Sunshine tells Hungarian tale

Challenge is a concept most Canadian filmmakers are familiar with. But not perhaps challenges quite as intense as those experienced by the makers of Genie nominations stand-out Sunshine....

Challenge is a concept most Canadian filmmakers are familiar with. But not perhaps challenges quite as intense as those experienced by the makers of Genie nominations stand-out Sunshine.

For a start, there was the original 600-page manuscript written entirely in Hungarian to be translated into English and pared down to a more manageable size – a task which took four years and several writers. Then there was the lengthy wait for a crucial cast member, followed by the striking of numerous coproduction deals, six months of preproduction and six months of shooting.

But when writer and director Istvan Szabo told Robert Lantos (then head of Alliance Communications) the story of the film over the course of a four-hour dinner, Lantos – who is listed as the film’s producer alongside Andras Hamori – knew he had to make it.

‘I was mesmerized,’ says Lantos. ‘When he finished I had tears in my eyes. It reminded me of stories I had heard from members of my family and things I myself had witnessed, but that my children know nothing about. I realized there was so much I could tell to those who have no other way of knowing.

‘I said ‘Let’s make this together.’ He said ‘Are you sure? It’s going to be very difficult, very complicated, very expensive and very huge.’

‘This is a story never told before to an English-speaking audience. It chronicles events over 100 years in the part of the world I come from. Ultimately, it’s about understanding that there’s no salvation in denying one’s identity.’

The casting of Ralph Fiennes was pivotal to one of the film’s central devices: rather than casting leads who resembled each other physically, the task of portraying a main character from each of three generations was taken on by a single actor.

Lantos is full of praise for the film’s star, whom he calls ‘one of the greatest, if not the greatest, actors in the world today,’ It was Ralph and Ralph alone who Lantos felt had the range to play three distinct characters in successive generations of a single family. It was, he says, ‘serendipity’ that the script for Sunshine went to ‘one actor, and he loved it and no other actor looked at it.’

‘The idea of Ralph Fiennes came up in the process [of casting discussions] and he was our mutual first choice, and lo and behold he said yes. So we never had to go to a second choice.’

So enamored were Lantos and Szabo that when confronted by the fact that Fiennes had two previous commitments that would tie him up for almost two years, rather than cast another actor, they waited. Their certainty in Fiennes’ ability appears to have been borne out: his performance in the film recently won him the European Film Award for best actor and has put him in contention for a best actor Genie.

‘For this film, of all the movie stars in the world – and we wanted a movie star, this movie was expensive, we weren’t going to make it with an unknown actor – Ralph was by far the best for this part.’

Alliance financed the picture, with German coproduction partner Kinowelt coming in as a minority partner once the film was already underwritten by Alliance. Alliance Atlantis is distributing.