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Vilmos & Laszlo's Excellent Adventure

By Bob Fisher

Laszlo Kovacs, ASC, and Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC, taking a meter read

This story is kind of a fairytale about a dream that came true. Laszlo Kovacs, ASC, and Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC, survived a heroic endeavor during the 1956 Hungarian revolution that was the beginning of the end of the Cold War. They came to the United States as political refugees in 1957 in pursuit of a seemingly impossible dream.

The odds against them turning into filmmakers in Hollywood were staggering, but they became legends in their own time. Kovacs broke through first with Easy Rider in 1969, which film critic Leonard Maltin dubbed "a landmark movie that changed the art of filmmaking." Kovacs subsequently lensed such classics as The King of Marvin Gardens, Paper Moon, Shampoo and New York, New York.

Zsigmond earned an Oscar for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, additional nominations for The Deer Hunter, The River and The Black Dahlia, and an Emmy for Stalin. His other films include McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Rose and Deliverance.

Both men earned the ultimate tribute from their peers. Zsigmond received the American Society of Cinematographers Lifetime Achievement Award in 1999 and Kovacs in 2002. Just to put that into perspective, they recounted a visit to the ASC Hollywood clubhouse in the early 1960s when they hoped to meet some of their heroes. They were greeted with a gruff order to leave the premises immediately.

"I have always admired their artistry and character," says James Chressanthis, ASC. "I have been thinking about producing a documentary about them for a long time. This is also a story about their friendship and the bond that links them together." Zsigmond and Kovacs were both raised in Hungary during the Nazi occupation and the subsequent Communist regime imposed by the Soviet Union in 1945. Kovacs lived on a farm near a small village about 60 miles from Budapest. His parents sent him to school in Budapest when he was 16 years old, hoping that he would become a doctor or an engineer. Kovacs enrolled at the Academy of Drama and Film in Budapest.

Zsigmond was raised in Szeged. During his teens, he worked in a tavern run by his stepmother. His father had left the country and was coaching soccer in Morocco. Zsigmond was a self-taught still photographer. He was denied an opportunity to enroll in college to pursue his muse because his parents were bourgeois, so he worked in a factory in Szeged. There, he organized a still photography club and taught workers how to take pictures, and was rewarded with a chance to study at the Academy of Drama and Film.

Flash forward to October 1956. Zsigmond had recently graduated from the school and was working at the government film studio in Budapest. Kovacs was still a student. After witnessing the beginning of a civil uprising against the Communist regime in Budapest, they borrowed a 35mm camera and filmed the fighting on the streets. When the new reform Communist regime faltered, Russians troops stormed into the city. Citizens fought the soldiers, using their bodies and Molotov cocktails, in valiant attempts to stop tanks.

Kovacs and Zsigmond were in the middle of the action during the three weeks of fighting. It was a dangerous endeavor; people on the streets with cameras were being arrested or shot on the spot. After the revolt was crushed, their mentor George Illes urged them to leave Hungary and take the film with them so the world would see the truth. They made a perilous journey on foot through a forest, carrying sacks containing 30,000 feet of film, and they made it safely across the Austrian border.

Parts of their film eventually aired on an award-winning CBS Television news special on the fifth anniversary of the revolt, with a commentary by Walter Cronkite.

Zsigmond and Kovacs arrived at a refugee camp at Fort Kilmer, New Jersey, in February 1957. A Lutheran priest helped Zsigmond get a job in a still photography lab in Evanston, Illinois. Kovacs was sponsored by a passport photographer who put him to work tapping maple syrup out of trees in upstate New York. They both made their way to Los Angeles a few years later to help Josef Zuffa, another refugee, make a short film.

Zsigmond and Kovacs learned English and supported themselves with odd jobs. They shared a 16mm camera to shoot free films for UCLA students, along with industrial films and documentaries. Zsigmond did freelance camerawork for David L. Wolper Productions, but he was turned down for a full-time position and was advised to find another line of endeavor. Kovacs worked on some episodes of National Geographic Specials in 1964. By then, they were shooting low-budget films on weekends, including such titles as The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies.

Kovacs shot a series of biker films about motorcycle gangs during the late 1960s; that series culminated with Easy Rider.

Chressanthis put his idea for a documentary into motion earlier this year when UCLA hosted a tribute marking the 50th anniversary of the arrival of Zsigmond and Kovacs in the US. Some 300 people jammed into the Billy Wilder Theater in Westwood to listen to the filmmakers recount their memories, answer questions and screen excerpts from their early nonfiction films. Chressanthis filmed interviews with Zsigmond and Kovacs in addition to documenting their commentaries during the UCLA event.

"I did the interviews on film because it is a more emotional medium," he says. "I wanted to look into their eyes and see whether there was joy or sadness as they recounted memories. Everyone wanted to be part of this project. Franz Wieser at ARRI arranged to loan us the new ARRI 416 (Super-16) camera along with a set of Ultra Prime lenses. It's a revolutionary cameravery small, lightweight and extraordinarily quiet."

Kodak donated film and LaserPacific provided post-production services. Other individuals and companies have offered assistance. Chressanthis cites former IDA President Michael Donaldson, who is assisting with legal matters, and Dr. David Kaminsky, a surgeon with a passion for film, who is serving as producer.

Chressanthis is currently interviewing actors, directors and other people who worked with Zsigmond and Kovacs. They are offering insights into their characters as well as how they have influenced the art form, and inspired and assisted young filmmakers. As this issue went to press, Chressanthis was finalizing plans to film Zsigmond in New Orleans at work on his current project, an independent feature about pioneer jazz musician Charles "Buddy" Bolden.

While Chressanthis is primarily a narrative filmmaker, this project is kind of a return to his roots. After earning a master's degree from Southern Illinois University, he taught art at a college in Michigan, and practiced what he preached as a sculptor. He arrived at a crossroads in 1979 during a visit to a mountain village in Greece where his maternal grandparents and other relatives lived.

Chressanthis documented that visit on 16mm film, and returned to the village in 1980 to shoot more film. He created a personal documentary called Remembrance of a Journey to a Village, which aired on PBS. That led to a second documentary, Necros: An Aftermath, about a friend who was a Vietnam War veteran, which aired on Thirteen/WNET New York.

Chressanthis enrolled at the American Film Institute in 1984. He met Kovacs when the cinematographer screened Paper Moon and conducted a seminar at the school, and he interned with Zsigmond during the making of The Witches of Eastwick in 1986.

"At the end of the film, we were shooting at Doheny Mansion in Beverly Hills," Chressanthis recalls. "Vilmos told the director, George Miller, 'We are having a long lunch today. It is the 30th anniversary of the Hungarian revolution.' Visitors, some Hungarian, began arriving. In the forecourt of the mansion, long tables were set up and a bountiful banquet lunch appeared. Laszlo and Vilmos presided. Hungarian wine flowed. They toasted the spirit of the revolution, those who had given their lives, the family and friends whom they would never see again. Little did any of us know that three years later the Iron Curtain would fall. I was struck that day by the optimism and generosity of spirit these two men displayed. Their affection for each other impressed me deeply. That was the genesis for the film I am making."

Postscript: The film that Kovacs and Zsigmond risked their lives to carry out of the country was turned over by CBS to the Hungarian government, which archived the film for posterity. Some of that footage is being integrated into Torn from the Flag, a documentary about the 1956 revolution conceived and directed by IDA member Klaudia Kovacs (no relation to Laszlo Kovacs) and Endre Hules. Lszl Kovcs and Zsigmond filmed some of the interviews with American and Russian politicians, Russian soldiers and Hungarians who lived through the revolt.


Bob Fisher has been writing about film preservation and cinematography for over 25 years.