Turning a teenage trauma into a Venice-winning debut

5 October, 2021

“Immaculate” (2021), directed by Monica Stan and George Chiper-Lillemark (who is also the cinematographer), won the “Luigi De Laurentiis” Award for a Debut Film at this year’s Venice Film Festival (September 1-11). It is the first Romanian film to receive this extremely important trophy. “Immaculate” was presented in the independent section Giornate degli Autori, where it also won the top prize.

The film follows Daria, a young woman who enters rehab to overcome the drug addiction her ex-boyfriend, now in prison, left her with. Her display of innocence saves her from the sexual advances of the mostly male junkies inside and gains her their protection. Suddenly thrown into the spotlight and enjoying the attention, Daria soon finds out that special treatment comes at a great price.

The film stars Ana Dumitrașcu (a revelation), Vasile Pavel and Cezar Grumăzescu, with appearances by Rareș Andrici, Ilona Brezoianu, Bogdan Farcaș, Ionuț Niculae, Florin Hrițcu, Tiberiu Dobrică, Ninel Petrache, Dan Ursu, Ozana Oancea, Diana Dumbravă and Cristina Buburuz.

With the action limited to the space of the rehabilitation center and a 3:4 aspect ratio, the film conveys a strong feeling of claustrophobia, tension, discomfort.

Written by Monica Stan, the screenplay is based on a personal experience the director lived in her late teens – going through rehab due to drug addiction.

Born on May 31, 1985, in Bucharest, Monica Stan grew up in the city center, near the University Square, where she still lives. She went to a Waldorf school, a pedagogy focused on developing pupils’ personality in an integrated and holistic manner, which utilizes distinct learning strategies for each developmental stage.

“It’s different in pedagogical approach. They don’t focus so much on the result as on the process. Courses are more creative. They care about the environment, the atmosphere, the aesthetics, and that the student is supported by the collective. At the same time, children and even teachers from state schools would see us as weirdos, as students with special needs. I was even bullied about it. There was prejudice on Waldorf pedagogy. However, we had the best results on the national tests,” the filmmaker remembers.

Although she wasn’t aware about it at the time, she now says that this type of education influenced her a lot: “We were very involved in theater at school. I would write plays, but also perform. I was very into it. I would also write essays, I was encouraged by my teachers. It’s very important for children to have such feedback in their early stages. The slightest praise can lead you in a certain direction, just as the slightest rejection can distance you from a field of study. I think that’s how I got the courage to pursue writing.”

She went to a traditional high school, got in the Mathematics-Computer Science class and the German intensive program. “The transition wasn’t easy because it was a sudden switch to a very cold system, based on grades, and teachers weren’t that involved. But the fact that I was in the German intensive program did help me because I would do a lot of writing. We would have all sorts of events that were held in German. That kept my interest in writing. In high school, I met a group of people my age outside school who were into arts. Many of them later became directors, photographers, artists. That’s how I got into cinema and started going to the cinematheque,” says Monica Stan.

She began to think that she might like to go in this direction, that of cinema, but she didn’t have the courage to believe that she could really do it.

“At one point, in high school, I went to the mountains with my family, and there we stayed with a lady who was a theater director. Unfortunately, I don’t remember her name anymore. And she told me that if I want to pursue film at college, it’s best to apply to Multimedia, because there’s not much to learn at Directing. If you study editing, at least you get some skills, and then you can also try directing or whatever. So I was set on applying to Multimedia, but with the intention of becoming a director,” confesses the filmmaker.

She went to the training courses for the admission exam at UNATC: “I had a shock at first. I first had to do a decoupage of Ion Creangă’s Nică stealing cherries. I wrote something very lyrical. I had visualized everything in detail. The teacher took my paper, read three lines, then slammed it on the table: «Here we do editing, not literature.» That was a slap on the face. But, the photography classes were beautiful. I liked them a lot. It was a different, more open approach.”

“In the 12th grade, I had a depressive episode, marred by anxiety and a growing pressure on myself. I couldn’t make myself take the finals or the admission exam. I had a gap year when I went through the things we can see in Immaculate. The film is not an autobiography, but it’s based on my experience of the time when I did fall into a drug habit,” says the filmmaker.

After that year, she went on to study at the Faculty of Foreign Languages and Literatures, the translation and interpretation program, at the University of Bucharest. Then another three years of psychology at Royal Holloway, the University of London.

In all those years, she would also write screenplays in parallel. At first, she worked with a friend of hers, director Eva Pervolovici. Together with her, she got into a program in Amsterdam, Binger Filmlab, for the development of a feature film script.

“I went to Amsterdam thinking that afterwards I would return to London, where I had gotten an offer to stay and also enroll in a master’s program. But the Amsterdam experience completely changed my course, it set a definite path towards film. We were a large group of people and we would all receive feedback from one another. I gained a lot of confidence from their reactions and the fact that I was in a good place. I felt a release. A creative release. Up to that point, I had felt quite inhibited as far as writing went. It was like an open door to the world, to new ideas. Less prejudice about what a film should be like or how you should be as a screenwriter,” says Monica Stan.

“During the program, I fell in love with a director. He was from Belgium. I was no longer considering returning to London. We got very close both personally and professionally. After Binger Filmlab, we both went to Romania for a few months, then we moved to Belgium and started working mostly on his projects,” she adds.

She broke up with him and, in 2017, returned to Romania. In 2018, she started working for the International Human Rights and Documentary Film Festival One World Romania.

“It was a sudden, unexpected breakup. I felt a little rattled on my return home. Suddenly I was back at my parents’. Although I was a bit ashamed, coming back was what I needed. That’s when I started looking for a job. I took a break from writing because I was in a bad place emotionally. I was lucky to join the One World team, through Andrei Rus, who had just become the artistic director of the festival. I had a nice time with them. It was good being part of the team and working with my colleagues,” Monica Stan recalls.

Gradually, she resumed writing screenplays and even started thinking about directing. She was supposed to make her debut with a short film, but things didn’t go that way, so she postponed it. During that period, she started developing the script for what would become the now feature film Immaculate.

“The experience I had in my late teens had stayed with me for a long time. I had learned something very powerful that had affected me. Not so much the story and what had happened to me in rehab, but the emotions I had felt, the life lesson I had gotten. Still, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to make a film out of it. It wasn’t until I got to Binger Filmlab that I found the courage to talk about my idea. My then-boyfriend thought it was a great one. That gave me confidence. I quickly wrote a screenplay and applied to Biennale College in 2013. They selected us. It was a very intense process. But I didn’t get to the last stage when they actually give you money to produce the film. Still, that was a good thing, because it wasn’t ready. Since then, this project has always stayed with me, even if I was working on other projects in parallel. But when I returned to Romania, I took a break from it because I felt the acute need to take some distance,” Monica Stan explains.

Then, after she felt ready to return to it, things worked pretty fast: “I thought it was going to be hard. I thought I had lost the connection with the script because I had taken a long break in 2017-2018, when my life was stormed by that whole turn of events. But, to my surprise, I connected very well with it, because I had started adding things of the present. The script changed with me and my perspective on the past. I think it’s better that it happened now when I was in a better place with myself. Before, the story was rather dark, with less compassion for the character. Now, instead, I think I’ve managed to give more space to all the characters, without demonizing or idealizing them.”

She says she wasn’t afraid to revisit this past episode to turn it into a film: “I had been scared, yes, but then something changed in me and I wasn’t afraid anymore. I knew I wanted to do it and that it had to be done.”

She knew she would work closely with the DoP. After meeting George Chiper-Lillemark, who had worked on Touch Me Not (2019, dir. Adina Pintilie), she realized that they complement each other, so they became co-directors.

“He is more than a DoP. He really got the script. I could talk to him about all the things in it. And he resonated a lot with the main character, an 18-year-old girl, which was completely new to me. It was for the best that we were co-directors because we complemented each other. I had no experience as a director, so his input balanced things here. Instead, I had experience with the story itself, with the script, with the character, with that world. And in this way, George and I harmonized,” explains Monica Stan.

She states that, in her decision, it also mattered that George Chiper-Lillemark had worked on Touch Me Not, a film she resonated with: “I had never chosen a DoP before. I had no selection criteria. It was more intuitive. I saw a short film made by George and then I saw Touch Me Not, with which I resonated a lot, although in some ways it’s very different from Immaculate. But I felt that George manages to go beyond the veil of reality, in terms of cinematography. He has a certain sensibility beyond the real. And I needed that. I needed someone who goes towards the subjective and hyperrealism, somewhere on the very fine line between the real and the beyond. I felt he could do that. And I was right.”

She admits that working on the film also had a therapeutic effect, but that it was “more than that”: “I had taken enough distance all this time and developed the fiction part quite a lot. It was no longer just my experience. Then again, I don’t even remember all the things that happened to me then. I had built a universe that haunted me. I would hear the characters speak in my sleep. It was very clear who was talking and what was saying. A connection had been created with this imaginary space and the characters in it. And that experience was no longer my original experience. But it had a therapeutic effect, there’s no doubt about that. I think that for everyone who makes a film, there is also a therapeutic effect, whether it’s based on a personal experience or not. There is a catharsis in this whole process. When you are very involved in something, you give your all, until you release everything.”

She says that the decision for the entire action to be limited to the interior of the rehabilitation center came during editing. “The script was very long. It had an unusual structure, which I really cared about, but many people had a problem with. It was unusual in the sense that it had a beginning and an end taking place outside, and it was only somewhere in the middle of the story that the main character would enter rehab and a new narrative would start from that point. That was strange for many people, who told me that this is not the way to go in a screenplay, which needs to follow the three-act structure, and that the character needs to appear much earlier. But I didn’t find that important. The first part that happens inside the clinic follows a more relaxed, non-narrative structure, which then continues with a rather narrative part, but then it becomes non-narrative again. I wanted to have enough material to play with, to figure out what works and what doesn’t. I cut as much as I could from the script before shootings started. But I didn’t want to give up whole chapters, such as the beginning and the end happening outside. But during editing, the first version of the film was very long and I realized that it only works with the action taking place inside. I saw that everything I wanted to say could only be said through the interior story,” explains the director.

She also says that the idea of ​​the 3:4 aspect ratio came during casting: “We were filming the auditions and there were only faces on the white wall background. I went through the takes over and over again. Then, while talking to some friends, I said that this is the film – just some faces on a white background. I only cared about these faces and the people, their portraits. I didn’t feel the need for anything else, like a setting or extra details. I wanted the focus to be on the characters, their emotions, and the tensions between them. So that seemed like the best format. Then, I wanted to be as close as possible to the characters, and for them to represent the space, and not the space to represent what I wanted to say through the film.”

About the title, Immaculate, she says that she had it in mind from the very beginning and that it’s very much related to the protagonist. Specifically, to the image that the other characters have of Daria, who is based on the director’s self as she used to be at that particular time of her life. “I think she is very close to the way I was when I was younger. I was very passive and quite the people pleaser. I even ended up in situations where lines were crossed and I felt exploited by others. But I was the one responsible for that, because I didn’t set up boundaries. And I would get something out of it – a good image in the eyes of others. It was an exchange, in fact, it was not something completely altruistic and pure. This is where I started from when creating the character of Daria – you build a self-image from the image that others have of you, and for that, you make compromises for which you are responsible. You’re not just a victim that everyone exploits and feeds off of. You accept this situation because you get something in return. In fact, that was the most important thing for me about the character and the experience I had – to understand my responsibility in this dynamic,” confesses the filmmaker.

“We wanted it to be the way it happens in life, when you follow the same relationship pattern. That is why Daria goes through the same thing, in different forms, with several men. That means you have some mechanisms that trigger the same situations. The moment you change your mechanism, you will no longer fall into that relationship. Yes, it leads to various forms of abuse, but abuse is created by both parties. I don’t mean to say that the victim is to blame. It happens unconsciously. Because you don’t protect yourself, you put yourself in such situations. I lived it repeatedly, not necessarily like in the film. From the moment I realized where I should do things differently, it didn’t happen again,” says Monica Stan.

She states that the space where the story of the film takes place, a rehabilitation center, is more of a pretext and that she didn’t want to make a film about drug addiction and such centers: “But it seemed like a good place where you could lock in some people and intensify some relationships that exist anyway and everywhere. In every group in which a dynamic of power relations is born, the same things are encountered. What I met during my time in rehab, I also met in screenwriting workshops, in school, in college. In such places, however, you have the possibility to leave and retreat to your space, so perhaps conflicts are more diffuse. But in a clinic, there’s no refuge. You’re forced to stay in that micro-universe. That’s why I chose such a space for the story to unfold itself. I wasn’t interested in the medical institution and the medical staff. The film is not a commentary on the medical system.”

“I’ve done my research, but I wasn’t interested in showing what it’s like in a rehab center. I had my own memories of this place. The rules were different then. I’ve been there recently, and I’ve seen that they’re a lot stricter now than they were then, in the beginning. You could see there is a difference. Before, they were much more permissive. But things like the ones happening in the film are still happening now. Rehab centers are intense places in terms of human interaction. The medical staff can’t control everything. Abuses are not necessarily physical, but psychological. All the people there are vulnerable, not just the girls. They are in a different state, because when you quit drugs, suddenly you’re flooded by emotions. Everything you covered with drugs comes to light: aggression, but especially the need for love and affection. All the characters are driven by the need for affection, attention, validation – everything that drugs offered them before, one way or another. For me, there is nothing implausible in the film, but it was never my intention to make it as a study of a rehab center,” admits the director.

She says that it was George Chiper-Lillemark’s decision to shoot with two cameras: “Because we had a lot of characters, which we wanted to follow closely, and a lot of material to shoot, George said that the best thing is to have two cameras. For me, it worked great. Ultimately, it was the idea that saved the film and that provided us with a lot of possibilities to work with in editing. I really liked this stage, because we went on trying a lot of versions of a sequence, much to the dismay of my editor, Delia Oniga (laughs). We had a lot of material, so it would take a long time to explore an entire sequence. But I liked it very much because I wanted to see how every version would work. In fact, even in the writing stage, I like to leave some room for different narrative threads and possibilities.”

The young actress in the lead role, Ana Dumitraşcu, a real revelation, was chosen after a long casting. “It took some time until we decided. So she had time to penetrate the character. Ana is very talented. I didn’t even ask for anything and she came prepared with an entire set of tools. We talked a lot. She asked me a lot of questions. She was very interested in my personal story, in what had happened to me. But then she tried to become the character herself, by how she walked, what she did, how she thought, what she bought, what music she listened to. She had created her own character. That’s what I wanted from all the actors. I encouraged them to create their own character. I talked to them in this regard, but without giving them the character sheet. I just gave them some elements, and I let them complete their characters with what they wanted, what they felt. I did so especially with Ana. We talked about experiences in her life that were similar to those in the script, without necessarily being of the same intensity. For example, we talked about hostility in a group. Then, during rehearsals, we worked a lot on the relations between her and the others, on the group dynamics. We also used a lot of improvisation. We built situations similar to those in the script, which they improvised, and during shootings, we got a combination between what was written and structured and what was improvised,” states Monica Stan.

“I realize that the film creates a feeling of discomfort. It’s not a feel-good movie. But I wanted the viewer to stay in that state. I knew it was a risk, but I thought it was important. We often tend to run away from discomfort. But there’s no point in running away because you can’t escape yourself and your feelings. So in the film, we built a situation with no way out – both for the character and for the spectator,” concludes the filmmaker.

Journalist and film critic. Curator for some film festivals in Romania. At "Films in Frame" publishes interviews with both young and established filmmakers.