I was very gratified by the response to last year’s interview with Rob Tregenza, a Zelig-like figure of modern cinema. Our very long, multi-Zoom conversation covered a life in film: four features, cherished experiences with Jean-Luc Godard, and hopes he hadn’t reached the end. What I didn’t quite find time for was, and I am embarrassed to even note it, the matter of his shooting stretches of Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies, most notably its iconic opening sequence. By any token this is a major contribution to contemporary cinema for Tregenza’s part and––by that token, at least in my estimation––a major oversight on my own.

With Criterion’s 4K UHD release of Werckmeister Harmonies arriving this month––about a year since Janus Films’ extremely successful theatrical tour––I figured it was time to ask Tregenza about his experience shooting the film. I did not in the least anticipate his response: yes, but with the notice it would not be an affectionate reminiscence.

The Film Stage: You have somewhat mixed feelings about being associated with Werckmeister Harmonies, and your relationship with Béla Tarr was perhaps not-ideal.

Rob Tregenza: I’d like to mention something that popped into my mind. When you asked me to think about and talk about Tarr and the release of Werckmeister, my mind immediately jumped to a whole bunch of stuff. [Laughs] Good, bad, or indifferent. And over the couple of days I just calmed down and was thinking more thoughtfully about it, and I remembered an essay I read back in 1971 by Nietzsche––it was called On the Advantage and Disadvantages of History for Life. Nietzsche was brilliant and, I think, wrong about most things, but occasionally I think he got some things right. I think he got it right in that essay. He talks a lot about what he calls “monumental history” and the artistic consciousness that goes along with it. It’s basically evaluating what the artist does and what the hero does, and this whole mythic stuff. But monumental history looks at the past and present and tries to find heroes––and I’m paraphrasing this––“that they then come to worship.” But he observes, rooted in that process, is also a desire to progress beyond the artist, and beyond that level of greatness. So it’s a contradiction: part of it is that you want to find a hero to worship, and then there’s the underbelly: you want to find the hero you can destroy. That’s part of the idea of artistic progress that Nietzsche was talking about. We often create artistic heroes and cinematic heroes in a desire to surpass them, in a way, and in the process of surpassing them, we destroy them. We call that process “progress.”

Now, I’m not really interested in doing that, but I’d like to raise some questions that deal with Tarr––not in a destructive way. The question comes back: does monumental history tend to wrongly create the great man, the great woman? Does the idea of “monumental artist,” basically the genius, enter the creative process, and then the time, the place that the art was created in––rather than the issue of the genius or the hero––is forgotten? The collection or contribution of other things or people or places in that time are subverted, and we end up sharing a faith in the hero or the God that will die––that we will kill––because of progress. And there’s a strange, parallel thing we have now, thanks to the French New Wave: this common faith in heresy of the auteur theory. You go back to this monumental history and the artistic consciousness of it that drives us to look for heroes and may then require that we kill them, artistically, in order to create progress.

And then what happens? Nietzsche suggests this: we end up killing the hero and the art in the process of doing this. So it becomes very destructive. It starts with, maybe, good intentions: we raise up this artist and they’re immediately classified as the hero, and then we set that standard as what we have to go beyond. In going beyond the statute, it becomes the inevitable creation of God-likeness and, inevitably, the destruction of the God. I’m raising the issue of Tarr hopefully not out of any vindictiveness of the last 20-plus years, but to look at how monumental history affects our artistic consciousness. What happens to people like Tarr who end up in the vortex of it?

You and Tarr got to know each other when your company, Cinema Parallel, released Damnation and Sátántangó. Then, in 1998, you were at Sundance with your film Inside/Out and got a call from Tarr asking that you fly to Hungary and shoot the film.

It’s an interesting thing. Dealing with Tarr and memory is like Alice and Lewis Carroll––you’re popping in and out of memory holes. You’re never quite sure what you’re going to find when you go there. I think that whole story is a good place to start. Because if we start there we can wrap up a lot of things. You’re right: I was at Sundance January 17, 1998. Basically what happened was: I got there, it was the first screening of Inside/Out, and I had never been to Sundance before. It was my initial toe in the water at that place, and honestly: I didn’t fit in. But it was inevitable. They turned down Talking to Strangers, they turned down Arc, so it was, like, one of these things. “Okay, maybe I’m gonna go do this for the sake of the team and sit and watch.” I have to admit I wasn’t particularly happy to be there, so when Tarr called me it was almost an escape hatch. It gave me a legitimate reason. I can’t say I was doing Tarr an immense favor by leaving Sundance––it was not convenient, and I had to book a ticket from there to Budapest––but basically it wasn’t anything I was really adverse to doing. But it came with an interesting story: he said he had fired his first DP, who was a cameraman––I believe a Hungarian who was in Australia––he was in production, and he needed a cameraman, a DP, immediately to get there. I bought into that. I said, “Okay, fine. I’ll get there.”

I got there on the 24th. They picked me up at the airport and they take me to Mafilm. Mafilm is a studio that’s existed since the silent age, and people may not understand: in the Soviet systems, everything’s controlled by studio and by state planning. So Mafilm went through a process where it was independent, it was taken by the government, and it’s been financially reorganized. I walk into a film studio. I’m thinking “independent filmmaker.” I’m transferring my idea. It was no different than if I walked into Universal––in translation. They walk me into a rehearsal hall, I walk in there, and Ágnes [Hranitzky] and Béla are sitting there and working with a very––I have to choose my words carefully––emotionally, psychologically challenged boy. And they’re trying to, basically, elicit the kind of performance out of him that he got out of Erika Bók, who was the cat girl in Sátántangó. They were trying, basically, to recreate something [Laughs] they had already successfully created in Sátántangó for Werckmeister. An antenna kind of goes up on the back of my neck. He says, “Would you like to shoot this?” And he points to a VHS camcorder––not even industrial-grade––that’s just lying in the corner. I said, “No, Béla. I think I’d rather watch.” A. I’m jet lagged; B. I don’t know what the camera is; C. I don’t want to set up and start shooting this stuff when I don’t even know what the heck it is.

So that was maybe not the best way to start off. That evening, at dinner with Ágnes and Béla, I was trying to make it more amiable, I think. There was fantastic goulash––it was the first time I had really, really good Hungarian goulash. I brought up the subject of what happened with the first DP. He was evasive about it. “We didn’t get along. This wasn’t right. That wasn’t right.” “What did he shoot?” He didn’t tell me; I found out eventually. “So he left? Or was he fired?” I didn’t get an answer for that. Then I said, “I really like [Gábor] Medvigy. What happened to him?” He was the DP on Sátántangó and Damnation, and then came in to be the DP for Werckmeister. Tarr said, “He’s sick. He’s really not well. He’s also an alcoholic and he couldn’t shoot it.” So I’m trying to think: “Why am I sitting in this cheap little restaurant in Budapest?” I’m not getting the answer that satisfies me.

The next day we get in the car and go off to scout locations. I said to him, “Why aren’t you calling this film The Melancholy of Resistance?” That’s the title of Krasznahorkai’s novel that this is obviously built off. I had my little producer hat on; I had just produced a couple of films and I was a distributor. I was probably a little more opinionated than I would be now. I said, “I’ve distributed Godard and Rivette and you, and my opinion is: the better title is The Melancholy of Resistance. So better. It makes more sense.” No comment. He’s driving the car. Then, into the silence, I inject my next comment: “Actually, The Melancholy of Resistance is more in focus with what the film is about than Werckmeister Harmonies. So aside from commercial considerations––is the film ‘marketable’––secondarily, Werckmeister Harmonies is not as close to the core of what the film will be and is as The Melancholy of Resistance.” Still no comment. Looks away, looks back, no comment. Silence. Now, I was a little shocked. Because I think I was trying to be a little friendly and professional at the same time. But there was absolutely no response on that. At that time, in that rabbit hole, it felt really weird.

How long had you been there?

I got there on the 24th of January; I was there through February. This was in the first two or three days of the film, and I hadn’t been behind the camera yet. I’m still trying to move from myself, a filmmaker and distributor and DP, to understanding the property, understanding what we’re trying to do. That was, I would say, my first real encounter with him. I programmed, at Anthology, Tarr’s first retrospective in New York. That was done through Cinema Parallel. So I picked him up at the airport and drove him in, to where we were staying in New York and talked to him that day, and was around the next day. I wouldn’t consider that to be the same kind of possible intimacy, right? Driving a car in New York and dropping him off at a different place. So I’d say the first real conversation, even after I had distributed both films––I’d have to say it was in that car, discussing why wasn’t the film named The Melancholy of Resistance. He had a vision, ultimately, why it wasn’t, but at that point it was still, to me, kind of a mystery.

Your relationship with him began by distributing Sátántangó.

If you look back at Tarr––and my contention, going back to the original thesis––is that Tarr, without Krasznahorkai and without his DP, is not Béla Tarr. I think, by raising himself up… I mean, who anointed Béla Tarr a genius? How did it happen? I would suggest it goes back to Susan Sontag. He somehow got the credibility even before people saw the films. There was the whisper: “The great Lord is in the mountains, in the mists. He’s coming down.” Sontag is very important in that. So what happens is: he had preceding him this sort of mantle of a messiah. Which is curious, because basically: who is Irimiás? In Sátántangó there is Irimiás, who is the trickster, the false prophet, who wears a black coat and a black hat, who is marked, visually, as a doppelganger of Tarr. It’s the composer, [Mihály] Vig, who does all that wonderful music. So if you say, “What does Irimiás mean?” It’s a variation of the Hebrew name Jeremiah, which literally means, in Hebrew, “Appointed by God.” My point is: what God appointed Tarr? Jehovah? Sontag?

Because part of the process of being appointed by the deity is that you’re empowered by them. So basically what happens is: in that situation he came down from the mountain––going back to Nietzsche––and was already anointed somehow. Now, I got a phone call from Jonathan Rosenbaum. This was in ‘96 or thereabouts. He says, “Rob, have you seen Sátántangó?” I said, “No.” He says, “You should see this film.” This is Jonathan, a very good friend, I think one of the best critics we’ve had in North America. So when Jonathan says “you should see this thing…” He said, “I’ll send you tapes.” A couple days pass. There arrives this battered cardboard box of about five VHS tapes––battered, well-traveled VHS tapes. It was a Saturday, it was raining, so my wife and I sat down and watched the whole thing––straight through, seven hours. And I’m stunned. Now, I would never have watched it if Jonathan hadn’t told me to watch it. He also said nobody in North America wants this. I’m a distributor getting inside information from a critic. It doesn’t happen often, but it happened then.

This is the way the myth is built before the realization of it. I look at it and there’s a lot of things I don’t like. I love the first scene with the cows; I love the scene with the dinner roll, him walking around in the restaurant; I love the cat scene, which most people hate. And there was a lot of not-as-good cinema, ebbs and flows. I said, “That’s natural. That’s part of the process. There’s got to be boredom if there’s going to be stimulus.” The old optimal variance theory of stimulation. So there’s gonna be stuff I don’t like. I really don’t like the ending. Finally I called the sales agent in Paris and started the conversation. But I was impressed, I have to say––not as much the filmmaking of it as the audacity of it. And––secondarily––the way it’s so situated in that period in Europe. I mean, that was a historical document––you can separate the aesthetics––of a changing time in Eastern Europe that, other than From the East, there’s not been a lot of good stuff done about. What I was transfixed by was the historicity of it, having been there and having seen a bit of it. This is beyond unique and in and of itself. Pushing the aesthetics aside, this is a film that should be distributed. The reality is: how do you distribute a seven-hour, black-and-white film in the United States… but that’s another rabbit hole we don’t have to deal with at this point. [Laughs] I think it started with Sontag and went down to Rosenbaum and then percolates down. But he is crowned by God. My question: is it Jehovah or someone else?

There’s a gradual deflation here. You get to the studio and it’s this disturbed child being asked to perform a scene. It’s the dodgy details about his old DP. There’s the one-way conversation in the car. Finally you’re on set and prepared to shoot; describe being there and imposing your will.

Let’s move in the chronology of events. The first scene I shot for him was in the hospital with the naked old man. Second scene was planets. The first time I ever “worked with him” as a DP was on the set with the naked man, running through the hospital––all that stuff. So we’re shooting in the hospital with the naked old man at the end of the shot. I said, “Béla, what lens do you want up?” Now, traditionally, if you go up to a director, he or she will have a focal length in mind. I mean, that’s sort of a requirement that any decent film school gets right upfront. I wasn’t meaning to be obnoxious, intimidating, whatever; I just said, “Béla, what lens do you want up?” And he said, “Just put something up.” I said, “Well, what focal length?” He said, “Numbers, numbers, numbers. I don’t like numbers.” So I put a lens up. I know it’s going to be a long, 10-minute dolly move, so I put up the widest lens we have, which is an 18-millimeter. Why? Because it absorbed most of the vibrations. You tend to make complex dolly moves with wide-angle lenses. We looked at the 18, but with two rehearsals he said, “Too wide.” So I put up the 24. We go through the first night––it’s two nights of shooting that scene. The 10K “lights” on cherry-pickers coming through the windows of that hospital. It was huge. We come back the next night and are shooting the same shot. We’re burning thousand-foot mags of Kodak Double-X negative, which is what we were shooting. He called, “Cut.” Boom. Reset.

But there’s not a significant change. As a DP, if you’re shooting a lot of takes––if you don’t get it in the first, second, third shots––then it’s going to be a major roadblock or you’re going to have to go back and fire an actor. Then you get into that seventh, eighth number; then you push through that, past 10, you might as well just [Laughs] forget about everything from the first eight and start again. So we’re pushing out 10, 12 takes of that scene. This is the second night, and it’s pretty good. I would’ve taken the third shot––first night. Anyway, he says, “Next time, I want the zoom-in on a real, tight close-up on Lars [Rudolph].” I said, “Okay, Béla. But we’ll have to do a complete relight of the entire set and also smooth out the rough concrete floor around Lars. That’s going to take the rest of the night.” [Puts Hands Up] Concerning technology: I think Tarr is probably the most willful, stubborn, and ignorant of all directors I’ve ever worked with. He’s already done eight major productions. He was shooting a 24-millimeter lens––basically, a very fast lens. It’s a 24, it’s a Canon, it’s 1.5. He’s shooting it almost wide-open and he wants a zoom. The only zoom we have is a Cooke 20-100, which is my favorite zoom lens in all the world. I said, “Béla, the stop on that lens is 3.1.” “Numbers! Numbers! I don’t want numbers.” So I don’t believe he didn’t know the difference between a 1.5 and 3.1, but he didn’t seem to indicate that.

So I said, “That means we have to double the quantity of light just to keep the same contrast ratios. If we want to keep the contrast ratios, we have to keep the ratios to certain levels to get the blacks you want.” So he was continually asking for more contrast, more contrast. He didn’t like the grays that appeared in 35 Double-X negative, which are a function of properly exposing black-and-white so you get the full range of gray. He kept saying, “More contrast. More contrast.” Finally I said to him, “Béla, we should be shooting 16mm Tri-X Reversal Film. Then we make a couple generations in the neg, in the positive, and then we blow it back up to 35 and you might be happy.” “Numbers! Numbers! Numbers!” I tried to explain that to him; it didn’t go well. So we did the relay. Then I had to get in there and get the floor level, because when you start going past 20 millimeters up to 100, the focal length extends and the vibration of the floor goes [Shakes Hand] like this and he wants to go [Makes Box with Hands] like this. We’ve got to wait for the concrete to dry. We’ve got to double the light of the entire set––the front door all the way back to where the naked man is.

We do that, put the Cooke lens on, shoot it at T4. The fastest there is––3.1. So I’m saving myself a little bit of depth of field by going to the 4. Next take is the one he picks, the one he prints. That is beautiful, right? People going crazy through the whole place. Come around the corner, I’m tilting up, blind––I can’t see where I’m going with the corner of the frame, my one eye open as I’m going up, tilting up, zooming until I get the eyes. It was a miracle that we got it, to be honest. So that was the technical ignorance––willful or not––that frustrated me and I’m sure frustrated a lot of DPs. Whether that was just conscious or a casual indifference, I never quite figured out. My thesis, really, in this conversation is: if you strip away Krasznahorkai and Gábor Medvigy, you have Almanac of Fall.

And then the planets scene.

Which one are people writing the most about: the hospital scene or the planets scene? About the same?

Well, the planets scene exists in a context outside of Werckmeister or Tarr himself. It has hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube, and I’d venture to guess most who watch it haven’t seen the full film or even know who Béla Tarr is. But to hear you tell it: the scene looks this way because you had the idea to shoot it like so, contra the more surveillance-camera style Tarr had in mind. When did you realize it should be photographed this way? And do you recall particulars of the conversation where you explained the method to him?

Well, you’re at the heart of the problem. Tarr only knew how to move the camera horizontally or parallel. In Almanac he would start with a dolly move in combination with the zoom lens; that changes the focal length as you move into the scene. One should maintain that original focal length as a prime lens as long as you can and then use the zoom––as Sven Nyqvist did––to trim up the edges of the shot. But if you move, move, move, stop, and then zoom in you have to make the cut to get out of that scene. In my case, I keep moving over the 180 with the dolly and trim the framing up with the zoom.

So we’re sitting there, in the location––and this, of course, is after we did the hospital scene––and I say, “How are we going to do this?” And he did say, “We’re going to put the camera at the back of the bar and we’re going to shoot it.” “Oh, like the scene in Sátántangó where he walks around with the dinner roll?” Which is where the strength of that scene resides. And I felt––I don’t want to sound proud or pompous––but I asked: “What is this scene about? It’s about planets, right? And planets do what? [Rotates Finger] They go in circles. So if we’re going to do a ten-minute shot and we’re sitting out here for ten minutes, watching them do this, and we maintain the proscenium, I don’t think we’re serving the scene. I think we should go around them and they should go around us.” Well, I think he had in his mind the end shot of Almanac of Fall, which is awkward and badly executed.

And I don’t think, up to that time, he had the technology or the camera operators––whatever––to physically execute that kind of a scene. So at first I said, “Let’s use the Panther with a jib. Let’s use a jib. Okay?” And this is where we were still riding stuff on jibs––it’s now remote––and so I go on the jib and I showed him: “As we come this way, we can move that way, we can move counter the moves of the actors.” But the problem with the jib is: we couldn’t get it around, a 180, behind the backside. It got to a point of: “Do we move them this way, that way?” We’re doing the dance, you know? So I said, “Dump the jib. We’re just going to go on the Panther, take it down, make it as small as we can. We’re going to move the central axis up and down to get the movement, and we’re going to go behind them.” And he goes, “Okay.” He’s learning. Tarr is a clever human being. But he’s a survivalist––he survives––and I think after Sátántangó he’s been maintaining the same tropes and metaphors and techniques he had. He hasn’t done, in my mind, anything original––really, I think Damnation is his best film––since the end of that period, other than Steadicam. He picked up the Steadicam in Werckmeister and has abused it ever since.

But anyway, back to this point. The jib didn’t work, so we didn’t have anything to put on the Panther and go around the room. So it was a rough night. First: the floor was lousy. I had to make the floor good. We’re shooting the planets scene, everyone was drunk––literally drunk––on the set. Actors were drunk. Everyone except Lars was drunk. The extras: they’re all drunk. He had got the extras from a street mission. Literally: street mission. I know because I went down there to pick out their faces. In that group were some actors––the guy that played the moon; the guy they called the coachman––everyone else were alcoholics. We get there and they start serving alcohol. No harm, no foul: it’s cinematic realism, no different than the cat in Sátántangó. “Did they kill the cat? Did they get the extras drunk?” So if you look at the shot that he finally used, that was the last shot we did––we must have done it ten times. Ten times means 1,000-foot magazines.

We were burning so much film, the producer came up to me and said, “Rob, you have to control your director. There’s no way you should be shooting this amount of film.” He said, “You have a contract that says you have to…” I said, “Excuse me: I have no contract.” Which of course turned out not to be to my advantage. [Laughs] So I said: “I can’t control. If there’s film in the truck and he wants to shoot it, I’m shooting it. If you don’t want to shoot it, you go and tell him.” We’re burning through this stuff. Finally, the last stuff––the one that’s in the film––it says “Memphis.” Nobody ever talks about that! On the grate it says “Memphis.” I’m sitting there, looking at it, going, “Memphis?” [Laughs] We come up, we go up on the Panther, we go forward, and I see one of the extras––literally––falls stone-cold drunk off the chair. And I’m going, “Oh, my goodness. I hope they get him out of the way before the Panther rolls over him.” So if you look, they muscle around and move things around; they get his totally intoxicated body. That’s the one Tarr wants. There are five other shots that are equally as “good,” but––given his theory of chaos––that’s the one we picked.

The other funny part about this scene: the man who plays the coachman––who has the hat––he’s standing on the set with us, and I say to Tarr, “I want a glass of wine.” This is, like, halfway into the night; everyone’s drinking. Tarr hears me and says, “No. You can’t have any wine.” And he makes this proclamation: “All great DPs become alcoholics. You can’t have any.” Next to me is standing this person who is the coachman with the hat and the beard. He’s in the planet dance; he’s the one that dances with the guy that’s the moon. And he hears what I’m saying. I looked him up yesterday and I figured this out only yesterday: the man standing next to me is Barna Mihók. Barna Mihók was the DP of Prefab People; he was the cinematographer of Tarr’s first film, Family Nest; no longer a DP; now is a drunk actor in Werckmeister. So yesterday I wondered: was that for my ears, or is this just Tarr being evil and cruel towards Barna? Either way: not kind, not nice. I guess I will never be a great DP because I’m not an alcoholic. Tarr has problems with his DPs, and it’s not just me; I think it was with all of them.

This is approaching your end of the time on the film, because you’re only there for about a month. What leads to your departure on this project that ended up shooting more than a year?

He basically lied to everybody. He said the film was funded, was financed. Everyone’s thinking it’s going to be a 30-day shoot. We had this moment of awkwardness with the Australian DP. But now we’re back, right? We’ve done the full week. We’ve shot a scene that’s not in the film, that I shot with a big crane outside of the meat shop––an arm up, about a hundred foot of track, about a 27-foot crane arm move. Lars comes up the street, we follow him up the street, we follow into the door of the meat factory. We’re shooting short ends, because at that point we didn’t have 1,000-foot loads. So it was a combination of stuff. We shot whatever, I think, at that point they think they had budgeted for the whole film––it was probably done in four days of shooting. That’s one thing. The second thing: he didn’t have the money he said he had. I think he thought that he would go into production, everyone would rally around, this would happen, that would happen, this producer would have money. I don’t think it came.

So I had a friend, an acquaintance, in the production department who would drive me around. And he said, “Rob, things aren’t happening. Things aren’t going well.” And I knew enough to trust him because I know he’s getting fired any day. Back of my neck––something’s wrong. And then when the producer came and told me I had the responsibility to control the shooting ratio, you go “hmm.” But I did the six days. I saw the dailies of all the stuff we shot, and he was mumbling around with the developing––he wanted more contrast, more black. So they weren’t developing it at the gamma that I told them to develop it at, which was right at the middle of Kodak’s scale. They were developing it to force the blacks even further out. We had a little conversation about that and I said, “The problem here is: if you make an internegative and an interpositive, every time you do that it increases the contrast ratio, so you’re basically moving it up the scale every time you make an analog.” And he said, “Oh, we don’t make any internegatives. We just print everything off the negative.” And I said, “You printed all of Sátántangó off the internegative? There’s no interpositive?” “Oh, no, we just print everything off the camera negative.” So that was a bit…

I go back to the hotel. I’ve got, supposedly, a couple days off until I come back. My cousin lives in Geneva. She calls me up: “What are you going to do?” “I’m going to come to Geneva. I’ll come see you.” So I get on a plane, fly to Geneva, get there, have a wonderful time with my cousin, and then I call the producer back and say, “I’ve got a return ticket back to Budapest. Are you starting Tuesday?” No answer. Then I call my producer. “Something’s strange, because we should be going back to production and they’re not calling me.” So she gets on the phone with their producer, basically says, “What are you doing? Rob’s in Geneva. Should he come back?” I’m not going to come back unless we shoot. I’m sitting in Geneva; finally she calls me back and says it’s on hiatus again.

This is another one of these funny, I-think-divine things. I had in my back pocket a return ticket, because I got over to Budapest on a ticket from the Rotterdam International Film Festival. At that time Simon Field was running it; I called Simon up from Sundance. “Simon, Béla wants me to go and shoot this thing for him. I need to go from the United States to Rotterdam, so can you pick up the ticket from Baltimore to Amsterdam, and Tarr will pick up the ticket from Amsterdam to Budapest?” Simon, who’s a gentleman––fantastic human being––“No problem, Rob! When do you want the return?” “Put it out as far as you can.” I didn’t specify the return date. So I had that ticket in my wallet in Geneva. I take it out. I call my producer. “I’ve got the return ticket from Rotterdam. All I have to do is get from Geneva to Amsterdam and I’m home, because Tarr is not going to send me a ticket.” Tarr paid for the ticket over. Flights inside of Europe are not as large as flights outside of Europe, so it was a miniscule amount of money. I go from Geneva to Amsterdam; I use the ticket from Rotterdam to get home. And I haven’t talked to Tarr since.

We’re talking as Criterion releases a 4K UHD of Werckmeister Harmonies. That’s about the highest anointment a film can receive.


For a quarter-century the film’s been this legendary object. You have a pretty instrumental involvement in it, but that experience is, by all accounts… well, I don’t want to speak for you. But the experience was what it was.

Yeah. It was not good.

Well, there you go. You’ve clarified that. How do you feel about being so involved with an iconic film but under bad circumstances, with an iconic director with whom you had such a poor experience? Is it a conflicted feeling?

I think there was 20 years ago. I mean, if I had seen him at Toronto a year after I shot the thing, it would not have been pretty. By God’s graces, I think––I hope––I’m a better human being than I was then. [Laughs] It was not good, okay? Because I distributed Sátántangó; I distributed Damnation; I set up a retrospective of his films at Anthology; I set up screenings at the National Gallery in Washington. You know, this is stuff you really don’t get paid for. You do what you have to do to get the film out. At the end you figure out: was it worth it for a variety of reasons. Was it worth it financially? No. Was it worth it emotionally? No. Was it worth it artistically? If you can say “yes” then you go and say “it was worth it.” And that’s the kind of attitude I had with Godard and Rivette––those people I dealt with.

I had to survive––I had to pay my bills––but it was basically, in the best sense of it, for the art. It was maintaining the art I was part of that wouldn’t have been maintained if I didn’t distribute these films. At that point in time, nobody wanted those films; and thank heavens that they now want them. That was part of the process of carrying the load––of being a preserver of cinema and not necessarily initiating it, but preserving it. So I think now I have a much more sanguine attitude towards it. I kind of remember what I had on that couch in the rain when I watched it 20-plus years ago and said, “This is amazing. This is a mark in time. Historically, this is preserving and sharing. Cinematically not fully to my taste, but worth looking at. Sloppy, chaotic, messy––yes. Not to my taste. But worthy.” And so I think that’s where I come back: I’ve come back to saying, “Okay, so we did this.” It’s now out there and people can watch this; they can look at my two shots that are in that film. I operated. I’m behind the camera. It’s that eye, right there.

And you blocked five scenes.

Yeah. I blocked a bunch of those scenes. They reduced us to seven camera operators and then they promoted Gábor to the DP, which he wasn’t; he was only an operator in a series of seven. Which is part of them massaging the narrative. But… at this point it’s okay. At this point I’m saying, “Okay, fine.” I’ve had the God’s grace to be involved in some major films. I think that continues the discourse. We wouldn’t be having this conversation, Nick, if this thing wasn’t coming out. I value our discourse; I value the conversations we have. This would not happen but for that.

Do I really think that Béla is “Béla Tarr”? No. I think Krasznahorkai is Béla Tarr. I think the DP is Béla Tarr. I think the time and the place is Béla Tarr. He’s tried to move on, past those three things, so he ends up making a film in Corsica? Because you can’t find locations anymore that would fit your imagination in Hungary? As I said: he hasn’t moved, basically, one step past Sátántangó. Sátántangó was given to him by Krasznahorkai and by Gábor.

Could I ask about your new feature, The Fishing Place?

Sure. It’s an interesting film. In my director’s notes I made a public prognostication of what the film is about––a little convoluted––but the theory I’m working on with this film is that it’s actually set in the present; most people think it’s set in the past. Once you get that [Laughs] it makes things a lot more complex or simple, depending on how you look at it. The actors are all, I actually think, the best––technically and artistically––I’ve ever had the blessing to work with. They’re just fantastic. One of the great things about working in Norway is the acting pool. They are classically trained actors, they’re informed by the method––they can do that––but most of them work in state theater as well, as part of that nice socialist thing where you can get a job as an actor in a theater. So I was just really impressed. That woman that plays the lead role, Ellen Dorrit Petersen, is incredible, and Andreas Lust is from Gavagai.

The funny thing about that film is: basically the meat of it was turned around in under a year. You did the interview with me and I went to Dave Kehr’s place, we did the retrospective, and I’m on the train going back to Washington, to my farm, and I’m thinking: “Is this it? Is this all it is? Or can I do something?” I had a script that I’d written a long, long time ago that I tried to do in Poland. I got the funding for it. I couldn’t get the actors and crew in Poland; everyone was working for Netflix. I pulled that production and sort of retooled it for Norway after the retrospective. It’s sort of like a blur from April to April, and we shot it in November; now we’re doing post. Basically it was a one-year turnaround, and your interview helped give me and the whole thing some credibility. You don’t not make a film for 20 years and then convince investors and people, “The old man can still do it. He’s got white hair but he can still do it.”

I was the beneficiary of a strange reverse-discrimination. When you’re the young filmmaker, there’s hope; when you’re the old filmmaker, there’s despair. Why invest in the downside of someone’s career? Let’s invest in the upcoming man or woman. I benefited from that 40 years ago, so now I’m on the other side of it. The Fishing Place is getting ready to get out there in the world; we’ll see what happens. It’s a labor of love. You don’t make a movie anymore without wanting to make something that has some substantial guts to it, and I’m happy with it. I’m happy with the performances. Shot on 35mm. Post is digital, but––thank God––it’s still 35. That’s important.

I’m stunned to think my interview could’ve helped. Finally something I deserve credit for.

It did.

Is it shot in the style of Gavagai?

Strangely enough, it’s more Talking to Strangers. I use a lot more crane shots in this one. There’s also a funny thing: people don’t realize the technical sophistication of Talking to Strangers, but we were using camera-remote systems back, 30-plus years ago, with cameras that remotely control at the end of 27-foot cranes. That’s how we did the opening scene of Talking to Strangers. “Independent filmmakers” don’t go around shooting off remote cranes [Laughs] in that period of time. But I was doing a lot of commercials at that time, and I was using that equipment for car spots and whatever I was shooting, so it was natural. “Okay, I think I like that nice, big crane.” We’re back to using cranes. In that sense, there’s only 14, 15 scenes in the whole film, and there’s segments that are dreams––or trances––and, I would suggest, possibly even visions that are parallels to the narrative. I think, in cinema, there needs to be parallel storytelling. It’s not just thinking of it like a straight line. Stories weave and weave in and out; there’s the forking of the narrative and all that other stuff

There’s also levels of the visual understanding. You start moving the cranes up and down, moving things around. The duration of the shot––and the movement of the shot––puts you in different time-space relationships. It’s playing more with that. And I think I was fortunate enough to get the means of production that’s a lot more sophisticated than, shall we say, the budget. And I get a lot off of that, because I think if you can sort of visualize or conceive the shot, then you can execute it. But then you have to have the means of production, but you’ve got to have the conception upfront. You put those together, then all of a sudden you start creating a really interesting film. I think it’s visually stunning. It’s shot two-perf 35, so it is 2.66––spaghetti westerns, of course Godard did that. Saves you on film. Also gives you a true cinema aspect ratio. So I love that fact. I love that I was able to develop it in London at Cinelab––they did a great job––and the post-production was done at Storyline, which is the co-producer.

So all that stuff fell into place, and it was really why we were able to get it done here. Obviously, the initial funding of something like this is always a problem, but once we got that in place, then the co-producers came in, Storyline came in. It was a dream; it was a magic carpet ride of one year. I’m still not sure how it happened in one year, but it did. We’re finishing post-production and getting ready for festivals and distribution.

Behind-the-scenes photos and still images from Rob Tregenza’s The Fishing Place (2024)

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