Hard Currencies

By Robert Chilcott

4-months-3-weks-and-2-days-cristian-mingiu.jpg4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, 2007

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days offers an overwhelming vision of contemporary life that speaks to far beyond its Romanian locale

In Romanian film-maker Cristian Mingiu’s Cannes Palme d’Or winning 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, a young student helps her roommate organise an abortion in the final days of the Soviet bloc. Unfolding in long takes and with painful, almost meticulous detail, Mingiu’s muted mise-en-scene offers a fraught tale of survival in the murky and bureaucratic world of ID-card obsessed officials, where solace is only available via the currency of Kent cigarettes.

Robert Chilcott: The film is the first in a series – ‘Tales From the Golden Age’. Can you talk more about what will follow on from this.

Cristian Mingiu: It’s a very strange series. It started with just short films. What I wanted to do was make this subjective, personal history about the late Communist times, starting from the legends of the period and the funny, small effects on the people of a large dictatorship. The side effects it could provoke were very strange. So I wrote that one, I wrote 5 stories of 30 minutes, which I planned to release as one feature, an episodic type of film. But then I got feedback from some young actors who had read the piece, actors of 20, 22, that it must have been very funny to live through those days, which was very far away from what I wanted to say, and this is just my way of remembering the period.

So I thought it would be better for me to make this series bigger and more complicated, and I decided to balance the view with something more sober and bleak, and this is how I got the tone, before I wrote the story. So finally it’s going to be a very strange series. It started with this film, and probably it’s going to continue with one or two other films, placing shorter episodes together. And I think now I’m going to make a ‘tale of love’, a kind of sub-episode, and a tale of power. I’ve decided not to direct these projects myself, but to open them to other directors. So finally I will be just the screenwriter and producer. And this is what I’m doing now.

RC: The acting is very naturalistic, and the camera helps this. Is the camera dictated by the actor’s movements?

CM: They are connected in two senses. It’s difficult to shoot scenes in one take, but it’s even more difficult when the action is quite complicated. And this is what we had to do on the spot all the time. I couldn’t plan or make any storyboards. We needed to find, geometrically, the place in the room, from where we could cover most of the action, and one of the consequences of shooting long takes was that we realised that some of the things were just going to be left out; we couldn’t catch everything. And this is good, as it helps you to decide what’s helpful for the shot and what’s not. And I hope that finally it will render this feeling that we planned from the beginning, that it’s a bigger story than what you see on screen, the world of these people is bigger.

I decided to start this film in the middle of a very important conversation, or rather the end of it, and to stop it in the middle of a gesture, just to point out that this is just an excerpt from the life of this character, and eventually there’s something more going on. And you never get to hear that conversation in the film. This girl is saying okay and the other one is saying thank you, and they are probably talking about one of them helping the other during that day, but it’s as if I don’t necessarily know. What I was trying to do with the camerawork was follow the inner state of mind of the main character so, if she’s still and calm, the camera would be still and just assist the scene and register what happens, while in the second part of the film while she’s anxious, there’s a lot of tension and she’s running, the camera tries to follow this inner feeling, hoping that it makes you see the film from her perspective, if possible.

Probably the biggest help they got from this style is that I never wanted to stop this glue of feeling to what they were saying. If you stop and cut every two seconds, they are going to lose this kind of attachment for the scene, and I wanted and I hoped that working with this style, the spectators are not going to see me as an author and they are going to witness the emotion that actors develop with the characters directly in front of them. But it’s not easy for them.

RC: You have said you had problems with the sound recordists?

CM: Logistically we had huge problems. It’s not only that we shoot one take per scene but we only use direct sound. Every shot has to be useable from the perspective of the acting, the camera movement, the light and the sound, and we only shoot in locations. And you can imagine shooting locations limits you a lot, and very often we had to take off the windows to make a bigger space for the camera to take it outside. And we were shooting in this very old communist style hotel, with very tiny rooms, so it was difficult. And we had problems. I made some tests at the beginning and I wanted to use wider lenses, but there’s a limit.

RC: The colours are very muted, drained. How deliberate is this? Did you mostly use natural light?

CM: More or less. What I wanted was to render this feeling that everything is simple and natural, but the way we got there was not always very simple. For the colours we interfered in the laboratory, with this kind of bleach bypass. We favour the blacks, and I think we dropped about 35% of all the colours, and finally we decided to scan the negative. We used most of the existing light on the location, but we had to place some lights. I always want it to look like it is existing light. And what my cinematographer learnt to do, as we have been working together for some 15 years - if you notice, there are no shades in the film, it’s just a very diffused kind of lighting - so he developed a way of having no shade by using various devices. But it doesn’t look very natural when we are shooting. By the way, if you watch very carefully there are some microphones in there! I was encouraging people to talk as naturally as possible, and sometimes this means in a very low voice, and this is a big problem for the sound people, so they had to place microphones all over the place in the shot.

4-months-3-weks-and-2-days-cristian-mingiu-2.jpg4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, 2007 

RC: A lot of industry professionals don’t like this kind of naturalistic look and say it’s very ugly.

CM: I don’t know what to say about this. The context of this film is that it won the Palme d’Or, so I get very few comments about the film back home in Romania. Which is not necessarily a nice thing for me. Everyone comments about the award, everyone is impressed with the award, so that I never got any kind of professional analysis regarding the style in the small Romanian press concerning my cinema. While, for the spectators, they don’t see the style. They are not aware that there is a style. Which is good for me, because it’s a style that favours them to be connected to the story without noticing the style. I don’t want people to think how difficult it was for me to shoot like this – it’s irrelevant. What’s good is that everyone recognises himself or herself in that dinner table scene, like they used to see it in their own homes. For me, and for some professionals, the way I shot is important, but it’s irrelevant for spectators, and I hope that, despite the awards, the best thing I’ve done is to use the means of an arthouse filmmaker to make a film for the audience. But it’s difficult for me to think about the local industry – it’s a very small community of filmmakers, most of which have very traditional taste. I don’t know. I guess we all have the impression that the biggest problems in cinema are back home, but it’s not like this. I suppose the problems are everywhere.

RC: There are lots of problems in the UK with development – projects are over-developed, there are too many screenwriting courses, mentors, Robert McKee books etc…

CM: I decided last year (2006) to make this film in October and have it for Cannes in May 2007. I don’t understand development. What is development for a project? It’s a delaying process. You lose interest. It’s not a good process for you if you are an author. If you get opinions about what you are doing from, it doesn’t matter whom, it’s going to affect your work and not necessarily for the better. You have to be very careful as an author who you ask for an opinion. I think I gave my script last year to four or five people and one person said, “don’t make this film, its going to ruin your career!” And you need a couple of days to get over something like this.

Because, now, everything seems very precise and obvious, but at the beginning it’s not like this, and you have a lot of doubts – the actors, the period, the priorities in your life etc, and my experience of working in the Lost & Found project, an East European film generated by Germany, was very difficult for me, working with a foreign producer, having to undergo a kind of training process; it’s so weird. It’s not helpful. It’s as if you examine a body and you try and make a living person by drawing the way it was built. It’s dead. It’s not going the other way around. I read a lot of those screenwriting books, but cinema is about how you manage not to respect what the others did before you. It’s good to know how a structure looks and I think we all learn this in the film school somehow. But there comes the day when you have to think, “can you, after 100 years, do something connected with your story that will be personal enough and not follow the rules.” Every time you follow rules very precisely, this is going to be seen in the film. Sometimes the script becomes less good than it was at the beginning. It hasn’t progressed.

RC: In the film, Otilia becomes much more of an authority, which you say came out of the rehearsals and rewrites. During that process, how much of the actor’s own personality finds itself into the character?

CM: I decided before I met the actress. I understood from rewriting that I have one main character, not two. The script, as I thought at the beginning, was about a couple of girls. But then, even before I finished the first draft, I knew it was going to be about one main character, but involving some other characters. Then I found the actress. I double-checked all the dialogues, reading them with all the actors, especially with Anamaria, because she was involved in all the scenes, just to make sure that I took out everything which is my comment, or my conclusion, just to make sure that it will just be conversation about that situation, and nothing from me. So this is what she was helpful with, for me, and this is a process that continued all through the shooting. We had a precise script but still, every morning before shooting, I stayed apart from the crew and, while they were setting up, I was rewriting the dialogue once again, and checking with the actors once again. Everything which was expendable we took out. It was a big effort for the actors, especially Mr Bebe, to memorise precisely as we decided.

RC: Mr Bebe becomes very aggressive towards the girls but, after the abortion is carried out, he displays a moment of tenderness.

CM: I don’t see it like this. Some other people told me this. I think he’s very cynical. In the film there are a lot of people who lie. For me, this kind of tenderness he tries to show – what kind of a tenderness would there be after what happened? It’s just very selfish. He prepares his next visit – offering to come again as if nothing’s happened. It’s not very clear for me in the film if he has any kind of medical background. It’s not obvious.

RC: Kent cigarettes are very important in the film. Are they a way of dealing with the stress of petty bureaucracy?

CM: They were a currency during that period. A social sign that you can afford what you are asking for. During that period we weren’t allowed by law to have foreign currency, so the only kind of concrete proof that there is a Western world that exists and is present in our life were these very small shops with goods coming from the Western world that only foreign students were allowed to buy because they had foreign currency. And particularly Kent, it had this social role of positioning you somewhere in connection to the people you were talking to. And what’s funny is that there are still people using it today, and it means nothing now. But then it was a form of salute. There were different ways of offering it. If you were in the army, and you got permission for leave, normally, when you got back you had to give a pack of Kent to your superior. And for doctors it was common practice.

RC: At the end of the film she looks to the camera – is this a cry for help?

CM: This is what makes her the main character. She understands something, and probably the next day she’s going to think about what happened, while the other girl is more aloof. But this was a very common attitude. Apart from the psychological aspect, there is something physical that happens. This desire to keep on living is something that I got in all the stories that I was discovering for this research. In the script it wasn’t obvious that she was going to look like this, and initially I had a much more beautiful and complicated ending. So I decided, when I shot it, that it was too nice, it might look too staged, too beautiful and too round. And I shot six different versions of the ending, with very small differences. In some takes she wasn’t looking, in others the camera was pulling away to see the window and the snow but then, because I was editing the film during the shooting, I thought it was a good ending that takes you out of the story, and eventually it will point out that there is no conclusion – it’s up to you to understand the story, to conclude it with your own beliefs.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is released in the UK in January 2008 by Artificial Eye.

Robert Chilcott is a writer and film-maker. He edits Vertigo online.