I interviewed cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC for the first time about 30 years ago to talk about The Deer Hunter. At the time, I had no idea the film was destined to become a classic. After patiently answering my questions, Zsigmond politely suggested that I should be writing about another cinematographer: Laszlo Kovacs, ASC.
I scheduled my first interview with Kovacs in 1978 to talk about Norman Jewison’s F.I.S.T. At the time, Kovacs had already shot more than 40 films, including Peter Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon, Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces, Hal Ashby’s Shampoo, Robert Altman’s That Cold Day in the Park, Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York and Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider.
I introduced myself and called him “Mr. Kovacs.” He laughed, slapped me on the arm and said, “My name is Laszlo.” As it turns out, I didn’t ask any of the questions I had prepared for Kovacs. Instead, we spoke about how they discovered the right, naturalistic look for the story. I emphasize “they” because Laszlo never used the words “I” or “me.” It was always “we.” He spoke about his relationships with Jewison, camera operator Bob Stevens and others in the cast and crew.
At the end of our interview Laszlo smiled and told me, “You know, Vilmos is shooting a wonderful film called The Rose.”
Born on a farm near Cece, a rural Hungarian village some 60 miles from Budapest, on May 14, 1933, Kovacs’ interest in moving pictures began early. Much of his youth was spent at the makeshift cinema in his village, where 16mm German propaganda films were projected on a bed sheet. When he was 16, Kovacs’ parents sent him to school in Budapest with instructions to become a doctor or engineer. But Kovacs was bored by science and math, so he cut classes and spent his days at local cinemas.
In 1952 Kovacs enrolled at the Budapest Academy of Drama and Film, which is where he met his mentor, György Illés, one of Hungary’s most prolific cinematographers. “György never allowed us to touch a camera during the first year,” Kovacs once recalled to me of Illés’ teaching methods. “Instead, we drew charcoal portraits and learned about shapes, light, darkness, tones and textures. We also studied music, literature, architecture, painting and the history of art.”
Illés also opened a window to the outside world. When no Communist officials were around, he encouraged his students to watch films like Citizen Kane. “It was like watching a miracle happen,” Kovacs noted.
In fact, it was Illés who convinced Kovacs and fellow student Zsigmond to leave the country in October of 1956, after the two had filmed an uprising on the streets of Budapest that was brutally suppressed by the Soviet Army. With some 30,000-feet of film between them, Kovacs and Zsigmond embarked on a dangerous trek to Austria to share the footage with the rest of the world, and a lifelong bond was formed.
Kovacs and Zsigmond migrated to the U.S. in February of 1957, when immigration officials found a sponsor for Kovacs in upstate New York, where he took passport photos and tapped maple trees for a syrup maker. In 1960, he and Zsigmond reconnected in Los Angeles to help another expatriate make a short film. By the early 1960s, they were working on independent films with titles like The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!? Sometimes Kovacs was the cinematographer and Zsigmond was the crew; other times they reversed roles. “They were foreigners who were breaking all the rules,” says Ron Vidor, a camera operator who worked with the duo in their early years.
In a career that spanned more than 40 years and included some of American cinema’s most important pictures, Kovacs never forgot his roots. Both he and Zsigmond stayed in touched with Illés throughout the Cold World and found ways to help him and his students. “When I asked György how I could repay him,” Kovacs once noted of the debt he felt he owed to his mentor, “he told me to reach out and help young filmmakers.” Kovacs never forgot that promise.
Before the 1970s were over, Kovacs and Zsigmond were invited to become members of the American Society of Cinematographers. Kovacs played an important role as chairman of the ASC Education Committee, organizing countless seminars at schools, film festivals, conferences and trade shows. The education committee also initiated an annual Heritage Award for talented film students, which is dedicated to the memory of a different cinematographer each year, with the goal of keeping that artist’s work alive.
On July 17, less than a week before the great cinematographer passed away quietly in his sleep while at home in Los Angeles, I spent several hours with Kovacs, talking about the 2008 Heritage Award. I will always remember his enthusiasm and warmth that night as he shared his memories of the cinematographers he had on his own list of candidates.
On January 26, 2008, the Laszlo Kovacs Heritage Award will be presented to one or more deserving film students at the 22nd annual ASC Outstanding Achievement Awards celebration in Hollywood. There won’t be a dry eye in the house.