László Kovács

Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC, HSC 1930-2016

We miss Vilmos. A brave man, cinematic genius, a great artist and a generous, humble spirit.

Vilmos Meters As film students in Hungary, Laszlo Kovacs and Vilmos Zsigmond took to the war-torn streets of Budapest to shoot footage of the Russian invasion. They subsequently volunteered to smuggle it out of the country. Barely escaping with their lives, the two friends fled to America and settled in Hollywood.

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After working in the underbelly of Hollywood for ten years on a string of low-budget horror and   biker movies, both men soon rose to prominence in the late 60’s and 70’s, shooting the films    that defined what came to be known as the American New Wave: with Laszlo lensing breakout classics like Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, Shampoo and Paper Moon and Vilmos framing The Hired Hand, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Deliverance, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Deer Hunter among many more. Working with directors including Robert Altman, Bob Rafelson, Peter Bogdanovich, Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, they helped create a new American film aesthetic, and pioneered innovative, fearless ways to tell stories.

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Told through interviews with Laszlo (who died during the making of the film) and Vilmos, as well as directors including Rafelson, Bogdanovich, John Boorman, Graeme Clifford, Richard Donner, William Richert, Mark Rydell, composer John Williams and actors such as Jon Voight, Peter Fonda, Sandra Bullock, Karen Black, Sharon Stone and Dennis Hopper in one of his last feature film appearances.

“When it comes to Laszlo Kovacs and Vilmos Zsigmond, it’s clear that the American New Wave of the late 1960’s and early ’70s wouldn’t have flowered as it did without them.”  – Leonard  Maltin

No Subtitles Necessary is an intimate portrait of two giants of modern image making and their deep bond of brotherhood that transcended every imaginable boundary. Two Heroes. One Road.

 

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Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC, HSC 1930-2016


Reprise from 2010: Vladivostok: A Soviet Time Machine

Vladivostok Train Station

Vladivostok Train Station – the end of the Trans Siberian Railway its cornerstone was laid by Czar Nicholas and actor Yule Brynner’s grandfather. I walked Vladivostok looking everywhere. I can’t read any signs so I focus completely on the people, what they are doing, details of dress, what they carry, their energy. It’s busy here, jammed with traffic but as packed as the streets are the sidewalks flow with people, most walk with purpose, the ones that wait sit with intention.The light is amazing, a silky veil of marine clouds softens the edges, it often glows. I’m shooting a black and white photographic portrait so in keeping with this city’s face: harbor, ships, train station, shopping districts, pedestrian underpasses filled with little shops, new construction everywhere beside decaying buildings and crumbling roads, passageways, begging bubuschas and striking, gorgeous fashionistas (are all the Russian women so beautiful?) strutting on amazing heels, North Korean laborers digging with picks and shovels, choking traffic jams of Japanese cars, army trucks and smoky diesel buses, the whole city a fifties Soviet time machine pasted with gaudy billboards, bustling with the brightly dressed carrying Blackberries and iPhones.

I conduct a filmmaking seminar workshop at Far Eastern State Technical University. The students are bright, friendly and optimistic. They smile so much I kid them that they defy the stereotype of dour Russian pessimism. They laugh at that, they want to be free of their Soviet baggage and the opening of my film reminds them of their grandparents world only half known through the propaganda of official history versus first hand accounts. You get the feeling they want to throw that deadweight overboard but can’t. I point out parallels in the American experience that they have to “own” their history to ultimately be free of it (or free of repeating it). Through their lives Laszlo and Vilmos show us that out of great tragedy can come great art and beauty and ultimately forgiveness and renewal. When talk turns to the corporate and political oligarchs or Putin, an unspoken tension arises, looks and shrugs acknowledging that this is the big problem and challenge of their time.

Cinema is the universal language, its inherently natural to communicate with images, ever more so with each succeeding generation. The seminar becomes a workshop, I gather everyone in a tight group. Our camera has a live feed to a large flat screen monitor and we review the grammar of shot making, that we all grasp, even if we have not analyzed how we see movies and television. I tell them first of all that they already have a deep grasp of the language of images and cinema and we know how to read them as well as we do our native language. The camera is a pointing device; you point it at what is important. It is free to move and point at anything your own mind decides: “This girl’s hand writing a note panning up to her face watching the class, panning over to this man’s face watching her, panning to the rest of the group.” We quickly review all the kinds of shots and angles we can make without restriction: wide angle, telephoto detail, high or low, close and intimate or distant and objective, camera movement with almost invisible subtlety or swiftly with sharp dramatic intent. We stage little scenes and try different camera grammar. I ask them what is the next shot that we need to see? They realize they know intuitively how to shoot. We talk about the editing of those shots and point of view. To make a film you the filmmaker has to have a point of view.


Once, twice, three times László Kovács

As previously mentioned, László Kovács worked with director Peter Bogdanovich on six full-length motion pictures, beginning with the 1968 thriller Targets. Just as directors over and over again chose Vilmos Zsigmond to be behind the camera, so too did they recognize the talent of his colleague and countryman. Dennis Hopper was another one of the first directors who recognized Kovács’ skill and put it to use on multiple occasions, producing another fruitful early relationship that helped László to cultivate the unique American New Wave style for which he and Vilmos are lauded. Kovács also worked on multiple films for directors Ivan Reitman, Richard Donner, and Graeme Clifford.

 

Barbara Streisand in Peter Bogdanovich’s 1972 “What’s Up Doc?”

Early in his career, László also routinely worked for the same B-movie directors–Al Adamson, Richard Rush, Peter Perry Jr.–more than once.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Learn more about the remarkable movie careers of Laszlo Kovacs and Vilmos Zsigmond at http://laszloandvilmos.com


The King of Marvin Gardens (1972)

In 1972, László Kovács followed director Bob Rafelson, with whom he had worked on Five Easy Pieces, and Jack Nicholson, the film’s star, to a dreary wintertime Atlantic City, New Jersey to shoot a psychological drama in a similar vein: The King of Marvin Gardens. The real estate con at the heart of the plot tells a little about the depressed state of this pre-gambling resort town, which had seen many establishments go under in the previous decade, while new resort facilities were under construction. Kovács’ cinematography lent Rafelson’s film much of its psychological weight and dream-like feel. While not as acclaimed as Five Easy Pieces, The King of Marvin Gardens is a great film that is well worth another view.

The King of Marvin Gardens is available on DVD from the Criterion Collection.


“Mark of the Gun” coming to DVD in December

From Retromedia and BayView Entertainment comes the DVD release of Mark of the Gun (1969, dir. Walter Campos/Wally Campo), a film that was nearly lost, until a 35mm negative was recently discovered in a lab where it had sat unnoticed for nearly 45 years! Shot by László Kovacs, just prior the cinematographer embarked to make Easy Rider (1969, dir. Dennis Hopper), Mark of the Gun “is a classic western tale of outlaws and the women they love.”  The film stars Ross Hagen, a cult hero of 1960s b-movies who worked continuously until his death in 2011. The DVD will be released on December 11 and will contain bonus trailers.

 


NO SUBTITLES NECESSARY REVIEWED ON SLATE.COM

No Subtitles Necessary: László and Vilmos received a great review on the most recent edition of Slate.com’s Culture Gabfest podcast. Panelist Dana Stevens says that the documentary is “fantastic,” that “[she] learned a lot,” and that “between the two of them, [László and Vilmos] shot…basically all the good movies of the 70s.” You can hear the full podcast here.


The Last Movie (1971)

Coming off of the success of 1969’s Easy Rider, László Kovács again teamed up with writer/director/actor, Dennis Hopper, on The Last Movie, a challenging and innovative industry movie shot on location in Peru. It was a movie that Hopper had tried to make for years, but was only given the latitude to do so after Easy Rider did so well at the box office. Like many forward-thinking and experimental pictures of the day, The Last Movie was not appreciated until many years later, despite earning the Critic’s Prize at the Venice Film Festival. And hopefully the film will see a DVD release in the near future.


Back Lit: László Kovács for “Shampoo” (1975)

Some of the most visually stunning moments of the film Shampoo (dir. Hal Ashby, 1975) come when László Kovács shoots the characters from the backside. Who can forget this image of Julie Christie in a deep v-backed sequin dress:

Julie Christie in “Shampoo”

Or the films ultimate scene of Warren Beatty gazing out upon a hazy Los Angeles vista:

Warren Beatty in “Shampoo”

Thanks to Here’s Looking Like You Kid for the images.

 


The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!! (1964)

Although it may have alluded some of their biographies and CVs, László Kovács and Vilmos Zsigmond worked together on The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies, a campy zombie musical shot on location in Long Beach’s Pike Amusement Park. The two cinematographers may not have been proud of this film, which was has been dubbed the “worst movie ever made,” but the whole genre of camp horror has since garnered a cult following and a recent resurgence in film and television. This renaissance does not come without due credit being given to these two pioneers, who started their Hollywood careers by filming such exploitation movies after emigrating to the U.S. in the late 1950s.

“The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies,” 1964

Thanks to Tim Grobaty of the Long Beach Press-Telegram for digging up this gem: http://www.presstelegram.com/ci_21420323/tim-grobaty-long-beachs-role-zombie-apocalypse


Paradise Alley (1978), dir. Sylvester Stallone

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Coming off the success of Rocky (1976), Universal Pictures green-lighted Sylvester Stallone‘s Paradise Alley, a wrestling picture that the young actor wrote, directed, and stared in. László Kovács was behind the camera, capturing the Noir atmosphere of the New York’s seedy boxing parlors of the 1940s. It was pictures like this that led the films that Kovács and Szigmond shot to be labelled “American New Wave.”