"Fateless" was director's fate

TORONTO-The oldest Hollywood joke is that what everyone really wants to do is direct. But not Lajos Koltai. Despite the acclaim for his directorial debut, Fateless, the Hungarian cinematographer of more than 65 films-he received an Oscar nomination for 2001's Malíƒ ¨na-has no plans to quit his day job. On a hotel rooftop patio just before the North American premiere of Fateless at last September's Toronto International Film Festival, Koltai says he was pretty much fated to direct the film.

As soon as he read the Imre Kertész novel on which the movie is based-a semiautobiographical story about a Hungarian boy who survives the Holocaust by finding moments of joy and beauty in a concentration camp-Koltai says he knew he had to film it. "When I read this, I saw this film in my head." Although he had no personal connection to the Holocaust, Koltai says he had an immediate connection to the book. "It's not a Holocaust film. This is a human story. It just starts with a boy's story and his boy's story goes into the Holocaust," he explains.

"Somebody just gave me [it] to read and I just fall in love with it. It was so rich and so unique and personal. So I said, 'If I'm going to do something, maybe this is the way to do it.' Nobody asked me to direct. I just had an idea it's a great book. So when I met with…Imre Kertész, he asked me what I think about his book." Kertész already had a screenplay in hand, and he wanted to know how Koltai felt about shooting the story chronologically.

Koltai says he suspects that most directors would have wanted to shuffle the narrative. But Koltai isn't most directors. "I said, 'It's what I like.' He said, 'Why you like it?' And I said, 'I like because you're going inside a human being and we're going to go with the human being to the end to make all the steps together.'?" Koltai's vision was to follow the boy on his route from normal life to the horrors of the Holocaust like he was following Christ through the Stations of the Cross.

Kertész was sold. "He said, 'This is my book; this is what I wrote down; I want you to direct the film.'…He went to the phone and called everybody and said, 'I want Lajos Koltai to direct my film.'?"

That was just before Kertész won the 2002 Nobel Prize in literature.

Koltai, who's best known for his collaborations with countryman Istvíƒ ¡n Szabíƒ ³, the director with whom he's made 14 films (including Mephisto and Sunshine), has had people urging him to direct for years. "Everybody was talking a long, long time about, 'You should make your own film.' And everybody thought, 'If you've got your strong visual view, why are you not going to direct?' But you're always waiting for the right material."

After finding that material in the Kertész novel, Koltai still had to find the right actor to play the film's teenage lead. He says he considered hundreds of boys before coming back to the third one he'd auditioned, Marcell Nagy, just two weeks before shooting began.

According to Koltai, he had always known he was going to cast Nagy in the film, just not as the lead. He was concerned that Nagy was too beautiful-but then he realized that seeing that boy lose his beauty would add to the tragedy. When Koltai offered Nagy the role, "He collapsed; he couldn't believe it."

Koltai says he didn't find directing at all intimidating, because he just went out and shot what he'd seen in his head when he first read the story. "Sometimes it's just very clear how the movie has to look, so I kept all the pictures in my mind and we did [it] that way. I framed out the whole film exactly [the way] I wanted."

But at age 59, the novice director doesn't hesitate for a second when asked if he plans to change careers. "I have a dream. My dream is to stay [as] cinematographer for Istvíƒ ¡n Szabíƒ ³, and to stay [as] cinematographer for Giuseppe Tornatore, with whom I did Malíƒ ¨na. Of course, with Istvíƒ ¡n, it's not a question, because he's my brother; we [have been] living like brothers [for] 26 years. And Tornatore said to me the last time, 'I can't even think if you're not coming back.'

"I'm not going away," Koltai adds. "I made my film. I'm very happy I made it this way. I'm very happy that people like it very much. I'm very happy that people ask me to different festivals everywhere, and everybody [is] very touched by the film. But I don't think I am a director. I think I can make films and I have stories in my head. Maybe we can do another film again. Hopefully, people will ask me to direct." He flashes a smile. "That's my other dream." -

2The 11 days of movies and mayhem known as the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, came to a close on January 29 after an unprecedented awards ceremony Satur?day night. For the first time in the festival's history, the grand jury and audience were in complete agreement when choosing the awards for the American independent film competition. Director Christopher Quinn took the grand jury and audience awards for best documentary with God Grew Tired of Us, the story of three Sudanese "lost boys", once child refugees who fled their country, and now young adults adjusting to life in America.

The best-drama prizes, grand jury and audience, were awarded to the coming-of-age story Quinceaíƒ ±era (directed by Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer), about a Mexican-American girl approaching her 15th birthday who discovers she is pregnant.

Vancouver director Julia Kwan's Eve & the Fire Horse also achieved a first on Saturday night, although few at the awards ceremony would have realized it. As the first Canadian film to be included in the World Cinema Competition (which was created last year), it won a special jury prize for drama in this category.

Eve screened early during the festival and enjoyed excellent reviews; Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert called it "one of the most beloved films at Sundance this year". Although Eve was the only homegrown feature at Sundance, Canada maintained a presence around the festival. Six Canadian short films were shown, including Vancouver filmmaker Bruce Alcock's "At the Quinte Hotel", an animated version of the Al Purdy poem, and "Aruba", by Toronto's Hubert Davis, who was nominated for an Academy Award last year for his short documentary "Hardwood".