Letiția Ștefănescu: For me, what matters most it’s the emotion that comes through editing
Letiția Ștefănescu has edited over 30 films so far (short and feature films; fiction and documentary). The most important experience, which changed her life, was working on “Sieranevada” (2016) – the collaboration with Cristi Puiu helped her learn a lot, but it was also extremely traumatic. She has worked with many directors, including Oana Giurgiu (“Aliyah DaDa”, “Occasional Spies”), Bogdan Mustață (“A Good Day for a Swim”), Luiza Pârvu, Iulia Rugina or Dan Chișu (“5 Minutes Too Late”).
She was born on August 1, 1986 in Craiova, where she also graduated from high school, after spending childhood in Reșița. In 2010, she graduated from National University of Theatre and Film (UNATC) “I. L. Caragiale”, the Multimedia: Editing and Sound section. In 2017, she received the Gopo Award for best editing for “Sieranevada”, and at the beginning of 2020, the award for best editing at the first edition of the Filmmakers’ Gala in the Republic of Moldova, for the documentary “Eu Geniu Cioclea” (dir. Violeta Gorgos). She participated in 2010 at the Berlinale Talent Campus, and in 2018 at Talents Sarajevo. She is a member of the European Film Academy.
Why did you choose to study film?
It wasn’t a conscious or solid choice to pursue cinema. I really wanted to do journalism. All my childhood I was convinced that I would write. Then came the bohemian era of high school, where we started a theater group. It was a very short time when I dreamed of being an actress. My sister, who is older than me, had gone to college and gave me a brochure printed by the Ministry of Education with all the universities in the country. And I vaguely looked over the acting exams at UNATC.
But I also looked over the Film sections. I was absolutely fascinated by this section – Multimedia-Editing. Now, I think the exam has become a little more clear, but then there were about six exams that lasted two weeks. It was torture. I even failed my first time. I entered on the second attempt. But from the exams, it seemed really cool.
Without knowing exactly what it meant.
Yeah, I had no idea until then. I mean I liked movies, just like any other youngster, but no more than that. Not even now I could pronounce myself a cinephile, a connoisseur. But by the 12th grade, I gradually started embracing it, trying to find out more. I went to a photography class. There I met Luiza Pârvu (who would later become a director – i.e), and we applied to film school together. We even went to TIFF together, at the first edition of Let’s Go Digital! We worked on a small documentary.
I thought this world was very cool and very close to my personality, my bohemian pursuits, my personal need for a different kind of world. Especially the need to create and tell stories. After all, my need to write has somewhat blended with editing.
What was film school like? What did you learn the most? What did it offer you?
The connections, of course. UNATC is horrible. Everybody knows it. Everybody talks about it. I do hope the new generations won’t give the same answer, when asked what school is like.
University was a total disappointment. You step in there like a fresh new sprung rose, you’re a sponge ready to soak it all in. You’re so happy you entered, because it’s really hard to get in. Then you are extremely disappointed, because you don’t meet any of your expectations. Not one.
You enter your first year with a huge enthusiasm, but then in your second year if falls off to zero. You don’t like anything anymore, because you’re disappointed in the system, the teachers. Everything is very different from what you expected it to be.
But there was still a bohemian vibe to it and I gladly remember all the shootings I went to during school. We were helping each other. It’s the people you mostly end up with. I think the film system in Romania has this core of teams that have been created in UNATC. Roxana Szel edits with Corneliu Porumboiu ever since school, for example.
Obviously, there are also directors who come from other schools. So it’s not necessarily a rule, but I still think that’s what school gives you. It makes you work a lot as a team. And some of these teams do keep working on projects, they actually become solid.
But do you think it was useful on the learning part, beyond the fact that it allowed you to build such relationships?
Honestly, I think it was helpful. Only that I’ve begun to understand what editing actually means and make something of it long after. Recently I was cleaning my house and discovered some personal notebooks on editing. I was fascinated by the things I was learning at the time, but I’m under the impression that they didn’t actually stick with me. I didn’t really understand them then.
Now, if I think about it, maybe it wasn’t so terrible, information-wise. After all, it was just what those people could offer us. And probably it was me who wasn’t ready for it. Or maybe there wasn’t a right airstrip for this plane to land on.
But maybe on a subconscious level …
Maybe. It’s possible. I definitely got some info from there.
Since you were talking about these connections built in school … How do you join a project?
It’s all about networking. You get phone calls from people. And that’s it. And they call because of this network, because they saw something you worked on, because they met you somewhere, because someone talked nicely about you. Everything is about CAL – Connections, Acquaintances, Links (laughs – n.r.).
However, as you work on more and more projects, at some point you also reach those people you haven’t met before.
Obviously. But if you ask me how I choose the projects, I think I’ve reached the point where I rather choose the people to work with, than the projects to work on. I don’t know if this affects my reputation a bit, but I got to the point where it matters more if we have a great time together when we work. Because this is actually the way I live my life: I stay with you there, in a pretty close relationship where we need to know how to handle our emotions, conflicts, frustrations.
I’m more interested in the quality of this process than the quality of the product we’re getting, which may revolutionize the world or may die in a drawer. Obviously, I want projects that would also offer me what I’m looking for in cinema, but I don’t always choose them according to this principle. But I always accept working with new people. I always accept working with a person who calls me for the first time. I like new connections.
In choosing the project, does it matter whether it’s fiction or documentary? After all, you’ve edited films of both genres.
No, because I work on both with the same pleasure and joy. Every project I start there must be some enthusiasm about it. But if I feel right away that something’s not working, then I manage to find some excuses, say I am busy or something (laughs). But even if it’s a short film or a feature film, fiction or documentary, that matters very little.
When do you like to enter a project, at what stage?
The ideal situation is when that man already knows he wants to work with you, gives you the script, and you get to tell him what you think. Working from the very beginning, from the moment the project is born, that’s really cool. And then you can have an input as well.
You mean from the moment they discuss the script?
Yes. There are people I work with this way. For example, with Tudor Botezatu. But I don’t go on the set. I don’t do that. So I have no idea what’s going on there.
I thought about this at one point. In my freshman year, I attended a workshop held by Walter Murch (famous American editor) at NexT, and he said one thing that totally hit me, just stuck with me after that, like an axiom: “You don’t need to go on the set, you mustn’t get involved in dramas there.” So I decided not to go.
But it took me ten years to ask myself some questions. And that’s because, last year, at the Sarajevo Festival, I met an editor who said how involved he is, how much he likes going on the set. And I was surprised, I was convinced that you should not set foot on the shooting set (laughs). And he told me that, for example, you can see if an angle matches the previous one, you can offer suggestions to the director and fix errors as the shooting goes along. So I started thinking about finding a project where I can do that, be there.
What would be the ideal relationship with the director, in your view?
My ideal relationship would entitle that me and the director are people with high emotional intelligence and have the ability to talk about the good things, as well as the bad things. That we see each other as friends, not enemies. And we express our frustrations and grievances in a nice, constructive way. We listen to each other. We don’t backlash or feel hurt if one of us tells the other things that are not too easy to hear. Together we make the effort to find a way to get to the point where we need to be. This is a very ideal version (laughs). It all depends on your experience. It’s a close relationship in which you inevitably become very vulnerable. You open your heart .
The both of you.
Especially the director. And vice versa. However, he is the one who has something to say to the world, he exposes himself. Often, if you don’t have the wisdom, the experience, and you’re not happy with yourself, like inside you, you haven’t done some soul-searching, you misunderstand various comments that I might make, in a not so pretty manner.
How does this collaboration actually work during a project, say it’s a project where you’re in contact with the director in the very early stage? How many of your suggestions does a director accept?
It depends a lot on how good friends we are or for how long we’ve known each other. On our relationship, if it’s more or less personal. In the more classic version, you get the script, you read it and you say: “look, here I think that and that.” Then, whether he accepts it or not, that’s his decision, you can’t force it.
If you notice some critical things, that don’t make sense or are a waste of time, if it seems like there’s something of concern, then you need to point out once more: “man, it’s a waste of your money, it’s not good”.
But there’s no rule on how many suggestions they should take. This ping-pong doesn’t last very long even when you are very close, because, after all, you are not the screenwriter. You make it clear once, maybe twice, but no more.
How do you see your role as editor? Do you simply carry out his ideas or is it more than that?
I’m your Sancho Panza. That’s what I am. I’m your sidekick, I’m your best friend. I am the wife, I am the mother, I am the father, I am the brother, I am what you need me to be in order to help you get where you want. At that moment, when we are in the editing stage, I am your best friend, I give everything I have to understand what you need.
But at the same time, I’m also your mirror, because I’m not your best friend being your yes man. I won’t help you that way. I need to understand what your intention is, but at the same time I need to be your partner in dialogue, to tell you if the path you’re following to get there is, from my perspective, good or not. That’s how I feel about this relationship. I’m a dialogue partner. A mirror, but at the same time a therapist, and a friend.
Do you think there’s room for creativity on your part?
In the ideal situation, yes. But in my opinion, it’s not about me, it’s not about me showing muscle. I don’t need to be creative in editing. I need to help you, understand what story you want to tell, and do my best to tell your story. I don’t wonder if I’m creative or not, if I have something to show the world, if the project puts me in a good light. It’s about you who have a story to tell. If I want to tell a story, then I’ll become a director.
Obviously, there are also projects where you do show muscle and feel that people will notice. And you’re proud: “look what I did here.” Of course, some will see, others will not. But overall, it’s not about this and it’s not what I aim for, that my work is noticeable and appreciated. That doesn’t apply to all projects.
What kind of film is the most exciting for you as an editor? I guess a film made of just a couple of long-shots is not very stimulating.
It’s not. But it’s not easy either. Truth is it’s not easy to cut through long-shots.
It’s actually much harder, because you have much fewer options. Let’s say we have a long-shot with moments 1, 2 and 3, and moment 2 is not good. Since removing only moment 2, and keeping 1 and 3 is not an option without people noticing, you can either remove 1 and 2, and start from 3, or keep only 1, and remove 2 and 3. You can also do a jump cut between 1 and 3, but this may not fit the style of the movie.
Basically, as an editor, there’s nothing to save in this kind of situation.
It’s much more difficult to make fireworks and use the tools of editing for leaving out things that are less good (laughs). After all, it’s not just about finding the correct in and out points of a frame.
On the other hand, I suppose that a film made out of many several shots is much more stimulating.
Obviously. But I believe I haven’t answered the question I like most. A fiction edited in a classic manner is challenging, but at the same time it’s a recipe. From this point of view, I really liked working on Dan Chișu’s film, “5 Minutes Too Late”. It’s the second fiction film with a classic edit I worked on, and I saw that I can do things properly: who listens, who speaks, when there’s a general shot, etc.
You need to go through this experience. But I cannot say that it’s what I want the most, that it’s what challenges me the most. I think the various types of documentary are the most challenging.
Do you mean those types that also include archive footage?
So far, I think the most stimulating films I’ve worked on are Oana Giurgiu’s films, especially the latest one, “Occasional Spies”, which involves countless ways of editing. To integrate archive footage and play Kuleshov for a bit is lovely. To illustrate a piece of text, of voice-over, to find moments within the footage that are from completely different places, have completely different connections, and put them together, to give it meaning, to get a feeling out of it.
What is the main motivation behind editing when it comes to such a film? To give it unity and clarity? To build a narrative?
For me, emotion is much more important. The narrative speaks for the mind and we do need stories. But at the same time you want to create a certain mood, make the man feel something. Obviously, everyone has a contribution here, but I too do my part.
Which is not to take for granted, it’s well-known that editing is not just to make sense of ideas, but also create emotion, a certain atmosphere.
Yes, by simply connecting parts, by giving it a certain length. Depending on the parts that you choose, and where you choose them from.
What was the “Sieranevada” experience like, as well as working with Cristi Puiu? What did it mean working on this movie?
From the first moment I realized that it would be a super-boost. If there’s one thing I can be extremely grateful for is that I suddenly started to exist. I had made some films before and I was neither worse nor better, but “Sieranevada” gave me visibility. Obviously, because I was touched by the master’s aura. If the master felt that I deserved to have a place in his aura, suddenly several others began to think the same. For that I’m grateful to him. Because it increased my value and gave me credibility. And the experience was life changing.
In what sense?
Filmmaking-wise, in a very short time (because we didn’t work together for such a long time, it didn’t take months) I realized that his editing options were quite mind blowing, one after another, I understood why here and not there. Things I wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.
I’ve had quite a few such enlightening moments, most of them in that short period, when you usually have one moment every year or two. Moments that suddenly open your horizon pushing you to the next level, and make you understand cinema from a different perspective. Professionally, I feel that I’ve learned a lot.
But at the same time, it was very difficult. The easiest way to explain it is that I worked with him on the project at two different times. So I worked in the beginning, then he fired me, and after four months he called me again, to finish together the movie. During this period, I left Bucharest, took all my stuff, cat, furniture, and moved to the countryside, to my mother. Went sabbatical for half a year. I partially got my life together.
Following this experience?
It was very traumatic. It was awful. And I wondered a lot if I wanted to continue doing that. I was really hurt. So I went to the countryside for half a year. It’s a life changing moment.
However, you agreed to return.
I wanted redemption. After I was fired, the master returned to me. That’s generally the theory of trauma. I didn’t read much psychology, but from what I learned, you have the childhood trauma and then all kinds of situations arise in your life where you feel the need to fix that thing, change it, give it another course and different ending. The way you can overcome a trauma is by constantly putting yourself in such situations in your current life. Obviously, it’s not that simple. Mainly, we choose to suffer in the ways we know, which are most at hand. We don’t suffer in ways that don’t feel familiar from childhood.
How did the collaboration go? Did you work together on each cut?
See, I can’t really say that I edited this movie.
So, after all, it was him who edited it?
Absolutely. Cristi Puiu is a man who knows very, very well what he wants. He’s a leader, and you’re dragging along. I, for one, didn’t have a creative input, opinions. If I did have, I was backed into a corner. This is why it was very difficult for me to accept the Gopo Award for editing, because I felt that it wasn’t mine to receive. I was in that editing room, the master blessed me with his aura, I pressed the button for him.
Yes, it’s a beautifully edited film, the film deserved this award for editing. It’s a movie I adore. And I can’t wait to watch “Malmkrog”. I like Puiu as a director. I think he’s a trailblazer. Definitely. But I, for one, did not edit this film. I do hope other editors will be able to have a dialogue with him. I was only someone who clicked the mouse.
What do you like about editing, what do you find attractive about it? Why do you enjoy doing this?
First of all, I like to tell stories. This is what I always wanted to do. I like that they have a diversity of their own. It’s always new. You can’t really get bored, because every story is, more or less, different. Each project involves something else. There’s always some diversity to it that helps you evolve.
Then, as I said before, I think it’s much more about the people I know and meet. I love meeting new people. I love that it requires us to stand, one with each other, exposed, with our fears, and look for a way to handle that situation.