Catalin Mitulescu: “This big success of Romanian cinema should have led to a better-working system.”
My first ever Romanian film seen in a cinema was a film written by Cătălin Mitulescu, which I’ve seen with my mom when I was 16 – When I want to whistle, I whistle it’s still one of my favorite Romanian movies. A bit later I have discovered Catalin as a director – the first films I saw were By the Rails and How I spent the end of the world. What I enjoyed at all the films signed by Mitulescu in one way or the other was the story – unlike other “New Wave” directors, Catalin always cares about the story, you can sense his interest for his audience, for what they think and would like to watch.
His latest film – Heidi has been nominated at this year’s edition of GOPO Awards. A good reason for me to invite Catalin over for a chat about his characters, the way he builds his stories and how does he juggles with being a director, a producer, and a screenwriter.
Cătălin, you are a screenwriter, a director and also a producer. What does each of these roles bring to you and how do they live together in the space of your life?
I think I’m just a director. (laughs) Of course, I had the chance to become a producer but this also had to do with my status as a director. I was writing a lot and there was this time when all directors would start up their own production companies. Being a screenwriter helps me in my job as a director, and I think that these two lines of work are related to each other. Being a producer hasn’t necessarily helped me out, rather it’s been something quite time-consuming.
Has the success of your short film Traffic changed anything for you – as a director, or for Strada Film – as a production company?
Things happened very fast back then. I’d already been to Cannes with my film school shorts in Cinefondation (17 minutes and Bucharest – Wien), and their success helped me start working on a feature length film, which was in a quite advanced phase when Traffic won the Palme D’or – I even had a French producer. Of course, the success of the short film came as a sort of confirmation but I didn’t really have much time to savor its success.
In 2006 I was already shooting How I Spent the End of the World – due to Traffic, some new international financiers came on board, which was very useful.
Tell me about your debut film – How I Spent the End of the World.
I haven’t spoken about this film in a long time, but looking back and watching other debut films – as a producer, I can say it’s a very classical kind of debut, you can feel the director’s need to tell his own story, his adolescent experiences, his childhood memories – in my case the entire period of Ceausescu’s reign. It was a long shooting, with a team that was very motivated to represent the world that we had lived in. Back then there was still a lot of anger, a lot of hate towards the communist era, so I felt the need to tell a story though which I made peace with that part of the past, and I think this process was very good for all of the people that worked on the film.
Is it difficult for you to set aside your producer role when you enter the one of a director?
At one point, I have this tendency to practice self-censorship; but I wanted to also be in the position of a producer so I can fully immerse myself into my work as a director. Without any censorship. The producer Cătălin Mitulescu doesn’t stand too much in my way, but it is hard to double yourself, to be the smart guy director, that very organized producer and the super creative screenwriter, all at the same time – after all, filmmaking is all about team work.
Ideally, one should find that producer to work with and to have a good relationship beyond budget or shooting schedules, and to remain just a director.
In the majority of your films, one of the main topics that you explore is love. What is it that attracts you to this subject in particular?
I think this notion of relating to a woman is what provokes me – it’s a world that I’m still trying to understand. It’s a source of emotion and inspiration. Love is, of course, a part of this relationship, but, it’s just a part of the whole.
Is this the starting point for your latest film, Heidi?
Heidi started out from a very dark story – I spent some time with a police officer who had worked on the outskirts and was a very interesting guy – he had this mysterious side which incited me to find out more. Back then, police officers had more power and it was easier for them to do things which were, let’s say, rather unorthodox – but he never truly admitted that he had ever crossed the line. He told me of a case which served as the basis of my story, which is the reason why the writing phase went on quite fast.
You worked with a screenwriter.
Yes, with Radu Aldulescu – I had read his books, I like the way he writes, the atmosphere, his characters. After I wrote about 40 to 50 pages of Heidi, I felt the need to hand the story over to him and so we sort of met along the way. We worked a lot, it was like playing ping-pong: he worked on the 50 pages that I wrote; I developed the story further, and so on.
I always try to work with a screenwriter – I feel something good happens every time you run into a good screenwriter.
Gheorghe Visu and Cătălina Mihai give two strong performances and their chemistry is visible. Are rehearsals important when working with actors?
It depends – in this case, they were not. Geo came in with his own fears, and Cătălina – being her first film, completely threw herself into her role, so I took the decision not to have rehearsals. I discussed with both of them about their characters, our individual work processes were intense, but they came in front of the camera everytime without having rehearsed the scenes before – on the contrary, I’d even get mad if I’d catch them rehearsing the lines while they were at make-up, even though it’s a normal thing to do, but I prefered to go through it separately.
Is this your general way of working as a director, or was Heidi an exception?
I think it depends a lot on the script; for example, in How I Spent the End of the World, there had to be this specific sort of chemistry between the female lead and the child – so it was necessary for them to spend some time together and to develop a sort of relationship.
You’ve once again worked with DOP Marius Panduru on this new film, Heidi. I read in an interview of yours for Variety that you lost the 35mm film stock, so you switched to 16mm.
Well, it was a bit different, in fact. I’ve been working with Marius ever since I was at university, and we both have this, let’s say, love for a film reel – the first film we shot on 16mm was a revelation for us, and so we were searching for the best solution for the stories every single time.
In Romania, almost all films which are shot nowadays are shot on digital, and we were looking for a way to adapt digital to analogue with the story in Heidi, which was impossible. In the end, Marius had the idea to shoot on 16mm and fought a lot for it. And I think it was the best idea and solution.
You’re one of the directors of the so-called “Romanian New Wave”, which has kickstarted at the beginning of the 2000s. 20 years later, how do you think that our small local industry has changed?
It seems that there are many new directors, which is very good. At the start of the New Wave, we were talking amongst each other that we aren’t an industry per se, but rather some isolated cases, a couple of authors making films, and we all wished for an industry and for genre movies. I still don’t think we have become an industry – we are still some weirdos who tell their own stories; even though there’s been some commercial films lately that were a box office success – this is far from what we are doing. I don’t think that we have moved too fast, even though there’s several more production companies and directors, the sources of financing are pretty much the same, even smaller. This big success of Romanian cinema should have led to a better-working system.
In any case, it’s an interesting, lively world, which will produce films that will be better and better.
Let’s imagine you had a Hollywood-level budget. Do you have any big budget movie ideas which you would like to see on the big screen?
Yes, I have some ideas which I censor, because I don’t think they’re realistic. There are some strong Romanian stories – like the story of [singer] Maria Tănase, which many have tried to shoot. There are a lot of topics – films with outlaws, period pieces, a lot of very strong stories which I cannot take seriously, at least not for the moment.
Would you change anything about your films, if you had the chance?
Yes, of course, but I can’t really think about that. Judging from the audience’s point of view, and of the relevance that these films hold in front of it, I think there’s always something that could be changed, but you can’t go back – for me, they were all some sort of journeys which took me to specific places and I think that, further down the road, what matters is the next film that you want to work on, the one you’re developing right now.
And what is it that you’re developing right now?
I have two stories that I am working on, and I can’t seem to choose one. Both of them are in a very early stage, so I can’t say much about them right now.