James Chressanthis, ASC has made many new friends since he produced and directed No Subtitles Necessary: László & Vilmos. The documentary chronicles both the friendship that bound László Kovács, ASC and Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC together for some 50 years and the unique contributions they have made to the art form.
“Countless numbers of people have called, emailed or thanked me in person,” Chressanthis reveals. “They all have stories about how László and Vilmos inspired them.”
He cites a young director from Argentina who received a letter from Kovács praising his film, which Kovács had judged in a student competition, and encouraging him to pursue his dream. Chressanthis says the stories he has heard could fill a book.
He adds, “No one who has read or heard the title has ever asked me who László and Vilmos are. Everyone knows that László Kovács and Vilmos Zsigmond came to the United States as political refugees with a seemingly impossible dream of becoming cinematographers in Hollywood. They had no assets or contacts and didn’t speak English. They were rejected at first, but never gave up and became legends in their own time.”
Chressanthis has earned nearly 40 cinematography credits during the past 20 years, including the Emmy-nominated telefilms Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows and Four Minutes. He was filming and occasionally directing episodes of “Ghost Whisperer” throughout the production of this ambitious endeavor.
History: Kovács and Zsigmond were born and raised in small towns in Hungary during the Nazi occupation, which was followed by an authoritarian communist government imposed by the Soviet army. They were in different classes while studying cinematography at the University of Drama, Film and Television in Budapest.
Zsigmond and Kovács got their first glimpse of the world beyond the borders of Hungary when their mentor György Illés encouraged them to watch Western movies in the school library when communist officials weren’t monitoring their activities. They were both enthralled by Gregg Toland, ASC’s cinematography on Citizen Kane.
A spontaneous uprising against the repressive regime in October 1956 nearly succeeded until Russian army tanks and soldiers brutally intervened. Kovács and Zsigmond borrowed a 35 mm motion picture camera and film, and documented fighting on the streets of Budapest. After the Russian army crushed the revolt, Illés encouraged Kovács and Zsigmond to leave the country before they were arrested.
They made a perilous trek to the Austrian border carrying thousands of feet of film so the world could see the truth about what had happened. Kovács and Zsigmond arrived in the United States as political refugees in February 1957. Zsigmond was assigned to a sponsor who got him a job at a still photography lab in Illinois. Kovács was put to work tapping maple syrup from trees in upstate New York. They worked at various other odd jobs for several years before agreeing to meet in Los Angeles to help Joseph Zuffa, another Hungarian expatriate make a short film.
Kovács and Zsigmond subsequently shot free 16 mm films for students, industrial movies for $2.50 an hour and documentaries while learning to speak English. They changed their names to Willie and Leslie in an attempt to fit in while shooting films with titles like The Sadist and The Nasty Rabbit that played in drive-ins. Sometimes Kovács was the cinematographer and Zsigmond was the crew. Then, they traded roles.
Kovács shot a series of biker films, which he called “modern Westerns,” where the bad guys rode into town on motorcycles instead of horses. That lead to an opportunity to shoot a low-budget film called Easy Rider in 1968. The rest is history.
“They were amazingly loyal to each other,” Chressanthis observes. “Laszlo would shoot a film for a director and recommend Vilmos to do the next one. Vilmos would tell directors they should talk to László because he was more talented.”
Leonard Maltin eloquently summed up their influence on the art form when he wrote, “Recognition for cinematographers in general is long overdue. When it comes to László Kovács and Vilmos Zsigmond, it’s clear that the American New Wave of the late 1960s and early ‘70s wouldn’t have flowered as it did without them.”
When Zsigmond accepted an Oscar for Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1978, he thanked Illés and his other mentors at the film school in Budapest. That resonated behind the Iron Curtain and inspired other filmmakers to follow their dreams.
Chressanthis was a student at AFI when Kovács conducted a seminar after screening Paper Moon for students in 1984. Kovács made a deep impression. A few years later, Chressanthis interned with Zsigmond during the production of The Witches of Eastwick. He traces the genesis of his idea for producing a documentary about Kovács and Zsigmond to a luncheon they hosted for the cast, crew and friends to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the revolt in Hungary.
“They toasted the spirit of the revolution and those who had given their lives in a quest for freedom,” Chressanthis recalls. “I was struck by their optimism and generosity of spirit. Their affection for each other impressed me deeply.”
Twenty years later, in February 2007, Chressanthis heard that the UCLA film school was planning to sponsor a celebration marking the 50th anniversary of the arrival of Kovács and Zsigmond in the United States in pursuit of a dream.
“That’s when I realized that no one had made a documentary about László and Vilmos,” he says. “I couldn’t forgive myself if I let that opportunity pass. I think László was skeptical at first because there were previous conversations about documentaries that never happened. Once we started, he couldn’t have been more enthusiastic.”
Chressanthis began his venture by recording the celebration and conversations with László and Zsigmond sharing memories on film in Super 16 format.
“I decided to produce the documentary mainly on film because it is a more emotional medium,” he says. “I wanted the audience to be able to look into their eyes and see whether there was joy or sadness as they recounted memories.”
He also used artful lighting and composition to visually punctuate moods.
There was no production company when Chressanthis began this ambitious endeavor and no up-front financial backing, but he was supported by friends and fans of Kovács and Zsigmond who shared his enthusiasm.
“László and Vilmos were very modest while talking about their bravery when they were filming the Hungarian revolution,” he says. “Their decisions to make that dramatic leap into the unknown can’t be underestimated. It was a great leap of faith.
“When I asked Vilmos about his dreams for the future, without pausing for a second, he said, ‘All of my dreams came true.’ How many people can say that? It’s also a story of man’s mortality. We lost László while our film was in production. I am grateful that we got his timeless words on film before he died.”
Chressanthis and his production team filmed 70 hours of interviews with Kovács and Zsigmond, some 50 filmmakers, friends and family members, who shared both memories and observations. Threads of those conversations are artfully weaved with memorable clips from their films into the fabric of a 97-minute documentary that touches the soul. For more details about No Subtitles Necessary: László & Vilmos and names of other individuals and companies who participated in and supported the project, visit laszloandvilmos.com.