It was only natural that the title for “Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time” had been somewhere in the recesses of Lili Horvát’s mind before rising to the surface. The idea for the bewitching drama itself, about a woman who leaves behind everything in her life on the hunch that she’s found her soulmate after a chance encounter, had come to her while she was working on her directorial debut “The Wednesday Child,” and unable to shake the idea, she was reminded of an exhibition she had attended with her parents after finishing the first draft where she had seen the title on a play produced by an underground theater troupe.
“I thought it was enigmatic and beautiful and there I had this story,” recalls Horvát. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is like an outline for this film, so we acquired the rights for it.”
It was just one of the ways that Horvát could be delighted by the way the mind works in her stunning second feature, following Vizy Márta (Natasa Stork) back home to her native Hungary after believing she’s met the man of her dreams in Drexler János (Viktor Bodó) at a medical conference in New Jersey, where she’s a highly esteemed chief neurosurgeon. Still, she’s undone by surprising Drexler on the street in front of the hospital he works at and finds him denying any memory that they ever met, and after expecting to fall in love, Vizy carries on a one-way romance, taking a job well below her pay grade at the clinic and finding ways to get close even if her experience exists only in parallel to Drexler’s.
For a film that starts out with a Sylvia Plath quote, “Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time” is far more playful than one would expect, particularly as Visy’s fixation on Drexler, or more accurately one of the few things in her life that seems to be somehow missing, fractures all of the things that were once so solid and turns someone so assured so awkward. Stork delivers one of the great seriocomic performances as the unpredictable Vizy and Horvát is as skilled at working different nerves as her lead is in the operating room, brilliantly capturing how a small degree of emptiness can topple even the most formidable as Vizy can feel marginalized in the rooms she’s in and her perception of self can feel hazy through cinematographer Róbert Maly’s savvy lensing and the film’s crystalline structure draws connections that she’s unconscious of but make sense of her behavior.
A tale of obsession that is bound to leave audiences similarly infatuated, the film recently debuted on VOD and digital after taking the fall festival circuit by storm, culminating in a Spirit Award nomination and its selection to be Hungary’s official pick to compete for Best International Feature at this year’s Oscars, and Horvát graciously answered a few questions about putting together such a sensual cinematic experience and putting thought into expressing inexplicable human desire.
Most of it I constructed while writing the screenplay, but we made one really important change in the editing room. We have these psychiatrist scenes, and they were meant to be maybe three big scenes in the movie or four, and then we decided to fragment it in more parts and start the film with it, and to use it as a kind of narration. It was not our intention when we shot these scenes, but we felt like it is expanding time and playing with memories and fantasies, [making it seem] even more insecure and unstable.
You’ve said that the idea that Vizy was a doctor came later than the initial idea, which I loved because you can see how formidable she is in the rest of her life and how this one thing that she fixates on becomes all-consuming. Did figuring out her profession really open up things for you?
My idea was quite intuitional at first that she should be a neurosurgeon because in Hungary, if someone’s not very intelligent, then we say, “Well, he or she is not a brain surgeon” and then I decided to play with that [like], “Okay, she seems to be crazy” in the beginning of a film, racing after some random guy and he doesn’t even know her, and then the story takes a turn that she turns out to be a brilliant neurosurgeon. But once I made this decision, I started to explore the immense dramaturgical opportunities this had to offer because our brain is a really mysterious organ that even neurosurgeons don’t understand in its fullness. Thoughts and feelings are physical processes and it’s almost beyond comprehension even for those doctors who meet this organ every day, so I thought this has a poetic side that we can use beautifully in this story.
Actually, this is her first big screen role. She did a lot in a theater in Hungary and elsewhere in Europe, but she only played minor film parts up until now, so it was a [slightly] risky decision for me to take, but I’m so happy I made this because she is a super intelligent woman in the first place, which was really crucial for this part of a brain surgeon, and she has this really interesting mixture of strength and fragility that is needed for this strong doctor who puts everything at risk following her emotional instincts. Then what was also really important was that she had to be a person who likes to spend time with herself and who is not afraid of being alone. Natasa is such a person who doesn’t escape solitude, but rather thinks of it as rich in her world.
There’s a scene when she’s just on the ground of her apartment reading by herself, by the light, where the beauty of that really comes out, and in general, the apartment is allowed to express a lot of her emotions that she can’t. What was it like figuring that out?
I wanted to her to build herself up from the zero point in a vase. Most likely she had a nice house in New Jersey before and she obviously has emotional reasons for renting this apartment that is totally shabby, but it looks out onto the Liberty Bridge, which is the key point in the city for her, because that’s where this rendezvous was supposed to happen. So I decided it to be not only a shabby flat, but an empty one that has to be filled with a new life. With the production designer Sandra Sztevanovity, she had this idea that there’s no furniture and that she has chairs, but she should sit on the floor, so I implied it in screenplay and then I worked with Natasa.
I’ve heard that you did little test shoots before with her to get the movement of the character right. What was that process like and did it help you figure out what the camera’s relationship to her would be throughout?
Yeah, because she’s alone in quite a lot of the scenes, Róbert Maly, the [cinematographer] and I had to develop a way to be her partners in a large part of the film, so we spent quite some time, the three or us, rehearsing in her flat and on the street, just with a tiny handheld camera, experimenting with the smallest gestures of the character, like how she opens a door or how she looks into a mirror, or how she walks. That really helped us to construct the big lines of the character, so while we were shooting the film, it was only fine-tuning with Natasa.
You’ve said Saul Leiter was a big influence on the style of cinematography. Was it interesting to find the right way to capture that transient blur sensation from his photographs?
Yes, it was a big help to find this inspiration. The first photo I saw made by him was via an exhibition. It was a taxi in New York, made in the ‘50s or ‘60s, [where] we look from outside and we see the backseat and the arm of a man grabbing that handle, but this is all we can see of the man, this arm. I called Róbert right away and said, “Oh, I found the way we should show Janos Drexler, this is the way.” Then we started to explore Leiter’s work further, and it is to Róbert Maly’s credit that he achieved a way to [capture this feeling] in the moving images as well.
It wasn’t that difficult, but it is true that he started his career as a brilliant young actor, a big prodigy in Hungarian acting and then he quit really young and he turned towards direction. He became one of the most successful theater directors working all over Europe, but it fell in mind that maybe we could approach him with this role, because we were looking for a complicated guy with a big intelligence. We see him from a distance in the film and we have to be able to project fantasies onto him, so it was important for him not to be like anyone, but a guy with a weight and a complex personality. When I sent him the script he agreed to meet because he was intrigued by the script. Maybe it came for him in the right moment in his life — I don’t know, but it was a true delight to work with him too.
Is there anything that happens during the course of shooting that you may not have anticipated, either a scene or a quality now about the film that really excited you?
One of my favorite scenes is the concert scene where they accidentally meet each other. This was a scene that while writing the screenplay, I didn’t think was so important — actually it was meant to be a different scene, which I had to change and rewrite because of production reasons, so I wrote that really fast, two days before the shooting, and it was an improvisation the way we shot that scene. Then I saw it in the editing room, and it was a surprise for me how it captures the essence of this movie. It’s just one of the mysteries of filmmaking that sometimes you do something that you don’t even think it’s important, then it turns out to be.
“Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time” opens in select theaters and virtual cinemas on January 22nd.