From a new writer/director who lived through the astonishing events depicted in this film, comes a highly personal odyssey of a fierce young woman's bitter exile and hard-won redemption. An American Rhapsody is indeed an ode to America - but to an America most people today take for granted. It is a story about the true meaning of family, freedom and most of all, the very concept of home.
Amidst the shadows and secrets of Communist Hungary, one family's desperate escape plan goes terribly wrong. By dark of night, the family attempts a daring getaway, sneaking over the heavily armed border, but at an unthinkable price - their infant daughter is mistakenly left behind.
Whisked away and given a new identity, innocent young Suzanne is raised deep in the most remote and rustic Eastern European countryside by a loving man and woman she calls mother and father but who are not related to her. She knows nothing of her real family, who now live an entirely unimaginable life in a sun-drenched California of mini-skirts and modern appliances. Meanwhile, in Hungary, Suzanne grows up without ever seeing a television set, without knowing who Elvis is, without any sense that the world is rapidly changing.
Six years later, Suzanne is at last to be reunited with the family she has never known. They could not be more ready to see their long lost daughter again. But is Suzanne ready for 1960s America? More importantly, is Suzanne's family ready to face the truth? For even as Suzanne dives head first into a teen paradise of hamburgers, rock n' roll and make-out parties, she also finds herself drawn back to the Budapest of unsolved questions, unspoken secrets and stinging betrayals - and into a bold journey to unravel the lingering mystery of her past in order to have a future.
Armed with her memories and a camera, writer/director Eva Gardos retraces her own harrowing steps from Hungary to the United States and back again as she unfolds the moving and deeply human story of how she finally brought two disparate worlds together. A deeply personal tale, An American Rhapsody nevertheless will feel familiar to anyone who has ever felt lost, who has ever felt abandoned, who has ever wondered what home really means.
Golden Globe Award winner Nastassja Kinski stars as Margit, the upper-class Hungarian mother who is forced to flee to the suburbs of California; Tony Goldwyn is her husband Peter, who negotiates their escape through a series of unscrupulous officers and profiteers; and Scarlett Johansson is the teen-aged Suzanne, who must make her own daring escape from America to figure out where she really belongs.
An American Rhapsody is written and directed by Eva Gardos and produced by Colleen Camp and Bonnie Timmermann. The film is executive produced Andrew Vajna and Jay Firestone. Peter Hoffman and Seven Arts / Fireworks present the film.
Deciding to make An American Rhapsody was an act of extraordinary courage on the part of writer/director Eva Gardos. In the beginning, all Gardos knew about her parents' daring escape from Hungary is that it was incredibly dangerous and difficult, that they were almost captured, and that she, as an infant, was left behind as a result. For most of her adult life, she left the incredible but tumultuous memories of her childhood unexplored, as many of us do. Yet when she decided to make a film about it, all the safety valves were blown wide open.
"All of us try to forget the painful moments of our childhood," admits Gardos. "But in order to make this film I had to remember and I also had to recreate. There were times when I thought I just couldn't do it. I had to push myself to the very edge, and prove to myself just how brave and tough I could be. "
The valiant journey began for Gardos when, at a retreat at Eleanor Coppola's house, she found herself spilling the whole dramatic story of how she nearly lost her real family and the maelstrom of confusion and secrecy created by her unusual situation. "Everyone was supposed to introduce themselves at the retreat, but I completely surprised myself by starting with the story of my childhood," recalls Gardos. "It just kept coming and coming and by the end of that weekend, I had started working on the script. Something deep inside made me write this story. It almost wrote itself; it was like magic. " Gardos's good friend, actress and producer Colleen Camp, pushed Gardos to write her story after forging a friendship with her on Apocalypse Now twenty five years before. It seemed like fate. Camp then suggested Gardos direct her story and she would produce it.
Gardos made an early decision to focus on the emotional essence of the characters rather than the actual events. She became intrigued not only by Suzanne's battle for reconciliation but also about her parents' struggle - not only to escape Hungary but to survive the terrible severing of their family and to find the forgiveness that would allow them to move forward. "While I was writing the script, I would go in to kiss my son goodnight and it would really hit me hard to think how it must have torn my mother to say goodbye to her child," says Gardos. "In thinking about her predicament, I became equally fascinated by the character of the mother, and I saw her in a new way. "
Gardos melded memory with imagination to fill in the many blanks and create palpable characters. "Even though the story is based on real events, the truth is that my parents never really talked much about the past. I had to really rely on my imagination and intuition about how the characters felt and what they said and didn't say," she notes.
When it came to the part of the story closest to her, Suzanne's experience, Gardos was drawn to expose the raw truth. "Many times people involved in the film asked me 'were you really as bad as Suzanne' and I have to admit that; no, I was even worse!" laughs Gardos.
The process of retreating into the darkest corners of her past was a searing one for Gardos, but one she believes was absolutely necessary to her own reconciliation. "My journey in making this film parallels Suzanne's journey in a deeply spiritual way. In order for her to survive, she had to go back into the past . . . and so did I," she says.
Soon after she wrote An American Rhapsody, Gardos' screenplay came to international attention when it won the 1998 Hartley-Merrill Screenwriting Award, which recognizes extraordinary work from writers of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. The award was founded by RKO pictures chairman Ted Hartley and his wife Dina Merrill, and endowed in conjunction with the Writers Guild of America, Robert Redford, Nikita Mikhalkov and David Puttnam among others. The first-place winner receives not only a cash prize, but a trip to the Sundance Institute's Writer's Lab.
Colleen Camp, a producing partner, brought Eva Gardos' work to the attention of Peter Hoffman at Seven Arts Pictures who bought the script less than a week after the award was granted. Gardos already had a reputation as a talented film editor, having worked on such critically acclaimed features as Mask, Bastard Out of Carolina and Barfly, and the producers knew her first-hand intimacy with the dramatic and poignant material would make her the perfect director.
The producers were impressed with Gardos' mix of real-life suspense and moving family dynamics - but most of all they were excited to see a film that so deeply explores one of the most vital themes of American life in the last few decades: young people coming of age with split identities. Explored in such best-selling novels as Chang Rae Lee's Native Speaker and Gus Lee's China Boy, stories of modern immigrants speak to everyone because they raise issues of tradition versus the shock of the new, fitting in versus finding your own way and keeping secrets versus telling the truth about the past.
Eva Gardos summarizes: "I am fascinated by the immigrant experience, by the idea of strangers in a strange land, which is something people feel all over the world, whether they come from far away or just from a small town in America. This feeling of being an outsider gets to the very core of what makes us human - trying to figure out who we are and what we should be doing. That's Suzanne's struggle. "
With such carefully crafted characters pulled directly from harrowing, real-life situations, Gardos knew she would need an extraordinarily sensitive cast capable of bringing just the right nuances to their performances. Her first priority was in finding Margit and Peter, the parents who find themselves leaving Hungary without their infant child. She found her match in the worldly talents of German-born Golden Globe winner Nastassja Kinski and the charisma of American actor Tony Goldwyn.
"Tony and Nastassja are both parents so they could truly comprehend the terrible predicament of Margit and Peter," says Gardos. "On top of that, they're both very smart and talented. So when they brought their own life experiences to set, they really brought their roles to another level on film; that was revelatory even to me. "
She continues: "Nastassja is amazing. I met her several years ago when Bonnie Timmermann first gave her my script. When I showed her a picture of my arrival, she understood the drama of the story. She has a lot in common with the character, as a European woman and someone who has gone through many changes in her own life. And, of course, her natural warmth and beauty make the character very complex and rich. As for Tony, he's such an incredibly hard-working, creative actor, I knew he would be terrific. "
To complete the family triangle, Gardos cast Scarlett Johansson as Suzanne, and worked intensively with young actress to bring her directly into the heated emotions and chaotic conflicts of an American teenager from another country a world away.
"I knew that Suzanne would be a very difficult role, not only because it is so close to me and my experiences, but because times have changed so much for girls since the 60s. I really had to explain to Scarlett what it was like for kids to grow up with real restrictions! But I wanted someone very young, who really gives that feeling of being not yet adult, and I wanted someone with a really strong sense of truthfulness, and Scarlett was perfect. " Even more perfect was the fact that the filmmakers were able to find a little Hungarian girl, Kelly Banlaki, who looked just like Scarlett, to play her as a child. "The uncanny similarities between Kelly and Scarlett was just one of those film miracles," says Gardos.
In fact, the cast of An American Rhapsody includes many highly regarded Hungarian actors, including Agi Banfalvy, Zsuzsa Czinkoczi and Balasz Galko, most of whom are unknown in the United States. "I fought hard not to use British actors speaking with accents but to use authentic Hungarians speaking Hungarian. They bring a real presence and stature to the film. "
* * *
With her cast in place, Gardos made another bold decision: to retrace her own steps back to a new, freer Hungary and shoot part of the film there. Once she got to cosmopolitan Budapest and its dramatic rural surroundings, she felt a vital urge to capture the real Hungary, a place rarely experienced in American film, in a visceral way. She was helped in this by lauded Hungarian cinematographer Elemer Ragalyi, whose personal intimacy with Budapest helped him to bring the city and countryside alive.
"Shooting in Hungary was a dream come true, because only there could we really create a sense of the time and place that set these events in motion," comments Gardos. "The Hungarian landscapes, the sense of a past that's always visible, the gypsy music, the Hungarian actors and crew who had fresh memories of living under Communism, all created an extremely rich, and very moving environment.
While there, Gardos continued to dig up clues to her past. She and producer Colleen Camp even visited the house where Gardos grew up, only to have an unknown owner come out and threaten them with two large guard dogs. "So much for going home," jokes Gardos.
But, in fact, Gardos did get to see Hungary in an entirely fresh and effecting way. "My Hungarian got really, really good again and I got lots of history lessons but most of all, I learned much more about the land where I came from. " She confesses: "I now feel like I have two homes: in America and in Hungary. "
In California, the cast and crew moved to the Valley suburb of Reseda, where production designer Alex Tavoularis, also an Apocalypse Now alumnus and costume designers Beatrix Pasztor and Vanessa Vogel created a landscape bursting with sun and colors and plastics. "It was difficult shooting in Los Angeles because, in contrast to Hungary, there is so little left of the past," observes Gardos. "But thanks to Alex and Beatrix and Elemer Ragalyi, we were able to recreate a bit of 60's suburban life. "
The production itself was more of an emotional than a technical challenge for Gardos, who, as an editor, knew the movie she wanted to bring to life for her film. But, sometimes, just seeing the past come to life brought her back to those moments of feeling so lost, and yearning so hard to be found. "When I first saw Tony and Nasstasja dressed in their period costumes and speaking Hungarian, it was incredible," she recalls. "Something that had for so long seemed like my own private dream had taken on an very real emotional life of its own. "
She adds: "Often during shooting, memories would come flooding back. A scene would bring tears to my eyes and I realized I was getting a chance to grieve over things I'd never had a chance to grieve about before. When all those awful secrets about your past are no longer secrets . . . what an incredible feeling that is. "