Romanian filmmaker Radu Muntean’s latest work, Întregalde, expertly plays with genre trappings to tell a grounded story of humanitarian impulses gone awry. Set in rural Transylvania as we follow a trio of aid workers who find themselves in an unfamiliar locale while night closes in, it’s an enveloping, precise study of cracking open the veneer of generosity––and one of the best ending shots this year.

Ahead of a theatrical release from Grasshopper Film beginning at Film Forum this Friday, I spoke with Muntean about the decade-long process of developing his project, carefully forming his characters, nature as a setting, humanitarian hypocrisy, and working with non-professional actor Luca Sabin.

The Film Stage: I saw that you had been developing this idea for about a decade, so I’m curious if you can talk about that process of first coming up with the idea and then when you knew it was time to make it.

Radu Muntean: Yeah. Well, I found out about this humanitarian expedition organized by the 4×4 clubs around ten years ago. I thought it would be an interesting starting point to tackle this story about the limits of generosity. I was intrigued by it. To a certain degree, it’s about finding some satisfaction and integrated in the personal project of the one who performs the altruism, the act of generosity. And I went with my co-writers, Alexandru Baciu and Razvan Radulescu, on this humanitarian trip just to try to understand the people involved in these activities. And then we tried to write the script, to find the right angle, and we couldn’t do it initially. So we just put the story on standby.

In the meantime we did another two movies, and then, in 2016, we went back because the story kind of stayed with us. And in this second expedition the story took a different path. Because some of us were stuck in a car, in a 4×4 car. So it gave us the idea of this event inside this bigger expedition, to follow one of the cars and insert this local guide, this character who is in need and who needs some help––some personalized help, not just generally speaking, playing Santa Claus for the locals.

One thing I really loved about the movie is the way you gradually form each character. The film is never preachy. It never feels like you are trying to pass a lesson down from the start. You are able to live with the characters and get to know them before certain actions are taken. Can you talk about this approach to the script?

Well, most of the dialogue, it’s in the script. We didn’t improvise much, to be honest. I mean, maybe this one, Întregalde, changed the most after the script because of this character, Kente, the local guide that we found. We were lucky to find a guy who had exactly the same job as the character that he was about to play. So we took some of his stories and we inserted them in the script––in the shooting list, to be more precise. I was talking with him during the rehearsal and during the prep and then, when we were about to shoot the scene, these new lines—these new lines of dialogue—were already inserted in the shooting. So we were just doing the preparation and then the rehearsal like the way we would do it usually. So it was scripted dialogue, but somehow inspired by this guy’s story. But other than that it’s really very little room for improvisation.

I always work the same way. We spend a lot of time writing the script. We split the script in three and each of us is writing one part, one-third of the script. And then we interchange the parts and we add something to the other guy’s part. And then, in the making of the movie itself, the rehearsals are somehow in layers. And each time we change a little bit, some lines maybe, but most of the dialogue is pre-written. And of course something interesting happens during the shooting because the most terrifying professional nightmare I have is that I end up having better rehearsals than the shooting. So you must rehearse a lot, but you must have something at the shooting. You must leave some room for the intensity and to add some freshness at the moment of the shooting. So of course, if something happens in that moment, then it’s for the best, I totally agree. But other than that we tend to follow the script.

I also love how you use thriller, even horror tropes but really subvert them in the sense that, by the final frame, it’s really clear you’re telling a tale about humanity (or lack thereof). Are there any more genre-focused films that you were inspired by?

Well, I watch a lot of movies––a lot of different kind of movies. I have two teenage kids and I tend to curate the films that we are about to see and the series that we are about to see. So I think I’m seeing a lot of films but I don’t think that the inspiration for this film came from genre movies. Of course, we did understand that even in the writing process we are going to play a little bit with the audience’s expectation because the film in itself, it’s tackling this prejudice question, because most of the characters in the film are acting because of their prejudice. The guys from the city towards the villagers or the local guys towards the guys coming from the city in 4×4.

So we thought it’s interesting to play a little bit with the prejudice of the viewer, who expects all the time this kind of story. You know, if it’s a story in a forest, at nighttime, it must be a thriller or a horror or some horrible creature will come or Kente will turn into a werewolf or something like that. So, yeah, we understood that people might think in this way, but it was not the main purpose that we had when writing the script and when I made the film. It was just a little bit playing with this prejudice.

The setting is very memorable, especially where the car breaks down and night closes in. Can you talk about finding that location? And the challenges in crafting the intimate cinematography there?

Yeah, well, you’re right. Nature is like a character in this movie. We knew it was going to be like that. We played with this and we kind of knew from the start the area that we are going to for location-scouting because this is actually the area that we’ve been to with the humanitarian expeditions. It’s up in the Apuseni mountains in Romania and the northwestern part of Romania. There are a lot of villages in this area. It’s huge in terms of area, but just a few houses here and there. And the roads are pretty bad. And they are completely isolated during the wintertime. So they are, in a way, perfect for this kind of humanitarian expedition. And nature is quite interesting there. It changes dramatically quickly from kilometer to kilometer.

As you as you saw in the movie, in the beginning, there are amazing landscapes, panoramas. It’s beautiful and completely harmless. And immediately when you go into the forest it changes suddenly. It becomes a little bit creepy and mysterious. There’s something about the soil. There are a lot of floodings in that area and the soil; it’s unstable. So every time we came, day after day, we found the landscape a little bit changed from the day before. So it’s really interesting the way it was becoming like a character. And we wanted to play with that.

Regarding the challenges that this landscape had in terms of cinematography and filming: yeah, it wasn’t easy because we couldn’t get the equipment necessary for the lighting. Actually, it was a lot of light at the shooting because Tudor [Vladimir] Panduru, the DP, wanted to have a lot of light and to shoot in low sensitivity. So we had at the grading, in post-production, a lot of room to play in terms of contrast. So it was quite difficult to light all the forest. We had days of preparation where a lot of guys were climbing on the trees and found interesting solutions to put the light in the trees. So it was quite difficult and Tudor had to be really precise when he had his lighting plan and it helped the fact that all of us were quite precise because we knew that our margin of error would be quite small.

It was risky shooting. We didn’t know exactly how the weather will be. We didn’t know if the local people––because we knew from the start that for some parts we were going to need locals, that we couldn’t us professional actors––we didn’t know how they were going to work. Even [Luca Sabin], who played Kente, saw for the first time in his life a camera, a shooting crew. Imagine that. It was quite a shock, but we were lucky in the end.

Yeah, it came out beautifully. I’m curious about the idea of this car that’s kind of an immovable object throughout the film. It’s could be a metaphor, in a sense, of society itself. Or these people who are stuck in their ways and can’t see past their own way of life and privilege, hypocrisy. Can you talk about how consciously that was discussed in developing the script?

Yeah, of course we thought about this. Of course it’s part of the script. This small universe that the car represents, it’s a very false idea of safety––all this technology that suddenly doesn’t work. And these new challenges that are in front of these city guys. We thought about these things, but at the same time I think making a film about these people, these humanitarians’ hypocrisy, is quite easy and we didn’t want that. As you said at the beginning of the interview, we didn’t want to judge the characters and I personally hate this in movies. I try to avoid this in all of my films. I think it’s an easy path to choose the bad guys, then just push on this hypocrisy. Of course it’s there in a certain extent, but even the fact that you are helping somebody because you want to live up to your expectations, I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing. It’s part of the way we relate to one another as a species. It’s the thing that separates us from animals.

I don’t want to spoil it, but the ending is just such a perfect note to end on, in terms of synthesizing what you’re currently going for in the movie. It’s a perfect image and way to close out. Can you talk about coming up with that and working with Luca Sabin?

Yeah, the ending was scripted and so, in the script, it ended in the same way. We intended that toward the end of the film, in the last 20 minutes of the film, we wanted to focus a little bit more on Kente’s character, not Maria, who was until that point the main character––the character that is driving the story. So we wanted to focus on Kente because it was important for the viewer to find this kind of empathy towards this guy, this pariah. He’s almost like the old relic of the sawmill in the forest. Nobody will remember this guy after a very short time after he dies. But he was somebody. He had a biography. He was a human being. And I wanted, towards the end of the film, people to think about him as a human being.

As life, it’s important in itself. And we are all different, we have life that is unique in a way. And I wanted viewers to feel empathy towards Kente. That was the purpose of the ending, in a way. All these acts of generosity, maybe it is more important for Maria than for Kente in the end, because she wanted to prove herself. I don’t believe in such thing as generosity in a pure state. It’s somehow related with your ego, with your desire to prove yourself. And this is not necessarily a bad thing. It is how it is and you have to be lucid about it. But Kente is a human being. He’s not just the vehicle of your own desire to please yourself.

As for Luca Sabin, we were quite lucky. When I saw him for the first time we were location-scouting, and he was just with some locals on the streets of Râmeț, the small village that we shot in. I looked at him, and he was just how I imagined the character. He looked fragile. He looked strange, but he was not. Luca Sabin was a clever guy. He understood very fast what I wanted from him. From our first conversation he wanted to act in the film, although, as I told you, he hadn’t seen a camera before. He’s a serious guy, a guy who worked a lot in his life. So he understood—he immediately saw that everybody was working and we are doing a very serious thing with this movie.

I used his stories, and then we scripted them, as I used a small earpiece in the one ear that was good, because he couldn’t hear with the other ear. And during the shooting I told him some of the lines. Because when we had the stories that he came with I just gave him some small signal and he started to tell his own story. But other than that, the lines that were really important for the movie, I kind of whispered in his ear. And this might seem easy, but it’s really not, to hear voices and at the same time to act like you are another character, another guy.

Întregalde opens on Friday, March 18 at Film Forum and will expand.

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