Writer-director Cristian Mungiu won critical acclaim with his intense and harrowing drama 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS. Now he follows it up with the equally intense and harrowing drama BEYOND THE HILLS about two young girls (Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur) caught between religion and love in an isolated Orthodox convent in Romania. The film was nominated at last year’s Cannes Film Festival for a Palme d’Or and took home trophies for Best Actress (a tie between the leads!) and Best Screenplay.
We (and a few other journalists) spoke to the talented filmmaker back in November during our roundtable interview where we discussed everything from the real life circumstance the film was based on to what subjects fascinate him.
Q: Where did the idea for this story come from?
“It’s a real incident that happened in 2005 in Romania. It was very, very popular in the tabloid press. And it continued all these seven years because these people after being in the middle of that situation were arrested, trialed, freed, then arrested again and convinced. They all did time. The last one to be released was the priest when we started shooting last year. The source of the inspiration comes from two non-fictional novels that were written by this journalist [Tatiana Niculescu Bran]. She really documented in 2007 and she came up with a lot of details about all the circumstances. As you see the film, you’ll see everyone is acting out of good intentions but still there’s a tragedy at the end. I changed some things to protect those that are still living. I thought it was better to be a little bit fictional.”
VeryAware: What I found so intriguing about the film is that it plays out kind of like a horror movie – where the audience wants to yell, “don’t go in there! Leave!” Was that your intent? Would you like audiences to have that kind of reaction?
“It’s part of the story and it’s part of my way of working. If you abstain from having yourself in the film, from making comments, and if you let people just witness the story, something like this might happen. I was aware this would happen but it’s part of my understanding that every film, even if you talk about a difficult subject is for the audience. So it’s important the audience participates into the film that they feel for the characters – that they care for them. I wanted to have a certain rhythm in the film – it’s a long film, I know.”
Q: How long did it take to shoot?
“It was a continuous shooting which started in December 2011 and ended in February 2012. We shot about 50 something days. The seasons that you see in the film came from whatever was outside as weather. I thought I was going to have more snow. Happily for us, the snow came at the right moment in the film – God responds when this girl starts her awakening. It was a good sign for us.”
Q: Where is the priest now?
“He was expelled from the Orthodox Church. When he got out, he was followed by a group of people who still care for him considering that he represents when real Orthodoxy is – but it’s apart from the Orthodox church.”
Q: You have a knack for depicting everyday situations in a – at times – horrific manner. Is this something you are drawn to?
“It’s true that I’m drawn to things that don’t work in society – to subjects which are very layered that speak about the effects of something not working in society and individual choices. I wanted to speak about personal freedom in 4 MONTHS about a society that was so harsh on people. And here I wanted to speak about the relationship that people have to church in our society. All the films that I do are very much shaped by the story. It’s true that my inspiration is life and reality and I try to stay as close to reality as possible.”
Q: Why did you choose to shoot in master shots?
“It’s the way I understand cinema. My films are not only about the story – it’s my point of view about cinema. Part of it comes from this idea comes from life should be primarily the inspiration for cinema. In life, time flows in a continuum – you can’t cut off the moments you don’t like. You have to live them all. This is why if I chose to make films inspired by reality, I have to preserve this into filmmaking. I allow the situation to grow in front of the audience without watching me behind. This is why I avoid editing and music. It’s so much more difficult but honest for your audience to create emotions and atmosphere only with actors.”
Q: Do you shoot in sequence?
“I try to shoot in continuity. It’s not always possible for financial and organizing reasons but it helped us a lot. You have to allow the actors to accumulate their own characters – to understand how they get there. And it was helpful for all of us as this was a difficult screenplay to handle. It was a very long screenplay – I wrote 240 pages to start with. I cut off 30 pages before shooting. It was a story that needed to develop this way.”
Q: What was the biggest challenge?
“I had a lot of time to think about the responsibility of this subject. I was working with a lot of very religious people – this was the most difficult thing to handle on set not the snow and the cold. People are very sensitive on this subject. Very often, they had different opinions about that scene and the characters. I had to talk often about the difference between reality and fiction. That it’s not you, it’s your character. God will not send the thunder to the set. It sounds funny not but it’s not so funny on set.”
Q: Had you worked with the actors before?
“I had worked with some of them before. They are all professional theater actors. The priest – this is tenth time we’d worked together. I called him sixth months before shooting and I asked him to let his beard grow. He gave up acting five years ago and moved to Ireland and became a gardener. We worked a lot when I cast [the actors]. I play all the parts for the actors in the casting process and if I see they have a logic of the text that means we can work together.”
VeryAware: Since this was based on a true story, did you have the actors meet with the people they are portraying?
“It’s inspired by the non-fictional novels but nevertheless it doesn’t mean it’s a true story. Reality doesn’t repeat itself. Who knows what the true story was. I don’t think that films made about true stories are closer to reality than purely fictional films. I knew a friend who knew this priest very well. I thought about meeting him but finally I decided that it’s not good – not for him and not for me. I never wanted to make a documentary and respect…this is not a re-enactment of what happened. It’s a way to have a benefit of speaking about this tragedy and things that don’t work in society. So I thought it was just polite to let him live his life and experience guilt for what happened. I decided to respect his point of view in the film.”
Q: How has the film been received and perceived in Romania? Has there been any backlash from the church?
“Actually, yes. The comments around the premiere of the film in Romania was very harsh against the film and very dogmatic. Happily enough, later on, they started understanding the film is very balanced and is giving them the opportunity to speak about values that matter – both for us and for society in general. The film is neither for or against religion. It could be about religion – about the role religion plays in society. The response from the general audience was better than I expected. We had the same reaction from people saying that were religious or atheists. They leave the theater with less stereotypes and prejudices than they had when they came to watch the film.”
Q: In this movie and 4 MONTHS, they are told with a female point of view. What fascinates you by telling the story from a woman’s point of view?
“I don’t make that kind of gender difference when I work. I never start from the character – I start from the situation. I’m looking for situations that are strong, complex, intense. That speak about general human values which you can relate to. I think that women might be more often victims of the social violence because they are more fragile but it’s rather something coming from the situation, from the stories themselves rather than my personal decision to make films about women. The films are about people not about women or men.”
BEYOND THE HILLS opens on March 8 in New York and Los Angeles (at The Royal Theater in West LA). The film opens on March 15 in Pasadena, Encino and Orange County.