Hooray for Hungarywood!
My previous post is probably as close as this writer will be getting to addressing the problems of the Middle East. My two extremely nervous months in Beirut did little to alter my preconceptions which were, broadly speaking: that they’re all bloody mad: Palestinians, Israelis, the whole lot. I realise this is a less than rigidly statistical analysis.
So better I stick to my beat, especially as we’re being encouraged to narrowcast here at True/Slant. That once again has become Central and Eastern Europe. As you may already know, when finances or circumstances allow, I make or act in films here; specifically in Hungary. Here’s an overview of why…
Budapest – One big film set? Well, Nicole Kidman was just in town. Una Thurman was here for a few weeks recently. Sir Anthony Hopkins will be in Budapest soon too, if here’s not here already, working on a film about dark secrets behind closed doors in the Vatican. I suppose that actually, it’s not really such a secret at all, that Hungary in the last few years has become a film and TV production hub. In the last decade, we’ve seen Eragon, Hellboy II, The Spy Game, I-Spy, The Golden Compass, Spielberg’s Munich, parts of the mini-series The Company, and John Adams, plus several seasons of BBC series Robin Hood all come and shoot in Hungary. There are now at least three big new sound stages in Hungary – Stern Film studios, Raleigh Studios and Korda studios.
The latter may have been named after the legendary Alexander Korda, who was director of United Artists and gave the world classics such as The Private Life of Henry VIII, The Thief of Baghdad and The Four Feathers. There’s a hoary old story from those days – the golden age of Hollywood in the 1930s – that a Hollywood studio executive had hung a sign over his door which read: “It’s not enough to be Hungarian to make films. One must also have talent.” Incidentally, the grandfather of the sentimental blockbuster Frank Capra, is said in private to have turned this phrase around: “It’s not enough to have talent to make films”, he quipped. “One must also be Hungarian.”
Well perhaps we wouldn’t go quite that far, but it doesn’t seem like it was a bad place to start: Not when you consider names like Michael Curtiz, director of Casablanca or George Cukor, director of The Philadelphia Story and Gaslight and another of the big studio moguls from the 30s. In front of camera there were perennial Hollywood legends such as Zsa Zsa Gabor and Tony Curtis. Even the frightfully English Leslie Howard, the beloved “Oh Ashley” of Gone with the Wind, was Hungarian. And dead or not, let’s not forget Bela Lugosi in his infamous role as the undead prince Dracula, the Transylvanian antihero who has been a gift for cinema since the medium was born. As all of this was going on in Hollywood, back home in 1930s Hungary, there was a thriving local film industry, with its own stars and its own studio system. If you have cable TV in your Budapest accommodations, you can watch films from that era on the Film Muzeum channel. Sadly, much of the glamour faded under communism, with the state’s suspicion of anything that looked like too much fun. Yet even in those dark days, there were shining lights, such as Istvan Szabo, who directed the 1981 arthouse classic, Mephisto.
Flash forward to the present day, and the Hungarian film industry shows, well, a lot of promise; fuelled by all these big international productions coming to shoot here. There’s no doubt Budapest itself is an extremely cinematic city. As well as doing a great job of looking like the most dynamic and one of the most beautiful central European capitals, Budapest has also stood in for Buenos Aires, Moscow, Berlin, London, Paris and many more. I suppose with all this filmmaking going on in the Hungarian capital, you never know who you might bump into on the streets of this marvellous city. Why, a few years ago the author met Charlize Theron playing table football in one of the better dive bars of the 7th district!
And here I must, as proper journalists say, ‘declare an interest’: As you’re wandering the streets of this giant film set, you might even find your correspondent calling ‘action’ or ‘cut’ on the set of his latest debacle. The above clip is from my docudrama ‘A Café in the Sky’. In any case it’s one of the most compelling reasons for my being here, high on a long list of reasons for an ongoing love affair with this star studded town. I once previewed one of my films at the gorgeously Arabesque looking Urania Cinema, and that’s perhaps the last thing to say about cinema in this post. That there are some really gorgeous old movie theatres in this town: the 1899 built Urania of course is one, but also the Corvin from 1922. Both of which are cinematic treasures, very well suited to such a ‘filmic’ town.