Writer-directors Alex Helfrecht and Jörg Tittel have adapted and filmed György Dragomán’s dystopian fantasy The White King, a series of interlinked stories influenced by the author’s childhood in a Hungarian enclave of Romania during the Ceausescu regime. Lorenzo Allchurch stars as 12-year-old Djata, whose father Peter (Ross Partridge) is imprisoned while he and his mother Hannah (Agyness Deyn) are denied everyday privileges and branded as traitors. Jonathan Pryce, Fiona Shaw and Greta Scacchi also star as prominent figures in an obscure totalitarian state known simply as the Homeland.
MR: When did you first read György Dragomán’s source novel, and how quickly did you secure the film rights?
Alex: It was a few years ago and the novel made a profound impression. I was in tears by page three and the ending was extremely impactful. The whole thing had such an original tone. Original isn’t the easiest thing to make because both the people green-lighting it and eventually those receiving it have to accept it on its own terms… and there is no doubt about it, the novel is strong and singular. I’m proud we tackled something so special and ambitious. I knew it was something for us both to collaborate on because it combined an emotionally driven narrative, elements of history, fascinating and flawed characters, an intense message and the possibility of creating a whole world – something that Jörg loves to do.
Jörg: We had to approach György via his LA film agent, Lynn Pleshette, who had negotiated deals for Cold Mountain, Brokeback Mountain, The Last Geisha and other big Hollywood book adaptations. We thought we’d have no chance. But Lynn was lovely with us and said György would have to talk to us before he’d commit to anything. We said that was fine, confident we could charm him. But then Lynn said he’s a man of taste and also a film critic in Hungary, and that she’d taken the liberty to send him a short film we’d made years ago which she’d found on the internet. We were scared that would be the end of it. Thankfully he liked our short. We spoke with György on Skype for three hours the next day, mostly exchanging tips on how to raise children as creative people working from home. It left us a few minutes to discuss what we wanted to do with his film. Alex and I looked at each other and, fuck it, we went for it. We said we’d set it in the future, change most character names, invent a whole first act… György said, “Fine. You want to do make it your own.” And granted us the rights.
How did you approach adapting the book for the screen, and what was your writing routine?
Alex: Firstly, we wanted to honour the spirit of the book rather than do a transliteration. The book is a series of short stories linked together. The glue is the boy’s love for his father – it’s the beating heart of the novel. Just like the book, we wanted to make a film with an emotional, subtle and unconventional narrative and bring out further the way in which the boy transforms as a result of these experiences. We knew that the violence of the regime had to be weighing down on Djata throughout with his loyalty to his father tested – and whatever material we drew on from the novel had to serve that purpose.
The challenge was to tell the story entirely from the 12-year-old narrator’s point of view, and Djata in the book is this fascinating blend of naivety and knowing. This is almost like walking a tightrope tonally and gives the film an unusual edge. We also developed the adult characters a lot, particularly the mother.
We found that the emotional narrative of the book had a universal quality combined with a surrealist edge – and it felt Orwellian, that this story could happen anywhere. György liked this idea as his book was published in almost thirty languages and he had received letters from people who had grown up under various totalitarian regimes saying how accurate the story felt. Undoubtedly his book is influenced by growing up behind the Iron Curtain but we wanted to create a world that could happen anywhere and at any time. That’s what made the book feel so powerful, combined with the child’s-eye view.
What are the major story changes in the film?
Alex: We developed the character of the grandmother differently, eliminated the grandfather’s mistress, which felt like an added beat (although equally revealing about real life under a regime and hypocrisy and deceit in all its forms). We originally had more scenes with the father in the script but ended up eliminating them before shooting, we felt the father could make enough of an impression in the scenes that he has – and brought out his rebellious side. We toyed with creating a more feel-good ending than the book, but the ending of the film in the end is utterly loyal to the source material and, I think, the only honest ending.
The biggest challenge was the episodic structure, and traces of it certainly remain in the film, but the boy’s emotional journey remains at the heart of the story.”
Which episodes or characters in the novel, if any, do you regret having to cast aside?
Alex: I miss the motorcycle chapter and some of the escapades that Djata gets up to in the novel. If we’d had the budget perhaps we could have done the shooting competition because of what it says about corruption, but we felt that the parade scene fulfilled part of that purpose. And there are plenty of other incidences of corruption in the film. Among other chapters, we dispensed with the Tulips scene, which caused problems in terms of the story’s timeframe and perhaps made Djata too sweet. In the novel, Djata gets up to all sorts of japes but we wanted to keep these down to a minimum to convey the sense of a Boy’s Own adventure but not at the expense of the escalation of his situation and his mother’s breakdown. We streamlined Djata’s friendships into a small, tight group. In the book, there are different friends in every episode flowing in and out of the narrative. The biggest challenge was the episodic structure, and traces of it certainly remain in the film, but the boy’s emotional journey remains at the heart of the story. It is the movie’s thread.
Jörg: We originally toyed with incorporating some of the book’s more magic-realist moments but soon realised that we were already demanding a lot of the audience by setting the story in a fictitious country. Adding another reality layer would have confused too much and possibly distracted from the film’s emotional thread.
Jorg: Every choice on this film was determined in some way by location, budget, time and weather. Those furies always have a way of changing things up on you in ways you could never predict!
Who is the novel’s equivalent of Hank Lumber? Why did you pick the name?
Alex: There is no founding father/dictator character in the novel. It was just the way we wanted to capture visually what the novel does brilliantly – hearsay and poisonous rumours, propaganda designed to subjugate the people. We needed visual symbols in the film that also captured the feel of the book – that the state is like a blanket of oppression that you feel and perhaps only see peripherally, like a distant statue watching you. In the novel there is a small statue with a plaque – a dubious-sounding outlaw called Yanku Dzhanu – who apparently fled a posse out to kill him, a kind of Robin Hood figure. In the novel we are told that people fill up their water buckets at the well beneath his statue. Our Hank Lumber, rustic lumberjack hero of the agrarian fascist Homeland, stands on the hill under which is the so called ‘gold” of the novel… he is a cinematic symbol of deceit and fake news, used to subjugate the people and in that sense is loyal to the ideas in the novel.
Jörg: See, we turned a well into a massive flowing river. That’s the power of cinema right there!
Was Hungary always your first choice for shooting? How did you go about scouting the locations, and what was the most serendipitous discovery along the way?
Jorg: At first we seriously explored shooting the film in the UK – we have two small children and so that would have been the most convenient option. But we neither found the right architecture, nor could we ever have shot the film at this level of quality and production value in the UK, given our small budget. We then looked at potentially shooting in Germany and Poland but those options didn’t quite satisfy. We always had Hungary in the back of our minds and when we had eventually secured some of our great cast and the majority of our budget, we packed our things and moved to Hungary with our kids for four months.
We’d meet behind the monitor and tell each other what shit choices the other person had made. It’s a wonderfully relaxing exercise for a married couple with small children in a foreign country. Everyone should try it sometime!”
What was the weirdest thing to happen during the shoot?
Jörg: There were too many to count. We were filming in Hungary after all, the country which started building a wall to keep refugees out only days after we’d moved there for the film. Every single day was weird, in a very dark and eerie way. This one isn’t as weird as it’s amusing: There is a scene where Djata (Lorenzo Allchurch) and Colonel Fitz (Jonathan Pryce) are in a field with goats. Of course we love all of Jonathan’s screen work, but Alex often told me how amazing he had been in Edward Albee’s The Goat on stage. It’s the story of a man who falls in love with a goat. Before shooting the scene, I asked Jonathan whether he still had, you know, feelings. He told me to be quiet since he was about to breach his restraining order. Minutes later, he delivered one of the most emotional speeches in the film. He’s one of a kind.
Jörg: We worked very hard on this. We set out to create a ‘best of’ multiple dictatorships and rogue states, from past and present, and project these into a near future. We were lucky to have an amazing production designer on board, Richard Bullock, whose work on our film was longlisted for a British Independent Film Award. We spent a lot of time location scouting, doing research and extensive design together, and amidst all the stress of putting the film together I always looked forward to Richard walking into the room with a new “what do you think?”
Does the film have more of a YA vibe than the novel?
Jörg: We never intended for the film to have a YA vibe. Our main protagonist is barely twelve years old. He’s not a hero in the typical sense of the word. He’s an innocent child in a brutal adult world. We always imagined it would be for ‘elevated genre’ audiences, i.e. people who love films like Never Let Me Go, Pan’s Labyrinth, Gattaca, Midnight Special and others.
What was the timeframe between completing the script, shooting and editing?
Jörg: We finished the shooting script in Spring 2015, a month before filming, shot the film in five weeks, then edited and worked on VFX, sound, music, etc. for the better part of the year.
Who were the first actors to sign up, and how long was it before you had the full cast in place?
Alex: We first attached Fiona, then Lorenzo and Agyness, Jonathan and Greta Scacchi followed. Last but not least were the wonderful Olaffur Darri Olaffson and Clare Hope Ashitey. Once you get one, the rest follow. All the actors we wanted and secured were equally good on stage and screen. That was important to us.
Jörg: Not very many. We were fully prepared for seeing hundreds of young actors but, luckily, towards the beginning of the process, our brilliant casting director Ros Hubbard sent us an email late at night, then called us again near midnight saying she’d possibly seen one of the best actors in her career. Being a cynic I thought “yeah, yeah, the Hubbards just don’t want to audition hundreds of kids and are going to fob us off with the first passable child.” But then we watched Lorenzo’s audition tape and we immediately agreed. He’s a rare talent and a wonderful human being with a wonderful family.
How did you share the directing duties?
Jörg: Alex focused mostly on the actors and their performances, and I was on the visual side of things. We’d then meet behind the monitor and tell each other what shit choices the other person had made. It’s a wonderfully relaxing exercise for a married couple with small children in a foreign country. Everyone should try it sometime!
The animated opening credits are very striking. Did you ever consider animating the whole film in a similar, minimalist style?
Jörg: We never thought about animating the whole film. As a matter of fact, we didn’t always plan on having this title sequence. When we were about to finish our film set in a near-future fictitious country called the Homeland, some early viewers thought we were being too obscure about when and where the story is set and how this country came about. While many pushed us to do an opening scroll, we decided to tell the story purely with images and music instead. We wrote a script and approached our friends at London-based animation studio SPOV whose work you may have seen in Call of Duty, Titanfall and other AAA video games. Instead of CG animation, we wanted to go for a hand-drawn, hand-crafted look in tune with our film’s rural, agro-fascist society. Some people still want more explanations, but that’s as explicit as we were willing to go. We want people to be able to project their own reality onto ours – which has suddenly become far easier to do in 2017. And I’m not terribly happy about it, although I probably should be from a commercial point of view. Sometimes being ‘topical’ or ‘prescient’ is a bad thing. This film wasn’t meant to be a documentary.
What are you planning next?
Jörg: I am writing a sci-fi play which Alex will be directing on stage soon. I cannot wait for her to return to the theatre. Alex’s adaptation of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Fiesta, was an incredible experience, and it’s been too long. I’m also writing and directing a VR videogame with a grant from the Wellcome Trust and soon going to China where we are talking to people about a live-action adaptation of Ricky Rouse Has a Gun.
Alex Helfrecht and Jörg Tittel are a longstanding directing, writing and producing team based in London. Their past successes include dystopian satire 2+2+2 starring Richard E. Grant at the King’s Head Theatre, festival favourite short Battle for Britain, the critically acclaimed West End show Fiesta (The Sun Also Rises) and one of the Boston Globe’s 2014 Books of the Year, graphic novel Ricky Rouse Has a Gun.