Originally published in Ink 19 on May 22, 2017
During the next to last night of SEEFest (the South East European Film Festival), which took place in Los Angeles from April 27 to May 4th, I was thrilled to have a conversation that was long in the making…A decade ago, when I was co-curating the European Short Film Festival in Boston, we programmed a clever short film that we enjoyed from Romanian director, Anca Miruna Lǎzǎrescu entitled Bucuresti-Berlin. Five years later, we not only programmed her short, Silent River, but it impressed us to the degree that we awarded it our top prize. At SEEfest, our conversation centered on her wonderful feature debut, That Trip We Took With Dad, a sometimes absurd, comedic drama based on her own family’s experiences during a trip to Germany in August of 1968 that was disrupted by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.
Interview conducted by Generoso Fierro
GF: Back in 2007, I was co-curating the European Short Film Festival at MIT in Boston, and we selected your film, Bucuresti-Berlin, which stars Ana Ularu as a young Romanian woman who immigrates to Berlin. Her story is told urgently, but ends lightheartedly. Five years later, we awarded our top prize to your short film, Silent River, which is a story of three desperate people who attempt to sneak over a border in the dead of night that is presented as pure drama. When you were originally writing the screenplay of your family’s story for That Trip We Took With Dad, which some describe as a comedic drama, did you feel compelled to balance the tone due to the differences between your previous short films about immigration? Do you feel that your family’s story that you depict in your debut feature has naturally comedic elements in it?
AL: Yes, I would say that it definitely does. I grew up with this story, which I am sure that you have read about by this point. That Trip We Took With Dad is indeed based on my father’s story, and it was told to me so many times, usually at the Christmas table after presents were exchanged, so there was always this kind of nostalgia in the air, and whenever this tale was brought up, there was always a level of melancholy in the room that always presented the question, “What would have happened if we had decided differently and stayed in Germany?” I really did grow up with this story being an integral part of my life—in fact I cannot even remember the first time that I heard it. So, it was part of my family’s story, but it is also very common in Romania to tell such a tragic story with one happy eye and one sad eye, as people would say, so it is in my blood to tell such a tragic tale in a light and even an absurdist way so that in certain moments, one doesn’t know whether to laugh or to cry.
Starting with the story itself, it is a family story, one where the family is given a present that they don’t even want to have in the first place. It is a burden to make a decision of such importance about your future when this choice is one that you never imagined having to make. So, when I start writing a script, I am always analyzing, which I know sounds very rational, but I would say that it comes more from my gut because I really rely on my intuition to guide me in crafting the exact tone so that scenes hit the emotions of the viewer in the way that I want. In the case of my short film, Silent River, it is a straightforward story about three people who are trying to survive, and the characters have their own existentialist dilemmas as they struggle to cross the Danube and have to trust each other in multiple capacities, making the film more of a drama than a tragic comedy, even though a lot of criticisms suggested that Silent River does have some light, more relaxed moments. But, That Trip We Took With Dad does not have that same existential dilemma attached to the main character, Mihai, whose responsibilities as a makeshift maternal figure to his father and brother drive his behavior and actions. In the end, it is a family story, and that family is chaotic and has a main character who is juggling the problems they face to try to keep the family together. The character of Mihai does have a plan on how to fix things, but this plan gets challenged because of his dad’s health and his crazy little brother, who Mihai must act as a mother to because their mother has died. And then, even his backup plan gets ruined by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, so they end up in the middle of a socialist commune in West Germany, and that is why for me there was no issue in balancing the tone because what actually transpired was already so absurd.
GF: As I understand, the character of the younger brother, Emil, is your father in the story, but you center the film on Mihai, Emil’s older brother. Can you discuss your decision of making Mihai the center of your film?
AL: I loved the story that my father gave me, and I loved this idea of being able to love and to hate and to be full of passion for your dreams and ideals, as I was the same way between the ages of sixteen and eighteen, but when I started writing this, I was already in my mid-twenties, and at that time I felt that Emil was a perfect antagonist, a perfect troublemaker, perfect to cause a disruption of all of someone’s plans. For me, I was already embedded in my life in my mid-twenties, so I was too far away from seeing life in a clear, black and white way as I did when I was a teenager and was well aware that when I was older that most issues had shades of grey in them. In my first version of the screenplay, I tried telling the story with the characters being a mother, father, and an eighteen year old. I completed the entire first draft, but when it was all done, the story was just not there, and by that I mean it was just not as complex as I had hoped for. This leads me to the day that I killed the mother character, which was one of the best days of my screenwriting process for this script because I really felt that a female role in that car traveling from Romania to Germany was not what I wanted. I realized that the interactions between three men who forgot what it was like to fall in love and to have passion would create the tension and conflicts I was interested in, so that is when the character of Mihai, who is based on a real person, rose up as the central figure of the story, as the character and the real person did have a huge influence on me, but in reality, my father did not have an older male sibling, so I think that the final decision to make Mihai central in the story was that the character reminded me of myself in that time, and Emil was my father when he was young.
GF: As we are discussing the character of Mihai, I understand from a previous interview that you wrote a backstory about Mihai and Ana Ularu’s character, Dr. Sanda Berceanu, that was not intended for use in the final cut of the film, but only to serve as motivation for the character of Mihai? Was there ever a desire to add these scenes as to more clearly define Mihai’s feelings towards his brother’s relationship with Neli and Mihai’s overall disillusionment with his own reality?
AL: Well, to tell you the truth, the director Anca is quite happy with the final cut of the film, but of course there are some details that I would like to shoot differently, but all in all, I am very happy with the film as it is now. Now, the scriptwriter Anca has a lot of questions like, “How can it be that such a huge, beautiful, long script had to be chopped?” and the answer is in fact quite simple. This romantic backstory that I wrote for Mihai that I thought, and many of my colleagues thought, was a very strong scene was one that we indeed shot and then had to delete, which you can see for yourself as part of the DVD extras when it is released on May 19th. I personally thought that it was a bit ridiculous to not give this handsome, young doctor a love story—I mean he cannot be a monk afterall! I had written this scene and was so glad that Ana Ularu came to casting and performed the scene, besides the fact that we are such good friends and have worked together before, her performance is wonderful, and I have issues with it not being in the film. Also, I felt for Mihai that there must be someone who ruined his possibility of a romantic relationship, for in the scene, she is pregnant and has a new husband, so I am somewhat bothered by the loss of this part of the film, but, in the end, the editors felt that it was an important cut as we agreed that being that the scene in question occurs early in the film, and that stylistically at least, given that the film is a road movie, we should not delay their travel scenes any further in the narrative.
GF: You show Nicolae Ceaușescu’s August 1968 speech condemning the Soviet aggression in Czechoslovakia, but a year later we know that Ceaușescu would invite Richard Nixon to Romania, which led to many Romanians disillusionment with their leader. We also see a disillusionment with Dubček occur after the Soviet invasion. Does the betrayal felt by Mihai’s father foreshadow the way most loyal Socialists would soon feel in Eastern Europe? Do you feel that betrayal is the underlying theme of your film?
AL: I thought about this a great deal when I was editing the screenplay. My main topic for this film is “How free are we to choose freedom?” because, my theory about freedom is the line that Janis Joplin sang, “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose,” so it is easier to speak about freedom and make the decision to be free when you have family, or if you have a burden, or if you have such a system like where I grew up, and so, I thought about this question for Mihai: How free is Mihai actually to choose freedom, and is the freedom in the west really the freedom that he is looking for, or is it some kind of inferior freedom that he is allowed to reach? I think that at the end of the film, he is as free as he would ever be. As far as Ceaușescu’s speech in 1968 that you mention, I grew up with a father who blamed himself for all of his life for the decision that he made to go back to Romania. He took almost two years to realize that he made the wrong decision because when he came back home, he and his girlfriend Neli really did break up the way I show it in the film, and Ceaușescu did not become the Romanian version of Dubček that he so hoped that he would become. So, this speech and this particular moment that my father faced in the west had a huge influence on his life because, whenever he told me this story, tears filled his eyes.
On the one hand, my father blamed himself for what he did, but on the other hand, he never felt the level of pride of being Romanian than the way that he felt during those days of being in West Germany during that time. Many people congratulated him on the street when they found out that he was Romanian. Even the German policemen, who picked them up on the road when they ran out of gas, congratulated them because of the speech that Ceaușescu gave, and my father, who always felt that he came from a country that was usually considered second class, suddenly he believed that he came from a place that could emerge as a strong voice in Europe, and maybe that this was indeed the right way to live your life, away from the capitalists who lived in West Germany. You have to understand that during this moment, Ceaușescu really believed that he was right, and, in fact, he was right in his condemnation of the Soviet aggression against Czechoslovakia, but as you know just a few weeks later Ceaușescu was called to Moscow, and after that, no one was allowed to even mention his speech in Romania. That is why I needed to add this speech into the film, and the result is that many people who have seen my film in the west, and even some back in Romania, discovered that they were unaware that this speech even took place.
GF: I’m impressed you went as far as to create a band with a sound from the period called The Stormy Sundays. I know that budget may have played a role, but what was your impetus for doing this and not simply acquiring a song from a lesser-known band of the era? Being that this is a period film, was there a concern for using a song that may have been used in the past in another film that would have evoked different emotions and sentimentality that you wouldn’t have wanted?
AL: When I was writing the film, Creedence Clearwater Revival was a huge influence on me; they inspired me so much. They were a good guiding point because, although their songs may sound uplifting, there is a depth to the lyrics, and here I am thinking of their song, “Bad Moon Rising.” The budget sadly wouldn’t allow for the use of their music, but we were so lucky to have found songwriter brothers from Nashville who recorded music that was perfect for the era. Also, with Mihai, I wanted something that truly belonged to him and whenever you start to imagine that Mihai would be a huge fan of Creedence, you would then immediately have an opinion on it, or as you say, it would draw up personal feelings and opinions. There is also the concern that people might start wondering if Creedence was even music that Mihai would have heard in Romania in 1968, so all of these factors played a role in acquiring music specially made for the film.
GF: Thank you Anca for this interview and for your film.