To say that Romanian cinema has not had a fair shake in the United States would be quite an understatement because the Eastern European country has a history of cinema dating back over one hundred years that was mostly undiscovered thanks to the cloud of Communism that shrouded the country until 1989. Chances are most Americans’–aside from film snobs, cinephiles and critics–first and only experience with Romanian cinema begins and ends with 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, Cristian Mungiu’s 2007 film which received critical acclaim in this country at the center of a wave of Romanian filmmakers having their films released here.
Now, Mungiu is back with Beyond the Hills, a drama based on a true story involving two young women who reunited at a remote Orthodox monastery in the countryside where one is training as a nun. Her childhood friend tries to convince her to leave the church which puts her into conflict with the monastery’s priest who convinces everyone that she’s possessed and that only an exorcism can fix her.
Mungiu was inspired by the novels by Tatiana Niculescu Bran about the 2005 case of a young woman who died in a small monastery after visiting a friend of hers and how the priest and nuns were convicted of her murder, a story that polarized the nation.
ComingSoon.net sat down with Mungiu when he was in New York for the 2012 New York Film Festival last September, having already had multiple previous films playing both at that festival and other Lincoln Center events.
ComingSoon.net: After “4 Months,” did it take a long time for you to figure out what you wanted to do next since that brought you so much attention?
Cristian Mungiu: Yes, but the first two years I spent producing “Tales From the Golden Age,” because that was a project that started before “4 Months” so I had to finish it. It was written before. What I did was I decided to open that up for some other filmmakers and turn that film–since it was with episodes anyhow–into an omnibus for some other people as well, since I was travelling so much. It took me some two years to complete this and it was a good way of releasing pressure in a way. We got back to Cannes with that film in 2009, I brought some other people into the spotlight, either colleagues or younger directors. It was a film that I wrote, co-directed and produced, but it’s true to say that it took me a while to decide upon what will be the next story after “4 Months” because at the same time you want to do something that will be different but different in terms of subject matter, but eventually, not very different in terms of your way of understanding cinema. Somehow, “4 Months” for me was something very close to my understanding of cinema and these things don’t change like this. It’s not like your next film you have another revelation and discover something else. I used pretty much the same vocabulary for this type of film.
CS: It’s funny you say that. I don’t like comparing different movies but it seemed like “4 Months” involved a lot more stationary camera shots and long takes. This one seemed to have more camera movement and editing.
Mungiu: It all comes from the story. The system is the same but it’s applied to a different story. It’s the story that shapes primarily whatever you do. I use the same mechanics of having just one shot per scene in both films. The camera has the same attitude. It’s rather static when the situation is static, it’s moving when the situation is gripping. It’s the same cinematographer, but what changes a lot is the context and the set. What changes a lot for me between these two films regards to the amount of time which is used in the films. It’s a big difference to have the action happening in 24 hours or an action happening in several days like this one. That’s why the films feel different but apart from this, they come from the same understanding of the use of the means I have as a filmmaker.
CS: The other thing is that your previous movie was set in the mid-’80s while this one could theoretically take place today.
Mungiu: Still it’s today and you understand that it’s today but it’s in such a remote place that it feels like it could happen a while ago. I really wanted to make a film happening today after “4 Months” and not in the Communist period.
CS: How did you collaborate with Tatiana on this? Did you already know her work beforehand or were you familiar with the story before meeting her?
Mungiu: With the story, of course, because the story was a very popular in the press. This started I think in 2005 and I started watching the story and press clips on this from the beginning, because the story was very strong, but very badly treated by the press and especially by this kind of tabloid press. They only exploited the very superficial part of it, the spectacular part of it, without any interest for the human drama that was behind, and later on, when I discovered Tatiana’s books, I noticed that her attitude was completely different and this is what brought me closer and this is why I considered the books are the primary inspiration as an intermediary level for the film and not the real situation because for the first time, she was somebody that was completely non-judgmental. She just related what happened and I took it from there, and I decided that I’m going to have it fictional, that you can’t know what happened. This is not for cinema to do, to reenact reality, but to try to speak about the important values that this story could bring forward. Therefore, I changed the names of the characters and I felt free to change things in their biographies and relationships and what have you. This gave me the possibility to speak about a lot more important things that I discovered in the present from the incident.
CS: Did you work directly with Tatiana as a writing collaborator?
Mungiu: No, I wrote the screenplay and once the screenplay was finished, I gave her the screenplay to read. She told me what she believed and that was it.
CS: Did you want to talk to any of the people involved in the original incident and were they available?
Mungiu: They were in jail, but they were available if I insisted and for a while, I considered talking to the priest, Corneliu Porumboiu, you know the Romanian director? He knows the priest quite a while. They used to be colleagues playing for the same football team in Vaslui, so I was talking to him very often, wondering if I should meet this guy or not and talking to him. He told me a lot of backstories about him, so that story with him seeing the angel and working there, these are things that I found out from him so I knew quite a lot about him, but at the same time, at some point that it’s fair to be fictional, it’s fair to let these people go on with their own lives and not involve them directly with the film, and I thought that if I spoke with them directly, I would have the responsibility of respecting the way they saw the situation. For me, it was important to move on and to be completely free to speak about what could have happened, not about what happened.
CS: Is this something that’s happened a lot or was it really just one very specific incident? It seems like there could have been similar incidents in other places where people are thought to need an exorcism.
Mungiu: It happens very seldom that the person dies and this is why it was such a scandal. I think the Romanian Orthodox Church, as soon as this happened, encouraged priests and pretty much gave a formal regulation that they’re not allowed to do this any longer. But they keep on doing it of course. If you check on it, you’ll see that there’s a lot of priests that keep doing this at the same time, but it doesn’t often happen like this. Very often it’s just the process, but it doesn’t end up like this, and this was why everybody was so shocked. You never consider that this could be the ending of such a thing and people interpret it in very different ways and it was that kind of incident where people placed themselves in very different positions and the incident really polarized people a lot. They found an argument in this to say that this is what religion is about today and you live in the 17th Century and how can this happen in a civilized country? On the other side, all the religious people and church-goers just noticed that they were the only ones that cared and they tried to do something for this girl while all the people involved in the lives of these girls and all the institutions, they never did anything for them. Therefore, I thought it was important to have a balanced story about this and to tell it, respecting each character’s point of view.
CS: Is it hard to make a movie like this without making it seem like it’s condemning the religion or the faith?
Mungiu: It wasn’t hard for me because this is what I wanted to do, but I read screenplays about this, I read books – because there were a lot of books written about this and there were a lot of public opinions in the press and theater plays. It’s difficult. Normally, people take sides, but this is not what I want to do. I was trying very much when I was–for example writing the characters–to make sure that it’s not me speaking through them. I understand their own point of view if possible and I encouraged the actors never to judge the characters that they were interpreting, but to try to assimilate this point of view that they’re representing and act accordingly. It pretty much happened.
CS: The casting is interesting because you have the priest which is played by an actor you’ve worked with quite a few times, while the main actresses, one has done theater and the other has never acted before.
Mungiu: She’s still a student.
CS: And then you have another actress who has only been in a movie 15 years. It’s a really interesting mix of people with different degrees of experience. I assume Romania has a pretty good pool of actors at this point
Mungiu: Thousands .
CS: Right, so I wonder why you often go with people who aren’t necessarily experienced actors.
Mungiu: I don’t know. This is what casting is about. You look for people that’s how close to how you imagine when you’re writing the screenplay–that’s what I’m looking for–so I have these characters in mind and then I’m trying to figure out through pictures first of all and then through reading with actors if they could be close in terms of personality and looks to what I had in mind. They’re never a precise copy of what I imagine, but my idea about this is that you have to have 70 or 80% of it already there. I don’t believe in this complete change. Casting is about finding the right people. You can’t ask somebody to change completely – I don’t believe in this. Finding the right people for the right story. Finally, for me, it was more important to feel that they could do this close to what I planned then to see that they don’t have any experience and to risk working with inexperienced people. What kind of experience could you have at the age of 25? So you have to take some risks but at the same time, I believe that you’re either an actor and you’re capable of expressing emotions and being believable and understanding the moment, or you’re not. It’s not a matter of experience. Experience helps you to know on the set the things that you’ve learned in the first three days. This is not important. But it wasn’t easy to work like this, and there were other things that are not normally involved when you make a film. Like the actor’s private, personal religious position, and all of a sudden this was important because for example, this lady playing the mother superior, she’s a very religious person and after I was talking to her in the casting, telling her, “Look, we might be working together,” she went to her confessor and said, “Look, this is the situation, should I be doing this or not?” And he said, “Go there, do what you have to do and defend our point of view.” Okay, and then I had to work with her. So it’s not that easy and at the same time
CS: Well, it brings something more interesting to the role, knowing about her background when watching her play the role.
Mungiu: I just imagine that she was pretty much all the time in the film doing completely different than her own belief. She was acting against herself and I’m very grateful that she finally understood it and she did this, but as much as you try to explain to an actor the difference between fiction and film and reality and you as a character and you as a person, there comes a moment where they have to stage a very violent situation where this border disappears. Because you can’t fake violence. You have to allow violence to get into you and all these scenes in the film that you see where there’s a lot of aggression and violence were very, very difficult to stage and shoot and experience.
CS: I can imagine. I remember you had a premiere for the movie in Vaslui where the story takes place recently, but did you shoot there as well?
Mungiu: I couldn’t shoot the movie there because this is too far away from Bucharest and for practical reasons I couldn’t shoot there, but I wanted to have the first public screening of the film very close to where it all happened, just to see the reaction of the audience.
CS: I was surprised to learn that you actually built the entire monastery where most of the movie takes place.
Mungiu: The whole thing.
CS: So you weren’t able to find any locations that would have worked?
Mungiu: Everything else but the monastery is location. The hospital, everything, is location, but the monastery was built for two reasons. First of all, it was impossible to shoot in a real monastery. The Orthodox church would have never given me permission and second of all, understanding that I’m going to work with a lot of religious people, I really wanted to have a set, because they already had this feeling when they entered this church, they had the cross and they had this feeling that it’s sacred. And I would say (knocking on table), “This is wood, this is a set, this is not a real. This is just a set, we’re making a film. Nothing is going to come from the heavens to you here because you say this. It’s all fiction.”
CS: But it’s pretty believable and the whole point of making it believable is so the actors feel they’re in that environment.
Mungiu: Yes, and there’s something convenient at the same time. It was the first time that was working with a set and this allowed me to have it precisely as I imagined when I was writing. Before having it as a set like this, I designed it in the office. I took some clay that children use to play and I designed it precisely for the production designer so I told him, “I need to have it like this with each thing placed where I imagine.” Therefore, it was a little bit easier when we shot to have all the relationships right.
CS: Were you able to shoot it in chronological order since most of the locations were right there?
Mungiu: Pretty much. It was the only way of advancing in such a complicated screenplay, but it was everything chronological for production reasons, but it was the only way which I could have the actors progress through this little by little. So in the moments where they had to play all this aggression, they were kind of prepared and every time when advancing like this and we ran across a scene that didn’t fit, I would change it, because the film changes as you advance into it. It’s not precisely as you designed it to be when you’re writing and you have to be very open to understand where it comes and where it goes. Film is a very alive and has a character and it’s not good to keep it (confined) – you need to let it go the way it wants to go and I adapted the dialogue and the situations all the time so that they match psychologically what happened before.
CS: One of the reasons filmmakers write screenplays before filming is so they can get it exactly the way they want it, but if you’re going to film and you’re changing things and don’t shoot scenes that you originally wrote, how do you know it will still work the way it on paper?
Mungiu: What I decided finally was that I wrote a very long screenplay. The screenplay had 240 pages. That’s twice as much as it should have, and I think that was the right rhythm for the story honestly, but you can’t watch it in a theater. It’s too long for people to watch, so I cut some half hour before the shooting, but the rest I shot. I decided that I was going to drop scenes later on when it was easier to watch the screening and understand if I absolutely need them or not. The scenes in themselves are very good. I still like them, but I thought that the film should only last the minimal amount of time in which I could have everything there so that you can understand the context in which they acted, therefore I cut off some, I don’t know, 30 to 40 minutes, but I shot it.
CS: Was that a similar process you used for “4 Months”?
Mungiu: (shakes head) I cut only I think one or two shots and I just left out one scene in “4 Months” which was against the format of the film and I knew that I would cut it off, but I just wanted to shoot it. Both films are told from somebody’s subjective perspective, which means that that character needs to be in all the scenes. In this case, it’s Voichita, she’s present in all the scenes in the film. I really wanted to place a lot of other information and things happening around, but I couldn’t. I had to respect this subjective point of view and it was happening for that other film as well. The difference is that this one was so big, and it involves so much information about the context, about the social institutions, about this priest, his relationship with the church. It was bigger than it was possible. I really need to shoot this and understand all of it.
CS: I assume people in Romania would have known a lot of the context from the news.
Mungiu: The problem is that it was more important for me to get to a length which is watchable and supportable than to have all this, which would have given you more precise information, but maybe you would have lost patience before staying until the end.
CS: Any idea what you want to do next? You’ve obviously been working on this movie for some time
Mungiu: Actually, things went very fast for this one. It took me a long while before I decided to do it, but I think I started writing, I don’t know, early January 2011, and in May 2012, the film was in Cannes, so it was quite fast. I don’t know what I’m going to do next exactly except that I always produce a few films in between my films. I’m going to produce a few interesting things like animation, documentary, more popular cinema hopefully with somebody who I like a lot, and then I will move on soon to my next stories that I have in mind right now. But before I start writing, I never know which of them will be my next film. I have some ideas, some stories, and what I do normally is I start working on three or four at the same time and see which one develops.
CS: How do you feel about Romanian filmmakers and whether they’re ready to start moving to the States and make movies here? I don’t see many filmmakers coming over here.
Mungiu: But why would they move here? What we do is so different and you know, it’s a very different way of understanding cinema and of working. We work with small budgets, but we have all the freedom to make all the decisions ourselves. We’re not only writers and actors, but also producers. I release my own films and all the decisions which are involved with the filmmaking are taken by me. This is a very different system. I would come here and direct somebody else’s story with a producer that has final cut. That wouldn’t be the same thing that I would do if I made all the decisions myself.
Beyond the Hills opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, March 8.