Octav Chelaru: “If you want to make films, you need to understand what this world is about”

22 June, 2020

Octav Chelaru is one of the promising voices in the new generation of young directors in Romanian cinema.

He has written and directed five short films so far: “False Positive” (2014), “Occupied” (2015), awarded at Timishort, “Private Party” (2017), “Black Clothes” (2017), selected at Locarno, and “The Parallel State” (2020, unreleased), all made in the realistic convention.

He is currently preparing for his feature film debut, “Balaur”, shootings are scheduled to begin in August. It’s the story of a 35-year-old religion teacher and wife of the town priest who begins a relationship with a 16-year-old student of hers. The situation gets complicated when the young man confesses to the priest.

Born on September 30, 1991 in Piatra Neamt, Octav Chelaru studied Computer Science in Iasi, a field in which he excelled and still works in in parallel with cinema, even after moving to Bucharest in 2016 (“I work for a company in US and it’s a work from home daily job. When I was going to film workshops, I used to run to my hotel room to attend the online work meetings. For now, this is how it has to be. It’s very difficult to make a living from cinema, writing and directing fiction and documentary films. You have to have a certain rhythm.”)

He failed his admission exam at UNATC, where he applied to Directing, which tore him apart for a year, but which he now says helped him a lot, even though he had to learn directing on his own, initially by making short films in Iasi with the money he earned from IT and with the help of his friends.

Octav Chelaru
On the set for “The Parallel State”

You said in an interview that you started filming at a very young age. When did it happen, exactly?

I started filming in high school. In middle school I was more into photography. Middle school was very different from high school. I was like a gift to my folks, so they put a lot of time and energy into me. They rather guided me towards things like puzzles, games of the mind. I used to participate in local contests. At the end of the fourth grade, I took an exam to enter middle school at one of the two most important high schools in the city, because at that time some high schools also had classes for middle school. I had the highest grade. Then I started going to the Math Olympiads. I have a stack of diplomas I won during middle school. I traveled all over the country, with the support of my math teacher.

So you were very good at math.

Yes, and then computer science. In high school, I did 12 hours of computer science every week. I think the National College of Informatics in Piatra Neamt was the most intensive computer science high school in the country. Many students further went to Microsoft, Amazon, Google, Twitter. It was always a winner in the Mathematics and Computer Science Olympiads. In the ninth grade, however, influenced by some teachers, I started watching movies and reading. I hadn’t read anything since fifth grade, because I was only focusing on math. I started with the books I missed reading when I was supposed to during school.

Between the ninth and the tenth grade I had a falling out. I had this decline at school, I wasn’t that surprise student anymore. I started going to football matches. I became a fan of this team, Dinamo. When they were playing in Moldova, I used to sit in the gallery. I was running from the guards. After that I had a religious period, when I joined a kind of ultra-Orthodox group, coordinated by a Romanian teacher. I used to go to monasteries. It wasn’t aggressive at all, but mentally, at that age, it can cause some damage. I started believing in all that stuff. I didn’t care about informatics anymore. I was going to classes, but I was rather watching movies or reading. I was learning enough to pass the exams and not have problems at school.

My math teacher in middle school, who had also been my head teacher in the ninth and tenth grades, told me that people in the staff room were talking about me, that I was seen as a big disappointment.

That’s when I realized that I really have to decide what I want to do further. I felt like filmmaking might be my thing. I took a handycam and started making videos at school, including the end-of-year movie. I filmed my grandmother’s birthday, I was interviewing my family. Some I edited, some I didn’t, but I liked watching them afterwards, to see what the naked eye couldn’t notice at first. From the 10th grade to the 12th grade, I mentally built this idea that I would be a film director.

Where did you get your passion for film from?

I don’t know exactly, it just happened to be like this. There were some hints that led towards it. First of all, Tudor Platon (director of photography), who had also been an Olympian in computer science, and afterwards got into photography. His father was a film enthusiast and introduced us to Tarkovsky. I was rather familiar with action movies, so that was something new to me. Then again, my father was also a cinephile and had stacks of DVDs. So films were always around me as I grew up.

I was selected at a workshop, Manifest, in Timisoara, with my first fiction “movie” that I made with some classmates. I was in the 10th or 11th grade. There, a guy held a masterclass on La Haine (1995), by Mathieu Kassovitz. I sat and analyzed that movie for a week. I was fascinated. Since that moment, I started doing the same thing with all the movies that I was watching. That was the trigger that confirmed the film is not just for entertainment, but I could also use my logical skills, empathy and emotion.

In the 12th grade, I even made a film for the admission at UNATC. The theme was “breakfast”. The movie was about a guy in prison who is given some pills to kill himself. I made it at home with my desk mate, we moved the furniture around. It was fun. I really liked it.

In 2010, at the age of 18, you applied to UNATC, but didn’t get in.

I talked to my folks, and they suggested that directing wasn’t a job I could do at that age, that there are still many experiences you don’t have at 18. It turned out to be true, but I was stubborn and that’s what I wanted to do, film. I based my arguments on examples such as Citizen Kane, which Orson Welles had made at the age of 25 (laughs).

Then there was the financial crisis. Dad had been fired. And we had some problems in that area. They had to borrow money for me to do the training courses at UNATC. They were afraid to drive to Bucharest and a round-trip every week was quite expensive, so I took the bus. I’ve been on the bus at least ten times. I used to leave Piatra Neamt at 3am, arrive in Bucharest at 7-8 am, and sleep on the stairs at UNATC until 10am when the course started, because I was totally messed up after a night spent on the road. I was woken up by the person who taught the course: Laurentiu Damian, Paul Negoescu or Marius Sopterean. The courses cost about 3,000 lei. Plus the bus. It was quite an effort for my parents.

My mother advised me not to put all my eggs into one basket and to try at other colleges too. So I applied to Journalism at the University of Bucharest. For the exam we had to write a fascinating story in our lives. I wrote about my experience with religion, with that ultra-Orthodox “sect”. I passed with the highest grade. I got a call from the dean there who told me to go to their college, because I have what it takes for journalism. I told him I was going to apply to another college, but I would keep it in mind.

My mother told me to apply to Computer Science as well, because it doesn’t hurt to have a safe profession. Since, as a journalist … I went to Iasi one weekend with my father and I submitted my file to Informatics. Since I already had high grades in Mathematics and Computer Science, I got in there as well, I think I was the second. So I applied to three colleges, each in a different field of study. And I got into the first two, but not directing. So I chose Informatics, for pragmatic reasons. I already knew from high school that you can make money fast in this field. But I was disappointed after I failed the exam at UNATC, so much so that I didn’t want to hear about film for a whole year.

Petrecere privata
Daniel Popa and Ioana Flora in “Private Party”

What happened at the admission exam at UNATC?

It just felt wrong. I also had a bad nervous breakdown. I was sick. I couldn’t believe that life was playing such tricks on me. The whole exam, it was just bad luck. We were given a list of movies and directors, and I had Dancer in the Dark (2000), by Lars von Trier. I had to write an essay about the finale of the film, when the character played by Björk is executed by hanging. I had to present it from a directing point of view. I knew how to do that, I knew how many shots there were and how to analyze them. But I thought I could try something else, how foolish of me. I wrote from the perspective of Björk’s character, that blind woman. I wrote a kind of monologue. They didn’t like it at all and they gave me a rather low grade. We got off on the wrong foot.

Then we had a practical test which, in my opinion, was completely absurd. We were given a poetic, abstract text from Romanian literature. I think it was by Gellu Naum. Then we were given an operator with a camera on a tripod and some objects. We had to reproduce the emotion in that text through those objects. Completely absurd. I did something, and the commission found it interesting. I gave the scorecard which already had the first grade on it, then Laurentiu Damian gave it back to me, nodding in disapproval, making it obvious with a “tsk tsk tsk”. And that was it. That was my feedback. That’s how I failed at UNATC.

Who was on the exam committee?

Laurentiu Damian, Marius Sopterean and Nap Toader. After seven or eight years, I met Mr. Damian and told him that failing me was the best thing he could have done to me. He was a little irritated by that, but I was honest. At the age of 21, with a degree in directing, not living what I lived, having no work ethic whatsoever, I wouldn’t have done much.

Didn’t you think of giving another try the next year?

It was too big a financial problem for my parents. I could feel their effort. I felt like I was draining them out of resources. I chose computer science for the exact purpose to help them financially. The academic year started in October and in November I got a job in IT. I ended my first year with honours. Got straight A’s all the way. After a year I got a job at Bitdefender, which then, in 2011, was the coolest company in Iasi. Only two out of 80 candidates were accepted. I was the first sophomore to enter.

I worked at Bitdefender for five years, until 2016, when I moved to Bucharest. It was very useful. First of all, I had the financial comfort. Secondly, I got the work ethic. I learned to work in a team and respect work, which means staying eight or ten hours and delivering what you said you would be delivering. It’s very important. That helps me a lot now.

But how interested were you in computer science?

I was really into it in my first year, when I left movies and books on the side. In the summer between the first and the second year, I preferred to stay in Iasi, on campus, to work. It was 2011. And Corneliu Porumboiu released Police, Adjective on DVD, in Carturesti. He also showed a short film he made in college. At the end, he signed DVDs and talked to people there. I saw he was very open, so I went to him and told him that I also applied to film school a year ago, but I didn’t get in. I told him I was working for financial reasons, but that I actually wanted to make a film. He encouraged me to do so, because I don’t need college for that or, if I do, I’ll feel the need after I make it.

I started making music videos for Genero TV, a site that featured bands and wanted to gain some popularity, so they wanted to make a video for a song. The videos I made were not that good. I didn’t know how to handle the focus. I asked some guys who were wedding videographers to help me. So I learned by practicing. After that, a rock band from Iasi wanted me to make some videos for them. I had clients.

And during that time you continued going to college and having your job.

After my first year, I figured out how to handle college as to keep getting high grades and also my job. I was going to seminars, sending homework, I was very organized. I wasn’t sleeping much during the exam period. I realized that you can easily get through college. Especially since I was doing much more advanced things at work than at school.

Ocupat
Delu Lucaci in “Occupied”

After graduating from college and while you were still in Iasi, you made two short films, False Positive (2014) and Occupied (2015).

I made friends with some actors. I was lucky enough to get through and meet the troupe at the National Theater in Iasi. Mr. Vlad Massaci allowed me to attend his rehearsals. I learned many things. And I felt that was the time to make films.

I was still staying on campus. I used to go to college in the morning, from eight to ten, then to work, where I told them I had a problem and at four I was at the theater. I stayed there until eight, went home in the evening, did my homework for the next day at college and so on.

However, you were not interested in theater, only film.

I was interested in working with actors. That was what I was afraid of, that’s why I wasn’t making films. That’s why I was making videos, in order to express myself with the camera. And in videos I didn’t have a problem with the sound. I was terrified of the moment when the actors had to open their mouths.

In what sense?

I was afraid that it would sound bad, that I wouldn’t notice if it didn’t feel real, that I would be misled right away, especially by an experienced actor who knows how to defend himself. And I was curious how a director finds that natural aspect, that’s why I went to the theater. I was also very self-conscious when talking to the actors. Becoming friends with them, I solved that too.

So all that time you wanted to make films, right?

Yes, but at the same time I wanted to finish college and continue with my job. I didn’t have the financial capacity to “get out” from a city like Iasi, which is very cool, but there’s no ground for filmmaking.

How did you make the two short films?

With my own money, what I gained at Bitdefender. And I was also lucky to have the dedication of my friends who were at UNATC: Tudor Platon, who was in Cinematography, and Stefan Azaharioaie, who was in Sound. Tudor Platon borrowed equipment from college, said he was making a film for school, got on the train, occupied a wagon and came to Iasi. I waited for him at three in the morning at the train station. There were tripods, lights, all taken from UNATC, they didn’t even fit in the car. That’s how I made the first film.

After the experience of the first two films, have you ever considered studying cinema?

I had this thought until I made Black Clothes (2017). Even in 2016, after I decided to move to Bucharest, I thought I would go to film school at some point. There was this obsessive idea to have a degree in directing. But then I let go. I realized that studying film is very useful in a country that has an industry, because it’s easier to get in. But after I won at CNC for the first time and after I went to Locarno with Black Clothes, I realized that I had already made it in, that I already knew people. My main concern was that I didn’t go to college and that I didn’t have a generation, I didn’t have anyone to call. Going to Locarno gave me courage. That’s when I got my confirmation, that if you want to do something, you go do it.

How did you write, what inspired you? Did you read scripts?

I read books on screenwriting. I read Robert McKee (the volume Story) several times. And the screenplays by the writer Lucian Dan Teodorovici, with whom I became friends. Meeting him was important. We also wrote together a medium-length screenplay that hasn’t been done yet, inspired by an episode from his novel, Matei Brunul. I saw how Lucian thinks, by sequence, by cut, by sound. That’s when I got the courage to write screenplays, actually.

And he also wanted to make films. We decided to co-direct five short films, five episodes, each of them as a long-shot film, which we would edit into one feature film. That’s how I did Occupied, and him, Crickets. Then we realized that five shorts would be too many.

As for screenwriting, at first I was ignorant. It was all about mimicry and passion. And that lasted for a long time, even after Occupied, when I started reading screenplays, when I got my hands on the screenplays written by Cristi Puiu and Cristian Mungiu, which I read several times.

Your films so far seem to be influenced by the New Romanian Wave, from the stories inspired by real life events to the dialogues and the shooting style.

There wasn’t one film that I missed from the New Romanian Wave. I was very proud when Calin Peter Netzer won the Golden Bear at Berlinale for Child’s Pose. We were at my parents’ house and we watched the festivities on the internet. And I jumped up as if the national football team had scored.

I was very fascinated with them. You have to learn before you can revolt. Bottom line, I did copy. I’m not afraid of that word. I was inspired by them. Surely, I liked other things, other aesthetics, too, but I didn’t know how to get to them. When you make a film with few resources, I realized by myself that this was the only solution: simple shots, handheld camera or static on a tripod, long dialogues, authentic performances. Later, things evolved, I tried to change things with the other films, but it’s quite difficult, the resources are limited.

I believe that the New Wave was followed by a generation of sacrifice, which lasts even now. There are those who haven’t caught the New Wave and now only copy the form, believing that the secret lies in the form. But no, the secret is basically what those people were saying, their humor and their references.

How do you get out of this shadow? How do you separate from it?

It’s hard to have an answer, because I don’t have a feature film to back me up. If it doesn’t work out, no one will ask you why it didn’t work out. And if it does work out, you need to be modest about it and say that there was also a lot of chance and inspiration involved.

But also that you planned your things very well. For example, for the debut that I will start filming in August, I have prepared a lot. Since Locarno, in 2017, when I had a beer and successfully pitched the project to Ducu (producer Radu Stancu) and until June 2020, which is now, almost three years have passed, during which time I went to over 12 screenwriting workshops, I wrote over 12 drafts, I watched a lot of movies and took out sequences, styles and techniques, musical references. I have a document of 400 pages of screenshots from movies. It outlines the way I imagine my film. I’m very much for details. Preparation is a very important element. Hoping that you’re going to be hit by genius during shootings, I think that’s foolish. Production must be an execution of a well-constructed plan and that’s what you have to do.

Our generation, the filmmakers who will make their debut in the coming years, will have to bring Romanian cinema into the spotlight again, at least a little. Now there is more talk of the New Bulgarian Wave, the New Weird Greek Wave, the Brazilian cinema. We have to dig into ourselves, document ourselves and read a lot. We need to be very prepared, hoping that we’ll have a chance and it will work out. The New Wave should no longer be viewed as homage or as something that overshadows you: “What am I going to do if they are the giants anyway?” If we thought like that, we wouldn’t make films anymore. I think you have to make a film the way you feel it and prepare it very well.

Statul paralel
Gabriel Huian şi Alin Florea in “The Parallel State”

Almost all of your films revolve around dilemmas and dysfunctional relationships. Where do you get your inspiration from?

Talking about style when it comes to some short films is a little arrogant. These are exercises. I didn’t have a chance to make mistakes in college. Because I didn’t go to UNATC, I didn’t have those exams. I made mistakes by practicing. All the events in my films started from things that I experienced or that others told me about and have awakened something in me. I thought there might be something cinematic in them and I could explore this way.

What do you like about cinema and directing? Why are you so attracted to it?

I think I find myself in the job description. I am passionate about literature, ideas, discussions, which you find a lot in cinema. I’m a trustworthy guy, who has a work ethic, and I think you need to have a certain attitude in this field. In order to complete such a project, you must have the necessary skills.

I’m fascinated by films. I like them. It’s like when you fall in love, you can’t explain the feeling. My emotional memory is more about cinema than real life. Every time I talk to someone and come up with an idea, I give an example from a film. I watch films like a spectator. I cry, I laugh, I have fun. But I also have a critical eye behind.

But for me, emotion-wise, literature began to be a strong counter-candidate. There are books that fascinate me more than many films out there. But I couldn’t express myself through literature. However, reading is essential. I don’t think a director can make films if he just watches films. If you want to make films, you need to understand what this world is about. You have to read. Anything there is.

Ionut Mares Ionut Mares
Journalist and film critic. He works as artistic director for several film festivals in Romania. For Films in Frame, he is in charge of the Emerging Voices column, which is published twice a month, on Tuesday.