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Cannes 2015: Points of No Return: An interview with Radu Muntean and Alexandru Baciu of "One Floor Below"

Radu directed "One Floor Below”, but both of you co-wrote it, together with Razvan Radulescu. As a team, you worked together on "Paper Will Be Blue” (2006)  "Summer Holiday” (aka "Boogie”, 2008), and "Tuesday, After Christmas” (2010). How do you collaborate on sctipt together? Where do you start?

RADU MUNTEAN: We start with a situation that puts the character in an uncomfortable position that can provide a fresh view of the world. It may sound like a cliché, but it’s really a process of discovery for us. I don’t have a recipe for a good starting point; I’m just trying to define what interests me at the given moment in my life and then pursue it. I then call Alex and Razvan.

ALEXANDRU BACIU: Radu always comes with what will become the main frame for the script and the movie, and this is really the beginning of our work every time.

So what’s the division of labour like between you? Do you develop the treatment together?

AB: I wouldn’t say we work like professional screenwriters: in a way, we help Radu find his subject as an auteur and then point to a good way of exploring it. Still, we also need the story to interest Razvan and me, because otherwise we won’t be able to help Radu – we won’t be engaged and we will only provide him with a bunch of clichés. Our work serves to help Radu dissect whatever problem he feels like dissecting.

RM: We discuss the treatment a lot: it’s a long stage and after it’s done, we split the treatment in three and each one of us works on his given third. Then we comment on each other’s work and go from there. A lot of people find this method unusual, but it really works for us. We just started to work on our fifth script together.

One of your great narrative devices is having long scenes of conversations with characters under tremendous pressure, which they try to deny by talking about some mundane matters. You shoot those scenes in long takes that are quite incredible in their timing and really extraordinarly acted. How do you guide your actors through those long takes of very light dialogue and very heavy tension?

RM: I really like to work with intelligent actors who understand what the characters are going through in the scene and why they say the things they say. This is how it becomes organic. In "One Floor Below”, the main character runs into the guy he suspects is a murderer, and they have a long conversation about registering a car – but that’s not what they really talk about. I gave the actors specific instructions on what the characters are thinking at any given moment, so it’s really a step by step process of creating a moment. I think that big battles in life happen exactly like this: they are not frontal in nature, they happen between the lines.

What about the length of the shots?

RM: The shots are long in order to make the viewer’s time equal the time of the characters. This way the viewers experience the emotions of the charcaters even stronger.

When you write a long dialogue scene, how do you time it? How do you know it’s just long enough, without becoming interminable?

AB: Part of the secret lies in the treatment, which is a product of very long and detailed discussion. The precise narrative of the treatment dictates the length of the scenes. If something doesn’t work, we cut it – first on paper, then in rehearsal, because once it’s set in the rehearsal, it stays unchanged. Radu shoots in a way that makes it impossible to trim scenes in the editing room: you don’t have the usual shots, reverse shots, etc. It’s just this one long take, which is completely rehearsed.

RM: I could edit the movie with the shots made with my iPhone during final rehearsals and it would have looked the same as it does now: my shooting scripts are extremely precise and I don’t change them on set. I don’t shoot alternative angles, alternative acting touches, etc. This is, in fact, a great risk I take: if something goes wrong, or even a little off, the whole film may get derailed.

Your main character does something pretty reprehensible in the film: he withholds evidence of a murder from the police. How did the Cannes audience react to it?

RM: People seem to be reacting less personally than they did to the adultery in "Tuesday, After Christmas”. There, you had a love triangle and viewers were automatically taking sides. Here, no such intimate emotions are provoked, which is why some people tell me that it’s a film about bureaucracy, registering cars, or "a film about nothing”. You cannot please everybody.

To me as a Pole, raised in the former Soviet bloc – just like you were in raised in pre-1989 Romania – the film definitely feels like a portrait of post-communist society. Was this something you pursued consciously?

RM: I keep hearing this, but it was really subconscious. We are Romanians – Romanian males living in contemporary Romania – so it’s only natural that the rules and customs of our society seep into what is on screen.

AB: This is a very delicate matter. As a critic, you have to keep in mind the Culture of the country the film depicts, but you also have to be careful. I think you cannot, for example, watch an Ozu movie and be horrified that people are sitting on the floor! (laughs) Of course, our movie carries the fingerprints of Romanian Culture and history, but at the same time we really strive to say something universal.

What I was pointing to in my review at RogerEbert.com was that people in Radu’s films, and in „One Floor Below” in particular, choose not to be citizents. In your films, characters are constantly retreating into privacy: they are trying not to expand their lives beyond private spheres, which rings very true to anyone from Eastern Europe.

RM: Yes, but this really is a movie about a guy who at the end of the day is alone with his own conscience. The film says: you can get away with something bad, many people do. But when you go to sleep, you know that the harm was done, something is forever broken. In my films, there’s no real antagonist besides one’s self.

AB: The harm we do to ourselves is often beyond repair. That sense of something having been broken is the reason we told this story. In that way, you may be right in your sociological reading of "One Floor Below”. Something clearly got broken in Eastern Europe’s social fabric and the symptoms of this fracture are always with us.

Always with us, always one floor below…


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