. I cut a whole scene sequence from my film and it was great material that I was sad to see go, but I was forced to admit that it didn’t take the film forward as it should.

ISA: What influences do you think “Sandwich” has?

LBS: I hope that this film speaks to people about the power of love, acceptance, and understanding others and also about the changes that these bring despite our experience and what we’ve been taught by others, or, in this case, trained to believe like the soldier who sits at the center of this drama. Situations change and we should change with them. We should preserve an openness to change and be willing to let go of the dogmas that have seeped into our souls at the very deepest level. The Captain changes everything that has defined his life up until this point and largely due to the influence of his 8-year-old daughter. And this change brings new momentum to his life and the lives of those around him. Life in stagnation is a terrible thing that generates frustration, anger and eventually hatred before it kills us. The Earth, and all life on it, is in constant motion, so we need to keep pace if we’re to survive.

ISA: Are you happy with the final result or would you change something?

LBS: I’m not perfectly satisfied but I also know that no artist is ever totally happy to step away and let others see his final work. The date you decide to go for “picture lock” is normally followed by a couple of days of feeling pretty pleased with yourself until you suddenly get an urge to change your mind and cut and cut. I finished the film a year ago now and I love every minute, even including those that I wouldn’t put in it if I were to make it again. This film now has a life of its own and I’m moving on with mine. I said what I wanted to in much the same way as a late discussion ends, we say what we want, and a new conversation commences the following day with someone else and about something else entirely.

ISA: What are your overall career goals and what’s next?

LBS: This film has been successful in many aspects and has traveled all around the world, but its festival career is coming to an end. I’m still working my way through distribution discussions but I’m already concentrating on something new. As I’ve already mentioned, we Hungarian filmmakers are in a very good place and are very fortunate to have an incredible funding framework in place here in Hungary. I’m currently working hard on the script of my next movie and was lucky enough to get a call from András Muhi, who recently produced an Oscar-nominated film, who asked what plans I had in the pipeline: we met, I told him, he loved the idea. So now we’re working together on my new film and that’s great because, although he didn’t produce “Sandwich”, he contributed as a producer on my previous three films.

Lorand Banner Szucs on the set

Lorand Banner Szucs on the set

ISA: Do you have any advice for other independent filmmakers, particularly for the newcomers?

LBS: I wrote a script for a medieval adventure about 20 years ago now, and I tried to adapt it to film. The then head of the film school read it and called me the next day and told me that, as a young filmmaker, I should make films about the world I live in and the problems and challenges faced my generation. He was keen to emphasize that it’s all about the emotions you create in an audience and the reactions to provoke, but the main thing is to talk about a world you know inside out and say something that would interest you and others even if it is something some would consider negative. I guess it’s no great surprise to anyone that I didn’t agree with his advice, but now I see things very differently and think it’s essential that young filmmakers “speak to us” about their own generation. The technical aspects and professional venire aren’t what counts, they’ll learn them on the way, but they should say what they want to say and never assume that others can do it better on their behalf. The audience will be the judge, and it doesn’t matter if it’s seen by 20 people or a million: filmmakers should make films.

ISA: What meant for you to be awarded in USA Best Film of the Month among so many films, mainly from the States? 

LBS: This film will always be a Hungarian-American film in my heart. The film was born in America, my DOP is American, but I shot it in Hungary. It feels like it has come back home to the States. I’m very proud of this award but I’m equally as proud of all the others. I was heavily into sports in my youth and competed a great deal, and I know it’s tough to win on home turf, but tougher still to triumph further afield. So I am incredibly proud of all the awards the film has received because there are many of us in the short film industry who put everything they have into the work they do and wait for success at home. I wish everyone could experience the delight of receiving an email to say that their film has won a festival award because it gives you the strength to continue and strengthens the faith you have in yourself. But there’s another vital thing and that is knowing that you have succeeded in saying what you wanted to say and there can surely be no greater joy for any artist of whatever medium. I also want to say that the competition’s great, so you also get emails saying that a festival doesn’t want to take your film, and that’s not the end of the world. If you can take the time, and create sufficient distance, you can reflect on what “mistakes” you might have made, but the important thing is to keep learning, keep moving, keep making movies!

Sandwich

Sandwich

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