Interview: Director Barnabás Tóth

Malu Rocha interviews the director of Chuchotage, the only comedy short film shortlisted for the Oscars

Chuchotage is a workplace comedy in which two simultaneous interpreters in the Hungarian booth realise that there is only one person in the conference listening to their translations. So, as one naturally does, they decide to have some fun. The premise of the short film is quite interesting and fresh, and even though the plot is unmistakably predictable, it is still pleasurable to watch. The comedy is especially poignant and smart, leaving the audience attentive for the next highly inappropriate joke, which contrasts nicely with an unexpected declaration of love that keeps the audience interested and invested in the main character, Pali. The director of Chuchotage, Barnabás Tóth, is an accomplished Hungarian director whose filmography includes 12 short films, two features, and some of Hungary’s most successful television shows. Barnabás shares some insights into his short film below.

Q: Being a chuchotage interpreter is a fairly uncommon profession to be seen in films, could you tell us what influenced you to write this particular story?
A: I did this conference-interpreting job once 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 entered with this idea and won a small budget to produce it with Laokoon Filmgroup.

Q: You were convinced by your DoP András Szöke to film in that particular vintage and picturesque set, did that decision make you re-think any aspects of your original idea? 
A: No, not really. At first I had a more cold, glass-ish steel-ish modern and huge space in my mind. But then all the practical aspects come: the uncontrollable lights from outside (means limited shooting time), the huge space that required more extras etc etc. András wanted the location, which is in the film from the beginning, and I have to admit it not only brought style and intimacy to the story, but also gave this slight retro-ambiance, which is considered to be fancy nowadays.

Q: Did you have any 'happy accidents' while filming on set? Anything unexpected that turned out to make Chuchotage better than you had planned?
A: Let me think. The shooting was so short, only 2 days and on both days we had unpleasant and unpredictable technical flaws – which always occur in a set. So I must say the only positive surprise was the discipline and the natural acting of all the extras and secondary parts – great job by Zoom casting agency, Budapest.

Q: Do you recall any interesting anecdotes while filming that you could share with us?
A: That place we used was a common conference meeting room for top communist leaders of the Eastern block in the 60s and 70s. It will be demolished this year. 

Q: Chuchotage falls within the comedy genre but it also has quite a few elements of sadness around the main character, how did you find that balance? 
A: I guess this is my speciality. My first idols were Chaplin and Woody Allen, both masters of fun and melancholy at the same time. It’s a fragile balance but for the most part it’s instinctive.

Q: There is a long and heartfelt declaration of love in your film, could you tell us where the inspiration for that came from?
A: When I wrote the first draft, it was far shorter and much weaker. In one of the rehearsals (we didn’t have many), I asked Pali to let go and flow with the moment, just improvise anything which comes to his mind. He was amazing, I shot the whole thing and when I wrote the final draft, I mixed my ideas with his ideas. Each time I see it, with that great piece of music by László Pirisi, I’m touched. This was really teamwork. 

Q: Do you have any projects planned for the future that our readers should keep an eye out for? 
A: My drawer is full of scripts, treatments and synopsis’s of all genres, from no budget to costume action movies. I can’t wait to talk to anyone interested about them.