“They were at the forefront of the change in filmmaking from the studio system to the independent system, frankly.”
—Producer/Director Irwin Winkler
The icons of the American New Wave in the late 1960s and early 1970s moviemaking are generally held to be directors—your Robert Altmans and your Peter Bogdanoviches. But when you summon the gritty feel of that cinematic era, chances are the images that leap to mind are the handiwork of either Laszlo Kovacs or Vilmos Zsigmond.
NO SUBTITLES NECESSARY: Laszlo & Vilmos is an ode to those two great Hungarian cinematographers and to their remarkable friendship, which survived wars, spanned continents and endured the capriciousness of Hollywood during the Me Decade and beyond.
Kovacs and Zsigmond met in film school in Budapest and became fast friends. When the Soviets invaded in 1956, the two young men grabbed an Arriflex camera and, all the 35 mm film they could carry, and surreptitiously filmed the brutal crackdown and desperate efforts by civilians to escape. Ultimately, they shot thousands of feet of film and smuggled it out of the country, barely dodging suspicious Russian soldiers.
The aspiring cinematographers made their way to the United States and struggled to break into the film industry. Early on, the only work they could find was shooting extremely low-budget films, including the subtly titled features The Girl in the Invisible Bikini and The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies?!!
In 1967, Kovacs worked on a biker-themed film called Hell’s Angels on Wheels, which happened to feature a young actor named Jack Nicholson. That led to his big break, when Dennis Hopper convinced him to sign on for an edgy new take on the biker film, called Easy Rider. “He was the best telephoto operator I’ve ever seen, no doubt about it,” Dennis Hopper said of Kovacs.
On the heels of that film’s success, Laszlo recommended his friend Zsigmond to Peter Fonda for a new production called The Hired Hand. Suddenly, both were the most sought-after lensers in the new, young Hollywood.
Both had a painter’s eye for light and angle, and they applied their sense of realism to the method they developed and used. The combination of their naiveté and their stubborn pursuit of their dream meant they broke all of the rules, simply because they didn’t know what the rules were in the first place. Producer/director Irwin Winkler said, “They were at the forefront of the change in filmmaking from the studio system to the independent system and maybe now back to the studio system, frankly.”
Between them, they would shoot some of the most notable films in American cinematic history: The Deer Hunter; Close Encounters of the Third Kind; Deliverance; Paper Moon; Five Easy Pieces; What’s Up, Doc; New York, New York; Heaven’s Gate; Frances; and dozens more.
Through it all, Kovacs and Zsigmond maintained a close friendship that, to those with whom they worked, appeared more like a sibling relationship—albeit minus the rivalry. “They have the same blood in them,” said Kovacs’ wife Audrey.
NO SUBTITLES NECESSARY: Laszlo & Vilmos introduces those outside of the film community to the two Hungarians who made the 60s and 70s look like they do in our collective memories. Through interviews with the two men’s colleagues and clips from their wildly eclectic filmographies, filmmaker and fellow cinematographer James Chressanthis constructs an homage to his heroes and forerunners. The film features appearances and insights by Karen Black, Peter Bogdanovich, Sandra Bullock, Richard Donner, Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Tatum O’Neal, Jon Voight, John Williams and Sharon Stone and a host of other colleagues.
Vilmos Zsigmond recently wrapped Woody Allen’s latest film in London. In September 2009, he taught at the Budapest Cinematography Masterclass. In October 2009, Zsigmond was the recipient of the Independent Lens Vanguard Award. His film about the birth of jazz, Bolden, will have its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in 2010. He has been named the Kodak Cinematographer in Residence for the Spring 2010 quarter at the University of California, Los Angeles.
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