Eyes Wide Open - Interview with Viktoria Szemeredy
Viktoria Szemeredy is a film director, writer, psychotherapist, and intensive care doctor currently living in Budapest, Hungary.
Her short script, 'Karma', was a finalist of Sunday Shorts Script Competition, and her previous short film, 'Butterfly Daughter', was an Official Selection in the same month.
Clearly, she is doing something right!
'Karma', presents the journey of a young emergency doctor, who breaks down under the psychological pressure of an accident, and 'Butterfly Daughter' follows a 12-year-old girl who is desperate to get back to her mother and almost becomes a victim of child trafficking.
Both of which are based on true stories.
Viktoria believes her past professions have helped her to develop a diagnostic capability that penetrates the surface, and a deeper understanding of human emotions.
We were very excited to ask her a few questions to find out more about her process, and here's what she had to say:
Q - How did you get into screenwriting?
I was working as a psychotherapist in Indonesia, when I faced an alarming and difficult situation. I had many patients who suffered from domestic abuse. After a while I felt I had to help all these women and girls and boys on a larger scale, so - out of frustration and desperation - I wrote my first short script, Pintu (Door in Indonesian). With the help of the local community - and no industry professionals around - we had a completed short film in three months. From that moment I knew I wanted to tell my stories to inspire and empower people around the world.
After making Pintu I got acceptance to the Raindance MA programme and I finished my proper studies in screenplay writing and directing this year.
Q - What inspired the story of 'Karma'?
Karma is based on a true story. I started my professional carrier as a medical doctor, and besides working at an ICU, I also worked for the National Ambulance Service. Though I turned the story into fiction, the main elements of it - making an inconsiderate decision, waiting in front of the cemetery and facing a weird situation at the station - still haunt me.
Q - What would be your advice for beginner screenwriters?
I would strongly suggest to read first. There are brilliant books and workshops on structure and character development. I would highly recommend Lajos Egri’s The Art of Dramatical Writing, John Yorke’s Into the Woods, Kim Hudson’s The Virgin’s Promise and anything from David Mamet. I learned a lot from them and their invaluable insights helped me understanding the crucial elements of a good story.
I would also suggest to ask for honest feedback on your work - not necessarily from friends and family - and rewrite over and over again, until you can switch almost all your dialogues into images. I still admire the screenwriters of silent films who used cinematic language at a truly professional level.
Q - How does your knowledge of film directing help with your writing process?
The two roles definitely strengthen each other. I see the story in images, so basically I write what I want to see at the end of the process.
It also forces me to strip the script as much as I can before I give it to the actors. Leaving out the adverbs provides a lot of opportunity for improvisation and playing with a certain scene. I try to be conscious about using simple verbs, so my characters just “say” something instead of “shouting”, “whispering” or “crying”.
Q - Which role do you prefer and why?
These two roles (writing and directing) complement each other in a perfect way in my life. Writing is a lonely sport. It takes months to develop a script and during this time I enjoy staying in the world of my characters by myself. When we go into pre-production, though, I find it refreshing to connect with creative industry professionals, exchanging ideas and creating the imaginary world of the story in real life. Shooting the film is the most intensive period, of course, and retreating into the darkness and silence of the editing room after that is a peaceful closure.
Then the writing and whole cycle begins again, and it also brings balance into my life and my family’s life too.
Q - Do you always draw from personal experience?
Attending Allison Anders’s event in London was a game changer for me. She strongly suggested to write and work from personal experience, because it brings the story to life. So yes, I do draw on memories and encounters, but even a subtle detail I see in the park or while walking in the city inspires me to turn that into a story.
A new short script of mine called Metaphors was inspired by an exhibition of Abstract Expressionists at the Royal Academy of Arts. When I walked in, the first painting I saw was Male and Female by Jackson Pollock. And there was a man and a woman standing in front of that picture. I spent an hour and a half there and the couple walked through the exhibition at a similar pace. When I left the place, I had Metaphors, which turned out to be my next short film, figured out in my mind.
Q - Is it important for writers to have studied other subjects?
It definitely helped me, since I encountered situations many writers or directors have never seen. It also gave me a lot of opportunity to meet different kinds of people, not only artists. Sometimes I have a strong impulse to start working at a café or a pub, teaching children for a while or sitting dogs in the neighbourhood, just to see the lives of others. People amaze me and I think this curiosity - being personal with those behind the drama - is what drives me to write.
So even if writers don’t study anything else, having a curious mind and walking with eyes wide open is important to create rounded characters and interesting stories.