When passion, determination and talent get you to Cannes. An interview with Ana-Maria Gheorghe and Andrei Epure

8 July, 2021

This year’s Cannes’ Semaine de la Critique, dedicated to discovering new talents, also includes Romanian short film “Interfon 15 / Intercom 15” (2021), written and directed by Andrei Epure, and produced by Ana-Maria Gheorghe, through Saga Film.

The film follows several residents who discover an unconscious woman lying in front of the block. Even though she lives on the third floor, nobody knows her name. While waiting for rescue, the neighbors reflect on her life and their own. The cast includes Cosmina Stratan, Mihaela Sîrbu, Ana Ciontea, Ozana Oancea, Otilia Panainte, Marius Ghica, Ioana Mateescu, Liviu Pintileasa, and Mara Luca.

Also this year, another short film written and directed by Andrei Epure and produced by Ana-Maria Gheorghe, also through Saga Film, “Maybe darkness will cover me” (2021), had its world premiere at the Moscow Festival. On the night before Easter, a priest has to bring the Holy Fire to its rural church. The closer he gets to the destination, the darker the night becomes. The short film features Liviu Pintileasa, Dorotheea Petre, Ana Ciontea, and Daniel Popa.

Born on June 19, 1989, in Târgu Jiu, Andrei Epure holds a Bachelor’s degree in Screenwriting and Filmology (2010-2013) and a Master’s degree in Screenwriting (2013-2015), both from the National University of Theater and Film (UNATC) “I. L. Caragiale” in Bucharest. He co-wrote several short films directed by Sebastian Mihăilescu, as well as the debut feature of director Ştefan Constantinescu, “Man and Dog” (2021), unreleased yet.

Born on December 4, 1990, in Mangalia, Ana-Maria Gheorghe also holds a Bachelor’s degree in Screenwriting and Filmology (2010-2013) and a Master’s degree in Screenwriting (2013-2015), both from the National University of Theater and Film (UNATC) “I. L. Caragiale” in Bucharest. She co-wrote the short films “Black Friday” (2015) and “A Night in Tokoriki” (2016), directed by Roxana Stroe. Since 2016, she has been working at the Saga Film production house, and among other recent films she produced is the short film “Bucharest Seen from Above” (2020, dir. Andrei Răuţu).

In a double interview for Films in Frame, Ana-Maria Gheorghe and Andrei Epure talk about what it feels like to be selected at Cannes, their work on the two short films, their journey so far, and their relation with cinema.

How did you receive the news of being selected at Cannes?

Ana-Maria Gheorghe: It was a Sunday evening. We were watching a movie, so I didn’t check my phone. The email waited in my Inbox for a few hours until I opened it. I started screaming around the house (laughs). I knew we were on the shortlist, that they liked the film, we had received feedback from them, but we weren’t sure it would happen. We were very happy when we saw the email with the official invitation. I have a lot of rejection emails in my Inbox: “We’re sad to inform you, but a lot of very good films have been submitted. Your film has been considered, but … ”. So this time I cried. I printed out the invitation, framed it, and put it on the wall at the office. I probably took it too far (laughs).

Andrei Epure: Apparently, the acceptance emails start directly with congratulations. It was unreal. I couldn’t believe it was happening and that I was reading this email. I read it a few times over. After that, I went through the whole feed, from the first email. We looked for all sorts of meanings, we tried to understand what each word meant. Just before announcing the selection, Semaine de la Critique unveiled its poster for the 60th edition, showing a picture from David Robert Mitchell’s fantasy film, It Follows, which is very dear to us. We saw it as a sign. The film has been a direct reference for our short film. So it could only have been the hand of the Universe.

A-M.G.: After receiving the official letter, I wrote to the short film coordinator at Semaine de la Critique and thanked him. And he told me that our short has been an obvious choice right from the beginning. And we went out of our minds from March to June waiting for the official answer. After all, only 10 short films from 1,800 submitted from all around the world are chosen.

A.E.: It’s a very strange experience. They have this shortlist that is constantly updated. A better film can appear at any minute and you can be out of the shortlist the next moment. So you keep wondering if you’re still on it.

Maybe darkness will cover me and Intercom 15 are your first projects working together as director and producer?

A-M.G.: We also worked together in college. We weren’t making films in our section, Audiovisual Communication. We were collaborating either with directors or cinematographers on their diploma films. That’s how we got to work on short films, including ones that were made on film stock. That’s also when we started working with Laurenţiu Răducanu, the DoP of these two short films. But Maybe darkness will cover me and Intercom 15 are our first professional, state-funded films we made together.

How come you released two films almost at the same time?

A-M.G.: We shot Maybe darkness will cover me in 2019, and in 2020, we finished the sound, editing, and color grading. We started sending it to festivals, but the pandemic started, so we couldn’t release it. During all this time, we came up with more ideas, so we worked on the film some more. That’s why it had its premiere in 2021, at the Moscow Festival, because then we were ready to show it. It had a physical screening, at the cinema. Meanwhile, in February of this year, we shot Intercom 15. We pushed ourselves to make another film. We had received funding. So they both came out at the same time.

A.E.: Because we had this extra time on our hands, we got all these new ideas for our short Maybe darkness will cover me. I wanted to put more emphasis on the drama that happens outside the protagonist, the priest played by Liviu Pintileasa, to which he has no access. I didn’t want it to get lost in the economy of the film.

A-M.G.: In the initial script we submitted to the Romanian Film Center (CNC), there was a car crash between an ambulance and the police car. Then, in production, we cut that part out and left the narrative ambiguous and open – a car driving across a field and no other clues about it. Andrei was reading Dostoevsky at the time.

A.E.: I read something by Dostoevsky that said, and I paraphrase, that there is no person in this world who doesn’t find some sort of satisfaction in watching a fire, no matter how it starts or what it’s caused by. There’s some kind of fascination about it. We thought it fit. We wanted a more abstract and hidden concept and to see just this one character. We initially wanted the moment to be absurd: a car driving across a field to no end. But it seemed too soft, so we came up with a twist – the car catches fire.

How do you work on a project together?

A.E.: For Maybe darkness will cover me, the idea came from Laurenţiu Răducanu, the DoP. He told us a story we thought was very good as a starting point.

A-M.G.: He has a close friend whose father is a priest. He told us that his friend’s father goes to Bucharest on the night before Easter, takes the Holy Light, and then brings it back to his town and distributes it to churches all around. The first thing that came to mind was what it would be like if the candle goes out and he lights it back on with a lighter. Basically, it started from a joke. But then we took it seriously and Andrei started writing this screenplay.

A.E.: We adapted the starting point to other things that interested us at the time. We were interested in the genre film and looked for an oscillation between realism and something else. I thought it worked perfectly. We wanted to have a somewhat mystical side to this story. A spiritual side to which no other character has access. We built on this concept.

How do you decide that a topic has the potential to be further developed?

A.E.: It’s all about instinct.

A-M.G.: Usually, I get all hyped up and insist on applying to the CNC and prepare the application. But we all get excited when an idea comes along.

A.E.: Ana has a solid overview. I work better focusing on fragments and moments. She manages to bind them into something coherent. I usually get lost in the euphoria of writing and exploring a certain moment, but then I realize that it’s not exactly what I meant. The process of discovery is great, but it needs to be related to a certain theme or idea.

You seem to have an interest in the somewhat mystical area, in escapism, which is present in both films. Where does this interest come from?

A.E.: I don’t know exactly. During college, I discovered Bresson, Dumont, and Reygadas and we talked a lot about transcendental film. I thought there was some sort of teasing between immediate reality and something else. I liked this area. Moreover, I think it has to do with my upbringing. I grew up with my grandmother and great-grandmother. And Grandma had a thing for strange, somewhat surreal stories. Grandma had no filter when talking to me, it was as if she was talking to an adult. Then it’s also what I found in my readings. I think it was Herzog who said that something that looks human, coming as realistic, but which you know it’s not, is the scariest thing. That stayed with me. It felt like a great area to explore.

You apply it to a realist convention, where you insert a rupture of sorts that leads to something else.

A.E.: What I discovered, when also reading about Blue Velvet, is that I would like to make a horror film where the drama is strongly anchored in a realistic situation. The drama should rather emerge from real human problems, which at some point might break boundaries. I think you need this realist ground in order to reach other supernatural layers. To have an echo between surrealism and reality. But you need to build the realist part very well. That’s how it works for me.

This rupture is also given through camera movement and cinematography, which complete this dimension. How do you decide on the form of the film?

A.E.: When I want to write a screenplay, I noticed that I work much better when I try to find its tone, which serves as the foundation for everything else, including the form. The form is a direct reaction to the tone of the film I want to make. But it’s not something I do consciously. It must all come together in an organic way. Since we work together, we basically try to establish the area we want to experiment with and the nuances of the story. If it’s a script that relies heavily on the absurd, it’s pretty obvious that the form of the film will borrow something of this tone, which you set at the beginning. It’s a causal thing and not something that you necessarily focus on.

How long do you write on a short film script?

A.E.: It depends. If it’s a story that I instinctively resonate with and feel true in my body and I see it work, usually writing the script doesn’t take long. I work pretty fast.

A-M.G.: He worked on Intercom 15 for two days. I prepared the file and we applied to the CNC.

A.E.: Again, it’s a story that Ana told me a long time ago.

A-M.G.: It’s a memory from my childhood. The first dead person I ever saw – I lived with my mother on the ground floor – was a woman lying down in front of the building. We didn’t know her real name, we only knew her as the “homeless woman”. I was going to school and there she was on the ground. It was an image that haunted me for a long time. I told Andrei about it, but not with the intention of turning it into a film. But the story stayed with him and he eventually wrote it as fiction.

A.E.: At one point I found a document where I noted down a lot of ideas, and I came across this one. At first, the subject seemed too grim.

A-M.G.: I really like stories about death, those really sad stories. But it depends on how you tell them. Andrei found a more accessible formula.

A.E.: I wanted to take a step back from the social area and go in other directions.

How do you and Laurenţiu Răducanu, the DoP you work with, decide on the rupture points in the films’ stylistics?

A.E.: Well, I like to start from the realist ground. I want the first shot to work as a guideline, but one that allows me to get distance from it. This guiding point is very important. With each film, I try to depict a sensation that cannot be understood through dialogue, through words. To create this moment to which you have very little access and which works as an invitation, and nothing more. I like when the film borrows an authority that goes beyond me. An outward rhythm. An outside thing that interferes with something you’ve built beforehand. The same happens in Intercom 15. You feel the rhythm takes on a life of its own. For me, it’s very important to have a rupture in the film’s stylistics and a point when you go against the rules you set for yourself at first. A deviation from the norm.

Before directing these two films, you collaborated as a screenwriter with other directors, such as Seb Mihăilescu or Ştefan Constantinescu. How did you decide to make the switch to directing? Was it hard?

A.E.: Before getting into UNATC in 2010, I was a literature student, at the Romanian-German section, for two years. But I have been interested in cinema since high school. I didn’t know what area to choose exactly and what I would like to do in film. As a literature student, it seemed easier to go to Screenwriting than to Directing. It was a very confusing time. I even thought about acting at one point, but the idea didn’t last long. At UNATC, although we were both in the Screenwriting and Filmology section, we managed to work on some short films.

A-M.G.: The Filmology class was really cool. I think it really helped us. We were classmates, that’s how we started working together. That’s how we became friends.

A.E.: The desire to direct didn’t appear all of a sudden or out of frustration with screenwriting.

A-M.G.: We wanted to make as many films as possible. We used to work with colleagues from Directing. Andrei worked with Seb Mihailescu, and I worked with Roxana Stroe. But we also had many ideas of our own and some of them we even managed to materialize. We even made independent short films, with money from sponsors and calculations made in pen.

A.E.: When I went on set for the first time, I realized that there were some things that interested me but did not have access to as a screenwriter. I liked many stages in this whole process – editing, camera movement, working with the actors. The idea of ​​directing emerged by itself.

A-M.G.: I got into production so we can make our soul projects. Once you finish your studies you don’t really know what to do, what way to go, you don’t have any money. Andrei got into advertising. I enrolled in a PhD program at UNATC to continue as an assistant. After two years, I dropped out or was rather expelled, because production took up a lot of my time.

Ana, the scripts you wrote for the two short films made by Roxana Stroe are from a whole different sphere than Andrei’s. What inspires you when you write a screenplay?

A-M.G.: Me and Roxana had some things in common at the time of our collaboration. For Black Friday, she came with a short story by Sorokin and we tried to adapt it. It was quite difficult. We changed the season and set the story during communism in Romania. We worked really hard on it. Roxana is very meticulous, all the details were scripted. Everything was well thought and to the point. I was pretty much writing what she wanted. For A Night in Tokoriki, she wanted a story in the countryside, without dialogue, which was a challenge for us. We set out to tell stories without dialogue. We would find all kinds of gimmicks – be it narrative and diegetic music, or very expressive characters. They were all based on our life experience, even if it’s a limited one.

How important was it that you studied Audiovisual Communication, where you combined screenwriting and filmology?

A-M.G.: To me, it’s essential. More useful than if we had gone to Directing. We have a theoretical basis. We read quite a lot. That had an influence on us. I think the way we watch movies is different. As for our colleagues in Directing, it was all about them and their personal drama. An ego we don’t have. We liked all kinds of movies. We wrote a lot, all kinds of screenwriting exercises.

A.E.: In Filmology class, we discovered a lot of directors. It was nice to look at things from a theoretical perspective and understand them without throwing yourself in the middle of them. We had no expectations about the Filmology class. It was valuable, but we didn’t want to be film critics.

A-M.G.: We weren’t very good at it, but we did it as an exercise. I think it’s useful to know the history of cinema and have some references. The difference between being in Directing and being in Audiovisual Communication is practice. Directing students make a lot of films. We didn’t have that, but we still managed to do some exercises, even if it wasn’t required of us.

What was it like when you finished your studies and had to enter the film industry?

A.E.: It was pretty awful. We woke up with a diploma that qualified us for something very uncertain, almost non-existent. I got a job in advertising. I was a copywriter for three years.

A-M.G.: I still have some emails in the archive with scripts I wrote and sent to various directors and production houses. It was a pretty rough time.

And how did you end up working in production?

A-M.G.: Through Raluca Mănescu, who was at Saga Film for several years. She went on maternity leave and was looking for a replacement. She saw Andrei at a PPM (ie – Pre-Production Meeting), who was working at an advertising agency at the time, and she remembered me. We didn’t know each other very well, only that we had been to the Sarajevo Talent Campus the same year. She had a good feeling about me. I knew nothing about production. I worked with her for about a month and took over the projects and the archive and tried to figure out how things worked. That was in 2016.

How difficult was the transition to production?

A-M.G.: Obviously, I was clueless. I learned by doing.

A.E.: Ana is a resourceful person.

A-M.G.: I learned what a budget is, what the costs are. I wrote applications for CNC, old-school style. I’m a nerd, so I take myself very seriously. It wasn’t easy, but I gained experience. At first, I really didn’t know anything, but I learned a lot in the process. Accounting, legal, application-related stuff. When I came to Saga, there were several projects in post-production. For a few years, I did post-production management. We had some feature film projects that we worked on for a long time until finishing them.

How do you feel as a producer?

A-M.G.: I don’t consider myself a producer, per se. Even if I really like what I do. I don’t think I have the skills yet to be a producer. I rather see myself as a girl who is super passionate about films and who can pull it off. I would do anything for films. I do not yet have the experience of networking or sophisticated applications. I haven’t applied to Eurimage yet. I became familiar with and learned to write applications for CNC and get additional financing, but also from Romania.

Have you kept writing?

A-M.G.: I still have some ideas, but I like to develop them with other people. I don’t keep them for myself. Sometimes I share ideas with Andrei or I’ve worked on an idea with Sebastian Mihăilescu. So I have ideas and depending on the time available, I write and see them through, but I don’t want to direct them. I write far less than before. Production, while not a priority, took over my life.

How did you become interested in film?

A-M.G.: I knew for a long time that I wanted to go to UNATC. When I was little, I watched a lot of movies, especially horror and B-movies. That’s how I learned to read and write in English. There were three high schools in Mangalia. One was industrial, another was economics and accounting, and the third was mathematics and computer science. So I went to Constanţa, where there was a very good art and social sciences high school, “George Calinescu”, and I was in the Intensive English class. I was lucky to have teachers who were very passionate about cinema. We watched movies without subtitles, which were a learning tool for us. I also had drama classes. I was doing theater. I really wanted to play, but I wasn’t given roles. They always kept me for directing and writing texts. They told me I’m better behind the scenes. I got very upset, so I gave up drama classes and in ninth grade, I went into business classes. In the tenth grade, I decided that I wanted to write and study at UNATC. All my passions and knowledge would have coexisted in one place. I felt that screenwriting suited me best since I was also writing short stories. Somehow, I knew that’s what I wanted to do.

A.E.: I turned to Letters and literature as an adverse reaction to the exact sciences. I studied Mathematics-Computer Science at the “Ecaterina Teodoroiu” National College in Târgu Jiu. The decision to go to the Faculty of Letters came out of frustration with this area of mathematics and computer science and I wanted to find a place where I would feel more comfortable. In high school, math classes or computer science classes were often a source of humiliation and shame in front of the class. I wanted to transfer in the 12th grade, but I already had two friends in that class, so for me, it didn’t make sense to try and make other friends. I eventually stayed there.

And the passion for cinema?

A.E.: I don’t remember exactly. I think in high school I was an occasional moviegoer or rather a moviegoer who watched things like Fight Club or Kubrick’s works. The idea of ​​going to UNATC came up more or less during high school. But I didn’t act on it. It seemed pretty hard to reach. I went to the Faculty of Letters, and there, this desire arose more strongly.

How come?

A.E.: I had morphology and syntax classes and it reminded me of mathematics and my time in high school. It was too much of a theoretical area for me at the age of 19, and film seemed to offer more freedom. A field that lets you play and experiment, at least much more than where I was then. The professors were very strict and it felt as if the high school experience was happening again.

A-M.G.: At UNATC, we would go to festivals and watch movies. It was another life. You were reading and watching movies.

A.E.: At Film, it seemed you could escape the purely theoretical area more easily. Especially since I realized that I chose the Faculty of Letters because I was actually denying and running away from something.

Cosmina Stratan and Andrei Epure on the set for “Intercom 15”

What role does literature play for you in terms of screenwriting and directing? How does it inspire you?

A.E.: Literature is very important. I realized quite recently that literary theory and philosophy in particular help me a lot. There are things that I didn’t give much thought to during those two years of Letters, such as semiotics and linguistics. I rediscovered them during the Master’s program in Screenwriting. In literature and literary theory, I have found a different way to look at a story. In the five years spent at UNATC, I grew aware of certain areas that interest me, and then I was curious how they are treated in the literature. Literature invites a lot of imagination, and I think that films should also work this way, to leave some room for interpretation. There are some examples in the literature where certain sensations and problems are put in an abstract key and it’s as if I’m invited to try and comprehend visually, in a cinematic way, the metaphor related to the text.

What about dialogues? What role do they play in the script?

A.E.: From what I realized quite recently, I like to use dialogues that work against interpretation. Classically speaking, dialogues are used to describe an inner world, to which you have access only through words. But I’m quite attracted by the idea that dialogues must work against the description of an inner world. In fact, the dialogue is more confusing. I feel that I have to point out the way words deceive the interlocutor. Just as images deceive.

A-M.G.: Andrei also has a good nose for pauses, which come as very awkward moments, when people don’t respond, they remain quiet, and there’s this deafening silence in the air. It’s very much palpable.

Ana, what is it like to be a producer on films other than those made by Andrei?

A-M.G.: I’m very serious about my job. I care a lot about all the projects I work on. I also worked with Andrei Răuţu, for example. I did a lot of post-production for other projects and I fought for each and one of them. I become emotionally attached to them. I really like what I do. I get along with the directors, we are together in the same boat, after all, meaning that we always want to make the best film possible, by optimizing all the resources.

This is an important moment for you. I read in Intercom 15’s press kit that you want to develop the idea of ​​this short film into a feature film.

A.E.: After resigning from the advertising agency and working with Seb and Ştefan, I felt the need to find a project of my own. I started three or four feature-length scripts that I gave up eventually. After that, this project, the sequel to Intercom 15, seemed to come together. It just so happens that this feature film contains elements that I had used in three other feature films that I wrote but gave up. It was the highlight of what I was looking for.

What does cinema offer you at the moment?

A-M.G.: I like movies so much that I don’t know what else I could’ve done. For me, this is it. It’s great to know what you want to do and like it at the same time and also have the environment and support to do that. I want nothing more. Obviously, I want us to make feature films and evolve. But I like short films a lot, in terms of form. I hope we make more. We are young. We apply to all funding contests organized by CNC, with all the ideas, and we see how it goes (laughs). We have the energy, the enthusiasm, and ideas and we work hard. The validation we got with this Cannes selection shows me that I’m not crazy and that there’s something there.

A.E.: For me, it’s a medium through which I can express myself better than I could in other conditions. I think that cinema is a comprehensible way to capture some sensations that would be lost in other forms.

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