Interview with Pierre Filmon about Close Encounters With Vilmos Zsigmond

Film still of Close Encounters with Vilmos Zsigmond © RR

This is the story of a meeting of cinematic minds. An encounter between a young French film-maker, Pierre Filmon and Vilmos Zsigmond, the legendary Hungarian chief cameraman who worked with Woody Allen, John Boorman and Mitin Scorsese, among many others. Close Encounters With Vilmos Zsigmond, shot over two years in Italy, Paris, Hungary and California, tells the story of this encounter. The documentary pays homage to the cinematographer who died last January.

What is it that fascinates you about Vilmos Zsigmond?

Everything about him fascinates me. As a cinema lover, I discovered his work almost by an accident of programming in Paris and his name just leapt out at me. My dream was to meet with him and that dream came true only a short time ago. When we met he radiated such humanity, such generosity that he was clearly an example and an inspiration for all those who came near him.

Vilmos Zsigmond built his career behind the lens. How did you manage to get him under the spotlight in front of your camera?

There was a lot of pressure. The images had to be up to the mark, the timing had to be right; everybody had to give their utmost. In terms of format, there were interviews, meetings, discussions, informal moments of life, cut together with movies illustrating Vilmos’ career, chosen for their graphic power and to correspond with what we were talking about at the time. It’s like a game of ping-pong between images from the past and what we were experiencing that particular day with Vilmos.

In your film we see John Boorman, Isabelle Huppert, John Travolta, Jerry Schatzberg and many other great names in cinema. Was it easy to get them on board?

Yes. They did it because they love Vilmos. The people in the film are there because they are all very close to him personally. When Isabelle Huppert came, they hugged each other. With John Travolta, we had a lot of laughs. I couldn’t put everything in the film; the first cut was 1h40. We had some great times and that’s what I wanted to capture.

Which moment touched you most deeply during the shoot?

One day I arrived at the American Society of Photographers and found myself face to face with five incredibly distinguished cinematographers including Haskell Wexler, who died last December. I’m standing there with these elderly gentlemen, who are with their buddies telling stories, and I say to myself, “Do you realise how lucky you are to be here? It’s like a magic moment!”

Finally, what do you think came out of the experience?

You go to meet an extraordinary man because of his career and you enter into a very intimate relationship with him. I wanted everyone in the audience to feel they had a direct connection with Vilmos. I’m only a go-between; I transmit the word to those who want to hear it. He doesn’t speak loudly, which means that you need to pay attention: but if you let Vilmos lull you, you’ll make an acquaintance with an exceptional mind.