Alexandra Alma Ungureanu: “In creating the costumes for a film, anchoring the character in its environment is essential”

6 October, 2020

Alexandra Alma Ungureanu is one of the best known and most appreciated set designers in Romanian cinema.

She studied stage design at the Faculty of Fine Arts at the Bucharest National University of Arts (2002-2006). She worked both as a set and costume designer on films such as “Man and Dog” (dir. Stefan Constantinescu), recently completed, “Monsters.” (2019, dir. Marius Olteanu), “Rocker” (2013, dir. Marian Crisan) or “A Film for Friends” (2011, dir. Radu Jude).

She also worked as a costume designer on “Pororoca” (2017, dir. Constantin Popescu), “They May Be Still Alive Today” (2020) and “The Japanese Dog” (2012), both by Tudor Cristian Jurgiu, “A Decent Man” (2018, dir. Hadrian Marcu), “Marita” (2017, dir. Cristi Iftime), “By the Rails” (2016, dir. Catalin Mitulescu), “Orizont” (2015) and “Morgen” (2010), both by Marian Crisan, or “Medal of Honor” (2009, dir. Calin Peter Netzer).

She was awarded three times by the Union of Filmmakers, for “Morgen”, “Rocker” and “Medal of Honor”.

Alexandra Alma Ungureanu
Photo: Adi Marineci

Alexandra Alma Ungureanu was born on September 1, 1983 in Alexandria, but her parents settled in Bucharest when she was one year old.

She wanted to be a set designer ever since she was in the fifth grade, even though she didn’t know at the time that it’s called that. But she did have a talent for drawing and painting, that’s for sure. In primary school, she had a very good friend whose father was a lighting designer at the National Theater.

“I was constantly going to the theater with her. Like every other day. I pretty much saw all the plays staged at TNB at that time. I remember seeing Romeo and Juliet about 30 times, no kidding. I even knew the lines. That’s how I got into it. We didn’t have a ticket, but they let us sit on the front stairs, next to the front row. I felt everything happening on the stage. Entering that world, it was fascinating. And the sets and the costumes, I feasted on them”, she remembers.

She had a hard time convincing her parents to transfer her to the “Nicolae Tonitza” High School of Fine Arts, where she finally got to in the seventh grade: “I told them that I really like theater and that I would like to study this thing that has to do with sets and costumes, if possible. I didn’t know it was called stage design.” Her father, an engineer, was the most reluctant, because he wanted her to have a more “serious” job.

When she was about to enter ninth grade and had to choose a high school section, “Tonitza” didn’t have a stage design class at the time, because there weren’t enough students to apply. So she went for the next best thing, ambient design: “This section included everything, in fact. In a way, I’m glad that I went in this direction, because it helped me a lot in terms of perspective and on the technical part. All my colleagues went to architecture after that. It helps you maintain a balance between the technical and the artistic side.”

At the end of high school, once again she had to convince her family, who had no connection to the art field, that she wanted to continue with stage design. Her parents and grandparents insisted on applying to a “serious” college. Finally, her mother supported her in her desire to study stage design. Her father insisted on architecture, since it was a field closer to what he was doing professionally. And her grandfather, who was a priest, asked her to apply to church painting as well.

She successfully applied to all three of them. But, in the end, after many discussions, she didn’t give up and chose stage design.

“I didn’t know whether to study stage design at the Faculty of Fine Arts at the Bucharest National University of Arts or at UNATC, where I think the department was recently created. I kept thinking, kept weighing in. Where to go? Should I go to UNATC, where I would definitely enter this world and meet people? In the end, I chose Fine Arts, because I felt it was much more practical and that it was closer to what I had done before”, recalls Alexandra Alma Ungureanu.

Finally, she went with the Faculty of Decorative Arts and Design, the Scenography Department, a very old department, where “some fantastic stage designers finished”. She had a choice between theater stage design and film set design, a department created just a little while ago: “I went with theater, my great love. I couldn’t even dream of film. To me, a play felt more doable than a film. Film was just something unimaginable. It’s a shame that, after graduating from college, I didn’t get to do theater stage design at all.”

Alexandra Alma Ungureanu
Photo: Vlad Cristea

College years were, as she says, “by far the most beautiful and happiest time of my life.” “You got a lot of support as an artist. All the professors believed so much in you, in the idea that you would become a perfect artist, that they made no attempt in changing you at all. Which I thought was fantastic. As an adult, you always have to conform, to make some changes, from project to project, to bend to the director’s will, to the producer’s budget. But in school, it wasn’t like that at all. The teachers were incredible. They knew how to believe in us and supported us to do what we like, how we like. You could still dream that you could do extraordinary things. That helped me a lot, gave me confidence. There was also a very nice atmosphere. There were just a few of us and we became good friends. There was no competition. You didn’t feel like there was a rivalry between colleagues in any way. I would also come on weekends, stay the nights and draw, you weren’t limited by a schedule. That’s how life was then. I really thought it was ideal”, says the artist.

“I think the only weak point of the school at that time – now I understand that things have changed – was the practical part. I understand that UNATC had this practical part even then. You had someone to build things with, whether it was theater or film. Here, you were in your own world, doing things as you dreamed you would do. However, later, when you have to face the financial part, everything falls apart. You have to adapt to a lot of conditions, which kind of mess you up”, she adds.

At the end of the first year of college, through a colleague who already had experience as a props master, she ended working on a music video, made by then soon to be director Marian Crisan. She stayed for the whole shooting, and loved it so much that it became clear to her that that’s what she has to do – music videos: “I fell in love, I thought it was fantastic. I asked my colleague to call me whenever he needs help, because I would come for free, just to get some working done. And so began a long period, about two years, in which I mostly worked on music videos.” She collaborated on many videos made by Marian Crisan, but also on some made by Radu Jude.

“I made my first steps into this world. They all wanted to make films. I got the bug too, I admit. It felt like something I would like to do, too. Now it seemed more doable”, says the set designer.

However, she still wanted to do theater as well, something that she wishes for even now. But neither during college, nor after that, did the opportunity arise, and that’s also because she didn’t accept everything she was offered: “I was very pretentious, and still am, and I promised myself that I wouldn’t go for something that felt unworthy. After I graduated from college, I was offered to work on some plays, but in fact they didn’t need a stage designer. The directors who contacted me were also at the beginning, and had some low budgets that would only cover for a table and some chairs. But I was dreaming of doing something fantastic. I mean, after so many years, doing a spectacular stage design for a play seemed only natural. I felt that in theater you can be so creative, even if the budgets are different from cinema. I kept waiting for that project to appear, and maybe even for that one director with whom I would have great chemistry, who would give more consideration to stage design, even fight for it.”

After music videos, she started working on short films. And the first feature film where she did the costumes was The Phantom Father, by Lucian Georgescu; she was brought on the project by director of photography Liviu Marghidan. Once she got into the film industry, where she had already begun to meet more and more people, the projects started coming one after another.

Morgen
„Morgen”

For Alexandra Alma Ungureanu the ideal situation is when the same person deals with both costumes and sets, although she admits that it is complicated to be in charge of both departments.

“In my opinion, the same person should make the costumes and the sets, because they work together. as a whole. Unfortunately, I had projects where I did the sets, and my concept didn’t match the costumes at all, which were made by someone else. The directors can’t pay attention to this part as I do, who focuses solely on this aspect. And that can make the film look really bad. But at the same time, I understand why most set designers don’t take on both of them. Even I choose very carefully the projects where I can do both, because it’s extremely complicated to deal with both departments. They are two very large creative departments and they eat up a lot of your time”, confesses the artist.

“When I first made the costumes, and the sets, and that was on Rocker, I was afraid there wouldn’t be enough time for both departments, and that I won’t do my job as well as I would if I were to take care of only one department. But because I had already worked with Marian in the past and I enjoyed it every time, we had good communication and I told him that I need to start well in advance, so that I could handle both departments. And that’s how I made it through”, she also explains.

She considers herself lucky that she was able to choose whom to collaborate with, but she worked hard to get to that point. She refused many projects, even when she had nothing else to work on: “I said no, because they weren’t right for me, for various reasons, starting with the fact that I had no chemistry with the director. First of all, I felt that I wouldn’t be able to do things the way he wanted them to be, because we didn’t share the same vision at all. And it’s very hard to get into the director’s mind. If I feel this from the very beginning, I won’t go on with the project.”

The moment she enters a project depends a lot on the directors – some of them look for an early start, others start working on the stage design closer to the shootings: “I’m a very flexible person and I manage to bend myself to the director’s will.”

“Some directors want to start with some sketches or maybe some references. At one point, I even went out with a fellow director just to look at people. To spot typologies. I found it very helpful, it was a different approach. I don’t know if my way of doing things is right or wrong, but I like to get a sense of the director’s energy. When I accept the offer to work on a project, I don’t tell the producer how much time I need to do my job, if it takes three or five months. I start when the director needs me to step in. And most of them usually look for an early start. For the latest film I worked on, Man and Dog, I started a year before. I think it’s very helpful to go this way. I love this job, so I’m not in a hurry with the whole process”, she explains.

She admits that it’s quite hard to go with the budget provided by the producer for set design or costumes: “It’s the most unpleasant part of this job, I admit. But I do get it. We have to be creative with the money we get.”

Alexandra Alma Ungureanu
On the set for „Monsters.” Photo: Adi Marineci

Alexandra Alma Ungureanu explains her work process: “If I work on both sets and costumes, first of all I make a mood board and gather a reference base which could come from the street, from other films or from paintings. Whatever I find inspiring after reading the script. This is the first step, so that I can give myself a direction. Then I start talking to the director. And that’s the best part, I enjoy it the most, because with every project, and every director, I get to experience a different direction. And it could easily be different from the one I thought of, especially if it’s someone I’ve never worked with before. If things went only my way, I think I would repeat myself a lot. I wouldn’t think of different outcomes. It’s nice when you can reinvent yourself.”

The collaboration with the director of photography it’s also very important, in her opinion. “It’s true that, unfortunately, in most cases I don’t get to work with the DP as much as I would like. Some of them do pay a lot of attention to these departments. I actually worked with DPs who showed an interest in set design or costumes from the very beginning, when they started their own preparations. They attend the costume fittings, they want to see the costumes, the props, I show them textures, the chromatic I chose. But there are just a few of them, unfortunately. Maybe because my process starts early on. Just like I did on Monsters, for example, where I worked on both as a set and costume designer. There was great teamwork. I worked with DP Luchian Ciobanu and director Marius Olteanu from the very beginning. Rarely do you come across a DP that starts the same moment you do. Most of them are working on other projects and it’s normal for them not to be so present”, says the set designer.

„Monsters.”

Working with the actors is another important stage in the process: “When the casting takes a long time and gets close to the shootings, we start to buy or make the costumes well in advance. When we have to make the costumes, me and the seamstress I work with, who is fantastic, don’t stitch them all the way, so we can later adapt them to the actors’ measures. That way, we have enough time to finish them.”

“Choosing the actors faster would help a lot, but I realize that it’s very complicated to do so. But at least the main actors. Fortunately, some screenplays are written with some actors in mind. Especially the leading ones. Many times, when I get the script, I imagine who could play the leading part and I always make the right guess. It’s a cool exercise. It works great when you have the actor and you start building on them. After we have the actors, me and my colleague Elena Butica, a wonderful and highly wanted person in all projects, we just have to give the final outline. But we start with more in detail stuff, like choosing or making the things we need and looking for the right accessories. If you work with actors who play in most films, there’s some concern about repeating yourself. I, myself, worked with several actors plenty of times. That’s something you need to work on, as well: trying to have a different approach and create a fresh look for the actor, which they have never had before”, says Alexandra Alma Ungureanu.

Even though almost all the films she worked on as both a set and costume designer are realistic films, with stories set in the present, she says that her work was elaborate, and it bothers her when it’s underestimated, including by people in the field and sometimes even by colleagues in the same film crew.

“What’s important is if the costumes are right for the character. Also important are your quest and the place where you choose to stop. If you choose to stop searching at a certain point in which the character looks in a certain way, it means that you consider it right for a certain mood. The fact that I sometimes go and buy the clothes doesn’t mean that they are less important”, she states.

“For example, Pororoca. It’s an unsettling drama that could happen to anyone. It’s a story that takes place in present times, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a great deal of effort in thinking about how to dress up the protagonist (played by Bogdan Dumitrache) and what he should look like. To let the physical aspect talk about the torment he goes through. When you’re feeling terrible, how do you dress? Do you still wash yourself, or not? What clothes, of what color, you choose to put on when you are in a certain state? Why would you even bother changing them? There are many options and many decisions to be made. It may take me two days just to look for a T-shirt. But it’s not a simple T-shirt: it must be made of a certain material, with a certain texture. Very few people noticed, but in Pororoca I struggled to have a chromatic gradation of the protagonist’s white T-shirt. Very complicated. At first, because Bogdan’s character was clean and calm, the T-shirt had to be of an immaculate white. But, in the process, I went for a palette of shades of white, until I reached a dirty gray at the end. Not with the same T-shirt, but different ones. I thought that would help a lot to show that, in the end, there wasn’t even a drop of white or anything clean around him. Nothing was pure anymore. My best friend, who doesn’t work in film, noticed this thing at the premiere and I thought it was incredible”, explains the artist.

She confesses that the biggest challenge, when working on realistic films, is to anchor the character in its environment as best as possible: “Whether it’s a drama or a love story, you have to think – and that’s the essence when it comes to costumes – what that person would be like, and create them from scratch. What clothes would they wear? What gestures do they have? What objects would they choose if they went some place?”

When it comes to sets, she also emphasizes that it’s essential to start working early on with the location scout: “Unfortunately, there have been few films where I was able to start my work at the same time with finding the locations. The set design is very much influenced by the locations, too, especially due to the budgets. If I, as a set designer, have a good starting point and a location scout brings me and the director several options to choose from, that’s something extraordinary. But that rarely happens.”

She has only worked on a couple of films in which the action was set somewhere in the past – for example, Medal of Honor or one of the episodes of Tales of the Golden Age – but she admits that any set designer wants to collaborate as much as possible on such projects.

However, she admits that she also refused some period films: “I felt that the script wasn’t good enough or that I wouldn’t work well with the director. I didn’t accept, although it would have been an opportunity to work on costumes and sets from another period. Working on a period film from time to time and creating things from scratch would definitely be ideal. The job is different. The effort you put in is different. But I don’t think I could come with examples of period films made in our country in the last ten years that have moved me or left me in an awe, as some incredible films taking place in the present have done. After all, the most important thing is not for me to make my art, but for the film to be as good as possible and as close as possible to what the director wants to express.”

In such cases, the work process begins with a detailed documentation on materials and costumes, and collecting references: “It goes pretty much like this – I document as much as I can, then I make some sketches, which I remake after talking to the director and the actors.”

Alexandra Alma Ungureanu
On the set for „Man and Dog” Photo: Vlad Bâscă

She avoids renting costumes from studios or producers’ warehouses: “I rarely do it. I don’t like it. I feel that there are few costume warehouses and you could easily end up repeating yourself. Since I watch 90% of the Romanian films, I sometimes end up recognizing a sweater that I may have used as well. That bothers me a lot. It’s true, my colleagues have no way of knowing that maybe I used it ten years ago in a short film, but I know it and can notice it there. As much as I can, I try not to repeat the costumes. That is, to rent them out and risk them being used in other productions as well. That’s why, since I kept collecting clothes, I made my own store. It’s much better for me, because I don’t risk repeating the decisions of others.”

She says that, in her profession, she is most attracted by the possibility to always reinvent herself as a set designer, as an artist: “I’m very excited by each project. After reading the script, I get incredibly enthusiastic. I think about what approach I should take. This process that starts with reading the script and ends with watching the film in the cinema is amazing. I never get bored with it. I find it fascinating, the entire process of a film being made. Our “child”, whom we create every time. You give birth to something and it’s always different. You never get to repeat yourself and I think that’s great.”

Ionut Mares Ionut Mares
Journalist and film critic. He works as artistic director for several film festivals in Romania. For Films in Frame, he is in charge of the Emerging Voices column, which is published twice a month, on Tuesday.