By Amir Ganjavie.
A la Police, Adjective (2009) and with a tough of noir style, Corneliu Porumboiu’s The Whistlers introduces us to the Canary Islands language and its specificity. The beautiful shots in the film, impressive performances by the cast, a sublime and a pleasant set design; they all have contributed to creating a memorable film.
Here Porumboiu proves his mastery of the history of film noirs through several allusions and references to other films. Similar to recent films in contemporary Romanian cinema, there are also references to the current political climate in Romania, with a severe criticism of the deeply-rooted corruption in this society.
At the Toronto Film Festival, I had the opportunity to have a conversation with the director where we talked about the process of making this film, working with the cast and crew, the relation between The Whistlers and his previous works, and the role of language in his films.
This film reminds me of your previous work, especially Police, Adjective. I see the same detectives maybe ten years later and I see some similarities in terms of the team and the subject that you want to discuss. Can you tell me about the relationship between this and your previous work?
It’s because I knew about this Western language. I saw a television report ten years ago, so around the time when I had finished Police, Adjective, and I was curious about the ways coding the language. I started to read about the Spanish language and later returned to the second character. I said “How is this guy? What are these guys doing ten years later?” Now he is the complete opposite and has a competitive discourse because even at the time when I made the film it was like there was an empty philosophy behind it. So I said “This guy can’t resist this kind of ideology over the long term.” I came back with this character that started ten years after and you could feel his sorrow because there is this case of his brother Shalt and he was like “No way!” He put his brother into the gym and that’s why he killed himself. So now this is something that’s changed in his life and he has this doubt. It was interesting for me to find him ten years with both his world and himself being completely different.
How did the idea for this lingering come to you?
I liked it from the beginning when I was curious after seeing the TV reporters. After that, I started to read. After that, of course, I thought that if I would do a movie then it would be about this world of power related to money and people with money who hide their identities from each other. It would be about this guy who’s been trying to learn this language which will in the end be very necessary for him. Then I decided to go ahead with making it.
The question of language is also very prevalent in your previous work and it seems that you always want to say that there is something elusive or something that can never be understood even if you communicate. Can you say more about this dimension of language and your approach to it?
In my first film, people tried using their language to describe the revolution. So, with all of the limits around this concept of revolution they try toasked “What is happening to us? What is the revolution?” In the end, it’s not this romantic concept that we take from history books and say that it’s the only way to change things. It’s a long process. My second film had this character who wants to define what his consciousness is. I think that here, when I made this film, I said “Okay, I don’t want my characters to have any questions. They’re really deep into a certain type of world. They don’t ask the language. Principle is just a way to have power and to gain power over others.” I think that’s different from my previous works in which the characters try to define the world and what’s happening to them. I said, “Okay, no. The guys, they know that there’s a power game all the time.” Of course, the main character is coming to learn this language in a way without his knowledge, but he starts to ask and he starts to change.
It’s like you started from the perspective of ideology, looking at how we can change the world or looking at idealistic assumptions. Now you are becoming more interested in mundane questions about everyday life.
I don’t know. Of course, it’s coming also with my age and my way of growing or, I don’t know, the passage of time.
Did the actors try to learn the language?
Yes, they took classes.
What was the process for that? Did you hire an expert?
There are teachers within the region on the island. We asked the chief professor to give classes for the main actors. They spent two weeks studying and then they kept in touch by Skype to continue learning the language.
How did you choose the actors for these specific roles?
Except for the main character, I was thinking of having very powerful characters, very powerful people. I felt that Gilda bent the role in a way. The principle of the film was that they were hiding all the time and had to play games. I chose Gilda because she’s beautiful. She’s this kind of femme fatale. Thn when I cast Shalt, I was looking in his biography and he was someone who was living abroad a lot. I searched for actors, Romanians who were living in Germany but who had lived abroad because I needed a certain type. After that, it was different for each character. For the mother, I knew that I wanted someone that when she was younger was a femme fatale and would correspond to Gilda. For example, Magda is very powerful. Each character in a way has a certain type of geography.
How do you decide during shooting that the acting in a certain scene is good?
Normally, when I arrive on the set they are working already on the text. I do a lot of work during the casting process when I arrive on set, I really try to work on the details and to ensure that the actors are in character. There are scenes that depend on relationships or specific reactions. Sometimes I do different versions of the shots and then I choose later in the editing room.
How many takes do you usually do for each shot?
It depends. On this one, I think that I maybe had an average of eight. After that, I worked a lot on editing since the first draft of the script was half an hour longer on film so, I took out a lot of scenes. First, I found the base of the film in the editing room and then added in scenes that I was interested in from when I tried different things with the actors.
What is your working relationship with the DOP like?
We did the first three and saw some themes. I also showed him some references and he came back with ideas. Sometimes for a particular location or plan in mind for working with the camera I would have some drawings or photos. Right from the start we spoke a lot about the style of the film. I knew a little bit about the angles and we worked the lighting to be more contrasting. After that, my wife was like a director of the film because she proposed a concept for presenting the trajectory of the character by splitting the film into chapters. Each chapter would be like a colour of the rainbow relating to the characterization of the character, the setting, or the source of drama.
You’ve talked about the story being like a circle or a bridge. How did this impact your script writing?
The script writing process was in the beginning but then my wife told me about the chapters concept. I liked it very much and then she started to work on it with the DOP, like choosing colour. After that, if the set was done then the principal colouring in each chapter can be seen in the costumes.
Do you usually start with the idea and then go to the story?
It’s back and forth with the script. I know what I want. In a way, I know the heart of the film but after that I go back and forth.
I see some references here to other films. For example, I’m thinking of Mona Lisa and some Orson Welles films. Can you say a little bit about these aspects?
Yeah, because I was thinking about how the characters invented roles and they don’t want to discover themselves before the other. At one point I said that one of the characters would have invented or bought a role. For example, with Gilda you never know that her real name is Gilda. She saw the film and they were influenced by the cinema so she invented a lot and she plays Gilda. She plays in her way a certain type of femme fatale. She’s very sure of that. After that, I said “Okay, with the guy from the motel, he wants the people to be there.” People talk it up very loudly.
Yes, because even in the film sometimes you’re not sure who is thinking who.
Yeah, it’s like you never know who and it’s like a power game the whole time.
I love music and sound design and I heard some interesting pieces of music in your film. Can you say a little bit about this aspect?
First, I think it was related to this area Bacalorac which plays dramatically in the film because on the island he will learn and he also starts a piece that describes them after the motel. After that, it’s an element of dramaturgy. It’s also like a character. I tried to build this character of the motel, which is called Opera. I tried to play with that a lot to describe the moods of the characters.
So for you music is something that gives more dimensions to the character?
Sometimes, yes. Sometimes it really plays into the mood of the scene. I use it in very different ways here. Otherwise, when they’re listening to the song in the car, he realizes that it links with the motel and the money that they are focused on. So, the music functions in different ways but also in the way of describing the mood of the character.
I’m also very interested in the art design for the film. You said that your wife was the artistic director for the project so how did she so beautifully pick different colours and words for different scenes?
After that, it was practical work because for me, like the character going through this language here. We had a certain type of journey that we wanted the characters to go on and I used to go back to the story so it was like a double movement. It’s a process to learn something, like if I wanted to have a process of internal movement for the main character. With the colours we took it effectively for each chapter. Gilda was in red and worked with the femme fatale cliché. Aside from that, I don’t know how the choices worked for each chapter.
The femme fatale aspect is very dominant here, like in the character of Gilda. I’m curious if you can say more about. Were you trying to recreate a particular kind of femme fatale from history? How did you approach the concept of a femme fatale here?
Of course, this character of Gilda knows that she’s like that, she plays like that, and she’s going to do it until the end. However, at the end of the day, it’s also a very improbable love story to make. I mean, I think that you find these two people together because they live in a world where they don’t have a choice of their own. At the end, I think that for Gilda it’s also like returning from a little bit of a real person.
The film is also about corruption, with even the chief of the police department seeming to be very corrupt. Are you trying to criticize the environment that exists in the Romanian law enforcement system or in society in general?
Yeah, each one has its own game and I am, in a way, criticizing that. At one point, there is a sort of critique of a certain way of dealing with things.
You mentioned editing earlier. How do you work with your editor? Do you work together at the end of each night that you were shooting or does the film go to editing when shooting has ended?
I usually go to editing after the film is finished and we start from zero. For example, I made some scenes before that I shot with other people to see how they would look. We have a pre-edit before the shooting to know a little bit because it was sort of a storyboard. I did a few scenes like that and I storyboarded others, like the accident. I work in different techniques. For others, I was thinking about the movement of the characters. Of course, it’s a process that I started maybe back and forth like that because first I want to know the style of the scene, the mood, and all that. It depends on the situation, but if I feel that I have a very difficult scene then I need to prepare more. After that, I prefer to start the editing from zero.
This is kind of a co-produced film with several companies and countries involved. Did you find working in this kind of co-production to be difficult or does it have good aspects?
It has both difficulties and good aspects but this is the system. It’s not the first time that I’m doing this. Of course, this was a bigger project so there were more countries involved but I work very well with the French. Martin is a friend of mine and I know both Johnny and Jonas. They were great because they came into the project quite late when we needed them since they didn’t find money in Spain. I want to thank them for what they did. After that, we did the post-production in Sweden and I work well there too. Of course, this system is sometimes a little bit more complicated because you work with people from different cultures but, on the other hand, there are good aspects. In the end, doing things this way is an opportunity for me because it also helps my budget to grow.
If you were to give advice to young filmmakers who are trying to work in this kind of co-production environment, how should they approach this new reality of production?
I think that they definitely have to try to explain their intentions as well as possible and to take time for that kind of good communication to be sure that people understand. Learn to speak their language so as to not to have a communication problem.
Fascinated by the issue of alternative and utopian space in cinema and architecture, Amir Ganjavie has published widely about cinema, architecture and cultural studies. He co-edited a special volume on alternative Iranian cinema for Film International and edited Humanism of the Other, an essay collection on the Dardenne brothers (in Persian). His most recent contribution is an article on the meaning of space and utopia in cinema by analysing the films of Tsai Ming-Liang.