Helicopter Parent: Cristian Mungiu on Graduation
Cristian Mungiu’s feature debut, 2002’s Occident, was an accomplished exercise in the then-fashionable mode of multiple narratives, which slowly overlap and converge, but it wasn’t until 2007’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days that he received significant international attention. Building on the style established by his contemporary, Cristi Puiu, in 2005’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (as well as using Puiu’s DP Oleg Mutu), Mungiu crafted an intense portrait of a woman trying to get a proscribed abortion in the waning days of Ceaușescu’s Romania. The film won the Palme d’Or, solidifying the rise of the Romanian New Wave. Moving beyond the past into the still-corrupted present, Mungiu turned to the true story of a young woman who died during a brutal “exorcism” conducted by nuns for his best film yet, 2012’s Beyond the Hills.
In his newest feature, Graduation, Mungiu once again draws from real life news reports to examine the social and political failures of post-Ceaușescu society. Aging doctor Romeo (Adrian Titieni) has spent years preparing his daughter Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus) for high school success, with the goal of making sure she gets a scholarship to travel to the U.K. for her collegiate studies. There’s nothing here for her, he repeatedly says — it’s too late for him and his generation, and the young should get out. But Eliza is sexually assaulted prior to her last exam, one she’d normally ace, and her ability to pass, and therefore leave, is compromised. Bowing to the exact forces of corruption he wants his daughter to be free of, Romeo starts busily calling in favors. After a nerve-wracking visit to the police station, he starts contacting colleagues: A scene in which he arrives during a house party to arrange a quid pro quo to alter her results is a textbook case of backroom dealings. The bitterly ironic final scene of Eliza’s graduation draws upon a song in which fresh-faced graduates express their hope for the future — one the film fails to share. Working in a now-established idiom of long takes and grounded locations, Mungiu builds his case step by methodical step. I spoke with the writer/director while he was at the New York Film Festival to show his film, which once again premiered at Cannes. Graduation is currently in release from Sundance Selects.
Filmmaker: In your films and generally the films of your contemporaries, there’s a sense of a strong hostility that comes out in daily life in Romania. But this can also be, to me, very funny, in a sense that it emerges under the most ordinary circumstances, where an interaction that should not be so charged suddenly turns into a whole big thing. Do you think that there is something funny about this? Or is this just a question of outside perspective?
Mungiu: Well, in everyday life, this is not funny at all. The problem that we’re facing there in society is this level of anxiety you see in people. And if you start asking yourself, “Why is this happening?” this is probably because society is somehow unsettled, and there are so many things which didn’t get the right response in time. People feel today they are displeased with the way things evolved, especially because they feel that society is not entirely based on merit. There’s a frustration associated with this, always. You feel that if you are to succeed in that society and reach the level of happiness or achievements that you need to reach, it’s not always [based] on what you can do. I think it’s funnier if you watch a film like Toni Erdmann, which is set in Romania. Have you watched that film?
Filmmaker: I have, yeah.
Mungiu: That’s funny, but I’m not sure if it’s funny just coming from these kind of situations. But it was a way of using [these situations] in a funny way.
Filmmaker: How do you feel about Toni Erdmann as a Romanian viewer? I know Maren Ade went to Bucharest and did her homework and was shown around by Cristi Puiu.
Mungiu: It’s a bit different for us because whenever you watch something which is set where you live, you will understand a lot more details than somebody watching it from a distance. But on one hand, I think it’s a very nice statement that she did that in Romania — not because this multinational company couldn’t have been placed anywhere else, but because she has this view about cinema coming from people from that region. Aside from this, I think the film could have been set in a lot of other places without a difference. But there’s something about the local humor, the way which people used humor to fight the Communist society, and that black humor stays in society even today.
Filmmaker: About this question of corruption, there’s a connection with Italy. Watching Occident, I learned that Romanians and Italians can understand each other because of the shared linguistic roots. In annual surveys of which country is most corrupt, at a certain point that country was Romania, and then it became Italy. A number of Italian directors have said that they left Italy precisely because they felt they couldn’t advance, that it was not possible for them to do the work that they needed to do, without corruption being involved. You have chosen to stay, and you’ve spoken about how you need to work in your country because it’s the place that you understand. Do you feel any kinship with filmmakers experiencing the situation in Italy?
Mungiu: I don’t think there’s a connection just with Italy. I was having press junkets in Cannes, talking to many directors and journalists coming from different countries. And the general feeling was that this film is not only or primarily about Romania. People related to this situation — especially people coming from eastern countries, south of Europe, South America — and they were all noticing that whatever happened in the film could have happened in their own country. So I think what the film speaks about is way more general. The reception that we had with this film in Italy was surprisingly good, to be honest. So probably there is a connection of some sort. But we have all the freedom to speak about these things. I have some problems with everyday events in my own life, living there. I don’t know how to tackle this and how to solve this, but none of [these problems] are connected with my work as a filmmaker. So as a filmmaker, I feel completely free to speak about whatever theme and whatever else I want to do.
Filmmaker: In the past you have done both long takes and a lot of takes. I’d like to ask about the pragmatics of doing that by using a specific example, the scene in the police station, which is very carefully choreographed. There’s an officer standing stage left, who’s looking over everything silently and who comes and goes. It took a while for me to even notice how choreographed it was.
Mungiu: First of all, I’d like to say something about the meaning of this. I work like this because I feel that as much as film is not reality, when you are making these kind of realistic films, you should try and keep reality as much as you can in the film. This is why I shoot all these scenes in just one shot, because I feel that it’s a failure, in a way, to use editing, in the sense that reality is not edited at all. You can’t take out things which you consider not to be important. Everything is important. Even if there are moments which are not important, you have to live through them. So there is a philosophy behind all of these decisions, of using long takes and to have all this filtered through the subjective perspective of just one character, from a unique position of the camera, not using music and not using editing and not moving the camera, unless it follows something moving in the shot.
Of course, finally, cinema is an organized reality, but at least if you allow these moments to just happen without editing, you won’t include your comments into these shots. You won’t be telling people that this close-up is more important than this other thing. Let them figure out themselves what’s more important. Of course, when you shoot, as you say, this involves a lot of choreography, a very different way of staging the situations, and this starts the moment when you start writing the screenplay, because this is the decision that you make before writing. I know before writing that I am going to shoot the film like this, and therefore, I write the screenplay in a certain way.
I imagine all these sets where things are happening. I know where I am going to place the camera, more or less. I can imagine where the people are, so I describe what the camera will see. When I get to shoot on the set, it’s complicated to have everything covered from one perspective of the camera because people, when they talk, pretty much face each other. So you have to be very, very inventive in finding ways of staging situations in which people will cross the frame doing actions from one point to the other which belong to the scene, that would allow you to see as many characters as possible facing the camera. Sometimes it’s possible, like in this scene. If you work like this, you understand that you win something and you lose something.
And there are moments which will just fall off camera completely. There are moments in this film as well, which are completely off camera. You learn, if you use just one shot per scene, how to use depth of field. This is the only freedom that you have, and how to use off-camera, but not only for the sound. We use off-camera for important portions of the scenes, and of the narrative. There is the scene, which was very difficult to shoot in this film, when the father gets to the police and he overhears his daughter talking to this policeman. That’s very difficult because the precise level of ambiguity [about what she’s saying] is very difficult to [establish]. So, on one hand, you are always with him in all the film, so we need to stay with him. On the other hand, what these other people talk [about] on the other side of the door is important. So how do you fix this precisely? It’s a very fine balance. And there’s something else about shooting like this: It’s very difficult to make actors be a lot in a scene where the camera is not in the room. That’s very strange for an actor. So I shot the scene two different ways. I shot it the way I wanted to have it in the film, but then I shot it with the camera pointing at these other actors in this other room. And I used all the emotions and all the sound from that perspective and included them in this other scene. Because if not, they feel that you’re not there. They don’t deliver the same way.
Filmmaker: In terms of blocking, how involved do you get? Is it very precise?
Mungiu: It’s very precise.
Filmmaker: For example, is this an actual police station?
Filmmaker: It’s a set?
Mungiu: It’s some postal office which was abandoned. This is why I wanted to shoot there. I could create whatever I wanted. The room was too small for me to get the whole situation with the camera, no matter what lens I was using. So because I treated this as a set, I dug a hole into the wall. But the blocking is very precise. I start by spending a lot of time myself in all these places, just before we shoot, without anybody else, just to figure out how I am going to play the situation. I am also saying everybody’s lines, especially the main character’s, because I need to make sure that what they do while talking is precisely covering the length of what they say. After all, the actors know what they have to say, there is another layer of staging the situations in which I want them to do something all the time. So this needs to match what they say, and I calculate this very precisely by doing this myself. And as you see, that’s a very good take to talk about this. The choreography is very precise, even for the second and third level of extras. They know when they get in, when they get out. There is an extra who has a small line saying, “Can you please sign this?” That needs to fit a moment when all the others are not talking. So it’s important for me at the end, that the general feeling is that it’s just life and accidents in life. But actually, to get there, you need to be very, very organized. And you need to be very organized because it’s a five-minute shot, and you don’t get there by improvising things.
Filmmaker: So by extension of that, in the scene where Romeo goes to see the gentleman who’s having a party in his living room, that’s a lot of people, but you’re not going to deal with them all?
Mungiu: It’s very detailed.
Filmmaker: Every single one of them?
Mungiu: If you let them just do whatever, it’s not okay. They are talking too loud, and they are not doing the right actions. So after the first takes, you start organizing them, and you organize them very precisely. You will drink here, and then you talk to him and you laugh and you talk and you point to that thing. Of course, it’s not as well organized as in the police section, but it’s very well organized.
I don’t edit the shots in the picture, but I edit the sound a lot. I want this final shot that I use in the film to sound very, very natural for somebody understanding the language. If you play the film and there’s something in this other room, I want this to feel as if it’s just a regular conversation people have. For this, I encourage the actors to use the same dialogue for every other take and not to improvise at all. This gives me the freedom of being able to edit the sound. As you can imagine, as well as you work with your actors, as good as they are, if they have a five- to 10-minute scene, they will never be precise about each other’s words, and they will never tell it precisely as you think is the right logic of it.
Whenever I have the right rhythm in the scene, I am going to use that scene. Probably I will preserve 80 percent of the dialogue. The rest of it, sometimes I can change. I work a lot with the sound, taking the best things that they did in all these takes and matching this with this other take when I can. So by the end of this process, what I want my actors to do is not to focus on what they say, not to focus on what they do, but to focus on what they feel and on the truth of the situation. But this way of working comes after making 20, 30, 40 takes.
Filmmaker: Do you do any ADR? Or is that just not something you would do?
Mungiu: Only if there is a big problem. You know what I do? After we finish shooting with the camera, we are always shooting some shots just for the sound. So precisely the same thing, but I preferred them to be in that state of mind, and we’ll just have the sound. So the first option is to use sound from these takes, just for sound, and ADR is the last solution.
Filmmaker: So when you say you’re just doing them for sound, you’re still running the camera, though, right?
Filmmaker: Oh, you just turn the camera off?
Mungiu: Yes, they do the same thing.
Filmmaker: I wanted to ask about the actor who plays Romeo. When I looked him up, I saw that he’s over the years played a surprising number of doctors.
Mungiu:That was important for me, honestly. I really wanted to find somebody else, because the guy is playing doctors already, and it’s not my kind of casting. I’m usually looking for very fresh people who never acted before, so he was not a part of this pattern. I knew while I’m writing that he would be a very good Romeo. But I really tried to find somebody else, and I couldn’t, honestly. You know, at his age, it’s not very easy to find good Romanian actors who didn’t play already in a lot in films. At the end, you just have to pick the guy who is the closest to what you wish from his personality, and somebody who can be part of this system of working. Sometimes you can find people who are very good for a line or two, but people that can have the whole scene for five minutes, this is difficult. So I hope that people won’t be so specific as you are and won’t check about this.
Filmmaker: In the past you’ve said that you’ve done advertising and television work, as have a number of your peers. Is that still how you regularly make ends meet, and do you work with the same crew on all of your projects?
Mungiu: No. I started doing this after the first film because you need to live off of something, and I could barely pay myself for the first film. So after I graduated film school, for a few years, I just lived from the awards. I got several awards, and I was paid a little bit of money for my short films. But at some point you need to fix your life, so I started doing advertising. But when I work advertising, I don’t do this with my production company. Very often, I could choose my cinematographer, and I work with the same cinematographer, and probably the production designer, sometimes the sound people, but not very often. But aside from this, you work with whomever is hired to do this. But I think that’s a very good exercise because all of a sudden, you learn to deliver things for somebody else. And you learn to work with the material, which doesn’t belong to you. We don’t have this experience back there of working as directors with somebody else’s screenplay. So from this perspective, advertising is a good way of getting back to being humble and understanding that no matter how many creative opinions and decisions you might have, it’s important that that story is clear and delivers a very specific purpose for somebody else.
It’s not the same for me now, because now I can live out of my own filmmaking. But I still do a commercial from time to time, and I like to do this as much as I can. For example, I did a commercial [before] this film just to test how I can work with the cinematographer I used for this film. I was using him for the first time, and I said, “Okay, let’s just do something together. What shall we do? Let’s do a commercial.” He was the assistant of my former cinematographer, so we knew each other a little bit. But it helped, working on something small together.
Filmmaker: Can you tell me about the final song?
Mungiu: That’s a very good question nobody asked me before. That’s very, very funny, how that song became iconic in Romanian schools. This is a song coming from a film which was anything but realistic. It’s a film from the ’80s, which was very popular in the period, Liceenii, meaning high school. And that song was associated with that film. That film [a 1986 film about high schoolers in love prior to the revolution] was very popular in the period. But for younger people the film is not popular any longer. Still, because of their parents, because of their teachers, who feel nostalgia, that song became iconic for the [graduation from] school in Romania. Before making this film, I just went to investigate how all these ceremonies happen in several Romanian high schools. And they always play this. It’s regular to play this and to have the flag and everything else. So I thought that as long as this is regular I would use it, because it’s part of this ceremony and it brings a lot of nostalgia for people my age as well.