Barnabás Tóth, Director of Oscar Nominated Live Action Short ‘Chuchotage’, talks his process

Q: Give a background of your personal experience with the story, writing, production and marketing

Barnabás Tóth: I did a conference interpreting job for one day at one time in my life and it was a nightmare. Fortunately only a gentleman from Luxembourg was listening to my French- channel. At the end of the day I excused myself, I was so poor in this job. It was 20 years ago but last year when I saw a call for a short film script contest, I used this idea and won a small budget to produce it with Laokoon Filmgroup. I didn’t know too much about marketing before the announcement of the short list – you usually don’t get to marketing phase with a short film, at least in Hungary. This job is as hard as getting the budget together. Actually, the easiest part is the making of the movie. It is quite sad in my opinion, it shouldn’t be this way. There is too much pressure on directors in Europe.

Q: Did you start writing with a cast (You or any) in mind?

Barnabás Tóth : No, not really. I usually don’t have people in mind when I write. Although I admit, it’s a great help. But then when you don’t get that actor it’s tough.

Q: How long did you take to complete the script?

Barnabás Tóth: About a month, not as a full time job. I always write a first draft focusing on the story and the characters. As how I imagine, only myself. Than I dig deep into the milieu, the details. Some people do it the opposite way. I contacted a Hungarian interpreter who helped me a lot. We had a long conversation in a café and she was also kind enough to let me shadow her at a real conference where I spent a few hours in the booth taking notes, it was a very important phase of the writing process: the field work. She told me anecdotes about her profession, which helped me with the dialogues.

Q: When did you form your production company – and what was the original motivation for its formation?

Barnabás Tóth: Though I am one of the producers of Chuchotage, it is not my company who produced it.

Q: What was the first project out of the gate?

Barnabás Tóth: I know Laokoon’s biggest success so far is the Oscar-, BAFTA-, Golden Globe- and Cannes Grand Prix-winning Son of Saul.

Q: During production, what scene (that made the cut) was the hardest to shoot?

Barnabás Tóth: The opening shot on the steady cam. We had technical problems, also a lot of (international) extras; also the connection of the two locations with the lighting was tough.

Q: What works better in this latest production that mightn’t have worked so well in the last one you did?

Barnabás Tóth : That’s the magic of cinema, You never know. I thought everything was just perfect in my previous short. It was called Operation Stone, a coldwar-spy costume drama with excellent cast, camera and a strong script with a twist, all this based on true events. But the film just didn’t make its way to festivals or the audience. For this new one, Chuchotage, it was made with less ambitions, smaller budget, 2 days shooting, small crew, very simple, sweet story, no big drama, no big issues, it was a feel-good flow of work and the result light-hearted. Never in my life I’d have imagined it could make it into 42 international festivals and 20 awards. And now close to an Oscar nomination…I really love this unpredictable aspect of my job.

Q: You produced and directed the film, what measure of input did it take to don these hats?

Barnabás Tóth: I gathered half of the budget through a sponsor myself and until last week I managed everything alone in promotion: festivals, screenings, sales. As I mentioned, in Europe, in shorts, a director cannot be just director. There were other producers as well of course and a production manager, so during shooting I could concentrate only on my job, but before and after, I was the only parent and boss of this film. Obviously there are advantages too – total control.

Q: Is there anything about the independent filmmaking business you still struggle with?

Barnabás Tóth: Total lack of promotion for everything I did so far, including my first feature. Also, my job is extra hard here in Hungary: the only state support, the Hungarian Film Fund only thinks about festival-hit-arthouse-auteur films OR silly comedies with celebrities. No mid-films, no true quality films with real human feelings. They totally ignored all of my projects for instance so far.

Q: Where do you think your strengths line as a filmmaker?

Barnabás Tóth: My movies can touch people. They make them laugh, think or even cry. I can talk about everyday people with problems that are familiar to all of us.

Q: Let’s talk finance, How did you finance the film?

Barnabás Tóth: 30% of the budget came from the script contest award, 45% was private sponsoring and 25% was automatic tax refund from the State. The budget was 35.000 euros.

Q: How much did you go over budget? How did you manage it?

Barnabás Tóth : I have never ever gone over budget or over schedule during my 20-year career.

Q: How important is marketing? Do you think a project can make any dent without it these days?

Barnabás Tóth : Marketing is almost everything. You can make millions of dollars with some crap and your little true treasure can totally disappear without at least huge social media effort.

Q: Can you tell us about your marketing activities on the project – and how it’s gone for you?

Barnabás Tóth: It only started about a week ago. We contacted a world sales agent, New Europe Films, and Jan Naszewski, this great young manager who has helped us shape the image of the film. We focus on the nomination campaign obviously. We have also collaborated with London Flair PR as we need their experience and professional contacts. We make gifs, quoted stills and film extracts for the social media campaign. We use the funny, central European and feel-good image of Chuchotage, and also the funny-likeable face of the male characters and the beauty of Andrea Osvárt, the lead actress.

Q: What do you hope audiences get from your film?

Barnabás Tóth : That they don’t think about their problems for 16 minutes. That the next day, they will think of the film with a big smile. That it brings nice memories and they can make an instant connection to their own life.

Q: What else have you got in the works?

Barnabás Tóth : Just finished post-production on Someone to live for, my second feature, it’s a wonderful human story, set in 1949 Budapest, describing the complicated relation between a 42 year old doctor and a 16 year old girl, who both lost everyone in the war.