„We felt we were crazy, but we made it”

Interview with Mónika Mécs, the lead producer of The Story of My Wife

As the lead producer of The Story of My Wife Mónika Mécs held a four-country, 10-million-euro production together. It was a tremendous task: no Hungarian majority co-production has ever been made with such a big budget, moreover the post-production phase was completed during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Story of My Wife has its world premiere in the Competition selection of the Cannes Film Festival.

Ildikó Enyedi has been planning to adapt Milán Füst’s novel, The Story of My Wife for a very long time. When did you join the project and what made you want to take on this challenge?  

After we completed Ildikó’s previous feature, On Body and Soul, we were throwing ideas around about what our next project could be, and that’s when Ildikó’s long-time dream came up again. She already had a very good script ready, we polished it a little more and then we applied to the Hungarian Film Institute (then Film Fund) for funding. That’s how this many-year-long project started. This wasn’t only Ildikó’s love project, but also mine and our colleagues’. When, as a producer, I am working long hours on a film project every day for years, pouring all my energy into it, I have to identify with it, I have to be on the same wave-length as the director. We are pushing the project forward side by side not only until the premiere, but even afterwards when the film needs to be sold on the market, needs to be shown to audiences, needs to participate in festivals. Ildikó is incredibly hard-working, we all have to keep up with her.  

Mónika Mécs and Ildikó Enyedi (Photo: Flaminio Zadra)

You’re known as a producer who gets involved in all the creative decisions. But this time the task was to put together the most expensive co-production with Hungarian majority participation that has ever been done. Did you have the energy and possibility to still get involved with the creative aspects of the film or did you focus solely on establishing the complicated financial background of the production?  

I was involved in both, it was my job to oversee the whole filmmaking process. As far as the creative side goes, we were involved in a constant conversation with Ildikó, I read and gave feedback on every draft of the script. Then we discussed and analyzed every cut as well. Regarding the financial side, this was a four-way Hungarian, German, Italian, French co-production with 21 different funding sources. I like to say that it was like a big jigsaw puzzle, where all the elements – e.g. meeting the conditions and deadlines for grant applications, or the cash flow management – have to fit together perfectly. I also had to guarantee that everything would work and the movie would be completed to our co-production partners who had also taken risks in getting involved. Of course, I didn’t do all of this alone, there was a team behind me, and from the production side I have to mention Erika Tarr, our line producer. We were actually talking the other day and we concluded that we had made good decisions at the right time: if we had gone into production later, we might not have been able to complete the film because of the pandemic. Obviously, problems kept arising along the way, and we had to make tough decisions all the time. There were situations when we had to weigh whether to shut production down, but we decided to go on. Fortunately.  

Mónika Mécs (Photo: Janka Pozsonyi)

The international cast boasting well-known French, Italian, Dutch and German actors probably makes the movie more appealing in several countries, but I’m sure it was also a necessity dictated by the co-production deals. Did you see it as more of a blessing or a curse?  

Co-productions always complicate and slow processes down, but there is a lot to gain by them as well. We toyed with the idea of keeping the movie within Hungary, but the protagonists of Milán Füst’s novel the movie is based on are not Hungarian either and the story is not set in Hungary, so it was kind of natural to conceive this as an international project. Also, after the success of On Body and Soul (Ildikó Enyedi’s previous feature won the Golden Bear Award at the Berlinale and it was nominated for an Academy Award in the best foreign language film category) we felt there was a bigger chance we could put a coproduction together. And yes, each partner has to spend their money on expenses related to their country, e.g. the Germans on German-speaking actors and the shoot in Germany, the Hungarians on the Hungarian crew and locations etc. It was another jigsaw puzzle to decide what responsibilities each partner will take on, where we will shoot each sequence, and which actors would come from which country.  

Ildikó admitted that the first time Léa Seydoux’s name came up, she wasn’t too enthusiastic about casting her, but she changed her mind when they met in person. I’m guessing that, as opposed to this, a producer would become ecstatic straight away if she heard that a star of this caliber was interested in her project. Did you have battles with Ildikó on issues like this?

Battles no, only conversations. I am of two hearts in these situations, because I completely understand her reasons, but I also have to represent an interest that is really in all our interest, including the director, that the production should be as well-financed as possible. And these big names certainly draw money more quickly than lesser-known ones. And they also attract a bigger audience, of course. There were some issues we didn’t agree on with Ildikó, but in the end one of us always convinced the other.  

Can you recall a concrete example of this?  

The 35 mm film. I completely understand that the movie has a unique texture if it is shot on 35 mm, but there came a time when we didn’t have enough money, and I was willing to give it up in service of the dramaturgy. But Ildikó was determined to have it. In the end I accepted this in spite of not completely agreeing with it, so we made it work by reallocating resources from elsewhere.  

Was there a moment when you thought that you might not be able to complete the film? And if there was, how did you get over the hurdle?  

I never thought that we wouldn’t be able to finish it, but we had some really tough moments and situations. For example, we had already decided on the actor for the lead role, but as the beginning of the shoot drew closer, Ildikó started feeling that the movie wouldn’t be what she imagined with this actor. We recast the role five weeks before we started shooting, which is a very drastic step in a co-production of this size. We had to coordinate very busy actors’ schedules and hard-to-get locations, it was a huge task to restructure the whole shoot. I think Gijs Naber, who became our lead actor, is a great choice but we got to him very far down the line and he had already agreed to a lead role in a Dutch movie, so for a while he worked on the two movies simultaneously. I had to guarantee that we would always give the actor back in time for the other shoot. I agreed to it but I knew that we had absolutely no room for error, if his flight was cancelled because of a storm or he got sick and was unable to travel, we would have been in deep trouble. That’s when we felt we were crazy for taking on such a risk, but we made it. It was the right choice.