Interview: Ildikó Enyedi Talks Casting Deer and the Subtle Emotions of ‘On Body and Soul’

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People often say love is strange, but Hungarian filmmaker Ildikó Enyedi takes it to a whole new level. In her latest film “On Body and Soul,” a pair of slaughterhouse co-workers strike up a romantic connection in their dreams, where they meet as deer in a forest. But to make things even more peculiar, these two individuals can barely even hold a conversation in their waking life. It’s a tough foundation on which to base a love story, but Enyedi somehow pulls it off. In a recent interview, Enyedi discussed the process of crafting this atypical romance, as well as her own surprise at the film’s warm reception by audiences and Oscar voters. Below is an edited version of our conversation.

Shane Slater: What was the inspiration behind this unique film?

Ildikó Enyedi: In my personal experience, we don’t like to imagine what is going on inside a co-worker, a neighbor, all the people we meet throughout the day. And I just had a very strong wish to make a film about this. About people sharing nothing on the surface, but all the passion and longing is underneath. I wanted to make a tender film to reach the audience and was looking for a story that could serve this purpose.

SS: How did you shoot the scenes in the forest to convey the connection between the deer?

IE: We pretty much shot what was in the script. Unfortunately, we planned to shoot the animals first and the humans after. That would have been the logical thing, but the money was not available at the time. So we had to wait until the next winter to shoot the deer, which made the shooting more tricky.

First of all, I wanted to show how an animal is 100% present in the moment, every second of their life. They are just fully there in every gesture. So it gave us a lot of freedom to catch the right moments between these two animals and use it later in the film to help the audience understand what is happening between the two human characters.

We had a deer casting. I very much wanted to find the animal counterparts of Mária and Endre. You’d think that deer are deer, they are pretty much the same. But they are not. If you see 20 does for example, you could immediately point to one and know, “yes, she’s Alexandra.” And that was the same with the stags. It was quite difficult for our animal coordinator to accept to work with the stag we chose. This was an animal living in a wild herd, not used to film crews or human presence. So it was nearly a half year’s work for him to get accepted by this animal.

SS: This love story is quite unusual in that the lovers intentionally lack passion and chemistry. How did that affect your direction of these actors to convince the audience of their romance?

IE: They come from very different backgrounds. Alexandra Borbély is a trained theater actress. This is her first major role in a film. Géza Morcsányi is an amateur, he never even thought about acting in a film. And this means you have to work with them differently. It helped the story a lot because it is about the difficulty and near impossibility of this relationship and the effort and struggle. The end of the film is just the starting point for them.

SS: Did the actors get to interact with the deer that represent them in their characters’ dreams?

IE: The shoots were completely separate. They were not on set. It was a very small team in a national park. But they visited their animal counterparts before shooting. And when they were there, it was even more evident that they had something in common.

SS: Towards the end of the film, Mária listens to Laura Marling’s “What He Wrote” and it effectively awakens her senses. What was the thinking behind that song choice?

IE: First of all, I really love Laura Marling. She is not just a good singer, but a good poet. I wanted a lone female voice and a very simple, transparent musical piece. This song is not just one guitar, but it seems like one guitar and her voice. The silent power, intelligence and darkness behind this ballad-like song was very necessary. We had to fight for the rights and when I was really desperate, I started to try other songs. There were wonderful young singers, but every other voice and approach made the scene and the whole film cheesy. It was quite a delicate decision. Doing this film was like walking a line without a safety net. Tiny mistakes would have ruined the whole thing.

SS: The film won the Golden Bear in Berlin and now it’s shortlisted for the Oscar. What has been the most memorable part of this whole process of promoting the film?

IE: To tell you the truth, I was afraid of this tour. I thought it would be exhausting. But for some reason, that didn’t happen. I was able to change my inner disposition somehow. It was a long chain of meetings with many journalists, distributors, and their teams. And I had the privilege of looking into many lives and meeting audiences. It was shocking how this very silent film is so relatable for people. It was a surprise for me because it was my biggest fear that despite all the success, nobody would have the patience for it. And my biggest relief was that the humor comes across. In the Far East–Korea, China, Hong Kong, Japan–they just understand every little touch of humor, and I was really nervous about that coming through in such a different culture.

“On Body and Soul” releases on Netflix Feb. 2.