THE CREATIVE STOKE INTERVIEW: Richard Pekar.
Burslem-based Richard Pekar is the founder of the North Staffordshire Hungarian Association, and has just made a Lottery-funded film of his father's heroic escape from the horrors of socialism. In 1957 his father Nandor Pekar crawled through miles of frozen mud, barbed wire and land mines to escape — and eventually settled in Stoke-on-Trent. The Last Train to Budapest was made for �10,000, with a �6,000 National Lottery grant. The film is based on the book Hungarian Blood, and will be shown at Staffordshire University Film Theatre in August or September 2010. There are also plans for a DVD release.
CREATIVE STOKE: Your novel Hungarian Blood: Escape the Insignia came before the film, I understand. Could you give a brief recap of how you first learned the outline of your father's amazing story, and what that story eventually turned out to be?
Richard Pekar: As a child growing up with a Hungarian father, I somehow learned and accepted his heroic escape as an intrinsic part of my life. However, there was a particular moment — it was the summer of 1982, when I was just 14 years old. We were all in Hungary on holiday. We'd travelled there in my dads' Bedford minibus. Somehow we managed to fit in my mum, my dad, my sister Gayna, brother-in-law John, and my two year old nephew, Mathew! We were driving into a local town called Szanto, which was near to my dads' village Mogyoroska. Suddenly, there was a loud bang — followed by a loud screech. Our minibus was dangerously guided into the side of the road by its own momentum, until we came to a thudding stop. My dad and John assessed the damage, only to discover the drivers' side front ball-joint had snapped. Easy to replace in the UK maybe, on a Bedford — but I can assure you not in Mogyoroska, Hungary. Anyway, after the women and children caught a very rare bus back to the village, plans between dad, John and myself began. Amidst the carnage, my dad and I sat on a grassy bank on the roadside outside Szanto College. It was here where my history lessons began. He sat talking and explaining as I listened attentively to the true heroic tale of his escape...
"This was the boarding college I attended 27 years ago... That was my room there". He pointed a finger... "& over there" (still pointing) "was where I caught the last train to Budapest and that was the beginning of my escape. Inside my briefcase, I had some bread, some salami and a handgun."
He continued in depth, explaining to me everything about his life in Hungary and how he fought against the Russian occupation. It was on this very day that I thought about writing a book and making a film. But I often ask myself — why did our Bedford Minibus breakdown right there on that very spot? It was as if it had to. It was definitely some kind of fate. It broke down on the very spot where 27 years earlier my dad witnessed, experienced and lived through a life-changing moment.
CREATIVE STOKE: Did you always plan to film the book?
Richard Pekar: Yes, I wrote the story always with a film in mind. But I didn't develop the film script at the same time as writing the book. Then my nephew Adam Lovatt (the grandson of my dad) became a student at the Staffordshire University. One day, a few years ago now, he just happened to come across students from the Media and Film department there. Having read my book and being fully conversant with his granddads' heroics in Hungary, he talked it through at length with one of the students there — Lee Deaville. Lee was studying to be a film director at the time. He was immediately interested, and began to explain briefly how to transform such a book into a script. Following a lot of discussion, practice, re-runs and rehearsals, one year later we had the script.
Adam Lovatt as the young Nandor.
Adam Lovatt as the young Nandor.
The story appealed to director Lee Deaville because of its themes of community, spirit and determination. Lee and his crew of local graduates challenged themselves to shoot within a budget, and to find ways to depict a story which took place over the course of three decades. I had written the story, Lee had to turn it into a film, and this was the first non-University project which he and his crew had embarked on since graduating. Lee storyboarded every shot individually, and now has an archive of around 450 hand-drawn shots. He brought the film-making vision to the project: the compositional sense; the narrative style; and the production values.
Director Lee Deaville on location.
CREATIVE STOKE: Given that the book took a decade to write, were there any sections you reluctantly had to leave out of the film?
Richard Pekar: Well... to talk about what I had to leave out in the film script would fill an incredible amount of this interview! The film hasn't even scratched the surface of what my 200,000 word book achieved. I think to cover all that in a film would cost millions. So far we have spent �10,000. The film is probably more of a synopsis of the book. My intentions are to wet the appetite of any high-ranking film producer who might be willing to invest, or seek investment, for making a full-length feature film and to really cover my dads' story.
CREATIVE STOKE: And you succesfully applied for a small Lottery grant to help push the project forwards. Did you access any training along with that?
Richard Pekar: I had no training to produce a film. I was simply driven by passion, and nothing more. So, my heart was my trainer.
CREATIVE STOKE: What locations, props, editing resources, were you able to call on, locally?
Richard Pekar: First, you need a vision of how you "see" the film. After that, it's basically searching, begging, organising and negotiating. For example, we needed an old thatched roof cottage that couldn't look English. Where do we look? We searched the whole city and area of Stoke-on-Trent on foot, by car, by train. We searched using the Internet, we made phone calls, sent emails. Until, finally, we found two cottages. One in Staffordshire, and one just across the border into Derbyshire. One was perfect for the inside scenes, the other perfect for the outside scenes. The Staffordshire cottage was the most interesting — because it was 1,000 years old, uninhabited, actually owned by the Queen and looked after by a local farmer. We had to empty the main room that had collected all kinds of clutter over the years, clean away the cobwebs, spiders and you name it. The farmer was so very helpful. He provided us with electricity from a neighbour, and looked after us all day with refreshments like tea and coffee.
Adam Lovatt, Richard's nephew, plays the young Nandor Pekar in the film.
To create scenes from the past was difficult but exciting. We hired a Ford Cortina, and we were kindly given an old East German car called a Travant. The Travant came from an observer of our filming, someone who was doing volunteer work at the Foxfield Railway Station at Blythe Bridge.
My favourite prop was a Russian sub-machine gun we bought from a website called Soldier of Fortune. The machine gun was decommissioned of course, but was a genuine weapon used at the actual time our film scene was set. I suppose the next best was a Hungarian rifle. I bought a broken air-gun rifle for �10, and my brother-in-law printed a picture of a Hungarian rifle from the 1950s and then got to work welding, varnishing, hammering — until he made it look exactly like the genuine article!
Then we needed to find a pub that we could turn into looking like a late 1960s pub. We looked no further than the famous Leopard in Burslem, Stoke-on-Trent. With its dartboard, skittle table and a genuine old-fashioned style, it was perfect. Then we worked hard to ensure everyone's attire, hairstyles, beer glasses, even the beer! etc... etc... all provided the finishing touches.
Photo of Richard's father on a motorbike, when he first came to England in 1957.
Filming inside the Leopard at Burslem, Stoke-on-Trent.
CREATIVE STOKE: So you had the locations, wardrobe and props. What was your shooting schedule experience like? The crew? The actors?
Richard Pekar: We cut the script down into manageable chunks, and then scheduled shoots that were roughly six weeks apart. This made the size and scale of the project more approachable. The tight-knit nature of the crew meant that everybody worked well together, stuck to their job roles. But we had fun too. Because the crew were all so close to the project, they cared about what we were shooting. The majority of actors had no previous acting experience. We used two professional actors, and the rest of the cast was made up with family and friends. By using family and friends, it kept the project more personal.
The young Richard, as portrayed in the film.
The most difficult scenes to shoot, in terms of the emotions that were to be portrayed, demanded concentration and determination. The protagonist's escape from Hungary, his first postcard home, and his eventual suicide, were the most physically demanding shoots. They were long days. We had to be quite business-like about our approach, or risk not getting the footage. Each scene was cut down into manageable chunks, and we approached every shot individually.
CREATIVE STOKE: Could you give the readers some useful insight into the film's technical details, such as camera, formats, etc?
Richard Pekar: The film was shot in HD, on a digital SLR. We used a range of prime [non-distorting] lenses, which allowed the hundreds of shots that Lee had storyboarded to come to life, and to relate accurately to his imagination. Of course we shot solid state, amassing around 600GB worth of footage.
CREATIVE STOKE: And you and your team are undertaking the editing now, for the August or September 2010 premiere in Stoke-on-Trent?
Richard Pekar: Yes, the film is now in the editing process. It'll be available on DVD. There will be a limited number of special Blu Ray copies available to venues, for HD screening events.
CREATIVE STOKE: Are you having to use any software for visual effects? Removing unwanted immovable objects from locations and backgrounds, for instance, or even adding special FX? For colour-grading?
Richard Pekar: As a general rule of thumb, Lee and the crew preferred to reduce the need for visual effects, instead taking time to setup shots to reduce the need for digital manipulation. They didn't want to cheat the audience. Lee is colour grading by eye, using Final Cut Pro and Magic Bullet.
Director Lee Deaville on location.
CREATIVE STOKE: The emotional impact of such a heroic escape story will no doubt be unquestionable. But were there wider historical questions you wanted to raise?
Richard Pekar: Firstly, I want the audience to appreciate the Hungarians who came to Britain in 1956. What I mean is, that the British people — although respectful, have no concept or comprehension of what it was like to be a prisoner of one's nation. My book and film firmly and eloquently portray this feeling.
CREATIVE STOKE: Perhaps not everyone here was oblivious. It was long before my time, but I know there were films such as Robert Vas's excellent Refuge England (1959) ( and on YouTube), which was a sympathetic study of a Hungarian man's first day in London. It was shown in cinemas and youth clubs, as I understand it.
Richard Pekar: But the situation was more complicated, and that wasn't understood. When those Hungarians chose Britain as a place to live freely they also had actually been abandoned by Britain. In their hour of need, although promised support by the government, they received nothing. So when they entered Britain, this emotion was etched in their thoughts. And yet, they came to this country with no animosity. They respected the values, the laws, the traditions of the British and never cursed them. They blended in just like the British until, they actually became British just to be accepted.
CREATIVE STOKE: Did you have any specific personal questions that you wanted to raise in the audience's mind?
Richard Pekar: The biggest question in my film & book is my biggest question. After knowing my dad — and I learned everything about him from the age of two years old — the biggest question is, why did he want to die? Why did he commit suicide? A colleague of mine read my book, and when he'd finished it he was so ecstatic and full of searching questions. The main question was &mdash so why did your dad commit suicide? I was pleased with the question. Because that's what I wanted him to ask. Because, even though his life is so explicitly explained, even though my book delves deep into his mind, his past, there is no explanation as to why? So, my answer is always — "well, now you know what I know and still, I don't know. And now you don't know too. Every time you think about my dads' story, his life, you will have a brief encounter with what I have been feeling and suffering since 1987. It's an enigma wrapped in a puzzle."
CREATIVE STOKE: Have you made any links with Hungarian film-makers and societies? If so, what's the reception been like? Are they still reluctant to engage with the legacy of socialism? Will the film be screened in Hungary?
Richard Pekar: Yes! I met a Hungarian film director in a theatre in Budapest. Her name is Kristina Goda. She gave me just ten minutes to explain what I had achieved, and what I sought next to achieve. Following our meeting, she read my book and constantly offers sound advice. For instance, the synopsis of my book must be translated perfectly into Hungarian, and then forwarded to Hungarian film producer. She recommends a great many. I'll be following her advice, and also sending DVDs.
CREATIVE STOKE: Do you have any ambitions for future films, or perhaps even a radio documentary? "The Hungarian experience in the Potteries" more generally, perhaps?
Richard Pekar: Very exciting question. Yes! I have many ambitions for future films... I can write, and I have a very adventurous imagination. But, one step at a time. I need success and I believe I have the tools — in the form of my film and book — to achieve that. After that, "the sky's the limit". If a radio documentary was offered, of course I would be happy to do it. I would however, need a team of my choice to be involved to ensure a successful depiction of the historic experience.
I would like to say at this point, that I have been supported by many people to complete this task and there is no way I could have achieved this alone. It would take me all day to mention everybody. But most of all I want to mention Lee Deaville. He has been a superb catalyst, and he's the engine behind our film's success. He — and all others that have been important coordinators for this project — will I hope always be involved in any future ambitions for this film. If a major film producer wanted to take on this film, I would insist on Lee's involvement.
CREATIVE STOKE: Richard Pekar, thank you very much.
Richard Pekar, with daughter Merissa (who plays Nandor Pekar's wife in the film).
A video preview of the film is , and it's hoped that the finished film will be shown at the Film Theatre in Stoke-on-Trent in August or September 2010.
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