Despite winning Best Director at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, Cristian Mungiu‘s approach in Graduation will feel safe to many already familiar with the Romanian New Wave, for which he broke major ground when winning the Palme d’Or with 2007’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. But look past the fact that, yes, this is another moral- and social-crisis drama consisting primarily of extended two-shot conversations and a knottier, more rewarding movie is waiting for you.
Mungiu will be the first to say as much, though not in an especially declarative manner — I was simply lucky enough to have a long, winding conversation about Graduation‘s finer aesthetic and thematic points, as well as the many times in which they meet head-on. Have you ever wondered if a movie could perfectly harness the look, sound, and feeling of a school year’s final days? And what is the benefit of editing a visually rigid film as it’s being shot? If Graduation‘s final effect is determined by its accumulation of small parts, how fitting that the film’s construction is the result of seemingly minor decisions and careful process.
The Film Stage: In an interview with The Guardian, you expressed concern about imparting proper values to the next generation — which is a key element of this film. Because of this story and your concerns, do you make a conscious effort to impart values through the work itself?
Cristian Mungiu: I think cinema should just stay cinema — which is to say it shouldn’t have any practical purpose whatsoever. So the only important thing is to make sure it’s truthful and it works as a work of art, somehow. Of course, I hope something: that there is a polemic aspect, sometimes, in my films, and that that will work. But not precisely through the film — but by the kind of conversation in society, and debate, that the film might trigger. Sometimes, very funny things might happen. I hoped that 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days would have this very polemical impact on the society, but because it won the Palme d’Or, that was completely lost. People were just so happy that we won something — like an Olympic medal, or whatever — and that part of the film was kind of lost. For this one, there’s something funny happening as well, in a way: people don’t associate too much what happens in the film with their own life and experience, even if they should. I’m releasing my own films back home, because we have very few theaters back at home, we have to plan with all the equipment and plan screenings and stuff. We happened to be doing this right before the local elections in Romania.
So, at some point, we were organizing screenings of Graduation in May or June in places where I had to meet, all the time, the candidates for the mayor’s office; I even went to shoot the film in this small town of Victoria, where we shot. People were very nice with us, and we were very well-received and so on — but, at some point, when the film was playing, I was next to this guy who was the mayor, and the film was about him. He was the guy in the film, but he never took it like this. He never saw any problem with this. I mean, the film stays fictional for him and his life is his life, and even if he could enjoy, that he could use the film as part of promotion he was doing to be reelected. I mean, nothing troubled him whatsoever, which is a problem for me.
But, at the same time, people in the audience know this. So I like when this is happening, and it’s happening quite often with this film: people feel that they watch onscreen somebody else’s story, but the film speaks about them. What’s good for me is that I was having this feeling not only in Romania, but in several other places. I think there’s a level in the film which travels to people on different levels. On one side, even the story about corruption and compromise is not only a local story. It applies to a lot of countries where society is not precisely settled and people feel that this would have happened there as well, and they feel the same level of frustration towards something that doesn’t go well in their society. And then there’s a very personal level in the film which travels: about aging, about family, about proof, and about this huge difference between how life looks at 50 and how you imagined it when you were 20. And this speaks to people on a different level, and my feeling is that they feel more emotional when they watch the film not from the screen, but from what these scenes trigger from their own memories. I think I’m very far away from what you asked. Actually, what was your question?
Do you try to impart values through the work?
Yes, I see. No, I don’t have a solution in the film or with the film, but I think that what I should do as a filmmaker is: I speak about something that I consider to be important — for me, for people of my generation, for society in general. I think that people should relate to that, and that most of the films are just an attempt of encouraging people to watch themselves in the mirror at some point and to acknowledge something about themselves. But no more than this. There are no solutions associated. Sometimes people ask me, “Okay, we already got it in real life. So what’s the solution to this?” I don’t know. Sometimes there is no easy solution for something like this, and it’s neither your job to have a solution, nor to have a very clear judgmental position about what you present in the film. That’s a very strange conversation that we have back home. People feel, at some point, my position is — I don’t know, as a person, as a director, towards the facts which are being presented in the film — not clear. But I’m not sure it should be clear. I think that’s my position: that I am choosing a situation which is very complex to speak about how complex things are, really, in life. It’s not easy when you live in a society like this, to understand when this solidarity of helping the others is acceptable and when you step on the other side and it’s not acceptable any longer. It’s not that easy. You have to judge situation-by-situation, and therefore I don’t think I should be judging within the film.
The movies have their immediate reaction. Because people keep watching the films, could your concerns be negated over time? Ten years from now, somebody will watch Occident and the movie will, by that point, be 25 years old, but still seem new to them. Do you see what I mean?
I see what you mean, but I don’t see what is the question.
Maybe there isn’t a question.
It’s a comment. Ah. But, first of all, there’s something important associated with what you say, which is that… I think that cinema should be associated with a specific moment in time, and I think this is the most difficult thing to do: to do something which would, I don’t know, be still okay to watch when it grows old. And this is also connected with your first question. I don’t think films should be connected so much with a small thing — which is the issue today — but this is how I think, and how I think most of the Romanian directors think. I think that we are a film community thinking a lot about [lowers voice] the history of cinema. Whatever that means. But you understand. We do not tackle very specific subjects connected with something in reality nowadays, and I think we are a lot preoccupied by how these films will bee watched 20 years from now.
Is there something important in this kind of filmmaking 50 years from now? Who knows. But at least we think about it, and we understand that, more importantly, the topic of the film, the content, is to have a point of view about cinema, and in order to have a point of view about cinema, and to think about these things — to think about what are your means as a filmmaker, what is your position? Are there things which are more truthful, more honest for an artist? Can you be closer to life in reality? Can we extract the essence of your films directly from life and not through other films?
Cinema is already an application of life, so maybe you shouldn’t be taking cinema as inspiration for films. But in order to fake life, you have to understand how life goes. So are there narrative principles in life? I don’t know. It’s not so easy, because sometimes the problem with films is that you have to organize reality, so cinema, in the end, is as honest as you want to be. You want to organize portions of reality, but you can be more organized or less organized. You can allow some care, some ambiguity, and some complexity from life just to get infiltrated in your films, and that’s what I’m trying to do here. It’s not just the formal decision not to use, I don’t know, editing and music; it’s part of this judgement of saying, “Well, you know, it’s not just fair to cut off the moments which are irrelevant to a scene and to just introduce the audience to a selection of small moments which are ‘relevant.’”
And I decided this; I won’t be deciding this for you. I will just make the effort of staging all the situations in this one continuous moment because I trust you are as intelligent as me, and you should be witnessing the situations and decide for yourself what’s more important. So what I do as a filmmaker: I try to stage them in such a way in which I won’t introduce my comments into the scene, and I won’t be present as much as I can. Of course, you are present as a filmmaker already because you made the choice of the subject and so on, but at least I shouldn’t be present in having a close-up now or having some music now to tell me what to feel. I will, you know, make this step behind and let you just witness the situations.
There is still a very deliberate structuring of the scenes: a two-shot of people talking. Watching it, I found myself wondering how you realistically, believably construct a sequence where it is two people talking. When people speak, it’s in this close-quarters manner as people face each other and the world is passing behind them.
First of all, I made this conscious effort all along, while staging the situations, to create different patterns for these scenes. If you watch not only this film, but the ones before, I try to encourage as much variations and patterns in these people talking as I can — in the sense that, actually, the most common mode in life, when people talk, is that they will just face each other. If you watch these films, I try to find a lot of different models in which this wouldn’t be the model that I followed: just two people facing each other like this. They will be doing other things; they will be having a lot of different actions. I won’t be following both of them all the time. Sometimes the most radical decision you can do is to just follow one of them and just forget about the other one either completely or for a while, so it all comes from this decision of using just one shot per scene. This is what shapes all the other decisions about style. What I feel is that, sometimes, as much as I advance staging situations like this, I notice that, for the spectators, it becomes natural, in a way — they don’t notice the style any longer. So this tells me that I manage, sometimes, to find a way of staging situations in which you won’t notice how they are shot, and what I do all the time: I try to have it as natural as I can.
There are also a set of rules connected to the poetics of the camera. We won’t move the camera unless there’s a movement triggered by an action in the shot, so this also shapes the way you face the situations. Sometimes you need to move from here to there, but unless you are capable of inventing something coming from the situation, I can’t do this — so I need to use some time before shooting to understand what happens with all the characters. How shall I move them from one place to the other? There’s a lot of thinking before doing each scene, and I place myself in the situation of every other character because I need to make sure that things develop in a natural way. What I ask them to do is not only to speak and deliver what they need to say, but to continue doing things at the same time.
That’s not easy for an actor. It involves splitting the mind into two and not being so much focused on what you say because this guy gave me a million other things to take care of — but it helps a lot, and they are only free to focus on what they feel and to the truth of the situation, when they forgot all the routine. In order to do this, we rehearse a lot and I shoot a lot of takes. By the end of these takes, if you watch it at the end and the beginning, you see that most of the clumsiness and this awkward situation — that they’re still actors in the beginning saying somebody else’s words — by the end of it, it feels organic, in a way. So that’s why we do it as often as we can, understanding at the same time that, of course, there are limits to staging situations in a way like this, but I think it’s more acceptable to stage them like this than to just cut in this traditional way, showing people talking like… that’s okay, but I see this happening too often already.
I was truly impressed by his visit to the police commander’s office, because I didn’t even notice until the shot’s end that the camera had moved. The fluidity and envelopment of that sequence created this sort of “mental cut.”
That’s very complicated, actually. You just follow what happens, but imagine that technically, because film has this technical part as well. Technically, that’s very difficult to shoot. And there’s another scene in the film which is very complicated: it’s this last scene when he gets to the boy at the hospital and he lets the boy get into his room. That’s a scene in which we start with him in the hallway, and then we see the hallway with all the people moving. The boy exits the left, and we get the camera to the right and see another’s face. Then we get back and follow him again in the corridor. There is another scene, and then we follow him into this other space, which is a third one, and he speaks with the prosecutors. When we get back, we get back backwards — so we see the other part of the corridor — and then we continue like this. This is just one shot. So nobody from the crew can be there apart from the cinematographer and the focus-puller. So sound people, the light, everything needs to be from somewhere else, but there’s something coming from this which I like with a lot of films: whenever a spectator watches 360 degrees of the set, he doesn’t feel it’s not natural, but there is a feeling of reality.
Normally, in the film, you won’t be watching what’s behind the camera because there are people behind. Whenever you can do this in a film, there’s something coming with it — a force that comes with it. Of course, the level of precision is difficult to get, because it’s one shot. It needs to work for everything; for acting as well. Sometimes it’s difficult. We even had, in Beyond the Hills, action scenes in just one shot. That’s very difficult because it’s like performing a stunt in just one shot. There are no tricks. We had a scene where there was this curtain set on fire and it started inside, with the fire, and he was getting out, followed by the camera, getting to put the fire away. It was a very long scene and just happening like this. It’s a difficult way of shooting.
Ostensibly diegetic sound surrounds characters at all points, and what’s impressive is that it’s obvious but not necessarily distracting. After operating in a natural environment, do you practice much post-production manipulation of sound, or is it more limiting?
When you shoot, you want it to be as silent as you can, and everything is edited from it. So apart from the scenes which happen outdoors, where you will just record as much sound as you can, in order to be able to mix this later on, this is the way to do it: if you watch how the project looks when we work at the end… in order to work like this, my editor will be on the set. We start editing on the set, and he also starts working on the sound as well. So we end up, before mixing, having tens of tracks with sound. And we record a lot of sound on the set. Everything is recorded separately; unless you do this, you can’t really mix. So the dialogue needs to be as silent as possible. Of course, there are accidents, but in order to have this atmosphere that we have here, we can’t shoot here. We need to shoot somewhere where there’s no sound, and everything you hear is an effort of imagination — of imagining, “What else could we hear?”
As you can see in the film, I based the atmosphere a lot on the sound design. Okay, there is no music, but sound is very present, and sometimes the sound is very, very important for me. Especially in those tension moments, there’s a lot of sound design. After creating all this at home, we go to Paris and do all the sounds again of all the things just by the foley artist. Mixing is very complicated because you want to hear all the actors, and I encourage all the actors, all the time, to [Whispers] speak in this very low voice, because there’s something coming with it. I just notice that people speaking like this express a lot of very complex subtexts of what they say. At the end, it helps a lot. For example, there’s a moment in this film where the grandmother is sick — where you don’t use music to render the tension. It’s all in the camerawork. It’s all in the sound. If you listen to the sound in that scene, there are ten different stressful ways of having sound, but which still has a rational explanation. There’s the television and frogs and dogs and whatever. That will help you create the atmosphere, but it’s more difficult than just having music.
What do you see as a main benefit of editing on set? Is it just stitching scenes together, or many other aspects?
The benefit is that you see how the film is progressing. First of all, you have a first feedback about what you consider to be the right take. Sometimes, it’s good; sometimes, because of this way of working which is very complicated, you feel, at the end of the day, that you don’t have a take which is good from beginning to end. So it’s very difficult to sleep over this feeling, so I need to have it there. My editor, what we do is edit a lot of sound — including dialogue. So he will try to make it a good take for me while I’m still there. If I’m still there, in the sense I’m still shooting on these days, if he can’t manage to have it right by using pieces of dialogue from other takes, I will reshoot. So this is the main purpose, because it’s very easy to make a film which is designed in editing later on. For me, I don’t have this freedom, so there’s something else connected with rhythm as much as you know what you want to do with the film. For us, it’s not possible to alter the rhythm later on. If it’s too slow, you’re just dying there; there’s nothing much you can do.
So when I shoot, I try to think about all those things and to have different rhythms on the set with the actors, and to encourage them to change the speed. Sometimes, if you watch the last five, ten takes of what we did, I think they are fifteen percent, twenty percent shorter than the first takes, and it’s very difficult to say which of them will be good. You have to try, and sometimes some scenes can longer than you need. You do this, but, of course, you haven’t done the film already; you don’t know. So I will ask the actors to do something which is very difficult for them: “Can you please just drop this line, this line, this line, and this line.” Okay. We start all over again, because they have their routines for hours and hours of rehearsing, but you don’t know. It’s a very complicated way. Editing on the set helps me to check if what I shot is right, and to get the rhythm a little bit. Sometimes what I do, I am shooting intermediary scenes in-between the big scenes just for the rhythm — and sometimes, while editing, I understand that I won’t need this, I won’t need to shoot this. I should just make sure that there is something I can… it’s complicated.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie that so captures the atmosphere of a school year’s end — which is a really specific thing.
I don’t even have that anymore — May and June are just May and June — so this took me back.
That’s wonderful. That’s wonderful, that it happened to you as well.
It’s so complete and overwhelming, from the sound of spring in the air to a particular glow in the sunlight.
Actually, it’s very difficult to say where this comes from. What I can tell you from the beginning is that I am so moved by this moment. I have children now. I go for their last day in school; I’m way more emotional than they are, and this is one of the most emotional moments for me in my life. I always feel like crying every time they graduate. I don’t know why. Because I think about moments when you feel that time is passing, and I associate this last day of school with these moments where you feel that it’s the end of the cycle and this is it — there’s never getting back — so there’s a whole nostalgia associated with this. How do I manage to have this in the film?
Well, first of all, I knew, always, that I wanted to have this moment in one of my films — to shoot this last day of school — because it comes with all this huge nostalgia and energy. Then I went to see how this is happening today, because I had no idea; I graduated 30 years ago. I had this meeting with my friends two weeks ago, our 30-year anniversary of graduation, and this was so emotional, I have to say. So I went to the schools, and I noticed something very funny: they had this music which I have at the end of the film. So it’s not for me. It’s from them, but it’s music from a film — which was not realistic at all, but, somehow, this film, which was very popular in the ‘80s, made it iconic for the ending of the school, so they used this music. It’s by default. So it became iconic; they use it. Even if this music is nostalgic for teachers, not for the students.
Then there is the light, as you say. For once, I knew that I had to shoot during summertime because it’s always May / June. It happened that when we shot this last scene in the film, it was the warmest day in our shooting — like, almost 40 degrees Celsius. But at least there was one good thing happening: if you notice the take that we chose for the last shot, it’s the sun getting inside the clouds and getting out twice, which gives a lot of atmosphere. It was a part from all the takes we decided about — this one. It’s almost connected with what happens in the scene, with the fact that you hope that, maybe, she will be different, these people will be different, but actually she just found a solution which is safer. It’s not very clear whether she cried because she wanted to help her out or she just cried, so it’s this ambiguity and the light helped us.
What else? It’s a lot in focusing on how young these people are, and about… I think in that last shot with their faces, you can see all their hopes that they have about a life that they haven’t started yet, which is very moving for me. Then there’s this other thing. As you know, the screenplay doesn’t exist at the beginning of a lot of situations. I wanted to find a way in which, even if school finishes, I wanted to bring this small child to the school and to show this thing that impresses me a lot: this classroom which is prepared for the next generation to start with all these things, and to have the view of a child who starts now; it’s a wonderful beginning for him. So I think that if you place into a film things that talk to you a lot, they might be talking to someone else.
It’s funny how there’s a universal thing — your film is set in Romania but I grew up in New York.
That’s wonderful, when this has happened to you.
Have other people noted this?
Not specifically this thing about the moment when you graduate, but there are a lot of moments in the film that people relate a lot to, and I think they are much more emotional about because these episodes trigger moments from their own lives, and they relate mostly to family, to the relationship with children, but mostly to the relationship people have to one another in marriages which happen to be a bit older. I think that this film speaks a lot to people of my generation, being parents and having families. I noticed very many people watching the film and thinking about their own lives — especially in that conversation that he’s having with his wife where he gets back home and they speak about his affair. That’s a very complicated scene for many people, because I don’t think you can reach this age without passing through a moment like this, and it can be very painful. I’m very happy when the film, despite all the conversation about compromise and corruption and education, gets to this level of truthfulness about human relationships. I think if we speak about what will still be valued in this film ten years from now, twenty years from now, it’s that part; it’s primarily that part, the relationship between him and the family.
Graduation is now in limited release.