MM: In that sense, do the characters come directly from people you know or who attended this family reunion? Is that how you create them, by interpreting your recollections of these people?
CP: It’s a mixture of how I recorded the experience I went through and the people I met. I think it would be a mistake to say these characters have something to do with people that I know, but it would also be a mistake to say the contrary. The real trigger in terms of philosophical content—I know it sounds too pompous but I don’t know what else to call it—is the fact that I’ve realized, after living on this planet for 49 years, that I was living in my own fiction and it applies to everyone of us. It’s not that we are faking it or creating parallel realities, but it’s the fact that the way we record any experience we’ve been through conditions us to adjust and to alter the truth. The definition of history from a French philosopher says that history is like an accident that had been seen by a bunch of people and every one of them is going to tell you a different story about how this accident occurred and who is guilty. This is the relationship we have with history in general, but with our personal history as well. We tend to believe that we know what happened, but some details we can’t recall with good precision, and the interpretation become something completely different. The brain is interpreting what it records all the time. It’s not copying or cloning the experience. That’s why I needed to put all these debates in the film, not because they are not real. They are real. A lot of people are talking about the Armenian revolution, or about 9/11, or about terrorism, and today a lot of people in Romania are talking about the elections in the US, much more than about the elections that will soon take place in Romania. We are all having conversations about politics, sports, or what have you, like everywhere else on this planet, but what everyone is putting on the table are the results of their interpretations. What they are interpreting is not the event itself, but their recording of the event. You see how far we are from what we might call the truth of an event?
MM: Sieranevada is comprised of a large ensemble cast. Describe your process of rehearsing and developing the characters with them, behind and in front of the camera.
CP: I’ve been lucky. It was hard for everyone to spend 42 days on set and to be confronted with tensions that come from different directions. Several actors were into it from the beginning, so all other actors that were not into it were eventually contaminated by those who were. There were a lot of rehearsals, but I’ve realized, not during this film but in previous experiences, that rehearsals are important because you can exchange points of views and perspective on different matters regarding the film or just life. When you say, “action,” and they hear this command, most of them become blocked, so you need to shoot many takes in order to let them liberate themselves from stress. Even if we do 10 or 20 rehearsals, when I say, “action,” it seems like it’s just the first rehearsal or that the rehearsal didn’t exist. They are still blocked. This is because when they hear, “action,” they say to themselves, “Now it is important. Now this is serious. Now this is going to be recorded.” In Romania we don’t make many films and most of the actors come from theater. Working on several films per year, like actors in the US or France, makes you feel somehow less afraid of the camera. If you don’t have this experience it’s difficult. The camera is a machine gun. The camera is very serious for every one of us, not just for the actors, but we tend to think that for the actors it’s easier because this is their profession. They choose to be in front of the camera. But if you take the camera and you go on the street and try to do an interview with somebody, people are going to be scared. They are going to be a bit stiff. They will try to defend themselves somehow from the camera by trying to say intelligent things in order not to alter their self-esteem or image. Of course, this depends on the country and depends on the person’s age. Young people seem to be more relaxed in front of the camera perhaps because of the Internet or Facebook. The “selfie” generation is theoretically more relaxed, but I don’t think it’s completely true. So we had to shoot lots of takes. We did an average of 30 takes. For the longer scenes it was an average of 20 takes per scene. The most difficult scenes were the short ones. For long ones, since they were so difficult in terms of choreography, the actors were really focused. I’ve been lucky, because many times you have to work with actors that don’t learn their lines, but I didn’t have those problems here. 42 days were not enough for me. I would have liked to shoot the film for two months to have enough time not to put this pressure on them, but who knows? Maybe this was the best way.
MM: Talk about working with your Director of Photography, Barbu Balsasolu, in terms of conveying your vision and the ideas driving the film’s narrative.
CP: He was like an actor as well. I was directing the actors and the DP. I do believe that the camera belongs to the director. The lighting belongs to the DP, but the camera belongs to the author who is telling the story. My experience has shown me that it’s very important but very difficult to make the DP understand what you need and your expectations. Not because you don’t find the right word, we never find the right words to describe our expectations anyway. But because it is a matter of emotion. You would have to get to the level of understanding of a couple and to have the same rhythm in the beatings of your hearts, but with a DP it’s difficult. He is concerned with a lot of things on the set and I’m concerned with a lot of things on the set. At the same time he has to get rid of what he learned in school. I try to get rid of what I learned in school in order to try to get to what we would call “fresh eyes.” It’s very hard to achieve a level of freshness as if watching the world around for the first time. We want to feel like we were just dropped there and we are just here to record what is happening. The idea wasn’t for the camera to be a complete stranger, but that it had to be the departed one, the father, who is the eye looking back to what he left behind. The camera is the eye of a soul that is going to step into an abyss: heaven or hell. This is the position of the camera in traditional cinema. In traditional cinema actors can look in all directions but not into the lens. The camera, like in traditional cinema, is taking the position of an invisible man or the position of a soul, and this was the right story to tell in order to try to build up the character, which is the dead man. He is looking at what is happening inside this family as the camera, but not being able to intervene because he is dead. It was very difficult because the DP and I had to clarify a lot of things not just in terms of cinema but in terms of philosophy, and not only in terms of philosophy but in terms of emotion. He was really brave. I’m not an easy person to work with, but I’m lucky he tried to follow and I think the mixture between the two of us was a good one. Mixing my intentions with his interpretation, we get to the point of having someone completely new, the dead man. For me everything has to do with death. All these things we create that don’t have a practical or pragmatic use, sense or meaning, represent our link to realm of death. It’s impossible to conceive creative energy without death.
MM: Have you thought of making a film outside of Romania, or is making films about Romania your priority despite the difficulties of making films there?
CP: I’ve been working on three different stories and the three of them can me made in France, England, or the US, but my English is not so good. When you are directing language it’s important, but, of course, I do believe that the process of communication between you and the actors is not entirely dependent on words or spoken language, most communication is not verbal but you need to control the language a bit. French is my second language, so I did think about making a film in a different language just to have that experience because I have ideas about human communication and I’d like to prove them to myself. There is a level of understanding that all of us can reach without relying on words. I’d like to make films in Romania, but I’d like to make films, period, which is not easy because there is not enough money. After 2008, it has become more difficult for co-productions in Europe. I finished the screenplay for Sieranevada in 2012 and it took two years to put the money together. I would like not to have to think about the money, like any other film director. I’d like to live in a utopia where if you want to make your film you can make it, because people are just waiting for you to give you the money. I can dream.