“It sounds very sporting, like the Olympics,” says Calin Peter Netzer, when asked how it feels to represent Romania’s bid for a Best Foreign Language Oscar this year. “It’s a challenge because Romania hasn’t ever been nominated.”
Shocking as it may be considering Romania’s remarkable recent streak of unshakeable dramas and incisive black comedies from the likes of “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu”‘s Cristi Puiu, “12:08 East of Bucharest”‘s Corneliu Porumboiu and “Beyond the Hills”‘ Cristian Mungiu, whose 2008 film “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” even inspired reforms to Academy reforms, Netzer has continued to the fine filmmaking tradition of his fellow Romanians with his latest film while hoping to break the one where Oscars are concerned. With “Child’s Pose,” there’s as good a chance as any.
A slow-simmering character study of a mother who will do anything to save her estranged son from going to prison after a hit-and-run accident in which he kills a young child, the film features a ferocious performance by Luminita Gheorghiu, virtually unrecognizable from her turns in Puiu’s “4 Months” and Puiu’s “Aurora” as Cornelia, a member of the privileged class who sees her quest to keep her ne’er do well kid out of jail as a reflection on her own self-worth. “Child’s Pose” is striking as both a small-scale tragedy for two families, who have both lost their child in different ways, and a larger-scale one for Romania as Cornelia’s efforts to game the system by offering bribes hardly fall on deaf ears.
While Netzer was in Los Angeles recently, he spoke about the film’s long journey to the screen, his desire to let go of control on the production and the difficulties of getting it made as Romania cuts back on funding for the arts.
How did this film come about?
The script was written with Razvan Radulescu and we had another project in mind, about a dysfunctional family, but we started to discuss our personal lives with our parents. We discovered that we have the same domineering mother, so then we thought, “That’s a great character,” we should make a film about this.
Was it interesting to write from the perspective of the mother as opposed to the son?
Yeah, because she was the character who was in action, who pulled everything together. It was more difficult to make a film from the son’s [perspective] because we put this accident into the story from the dramaturgical point of view. It was much more easier to have her point of view because she was pulling strings.
Did you write with Luminita Gheorghiu in mind for the mother Cornelia?
Yeah, but after finishing the script, I was looking also for somebody else, for a fresher face because Luminita is a very well-known actress. After a couple of weeks, it was clear that she’s the best option. It was a difficult process because she never played a high-society lady or of a middle-high class, and I wanted to change her from her clothing to her hair. She’s wearing a wig. I wanted even to go with her to plastic surgery, if she wanted. She agreed to that, but after, she pulled back. It was a game. It was difficult and fun at the same time. She’s a very professional actress who takes everything extremely seriously.
While writing the screenplay, did you think a lot about the colors you’d be using in the film? There’s a yellowish tint to Cornelia’s world, which doesn’t exactly indicate warmth, but it is in stark contrast to the cooler color palette that represents her dealings with the outside world and with her son Barbu.
Yeah, that was thought of before. Of course, when the cinematographer [Andrei Butica] and I made a color correction, I gave him the freedom to do it by himself. This was a process I applied to the whole making of this movie. For example, we shot a lot of material because we had only 30 days for shooting. We had two digital cameras, so we [had them] running nonstop and I gave the editor the freedom to make the first versions of the cut. Also during shooting, the [cinematographer] and the cameraman, I left them the freedom to [roam with] the camera and show what they are interested in.
Why was it important to you to let go of that control?
It was an exercise because the story was very close to me. I wanted to break loose, otherwise I thought I would be too subjective, too focused on that. Normally, I’m a control freak.
It appeared as if you ran through scenes in their entirety rather than shooting actors separately and blocked it in such a way that the cameras wouldn’t interfere. Was that part of that to create a looser environment?
We were shooting all the angles. At one point, the cinematographer and I set up two pods on the locations. We looked on the paper, we made a plan with the angles, and we threw it away because it was a mental exercise for us. We knew when you shoot with two cameras, you can’t be precise. After the first two days where we got used to it, because I had never shot with two cameras before, we went [wild]. We shot from every angle. The rule was not to have rules.
Because you distanced yourself in that way, was it surprising what the results were when you first saw the footage?
I got a shock when I got material from the editor. I was depressed because I didn’t know, is it good? Is it not good? It’s not mine. That’s not mine. [laughs] But the editor [Dana Bunescu] worked throughout the shoot. I remember seeing the scene with the family fight when [the son Barbu is] leaving after the first five days. That was the first scene I saw and I I really was shocked. I wanted it with these jump cuts, so it was experimental.
I’ve heard you say that there’s no real commercial cinema in Romania, so essentially you’re making films for the rest of the world. Does that change how you approach the films or what stories you want to tell?
It’s a tricky question, but I think no. The thing is you want to make honest films. If you do that, then you don’t have to change it if I make it for the Romanian audience or if I make it for the festivals or for the world audience. If it’s not honest, you feel it.
I know recently you signed a petition to protest the Romanian government’s plans to reduce the amount of money allocated to film financing and transfer control of movie theaters in the country over to the state. Is the situation pretty dire there? [Editor’s note: Since this interview, the Romanian government canceled their plans.]
The funding has gone down in the last number of years. This spring, we got some promises from the government, from the prime minister, that things will get better and that we’d get more money, but nothing’s happened. On this film [“Child’s Pose”], we had a quite big budget. After that, the crisis began. We didn’t get money from places or from institutions where we signed already the contracts — for example, from the Romanian television. We never saw it because they don’t have the money. So they can’t do it. The budget at the beginning was like one or two million euros, and in the end, I think we made it with €700,000. It was difficult.
How did you first get interested in making films in the first place?
I grew up in Germany. I liked going to the movies, but my friends and my colleagues didn’t. On the weekends, I would go alone to the movies. I went to two or three every week. I liked to be in the cinemas and enter other worlds, to escape the reality. Then it became an obsession and a dream to be part of this and to be a filmmaker.
“Child’s Pose” will open on February 19th in New York at Film Forum and on Februrary 21st in Los Angeles at the Nuart Theater. A full list of dates and cities can be found here.