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Cristian Mungiu Interview, Part 2

Much like a Mungiu movie, my conversation last time ended in  the middle of something unfinished. We were discussing a dinner scene in  “4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days” in which the protagonist, Otilia, is stuck at a torturous dinner party with her boyfriend’s crass bourgeois parents at a time when she would much prefer to be somewhere else, however awful. Naturally I took this as an opportunity to gratuitously name drop some famous film directors

PK:  The way the dialogue overlapped and you had so many things going on at the same time this was like something Robert Altman would have done. Is he an influence of yours?

CM:  As I was saying, I’m trying to copy and imitate and understand the principals of life. I’m not trying to get inspiration directly from films. So for example, I started directing that scene with a very stupid communication. I told people, ok so you need to speak at the same time, because I wanted to recreate that feeling you have if you are participating in a dinner like this, where everybody is speaking at the same time and you don’t, you know, nobody really listens. But of course when I said this, you couldn’t understand anything. So we had to had to learn to hear the words speaking at the same time in filming, and little by little, I had to teach the actors to start their own lines on the last syllable of the person who spoke before them, and it was, I don’t know, like music in a way, like conducting an orchestra because it’s a very detailed script, nothing is improvised. But yes, I like Altman, I have to say it, it’s not like I watched any Altman films before this one, but I like Altman, he’s one of the important directors that I like.

PK:  I read, that one reason you decided to become a filmmaker is because you had been watching these Soviet socialist realist films when you were growing up and you saw how phony they were so you said “I can do better than that.” Were there any other influences, more positive influences, in your developing as a filmmaker?

[The call is dropped. I should note here also that each question and answer is followed by a delay of several seconds like on those CNN stories transmitted by satellite where the correspondent looks like he or she has narcolepsy]

PK: [the connection is restored]I was asking you, when you were growing up you saw these Soviet social realist movies, and you said, “oh I can do much better than that, this is so phony,” but did you have any other influences that weren’t negative, that were positive influences, other filmmakers that inspired you?

CM:  Well yes, there were a lot. But I wasn’t involved with one specific director or period , but, for example, I discovered Milos Forman in a very special way. First of all, I saw his American films and I liked them a lot, only to discover later on that what is really very close to me are his Czech films, the films he made before he left in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s. And then during that period I think I also discovered Kieslowski. It’s never that I liked everything he made, his methods entirely, but there are things that I always felt, you know, are really close to what I wanted to do. Then later on, but still before film school, I’ve seen lots of Italian neo-realism and it  was kind of close to what I wanted to do, but at the same time you know as a filmmaker and especially when you’re young, your taste will evolve and will vary a lot. I was a big fan of Fellini when I was twenty, but I can’t watch Fellini now. It’s not that I don’t appreciate Fellini but it’s too complicated and too heavy for me to watch now. Now I prefer to watch simpler things and I’m trying to learn the most difficult thing for a director to be simple. And today, for example, from the people that live today, I prefer to watch, I don’t know, Jarmusch, from the States. I watch very different films. I enjoy a small, I don’t know, Argentinean film as much as a Korean film or anything else.

PK: Yeah, the Kieslowski influence really struck me, and the Jarmusch, the long track – well, I guess you don’t use a track or a dolly, do you?

CM:  We have a mobile camera to avoid using the tripod, but not to have, for example, a steadycam, because we felt like a steadycam is too smooth, too nice, and the whole purpose of this film is not to be necessarily likeable, not to be spectacular, not to be beautiful, not to be commercial like. And then we found, we discovered something which was really very useful for us. It’s not necessarily hand-held, there’s something called an “easy-rig,” it’s a way for the cinematographer, for the cameraman to have the camera right in front of him standing on a rig.

PK: How did you go about recreating the sense of time and place?

CM: We didn’t have snow, so we had to add all the snow you see in this film. But we wanted to shoot at the time for the light. There’s a different light, and the whole purpose of recreating the atmosphere of the time was to make people experience the feeling of living then, not to give information about the period, because I really don’t think films should be history lessons, and 90 minutes of a film are not the right place to inform people about what’s happened. This is for a different kind of media, not for film. But we wanted very much to recreate the atmosphere and the feeling, and I think you get this lack of hope that people experienced, and this kind of permanent fear and this feeling that you are being aggressed all the time by somebody who’s abusing his authority.

PK:  I’m assuming that things have improved since then.

CM:  Well it depends on to who you talk. (Laugh) No, I’m joking. Yes, very much yes. It’s a big change, and especially it’s a big change because it’s a free country, and everybody can decide upon his own fate in life, so in the early ‘90s, for example, a lot of people have immigrated or just decided to work someplace else, which is also happening now. And that little by little people got this feeling that it’s not that easy to necessarily get adapted someplace else so they just leave to work for a while so they will be better paid and they just get back home.

PK:Filmmakers are heroes now in Romania. Didn’t you get a medal?

CM: I think they are more heroes if you watch from across the ocean. We are not at all regarded as… heroes here. There are people appreciating how much we influence for the better the image of the country but it’s not like we’ve been given any kind of extra attention when we got back home. After Cannes, everybody thought that the whole environment, the way in which we make our films here is going to be influenced by the success, but actually nothing much happened.

PK:  You’re probably tired of questions about the so-called Romanian new-wave but it’s hard to deny that there’s a rise of filmmakers of a certain age that make films that have certain qualities that are common: that they all take place in one day, generally, they’re very realistic, and they deal with people in ordinary circumstances. Do you think this is all a coincidence, or has there been some sort of movement gathering?

CM:  It’s always this is happening, it’s just that I’m not seeing so many common things in these films. It’s always that it’s a generation, biologically, because we’re all people in our late-30s early-40s, and we got this international recognition at the same time, and it’s always at a bad moment in the history of the Romanian cinema. And we share some values, if you want, in common, but I don’t think we share enough values to mention this as a school. This the only thing I am saying. Maybe it’s a wave, because a wave is something that’s not necessarily very clear and precise, but it’s not necessarily a school, and I think that there are a lot of differences at the same time between these people. And this is something very good for me regarding this Romanian new wave, that it’s quite diverse, and apart from the three films that everybody has seen in the last year, there are a lot of other interesting films that do not necessarily respect this idea that they happen in the same day, or something like this. And we’re really very appreciated at the same time. So from my perspective, apart from the language, and from a certain sense and sympathy for realism and a kind of simplicity, it’s very difficult to find common traits which are – you can take in all these films.

PK:   The three you’re talking about include “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu”

CM:  Right –  and “12:08 East of Bucharest."And there are some films which try to be as simple as possible and follow a very short simple narrative which happens in a couple of hours to one day, but it’s just part of this way.

PK:  You’re also against the use of metaphor…

CM:  It’s not that I’m against – I don’t use it, I don’t need to use it for the moment. I think that, and you know, it depends how you use it. For example, if you consider “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu,” it’s a film about death in general, and his name is “Lazarescu” coming from “Lazar,” that’s a metaphor that I can understand. And for me, it’s not a film about the health care system in Romania by no means. And it’s such a subtle metaphor in that film that people won’t necessarily get it. What I’m talking about is that kind of metaphor, that when you go in Romanian filmmaking in the late-80s, early-90s, where, I don’t know, a fish drawn on the sand would mean Christianity, this is…. You know, I don’t get this. And we had some films in the early 90s with a very metaphorical style trying to talk about dictatorship and communism, but you know I don’t understand this. It’s not my taste, you know. They were very intricate, complicated, difficult to say what they were speaking about. They were just complicated.

PK:  My editor insisted that I ask you this question: he saw “Juno” and your film in the same week and he noticed that in both films, orange Tic-Tacs play a prominent part, or at least they come up in both movies. Can you explain that of uncanny coincidence?

CM:  Orange Tic-Tacs?

PK:  Yes. She buys them at the commissary.

CM:  Yes…unless, you know, pregnant women crave for orange Tic-Tacs, I don’t have any other explanation.

PK:  Ah, that’s a good point… I was surprised that Kent cigarettes are chosen over Marlboros, which is like the signature cigarette of the French new wave. Were you making a point about Jean-Luc Godard?

CM It’s not coming from the New Wave. It’s coming from the Romania in ’81, if you can imagine even today, the cigarettes are still special and they remained as a gift for the doctor, especially if you go, even if today they don’t mean anything, it’s like two-dollars-a-pack. But it’s more than a pack of cigarettes during that period, they were like social signs during that period saying that you can afford the service that she was asking for. And it was inconceivable for somebody to go to a doctor unless he was giving him something, and very often this. And the same thing with the hotels. I can’t, you know, nobody really knows what it was about Kent cigarettes but probably because they look a little bit, the front, aristocratic. They are white, they are different than any other kind of regular cigarette you can find on the market. Finally between a Marlboro or a Camel and the Romanian cigarettes, the apparent difference wasn’t that big. But we never had completely white cigarettes. I don’t know if this is explanation or not, but anyhow it was much more than the scent or the taste or anything like this. And the cost was similar, it’s not about the cost. It’s the way this brand presents itself as a sign of wealth.

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