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The Storytelling of László Kovács, Cinematographer; Profile Interview Series Vol. #9

László Kovács (ASC)
by Jason Whyte

It has taken me a while to come to publishing an interview performed earlier this year about one of the most important contributors to the technical masters of the film medium. Sure, I’ve been busy with my life (and transcribing taped interviews is a pain; I don’t recommend it), but I have also been waiting for the right time to unleash an interview where I asked few questions and the interviewee simply entertained me with his stories. Never had I had the complete thrill of being able to sit down and talk with a man whose work I have admired for many years, and the experience is something that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

László Kovács (ASC) is a championed cinematographer who has been working for over 40 years in the motion picture industry. The Hungarian-born filmmaker, who left his home country in the late 50’s with fellow friend and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (Deliverance, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the recent Melinda and Melinda) began working on early grind-house pictures with Jack Nicholson and Columbia Pictures and found fame with his work on Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider in 1969. Since then, he has lensed films for Steven Spielberg, Ivan Reitman, Peter Bodganovich, Hal Ashby, Robert Redford, Martin Scorsese, Bob Rafelson and Cameron Crowe, among many others. And in 2002, Mr. Kovács was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Society of Cinematographers, where he is now the vice president.

Out of all of the people that attended this year’s Victoria Independent Film and Video Festival, László was the one I wanted to meet the most. We met and shook hands during the opening gala party at the festival this year, and the next day we met at the Laurel Point Inn in the downtown core, sitting at a comfortable couch on a rainy Saturday afternoon overlooking the Inner Harbour right before he was to host a film forum on his work. Several activities involving the festival are going on around us as we talk and watch the weather outside. We sit for nearly 90 minutes as Laszlo does most of the talking. After a while, I forget the tape was rolling. Even later, I forgot the tape actually stopped.

(I must also mention that this is not a standard interview in the way that my previous interviews have been conducted. I speak rarely during this interview, as László simply told stories which could go further than any question I could ask him. László speaks quietly, softly; his Hungarian accent thick but easy to get lost in. I offer the following transcript of our conversation. Enjoy.)

Jason Whyte:László, how did you get your start in this business? What led you to want to start making movies? I’m getting ready for a big story here…
László Kovács: (clears throat, speaking slowly) Uh, well, first of all I think that you need to know what was going on in the 1960’s. There were a bunch of young filmmakers with great ambition and dreams in Hollywood. There was such an incredible low budget, independent filmmaking type that was so different than it was today. It was produced by adventurous, fly-by-night producers who came in with $20,000-30,000 wanting to make a horror film, action movie or a bike picture.

It’s very important to remember in the 1960’s that there were four to five thousand drive in movie theatres. And the drive-in theatres needed a second program (the second half of the double feature); they essentially needed these “fillers”. But even this was not coming easy, because to get into that step, to get that very first job is so difficult, just like today. The only difference was, and I don’t know if it was easier or harder that we had….FILM. 16mm film. [We had lots of that] back in those days. Nobody ever heard of video, and there was tremendous training to get 16mm jobs. I did educational films, medical films, training films, air force films and all that crazy stuff. At the same time, I was there with my friend, Vilmos Zsigmond, and we tried to help each other get our first break even in this 16mm market.

Eventually, it came together, and once you get your first job you always want to make something great and you want to make something that people will want to pay attention to, even if it’s just a medical film or whatever. That’s going to bring another job. And that job might get another job, and that job another, and so on. And it gradually always…you grow the quality and the demand with every picture you make.

And getting the first 35mm job was just as difficult as today, but you break this barrier; I don’t know what’s there right now for the young filmmakers, because I’m sure there are these areas that are still open like corporate films, training films, but they are all done on video. That’s what makes it difficult for today’s young filmmakers to get into FILM, because it is still…no matter how you look at it, it’s not DV and High-Definition yet, it’s just to experiment with. What happens in this….

(Laszlo takes a moment, stops, pulls out a handkerchief and coughs slightly)

LK: Where were we?
JW: We were talking about your beginning which led you to talk about independent filmmaking and digital-video.

LK: But basically it’s a double edged sword with digital. High-Definition today, it is used sparingly and in a serious filmmakers’ hands, it can work very well, but at the same time it makes a filmmaker lazy, because you grab a tiny little camera and you think that you can do anything with it. It’s a terrible misconception. [Hand-Held] It’s shaking, it’s flying and all that stuff; that kind of filmmaking was over in the 1960’s with the French New Wave experiment with hand-held. But not SHAKING. I got a feeling that the cameramen were being prodded and kicked so he starts jerking the camera. That’s not art to me. Art is made much deeper because it has a visual tradition that goes back to the renaissance, the painters and sculptors. Have you ever seen a shaking Mona Lisa? (Laughs) You take a feeling with it; you learn from the great old masters and used film on whatever you could. I’ve seen some DV-movies or HD movies that were done real well in lieu of film, and in that case it doesn’t matter what recording material you go with; it could be scotch tape if that could record as a medium.

Anyway. You suddenly hear that this world is loaded with talented young filmmakers from all over the place, and they all want the same thing, to get to the feature films. My friend Bill Butler (ASC Cinematographer who lensed Jaws, The Conversation, et al, who is featured on our site as a Profile Interview Series which can be read HERE) came from Chicago, I came from Hungary and some other cinematographers came from film schools; those days film schools were very limited but places like USC, UCLA so it was very exciting for us to get to know each other.

You would think that 20-30 filmmakers back in the day would get at each other’s throats, which is not true, because we were all in the same boat; we helped each other out. I’ve had a long relationship with Vilmos because our paths were similar, so we helped each other out all the time. The same time, suddenly you hear about Bill Butler and you help work with him as well.

When the 70’s market hit with the low-budget producers, you suddenly started breaking into film, and there was no money for it. Whatever budget they (the producers) gave you, it barely covered the raw shooting stock and the prints and basically the answer print was a one-light print, so you couldn’t even make corrections to it. So that was another element to force you to excel in. Still, it was a great, great time and of course we didn’t always want to do the action, horror or bike pictures, but you always have a goal; you want to go further.

JW: So would you say that Easy Rider was really the big break for you? It has been well documented as the changing point in your career.

LK: Everybody thinks that my big break was with Easy Rider, but not really. That film was really a result of something that already started happening. You’re a filmmaker, you’re making movies! Jack Nicholson did three bike movies before that and nobody had heard of them….

JW: I’ve heard of them! (laughs)

LK: (chuckles) Rebel Rouser, Hell’s Angels on Wheels and so on…anyway. You sort of look in to find a director who likes to work with you. It’s very important to “team up”. Early on I was teamed up with Richard Rush ((The Stunt Man)), and we did all kinds of crazy bike movies and psychedelic movies like Psych-Out which was about the flower children in San Francisco. That was significant to me; one night back in 1967, it was playing the Aquarius theatre in Los Angeles on Sunset Boulevard, and Dennis Hopper just happened to see this crazy movie. It was actually very rough and raw, but it was visually very, very interesting. He knew a production manager that I also worked with, and Dennis said, “Look. I want to find the guy who shot this movie Psych-out, and I want him to shoot my first picture.”

This production manager comes to me and asks if I know Dennis Hopper. I said that I knew him well; he was already a name by then as an actor. He then told me that Dennis was about to make a bike movie, and I went, “You said bike? I don’t want to hear about it…” (Laughs) I mean how many bike movies do you want to see the rest of your life? I’m sick and tired of it. “No, no,” the manager said, “This is a different kind of bike movie.” “How is it different?” I asked. “They have bicycles, but you ought to listen to Dennis who is coming from Toronto where they finished writing the script. He’s going to come into a meeting and explain the whole thing.” And he did, and he grabbed the script pages and threw it up in the air all over the place. “This guy is totally crazy,.” I thought. “Don’t worry about it,” he said, “I’ll tell you what the story is about.”

And so he began, he started talking about these two guys who take this incredible journey. And that’s what basically grabbed my imagination which made me beam. Finally, I could do something really interesting here. And then he finished the story that sounded like a Greek tragedy. There was silence in the room; everybody was impressed. I said to Dennis, “When do we start?” He was blown away that I liked it. Every person who was there was a future crew member. That’s how Easy Rider was born. In those days when it hit like a bomb, and shook like an earthquake, that they thought it was a bunch of kids who grabbed a camera, went out, filmed some bikes and they got lucky! We had a very serious script, everything scripted for the dialogue, especially the campfire sequence. Only the riding shots were unscripted. Jack had his big monologue, and he was unbelievable; he was stoned, of course, but he’s got such incredible control as an actor that he made it work for the scene. He never missed a letter of the monologue. A couple of times he broke up then he left it in because it was very funny.

By this time, you know, my name was all over the place. The film went to the Cannes Film Festival and Dennis got his first director prize. I went as well and it was the only time I ever went; I paid my own way because the studio wouldn’t pay. I couldn’t believe that the night before we were nobodies; you know, a bunch of hippies. But after the showing, suddenly we were the celebrities. The rest of it is history. Serious offers came to me, and I was non-union at the time which caused problems for a few years; I was getting calls from major directors wanting me to shoot their next picture. “Is it union?” I asked. “Of course it’s union,” they said. “But I’m not union,” I said. “Don’t worry about it;” they respond, “We’ll take care of it.” A few days later, they called me back and said “I didn’t realize your union was so impossible!” and they later said “No! We can’t use you.” That held me back for a few years, and I didn’t care, because the company who produced Easy Rider, BBS productions, had great one-by-one features, doing quality pictures like Five Easy Pieces, and this is still considered a low budget movie under one million dollars.

JW: And you filmed that here on Vancouver Island, just north of Duncan which is not too far from here.
LK: Second half of that movie we shot here, yes. That was soon after Peter Bogdanovich and I worked together, doing his very first film Targets. He was getting ready on another film and I was also working with Richard Rush at the time. I was busy, I stayed busy. Sometimes, I didn’t even have a couple of weeks off, working months and months on end. Didn’t matter because I was young, I was strong and I had incredible enthusiasm and you were making these movies which nowadays are called cult movies. Easy Rider made me an example for young filmmakers, because I was trying to show that it is possible and do it and make it. If you really want your career there, it will happen. The rest of it is really, absolutely history. Bad luck, good luck, bad film, good films, and so on. It is kind of a life story, but the first part is so important. And the young filmmakers recognize it and us, that group of people like Vilmos, Bill and myself, we are somewhat of role models for them. And when I came from Hungary, I didn’t come with anything. I had a torn, broken raincoat.

JW: Who would you say were some of your favourite cinematographers, some of your biggest inspirations to your work?
LK: All the classic ones, you know. We learn from each other so much. (Devilishly) You STEAL from each other.

JW: Who would you say that you steal the most from? (laughs)
LK: This was interesting, because the critics said that Bogdanovich is stealing, but when somebody else is doing the same thing, it’s an HOMAGE, not stealing. It’s different, crazy.

JW: It’s paying tribute. You’re showing your respect through your cinematic language.
LK: Exactly! We studied the old masters, the European masters. The American masters. There are so many unbelievable American cinematographers in the 30’s, even before in the silent era…

JW: Howard Hawks, he was a great influence on not only myself but many others…
LK: He was a great director, and Greg Toland (Citizen Kane) was everybody’s hero. Unfortunately he died so young and he taught Orson Welles…in one afternoon he was taught about cameras and lenses. He didn’t have to go to cinema school. He understood. And they made an incredible cinematic classic.

I also admire so many English and French filmmakers. Too many to name. Cinematographers are very strong but nobody sees the work because it’s behind the iron curtain. It’s exciting…it’s never a dull moment. There’s a creation that is always wonderful. The vision, the composition, the camera movement; that is what tells the story. The color compositions. The nitty-gritty things like what particular lenses or cameras...It’s all instinct. Those things don’t matter. “Oh I gotta do this particular shot, let me sit down and figure out what lens I should use.”

JW: Even you said to me last night at the party about aspect ratios, that it only matters to a certain extent…
LK: It does matter, because it’s a different format. The great masters like Rohmer; sometimes they did vertical pictures, sometimes they did horizontal pictures, because that’s what felt good to express the mood and the story. So, and the thing about cinematographers and cinematography, is that we have to do all kinds and any kind of movies. That’s why we’re here. It’s amazing because we do musicals, westerns, mysteries, actions, all that stuff. I personally never favoured action movies or sci-fi pictures, but when I was on Ghostbusters, it was because I was curious about a visual effects movie. It was offered to me, and I had a great experience. It was tough, very tough, and that was before computer graphics. It was one of the last optical visual effects movies.

JW: Would you say that Ghostbusters is the hardest film that you’ve ever worked on?
LK: No, each film has different challenges, different problems, and that’s what you do. You work at solving those problems, and if you have a good director to work with that makes it even better to have the collaboration. It’s very important. You are the closest collaborator of the director. Not just the right-hand; you are basically his eyes too, an extension of his eyes. I did six movies with Bogdanovich, and we perfected our work so well that we didn’t even have to talk! Just look at each other, show a sketch, boom, okay I got it. And he said “Do it,” and I said I’m ready. That’s how good the experience was.

What’s really important, no matter what kind of film you are making, you visually tell the story. That’s very important. That’s the medium. That’s what the audience is going to see in the theatre; it’s not hearing it, it’s watching it, and turning up the sound track really loud, you still know what’s going on. That’s the power of cinema. And it has to be taken very seriously.

-- A wonderful thanks to Laszlo Kovacs for a great interview and a memorable experience at this year’s Victoria Film Festival. This is another entry in the Profile Interview Series where an actor, be it up-and-coming, little seen or overlooked, is profiled for our website. – Comments are encouraged, either by clicking on the message board or by sending Jason an email HERE. (Click to send an email)


link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=1510
originally posted: 06/08/05 15:58:50
last updated: 06/08/05 16:02:37
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