#behindthescenes: On the set of “Horia”

28 July, 2022

I spent two days on the set of Horia, Ana-Maria Comănescu’s feature film debut. A few days before, I had seen In the House and Sex, Pipe and Omelette, two of the three short films she directed, and I had noted her talent for merging drama with comedy, drawing on both genres almost imperceptibly, a superpower that makes her more than promising, especially since it stems from the female branch of the industry. Moreover, Horia promises to be an atypical film in the Romanian cinematic landscape: the story of a teenage boy (Vladimir Țeica, making his debut in film acting) head over heels in love with a girl living on the other side of the country, who embarks on a crazy adventure fleeing on his father’s old Mobra to get to his never-before-seen girlfriend. On the way, he meets Stela (Angelina Pavel, another revelation in acting), a 13-year-old girl, more realistic and wiser than him, who throws herself completely into this improbable adventure. Could it be a reinvention of the Don Quixote & Sancho Panza duo?

July 17

I get into a white car; the A.C. is a lifesaver on a hot day like this. The driver tells me that we will stop for a few hours in Runcu, a village near Bucharest where a key scene in the film is shot. I wonder where the city ends and the unknown begins? For the moment, I let myself be consumed by anticipation and excitement with my head resting on the back seat and my eyes closed. We reach a gravel road, flanked on one side by houses and on the other by cornfields. I remember Bonnie and Clyde and their erotic-dramatic escape through the corn. We stop by the trucks loaded with lighting equipment and props on the side of the road. Carla, the film producer, greets me as soon as I get out of the car. She looks very cool in a casual outfit: she wears a cap, a loose T-shirt and a pair of cargo shorts with the walkie-talkie in the right pocket. A kind girl makes us coffee in the production tent. She introduces me to part of their eclectic team consisting of Romanians, Bulgarians and Serbs, who take refuge from the sweltering heat under a makeshift tent. I don’t remember anyone’s name because I’m rather focused on their facial expressions. I feel the collective tension, their will to do their jobs as best as they can. I find out I’m on the 15th day of shooting out of the scheduled 26 days.

Photo Credit: Horia Manolache

With a coffee in our hands, we head to the set. Carla tells me that this is her first project this big as a producer (in collaboration with Ada Solomon, who is not present on the set at the moment). It has all the features to be a difficult production, first because it’s a road movie and then because it’s a debut with non-professional teenage actors in the lead roles, although, she mentions, this time it’s a big plus considering how talented and serious they both are. She also tells me that the first 12 days of shooting saw her packing eight times before losing count and that the shootings were supposed to take place last year, but it was very difficult to put together a reasonable budget, therefore the production effort is huge. She and Ana have been working together for eight years, since college, and they conceived the film together, which makes it important on a personal level, too. The frustrating thing is that the Romanian Film Center (CNC) didn’t classify the project as a technically difficult production, even though it checked off most of the criteria, and that of course had several dire financial implications.

I’m immediately taken by the scenery of the shooting location: a green garden populated by decorative gnomes. The actors and part of the camera crew are on the pathway. Carla takes me to the orchard where she introduces me to Ana, who is sitting behind the video assist and watching the action on the set extremely focused. I notice her curly hair, her loose linen outfit and I don’t know why, her appearance; her figure, in particular, reminds me of a Greek island. “I really like your magazine,” she tells me, which makes me feel welcome. I hear a serious and steady voice: “Quiet on the set, please. We’re shooting.” –  it’s the 1stAD, a tall, blond guy who seems to be very good at hushing background noise. I lean against a tree and try to watch the unfolding scene. Carla comes and whispers to me that the two older actors, the couple in the film where the teenagers stop for a short break, were brought from Iași. My view is obstructed by equipment and lights, I can’t see much, but I’m sure I’ll make out the whole scene by piecing together the bits I catch on takes. Carla asks me not to give spoilers, especially the part when the actress says ‘The human body is the most beautiful thing”; I tell her with a smile that it will be very difficult for me to refrain because the scene is fantastic, given that I laughed even without understanding half of it. I step away a little so as not to be a disruptive element in the production flow; I wish I was a fly, sitting on a wall, just watching and observing. At the same time, I feel a bit jealous of either of them because they’re here in this intense creative momentum and always have something to do, while I’m outside their bubble and can’t rub off on the same verve. Carla captures me in my moment of melancholy, staring absently at the phone, checking messages and emails. I soon stumble upon a story with me: press on set.

It’s afternoon already. I get into a car with Carla and Aleca (the line producer) and we leave for Târgoviște. On the way, I hum the lyrics to Pulp’s Common People and listen to snippets of their conversation about the film. We stop at a scrapyard, the location where we will remain for the rest of the day and again tomorrow. I sit at the table with Ana and Carla and discover that we all have the same culinary tastes: vegetarian. I am intrigued by their presence and prefer to listen to them talk. Meanwhile, the team gets ready for the scene. Carla introduces me to the two young actors and tells them that I will probably interview them later. Vladimir is horrified by the news and informs me that he is terrible at speeches and that I won’t be able to get a coherent sentence out of him. Angelina doesn’t seem to be inhibited, on the contrary, she smiles at me and I immediately find a follow request from her on Instagram. 

Angelina Pavel. Photo credit: Horia Manolache

Her mom invites me to sit next to her and tells me that I shouldn’t make an opinion about her Angelina based on how she looks these days, while shooting for the film. She had to look “ugly” for the role. She shows me photos of her on Facebook as proof and videos of her performing on stage with Nico. I find out that the girl is very talented at the piano and won prizes and that she is undecided between singing, piano and acting, the vocational options at the art high school where she has now finished the 8th grade. Later, she tells me that she is more tempted to pursue acting, given that she has already performed in commercials, TV series, and now, in Ana’s film. She adds, with an intimidating confidence, that it’s an easy role for her, which seems to have been created in her image and likeness. Stela is confident, but also childish, boyish, slightly ironic and awkward, but very open, kind and friendly. Vladimir, on the other hand, confesses that he gradually and consciously got into the skin of the character, that he spent several months beforehand performing every mundane action as if it was thought and done by Horia, always having in mind his models in acting: Tom Hardy in film and Richard Boznovski in theatre. They both delve into their stories, and while they’re talking, I’m munching on a bag of chips to ease the pressure upon the revelations.

Vladimir Țeca. Photo credit: Horia Manolache

Vladimir tells me that he is very passionate about film and that he only wants to apply to Acting. He shows me on his phone a list he made for Angelina with his top 10, his personal canon. I smile at the thought that I just wrote such a list for Film Menu. It seems that we share some similarities despite the age gap. The 2ndAD comes to take them back to the set. Adeline Bădescu, the production designer, also in charge of costumes, follows her from behind; I notice her childish smile and cowboy hat, a perfect match with the heat outside. Vladimir frowns and asks if it’s possible to stay a little longer because he was in the middle of an interesting conversation, but time is of the essence and they need to stay on schedule. The two get up, but even so, Vladimir continues with his story. I’m very glad that he has contradicted his own expectations about his potential as a storyteller.

July 18

My second and final day on the set. We’re once again in the scrapyard, but in the back, where you can contemplate the unfortunate fate of the vehicles. As the crew sets up the cameras and the actors are in makeup, getting ready, I slip through the rows of stacked cars and glance at the beams of light seeping through the dismantled parts. I stop for a few minutes before the video assist, watching the actors prepare for the scene. Angelina kisses her mother and sings. During breaks, she warms up her voice and that attenuates the tension on the set: she’s filled with fantastic energy but acts like a laid-back teenager. It’s a difficult scene because it follows an incessant exchange of lines between the two protagonists, as Horia repairs his Mobra and Stela questions his fragile beliefs or, better said, the illusions he rests his immediate future on. The 1stAD proves his firm hand time and again, managing to keep order on the set. They shoot a few takes. Ana and Carla are both very pleased with the actors’ performances. I wonder how challenging it is to be in Ana’s shoes here and now. Later, she reveals part of the mystery to me: “Making a film is without a doubt madness, in the best sense. I was aware from the start of the level of pressure, stress and exhaustion that this project entails. I knew what I signed up for when I decided to make my debut with a road movie across the country, in the heat and dust, with non-professional actors (teenagers and not only), a 60-year-old motorcycle, and a lot of potential for difficulties. I realized that the only way to survive it all would be to take the days one at a time. Soon I lost track of them, just as I lost track of the empty roads, the sunsets, the packing and unpacking of the bags, the alarms, the dark circles, the laughs, the sunburns, the friendships, the encouragements, the sorrows, the moments when I believed with all my being that we won’t be able to finish the shooting day. They all fade away, the camera is rolling and you’re there because that’s where you need to be, every time, no matter what happens. We have one week left.”

Director Ana-Maria Comănescu. Photo Credit: Horia Manolache

During breaks, Carla introduces me to the director of photography (Tudor Mircea), who I learn collaborated with Corneliu Porumboiu on La Gomera and Infinite Football, among others. We don’t exchange any words, just a smile, and he goes back to his camera where he sets up his angles with perfect composure. I’m envious, as only an introvert can be, of his privilege to hide behind the camera and do his job without too much outside interference (or at least, that’s how it looks from here).

In the evening, we retire to the Valahia Hotel in Târgoviște, which overlooks the Tricolor Square; a huge canvas showing the rulers who had their seat in Târgoviște takes you back to the history classes in middle school. I realize that the communist setting has become an exotic element, especially for us, who were born after the revolution. I overlook the shortcomings of the place and enjoy what the entire scene has to offer. I remember getting the script by email, but I prefer the mystery of the reveal, so I’ll wait to see how the story ends when the film comes out in theaters. It may be another year until then, but the wait can only heighten the surprise. I witnessed at least two memorable scenes, and Carla showed me off-the-record footage of an absolutely breathtaking landscape in Dobrogea, which you could easily mistake for one in Arizona. I sense that this film will show us a side of Romania we have never seen before.

It’s not very late, but none of us seems up for a night out. I turn off the lamp and fall asleep more easily than ever.

 



Film critic and photographer/videographer. She studies Filmology at UNATC and works as a journalist for FILM Menu magazine. She’s now writing her disertation on slow cinema. Sometimes she coordinates film screenings at the university’s cineclub. Currently obsessed with nordic landscapes, Hungarian literature and animals rights.