Helen Mirren The Door

The Door

Cast: Helen Mirren, Martina Gedeck
Director: István Szabó
Genre: Drama
Rated: M
Running Time: 94 minutes

Synopsis: Based on the award-winning novel of the same title by Hungarian author Magda Szabó, The Door from award-winning Director István Szabó (no relation) tells the story of two isolated women-each distanced from their respective worlds by vastly different circumstances-who forge an unlikely friendship over the course of their lifetimes.

Set in mid-20th century Hungary, a country at the time still overrun by the effects of the war and buried under the lingering shadows of suspicion and mistrust, The Door quietly reveals the deeply complex relationship between the newly affluent, emerging writer, Magda, with the mysterious and distant housekeeper, Emerenc. As Magda marches steadily towards professional recognition and success, Emerenc retreats to the horrors of her past, leading to an emotional discovery with tragic consequences.

Magda Szabó is a writer struggling to find not only her voice, but her readership as well since her work has been restricted by the government. When she and her husband, Tibor, move into their city flat, Magda hears of a neighbour woman who may be of help in to her in keeping house. Oddly enough, Magda is told, it won't be her decision to hire the woman, Emerenc. Instead, Emerenc will decide if Magda and her husband are the kind of family she is willing to work for. Intrigued, Magda determinedly sets out to inquire of Emerenc but their first meeting is less than encouraging and Magda departs still somewhat unsure if she has hired a housekeeper or not.

Yet Emerenc has made up her mind, as Magda discovers when Emerenc unexpectedly appears at her house to clean. Over the course of weeks at first, then months and finally years, Magda slowly comes to understand the rules and boundaries by which Emerenc lives her life. Strictly structured, rigid in her regime and absolute in her assessment of people, Emerenc has built impenetrable walls, both real and metaphoric, around her world. Whether it is to protect Emerenc from the world, or the other way around, Magda is as yet still unsure. But the two women slowly come to rely on each other for an unusual emotional support neither is willing or perhaps able, to authenticate.

When circumstances inevitably begin to change, Magda and Emerenc find themselves at a potentially devastating crossroads in their relationship. The two strong women become locked in an emotional storm; each determined not to be the first to say she needs the other. For while Emerenc's secrets and past have forced Magda by example to consider her own inadequacies, the path to forgiveness and unconditional love remains murkey at best-unless Magda can find her own heart in time.

Release Date: July 19th, 2012


About the Film

Auteur filmmaker István Szabó found a great deal in Magda Szabó's story The Door to represent the classic struggle of human nature. Considering the marvellous novel to be a masterpiece, István Szabó nonetheless was attracted to the simplicity of the story about two vastly different women and their decades long relationship.

"The story is about the human relationship, the many levels of human relationship, between a lady writer and another woman who helps to clean her around the house so she can have more time for writing," explained István Szabó. "But the interesting thing in the story is they are both strong personalities and both would like to influence the life, or at least the way of thinking, of the other. So, the complexity exists as one tries to interfere: how can you change the life of somebody else? To change something in another person is quite difficult. And I'm not sure you can be successful.

"So this story is about that fight between two human beings. They like each other, very much, and have a kind of an understanding, but then sometimes they even hate each other. It's like life.

"The real difference between them is that the housekeeper Emerenc, who helps the writer, Magda, is from the village, so she's a peasant girl. And although she's not schooled, and doesn't have a real education, she has an enormous knowledge about nature-about all of nature: the stars, the clouds, the trees, the animals. She can speak with animals. She can speak with flowers. Flowers and animals even follow her.

"Magda, on the other hand, is an intellectual with a fantastic education-she speaks four languages and is surrounded by books. She knows something, but certainly not the real life: The real life has everything to do with the clouds, the stars, the trees, the flowers, the animals.

"Historically, we have a hard time in Hungary," continued István Szabó, "with the State and their ideology, particularly as they tried to change the private life of everyone. This book tells about the impossibility of going into the soul, or the heart of someone so as to change their core feeling-someone's basic way of thinking, their traditions. But I don't think it is only political ideologists who want to change people. There are wives and husbands who want to change the other as well. Perhaps even children, bosses, employees; they all want to change someone sometime. It's our nature."

"This housekeeper, a cleaning lady, is a working woman who has worked all her life," added Helen Mirren of her character, the strong willed Emerenc. "She's had a very traumatic, difficult life and she's lived through a lot of very traumatic tough times, as I understand a lot of the Hungarian population did during the era of time we are looking at.

"Like all great literature, the story is about many different things: its difficult to pinpoint. It's about the simple story of an upper class intellectual woman who employs another woman as her cleaner. And it's about their relationships. But it's also about much more than that. It's about the story of Hungary, about the history of Europe through the second world war... it's about that difficult and interesting relationship between a woman and her housekeeper. It's about two women. Of different classes. It's about spiritaulaity, to a certain extent."

Ms. Helen Mirren, a legendary talent whose roles are in some of cinema's most iconic films, was always the choice to play Emerenc in The Door. "I needed two actresses," explained István Szabó. "Both must have a real dignity, a personal dignity. Of course it was important to have great actresses, the talent is very important in front of the camera. In this case the personal dignity, the personal power was even more important. So we have these two energies. And we like to follow how these two energies work together. How the negative energies turn to positive. How they live together with these two enormous dignities. This is beautiful to see."

Producer Sandor Söth explained, "The story is about two women fighting for the right and the wrong, and the truth…but mainly for respect. Between them they come to terms and they see themselves in each other as well as the opposite of each other. At times that is heartbreaking and even violent, but beautiful at the end.

"We didn't have resources but we had passion. So when we first made the offer to Helen Mirren, we all held our breath, but we got a fantastic response! Because what we had hoped for was also clearly translating to others-this was a very special project."

"Well, you know, it's so interesting," Ms. Helen Mirren mused as she spoke about choosing The Door as her next project. "You choose different projects for such random and arbitrary reasons. This one came to me in part because of a film I was in was shooting in Hungary and Elemér (The Door Director of Photography Elemér Ragályi H.S.C.) was a very old friend of mine from years ago when we had worked together. I'd never forgotten him although I hadn't seen him for years, and he visited us on the set. And he told me about this script and story."

"Years ago", smiles Elemer Ragályi as he recounts the event, "We happen to work together and she rememberd me. Helen Mirren liked the care I took with lighting her then and she never forgot it. Then a few years ago she shot something in Hungary and mentioned my name to the First AD, saying that she would like to meet me to say hello. We went out to dinner and startd talking about the script and what a wonderful chance it might be for her. And then here we are.

"My favorite moment is each time Helen Mirren is in front of the camera," Elemer Ragályi confided. "I love her face; I love her carriage as she is giving over her face to the camera. She is completely free in front of the camera: Very straight, free of ego. She doesn't need anyone circling around her with technical details, she's a "just tell me" kind of person-generous, nice and talented."

Sandor Söth remembered Ms. Helen Mirren's response to the offer was very positive, but her calendar was full and while she loved the script and wanted to do it, she just couldn't add it to her schedule. "Well, 'can't' for me means you just can't do it now," said Sandor Söth. "So I said is there a way to do it in the future? Ms. Mirren said 'if you're willing to wait, I'll be happy to do it at a future date'.

"Now this kind of answer is a moment when you aren't really sure of the meaning in the statement-was she just being kind or putting me off or was it really an option? Well, with Helen Mirren it was the truth. We said we're ready to wait if that's what it takes."

"Of course István Szabó is a very well known director and I'd known of his many well received films," said Helen Mirren of her decision. "That combination sparked my interest. And then I was sent the script and book, and you know this is really a wonderful character to play. And that's all you look for as an actress, the next great character to play.

"I think my audience will be pretty shocked at first, shock and horror probably when they see my lack of costume and make-up! But you want the audience to forget who you are when they are watching any piece of drama you're in. It's not a way of advertising yourself, to act, although a lot of people imagine that's what it is.

"But it's not. You want the audience to really forget who you are, and to forget the actress completely when you are performing. That's what we are all hoping for: Aiming for. It's often difficult to do that."

Once he had his Emerenc, István Szabó set out to cast his second leading lady. Knowing that the film would be defined as a European co-production, the producers and István Szabó felt they had to search for just the right counterpoint to Ms. Helen Mirren's performance.

"I was under the initial impression that István Szabó wanted to do this as a small, German-Hungarian co- production," remembered Producer Jenö Habermann. "But when talking to him, I think we all discovered that this had the potential to be a much larger, more international project and we should just have the guts to go out and get the best possible talent."

"We knew we had an incredible advantage with István Szabó," elaborated Sándor Söth, "because he's an actors' director. Actors are basically very keen to work with him, they know he is sensitive and they feel quite safe and secure under his direction. So of course we had choices, and we asked ourselves who could be in this role and carry the international audience."

"We also wanted to stay in the European circuit looking for this talent," added Sandor Söth. "We had gone through the packaging and knew we needed a talented, fantastic actress. We'd had conversations with Helen Mirren and soon it became obvious: the German actress Martina Gedeck was the choice for Magda. We had our dream team.

"When anyone reads the script for the first time," explained Martina Gedeck about her reasons for taking on the role of Magda, "you see Emerenc opening up like a flower: she gets revealed. And you are on this journey of discovery for this woman. That's exactly what Magda does-she gives the stage for Emerenc to emerge, to shine. Magda accompanies her, is beside her as she gets to tell her story.

"Emerenc, on the other hand, takes care of everyone: the sick, the needy-she is very generous, very self-sacrificing, very strong, very strict. Coming, as she does, from another part of the world, another part of morality, Emerenc isn't religious in our sense of the word, but she believes in nature, she can talk to the animals and knows the signs of nature. She belongs to an old fashioned world that doesn't really exist any longer in Eastern Europe.

"Just as Emerenc stands for that world," Martina Gedeck continues, "Magda stands for another: the mind, the spirit, the art, intellectualism, refined. It's a world Emerenc doesn't know and has never had the opportunity to experience.

"So the two women sort of cling together, they collide. There's a lot of misunderstanding along with understanding and love. And on my part, I want to know everything about this woman. And at the end, I'm losing Emerenc and it's my responsibility.

"This is a great moment for me, this moment when all is not what it seems. This is the point that made me take the project," claimed Martina Gedeck. "Magda's role is that she starts to love this woman that she actually hates. She starts to need her. Emerenc becomes very dear to Magda; I found this so interesting. She saw something in Emerenc that she had to connect with but couldn't get to. So The Door means unlocking not only the real door, but the door into Emerenc's heart and soul.

"And I feel a great sense of responsibility," concluded Helen Mirren, "to do just that with this piece in particularly-it was a great piece of literature and very well known, very well loved piece of literature. And I think it's a very iconic character, especially for the Hungarian people. And I hope that it will have universality as well. She's a very mighty personage, a character as well and it's a weighty responsibility."

"The fact that we put the financing together from Hungarian and German sources is somewhat of a unique constellation for that range of budget," continued Sandor Söth. "We are shooting interiors in Cologne and within that framework of European co-production we have spend requirements. Our first partner was the film fund from here. That's always the most important and difficult. They believed in the project and István Szabó. From that moment on we could put all the elements together.

"And, of course, we are shooting all the exteriors in Budapest-we have all four seasons in the film, so we shot the autumn, summer and spring scenes first, then traveled to the studio in cologne, and then back to Budapest for winter exteriors."

The two crews, both Hungarian and German, worked enormously well together, often choosing a third language as the common one between them. Devoted to István Szabó, the crew was more like family than the often disparate crafts people who usually make up a set. Uniquely, it was István Szabó's non-verbal method with the two lead actresses that was most effective.

"It's quite difficult for me to work in English," admitted István Szabó as he spoke about his process. "It's not my mother language, and while it's slightly easier to use German, it's still not easy to tell my actors what I'd like to have from them. But both Helen Mirren and Martina Gedeck are very open: these two women both have enormous talent for reading my face. They read the eyes. We can look at each other, and it works.

"Helen Mirren is such a great actress," said Martina Gedeck of her co-leading lady. "I've admired her for so long. It's brilliant to work with her. And István Szabó -I've always loved his work and find it a privilege to work with him and his great team. I know that István Szabó always has his own people on the crew so I know the team will be so strong. And Elemér, the DP, makes the most beautiful light, the most beautiful pictures.

"He is wonderful," agreed Helen Mirren about Sandor Szabó. "He's a very delicate director. He doesn't beat everything over the head with a big stick. It's all done with a great sense of delicacy, with great choice. In the sense that he knows exactly what he wants, he doesn't over do, once he has it he moves on. Great delicacy involved in the work."

"There have been enormous changes over the years for me in the making of my films," remarked István Szabó. "Neo realism at first, then came the new wave with this idea of writing with the camera. We were very happy to study and practice this profession in this way. Then, slowly, things have changed. American cinema imagines to tell the stories of winners, while we in Europe seem to tell stories of losers. But after a terrible 20th century of wars and revolutions, we are now telling stories of people who have experienced loss.

"So, the question then is what to do now? Well, we need a new perspective to be speaking about the new Europe. It's important for audiences to celebrate European films.

"And in a practical sense, for example in doing this film-I have 12 working hours in a day, which means 14 hours total each day for six working days in a week. Physically that's not so easy. But we have to do it this way to keep the budget on track. And we must work at this lower level of budget because more money is simply not available. It's our job as filmmakers now to take over part of the job of the producer. We also have to keep the budget and keep the schedule as we tell the story.

"Until the end of the 80's it wasn't hard to finance a film if the story was good. Today it's impossible and you have to fight for years and years. We have been working on financing this film for three years. It's so hard to finance in Europe: Most of the money comes from state owned banks and institutions which is not the best money to have. Or we have to speak realistically-European film only exists if a big entity subsides and helps.

"The future of European film is important because we have to fight. Not like guerillas separated from each other with envy of one side getting more. We have to work together."

István Szabó's references to working together and dream team are born out on his set-many of his key crew having been with him for over 25 years, some even from his very first films.

"The team, this crew, there are some who have been with me for thirty years," admits István Szabó. "Some of them have done all my films since Confidence or Mephisto. Make Up. Sound. Camera. My first assistant: he's doing everything. He plans the whole film; he knows better than I what I can do. Sometimes I'm in a dream world, thinking I can do something in one day, and he says "no…" because he knows. I have a costume lady doing my film since 27 years. My makeup artist, she's done all my films since-well, it's not nice to say how long a woman has been with me-but at least 25 years. These people have my back and are with me always.

"I worked for 15 films with one cinematographer, who is wonderful, who went on to become a director. And as he's my good friend, perhaps my best friend, my job is to support him because he's now a film director. So I ask another friend of mine, also fantastic, not only as a cinematographer but he comes with his own crew and he keeps that crew together and they work very fast and very well together. And the pictures they create are exactly as I like."

"Ten years ago I started to direct movies," said The Door Award-winning Director of Photography Elemér Ragályi (H.S.C.). "The first one I showed my script to was István Szabó for his advice: we stayed close as he helped me. Before I left, half seriously I said, you know István Szabó, life is so capricious, and we never know one minute to the next…if once in your life you end up with no DP, you can call me. He said I would love to work with you. And now, eight, nine years later-it has happened.

"It was strange for me to work with István Szabó because I knew about his very long relationship with his other DP and it seemed kind of a risky thing to get in the middle. I'm quite a nosy man, I like to push my nose into other people's business-I'm not a technical cinematographer who is just lighting the set. I have opinions about everything that is happening in the film, how the actors are, and the connections to the story, the location…and I wasn't sure how István Szabó would react to my kind of behavior.

"I was surprised in a good way that István Szabó 'hears' all of us who give him good ideas. It's is much more of a creative team than most, a very good crew. And we are not in an easy position, I tell you. This is a very famous book, not only in Hungary but around the world, and it is very popular. Everyone who reads it has an expectation about the characters, the location. And when you go to the cinema, the audience compares their imagination with the reality of the film."

Shot on location in Hungary, as well as a sound stage in Germany, The Door stays as close as possible to visual realities of author Magda Szabó's life. In a delicate process, director István Szabó and his team mixed their imagination, Magda Szabó's reality and the film's budget into a visual alchemy to support the story.

"Location is very important-this is the background, this is the world of our story," add István Szabó. "What is important in a film to me? The most important thing, the unique thing that only film can show to the audience is a human face with emotions. They bond with the audience or turn to another emotion in front of the audience; this is the most important thing. Or, one living face in a fight with another living face: Energy to energy. Energy with the question, energy returned with answer. This is the most important thing. You cannot see this when you read a book, you can't even see it when you are at the (live) theater. It's only with film, or a screen, that you can see closely enough to register the emotion. This is the most important thing.

"But also important is the background, not just the social or political background but the physical background the audience can see. That is why locations are so important.

"We looked very carefully for the right locations. I was walking on the street where Magda Szabó really lived for months to find the right place. And the set is very, very important. I'm really very happy on the set, because when our lead actors first arrived and looked around, I asked them what they thought. And they said "hmm. I feel at home, I can stay here. I'm happy to be here in this flat." This is great, most important. They feel good because the flat is a flat. You can live here.

"Because this film is chamber music," concluded István Szabó. "It needs something else from what I have done in the past-it needed intimacy. What we've done in the past with films like Turning Sides, or Mephisto, or Being Julia: they needed stage, theater, military size. But this film needs something that will help us create intimacy.

"I love the dark of the set when I come in the morning," admitted Elemer Ragályi, "because I know I hold in my hands all the choices for the light-everything is under my control. I can direct the sun; I can tell where it will come from. I can slowly put together the atmosphere of the set. There are nice happy things in the movie and there are sad; there are four seasons, which include dark days and sunny days. Sometimes my lighting is matching to atmosphere, sometimes it is in contrast."

The care with which the team assembled the visual content of the film was also matched by equal consideration given to the auditory elements. Returning to his relationship with Oscars™ Award-winning Sound Mixer Simon Kaye, István Szabó gave his cinematic "ears" in Simon Kaye's extraordinary care.

"This is a Hungarian movie shot in English using a script which comes from a Hungarian book written by István Szabó who had it translated into English," explained Simon Kaye with a smile, "some of which is insufficiently colloquial. So we have not a problem but a task, that while we're shooting we get rid of the literary part and make it more colloquial and understandable. It's an exciting challenge. It gives me another element to play with that I don't usually have. Normally you're hired to record a film; in this case István Szabó's brief to me was "be my ears".

Known for the sound of such extraordinary films as Reds, Last of the Mohicans's and Gandhi, Simon Kaye appreciated the more intimate challenges of a multi-character drama.

"We are dealing with many actors who are speaking with less than good English so we have to watch the timing. Hungarians speak very quickly and don't necessarily pace their sentences the way we do. They tend to run in from one sentence to another because they've learned the lines. We have to have them put in a comma where it is deserved and a full stop.

"From that perspective, it makes the project very interesting because it's not just a normal job to pick up your mic and headphones and start to record…it's much more artistic and much more interesting which pleases me. It's something István Szabó has used me for on previous projects. I've known him now for 19 years. We've only done two other films together, but this way it gives me the opportunity to listen, if you like, more carefully to the words, because sometimes they're not the right words-they have to be transposed or changed-and István Szabó's very willing to hear what I've heard.

"I classify István Szabó a friend; we've known each other 19 years. I made his first film he shot in English, Meeting Venus. We've been pretty close since then; this is the third film he's shot with me. We have a very friendly, trusting relationship and he's just a pleasure to work with.

"Everyone, the artists, the production, we all work well together. It's not a chore. Every day on set is a pretty happy day that usually starts with a joke or two, sometimes in Hungarian. We enjoy being together.

"I've been doing this work for a long time," added Simon Kaye, "and it's exhilarating. There's not anything like getting the call and being asked to do a directors' movie. There's only one of me on any given film, you've been chosen, respected (hopefully) for what you've done in the past and what you can (hopefully) do for the director now."



 



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