Radu Muntean: “It’s important to be honest with yourself and not make films just for the sake of it”

22 February, 2022

2022 marks the 20th anniversary of the release of “The Rage” (2002), the debut in fiction feature film of Radu Muntean, one of the representative filmmakers of the New Romanian Cinema.

Recently, his latest film, “Întregalde” (2021), was released on Netflix, following its summer and fall theatrical run, which followed its July world premiere in the Quinzaine des Réalisateurs section at Cannes.

Two good reasons to go for an in-depth interview with the well-known director, author of films such as “The Paper Will Be Blue”(2006), “Boogie” (2008), “Tuesday, After Christmas” (2010), “One Floor Below” (2015) and “Alice T.” (2018).

Radu Muntean talks about his beginnings, about how difficult it was for the New Wave generation to establish itself in a hostile system, about festivals and the reception of his films, about his aesthetics and style of work, about his refusal to take part in awards such as Gopo and UCIN, about the issues and changes in Romanian cinema, but also about advertising and documentaries.

This discussion inaugurates a monthly column of in-depth interviews with established filmmakers, from directors, actors and producers to directors of photography, editors and critics.

It’s been 20 years since you made your debut with The Rage. Romanian cinema was in a terrible state, no film had been released in 2000. Cristi Puiu’s Stuff and Dough came out in 2001, and 2002 saw the release of both your and Cristian Mungiu’s first films. How do you see the earlier years now?

It was a strange time to make your debut. It’s very different from the way things are going now. It’s still complicated to be an emergent filmmaker, but for other reasons. Coming out of the UNATC’s apparently secure bubble, you realize that there is a slim chance you will soon get money to make your film and that this false feeling of self-sufficiency that school offers you is actually tricky. You live under the impression that you are there to make art, that you will never have to compromise and that you will make films very soon after you graduate. All you have to do is get in and from there everything will work out on its own. Obviously, things were very different back then, just like now. Real life hits you right after you finish school and you realize that you will have to compromise, that you will also have to get other jobs. I knew pretty quickly that I wouldn’t be able to work as an assistant, that this wouldn’t be my path to filmmaking.

How come?

I worked as an assistant director on one of Geo Saizescu’s films for a month and a half, in 1990, before starting my first year of college. And I realized that I can’t work like that, without having initiative on set, that it’s not my style, that I feel like being in charge. Then, after college, I got a job at the TVR film studio. I worked for two years there, I made two short films, but not without making compromises.

Then, I started working in advertising. That’s how I got to Adrian Sârbu and Media Pro. I did all sorts of things while working on television. In college, I was outraged only by the thought of it. From the moment I started working in advertising and television, I set out to strengthen the relationship with this producer, who at the time was one of the very few who had the financial capacity to produce films. I was a freelancer, but I worked with him quite a lot. A year or two after I started working with him, we actually talked about making a film together at some point.

The Rage was the result of this plan that I had early on. Of course, it also came with compromises. It had a complicated development. Initially, there was another script, which I was supposed to shoot in 1999, but the producer had other priorities at the time. He had many American projects coming in, which meant big bucks, so my film was postponed. I was disappointed, I left, but came back the next year when I was given the chance to rewrite the script and finally shoot it. All in all, the result was a compromise between how he saw things and what I had to say at that point in my life. It was my most successful film (i.e. 61,000 viewers, according to the CNC).

I knew I wouldn’t make any more compromises like The Rage

But how do you relate to the film now? Looks like you left it aside, that you distanced yourself from it. I remember at one point you released your films on a DVD Box Set, and The Rage was not included, as if you were saying that your debut film was in fact The Paper Will Be Blue.

In a way, it was. Of course, working on The Rage had its advantages. I gained a lot of experience. It was a complicated film to make in terms of logistics, and it was the first time I coordinated a large team on a long-term basis. I owned up to the task. I had this obsession: to make my debut. I achieved my goal with this opportunity. But right after The Rage, I realized that this isn’t really how I want to do things and that from now on, if I want to make another film, I’ll do it my way and be in charge of the content, so that in the end, I have no reason to blame anyone else if something comes out wrong. To know that I did everything in my power to convey my original idea, the concept that I had from the beginning. I knew I wouldn’t make any more compromises like The Rage. I knew I had to do something completely different with my second film. If I hadn’t succeeded, I would have given up filmmaking.

It sounds like it was a big deal.

Being in control is really important to me. One of my nightmares is dreaming that I am at a movie premiere or on set and not making that film. There is no fulfillment if I can’t control things and I’m forced to make this kind of compromise. There are always small compromises to be made between your initial plan and the reality on location. It happens on every project, but it’s normal. Interesting things are often born from this clash between the original plan and reality. But nothing like The Rage, and I was determined that if I couldn’t make a film the way I wanted, I would stick to advertising and make a living from it, because a financial gain from filmmaking at the time was out of the question anyway.

Photo: Sabina Costinel

But making the second film wasn’t easy either. The New Wave was only beginning to take shape and you were all struggling to make your first or second film. You were fighting the old generation and an unreformed and corrupt CNC. What is your view on that battle now?

It was really difficult to make a change. Even though it was the 2000’s, cinema was still controlled by the same people who were running things since the ’70s and ’80s. Despite their differences, they were very united when it came to keeping it a closed world. The entire CNC contest regulation was extremely subjective and allowed all sorts of maneuvers and tricks. It was quite difficult to make two or three films that would get a certain kind of recognition and which would grant us to have a say at that moment, to make our voice heard. We weren’t very united either, except for very short moments, but even then, we weren’t entirely together.

There were times, however, when you took a stand.

Yes, in 2004, when The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu was rejected. But even then, we didn’t stick together until the end. Yes, we’ve made some progress. Not immediately, but in time. They adopted the scoring system that still exists today and which is probably outdated and should be restructured. But [it was harder to change] the idea that this is not a literary contest, but a contest for funding projects, and that the subjectivity of a jury, whose structure can be easily influenced, cannot decide someone’s chance to make their film. That’s why we have these forms today. Maybe now everything is outdated and should be reviewed.

I just didn’t like the films that most pre-90s directors made. Obviously, I wanted to make something else, but not necessarily the complete opposite of them

At that time, did you see yourself as a generation? Did you feel that you were part of an important moment, which was about to change Romanian cinema?

I think we were an accident. We weren’t a generation, because we only got to know each other after each of us made at least one film. The most we ever got to talk was when that protest in 2004 happened. We didn’t have a common schedule, we weren’t college classmates, we didn’t grow up together. Sure, we can discuss the reasons why we, a few directors, emerged almost at the same time. But I think it was a coincidence. As happened with the release of three films about the Revolution in 2006 (i.e. The Paper Will Be Blue, by Radu Muntean, 12:08 East of Bucharest, by Corneliu Porumboiu, and How I Celebrated the End of the World, by Cătălin Mitulescu).

Perhaps, your generation had this need to talk about this important moment in your youth and in the history of the country.

No doubt. We are close in age and it probably took that 15-year buffer from the events to have a different angle. And it happened to be three of us who approached this topic without even talking to each other.

I think there was a need for a revolution in cinema, as well. I said that several times. In my opinion, our perception of what was made in cinema until the 2000s also played an important part. I, personally, found very few qualities in the pre-2000s Romanian film. Of course, there are some well-known examples, a few authors that I still like and have had an important contribution, but there are only a few, in my opinion. Most films promoted a type of metaphor-laden poetics.

Was the desire to make a completely different cinema conscious, deliberate?

Not. If you’re wondering why we came along as a generation at that point, I think that’s one of the reasons, that’s all. I didn’t plan on making other types of films than Dan Piţa used to make. I just didn’t like the films that most pre-90s directors made. Obviously, I wanted to make something else, but not necessarily the complete opposite of them.

The Paper Will Be Blue was also the moment when you started writing together with Răzvan Rădulescu and Alex Baciu, a collaboration that still continues today. In fact, Răzvan Rădulescu co-wrote some of the important films of the New Romanian Cinema.

Răzvan was a co-writer on Cristi Puiu’s films Stuff and Dough and The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu. We already knew each other because we had worked before, in 1999-2000, at a screenwriting company also within Media Pro. And we wanted to write something together. I had the idea for The Paper… I asked him if he wanted us to work together on the script. Răzvan suggested Alex should join us and that’s how I met the latter. We got along well, became friends, and then made six films together.

What do you think about The Paper Will Be Blue now?

I feel very nostalgic about this film. I like re-watching it, maybe because of this feeling that I’m reliving those times. We all had a youthful, revolutionary zeal. It was also the first film we made together, without being part of a system. It was a new position, a new venture. We all had a lot of energy and enthusiasm. It was also the first film where we established ourselves as a team. Tudor Lucaciu was the DoP, Dragoş Vâlcu was the film’s producer, Sorin Dima was the set designer. I worked with Andu Radu on the editing. Electric Brother was the sound designer. I still work with most of this team.

Photo: Sabina Costinel

Not to mention there was a whole generation of young actors who later became important figures of the New Wave.

It was a great atmosphere on the set. Sure, we were very involved in all the films we made, but I only felt that kind of excitement in the whole team on that particular film. I think I had this feeling again while making Întregalde. The feeling that it’s not just my film, but everyone’s on the team.

The Paper Will Be Blue was also your ticket into the major festivals circuit, which were essential for you and for most of your fellow directors. They brought you to prominence both internationally and locally.

It’s a niche. We have never been successful at home, not even after winning awards. Let’s face it: The Paper Will Be Blue had 7,000 viewers in Romania at that time, in 2006. Sure, it was also because all three films about the Revolution were released two weeks apart. I still remember that we kind of flipped a coin on it. Mitulescu’s film was the first to come out and had 16,000 viewers, then it was Corneliu’s and it had around 13,000 viewers, and mine had 7,000. Okay, you see a movie about the Revolution, two at most, but you can’t see three movies in a month and a half (laughs). Maybe the first films that won important awards, such as 4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days or The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu, saw a boost in terms of box office numbers. And that’s because people associated awards with some sort of performance in sports, some kind of national pride: let’s see which film won an award at Cannes. After that, our presence at Cannes became a regular thing and having a movie there wasn’t like a big deal anymore. So the public’s enthusiasm also waned.

I wasn’t necessarily talking about the prospect of box office success, because festivals don’t guarantee that. I was thinking about the fact that they made you famous, the international press wrote about you, they helped you make your next films.

Yes, it helped us in our fight against the system. Being selected, winning awards and getting reviews in the foreign press, all have given us some sort of legitimacy in our attempt to stand up to the CNC.

I will never make films that fit the trends or what seems to do well at festivals

Then, starting with Boogie, followed by Tuesday, After Christmas, and, in recent years, One Floor Below and Întregalde, you made several films that were seen as a portrait of the middle class in Bucharest. How do you relate to this perception?

Well, that was never my intention. I didn’t set out to make films about the middle class in Bucharest. I make films about things I’m interested in at a certain point. I try not to take too long breaks between films so that the topics I’m interested in won’t become irrelevant. I think every film I made represented me at some point in my life. The fact that the object of my interest happened to be identified by one critic or another as an obsessive concern for the middle class is none of my doing. It’s just the way people perceive the films. Even The Rage, although it is a mix of intentions, it somehow represents me, the person I was in 2001. That’s what’s important, after all. To be honest with yourself and not make films just for the sake of it.

What do you mean by that?

I will never make films that fit the trends or what seems to do well at festivals. There are always trends, waves, currents. You can recognize them fairly easily, and it’s probably not difficult to learn which buttons to press to ensure your success. That was never my pursuit. I repeat, I made films about topics that I was interested in at some point in my life. Sorry, I seem to be part of the middle class in Bucharest (laughs). Probably some of the things I see around me, that I stumble upon, have led me to certain topics, that’s all. I didn’t set out to portray the middle class. Obviously, everyone writes about what they want, but let’s not mix ideology with cinema.

Sure, even if there is no agenda, the films that are made inevitably end up talking about the times in which we live. But it’s not just the topic. Starting with Boogie, your films have developed a consistent style and a somewhat similar structure from one project to another. Have you ever thought about making a change? Isn’t there a risk in repeating the same formula?

What exactly do you mean?

For example, in every film, there is this main character who at first seems very confident, and then is put in various situations that destabilize them. And the films follow this path.

Yes, it’s something I care about and find interesting. The dilemma a character has, I often find challenging. For example, those movies in which you have an antagonist and all you do is overwhelm them all the time, I find them very boring. Addressing the class struggle or unmasking the ills of society. In my opinion, that is very simple. At the same time, it is quite disqualifying for an author to do that. I always find it interesting when a character has a choice, and the choice is not easy. The moment when someone who might seem like an antagonist at first sight, also has a point. I find it interesting that I can make a case for several characters in the film and give them context, that I can discover these things, expose this type of debate and not be like a court of justice, like a professor who shows on the board how things should be. Instead, I try to put the viewer face to face with that dilemma that I find interesting.

Nothing strange about that: you make films that you would like to see as a spectator, about topics you find interesting as a spectator. It’s only natural that I want to explore in films dilemmas that I also have as an individual. And I try to make the audience partake in these dilemmas in the best way I can. It doesn’t sound like a formula to me. Rather like a statement, if you will. That’s what I care about, that’s what I’m trying to do. If that means repetition in any way… There are different dilemmas, different topics, different characters. There are things that are part of life, after all.

Photo: Sabina Costinel

Obviously, there are filmmakers who have made similar films all their careers, and that’s why we like them – we look forward to each of their new films. And there are authors who change the paradigm all the time. I don’t think one way is better than another. My curiosity was only if you ever felt the need to make a completely different film from the others.

For example, if I ever had an impulse to express myself publicly over a political matter that really bothered me, it was when I made a video with Şerban Pavlu on a roof, thrashing Dăncilă and Dragnea. I just couldn’t stand it anymore and it seemed like the only way I could manifest. But I don’t turn it into a feature film. I use the weapons that are available to me to make a certain point at a particular time.

I like having gray areas, moments of doubt in the dramaturgy of the films I make. For example, I don’t think that Boogie, Alice T. and Întregalde are the same. I discuss different things. There are different structures. In Întregalde, we don’t know anything about the biography of the characters. I think the most that it’s revealed is about the old man. That’s different from what I’ve done so far. But I don’t have to defend my films.

I don’t like it when the director’s hand becomes obvious, when it points out to the viewer where they should look

If you’re talking about long takes, that is my personal choice, yes; I want to be as discreet as possible as a director, as an author. I don’t like it when the director’s hand becomes obvious, when it points out to the viewer where they should look. I like films that are subtle, slowly sliding into the viewer’s mind and managing to synchronize the characters’ time with the viewer’s time. It’s always a challenge to build a long take that also holds a certain tension within. Otherwise, they are just long takes and they can easily become boring. The challenge is to synchronize this time so that you can’t figure out if it’s still the same take or if there was a cut. Believe me, I cut and edit a lot in advertising. It’s not like I don’t know how to do that. I probably have more experience in editing than any of the New Wave directors. But at the same time, I feel the need to conduct my storytelling this way.

But you know what? I don’t think viewers, in general, deconstruct. Or so I wish. I don’t want to be formal, ostentatious. On the contrary. My wish is to hide my means of expression. Sure, that’s what you critics do: try to formally deconstruct films, find similarities, differences. My intention is for the viewer not to notice the camera, or the length of the take, or any manner or any repetitive form in the films I make.

In this case, the actors are very important.

And the mise-en-scene. And the camera movement and station point. They all have to come together in an organic way.

The rehearsal should never come out better than when you’re filming. That is one of my biggest fears as a director

What is your way of working with the actors?

It’s pretty straightforward, even at casting. I always work with the actor on the text until I feel like there’s something interesting there, until it comes out well. Basically, there are layers to this process. Once the casting is over, there are rehearsals that focus on the text and the character. I stay a lot on the character, I try to make the actor understand them. I don’t like working with people who don’t understand what they’re doing. It’s important that they do. Only then can they bring something extra to mobilize the character. After that, we move on to rehearsals with movement, then to rehearsals on the shooting set, maybe even dressed in their costumes, if they are important.

And then we start shooting. There’s always an interesting balance here because you shouldn’t cover every little detail in rehearsals, the rehearsal should never come out better than when you’re filming. That is one of my biggest fears as a director. Therefore, you should always leave something for the shooting. That’s when things get more intense and it gives the scene that edge. I shoot as many takes it takes to get it right. I’m like the Chinese drop, it doesn’t matter how many takes we shoot, there can be 40-50 takes. It really doesn’t matter. I’m the kind of director who plays the roles of his actors.

Why do you consider that important?

For me, a certain musicality of the text is important. I’m the type who prepares quite a bit before shootings start, I’m generally disciplined and precise. It doesn’t mean that once we’re on set I reject the possibility of any sort of surprises and that I won’t try to use these surprises to my advantage, but I want to have a stable foundation. Then, I repeat the lines in my head. They have a meaning delivered in a certain way, with a certain musicality, and they can have a completely different meaning if said with a different cadence, with longer or shorter pauses. Therefore, I think it’s okay to have extensive discussions with the actors in the beginning, so they can understand their characters, what the film is about, what you’re looking for. But when you get to work in great detail, on gestures, on movements, on pauses, then I think it’s more useful to actually perform them than to talk about them. Too much talk kills the atmosphere on the set. We can talk about what happens within a series of takes, how to get to the best one, which is never perfect because it’s always a little different than what you imagined. Maybe better, maybe not so good. But there is a moment in this series of takes when you achieve top performance. It is often the last or the second to last. Sometimes it’s the 3rd or the 15th, and then you try other things. This whole process is interesting, but it’s always very meticulous, and people need to understand it because I can see them stressing out. I always tell actors, even when working on commercials, not to stress out if they see that I’m shooting a lot of takes. When we reach the 15th or 20th take, they feel like it’s their fault and they start messing up. We shoot until we get the right one, that’s the idea.

Taking money from the CNC claiming to make a commercial film and not being able to get your money back is a joke, is nonsense

Romanian society has changed a lot in the last 20 years. By default, the way in which Romanian films are made, distributed and received has changed radically, as well. How do you see these transformations?

There were some significant transformations. Until 3-4 years ago, we couldn’t really talk about commercial films in Romania. It was a joke, because the films made then were funded by the CNC and it was almost impossible, no matter how many viewers they grossed, to ever recover their money. We still had subsidized films, which in some cases had slightly more viewers than festival films, as the latter were labeled. But for some years now, we have had these commercial films, which are completely from another planet. Maybe it’s normal to have them, they exist in all countries.

Taking money from the CNC claiming to make a commercial film and not being able to get your money back is a joke, is nonsense. Now there are all kinds of movies. The landscape has diversified quite a bit. This year we had a lot of film debuts. I find that interesting, that ought to send a message to UNATC – that most successful films are made by actors, not directors. Lately, the traditional film school has not been producing much of what it should be producing.

The market is much more diverse. As usual, the films that we made or that some of us continue to make still get some rejection. There are attempts by some of my colleagues to completely change the stylistic direction. Whether it worked or not, that is another discussion.

Întregalde was released on Netflix a few months after its theatrical release. It seems that such a platform offers Romanian films the chance to reach an audience that otherwise they probably could not have reached. What do you think of this transition?

I have Netflix. I watch Netflix. I have no problem with it. I was delighted, for example, to watch The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the Coen brothers’ film, in world premiere. And I’ve watched other movies, too. Of course, most of them are not necessarily to my taste, but it is interesting that such a platform contains a lot of niches. This is its aim, to provide films for everyone, and the public can have immediate access to the film, in good technical conditions. By the way, the screening conditions in Romanian movie theaters are embarrassing.

Even in shopping malls?

Even in shopping malls. They are very bad. We spend months working in detail on every technical aspect of the film, from coloring to sound. I can’t describe to you what Întregalde actually sounds like in a good screening room. Although I’ve seen the film dozens of times in all its post-production stages, when I went to the New York Film Festival, I wanted to see it one more time because I knew from Tuesday, After Christmas that the screening there was the best of all. And it was wonderful. It looked and sounded impeccable. I still hear people saying that Romanian films don’t sound or look good. On Netflix, they look and sound great. Everyone has a plasma or an LCD screen at home. They can see the movie better than in cinemas.

So you are not one of the purists who say that films should be seen, at least for the first time, at the cinema, because that is where they are best highlighted.

I’m not a purist, I’m a realist. I know people won’t go see the film at the cinema. And if they do, they will see it in average conditions at best, meaning the sound and image won’t be that clear. Then why bother? They have it on Netflix, they have a TV at home, they can make the room dark, most of them have a 5.1 speaker system and they watch and hear the film in decent conditions. I have no reason to complain about it. On the contrary.

Photo: Sabina Costinel

In recent years, you have had public statements expressing your refusal to have your films considered at a gala such as the Gopo Awards. Why this aversion when such galas might help promote the film, not to mention that nominations and awards can be important for the people who worked on the film, from actors to technicians?

I explained why when they considered One Floor Below, even though I didn’t want them to. I attended the first editions of the Gopo Awards, when it seemed an honest attempt to gather the guild around such a festivity. But things have changed. It’s become a social event. I think it was my third time and I realized I didn’t recognize anybody in the hall. There were TV presenters and designers rather than filmmakers and colleagues of mine. People were more interested in how the guests were dressed than in who was up for the awards. There was a red carpet, we were brought in by car from somewhere nearby. The event used to be held in a ballroom. Now it takes place at the National Theater, but with the same pomp. I’m bored and annoyed by this kind of provincial pomp. I’m sorry I have to say that. I have no problem with the organizers, I said that several times. But I don’t want to attend such events anymore, because I find them frivolous. We don’t have an industry yet. We still have state-funded films, and this kind of Oscar glamour seems ridiculous at some point. Were it a smaller, decent event, without all the glittery stuff, then it would be okay. We can have a nice evening, and that’s it. Whether we win or not is less important. But the fact that we have all this luxury for some state-funded films that grossed 3,000-6,000 viewers, just to parade our evening attire, I couldn’t care less about that.

This fashionable side also exists at film festivals. To give an obvious example, the red carpet at Cannes also welcomes celebrities who have nothing to do with cinema.

We’re talking about Cannes, though. Let’s be real. Cannes is perhaps the most important film festival in the world and an event with tradition and all there is. Of course, the whole festival is dipped in glamour. It’s not what I like about Cannes, I take no joy in wearing a tuxedo. I honestly feel like I’m in armor. But it is what it is. I accept it. But to have this fuss here, in a ballroom or even at the National Theater, seems a little ridiculous and I’m out.

But there could also be the alternative where you, as a director, refuse to participate, as do other colleagues of yours, but let the film partake, in the idea that it might be rewarding for the people who worked on it.

I’m involved from the first idea to the poster and trailer. The film represents me. It’s my film for the most part. It’s my wish that my film be left out of these galas, simply because I don’t care about them. And most people I work with – the actors and the others in the team – are on the same page as me. I don’t think I’m putting anyone at disadvantage or hurting anyone. If I do, I apologize (laughs).

But how do you relate to a gala like the UCIN Awards?

Do I really need to say how ridiculous this poor excuse for a gala is, with its women’s stockings and gift shampoos? C’mon! It would make a great comedy.

What solutions would you see for your guild to be more united?

Believe me, I’ve been involved in so many attempts to coagulate the guild in the last 16-17 years that I’m very skeptical that it will ever work out. The differences between us are far too great. Not just the artistic ones. We have different objectives, we are on different levels. It’s complicated. I keep in touch, I get along well with some of my colleagues, we watch each other’s films, we read each other’s scripts, we give each other advice, sometimes we go out for a beer. But there’s just a few of us. Personally, I don’t think we can be more united than that. I don’t know if that’s the worst thing and if our biggest problem at the moment is that we are not more united. After all, everyone is doing their thing.

Photo: Sabina Costinel

What do you think are the main problems of Romanian cinema as a system at the moment?

I think things have changed lately at the CNC. It seems that there are some clear rules, but it only seems that way, because whenever it comes to choosing the members of the selection committee, there is a big mess, they are never in an agreement. I still don’t understand what is the criteria on which the head of CNC makes this decision. It is difficult to say what expertise the head of CNC has in this matter. But one thing is certain, the selection committee is always so and so when it comes to expertise. For many reasons. Up to a point, there was a rule – which was dropped after a scandal involving Alice T. – that you were not allowed to apply to the next two sessions after being on the jury. That is one reason (i.e. why people in the industry avoided being part of the selection committee). But there is also the fact that people don’t want to take on this role when they have no project themselves or an acquaintance who has a project in the contest. There are people in that committee that I consider more competent, but there are also people who have nothing to do with reading scripts.

Therefore, we are still in a subjective area. I think we still need those forms, but they need to be restructured by other rules, at least for the debut category. It has become very difficult for young talent to make their debut at the moment. They have to rely on the producer’s score. The producer has become more powerful lately. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not. When it comes to auteur film, at least, the producer, with all due respect to this profession, has no creative input. Which is why I don’t think they should have that much power. I’ve always urged that the producer’s score should matter less than the director’s score in those forms. What if I decide to change the producer and set up my own production house? Am I to be left only with the director’s score? I lose half of the total score because I have a new production house. That’s not okay, because, in the end, the films I made, if they were appreciated, they didn’t get a higher score thanks to the producer, to be very honest.

The paradox is that, in fact, there have been many debuts in recent years.

Maybe for some reason, there have been many debut films. But I’ve talked to people who, even though they managed to get funding from the CNC right after college or very early on, have been in production with their films for four or five years. That really sucks because time passes, people change, especially when they’re young. They can change their mind, they may not be interested in the subject anymore. You totally ruin them if you hold them off for so long, especially if it’s a debut. If they, from the moment they wrote the screenplay, make the film only after 6-7 years, that is murder.

Arthouse films have ended up being more conventional than commercial movies. That is very sad

But don’t you think there is an over-reliance on this funding system, even for young filmmakers? Some of them choose not to wait so long and make their film with very little money.

It’s a romantic idea, please believe me. At the moment, for example, a lot of foreign films are being shot in Romania. We provide a lot of services. There are about ten film crews on the market. And these people are used to working for money for these American movies. They won’t come to work for you for free, and rightly so, because they also have a family to support, they need money. They might come for a short film, two or three days, if they have a break, if you know them well, if you buy them a beer. But if we talk about a feature-length film, it is very difficult to find people who will come to work for free or for little money. I thought about that too. Întregalde was originally born from the idea that I would like to make a low-budget film, without help from the CNC. But none of them was doable.

At most, you can make a short film. Practice your film skills, okay. But it’s really difficult to make independent feature films right now. That is, if you don’t decide to make a commercial film, and this way, you can make it without the CNC. In my opinion, that would be fair and normal. You get Shelly, BRomania and whomever else is out there, you reach 500,000 viewers, you also release it on Netflix, and that’s how you make your money. Maybe you even get a profit. And that’s it. It’s a product.

But besides the CNC, there is also the international co-production system, which also eats up a lot of your time. It has come to involve an entire array of workshops, screenwriting programs, where all kinds of dramaturgical structures are discussed and developed, some based on the very idea of ​​co-production and multiculturalism, others on social or political trends. Structures that you can see clearly in the films that are being made right now. Arthouse films have ended up being more conventional than commercial movies. That is very sad.

What is your view on having classified files at the CNC contests, especially when everyone in this field pretty much knows what the other colleagues are working on?

We really fought, and I, personally, have tried my best, to eliminate having the files classified, because it’s such nonsense. Perhaps by declassifying the files we won’t need those forms anymore or we could at least make them more simple. It’s not a literary contest, it’s a funding contest for projects. My approach, as a director, is different from that of any of my colleagues. It’s important when reading the script to know who will direct it, especially if it’s not a debut. But even if it’s a debut, short films can be made available and you’ll know who you’re talking to. In fact, having the files classified is a way to hide your subjectivity and cover maneuvers. You can use it as an argument: I didn’t know whose project it was. This is hypocrisy.

Are you suggesting there is even a need for a face-to-face discussion between the committee and the applicants?

Absolutely. It’s very important. Of course, that would entail that the committee has good judgment, knows what they are talking about. That they have some expertise in the matter.

But how can a member of the committee support, for example, the second film of a lesser-known filmmaker against projects by Radu Muntean, Cristian Mungiu, Radu Jude and other well-known filmmakers? Wouldn’t that also mean a domination of those who are already well-established?

Maybe I’ve started creating rubbish. Maybe I’m not making any more sense.

But who takes on this responsibility?

The entity with good judgment. Which should tell us: this second film is a very good proposal, I talked to the man, they know what they want, they are going in an interesting direction. There are all kinds of arguments. Let me remind you that the first time we applied with Întregalde, we didn’t get funding, but then won with the same screenplay. You should know that we were also outsiders once, young wolves fighting for supremacy. We managed to gain some advantages, but we were never in the position of those before us. When those guys applied with their projects, there was no doubt that they would get funding.

Photo: Sabina Costinel

What else does advertising offer you after so many years, beyond the financial side? It seems like a constant practice for you.

Practice is important to me. As I said at the beginning, there is always this dialogue between your original plan and the reality on location. I find it really messed up when a director is in between films, which means 5-6 years until making the next film, and all they do is sit around and spin ideas in their head and have nothing to practice with. Having this constant practice of facing the result of this confrontation between thought and reality takes you further. The fact that you have to find solutions for how to shoot a scene in a certain space, for a dialogue between two actors, for mise-en-scene, editing, post-production, that is to practice your means of expression in a minimal way, seems extremely useful to me. Maybe it’s not the best analogy, but in the end, it’s like the life of a musician who doesn’t get to play their instrument. They know the theory, they know everything there is to know but don’t get to practice their profession. For example, an actor who doesn’t get to perform much, it immediately becomes obvious at casting that they have no experience. They don’t have the experience of conveying emotion in front of the camera, in front of the director. It can be useful (i.e. working on commercials).

Even now, when you have gained so much experience?

Less now. Not only did I gain enough experience, but they used to make other types of commercials back then. The trend was much braver. There was room to experiment, you could build little stories, characters, scenes. Now, I rarely find satisfaction in what I do (i.e. in advertising). But I try to stick to my principle of not making something that I would be ashamed of as a spectator. That’s crucial for me. The idea of making something dumb and seeing it on TV is just horrifying. I don’t always manage to avoid that completely, but I do my best.

You even found a hybrid format, between documentary and commercial, with 3mm (2020), starring Simona Halep, which was released on TV and online in the pandemic.

It’s not a commercial, actually.

But it was also perceived as a commercial.

The only intervention by the sponsor, Banca Transilvania, was that they put their card at the end. They invited me to make a documentary about Simona, I had this idea of ​​an observational documentary, and she really liked it. By the way, she didn’t even want to make a documentary at first, but when I told her about this idea, she liked it. We had worked together before on other commercials, we knew each other and we got along well. The people from Banca Transilvania asked me if I would sign it, because I don’t sign the commercials I make. I told them I would be happy to sign it but on the condition that they don’t have any input in the editing. They agreed. It all worked out very well.

I like taking risks. That’s why I’m a little confused that it looks like I’m following the effortless path and the recipe I’ve established. I feel that the last two (fiction) films I made were my most risky ones. Same with this documentary. I had no idea what I was going to find there (i.e. at Simona Halep’s training). It could have been nothing, really. I’m not saying it’s a masterpiece, but it was all a risk, far from keeping it safe. Same with the films. It’s crucial that I don’t get stuck in my comfort zone.

You made a documentary a few years ago, Visiting Room, with Alex Baciu. In an interview at the beginning of your career, you said that you would also like to make documentaries, considering that you had the chance to make such films as a student and immediately after, but in a short format or for television.

This year I will make another documentary, most likely in the same style as the one I did with Simona Halep. I’m very interested in this format. And since it’s paid, all the better. I find it interesting precisely because I get to explore an area where I’m not that much in control. Something that I also experienced with Întregalde, which was the most unpredictable film I ever made, due to the old man’s character, the locals, and the surroundings. I’m a control freak, but it’s interesting to allow yourself to loosen your grip over things from time to time and get into a situation where you’re not convinced you can control it. That’s what I find interesting about documentary film. Especially about the type of documentary I want to make, the observational one. I try not to stage the action, but to simply be there and capture the moments, which I let develop on their own. In a way, that’s what I try to do in fiction.

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