Nimrod Antal’s first film, Kontroll, was one of the better movies I saw in 2005 (read my original review right here). Set in the strange world of subway ticket inspectors in Budapest, it was a movie that announced Antal as a major talent. After that film Antal, who was born in the US but had spent a decade in Hungary, returned to America and began playing the studio game. Now his first American movie is hitting theaters, starring Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale.
In Vacancy the two actors are a husband and wife who are breaking up and get stuck in a motel in the middle of nowhere. Too bad for them that the proprietor of the motel, played by Frank Whaley, happens to be running a snuff film ring, and they’re his next stars. Antal elevates the material well above the usual Screen Gems crap. Talking to him on the phone today I got the impression he was paying his dues right now, but that he fully intends to get back to the kind of filmmaking he did so well with Kontroll. I can’t wait, but if his Hollywood adventure includes more genre films as well-made as Vacancy, I won’t complain too much in the meantime.
How did you end up on Vacancy? I’m assuming that your Hungarian film, Kontroll, was what got you noticed.
Fortunately it was well-received. Some of the people involved in Vacancy had seen it and were fond of it, and that’s what opened the gate, so to speak.
What’s different between the original script and what we see onscreen now?
I know the script had an arc, so to speak. It started out with a more similar tone or feel to some of the contemporary films, and as it progressed it ultimately ended up, I think, more elegant. It’s a cleaner version of what they started with. I think they saw an opportunity to make something a little more elegant.
I was really impressed with the way you set up the geography of the motel. Can you talk about how you set it up and shot that environment?
It’s funny because I was reluctant to show the whole package at the beginning, because I was concerned the audience would get bored really quick. It’s like the onion being peeled away, and if you have slow burn… I felt we had to be cautious because we didn’t want to overwhelm the viewer, so it was a gradual progression of getting to know the motel.
One element of the motel’s geography that works well is the underground tunnel system. How did you shoot in those tight spaces?
Fortunately in my first film we had a similar environment, so it was pretty much the same thing and we executed it in the same way – it was using a long crane arm. We had a tunnel that was built about 30 feet, maybe 40, and there was a Y in the tunnel as well; it was just a matter of sending in the [crane] after the actors. But there was another moment that was really fun, and Andrzej Sekula, the director of photography brought the idea. It was so simple but ingenious: it’s a moment when the characters are panicked and picking up their pace in the tunnels, and we didn’t want to use redundant angles, and you’re certainly limited in where you can put the camera – you’re in front of them or behind them. But Andrzej laid down on a blanket and we basically pulled him out, and it was really old school and the image itself is awesome and it looks like it would need an elaborate system of pulleys, but it’s just a guy lying on a blanket being pulled.
Do you find that coming from the Hungarian film world, which has much less money than Hollywood, helped you be creative in those ways?
As far as talent, as far as cast and crew, Hungary is strong. But you’re right, the money is limited and you don’t have as many tools and toys. For me I know it was a blessing because I was immediately forced to kind of, for lack of a better word, be creative. Although the idea I just mentioned was completely Andrzej’s idea, but I embraced it and I incorporated many ideas with that simplicity. I do think there’s a benefit to being limited in your funds.
Why did you decide to move to Hungary?
My parents were Hungarian. I was first generation born in the United States, and I went back and forth often as a child. My grandparents live there, so I would visit during the summers. I knew early on – I think I was 11 or 12 – what I wanted to do. It wasn’t direct, originally, I wanted to be a horror make-up artist. But that progressed to cinematography when I was 14 or 15. I went back to school in Budapest when I was 17 and I studied cinematography there, and stayed for 13 years.
I saw Kontroll when it was released in the US and really liked it. Usually when someone makes a great movie in another country someone immediately tries to remake it in America. Has there ever been talk of a US remake of Kontroll?
I think early on there was talk, although I’ve never had any conversations regarding that. But I think it wouldn’t work as a remake because one of the things that’s important is the occupation itself, these guys that inspect tickets, which here turnstiles do that. And you couldn’t quite make them metro cops because that would build their stature; they were ticket inspectors, and that’s what made them endearing, that they were this weird occupation. I don’t know if it would translate well.
That doesn’t seem to stop anyone in Hollywood – there’s a remake in the works for Park Chan-Wook’s Joint Security Area, which takes place in the space dividing North and South Korea. The remake would happen on the US/Mexico border.
[laughs] That’s hilarious. I mean, it’s not hilarious, but yeah.
What’s your Hollywood experience been like? You’re a young gun, how’s the relationship with your American stars?
It was good. I was intimidated for a few moments going into the whole thing but once you get down to it the process is very much the same as working with the people I worked with in Hungary – who, mind you, were stars as well in Hungarian society, or at least some of them were. I approached Luke and Kate and everyone I worked with here the same as I approached everyone in Budapest. It comes down to articulating your thoughts.
How was the Hollywood studio experience?
Coming into the whole thing I was terrified, because of course you hear the stories about how they limit directors creatively. I was scared coming into the whole thing but it worked out well for me from the get-go. I articulated some thoughts about the screenplay and they accepted my changes. Once we got on the floor and started shooting and editing, I constantly tried to keep them up on where I was at and showed them where I was taking this, and they were very receptive. Ultimately for me, I have to say, it was great. I creatively got to do what I thought was best and it was embraced by the studio. I didn’t experience the stories you hear.
In Vacancy Luke and Kate check into the hotel room and watch those video tapes, and the tapes are disturbing but they’re not explicitly that violent –
That’s interesting because I read a review that wasn’t very fond of the film, and one of their critiques was that it was so violent.
I read that too. It was a guy in Chicago, right?
Yeah. I got mad, because it’s not. Of course there’s brutality in the film, but it’s not nearly as violent as some films nowadays, and I think a lot of things are left to the mind. It was interesting to read that because I thought it was the opposite.
But isn’t it almost a compliment that the guy saw explicit violence where there was none?
Someone said that to me yesterday. Someone said I should take that as the ultimate compliment, so I’m trying to.
Also, when they start watching the tapes, they don’t think they’re snuff films, they just think they’re nasty horror films. I’m curious if that’s kind of a statement on violence in movies today.
It’s funny, because when I was younger, when I was about 12 or 13, I really got into horror movies. I remember my friend John Paul and I would watch films like Mother’s Day, weird films like Future Kill, which was more like sci-fi. I loved the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the Nightmare series, the Halloween films. I loved horror movies growing up. But what I didn’t want to do was follow the trend; I think it has become more about the gore, and about the splatter, and we wanted to focus on the suspense. I like it if it complements the story, but when it’s obviously just there for shock, it’s not that cool.
I like that Vacancy goes against the grain in another way – it doesn’t give a lot of backstory on the killers. Did the studio want you to flesh that out, or were they cool with it being that mysterious?
Fortunately by the time I arrived that argument or conversation had transpired. When I arrived it was, ‘Less is more.’
Did you discuss with Frank Whaley what his backstory was?
I am really crazy about him. I’m a big fan of his, so it was a great experience to work with him. We talked about the guy – he had his own little backstory that he grew up on Westerns, so we had some conversations about him. But that was a difficult character for him to find, because it’s easier to go either/or. We wanted him to be a little bit off center and quirky and weird, and we wanted to get a smile in the dime scene, about how off this guy is. To find that balance between being weird and making you smile and yet you’re uneasy – that was a hard balance, but I think he nailed it.
You signed on to do Armored next. What can you tell me about that?
Armored is an armored car heist film gone wrong. It’s about this group that just falls apart, these men who are very close, there’s almost a brotherhood amongst them, and it’s about how that falls apart through this thing they decide to do.
You wrote Kontroll. Are you going to do more writing?
I am going to. That, ultimately, is the dream, to continue what I started with Kontroll.