Alina Grigore: I would have made “Blue Moon” no matter what
“Blue Moon” (2021), Alina Grigore’s directorial debut, became at the end of September the first Romanian feature film to win the Golden Shell at the San Sebastian Festival.
Written and directed by Alina Grigore, the film revolves around a young woman living in the countryside who tries to escape her dysfunctional family that opposes her desire to study in Bucharest. In the role of the protagonist Irina we discover Ioana Chiţu, while her cousins are played by Mircea Postelnicu and Mircea Silaghi. In other roles, we also find Vlad Ivanov, Emil Mandanac, Robi Urs and Ioana Flora. Gabi Suciu is the producer of the film.
I talked to Alina Grigore about the unexpected success at San Sebastian, about the work process on this film, about the lack of support from the CNC, about the InLight acting school she has been coordinating for ten years, about the motivations behind her decision to quit acting (after starring in films by Adrian Sitaru – “Best Intentions” and “Illegitimate” – and in Cristi Puiu’s “Aurora”), about her beginnings and experience at the UNATC.
Blue Moon winning the Golden Shell at San Sebastian is a premiere for a Romanian film. The achievement is all the greater because it is a debut. What was it like to receive the news of being selected at the festival and then of winning the top prize? How was the festival experience?
We were over the moon when we found out that we were selected at San Sebastian. We were also waiting for an answer from Cannes; we were on a shortlist for Semaine de la Critique. But we accepted San Sebastian’s invitation since they were very clear that they wanted our film. Initially, we were selected in the New Directors section, not in the official competition. That’s when we had our celebration.
We didn’t expect at all everything that happened after that. We didn’t have the slightest expectation until the last second, when they told us they had to move us from our airbnb to the hotel, because we were up for an award. We didn’t know what the award was.
During the festival, I realized something I had been worried about. I realized that the visual approach wasn’t very well understood. And because of that, I thought people would think the script is a mess. We play with depth of field and often shift from her perspective (i.e. Irina’s character) to his perspective (i.e. Liviu’s character). And you can easily believe that you are moving from her story to his story, but in fact, it’s still the victim’s point of view, only we put the camera on him. I noticed that people said the ending was chaotic because all of a sudden we follow him. I had lost all hope. I had also read some reviews, which were very good, in my opinion, because they were objective. We didn’t get a lot of praise, but they touched on several relevant points.
Together with the team, we wanted to lay out an emotional journey from the beginning. That’s what we strived for in the three years we worked on the film. The minute we would fall into a convention, it would set off an alarm signal that we had to get out. That was also something I was urged on by Adrian Sitaru, who told me to refrain from following recipes.
So the award was a big surprise. After winning the Golden Shell, the greatest thing was that the president of the jury (i.e. Georgian director Dea Kulumbegashvili, who won the 2020 edition of the San Sebastian Festival with her film Beginning) came to tell me: “No one on the jury knew you were a woman. We didn’t know this was your debut film. We want you to know that because last year they came to me and said, «When we saw that you were a woman, we really thought you deserved the award.» That really hurt, so I want you to know we didn’t know, in your case. It was only after that we looked you up and saw your work and we were even more glad to give you the award.”
That gave me confidence because the press was pretty tough there. I was asked if this women’s issue still needs to be addressed and if it’s a point of interest for the public. With the women journalists, I felt like they got my point. They followed this emotional path, they didn’t look for a classic structure. But the men said the story didn’t make any sense and were always asking me about the storyline.
This year seems to have been a special one, maybe even historical. Chloé Zhao won the Oscar for Best Picture. The films that won the top prizes at Cannes and Venice are made by female filmmakers. Then came your award at San Sebastian. You said in interviews it’s still difficult for women directors in the film industry. But how do you see these changes that seem to be happening?
Things are definitely changing. Only that it seems we approach things slightly wrong, in the sense that everyone says that women are not supported. I felt very supported by both women and men. In fact, it was a man who kept pushing me, constantly urging me to tell my story, and that is Adrian Sitaru. But it seems to me – and one could also notice that in the case of Adina Pintilie – that the film industry is still expecting a slightly more structured, classic aesthetic. That is why I feel that women are not particularly promoted through selections and awards. They have a different aesthetic. It’s a different way of telling stories. A rather emotional perspective. I’ve had an obsession with Chekhov since I was a student, when I had, I think, my biggest shock. I couldn’t comprehend why Uncle Vanea’s story didn’t have an ending. I would have this discussion with Adrian Titieni, who would tell me: “But who cares? After all, it’s what’s happening inside these characters that’s keeping you engaged from beginning to end, isn’t it?”
I’ve always liked this type of character study, finding their motivations and purpose. I really think that women have a completely different vision. There is a structure, but it’s not something they want to follow in a story. I think the film industry needs to get used to this style. This happened at one point in France with Agnès Varda, who was focused on following an emotional path in her films.
Blue Moon is based on experiences from your past (as a child, you lived for some time in a rural community in Neamț region), which you have carried with you for a long time and which you also put down in an unpublished book, written when you were 20-something years old. When did you know that this story should become a script and then your directorial debut?
About five years ago, I worked on one of the scenes in the book with two of the actors at my school. I really liked looking into each of the characters’ motivations. I enjoyed working on the relationship between them (i.e. Sergiu and Liviu, the brothers played by Mircea Silaghi and Mircea Postelnicu). While working on these pieces of the book and these characters, it really opened up an appetite to go even further. It also overlapped with the Illegitimate period, when Adrian Sitaru urged me to direct. It all started with that.
It wasn’t until I got to San Sebastian that I realized that the story I’m telling couldn’t be more accurate for these times we’re living in. But I was focused on following a psychological path because that’s what I like to do. That’s how I like working with actors – together, in a collaborative manner. I don’t know if the #MeToo movement even arose five years ago. The fight for women’s rights wasn’t that present. That was not my purpose at all. But in the meantime, it got there. Initially, the story followed the two paths in parallel – hers, who wants to leave, and his, who is very much a family man and bound to that land. But it ended up being a story about her, because, as a woman, I probably felt a stronger need to focus on her, to search together with Ioana Chiţu. I just spent more time with her.
I wrote the book from Irina’s perspective. She tells her own story, which spans over 15 years, from the age of five up until she turns 20. In each chapter, she turns one year older. I started writing when I was very young. The outcome was very interesting. It’s only now that I realize its “divine” purpose (laughs), what it led to.
But the book was not based on my personal story. It’s about some things I experienced as a child coming from Bucharest to a rural area. I had a very big shock in terms of cultural differences. I was really traumatized by what I saw there. I came from a place where education was accessible to everyone and there was some kind of parental protection, and I arrived in a place where education was of no importance. There were only two children in my class whose education seemed to be of interest to their parents. As for the rest, they would go work the land or wash the dishes after school. They probably went to school only because the local priest or the community insisted upon it. I felt somewhat privileged. Then there was the violence, which was extremely shocking to me.
I left that community and moved to Piatra Neamţ quite early. Then, when I returned (i.e. to prepare for the film), my impression was that things had not changed. In fact, rural Romania is about the same as it was 20 years ago. The interest in education is non-existent, and violence and especially manipulation are still very common. That’s when I started documenting for the film. I realized that what is happening there, the fact that girls don’t pursue an education, is a very real problem. I even read statistics in this regard.
When you decided that you want to follow the emotional path of the character, how did you set out to show that through cinematography, through camera movement, together with DoP Adrian Pădureţu?
Initially, I interviewed these girls. I talked to them, asked them about their lives. It was very interesting. They told me all sorts of things, and I would get emotional, I would fill with anger and fear. Although there was no structure in their stories, a beginning and an end, I could feel very clearly how all these things had evolved inside them until now, when they grew up. That’s exactly what I told Adrian Sitaru, when I gave him the script. He told me that he found it very difficult to make such a film, but that it would be very interesting if I could find a way to do that.
While brainstorming with Adrian Pădureţu, I told him that I would like the public to live Irina’s story and not to be just a mere observer. To become one with Irina, one way or another. So we searched for different ways to tell the story. He came and watched me working with the actors and noticed that Irina was an introvert. He told me that in order to show that, we have to focus on her and blur out everything else around her so that this world becomes totally unimportant. That’s what I wanted, too, for the outside world, which puts a lot of pressure on her, to no longer be her center of attention. She herself is the center of her attention and she is trying to survive, to cope with all this chaos. As for the character of Liviu, he told me that he sees the world around him in a clear way, so that you understand what is happening.
We worked very well together, me and Adrian Pădureţu. He’s a down-to-earth guy, very rigorous. The moment he let himself connect emotionally with the story and live it, he got into a sort of tango with the actors. I felt that I, too, was part of that tango, that we all danced together and did a very good choreography. I wanted to give the actors freedom. So no one on the team was around them. That’s how all the scenes went. I talked to them, because they needed to understand what we were going to do with the camera. I told them we were going to get into their privacy and move around them, but that they mustn’t stop. So the actors did exactly what they felt. But luckily the actor knows how to rebuild the movement, no matter what. So they didn’t do something different every time we would rehearse the scene. We went and rehearsed this choreography on location two years in a row. I let them set their own movements, about five days each summer. And in turn, we worked on the camera movement. Therefore, when we went to shoot the film, we were already very prepared. The shooting took 12 days.
How do you keep the actors engaged in the process for such a long period in preparing for the shootings?
Working hard and thoroughly keeps your creative people engaged in the process. I even gave them homework, asked them to keep a diary. They worked a lot on their roles together. I don’t think I could have ever done this work if the preparation hadn’t been very intense. It’s a luxury that I have allowed myself due to the fact that I had the school and that people had a lot of trust in this project. If I didn’t have this little institution and the people’s commitment, I don’t think I could have gotten to that point. Indeed, sometimes the interest simply fades away. So if you don’t want to lose that, thorough work is the way to go. And that’s what I did.
What were your fears when you started directing the film?
The biggest fear I had was related to the technical part. Even now I call Adrian Pădureţu to tell me one more time which lens we used (laughs). On the other hand, I didn’t need to know these things. But I wanted to because this way I felt more secure. When in fact, he was very well prepared, he knew exactly what we needed every time I told him what I wanted. I was also worried about the crew. I’m a team person. For me, it’s important for each creative member to collaborate, to let them express themselves. I worked a lot with the actors, with the editor and with Adrian Pădureţu before going on set. But I didn’t know the crew. I didn’t know who those people were. But I was lucky to have an extremely collaborative team.
Besides professional actors, you also had several non-professional actors from your school. Do you think anyone can perform in a film?
We took actors who had been coming to our school for about five years or even longer. Robi (i.e. Robi Urs), for example, has been with the school for ten years. I was interested in actors who were open to working for a long period of time and very intensely, with a lot of passion. Otherwise, there are actors, both professionals and non-professionals, who are intuitive, instinctive, very talented, but who have other concerns and can’t commit to your project. I took a few students who were very rigorous and disciplined in their work. They were also creative, and that mattered too. I don’t think anyone can do that. First of all, they really must want it. It’s a very difficult job. And I think you also have to bring some of your own stuff. Truth be told.
You have spoken on other occasions about the fact that the project didn’t get any support from the CNC (i.e. Romanian Film Center) despite being submitted four times to their funding contest. Under these conditions, it would probably have been much harder, maybe even impossible, to make the film if you didn’t have InLight school. At the same time, there seems to have been a very strong motivation, because it kept you connected to the story and determined to complete the project. In your situation, others would have probably been deeply demoralized.
I think I would have made the film no matter what. I’m like that (laughs). I go all the way if need be. But it would have been much harder and maybe it would have been an even longer process. The school was the main resource. In fact, maybe the most important thing is that InLight is where I got so obsessed with this kind of search. That was one of the biggest advantages of the school – the fact that we were able to have this type of collaborative search, where we all sit at the table, director and actors, and look into the characters’ past together, instead of everyone doing this work at home, alone. It’s very interesting to see others coming with suggestions. To teach a student to adapt to a certain idea and come up with something new. In fact, it was one of the most helpful things, because I think it gave a lot of courage to the actors.
As for the financial part, I became more and more disappointed with the CNC. Clearly, it’s a system that is simply not working, in many ways, especially legal. You can’t even blame them, really. But, if you look at their status and what they aim to do, you see that it says quite clearly: promoting the Romanian film. However, they didn’t post anything on Facebook about us winning this important award. Okay, we didn’t get any funding from them, but still, this is a Romanian film and their job is to promote Romanian films. It’s weird that they seem to have no interest in any other film that isn’t funded by them. I must say I rather found that awfully petty of them than not getting funding.
Do you think it’s harder for emerging filmmakers and women directors to get funding?
I think the system is not structured properly. First of all, there is very little money, especially for those at their debut. But I have no idea what should be done and where the resources should come from. Secondly, I also find the matter of anonymity strange. I don’t believe in it at all.
Administratively, things are not working at the moment. Starting from the simple fact that it makes no sense to prepare these huge dossiers before the scripts are read by the committee. If candidates really remain anonymous, the normal thing would be to all send our scripts, and after the committee selects a number of projects for potential funding, only those to send the files. It’s simply a waste and a sign of lack of structure. Not to mention that it’s all paperwork.
Then, there is the way the money is distributed, an issue raised by several filmmakers. It’s mind-blowing that no one seems to understand that you cannot get funding from another country if you don’t receive funds from your country first. It’s not like you rely just on the funds given by the CNC. So it would help infinitely more if they gave less money to a larger number of projects because you have to get funding from somewhere else anyway.
Also, I would make the development section for emerging filmmakers only. If you already have some experience, you can afford both mentally and intellectually this part of development, without those 5,000 or 10,000 euros from the CNC. Instead, this money would be an immense help for someone at their debut, because they are invited to all kinds of workshops, they travel abroad, and have to support themselves there. In addition, you really need a script adviser.
Anyway, I don’t want to take funding from the CNC until something changes. It’s pretty much a statement. At least until a section is introduced for those who have projects that are more experimental, like Ivana Mladenović or Adina Pintilie, for example. There has to be an openness to these types of films. Especially since it’s a much more complicated process than the classic one. You invest much more financially in this kind of work.
You say that your working method at InLight is based on building a clear character arc together with the actor who plays them, but also with the other actors. Why do you like working this way?
The actor gets a lot of depth. If I watch a movie, I can tell whether the director worked by using such a method or not. It’s quite obvious. For example, I think it’s clear that Anthony Hopkins and Christoph Waltz are working on their character arc in great detail, they are looking for their motivations. It’s a true approach to the art of acting as taught by Stanislavsky or Mikhail Chekhov. I think it helps you save a lot of time during shootings. The actor is confident, knows very well their stage purpose, in relation to their partner.
I shot my second feature film, which is already finished, in six days. And that’s because everything was on point. That’s what the whole team said. The actors never got their lines wrong, they were extremely focused on the situation and what they had to do. It’s almost like in theater. You spend a lot of time unraveling the text.
I also believe in the other type of method, when you have an instinctive actor, who understands the situation perfectly and does their job well. But I see that – a practice I started to have a good grasp of – there is no arc and no history behind. Only that this method applies to another type of storytelling.
What are the grounds on which people come to InLight?
There are various reasons. Some want to improve their public speaking skills, others their diction, some want to develop on a personal level, others want to pursue acting. But almost everyone falls in love with the art of acting. My intention is to teach them to practice it correctly, in the sense that I don’t necessarily believe in method acting, although that’s what we wanted with Illegitimate, for example. But I don’t think you can do that with anyone and anyhow. You need a strong psyche. That is why I think it’s very important to be of sound mind. To have discussions with the actors: “It’s not about YOU living intensely”. This is not method acting. I don’t ask them to stay in their characters very long. It’s about how well I understand the situation. An actor must understand that what they do is not a psychological process, but a creative one. It’s another part of the brain that works in this case.
Is there a higher risk for non-professional actors?
There are some very specific exercises on developing this ability to access your vulnerability when you need to do that and how to interrupt this process and turn it into a creative one and nothing more. You need to do these exercises, whether you are a professional or a non-professional actor. You have to be very careful with them. I’ve never chosen anyone for a project unless I felt that they were of sound mind and that they had a good grasp of this process. My opinion is that, worldwide, acting is done in a very dangerous way for the human psyche. You really need to study what this vulnerability means to understand that it is a tool. Just as brushes are tools that the painter uses. If not, it’s very easy to slip into drinking and drug addiction.
Do you remember what motivated you to set up this school? Did you borrow the method from America, where you stayed for a few years?
This method raised a lot of questions in my mind ever since I was a student. I was very curious about it. I read a lot of things on it. I liked Adriana Popovici’s course on the analysis of the stage performance process. I had a lot of discussions with Adrian Titieni, who is an exceptional pedagogue, and with Mircea Gheorghiu. I learned the basics of the method I apply at InLight from UNATC. But also from Mr. Ion Cojar. Then it was my curiosity about collaborative search, that is, together with others, something we didn’t do at UNATC.
From a pedagogical point of view, of the teaching style, I borrowed a lot from what I learned in the US. I took some courses at Second City in Chicago and Northwestern University. I was fascinated by the pedagogy, the way they spoke, the way they provided feedback and the way they structured their courses. But also by this type of structure – today we explore your character, tomorrow your partner, then teamwork, followed by competitive teamwork, from which you learn that there should be no such thing in a theater troupe, and working with the prop. The moment the actor understands their tools very well, they know how to use them and everything becomes a genuine creative act. Yes, you appeal to your vulnerability, but you don’t do it through a destructive psychological process.
How was the experience in the US? Did you also work as an actor there?
I was picked up by an agent from Lily’s Talent Agency. I did some TV shows. I also worked on a pilot episode in a TV series. I tried all sorts of things. I went to a lot of auditions, I made it quite far on some of them – they see it as a decent achievement – but I only got a part in a short film. In parallel, I continued with my studies.
You said that you gave up acting and that you would only accept parts in Adrian Sitaru’s films.
And in Mike Leigh’s (laughs).
Did you become disappointed with acting? After all, that’s what you teach.
I worked with Sitaru and I really like his style, because he works in a collaborative and thorough manner. I also liked working with Cristi Puiu, who was my teacher. I didn’t go through the traumatic experiences that some actors did. I don’t know what his approach is now. But I would always work with him, solely because he takes his time to explain to you what he wants. It’s fascinating. I know there is something to learn.
I would always collaborate with a director who invests a great deal into character development, who focuses on understanding the character. But that rarely happens. So I’m not that interested in acting anymore. For example, I got the lead role in a film by a very good director. But I didn’t go any further, simply because this kind of approach where they tell me that we have two days of rehearsal before shooting doesn’t appeal to me. Flirting with pedagogy and directing for a long time, you begin to understand what is happening behind the camera. It’s no longer a mystery to me. If I see that working with the actor is less important to the director, I have no reason to keep doing that. I’ve been through it too many times to keep making the same mistake.
I can figure out what their deal is right from the casting. If there’s no in-depth search, if there’s no process, I find it very hard to get involved. I’m not saying it’s wrong what they’re doing, I’m not condemning a different style, but it’s just something that I’m not interested in anymore. It was hard for me to make the decision not to go to castings anymore. The first time I did it, I was completely terrified. I couldn’t believe I was actually doing it.
Before you left for America, you had a period in which you played in soap operas. You said you did it for the money. It was right after college. How do you see that period now? Do you think it’s a good start for a young actress who has just finished school?
In the first two years, they should try everything. Including playing in soap operas. If I regret something, it’s that I continued for more than two years (laughs). But I don’t regret starting like that at all. It was an experience I learned a lot from. First of all, working with the camera. Then, I worked with great actors, like Gheorghe Dinică, and with very good directors. But I had a problem with the text.
But I gave up at the right moment. I stopped when it was my time to leave. On the fourth soap opera, I left in the middle of the project – I told them I won’t come for the next one. There was a huge scandal (laughs).
If I were to give a piece of advice to young actresses, I would tell them to be very careful what they choose to do in the first years of their professional life. It’s okay to do soap operas, but don’t get carried away by the prospect of stardom. That was somehow my biggest mistake because I thought that this way everyone would know who Alina Grigore is (laughs).
How was your experience at the UNATC?
I started in 2003 and got my bachelor’s degree in 2007. Then I got into the master’s program and attended it until 2009, but dropped off a month before finishing. I had written my dissertation and had only A’s. But if I don’t like something, I quit. I was annoyed with the attitude of one professor. So I didn’t get my master’s degree, even though I attended the two-year program. And now I’m pursuing my PhD there.
I know people are complaining about UNATC, but it’s not my case. I was very lucky. I was the last generation of Ion Cojar. I had Adrian Titieni as a professor, who came to school every day and was extremely involved. In my opinion, he is by far the best pedagogue Romania has ever had. His way of working with the students and teaching style are absolutely incredible. I was lucky to be the last generation at the Casandra Studio. We had some very good teachers, who stayed with us until two at night. Even Cristi Puiu did that. He was my film acting teacher for two years. You could really develop some skills that would be for life. But I heard it wasn’t the same for others. I know that there are actors who also had Mr. Titieni and Cojar as teachers and who were not as happy. I also had some great colleagues in my generation.
Also, at the time there weren’t as many resources as there are now. You are encouraged in everything you want to do at school. Now I’m talking from the standpoint of the PhD student and the assistant who has been teaching there for two years.
You went to high school in Piatra Neamţ. You started acting when you were little, you played in some local TV productions. But when did you decide to pursue this career?
Initially, I wanted to go to medical school. And I studied a lot for the admission exam. I changed my mind a month before the exam. I realized that I couldn’t give up on the creative area. You become addicted, it’s like a drug or a virus.
But where did your inclination towards the creative area, towards acting come from?
My mother wanted to be an actress, but I myself didn’t want to, because I knew she had suffered a lot. She had taken the exam three times and she passed on the fourth try, but she didn’t go in the end because my father didn’t let her. I saw it as something that causes suffering, like a bad omen. But in the third grade, when we moved to Piatra Neamţ, someone came to school and was looking for some girls for the children’s club. And they chose a few, including me. That’s how I got all the roles in my life, someone saw me and chose me. I pretty much got everything for free. I never fought to be an actress.