It has been hard to pin down Kristof Deak. When we finally meet in a trendy bar in Budapests District II, I understand why. Since entering the ranks of Oscar winners, he has had a packed schedule. “I just got back from Los Angeles where I signed with the Gotham Group,” he tells me jovially. Winning the Oscar for “Sing” has been the high point of his career so far and has taken him across the globe.

“Sing” is an allegorical tale. The 25-minute film focuses on Zsófi, a young girl who joins the choir in her new school. But the teacher believes she is not good enough and forces her to mime singing. Zsófi finds out she is not the only silent member of the choir, and when it comes to competition time, all the children drop into mime in a show of solidarity.


“The allegorical level of the story only occurred to me when we had finished writing the first draft of the story – that this is what had been going on for the last 25 years in many places, not just Eastern Europe,” Deak tells me. “A lot of the societal shifts going on in the world right now: the prominence of divide-and-conquer strategies and more and more populism coming to the fore. This story speaks to a lot of people around the world now, which was a surprise to me.”

I am curious about how the concept developed, and it turns out it was based on a true story Deak was told by a former flatmate, about a highly competitive teacher on whom he modelled Ms Erika. But Deaks story has a different ending: “I wondered if the kids could take revenge and we could have an uplifting ending, so I thought we could make it a sort of parable story about injustice and standing up together for a cause. I also usually look for a paradox element in a story.”

Happy with the final cut, Deak and his producer felt that the film should be seen. After it received strong emotional reactions from audiences in Budapest, he decided to enter the film into various festivals. “Some Hungarians have finally figured out how to break into international markets – a science in itself. Over the last 10 years it has changed a lot with digital festival submissions, learning to do stuff ourselves.”

“Sing” has had a global appeal. “I had the privilege to travel to a number of festivals worldwide and Ive had people in South Korea come to me and say, ‘thanks for making this film, I thought it was about me and my country’.”

Deak is a commercially aware filmmaker. “I don’t want to waste people’s time. Im constantly thinking about how I dont want someone to be sat there feeling bored for 20 or 90 minutes. I want to make films for the broadest possible audience but with the kind of substance that those films rarely have.”

Hollywood is now inviting him with open arms. What does this mean, I ask. “I might move to LA if I find the right project which allows me to add the most value with my personal touch.” Like many directors now, he wants to work across different formats, working on features and television shows. “The best writing now is on television and it requires more mastery of the craft. Long-form stuff is so much more satisfying. The way I see it, a TV series is the equivalent of a novel and a film is a short story.”

But it wasnt an easy road to the Oscars. Although working now a lot in Hungary, he got his big break in the UK. “After studying film production at the Hungarian National School of Drama and Film, I worked as a production manager in Hungary. That was a time when many big productions started to come here and I was lucky enough to get experience on a Spielberg movie, ‘Munich‘.

Working on such a major production gave him a taste of real filmmaking, as he joined the editing team. He then decided he needed to learn editing professionally, which, he says, “has a uniqueness as an art form that no other part of filmmaking really has”. Soon realising he needed to learn how to work with actors, he studied directing in London.


“Generally there is so much original, edgy stuff coming out of British TV and at that time the first high-quality cinematic series were coming out,” he says. “So I really wanted to go to the place where those things were made. Also, I have always liked British films and humour, and I think the Hungarian sense of humour is very similar.”

I ask how hard it is for young people in Hungary to get on the film ladder. “I was incredibly lucky. Only 10 percent of applicants for short films get funded, but its still nothing compared to the competition for feature films. Its easier to get on the ladder for script development if you find a producer who can apply with you.”

“Sing” was originally conceptualised in the UK but Deak was unable to get funding there. “I think its 1000 times more competitive in London. There are far more people and far less money available.” He rewrote the story from scratch based in Hungary with elements of his childhood. In the end there were only two English names in the credits.

“My advice to young filmmakers starting out is to just keep making films. When I was starting out in the UK I worked on commercial stuff just to have an income, although I always met filmmaker friends to brainstorm. You have to practise your craft.”

But it can be tough for Hungarian filmmakers, who often arent accepted at home before making the leap to the global market. “Son of Saul” is one of the rare exceptions. “Hungarian filmmakers have lost the trust of their audience that they can make a film that will entertain them for two hours. The reason “Son of Saul” was successful, with a Hungarian audience as well, is because it’s just so brilliantly made on every level, so well crafted you just cant deny it,” Deak tells me.

I wonder how filmmaking in Hungary now differs from the old days, when censorship restricted what could be put out on film. Deak has his own view. “I find my creativity thrives more in a restricted environment. In a broader sense if there is a dictatorship or regime that confines you into a space, that helps creativity.

“Its a cynical thing to say but it definitely helps me and I think it spurred creativity in the communist era before 1989. In the early 2000s there was a little slump in the quality of Hungarian films. Many things contributed to that, perhaps most us feeling great about joining the democratic West. When it didnt go so well after 2008 and the financial crisis, we started making good films again.”

What does the future hold? For the last couple of months he has been working on a mini-series for Hungarian television. “It was my concept, a dark comedy, so thats a big departure from the cute story of “Sing”.

“I wrote it with five writers as a team. I have found some amazing creative people. To me that’s the most important thing, to have the right people on my team.”

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