Interview: Kristóf Deák Talks About ‘Sing’
If Sing makes it to the final cut next month, Hungarian director Kristóf Deák could find himself standing on his biggest stage yet: the Oscars.
Set in 1990s Budapest, Hungary, Sing (also known as Mindenki) is a 25-minute short film that follows the beautful yet brutal world of competitive children’s choirs. Newcomer Dorka Gáspárfalvi stars as Zsofi, a musical ingénue who joins her new school’s celebrated children’s choir, befriends one of its members, Liza (played by Dorka Hais), and trains immediately for its upcoming show. Zsofi, however, just as quickly unravels that the ensemble, led by Miss Erika (Zsófia Szamosi), has a not-so-pleasant secret behind its success.
Sing, co-written by Bex Harvey and Christian Azzola, has the potential to be the first Hungarian live action short in over fifty years to receive an Oscar nomination (the previous titleholder of that achievement was István Szabó’s 1962 film Koncert). Based on the film’s track record so far, that won’t be a difficult note to reach; it has already earned numerous honours worldwide, winning the People’s Choice Award for Favourite Short Film at TIFF Kids Festival, Best Short Film at the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival, among others.
Masterfully directed by Deák, Sing reminds us that a single voice alone is capable of starting a revolution, but only when it is in harmony can it really make a difference. And much like Stutterer, the last winner in the Best Live Action Short category, this film is led by an endearing hero whose journey of overcoming adversity is guaranteed to win over audiences everywhere.
Ahead of the Academy Awards nominations announcement, I interviewed Deák about the anecdote that inspired his own story, the interdependent relationship between music and cinema, and the challenge of directing a cast of child actors.
ScreenPicks: Sing is credited as being inspired by a true story. Can you talk about the original story that inspired you to make the film?
Deák: Sure. Basically, a Swedish flatmate of mine in London told me her story. As a child, she was told after singing in a choir for some time, not to sing out loud in order to keep her not-so-perfect voice out of the mix, so she did. She was told in confidence, so she thought she was the only one… I was really grabbed by the injustice in her story, and just how cruel that was. I guess the social message in the film comes from this system-wide injustice and kids sort of coming up with their own solution to fight it.
ScreenPicks: Music is such a key element in this film, and I’m not saying that just because it’s about a children’s choir. Some of my favourite scenes were when they were in the playground, and the camera just circles the children as they’re playing. The upbeat music really does set the tone for the film. What is your relationship with music and cinema?
Deák: I don’t think cinema exists without music and music has always been a part of my life. I studied classical piano, and then played in a band since I was 16… I’ve been through all the phases. In my family, we’ve always been playing music and listening to a lot of music. It’s of crucial importance to me. In this film, it’s also a great tool for getting the story across, to underline the emotional arc of the story.
I was very lucky, to be honest. The composer I’ve worked with (Adam Balazs) — it’s not the first time we’ve worked together. He studied in Hungary, and went on to work in Hollywood, actually. But at the time of my shoot he was back in Budapest, so I could approach him. Luckily his dad is a renowned composer as well. He’s retired now, but he’s still around. The last piece in the film you can hear, the final song, is actually from Adam’s father, Árpád Balázs. When Adam showed me this old choir piece his dad created, I instantly picked it for the final song; it was just mesmerisingly beautiful and fit the story perfectly. So in that sense it was an entire family, two generations of amazing composers’ work went into a film, where music had a central role. I was very lucky in that sense.
ScreenPicks: With the exception of the parents and the teachers, the cast for Sing are predominantly children. What was it like directing this entire class of child actors?
Deák: [laughs] I didn’t know what I would be getting myself into, but it turned out a lot easier than I anticipated. Kids have this huge creative energy. Instead of trying to fit them into a mould of whatever I had in mind, I kind of chose a method where I got a lot of inspiration from them. We improvised a lot and worked together a lot in a very playful and creative way. A lot of their ideas actually made it into the script and into the film during that process.
The two main girls were selected over a lengthy and rigorous audition process. The rest of the kids are all from the same choir. I actually looked at five different kids choirs as well. I went on to pick the one with the naughtiest kids, just to have that natural behaviour in front of camera. Most of the kids are too well behaved in front of the camera. These kids were just amazingly natural and alive.
We had a drama teacher on set, and any time the kids weren’t in front of camera, they would go off and play drama games with them. I have to credit my DOP Róbert Maly as well — the way he is behind the camera puts kids, and actors in general, at ease. There’s a huge amount of trust going on between them, and that’s very important. I have to credit that for the fantastic performances as well.
ScreenPicks: Rejection and ostracization are things that most of us as adults have learned to deal with, but when it comes to children it really does shape their future and confidence. What was it like to write about those issues but from the perspective of characters who are children?
Deák: I have had my fair share of rejection, and I think it shaped me as well. I reached back to my experiences as a kid of being rejected — I think there are good and bad ways of communicating this to a kid. This film is a kind of wish for a better society, where empathy and solidarity are the most important things. I think rejection is fine just as long as it’s done in an empathetic way, which this particular teacher doesn’t manage to pull off. A good teacher cares about the emotions of the kids, they know exactly what they must go through when they are facing rejection or bad grades, or anything like that. Most teachers are like that, but there are some unfortunate exceptions who prefer to manipulate kids’ emotions.
ScreenPicks: Especially in today’s world, where there’s so much violence and uncertainty, I think we really need these kinds of films where people are compassionate and uniting. What do you hope audiences will take away from this film?
Deák: I really want to think they see hope, for a more united, less-divided society. I hope that we can remind them that a lot of times individual goals and quests for success are less important than creating strong communities and making a lot of people feel like they belong.
ScreenPicks: Speaking of audience reactions, you’ve had the opportunity to show this film at festivals that are specifically for children. For instance, TIFF Kids here in Toronto as well as Chicago’s Children Film Festival. Would you say there’s a difference in how children respond to this film than adults?
Deák: It’s really interesting. My goal was to make a film that has several layers and has a suspenseful story about kids, but underneath also has something to say for adults. We went into the festival strategy basically approaching both kids’ and adults’ film festivals. The response in both types of festivals was pretty amazing. Kids understand the story; they empathize with the main characters and the music has an effect on them. Most grown-ups watching the film get the deeper layers of the story, which is amazing, so I guess it’s surpassed my expectations in delivering this goal.
ScreenPicks: I know that you’re currently developing your feature directorial debut. Is there anything you can tell us about it, or is it too early?
Deák: I’d rather not go into the details… one thing I’m very interested in is a new approach to discussing AI and society. I’m developing a project specifically for Hungary, and another one for international audiences. The thing about me is that I live in between London and Budapest, so I’m kind of a man of two countries.
ScreenPicks: The only Hungarian live action short to receive an Oscar nomination way back in 1963 for Koncert. Your film could also follow in the footsteps of Son of Saul, which, earlier this year, was the first Hungarian film to win an Oscar in 34 years. What does this achievement mean to you? You could follow in those footsteps.
Deák: It’s fantastic. It’s just unbelievable and surreal. To me, Istvan Szabo’s work is a huge inspiration; it has always been one of the reasons I became a filmmaker. László Nemes’ Son of Saul is a fantastic film, so I’m very humbled to even be mentioned on the same page as these people. It’s great.
All ten live action short finalists are listed below.
Bon Voyage, Marc Wilkins, director, and Joël Jent, producer (Dschoint Ventschr Filmproduction)
Ennemis Intérieurs, Sélim Azzazi, director (Qualia Films)
Graffiti, Lluís Quílez, director (Participant Media, Euphoria Productions and Ainur Films)
La Femme et le TGV, Timo von Gunten, director (arbel gmbh)
Nocturne in Black, Jimmy Keyrouz, director (Columbia University)
The Rifle, the Jackal, the Wolf and the Boy, Oualid Mouaness, director (Tricycle Logic)
Silent Nights, Aske Bang, director, and Kim Magnusson, producer (M & M Productions)
Sing (Mindenki), Kristof Deák, director (Meteor Filmstudio)
Timecode, Juanjo Giménez, director (Nadir Films)
The Way of Tea (Les Frémissements du Thé), Marc Fouchard, director, and Matthieu Devillers, producer (Existenz, BlackBox and P904)
The nominees for the 89th Academy Awards will be announced on Tuesday, January 14, 2017.
(All photos are courtesy of Sing.)
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