Heavenly Shift directed by Márk Bodzsár is one of the films participating in Hungarian Film Festival of Los Angeles 2014.
Death does not select, man does. – Set in Budapest, Heavenly Shift offers an eerie insight into the everyday lives of a rather extraordinary ambulance crew. The film’s main character is Milan, a young refugee from the Balkan War, who joins a team of paramedics but inadvertently ends up involved in the funeral business in order to finance his fiancée’s rescue from the hostilities.
MILÁN (András Ötvös) the half Serbian, half Hungarian guy deserts from the Croatian army in 1992, the second year of the Yugoslav war and escapes from Yugoslavia to Hungary. As a former medical student he gets a job for himself at the Hungarian paramedics. He has two unalterable, steady colleagues on the emergency ambulance: KISTAMÁS (Tamás Keresztes), the driver of the ambulance and DOCTOR FÉK (Roland Rába), the chief of the paramedic crew. It is a cold shower for the young enthusiastic and conscientious EMS assistant when he realizes that his companions make a selection from the patients. While they are saving lives, sometimes they allow old people or mortally ill to die, or indeed it occurs that their death is hurried by them. MILÁN soon finds out that there is a business side to the illegal euthanasia events taken place at the back of their ambulance. In order to finance his fiancée’s rescue from the war, MILÁN needs money, so he makes a deal with his companions. He gradually becomes involved in the horrors and sin. While he is turning into a skilled paramedic, and lives through the euphoric moments of lifesaving, he recognizes innumerable faces of Death.
Bijan Tehrani: How did you come up with the idea of Heavenly Shift?
Márk Bodzsár: The film is based on true events: three Polish paramedics made business with an undertaker some years ago. I stumbled into the story on the Internet, and I immediately decided to write a script about it. My intention was to combine the death business with the Yugoslav Wars, and to tell the story from the perspective of a young man, who flees from the war, tries to start a new life in Budapest as a paramedic, and eventually lost his innocence in peace. The bloodiest European conflict since World War II took place in the beginning of the nineties, right after the fall of the communism, when the wild capitalism – boom time for illegal businesses – was at its peak. I thought this era would give an exciting background to the story.
BT: Heavenly Shift has a very dark humor, why did you decide this tone for your film?
MB: It was not a hundred presently conscious decision at the beginning. I just like to tell stories in a twisted comedic way, regardless to the subject. But after I had made some researches I realized that the majority of the people who works in the Hungarian healthcare system has a typically sarcastic and dry humor. They use it as a shield against the horrors and the traumas which they encounter each day. So the dark comedic approach to an otherwise serious subject seemed to be an honest one from every perspective.
BT: Heavenly Shift is a brave movie to make, it has a fresh air into it, and how it has been received by audiences and film critics so far?
MB: There haven’t been many black comedies in Hungary before, and it’s also very rare to use that much of a blood in a Hungarian film, so some critics complained about the goriness and the insensitivity, but there were enthusiastic reviews too. When the film came out in the fall of 2013, the Hungarian audience didn’t know what to expect from a black comedy, and the lead actors were relatively unknown, but during the last year Heavenly Shift found its solid and constantly growing fan base. On abroad it was immediately well received by festival audiences and film critics, collected some awards, and still travels the international festival circuit.
BT: How did you go about casting of Heavenly Shift, performances are what we expect from the characters.
MB: Instead of casting, I preferred to see a lot of theatre plays while I was writing the script, and when the first draft had been completed, I already had exact actors in my mind. With some of them I even worked before, and their characters were built around their own personality.
BT: Considering the nature of your film, did you allow any improvisations on the set?
MB: Of course I did! Although we had a tight shooting schedule, and we wanted to shoot everything that was written in the script, I would have felt guilty for not letting the actors to improvise, because they lived very intensely in their characters, and they were always inspired by the real life locations and simply by each other.
BT: How did you work with your actors?
MB: I try to get them involved in the creative process as much as possible. We discussed together very early and, to be honest, very bad drafts of the script, acquainted paramedics, visited hospitals, rehearsed the scenes, and went through a quick medical training before the shooting. Even when I was in the middle of post-production, I felt the need to reach out to them, and we watched various cuts together. I think their instincts about their own character are very reliable, and for them it wasn’t about vanity, asking for more close-ups for example, but about getting the best out of the footage.
BT: You have a unique visual style in Heavenly Shift, how did you come up with this visual style?
MB: It came from a very close collaboration with Daniel Reich, the DOP of the film. Since the story is about night paramedics, we knew from the beginning that the film would have a very dark tone, and we wanted to combine that with a bit of a dreamy style. We drew inspiration from films which have strong visual characteristics, such like Kill Bill, Drive, Casino or Apocalypse Now. It was also a rebel in a way against the recent trends of the Hungarian and the Eastern European cinema, which tries to be as realistic as possible.
BT: Do you think Hungry Film Festival Los Angeles could help with presence of Hungarian cinema in US?
MB: Definitely it could. Hungarian films are more sellable in Europe than in any other continent, and American festivals rarely invite films from Hungary, so I think it’s a great opportunity to meet the American audience, and to show them where we’re standing right now. And the credit for this goes to Bela Bunyik, the founder and director of the Hungarian Film Festival of Los Angeles.
BT: What is your next project?
MB: I have five new film ideas in various stages of development, but the one I’m the most interested in right now centers around anti-Semitism in the contemporary Hungarian society, and it tells the story of two young Jewish girls, one is a depressed psychiatrist, the other is suffering from bipolar disorder, who take revenge on a neo-Nazi group.