“I have made a number of films in which I have weaved stories around people I had filmed… I used to think it was amusing. After putting myself in János’ shoes, I don’t anymore.”
When I emailed him for our “5 Questions” series, Roger Deutsch cut to the chase. “I want to state right off that the Roger Deutsch character in the film is not me.” The Green Bay native, who moved back to the states in 2004 after a decade of writing scripts in Italy, was adamant that the director in The Boy on the Train “uses my biography but I invented him.”
Deutsch maintains that his Wisconsin Film Festival selection is one of “the least personal films” he’s made and while the character of Roger Deutsch is openly-defined enough to allow that, the two-man drama is chock full of reflections on storytelling and the power of the camera. Set in modern day Budapest, Roger Deutsch (James Eckhouse) is confronted by János (Barnabás Tóth), the titular Boy on the Train who has an axe to grind over how the documentarian presented him as a Soviet youth. To make amends as only a filmmaker can, Deutsch turns on his camera to capture János’s side of things. What follows is an intellectual and unexpectedly tense road trip through Hungary, complete with authentic production values, ornithological philosophy and the occasional death threat.
I asked (the real) Roger Deutsch about shooting on location and telling stories within stories:
1. You have an opera singer and what seems like a cast filled with native speakers, and a production that, judging by their names, doesn’t not seem American. You shot on location for this? What was casting and scouting like?
I loved shooting in Budapest and have moved there for the foreseeable future. The crews and actors are fantastic. Barnabás Tóth, who plays János, committed to the project in the early stages and supplied me with contacts for the rest of the cast and crew. Anna Herczenik, the opera singer (spoiler alert!) is also a theater actress. This was her first film and I am using her again in my new film. Tibor Szervét, who plays the uncle, is a very big name in Hungary but he was willing to give everything for my little film. I was very lucky with the actors.
2. I love Gábor Holtai’s slightly unsettled chamber music. Why did you choose to mix that non-diegetic music with what Roger is shooting on his camera?
I also love Gábor’s music. I must admit that I hadn’t thought of the diegesis question until now. The Boy on the Train is structured in long chapters some of which are self-contained stories. I wanted short interludes dividing the chapters to give the audience a chance to reflect for a moment before diving into the next one. I asked Gábor to write music to reflect the mood of the scene that just ended and to prepare the mood for the following scene. Originally, I was going to use a variety of visual material for the interludes but during editing I decided I liked using Roger’s footage as if he was also reflecting before diving into the next scene. This is one of the ways in which he and I are very different. I rarely take my camera with me and often just reuse footage in new films. The Boy on the Train is actually the 4th film in which I have used the material I shot on the Pioneer Railroad in 1991.
3. Obviously, you share the same name as your character, and you’re showing that diegetic footage he’s shooting. When he’s not filming though, Roger’s also using the camera as a defense mechanism when he’s stranded or as a way of understanding this country. How do you see cinema as tying into the film’s ideas of knowing and coincidence?
This is an excellent question but I don’t have the time or ability to answer it.
4. At one point, János says to Roger “Maybe in your next movie you should be the subject. No bullshit.” Are you putting yourself on trial here?
I am putting my filmmaking practice on trial. I have made a number of films in which I have weaved stories around people I had filmed. As I would narrate the stories myself, many audiences were convinced that I was making documentaries. Even film festivals have programmed some of the films as documentaries even though I entered them as narratives. I used to think it was amusing. After putting myself in János’ shoes, I don’t anymore.
5. János is so literal but he’s also this litmus test, a throat-clearing for how Roger is piecing together his memories as he understands them through film. Does János see himself as a victim?
Barnabás and I discussed this question at great length during rehearsals. I don’t think János sees himself as a victim. I think he takes what the world gives him without complaint. It is what it is and one of the many things that irritates him about Roger is Roger’s inclination to speculate. He is angry at Roger for calling him a budding fascist of course, but he would have been angry if Roger had called him a saint. For János, the problem is that Roger had no right to call him anything without knowing him.
- The Boy on the Train will play on Fri, Apr 15 at 1:30p in the UW Cinematheque and Sat, Apr 16 at 8:45p in Sundance 1.