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Interview: Director Kristóf Deák talks about his Oscar Winning Short Film ‘Sing’
February 24, 2017
Simplistic in narrative but wholly complex in its emotion and effect, Kristóf Deák’s Sing is that rare kind of inspirational film, short or not, that lifts audiences right out of their daily lives. Set in Budapest, Hungary in the 1990s, a young girl joins the award winning choir of her new school to discover that not everything is as it seems.
The most effective shorts succeed based on their ability to carry an audience with them through their captivating performance and emotional veracity. Sing does exactly that. A definite crowdpleaser with a likeable integrity, Deák is one to watch, and in what might be called dark times, Sing is a little revolution.
We caught up with him to talk about what happens when we stand up against inequality, right wrongs and also the bizarre hold that technology has over our lives today.
What was the inspiration behind Sing?
It came from a true story, that happened to a friend of mine. Where kids were told not to sing out loud in a choir. So they’re basically told to not do that very thing that they came for. That weird sort of paradox is the germ of the story. The resistance part is a kind of a fairytale ending, a kind of wish-fulfilment. I would love if society would work like that but I know that in most cases it doesn’t. Sometimes it does and I think that can be amazing. People have the capacity to do amazing things together. Kids especially. The ending of the film came to me out of that wish. I thought what a group of kids would be able to do when faced with such a manipulative system or a corrupt system that they are told to fit in to.
Was there a political element?
When we first thought of this storyline, world politics weren’t as they are today. So the world has kind of caught up with our story a little bit. I think that our original intention was more universal. It’s really easy to accept a corrupt situation as normal if that’s all you know. Especially when you are a kid and adults take advantage of their authority. It’s very easy to make a child think that they are inferior, that they are not worthy. It’s really easy to break a child’s soul into submission with rejection, manipulation and all that. I guess the same is true for adults to some extent. I think that until you realise that you are not the only one, until you realise that many other people are in the same shoe. It’s really hard to justify even unto yourself that you are indeed right.
I’ve read that this is the first Hungarian short nominated since 1962.
That’s not actually true.
Is it not? Tell me!
It’s even better than that it’s the first one ever. There’s an acclaimed director (and Best Foreign Language Film winner Oscar winner) called István Szabó. First some journalists mistakenly reported that he had gained a nomination for 1962 film Koncert. But it turned out another short film was nominated that year with the same title (Ezra Baker’s Koncert). He came out a week ago and told a journalist that it wasn’t the case. And we learned that it was the very first Hungarian live action film nominated ever!
Well, how exciting, we can right some wrongs in this interview!
Can I ask you what next?
One of the things that really excites me at the moment is a short film project that I’ve already gotten funding for. It’s very different and at the same time very similar to Sing. It’s different in theme. It’s set in our time, the present, and it deals with the confrontation between an average joe with a low skilled job and an AI an artificial intelligence that’s going to take over his job soon. What the story explores is what a simple man can do when faced with a huge technological and psychological challenge.
Why that topic?
What I really find interesting in today’s film is that there are a lot of films about artificial intelligence or machine intelligence. They always depict AI as conscious, humanised, anthropomorphic being, that is trying to kill us, or take over the world or cheat on us, or make us fall in love with them. You name it. But the fact of the matter is that AI is already in our lives today and it’s massively changing the way we live and do things and we don’t even recognise it. It’s not something we really talk about. I mean in your pocket there’s a smartphone with different technologies that finish your sentence and tag our faces in pictures. All of that is AI and it’s changing the way we live. But we don’t like to depict that kind of artificial intelligence in film somehow. Potentially if it works out it might be expanded into a long form version too.
How do you approach scriptwriting?
I’m very systematic. I don’t actually start writing before I know what the beginning middle and end is. It sounds a bit formulaic but for me that’s the best way to get to something that really works in every bit of the story. So that every emotional beat is there. I do like to research a lot as well. I don’t like to go about writing before I study and think about the topic first. I mean Sing is set in my own childhood so I should’ve been able to build it out of my own memories in a way. But still I went back to Facebook and had Facebook chats with all my former classmates. I asked them how do you remember our childhoods? How do you remember when we were age ten or eleven. And they started coming back with amazing stories and memories and anecdotes and they refreshed my memory of it. I even had to research my own childhood. Ha!
Why do you have a love of film?
It’s a combination of a lot of small things. Oddly I grew up watching Charlie Chaplin slapstick short sketches.
I mean aren’t they great, aren’t they wonderful? Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton…. I think for me it started at the age of ten. We had this video club which an art teacher at my school started. We got this VHS camera. It was huge, enormous, we were barely able to hold it but yet we were running around trying to emulate the slapstick comedy of Charlie Chaplin. So that’s when I first got bitten by the bug. After that, I kind of forgot about it. In high school I mostly tried to become a rockstar, ha! It kind of took a while to find my way back to film in my early twenties when I decided to apply to the Hungarian National Film school. I have broadish taste but I really like Billy Wilder films. If anything I can really sympathise with his idea of story first, and character first and emotion first. He once said, I think, that he doesn’t like times when cinematography gets in the way of pure storytelling and the audience experiencing the story from within. He thought beautiful images without substance just take away the attention of the audience from what really matters.
The Apartment is one of my favourite films.
It’s wonderful isn’t it?
It’s so touching and so emotional. Such a sweet story, despite all those dark things that are in it, in the end it’s somehow empowering.
I think it’s simplicity is what draws you in. You allow yourself to go with this character and go to these sometimes really dark places. Because he’s just a simple guy, you know? It’s so sweet and simple on the surface but yet there’s so much depth to it. Those are the kind of stories I really like.
Words by Cormac O’Brien