Palme d'Or Winner Cristian Mungiu Hits the New York Film Festival

Yes, yes, you won the Palme d'Or. Very good. Photo: Getty Images

Romanian director Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days was not originally one of the higher-profile films at Cannes this summer, but that all changed as soon as it unspoiled on the Croisette. Despite the extremely strong and auteur-friendly lineup at the festival, Mungiu’s film took home the coveted Palme d’Or. And it’s not hard to see why: This captivating drama about two college girls trying to get an illegal abortion during the dark days of communism mixes a very human story with an unflinchingly analytical, almost Kafkaesque portrait of social callousness. Mungiu has now brought his exceptional film to the New York Film Festival. We spoke to him during his jaunt through the city.

What was the impetus for 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days?
It’s a bit of a complicated story. When I was traveling with my first film at festivals, I got to meet and talk to a lot of people around my age. I belong to a very special generation in Romania. I was born in 1968. Abortions were forbidden from 1966 on, and as a result there was a baby boom. I discovered later on that there was a certain solidarity among the members of this generation. I sensed a desire on their part to see a film about themselves. So, eventually, I wrote a script called Tales From the Golden Age, joining together several stories and urban legends from this period — a kind of subjective history of communism. But at some point, I feared that it was too funny. And I felt I needed to make something else that would balance that out — something that was sober and harsh and important, and relevant for my generation. So I got to know the tone of this film before I knew the story. And then I ran into this person, who had told me the story in this film fifteen years earlier. And this story came up again in conversation. And you know how when you’re writing, everything seems relevant? I immediately thought it was significant. And on the second day, the third day, I still felt that way. I took that as a good sign.

Are you wary of making a film that features abortion so prominently at a time when there are debates in many countries such as the U.S. about it?
I hope my film stays a film. And I hope it’s clear that it doesn’t take sides. It tells a story. I understand that it provokes some debate. And I wasn’t particularly aware of this as an international issue when I started: Abortion is not really an issue in Romania. Also, I don’t feel my film is really about abortion. It’s a way of simplifying things, words like abortion or communism. For me it’s really about this story, about the emotions and the realism in the film. Abortion is merely one element in this greater story.

The acting in your film is very naturalistic and has an almost improvised feel, so I was surprised to read that it was tightly scripted. What’s your working process like?
First, I sit down and write, alone. I need to see the film in my head. I describe what I’m seeing on the screen. And if I’m not seeing things, then I need to move on to something else. I do my first draft this way. And then I take out everything that is not absolutely necessary. Once I feel I’m ready, I have actors come in and read some scenes. But I can’t use the scenes they do in the casting sessions in the film. Something is lost; the scenes become mechanical to me. So I always throw those scenes away. What I like the actors to do is to have their own speech habits. I start to listen to the way they can interpret these lines, and I take that into consideration as I rewrite the script. I also do a lot of acting myself when I’m directing: I do try to play the parts of the film for the benefit of the actors, to show them how I imagine these scenes. I try to not be offending when I do that and to be sensitive to their concerns. The final rewriting I always do on the set. I try to stage things in as few takes as possible and to stick to the dialogue as much as we can.

Romanian cinema seems to be undergoing some kind of resurgence recently, with such international hits as The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and 12:08 East of Bucharest. But there’s also a crisis in Romanian filmmaking, where a number of filmmakers are protesting the way the government funds film projects.
We’ve been involved in a fight to improve the system. What we’re trying to do is not to think only about ourselves but to create a support system that would work even for someone who is a nobody today. The fact is that I can make my next film with foreign money. Cristi Puiu [director of The Death of Mr. Lazarescu] can make his next movie with foreign money. But where will an unknown director get the money to make his film? The system doesn’t have people who can recognize value, unless it comes with directors who are already well known or established. This is the problem. The film industry can’t grow if you don’t fix this problem. Changing a system means you need to have the will to restructure things. So we’ve created an organization of young filmmakers and tried to rewrite the cinema law.

Does winning the Palme d’Or help?
It’s still very early to tell. I don’t think it will improve the health of the system. We have 35 theaters left in a country of 20 million. There’s no way of reaching the local audience. But I might be able to do something about it. Something small. I’ve fund-raised all the summer, and I’ve decided to distribute the film myself. I’ve organized a caravan. I brought in all the technology from Germany, and I’m screening the film, circling Romania in the big towns where they don’t have any cinemas left. This points out something: that people would go and see the films if they had theaters. It’s a good social experience, and I can afford to do it because of the acclaim the film has received. Plus, I’m going to make a documentary and a TV show about this. We’ll see what happens. —Bilge Ebiri