Sebastian Mihăilescu: “Making films helps me live in the present moment, otherwise, I would go insane”
In October, the feature-length documentary “You Are Ceaușescu to Me”, the debut of director Sebastian Mihăilescu, one of the most promising new voices in Romanian cinema, won the awards for Best Central and East European Documentary Film and Best cinematography (Barbu Bălăşoiu) at the Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival in the Czech Republic. The film had its world premiere in the same month in the International Competition of the Doclisboa Festival in Portugal, where it received the New Talent Award for Best First Feature-Length Film.
“You Are Ceaușescu to Me” is an experimental film in which young people aged 15 to 22, coming from different social backgrounds, are auditioning for the role of the young Nicolae Ceaușescu in the mid-1930s, trying to find the motivation behind its actions. The young men pose as in archive photos, turning a series of official documents into fiction.
Born on July 17, 1983, in Făgăraș, Sebastian Mihăilescu lived for a period with his family in Alexandria, where he studied Computer Science in high school; his father worked in the military and was often reassigned to other units in different places. Although he had artistic inclinations and wanted to pursue architecture or painting, he studied Computer Science at the Politehnica University of Bucharest. Since college and a few years after that, Sebastian Mihăilescu had a successful career in IT, working both in Romania and abroad.
But at 27, he made a radical change: he put an end to his IT career and turned to cinema. He studied Directing at the UNATC, where he got both his bachelor’s degree (in 2013) and master’s degree (in 2015).
Has made several short films, most notably “Honeymoon” (2014), “Old, Luxurious Flat Located in an Ultra-central, Desirable Neighborhood” (selected at Locarno in 2016), and “An Ambiguous Geographical Area, But, for Now, Let’s Call It a Delta” (2016), all three co-written with Andrei Epure.
Currently, he is in postproduction with his first fiction feature, “Double Happiness”, also written together with Andrei Epure. The film is described as a surrealist drama about a 39-year-old man who wakes up one night without his penis and whose partner disappears after meeting a former boyfriend. The main cast includes István Téglás, Mălina Manovici and Denisa Nicolae.
You were six years old when the Revolution happened. What do you remember about that moment, about Ceaușescu and about life during communism?
I was at my grandparents’. Grandpa was the head of the local garrison. I think there was some shooting in their town, too. Mom and I barricaded ourselves inside with furniture. My father was in the hospital in Bucharest, they also fired on them. I later found out that he took care of the watch and of securing the grounds. Everyone was frightened. It was a defining moment, a critical point. I also have a few memories of the Ceaușescu era – the ration cards, the oranges, the green bananas, which I have included in the film. It was a tough time. You couldn’t talk freely. My father was threatened to be kicked out of the army because we had an uncle who fled to Germany. Then came that goddamn transition, which tormented us.
What was the motivation behind the decision to make a film about young Ceaușescu?
Since I work in advertising too, marketing is also a side I deal with. I like to see how branding works. We live in a world of marketing. I’m an Andy Warhol fan. He always surprised the world, whatever the means he chose to express himself through – cinema, technique, books, the way he sold himself. And Ceaușescu is an icon. But how can you talk about him?
The concept for the documentary came about in a discussion I had with Barbu Bălăşoiu, the director of photography on both the documentary and my first fiction feature, who is also a very good friend. I like historical movies. But if I were to make a historical film about young Ceaușescu, what sort of images would I use? There are only a few pictures of him from that time. I spoke with historian Mihai Burcea, who gave me two files and all sorts of documents on young Ceaușescu, hundreds of pages. I like the archive, but I think we’re past it. Or at least I’m not interested in it at this moment. We create images. But what sort of images would you create to portray Ceaușescu? How do you bring what’s in these files into the present moment? There is no one who can play Ceaușescu. So I thought about having a casting for the character of Ceaușescu.
I like to film people. And searching for Ceaușescu among people is cinema. We then connected that to the idea of authority. And I wondered what was the moment when young Ceaușescu changed, who afterwards became an icon and a painting on the wall, even a caricature? What’s the root of evil? Was he like that from the beginning?
His youth is documented only by some indications in a file. Then his propaganda version emerged. 1971 was the year when his biography, written by French writer Michel P. Hamelet, came out, the year of Ceaușescu’s visit to China and North Korea and the moment when the great change began. That was also when The Power and the Truth (dir. Manole Marcus) came out. He started to build his image as a demigod.
But young Ceaușescu is like a movie character. He was from the countryside. For a period, he was suspended from the Communist Party because of his secret meetings with soon-to-be Elena Ceaușescu. He was the loverboy, the rebel who would smash windows on Calea Victoriei. I could have written a screenplay, but I was rather interested in how the youth today would perceive and construe these things. A generation we don’t know much about, apart from the clichés on the Internet.
Investigating today’s generation was also part of the plan. I met all sorts of young men during casting, saw them during shooting, and I realized they were all different from each other. So a casting session is an opportunity to look at them from an anthropological standpoint, but also to figure out why I want to make films. We shot with three cameras for ten days, and one was handled by them. I gave them the power to make a film. I wanted to see how they work, but also how they see me. As a director, you are in a position of authority. You are like a little dictator, you too play a role. I wanted the film to have all these layers.
There’s the idea that you are a Romanian director, at the beginning of your career, and you are aware that you will never have the money to make a period piece about Ceaușescu’s youth, so you need to adapt. I liked that very much.
It seemed like the honest thing to do. As an artist, you have to be honest with yourself and always ask yourself why you do what you do. That is my credo. Anyway, it’s hard to pursue filmmaking in Romania. I was working in IT, I had a nice life, already working abroad. But something was eating me up. Then something changed. I went to film school. I started making films and stuck with it. I was lucky to have projects to work on and to be able to make a living from that. Now things are finally happening. But the waiting period was like a desert. I also work in advertising, so it’s easy to make something commercial. But I’m not interested in this area. It’s a rule I don’t break. Everything I do in cinema will be completely different from my work in advertising. Even if I lose part of the audience, I don’t care.
That is Cristi Puiu’s influence, who was my teacher for a year. He read all my scripts and saw all my shorts. But about four years ago, I tried to detach myself from him a little, to find my own me. I paraphrase something he said, “There are two types of artists – those who seek God in front of the camera and those who put God in front of the camera.” I myself seek God in front of the camera and wonder about things. That is one reason why my fiction feature has suffered a lot of changes. I wanted to get rid of certain limitations, I simplified things a lot and I got to a thirty-page draft. Initially, it fell into a classic paradigm – Romanian realism.
Over time, I evolved as a human and as an artist, and I came to ask myself why I’m making a fiction film and how I should make it. Since it’s a film I’m making, then I better embrace the artificiality of this construct, while allowing myself to be influenced by my surroundings and following my intuition. If I’m transparent about its artificiality and by the end get a piece of truth, a breakthrough, then it’s worth fighting. I need to see it through. You need a little courage, even if you might get some harsh criticism afterwards. That should motivate you. You have nothing to lose. Am I to give up filmmaking? Then, I’ll film myself in the kitchen and I’ll put the video on YouTube. If you believe in that, nothing else matters. Now, you go to workshops to develop your projects. All sorts of changes happen, and by the end, they all turn into some recipe films.
That’s true, you can see that a lot and it’s not a good thing.
What are my strengths? After all, you are a unique combination. I think the value of every artist is to find this unique combination. Why are you doing this? What makes you go on? Money? Then make commercial films.
I try to use the skills I acquired in advertising: make the best use of the resources I have at hand. What is happening around me this second? There are filmmakers who work like that. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, for example; he lets that cloud float, lets that light fall. I like artists who encourage it. Tsai Ming-liang is also one of my favorites. He had a great influence on me. He is smart, funny and zen. He makes films, installations, edits. Now he paints cabinets. He is a man who tries to live his life in a beautiful way.
Your belief is that you have to take risks, to go all the way, even if you can’t control everything.
I’m waiting around for that fortunate accident. I’m like a puppeteer handling things from his corner, but leaving some variables to happen. No matter how cautious, how much of a control freak you are, there are still some unpredictable things that are going to happen. You might as well embrace them and even deliver them in an overt way. That’s where God appears, if there is a God. Haiku is the essence. If the film, in all its fiction, gives rise to moments of haiku, then I’m happy. You need to find your brand. There are many directors who built their own trademark and they sell it – that’s why you’re waiting for their next movie.
With this film, you accept that cinema is a construct, that is not true. So then, you deconstruct it in order to get those small moments of genuine emotion.
For me, that small piece, that is cinema. You can even shoot the scene with your phone. The important thing is to react to what is happening around you. And the documentary is also about that, about being able to get those pieces, even if you interfere with your cheap puppeteering. That’s what we do. We don’t have an industry. You need to fight, there’s no other way. That’s why we need to deconstruct. That’s the challenge. That’s the aikido way to turn obstacles in your favor. Bring them forth and turn that into a style.
What do you like about working with non-professionals?
I like working with them because I’m always in for a surprise. I like faces. It’s the first impression, the first second, which you don’t get to analyze, that matters. There’s a connection there. And in film, you build the puzzle you have in your head. I try not to be a very cognitive process. So I turn to impressions. I start from the characters’ faces, from the casting. The documentary is also about the casting process. You try to go with each character as much as you can in the allotted time, to see where it leads you. We shot last year in the pandemic. I wanted to work. And I knew that this year I will shoot my debut in fiction film. We tried to make it as intuitive as possible. We shot with three cameras. Two are pointing at each other. And the other is handled by the characters.
How important is intuition for you? Can you cultivate it?
I think you can. I believe in discipline. I try to be stoic. It’s what we try to do during shootings. If I do it, then I hope everyone will follow (laughs). You’re like a general there. I think it also has to do with my past – my father and grandfather were in the army. Otherwise, there is no time, it can’t be done. If it takes too much thought, then it doesn’t work. I re-read Bresson’s Notes sur le Cinématographe (1975, Notes on Cinematography) during shootings. It’s my Bible. He says you have to prepare your movie as a general prepares for a great battle. And on set, you throw the script away and react to what is happening.
With this documentary, I learned what buttons to push in order to get some reactions on the camera without rehearsal. There was no rehearsal for the fiction feature either, even if we shot it on film. Once we all started to blend together during shootings, we pretty much got to the point where we had just one take for each scene. But it’s not folly, I did my math, I took my chances. I go with what’s happening there. For the documentary, we needed three cameras to capture the truth. For the fiction film, we had film stock, a static camera and a limited point. How do you make the fortunate accident happen here? For documentary films, I learned how. I rely on collage. My films are collage films. That’s what I want to do. Use the things that affect our lives.
What are you actually looking for during casting, especially when it comes to non-professionals? Do you think anyone can perform in a film?
In this fiction film, I have only four or five professional actors. The rest are non-professionals, including people who didn’t make it in the documentary or members of the crew. You can’t do with an actor what you get from a non-professional and you can’t ask the non-professional to learn lines like an actor does.
But each one comes with their own truth. Each one has a story, an inner conflict. The important thing is to capture it. In addition to the visual skills, the director also needs to be a good therapist. To listen.
I have notebooks on which I write down everything, from names for future cryptocurrency to ways of financing film projects or how to make a film in a certain number of days. I try to break down all these formulas. Maybe that comes from my background as an engineer. In college, they taught us that you can even build a rocket if you break it down into components. The idea is to be very focused and find the equation you need to solve.
Another credo of mine is to have fun in what you do. When you make a film, it should be fun. After all, you’re not making it for money, it won’t make you rich. Not to mention that you finally get to make films after a certain age.
You started by making short films in the convention of Romanian realism, by using long takes. Then you went into a more experimental area. It seems that at some point there was a break and you embarked on some sort of quest, a search which you develop in these first two feature-length films.
Perhaps the shift started earlier, but it intensified during the pandemic. For example, the fiction feature was meant to be made in a realistic key. The script was over 90 pages long. And it would have worked that way. But in the end, it suffered significant alterations.
Fighting the change made it worse for me. I have energy and creativity which I try to cultivate in as many ways as possible. Then came the pandemic. It was a moment of reflection. I was restless. I learned how to work with Fusion in DaVinci. I started to make animation by hand, because I like to draw. Truth is I missed out on my opportunity to become a painter. Instead of applying to art school, I went to engineering school. I didn’t have the courage. But now I do.
If you have five years left, what do you do? It will take you that much time to write a script and make a film? When is it going to happen? If filmmaking is what you like, then do it now. But make it happen. Jean Vigo was ill when he made L’Atalante. He was on crutches. It was hard, but he had passion and determination. If you’re going to do it, go all the way. Something good might come out of it. I don’t think about anything else, such as awards or accolades. I just let it happen. There is a lot of pressure. I’m a competitive person by nature. I had to be among the top students in school. This thing programs you. I try to use it in what I do.
While at home, during the pandemic, I started making a film using a Lomokino camera, the same Apichatpong Weerasethakul used to make his short film Ashes. I had it for five years. I had about 18,000 frames which I edited. The result was a 6-minute film. That’s how I got to the root of what I do. I essentially work with frames. That’s the truth. I scanned them by hand, frame-by-frame. I left fingerprints on them. That comes with processing. I had to finish it, to scan them all. There was room for me to play. I didn’t need a sound engineer or anything else for that matter. I had a cheap 150 euro camera. I used the same aesthetics in my fiction film. A grainy, Super 16 mm image. I chose not to shoot in the Bucharest we all know. We shot in factories instead, in the mountains too. There is some interesting stuff there. You can’t even figure out what the period of time is.
Besides financial security, what does working in advertising offer you?
First, you know how much you can do in the time that you have. Okay, you work under different conditions. Light can change, and that’s important, especially when you’re shooting on film. Advertising teaches you to use the resources you have. Returning to Bresson: The more resources you have, the harder it is to use them.
You studied Computer Science at the Politehnica University of Bucharest. You worked several years in IT. But you had an artistic nature. You wanted to be an architect and a painter at some point.
I studied Computer Science because that was the trend at the time and I just went along with the crowd. I didn’t have the courage to choose something different. In fact, that is what I’m investigating now. Why am I unhappy? Because I betrayed myself. Do I want to continue having such regrets? I suffered enough. The shift happened when I was 27. Look how many directors had already made their debut at my age. And I try to find my motivation. I found Hong Sang-soo, whom I like very much. And he is a model due to his filmmaking style.
You had a successful career in IT.
I got a job at IBM when I was a student in Romania and went to training in Paris. That’s where I connected with my artistic nature. I was staying next to the Centre Pompidou. When I was getting off work, I was going there and I was admiring Andy Warhol’s works. I came into contact with painting. I bought myself art books. I tried to emulate different pieces I would discover in them. I could afford to buy supplies, stuff that was hard to find in Romania at the time. I even started taking pictures on photographic film. I bought a Polaroid when it was still considered cool. Then I worked in Vienna, where I lived in a hipster neighborhood. I was married then, but got divorced. I was 24-25. I came back to Romania afterwards.
How hard was it to give up that career and start a new one in film, where your first step was to go to the UNATC?
I took a sabbatical. I set off on a backpacking trip across Europe. I had nothing. No job. I left my computer in Austria. I had an iPhone that I sold. For some time, I worked as a receptionist at a very nice hotel in Santorini. I kept a journal of the entire journey. It was the only thing I could do. That’s what helped me connect to the world around me. I still have the journal. Maybe I’ll turn it into a film one day. I was searching for myself, traveling around Europe. Then I came to Romania and applied to film school.
How was the UNATC experience, at almost 30?
I enjoyed it. I graduated valedictorian (laughs). I went to all the classes. I liked the teachers. I started looking and found the things I didn’t have access to. I was a complete outsider. Nobody in my family worked in film.
Before the admission exam, I worked six months as an IT consultant in a bank, so I could buy a phone and a MacBook for editing. Then I got in. But since the merit scholarship wasn’t enough to support myself, and I didn’t want to miss on my classes either, I got a job that allowed me to work from home, making designs for car manuals in Adobe Illustrator.
How hard was it to make it into the film world?
In my second year, I started working on commercials. Then, I was assistant director on two films: One Floor Below, by Radu Muntean, and Aferim!, by Radu Jude. Completely different experiences. Both had a big influence on me. For Aferim!, we had a casting for extras outside Bucharest, and that had a great influence on the way I approached my first documentary.
What does cinema offer you?
It’s a sum of the things I tried to do and achieve over time. Making films helps me live in the present moment, otherwise, I would go insane. It’s the purpose of my existence, in fact.