My Generation: An Interview with Cristian Mungiu

I’ve written on 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and in my blog below, I featured it in my Top Ten List, and on Wednesday, February 6, I had the good fortune to interview the film’s writer/director/producer, Cristian Mungiu (pronounced Muhn-jhoo, with a soft “j”), by phone. He was in Budapest, I was in Seattle, and the whole thing came together at the last minute, arranged by the folks at IFC Films (which is distributing the film stateside) and Landmark Theaters (which is showing the film in Seattle). I was supposed to get 10 or 15 minutes. Mungiu gave me almost half an hour of his time. Highlights of that interview ran in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in Friday’s edition. Here is the complete interview.

Why the subject of abortion in the communist era, or at least the story of two young women facing the ordeal of an illegal abortion in that era?

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Cristian Mungiu

Honestly, I never start from a subject and I haven’t started from a subject here. I only knew something when I started, that I wanted to tell a story from my twenties, so basically I was looking for a story that would be relevant for my twenties and for that period and for the generation to which I belong. I kind of belong to a special generation in Romania. I was born in 1968 and this makes me part of the baby boom that was generated in Romania because of this law from 1966 that banned abortion in Romania. It was a Ceausescu decree. And this generated a baby boom from 1967 to 1972. And all of a sudden there was a huge generation of children. And way later on, talking to these people when I was in my thirties, when I was cruising the world with my first film (“Occident,” 2002), I discovered that there’s a certain solidarity among these people and they would like to see a story about themselves onscreen at some point. So I knew that I wanted to tell a story that would be relevant to them. I was trying to remember stories from that period because I always start from a true story, I don’t make up things, and then I ran into this girl again that had told me this story some fifteen years ago. And I had this revelation, in a sense, that for a generation that came into this world because abortion was banned, that would be a very relevant story. But it’s important to say that for me, the film speaks to much more than just abortion. It’s not only about abortion, it’s about decision-making and having to take the responsibilities of your decisions and about friendship and a lot for me about compromises and freedom during communist times.

I see responsibility as a major part of the film. Otilia takes the responsibility of making everything happen upon herself because her pregnant friend, Gabita, completely falls apart when it comes to facing the arrangements of getting an abortion.

Yes, it’s true.

Was that something from you story or did that evolve as you wrote the story and it took on a life of its own?

Honestly, it came from the real story, but at the same time, I wanted to portray two different attitudes belonging to the period regarding the way in which people would cope with things. And if you ask me, it’s difficult to say, at the end of the film, which of these two girls is better adapted and fit for the society in which they live, because apparently as much as Otilia makes the decisions all the time and negotiates everything, she pays a bigger price than Gabita and Gabita, with this very fragile attitude, gets what she needs and her problems are solved at the end of the day. So it’s kind of twisted for me, but it’s honest to say that this is why Otilia was from the beginning, for me, the main character of this film. Because she’s decisional and she’s the one who understands something from this day. It’s not Gabita, it’s not the girl who undergoes the abortion, it’s this other girl whose life is going to be different the next day.

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Something that I only really registered on the second viewing is the way cigarettes are carried to every transaction and left behind after a bargain is struck or business is concluded. It feels like a precise, culturally specific detail. Is this some kind of transaction fee? Where does this come from?

Yes, it’s culturally specific, but for that period. Unfortunately, I think it’s a little bit culturally specific for all periods for Romania, but it was especially specific for that period. It looks subtle because it was supposed to be made in this subtle way. It was absolutely common and this is why the pack of Kents is important from the beginning. It’s not about the brand of cigarettes. It was established that if you go to a doctor, if you go to a hotel, if you need something, you are going to offer a bill of 100 leu or a pack of Kents, which was approximately the same value. If you want the social science from the beginning, it’s to show that you can afford the service that you are asking for, and what you see in the film is exactly the pattern that people were using. You would, for example, place the ID that you are carrying with you on top of this pack of Kents so nobody could claim that you were bribing anybody and you would just leave it on the table. So nobody was affected, nobody could fear that they could carry some kind responsibility. Everything was very, very smoothly done. But this is why it was so important from the beginning, starting with the student dormitory, to get this pack of Kents. Because you know that it was very difficult to solve the problems in a different way.

And why Kents? This is very difficult to answer. I suggest, but this is just me suggestion, that maybe it was something the way the cigarettes look. It was the only white cigarette on the market, kind of different from the others, and in a very strange way representing aristocracy, somehow, because it was different. But it’s also important to say that you couldn’t buy these cigarettes in a regular shop. They were sold only in some very small shops which were for foreigners living in Romania and these were only the foreign students that could afford to buy them with foreign currency. The only four or five brands available on the market were Kents, Marlborough, Camels, Dunhill and I don’t know the last was. That was all, that was the whole range of cigarettes. And if I speak about it, there is something more important to say because there is something that is not necessarily very clear in the film. It’s not just that abortion was illegal in Romania. Any kind of birth control was illegal. This is what the law was saying. Women were supposed to have at least four children, so there were no condoms, there were no pills, there was no sexual education of any sort. People were encouraged to have lots of children.

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For a film that is about a socialist state, you show a society that is as capitalist as can be. Every piece of social engagement becomes a commercial transaction. Bebe, the doctor, has a line that seems to define the society: “Everything in this world has its price.”

Yes, absolutely. There was a huge difference between the ideology, the propaganda, and the reality. It always happens. The problem is, whenever you have lots of poverty in a country, there’s going to be a system in which everything is traded and there’s nothing to do about this. All the beautiful things that you talked about, socialism and everything, was laughable. Everybody knows that it was pure theory, nothing like that happened in real life. It was a continuous kind of struggle and a continuous negotiation and if you asked me, this is why this guy, Mr. Bebe, behaves like this. He knows, like everybody living then, that you need to take advantage of everything you can because the system treats you very badly anyway everyday. And because of this, people felt that they are entitled to take advantage whenever they can, no matter if things are moral or not, because even if the action is placed in 1987, nobody had any idea that communism was coming to an end, so people would tend to make much more compromises because they never had any idea that there was going to be a judgment day very soon.

The wide cinemascope format is usually used for films of open vistas and landscapes where the possibilities are limitless. You use it for exactly the opposite effect. You make it into a constricting cage and hold the shots on the characters in long takes. Why choose widescreen?

First of all, it shows you how many prejudices we have about the use of different formats. As you know, initially this was used for westerns because there was this landscape, but not because they were speaking about the freedom by using this format. There’s nothing much between the format and the content, if you ask me. It’s important to you as a filmmaker from time to time to try and question all these formal decisions that you need and you know that people are taking for different purposes. You’re going to have a lot of surprises. And that was what we wanted to do for this film: Not to take to for granted any kind of regular decision you are making as a filmmaker, just trying to question everything from the perspective of the story and see which of these things is needed for the story and motivated by the story. This is why we decided, for example, not to use music and we decided not to use too many cuts, because we considered that editing was not asked by the story because we were speaking about very, very long moments and scenes in the film. And this is why, for example, we decided to use widescreen. We wanted very much to have, in the first place, the story of the characters, these characters that you see in the film, and not the story of the background and the atmosphere, but we wanted to have the atmosphere, we wanted to build the period, and we thought it would be a very good idea to use the background for this. So we decided to push all the details, and especially the production designer’s details through objects and things happening behind the actors, on the sides of the screen and behind them, and all the time not only use the widescreen but use a very long depth of field and have several layers of action. All the time in front of the camera, the story of these characters, and the story of the period behind, and for this we thought the widescreen would be very useful.

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What were the challenges of that choice, for you and for the actors?

First of all, there is a different framing and you find this out as soon as you place your lenses on the camera. You realize that the composition of the frame is going to be different. It’s a very big difference in the way you place the characters in the material if you use widescreen or you use the regular TV format because all of a sudden, especially if you shoot locations as we were, all the places are very, very small. You understand this from the beginning and you need to look for a creative decision in which you will build everything not vertically, but somehow horizontally. This is the way of building your frame and you are going to forced, as we were, all the time if you want to see everything happening in the same shot, as we did, to use very wide angles. And as you know, wide angles are not very friendly because you are going to have some problems with the curves at the ends of the shot [distortions at the edges of the frame]. And the other thing that we needed to do because of this is to build some scaffolding on the exteriors of the building for some scenes, to enhance the space and to shoot from outside because there was literally no space inside.

I don’t think it was anything special for the actors, they were just playing in front of the camera, but this decision also determined something in the style. We wanted very much to be coherent with the style and therefore we integrated something coming from widescreen, which is to say we allowed characters to stand up and deliver their lines not having their heads in the shot. This was part of what we were planning to say with this: it’s a bigger world than what you see. And then we encouraged people to deliver their lines from off-camera, just as a way of being coherent and complementing this.

There’s one scene in particular that stick out stylistically, with the two girls talking to Bebe in the hotel room, which is the only scene where you actually cut in the middle of a scene. You cut from the two-shot of Otilia and Bebe to a close-up of Gabita, where she realizes the gravity of the situation and what’s really at stake for Otilia and she tries, late as it is, to take the responsibility upon herself.

Honestly, you are the first person to identify something which is a mistake in the film. That was not supposed to be like that, I can’t claim that I have an explanation for this. It only happened because I changed the dialogue that Bebe had to say and I needed to have it off-camera, that’s all. I don’t have an explanation for this. It doesn’t make sense, it shouldn’t happen like this.

I feel that, because it’s the only time you cut in the middle of a scene, and it abruptly jumps into a big close-up, it brings the scene to her in a very powerful way.

This is why I hope that this is why I decided that I will change the dialogue and go for this, but this is not what triggered the decision. What I wanted to do was to make sure that I never make a formal decision belonging to me as an author and not divide from what the characters do in the shot. If you watch the film from this perspective, you will see that there is no pan in the film unless there is a line by some other character or there is a movement in the shot triggering the camera into a specific direction. We were very much following what was happening in the scene, except in this scene.

It’s also one of the only shots I can recall where Otilia is not in the frame.

There are several shots where she’s not physically in the frame, but what we hoped is that she’s in the minds of the spectators all the time even if she’s not in the frame. There are a few shots where we decided to go for this. There is a scene, after she remains in the room with Mr. Bebe, where I shoot Gabita in the hallway of the hotel. I thought that for every second you are going to think about what happens to Otilia and to see how guilty this other girl feels and it was much more important for me all the time in the film to show not what happens but what people feel about what happens. This is why, for example, I decided to stay with Otilia during the abortion itself. It wasn’t important to me to show a lot of bloody shots with how an abortion goes and shock people, it was important to see that this other girl cares for her and feels guilty despite the fact that she did whatever she could have done. That was important and that’s why I decided to do it. It’s not important in a film to respect your own rules that you set for the whole film if you get a better result by not respecting them once.

4months_112.jpgWhere did the character of Bebe, the doctor, come from? His motivations are the least obvious and most unsettling in the film. I don’t understand him and that’s what makes him so disturbing to me.

(laughs) What I really hoped is that he doesn’t appear as a sexual maniac or anything like that. I rather hoped that you can see him as one of the characters of that period, one of the results of that period, in that he’s one of the guys that most likely was very badly treated by the system and therefore considers that he can treat others very badly. I wanted to portray the kind of aggression that people were having against each other. And not just Bebe. Also the women that are receptionists in these hotels, they behave very badly for someone offering services. But this is the way people behaved. Because they were offered a little bit of authority over somebody else, they were abusing this kind of authority. Everybody was. My explanation is that the system was abusing you all the time with its authority, somehow, and this is why people were replicating this in their everyday behavior, very often without thinking about it. And that was my motivation, thinking back about why that guy behaved like this. Because when you are offered a story which is true, you know all the details, you know that it happened, but you don’t know why it happened. This is for you to figure out. But knowing that it happened quite often, this is the kind of explanation that I could get for people like this. It was important not to make this guy very black and very negative as a character. He was, like everybody, a blending of a lot of things and probably if you met him as a neighbor, you couldn’t say who he was.

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From the perspective of the United States, what we have been calling Romanian New Wave exploded just a couple years ago. Just last year I saw a film that you produced, “Offset,” I’ve seen “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” and I saw “12:08: East of Bucharest.” Having seen so few Romanian films for so many years, these films seem to come out of nowhere. Is this the case or has this been developing over time and we’ve just caught up with it as it hits a kind of escape velocity?

Well, I think it started only a few years before these films you mentioned. But it’s true to say that when people refer to this New Wave, they refer to these three films: “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu,” “12:08: East of Bucharest” and “4 Months.” But if you ask me, it started sometime after the year 2000. In the year 2000 we were not able as a country to produce any films. It was bottom level, zero films produced. But next year we had a film in Cannes, and the next year we had another one, and from that moment on we started having year to year a film in Cannes and then we started having, in the last four or five years, an award in Cannes every year, and a lot of awards. And little by little there was attention drawn to Romanian film, mostly because we don’t speak about one director, we speak about three to five people which are interesting and maybe more which are coming from behind. From our perspective it’s very difficult to identify common traits in this wave. We’re seen as a wave because we got international recognition at the same time and because we’re all people in our late thirties/early forties, but besides this, I don’t know, we see cinema in very different personal kinds of ways. We haven’t been to the same film school, we don’t necessarily like the same kinds of films, so… There’s also a lot of diversity in what is called the Romanian New Wave and it’s difficult, for example, to say that there’s a school. I don’t think there’s a school. Probably there are a few things that are common, like a sympathy for simplicity, if you want, and for having an action happening only in 24 hours, but all these kinds of examples can be easily contradicted with examples from some other films that were successful and don’t follow these rules.

Has your film been commercially successful in Romania?

It’s difficult to say what’s successful in Romania because we have only some 35 to 40 theaters for a country of 20 million, all around the country, so there isn’t too much of a success in terms of audience here because we have the poorest rate of cinema-going in Europe, therefore it’s difficult to express success locally. But my film was successful in a way, in the sense than I got more viewers than all the American blockbusters on the market. Locally, this is a big success. We had some 70,000 viewers while “Ratatouille,” which was a big success on the market, had some 50,000. So from this perspective it was successful, but we had five times more spectators in France, for example.

It was a big success in Romania from a different perspective. It was in all the newspapers after Cannes for a long period, and it was considered the cultural event of the year and I was given a lot of awards and medals from the president and the highest cultural merit in Romania. Honestly, it was one of the few very good things that happened for this country in terms of its external image, something that placed Romania on the front page of the newspapers for something good for a change in these last years, so from this perspective, this film and all the films that belong to what’s called the Romanian New Wave were very well received at home, but especially for the international success that they had.

Visit Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days blog for more links, background information, and images – here.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I’m a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I’ve written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View.

I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

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