Set in summer in Budapest, third-time director Gábor Reisz’s Explanation for Everything zooms in on Abel (Gáspár Adonyi-Walsh), a high school student who struggles to focus on his final exams because of his intense feelings for his friend Janka (Lilla Kizlinger). Janka, however, is in love with their liberal history teacher Jakab (András Rusznák), who had a previous confrontation with Abel’s conservative father György (István Znamenák). Unexpectedly, Abel’s history graduation exam turns into a media scandal, bringing everyone’s levels of stress to the roof.
At the Lido during the 80th Venice Film Festival, we sat down with the Hungarian helmer to talk about his latest film, which is a contemporary story about his country’s heavily polarized socio-political climate.
Projektor: I just read the interview you gave to Variety and you stated that you “never wanted to make a political movie” because back in Hungary, you felt that everything anyone said was always connected to politics. Is this movie political, and if so, what pushed you to make it?
Gábor Reisz: The main inspiration for Explanation for Everything came from this demonstration that took place at my alma mater [Budapest’s University of Theatre and Film Arts] in 2021. Back then, the state wanted to reform the education system, so the students set up a barricade around the building in protest. I took part in that protest, which wasn’t meant to be political at first, but soon the media started to frame us students in a certain way and label us as the [opposition]. This polarized people, and at some point even I wondered if I was left-wing now.
The basic idea for this film came to mind when I went home from that demonstration and thought about the Hungarian nationality pin [ed. Over the years, the pin has come to signify nationalist ties, and it plays a central role in the movie]. My co-scriptwriter Éva Schulze and I then kicked off the writing process. We talked about all the issues we wanted to talk about. In Hungarian cinema, there is no politics. There’s nothing. It’s hard to find political movies, although there might be a few that touched on it after the regime change.
Which regime change?
The regime change of 1989! [ed: 1989 marked the end of communism in Hungary]. I couldn’t accept that politics was still taboo and that nobody talked about it in films. It’s a sensitive, divisive topic, and the film fund would never promote your film if you took it on because they wouldn’t like the criticism. I hated this. I’m not the guy who reads political articles every day but I still wanted to talk about them because I think it’s really important, even if you’re not an expert.
Were there any external obstacles you had to face owing to the subject of your film?
We decided not to apply to the film fund because it was impossible to secure it, given our topic. Also, I had already been rejected two times without any justification. I think we’ve been really lucky because the crew has been amazing. We tried to get the rights to use newspapers and other media footage – they never got back to us, but that’s the only thing I can mention.
How did you cast your leads, Abel and Jakab?
For the role of Abel, we posted an ad on Facebook. We said we were looking for a dreamy 18-year-old, and we asked the applicants to shoot a short video of themselves telling us a real lie. Gaspar, who got the role, sent us a beautiful lie, which I don’t want to disclose. But we were really lucky to find him [immediately]. Many 18-year-old actors tend to be amateurs, so usually you’d have to sift through hundreds of candidates, but Gaspar was just the second applicant, and we already knew.
As for Jakab, I knew András way back, from our university years. Back then, he was taking an acting class and I was studying as a director.
Why did you decide to go hand-held?
Because we didn’t have money [laughs]. There were a lot of reasons but of course, we had to be really fast.
So you had to keep it as simple as possible.
Yes. And, of course, this is documentary style. Romanian New Wave, 1980s Hungarian Cinema, and the director Béla Tarr influenced us a lot. So we went hand-held.
How long did the whole production process take?
The writing process started at the end of 2021, around December. We started pre-production in July, and we shot for 20 days in August. We had the first cut ready in October and we applied for the First Cut Lab [a film consultancy program], which helped us a lot. Around November, December, we had the final cut ready. We were really fast.
The last third of the movie is somewhat explosive. How did you work on building those climaxes? How much of it was set in stone, and how much of it was improvised?
Sometimes, the actors improvised. I made my first feature using a lot of improvisation. In this case, however, I had to write things down. If you only have 20 days to shoot, you must know what you want and you must stick to the plan. Of course, you can still improvise, and I always do rehearsals with the actors before filming. I still like that process and whenever someone suggests lines. But those are just starting points, I like to start from scratch.
Header image: Pál Czirják/Gábor Reisz