During this year's Transylvania International Film Festival in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, ScreenAnarchy had the chance to meet the producer of Adrian Sitaru´s films, Monica Lazurean-Gorgan. Although he has made "just" three feature films so far (also several TV productions and shorts), his style is unmistakable. The progressive Romanian director came into notoriety through his signature storytelling style, built upon the most common daily situations, yet handled with remarkable suspense, while leaving out all the action.
Hooked presents a fresh spin on the love triangle and accidental murder, Best Intentions squeezes a spine-chilling escalation of events from one unexpected and awkward hospitalization and Domestic follows in their footsteps. Absurd and surreal humor became one of the director´s trademarks. Sitaru is concerned with ordinary life, however still piling up one tense situation after another. Sitaru´s style falls somewhere between Pinter and Ionesco, celebrating the "uncanny" of quotidian life. The protagonists being common folk, the director´s modus operandi resembles the work of daily routines or rituals, only to show off some of the absurd facets of life.
Domestic takes place in an anonymous flat-building somewhere in Romania, where the peace among residents is disrupted by a dog, a really innocent anticipation of tragedy soon to be cast upon a family. The plot revolves around animals, better to say animals represent the main catalyst, whilst at the same time functioning as sort of decoy as humans are the main subject to observe. The fact is highlighted by one character in outlandish fashion, spinning the myth that extraterrestrials vacation to Earth to observe humans during major historical events.
The whole film is divided into two parts, Domestic Life and Domestic Death, and as the chapters imply, the filmmaker did not abandon his taste for mixing comedy with tragedy. Domestic embraces every tiny purposeless bit of ordinary life, which in Sitaru´s hands (and his DoP) becomes a minimalistic yet thrilling roller-coaster ride, mostly pushed ahead by brilliantly penned dialogue. In an action-free film, the chilling experience unfolds over routine rituals tinged in Sitaru´s home brewed surrealism. He even employed a running gag, when a character goes on about his wife Lydia from a dream. He doesn´t not have a wife, nor does he know who Lydia is. His recollection becomes very irritating and comical when he recounts the same dream for the fifth time. Domestic is the first film where one has a strange feeling Sitaru tried to weave a metaphysical dimension into the narrative - a new and surprising element in his filmography.
The official synopsis:
A bittersweet comedy about people, animals and their complicated relationship. DOMESTIC is Adrian Sitaru's third feature film, following „Pescuit sportiv/Hooked" (2008) and „Din dragoste cu cele mai bune intentii/ Best Intentions" (2011), both awarded in numerous prestigious festivals. It is a story about us, people who eat the animals they love and the animals that love people unconditionally. A rabbit, a hen, a cat, a dog and a pigeon pass through the lives of the main characters, influencing their evolution. Wonderfully surreal, painfully real, this is the story of children, adults and animals who live together trying to have a better life. The film follows the story of three main characters - Mr. Lazăr (Adrian Titieni), Mr. Mihăeş (Gheorghe Ifrim) and Toni (Sergiu Costache) - and their animals, all having to live together in the same community of a block of flats. Engaged in a series of funny, absurd and yet realistic events, each of the three characters completes the story of the others, influencing it in a certain manner.
ScreenAnarchy: Has the Romanian film industry changed after the international success of the New Wave?
Monica Lazurean-Gorgan: Finally, this big attention and awards from good festivals worked. Unfortunately, it has worked only on the first level, because until a month ago we had a director of Romanian Film Center, he was on this position from 2006 and he was somehow obliged to support also newcomers that where coming back from film festivals with awards. But before that, before the international recognition got that big, he wasn´t really supportive...a lot of tension, a lot of things that were not very clean, not very open, transparent, but lately, in the last year, we have the same Romanian Film Center who makes one call per year and from that call, half of the money were going to dinosaur directors that were not simply able to prove anything anymore and the second half went to good established directors. Hopefully, this has changed, so things are slowly moving, but there is still enough space for improvement and a lot work to do. You know, the politicians don´t care too much, they do not see that we are bringing awards home and our work is admired. They still don´t care, even after the award in Berlinale. If there is nothing for them in it, they do not care about it. Recently, a new director of Romanian Film Center was appointed, event thought he is there only few months, we hope for the best. Unfortunately, the general rule in Romania is that changes are happening painfully slow and after huge efforts from our side.
That´s why you prefer to make films as co-productions? Like with Best Intentions?
Best Intentions was Romanian-Hungarian co-production in association with French company. Hooked was solely Romanian-French co-production. As you can imagine, we cannot finance the whole feature film in Romania. That is impossible. Besides Romanian Film Center giving less and less money every year, we have national television, which is a total mess, so we don´t really get money from national television. And from HBO, that is a very little money. So we have to go abroad for co-production. Domestic was made with Germany that covered our budget. I can say that for Domestic, I am very happy and financing went well. But for other projects, it´s very hard to get financing.
What about the production process?
Well, it was a smooth one for Domestic. It´s really strange to not to complain. It went really well. In 2010, we received the support from Romanian Film Center. It was much higher than what we have received this year. The German co-producer loved the project, he also knew already Adrian so he went for it right away. Eight months later, we applied for Berlin Medien Brandenburg support which was granted. Then the Eurimages support and few months later, the shooting had started. The script was developed along the way, the film was shot in 24 days and 96% of the film was done in a studio, so nothing on location except exterior shots.
You chose an unusual distribution strategy. The film was launched on VOD shortly after the premiere. Why did you go this way?
Well, we had to ask ourselves why should we give our film to sales agent when he would just take the film to some festivals, take the fees and maybe some TV or cinema distribution. It was also easier choice because it´s a small film, let´s admit it. In case of a big film, when sales agent can offer you MG and big marketing, why not. But it is a small film and we have possibility to cover the marketing stuff from our office, so it´s not a big effort to cover festivals and so on. So we said let´s give it for 5 $ on VOD in very good quality with English and French subtitles. And we are happy with this decision because 90% of the money is coming directly to us. If we would gone with sales agent or distribution company, we wouldn´t see a penny. So this way, we can control the film, we can see who is watching, we can get some money back, so I am very happy and I can nothing but advise to make own PR, own marketing for small films. Also targeting is crucial, you have to be aware of your target group. For example, we talked a lot to animal lovers even if the film is more about humans than animals.
So the film was well received on VOD?
Yes. But we still do not have a tradition in watching films online here in Romania. And the big chain of cinemas in malls take the film for two or three weeks, not in the best hours and still they give you contract with various limitations stating for example that you simply cannot screen the film online in Romania for one year. Unfortunately, I couldn´t change that in the contract. You can watch the film anywhere in Europe or U.S., but not here.
Why did you choose to hold your world premiere in the U.S.?
It was in Slamdance, but the world premiere happened in the festival in Mar del Plata in Argentina. Mar del Plata is class A festival. And then, we went for Slamdance, because we love Slamdance and the idea of our film being in a festival made only by directors for directors.
We have launched the film in Romania by the end of March in few towns plus Bucharest. It was okay, so far, we are happy with admissions knowing that Romanians are not going very often to cinema or to Romanian films.
So what is it? Comedy or drama? Is it ok that I laughed during the screening?
This is what we like about Domestic and it might be a bit confusing for somebody. What we really like about Adrian and his work is the combination of comedy and drama elements in such a natural way that we realize that this is our everyday life. When we marketed the film we have labeled it bittersweet comedy. There is enough space for comedy, but not for like comedy-comedy, some absurd elements as well and we love this combination.
About the absurd elements, I couldn´t stop thinking about Ionesco (coming from Romania). Do you think this might be a kind of influence?
Adrian cannot call himself a fan of Ionesco, but this is inherent attribute of Adrian´s character. If you have seen his other films...for example Best Intentions...
...the girl in a mask?
...yeah, exactly, the girl in mask, it is really absurd, nevertheless it is based on real event. Adrian experienced it in real life when he was visiting somebody in hospital. I said no way this couldn´t happen in real life, but it´s true. And when you put it in a film, it feels like it is too much, but for Best Intentions it has worked out just fine. Because this is from everyday life and other absurd things are happening on daily basis.
There are three animals, each attributed to one protagonist. Are there some parallels?
That´s a good question. Adrian said he was not looking for any parallels or symbols, but if you try hard you can find similarities.
Why don´t we see Adrian´s signature camerawork (POV and dozy swinging camera from character to character)?
Well, you could see that POV was used just three times, in the beginning and in dream scenes. Well, this time, Adrian and his DOP decided not go for POV shots and personally, I must admit that I was happy for this choice...
...but it´s his trademark...
Exactly, but you cannot do films just on POV....so he said, okay but I will do a bit of tease. It´s nice and POV is matching with the dream scene. For the rest of scenes, the more traditional approach was used but in a really good way. Somebody from audience approached me and told that he felt like being in his living room observing his family and friends and this is a huge compliment for us. This was also the intention of the camerawork.
Is this recurring dream scene kind of a running gag?
Well, as Adrian said you cannot fully interpret any dream, because it is irrational. But the dream keeps repeating and following you maybe because of your heavy conscience. So is the case of our dream scene, it´s dream of Tony (one of protagonists) who feels responsible and guilt for the unfortunate occurrence.
Who the hell is Lydia?
Adrian is constantly answering this question: "I have no idea who is Lydia."
Any forthcoming projects?
We are currently developing some features and documentaries, some shorts. Adrian does not have anything that could be done next year. However, he is working on some script, right now. Actually, Adrian is developing the script with his DOP, and they are working on a nice and strong story together.
Thank you for the interview and good luck with your upcoming projects.
Domestic is available on VOD.