‘Graduation’: Cristian Mungiu on ‘Preserving Life’s Ambiguity’ with Realist Cinema
Art and Experience: Cristian Mungiu explains how he “respects reality” in his narrative films—but that fiction is more fair than documentary.
Cristian Mungiu’s Palme d’Or-winning drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days is one of the most harrowing films in recent memory. About a woman seeking an illegal abortion in Communist Romania, the film cemented a cinematic truth: when you depict unflinching reality onscreen, audiences can’t look away.
Mungiu’s latest film, Graduation, is less gut-wrenching but just as morally complex. When a Romanian high schooler is sexually assaulted right before her most important final exam, her mediocre test scores jeopardize a scholarship to Cambridge. But no one is as distraught as the girl’s father, Romeo, who would do anything to deliver his daughter to a better life abroad, free of the perils of corruption and poverty that plague modern Romania. Finding that the bureaucracy has no empathy for his daughter’s situation, Romeo makes a Faustian bargain.
“What I like to do in cinema is to preserve the complexity and ambiguity that I see in life. Things don’t come with an interpretation. They just happen.”
No Film School caught up with Mungiu at the 2016 New York Film Festival (which screened both 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days and Beyond the Hills in previous years) to discuss his gripping style of realism, which includes casting non-actors from Facebook photos, minimalist editing, and extensively choreographed camera movement.
NFS: This film has many layers—from guilt to corruption to parenting to disillusionment in life and in love. How did all of the elements come together in the writing process?
Cristian Mungiu: I knew I wanted to do something not so much about corruption, but about the way in which corruption influences you on a very personal level. I knew I wanted to do something about education. I saw a lot of articles about both those things because I read a lot of press. I started asking myself if there is not a connection between these two things in society. [In Romania,] we have a habit of educating children the same way we were educated. This, if it doesn’t encourage, then at least won’t stop corruption.
I thought a lot about parenting because I have children myself. I feel a great responsibility as a parent, especially because I live in a society that is not perfectly balanced. It’s not the same kind of education for children if you prepare them to be survivors in the unbalanced society, or if you think that they will go someplace else [to escape it].
“I challenge people to look at things that they don’t want to recognize or acknowledge about themselves.”
Then I really wanted to make a portrait of my age…. I see that people are very depressed, and I was wondering why. Is it because their expectations were very high? I thought of a portrait of this guy reaching this age, looking back, glancing forwards, and asking, “Okay, as a result of all the decisions that I have made, what am I going to do next?”
I found a way of putting these ideas together through some short stories that I read in the press. I started designing the screenplay; I wrote five different developments of relationships that he’s having with his mother, his wife, his daughter, his mistress, and his friend, and then I started putting them together and blending everything. It’s a complicated screenplay. People understand that, even if it’s somebody else’s story onscreen, the film speaks a lot about them.
“I think the film speaks also about the individual solution versus collective solution in society today.”
NFS: Yes, and so much of this film is about characters neglecting to look at themselves in the mirror.
Mungiu: It is. I think that if I look back to my films, I challenge people to look at things that they don’t want to recognize or acknowledge about themselves. This is also the case here. It’s a lot about this need of, first of all, accepting the truth about yourself before hoping that you might change anything. Before you do this, you know it could be painful, but this is it. You are who you are. It’s just that it’s very difficult to accept.
We say so many lies in our life. We pretend to be somebody else and to have this better image of ourselves, and sometimes people that lie a lot start believing what they say about themselves. It’s very strange.
NFS: It’s very scary.
Mungiu: It’s very scary, but this is what I see. This is happening in reality.
We had this funny incident when I was casting the actors. It was difficult for me to find [the main character]. I found some small actor in a small theater with a very good face, sent him a few pages. The guy got back to me saying, “I don’t want this part. I would never be so manipulative as this guy.”
“Funny,” I thought, “coming from an actor.” People cover shit under a pile of words. We can always find an excuse and a motivation. It’s true for these people in the film—they all claim to act [corrupt] in the name of helping.
Mungiu: When you notice that your society is not fair, you feel disappointed. It’s not fair when you feel that it’s not based on merit. This is why so many people send their children away instead of fighting back. Fighting back is easy to encourage, but is very difficult to do, because it takes a long time, it’s a lot of energy, and people just feel they are too small to change things. I think the film speaks also about the individual solution versus collective solution in society today.
NFS: Like your main character, most people make decisions that will impact their immediate future without considering the more abstract implications.
Mungiu: But this is what people do. Everybody wants the best for their children. You want your children to be happy in this life, not some other time. Especially if you decided to make a sacrifice about your life, you don’t want your children to make the same kind of sacrifice. It may be selfish, but it’s the way things are, and it’s very difficult to judge.
NFS: I’m not a parent myself, but I can imagine how it must be to have a child who really makes you look at yourself in a way that nobody else ever did or could.
Mungiu: Making a child is the only thing that changes your life completely and for good. When it comes to your child, you put everything aside. But the story is about a parent for whom it was really important to try and educate this child outside of compromise. Because he understood the [consequences] of compromise in his life. Unfortunately, you don’t get this perspective when you’re 18. You need the distance. When you understand, it’s too late already; there’s nothing you can do. You understand that you lost your freedom the moment when you compromised for the first time. The only thing you can do is to try to protect your child from this path in life. Is this naïve? Is this possible? I don’t know.
“People cover shit under a pile of words. We can always find an excuse and a motivation.”
In the end, I hope that I’m not being judgmental with any the characters in the film. Because it’s really difficult to say. What I like to do in cinema is to preserve the complexity and ambiguity that I see in life. Things don’t come with an interpretation. They just happen. All decisions that we make are the result of a lot of impulses which can be very murky and unclear. It’s not like in mainstream cinema, when the childhood trauma explains everything. That’s very funny to me.
NFS: In life, the context isn’t always delivered to you. You have to create it—fill in the blanks.
Mungiu: Yes, and people don’t know precisely why they acted like that, or why they decided [something].
NFS: Would you call yourself a realist when it comes to cinema theory?
Mungiu: That’s a very complicated conversation, to be honest, because, what is realistic in film? On a scale of realism, yes, my films are more realistic than mainstream cinema, that’s for sure. But cinema is forced to work with portions of reality. There’s always a process of selection. There’s a reason behind all these decisions that I make in not using anything [extra], like not using music. I decided that if I wanted to make films inspired by small events everyday life, I needed to respect the way reality exists. There is no editing in reality. You have to live every small little miserable moment of your life. I’m sorry, but this is the way it goes.
“Whenever you feel emotion in life, you feel it just from what happens to you. There’s no music. So why should we be using music in films?”
There’s something about delivering these moments continuously. I won’t cut out of a shot at any moment and say, “But actually this is not important, I will just get back to this close-up.” You have to respect the continuity of these moments, and you have to respect this idea that, whenever you feel emotion in life, you feel it just from what happens to you. There’s no music. So why should we be using music in films?
I like feelings, of course. But [I challenge myself] to create this with the actors. Can you encourage actors to go there? Will they feel this, and will you feel it just by watching them?
In a movie theater, they [shut off] the lights, and at some point, there’s a moment when the story exists. That’s cinema. When you’re inside; you’re not in the theater, you are with these characters. To get to that moment, I think that it’s good to make the film as realistic as you can.
I’m not saying this is the only way possible. It’s stupid to say that about cinema. There are a lot of possibilities; this one works for me. What I’m saying is that it’s important to have a position on cinema. If you are a filmmaker—if you are not just a director doing a job—you need to have a stance.
“Actors are human beings. They are shy and they defend themselves and their image.”
I think it’s fairer, in a way, to work with fiction than with documentary. Because documentary is not made the way people imagine. It’s not like you have this surveillance camera up there and things are happening. In a way, you are being more manipulative in a documentary, because you stage situations. You encourage people to do things. At least in fiction, it’s clear cut. These are actors. I wrote the dialogue. This is it. But it looks like life sometimes. There are moments when you feel after you do 30 takes that the scene is finally truthful.
NFS: What do you think happened across those 30 takes that brings the scene closer to the truth in life?
Mungiu: It’s a very technical thing. Actors are human beings as well, so they are shy and they defend themselves and their image. At the beginning, when the scene is not there yet, everybody feels the embarrassment of doing something which is not yet precise. I’m there to help them little by little so that none of us feel this embarrassment. If by the end of the 30 takes, we still feel it, then it’s not good. The scene is not well done. But if you feel free by the end of the take, and you feel that it’s honest, and feel free to just express your feelings, then it’s right. My [dialogue] is not some bombastic statement about life. It’s just what you might say in that situation.
When you have five-minute-long takes, the level of precision necessary is unbelievable. I like when people do something while they speak. This splits the mind into two. It’s way more complicated, but it looks better for the camera. If you [perform an action] and talk to somebody else, you won’t just be focusing on what you say. Part of your mind focuses on what you do. But what you do needs to be very precisely timed according to what you say. So when we enter that scene, there’s a precise timing for everything, and I do it myself before passing it to the actors.
“When I start casting, I talk to the actors a lot about their own lives. I need to know them as people.”
It looks very technical, but after you do 10, 20, 30 takes, it’s all routine. You stop thinking about what you do and about what you say, and you start thinking about the situation. You start thinking about what you feel. You start thinking about what this means. Sometimes actors can just say words. If you work with them a lot at some point, they will deliver the context and the subtext of what they say, and this is where we need to go. Sometimes we have it by the end of the day. We normally can do one important dialogue scene per day and no more.
Then, sometimes you don’t have it. You need to sleep on it, and very often you will have it the next morning. Actors know what you want them to do, but they have to try it. This is why it’s so stressful shooting like this. I start every morning, and when I see the first rehearsals, “I say, “God, oh God, that sucks.”
NFS: Because you feel that embarrassment.
Mungiu: Yes, it’s still not there, and I feel like rechecking the dialogue. “Have I written this?”
What helps me is that I’m always capable of saying the dialogue myself. I act for them and show them it [works]. Then I can ask them to do the same, because they’re actors. I’m not.
NFS: So you read the line to the actors?
Mungiu: Not on set, but I will say the line the moment they enter the casting session. They don’t know that I’m saying a line from the script. Later, I can point to this: “Look, if I can say this, and you didn’t know I wrote it, you should be doing the same thing. Focus, because there is a way.” I will help them reach it.
When I start casting, I talk to the actors a lot about their own lives. I need to know them as people. I don’t think that an actor can be very [different] than his own personality, so I try to cast people that have a charisma that’s not too [different] from the character that I imagine. It’s not that they are the character, but in my mind, they could be. At least in terms of personality.
Mungiu: Then I start by reading their part. There’s a lot in there: the right level of energy, in how you speak, in your body language, in how much you focus on the other actor, in a way of saying what you’re saying. Every line of dialogue that you write has an internal logic. If I detect that they can read this logic at the beginning of the process, then 70% of it is in place already.
I count a lot on the actors. Some of them have a good ear in the sense that they understand the difference between saying something this way and saying it this other way. There are slight differences, and if they understand these small differences, we can work together.
” I’m not just [auditioning] the well-known actors. I go deep into all these small places where there are students or non-professional actors.”
I think they are pleased with the finished film. Most of the actors I work with have very nice careers after that, even though most of them were acting for the first time—they had no relationship with cinema whatsoever before. I like when this happens! I like when people discover them. I make a very great effort during the casting period. I’m not just [auditioning] the well-known actors. I’m not just [auditioning] the actors in the theaters. I go deep into all these small places where there are students or non-professional actors.
I work with this casting agent, a friend of mine who started as an actor. He provides pictures to me from Facebook—not beautiful [headshots] actors deliver to the databases of the casting agencies. Pictures of the person. Who are you when you’re not acting? You see the real energy. When they take a picture of themselves, you see how they like to be portrayed.
NFS: How do you work with the cinematographer to portray your characters the way you want them to be portrayed?
Mungiu: I will pretty much let the cinematographer deal with the light. I won’t interfere too much. We speak during the scouting, but then on the shoot, after we spoke about the atmosphere, I let them [do it]. Of course, this is after we spoke together with the production design about the look of the film, because you [have to] place the right things with the right colors. We need to have it in a certain way.
“We have a lot of rules about the camerawork. It’s respecting reality—I don’t want the audience to notice me behind the camera.”
After this, it’s up to me to discover the position and trajectory of the camera. This is very complicated because the action can be so complicated. I like the camera to capture as much as I can for me. I know that it’s not possible to have everything, so you have to make some decisions. I find the trajectory and I tell the DP [Tudor Vladimir Panduru] about this. We rehearse, and if he has ideas that are better, he will tell me. We will check them out. But very often we decide this before shooting. The way we shoot is so complex that unless I am able to describe to the whole team how we’re going to shoot before, it’s going to be very time-consuming.
We shoot in a lot of small locations with a lot of windows, so there’s always going to be some reflection. For the sound guy, it’s very complicated because I encourage actors to speak in this low voice. I think that they’re more expressive and there are a lot of shades of meaning that come with this way of speaking. They express a lot of inner feelings. But, as you can imagine, for the sound people this is very complicated. There is a lot of preparation.
We have a lot of rules about the camerawork. It’s respecting reality—I don’t want the audience to notice me behind the camera, so I won’t just pan from you to somebody else unless there is an action. I won’t have any kind of funny angle. [The camera] is always just somebody watching what happens. If I want the camera to move, I need to stage a situation, to invent something which belongs to the scene that would bring the [character] there.
NFS: It’s interesting that you say that. Normally, I pay attention to long takes, because they’re impressive. I like to notice editing choices. But last night, when I was watching this film, I didn’t notice your long takes.
Mungiu: That’s very good. People shouldn’t notice the style. I think this is the result of having done this for so long—style is not noticeable any longer. You just need to get the feeling of it: follow the film, follow the characters, follow the flow of emotion. You shouldn’t be noticing anything else.
NFS: In your films, I’m completely inside the story.
Mungiu: That’s wonderful. But you see that there’s a lot of choreography. Every other moment is very precise. If it feels natural, that’s the only thing that matters.
NFS: Have you always worked with the same cinematographer?
Mungiu: Not this time. I worked with the same cinematographer for a very long while, but I pretty much lost my cinematographer because he’s the victim of his own success. He was discovered after the successes of my films. He now works in Russia, making five films a year there. We had problems finishing Beyond The Hills [because he was so busy].
“The most difficult thing to do in cinema is to speak about what’s inside the mind and the soul of this character.”
For this film, he wasn’t ready when I needed, so I went for his assistant because it was easier for me to work with somebody who was already on one of my sets. He had been for Beyond The Hills. He knew how I worked. He had a lot of very good ideas, just challenging me all the time, saying, “Okay, but why shouldn’t we do it like this?” I’d say, “Okay, yeah, why not?”
NFS: I want to ask you about a specific scene in the film where the main character gets off the bus and begins chasing one of his daughter’s assault suspects. He finds himself alone in this downtrodden neighborhood at night, and suddenly Graduation feels like it could be a thriller. There are scenes like that in most of your movies— characters wandering alone and vulnerable at night in a hostile environment. What is the function of these scenes, for you?
Mungiu: They speak about what he feels as a character. That’s very difficult to do in film. The film informs you of a situation, and you put together, little by little, the meaning of every scene to get the general picture. But the most difficult thing to do in cinema is to speak about what’s inside the mind and the soul of this character. How do you speak about how he experiences feeling guilt? Being followed? He knows that he lied, and that part of his life is based on a different reality than people know. I needed to show this layer, so I built this scene, which for me speaks a lot about how he feels.
Of course, the difficult part is that you also need to have a rational explanation for each of these scenes. You watch that scene as something coming from the story, but at the same time, I hope that you witness this experience of how you can turn from being a hunter to being hunted.