Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days has been making waves since it debuted at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the coveted Palm D’Or. In a year where every other movie either was about pregnancy or starred pregnant women, the dark subject matter revolving around an illegal abortion in Communist Romania stands out, especially in the stark way Mungiu films 24 hours in the life of two young women, one of them who needs to take care of an unwanted pregnancy, and the other, her friend and roommate (played by the talented Anamaria Marinca) who experiences a hellish night as she tries to help her friend through the experience.
Having been part of many film festivals since its Cannes debut, many of those who’ve seen it felt that it belonged on the short list for the Oscars and were surprised that it didn’t make it. Long before it was even being considered, ComingSoon.net sat down with Mungiu when he was in New York to present the film as part of the 45th New York Film Festival
ComingSoon.net: I’ve been to Bucharest but I’m not sure Americans who see this film but haven’t been there will understand how different it was during the period before the fall of Communism, but I’d like to start by asking about the origins of how you got the movie financed though.
Cristian Mungui: It works like this. There’s a national organization called the National Center for Cinematography, which is a state organization and they organize a screenplay competition once or twice a year. They’re collecting funds for cinema but these are mostly coming from a tax on private money. Basically, they tax all the advertising money, which is to say that everybody buying some space on TV have to pay a 4% overtax for cinema. They’re collecting it and part of it, they’re placing in this competition and some other part of it you can get directly if you get the competition.
CS: With that in mind, was it harder to get the money due to the subject matter or was that something important to the people who judge these competitions?
Mungiu: I always got money from them. I was very lucky in these kinds of competitions and I know how to appeal to people and to write my screenplays so they would see the film a little bit and not only read the words, but my problem was different. My problems was that I decided in October last year (2006) to make this film for Cannes, not having any kind of money, so for me, it was a matter of time. I checked with my fellows from Europe that would want to invest in a project of mine and I immediately realized that I wouldn’t have time to get answers from them, because they needed six months to get an answer. I would have to relate only to the local money and this is what I did. I took advantage that we had some money in our company and we started producing this film, not having any kind of money and financing insured. Then, we applied for the CFC competition, because we were lucky that they had it in December last year, so we got the news that we had the money after we started already, then I managedbecause I work a lot of advertising back hometo find some people from the advertising business that would direct this tax directly to us, so it made the small budget for this film just enough to have it done for Cannes.
CS: It seems like a very fast way to make a movie.
Mungiu: It’s very fast and I think that if you want to make a $10 million film, of course, you can’t go like this, but if you want to make something very quickly, as long as your ideas are still fresh and don’t to lose the winter. This was my problem also. I wanted to shoot winter, so in case it wasn’t that winter, it would have been this winter, and it was too long for me to wait. Some five years have passed since my first film and I was pressured by everyone to just deliver something, so I think I was very lucky, but at the same time, I was involved in a lot in the rewriting of the cinema law in the last year, so I knew very well how to use it.
CS: You talk about shooting in winter, but it seemed very much that you were using natural light for everything. Is that the case?
Mungiu: No, it’s an impression in this film that everything is very natural, but it was a huge effort to make things look natural to be honest. Regarding the actors, regarding the locations, regarding the light, we used light. It’s not a Dogme film, but I asked my cinematographer to make it look as if it comes from there, and he knows because we’ve been working for some 15 years together already, starting from film school. He knows that I will never have for example shadows in my film, never, so he has to invent special kinds of lighting devices so it’s never coming from somewhere, it’s very diffuse, but it was quite difficult. And even this location. Everybody keeps asking, “You just shoot locations. Can you still find locations in Romania looking like ten years before?” Shooting locations meant that I got a room in a hotel and the hotel pretty much looks like this, but then I made a lot of interventions on that room. I treated that room as if it was a stage in a way. I just built another wall in there and I moved the window and I repainted the room and I used the furniture and little other things like this, but in terms of light, my cinematographer was doing this great thing of trying to respect the historical truth. He’s not from Romania, he’s from Moldova, so he didn’t have personal experiences as I have. He came to Romania some 15 years ago for film school. They were Romanians but they lived in this small country, which was part of the Soviet Union. I told him that the historical truth was that there was no light on the streets by nighttime, so this was how we had to play it, and we did this because he’s a friend of mine. I could not have said this to a regular cinematographer. They’d kick me.
CS: We don’t get too many Romanian films here. “Mr. Lazerescu” is one that I’ve seen a few times and I love and “12:08 East of Bucharest” is one I saw recently, and you’re using the same cinematographer as “Lazerescu.”
Mungiu: They use the same cinematographer as me.
CS: That’s true. You worked with him first.
Mungiu: For some ten years before they discovered him.
CS: There seems to be a very specific look to these films, mostly stationary camera, not a lot of edits. Is there a reasoning behind that sort of simple filmmaking?
Mungiu: I don’t know. It’s present in these three films that you’ve seen, but for example, there are some other films which got very good international recognition lately, which are not necessarily like this. I think it’s very difficult to extract one or a couple of features, which belong to all the recent films. There’s nothing like this and the nicest thing that happens with the new wave of Romanian filmmakers is that their films are quite different. These people don’t see cinema in the same way, and it’s this diversity that’s I think is the greatest thing about this wave. If there is something that is common, like for example, we are all authors, and there’s no economical pressure of what kind of cinema we’re making because we’re also our own producers, all of us, so within your small budget that you can raise, you’re free to do whatever and I think that people think more about cinema as an art, and they make a film for the history of cinema, than to make an immediate profit from releasing the films.
CS: It must be hard to make a profit in Romania anyway with only 35 movie theatres in the entire country.
Mungiu: It’s hard. People make the translations that if you made “Titanic” with the budget of a Romanian film, you would still need to have one million spectators to see it, and we have one million for all the films in one year, so it’s basically impossible.
CS: How hard was it shooting this movie in Bucharest in terms of finding locations?
Mungiu: It’s a little bit harder than it used to be, because of all the foreign films that were shot there, and because of this, the Mayor’s Office at some point had this idea that he could make a lot of money from filmmaking, so they invented some big taxes and although they try to make a difference between the Romanian films and the foreign films, still these taxes are quite big. There was a debate about this, and we’re trying all the time to look for locations if possible apart from Bucharest, but this is not possible, you know? It’s so expensive to move a crew out of Bucharest that you have to handle this somehow, but it became quite expensive, and it shows you how this idea of having this flourishing industry is not necessarily helping the local filmmaking.
CS: When you were writing the script, did you get to speak to a few women who had been through this? What was the research process like?
Mungiu: Well, there were two things. First of all, I started from a real story, which is the story you see in the film. It’s precisely the story that you see in the film. I decided very, very soon that I’m just going to stick with my story, and I got this story directly from the people that coincide with all the details, so I really didn’t have to invent much, apart from biographies and motivations and the structure of the script, but the main storyline was there. Then I researched a lot, just to make sure I’m not talking nonsense and this is a special case, so eventually I found a few local stories about this, some of them even worse than what you see in the film, and I got a lot of small things from people that I incorporated into the film. What I did was that I got some people (who were) doing abortions during that period or having abortions, just for the actors to talk to, to have a little bit of a feeling about how it was and how people really related to this, and they were quite shocked to see that. It was not a problem for them in anyway. People that lived then never saw any moral or ethical thing about them.
CS: It ends up being a very disturbing movie to watch, not just because of the abortion process, but also because what these women have to go through to have this done at that time. Was it intentional to build up that tension in the hotel room scenes?
Mungiu: I really wanted to create this tension in the audience, because what I wanted to do was to render the feelings of this girl, and this is part of the story, the way I got it. It’s for me mostly a story about what could have happened, not what happened. She lived this second part of this day, especially where she has to leave Gabita behind. She lived under this pressure and tension that anything could have happened. That guy could have gone back there or the police might have come or she can jump out the window and the police might get her on the street when she’s carrying the baby. It was intentional for me to just render the kind of inner tension that she was experiencing. This is what I wanted.
CS: The party scene where she doesn’t say a word, but just from the look on her face, we can tell that she’s thinking about that stuff while everyone around her is drinking and having fun. This movie just shows this moment in these women’s lives. We don’t know much about them beforehand, and then you left things open at the end so we don’t know where things might go. Why did you decide to do that and did you always know that you wanted to leave their story at that point?
Mungiu: It was very clear for me from the beginning that I wanted to leave them like you see in the film, because I wanted to make a point so that I’m not telling a complete story of this girl’s life, and eventually, the story is much bigger than this day that I’m showing. If you watch the film, you can notice that I start this film in the middle of a very important conversation that you don’t get from the film, probably they talked about what is going to happen in this day and the film starts with, “Okay, thank you.” I assume they talked about this girl agreeing to help her friend, but this is not in the film, and the film stops in the middle of a gesture, and it was part of my saying that there’s much more going to happen with this girl, is just that what I relate stops here, but the story is bigger. This is part of what we wanted to do with allowing people to speak from off camera or just standing or having their heads above the shot. We always try to point out that their world is bigger than what you see. This is just a slice you have access to this part of it, but you have to put elements together about the whole story itself.
CS: Was it always meant to be from Otilia’s viewpoint of what happens?
Mungiu: Pretty much, pretty much. This is why we shot like this for example, and the camera tries to follow her inner state of mind. If she’s still sitting and calm, the camera is calm, and whenever she’s tense and running and anxious, it’s a very different camera trying to follow her feelings.
CS: When you write a movie like this do you think about who your audience is? Do you want the younger Romanians to learn something more about the country’s past or do you write with a bigger audience in mind where you hope the whole world will see it and think about the difficulties faced by women during this time? Do you think about things like that when you write?
Mungiu: If you start making calculations like this, you won’t go anywhere, so the only thing that I’m trying to do is, “Is this story going to bring emotions to anybody?” Well if it brings emotions to me, it’s going to bring emotions to somebody else, and this is why I choose very often more personal stories, and I’m only thinking about the story from these two perspectives, if it’s believable and likely that these things have happened, and if it’s strong and emotional and dynamic and it won’t bore people. I’m trying to use the means of an arthouse film but still to try to make films for the audience, that people will want to follow sitting over there and asking themselves what’s going on for two hours. It’s not like that we’re making calculations like this, but I really hope that there is something educational in the film. It’s only that the conclusion is not in the film, I hope that the film stays with them and it doesn’t take pause, but I hope that it helps you to answer some questions or at least it asks some questions that you need to answer about this, but then it’s up to you in connection with your background and your beliefs to find the right answer. I’m just telling that you need to be aware of how things are and then you choose your feelings.
CS: It’s very universal even though it’s a story very specifically about Communist Romania, because of the debate over abortion that still goes on here today.
Mungiu: The greatest achievement of this film is people can see it and can relate to it in very different places despite its historical context. This is something that we can count on. This is why it’s so successful in theatres, which has nothing to do with Cannes any longer. People are curious to come see it, but they can discover themselves in the film because the film is quite universal and speaks about a lot of very human feelings and responsibilities and decisions.
CS: How have American audiences reacted so far to the movie with its screenings at festivals?
Mungiu: It’s easy to see how press reacts, because they will write about it, but it’s very difficult to answer this question about the “American audience.” It’s very difficult to generalize. This film is going to be seen by thousands of people and I get a couple of questions at the Q ‘n’ A and I don’t know. It’s difficult to say.
CS: But you must get very different questions when you screen the movie here in New York than in Cannes or Toronto.
Mungiu: Not necessarily. It’s not that different. People assume, especially people from your home country, “Are they going to understand this? No, probably not.” It’s not like this. People understand it. It’s not that difficult to understand. I was very happy with the reactions I had in New York, to be honest. I screened this film twice in the States and I was very happy that something very important for me turned out from these conversations, that people understand it’s not a piece about abortion. It’s a film about people and I’m telling a story. It’s not a propaganda instrument. I hope that it’s going to raise a moral issue for them, but I’m not giving them my conclusion or THE conclusion. There isn’t a conclusion able to solve all situations. It’s just up to you.
After months of touring the festival circuit, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, January 25. Hopefully, we’ll have our interview with the film’s star Anamaria Marinca sometime next week.