Why They’re On Our Radar: Many heads were turned following the announcement of last May’s Cannes Film Festival winner for Best Actress where, despite the long list of veteran and established actresses many felt certain would take the prize, the award went to not one, but two actresses who have never before appeared in a film. Cosmina Stratan was working as a TV and print journalist when she came under consideration for one of the leads in Cristian Mungiu’s new film “Beyond the Hills,” while Cristina Flutur worked as a classical theater actress. Neither worked in film before and suddenly their lives have turned into a whirlwind of press, news, and awards.
There was no doubt much anticipation for Mungiu’s return to Cannes, as his last trip in 2007 for abortion drama “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days” famously cemented Romanian’s emergence as a major player in contemporary world cinema by taking home a Palme d’Or, but the haunting film may possibly become even more infamous as the launching point for two highly gifted talents.
Based on a true event, “Beyond the Hills” centers around a visit by Alina (Flutur) to an isolated monastery to visit her friend, the nun Voichita (Stratan). While the two have a long history living in the orphanage, Alina is struck by the difference in her friends demeanor, attitude, and worldview, believing that much of it has to do with the solemn tutelage of the head priest, dubbed “Papa.” Things get more complicated when Papa and the nuns believe Alina is struck by the Devil, and take it in their power to try to exorcise this demonic possession from her and help her attain a life of religious harmony. The film is an incredibly engrossing and powerfully realistic experience, stretching the boundaries of the typical narrative with sequences that have the look and feel of a great and dense novel.
Indiewire was lucky for the chance to sit down with Stratan and Flutur last December to discuss their journey since the Cannes win, their backgrounds and how they shaped their work in this film, and their hopes for the future of their careers. “Beyond the Hills” is currently playing in limited release.
Staring off, I’m sure you’ve both heard it all before, but congratulations on the awards and the press. Clearly this phase of the film began in May, and now it’s December and you’re still out doing the rounds-Cannes, Toronto, New York, etc, and the Romanian release was only last month, and a U.S. release is still a few months away in March, so there is still a lot more traveling and speaking to be done. This being different than what you are both used to, how has this whirlwind of a year been? What’s changed, what has been elating, or irritating?
Cristina: Everything got a bit crazy, and the rhythm of my life has quite changed. I’ve met many people, and I talk a lot. I got the impression that I have talked. . . I haven’t talked so much in years, because I have been in the theater only, about seven years in theater. Theater, for me, is more intimate and more discreet. You don’t get to be interviewed that much, you don’t go to radio or TV, so there is not so much media around you. It’s more quiet, even though you do have good performances and good leads and good roles. Going to the other side, to film, is more noisy, but its also interesting because you get to talk to many people about the work and see many new places. I also like the Q&A’s, because you get to meet the audience and feel how they react. I like to sit a bit at the beginning of the movie and hear reactions, actually hear what they like and don’t like.
Cosmina: I didn’t make it to Toronto because I broke my leg! But aside from that, it is great because of the people and places, and we wouldn’t have had the chance to do that if we didn’t. In a way, the movie is not over because we really discover new things while talking about it and trying to put into words what we did on the set, and we are a bit happy that we are still in the “Beyond the Hills” session. After we received the prize, I was obviously very happy, but I wanted to understand what I did in order to get there. I think the best way of dealing with this prize is to leave it behind, and it helps that I had good parents who taught me to do so. I think you really have to keep your insecurity and not be sure that you can do anything and solve every situation and play every character, because this is not the way of finding things. I just tried, not to forget about it, but to leave it behind and try to find out how to get deep into a character another time. From that level, the prize doesn’t matter. I was just a bit shocked, and really wanted to know what exactly happened.
How did you come to the attention of Cristian?
Cristina: He saw a photo on the internet. I don’t know if it was a photo from my theater or not. I believe it was a photo that a casting director took some time ago, some few years ago. He showed me, “This is the picture,” and I said “I believe you!” So he saw this picture and said he wanted to meet this girl, to see her. This I found out from interviews, because I didn’t ask him. I don’t ask these kinds of questions. He has his own privacy also! I was too happy that he picked me to be curious about anything else. He wanted to see me because he thought I had something “in the eyes” that he wanted for the character, so he told me.
Cosmina: He didn’t want me at first.
Cosmina: I found out during an interview that during the casting period he saw some pictures and pointed to the ones he wanted, “I want this one, I want this one.” When the casting director showed him my picture he looked at it and went “No. . .no, she’s not a nun. She can’t do that. She is not the face I’m looking for.” I am so grateful to Catalin Dordea, who is the casting director, who said “If you don’t want to see her, let me see her just one time, to record one scene with hr and if you like her call her and if you don’t, don’t.” So I met Catalin, and they gave me a part of the script, just one or two scenes, but I did not know at the time that it was a Cristian Mungiu movie, I thought that it was a Romanian movie. I did not know who the director was.
Is there a difference between the two?
Cosmina: Huge! So I thought it was a good scene and I really loved the script. So I did tht, and then a month later I got the call. We then had about a month of auditioning, and later I found out that the one month audition was more like a rehearsal. I found out that he decided to pick us but he wanted to be sure, so we read ALL the scenes in the script. After the month, I went “Why didn’t you just tell us you picked us!?”
From a technical standpoint, one thing that stands out in the film, the same with “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days,” are the long takes which are very engrossing. Some of them are quite simple dialogue shots, which are challenging in their own way, but a few of them are quite complex- such as the sequence where they tie Cristina down, or the “exorcism.” They move from character to character, sometimes from room to room, and there is a rapid fire dialogue. Were those heavily rehearsed and planned, or was it mostly you and the other actors guiding the camera and action?
Cristina: We didn’t have much time to rehearse. We kind of used the auditions to find out about the scripts and to find out what he wanted to do about characters. But personally, I didn’t walk much with him, he talked much more with Cosmina. He was trying to feel the actor and feel what he needs and what his methods are, and how they could adapt to his way of working. I didn’t feel the need to ask and analyze. I just wanted to let my intuition and my instinct flow, and he was the same, so I felt “Wow, that’s my kind of director!”
Cosmina: What was great about Cristian is that he really worked the scenes differently. I was in every scene so I really saw him working. There were some scenes where I just respected the move we rehearsed, exactly the way we rehearsed, and I tried to give life to that. There were some scenes where we could change the text a little and improvise, and there were some scenes where we could let ourselves go in an instinct totally different from what we’d established. So it was very flexible with this, and he let us know that he accepted, or at least let me know, that if I felt something new during the shooting and it was really strong than I could just go with the flow.
Did you do some of these scenes several times?
Cosmina: There were two scenes that were really changed because of this. Everything was planned except two. And we really had a very good cameraman because he used to say that “If it’s alive, I’m gonna shoot it. If it’s not, go home.”
Did you find those aesthetics liberating in that case, as an actress?
Cosmina: I felt they were actually quite right, because I had the same standards. He waited for me to get there, and when a scene was good all three of us knew-Cristian, Oleg (the cameraman) and myself. We all had the same opinion if a take was good, and not all the good takes are in the movie. And there’s more, about thirty or forty minutes that aren’t in the movie.
Cristina, did you find some of those sequences, and this method of shooting, easier because of your theatrical background?
Cristina: This is my first movie, so I have never done anything differently and don’t know what it is like to work in a different way. But it helped, because you have the time to allow the emotion to full you up and to allow the tension to grow. I also feel that it was not only beneficial for the actors, but for the audience as well. The audience has this time to get connected to the story. You can really enter the screen this way better than if you were to cut.
Cristian stated in an interview that he wanted the film to feel like a “novel on screen,” so he litters the film with insignificant details in addition to the important ones. This feels like a very true statement in regards to both of your performances, but especially Cosmina’s, who is in every scene in some shape or form. Even when you aren’t the focus of the scene, you are still in the frame-cleaning, putting things away. Your eyes are often wide when other characters talk, observing them. Were those moments or details instructed/scripted, of was it more of an acting instinct to keep yourself busy around the action constantly?
Cosmina: I look at it in a little different way. After I knew I was going to be a part of the project, I met with Cristian about a week later and he said very happily, “I changed the script!” He was so happy that he decided what to do with the movie. I said, “What’s changed? The story?” “No! I changed the point of view.” And he told me that he did not want to make a real objective story, but he wants to bring up what my character understands from that story. So this is the explanation of why my character is in every scene, even though she isn’t involved with every scene. But she’s there, and she tries to understand what’s happening. It’s like her everyday life. So I didn’t search for actions to do in every scene. I just though, “OK, this is happening to me and I am here. What should I do here?” I just tried to react naturally, because the ideal situation for an actor is to understand who they are at this moment. If you can understand that than the text doesn’t matter because you are the character and everything can happen. You have to react normally, which is easier if you know who you are. And I thought I knew who I was until the middle of the movie when everything became confusing for me, because I just could not understand the way she does not react. When I first read the script, I thought both of these girls were so similar in a way. They have different education, different social levels, but in a way her heart. . . I could understand her heart. But after one month, I went “Oh my god, who is she?” I really wanted not to pretend to understand, but really understand, what she is thinking, what she is feeling. She’s not feeling? She doesn’t react, so she doesn’t feel? Of course she feels, she just doesn’t TRUST her feelings. Which is a bit controversial because she doesn’t trust herself, she doesn’t act, but in a way what she wants is exactly what happens.
It absolutely shows too, especially at the end. There’s that amazing sequence where the police come into the monastery to investigate what is happening. . .
Cosmina: That’s the best!
Yes, it’s very effective. You’re there in the white, everyone is wearing black, you stick out, eyes wide open. It’s a great moment because it once again has you observing and being visually present in a sequence where you are not the focal point of the dialogue.
Cosmina: I was very worried about my character, that she could appear very similar and without any spectacular changes from beginning to end. That’s a bit frustrating for an actor, maybe because of the ego we all have. You want your character to be as normal as you can, and this is really hard. That scene with the police, I was just thinking “What should I do in that scene?” My character is really inside herself, really suffering about the situation, and I didn’t want to do that anymore. I felt I had to do something really different, and I was very lucky that Cristian had the same opinion. For her, it’s not really blank, but a really rational way of recovering all the facts that took place, but it’s not suffering anymore because she’d been through it. She cannot suffer anymore.
The film has been evoking a lot of comparisons to directors like Carl Theodore Dryer, etc, though that could be a lot of American critics tendency to force comparison even when they aren’t there. Were there any other films or books that Cristian imparted on you before or during the shoot to express the type of tone or narrative he desired?
Cristina: He actually told me at the beginning that he prefers that the actors not get that much information, and not to do too much analyzing. Instead, he wanted them to have the situation, have them enter the situation, and just press the button and they are on the air. And I feel the same way. You need to be a little bit pure about the situation, and not to get too much information or too much comparison. You need to search for the character yourself, to connect to the story yourself, without thinking “Oh! This scene might be similar to that scene in the film that I saw two years ago.” You become too rational and you detach yourself from the story, but you have to be inside the story, live the story, be there. For an actor, it’s more of an effort to just enter inside. That’s probably one of the reasons why I chose this kind of. . . I don’t know if it’s a “job”. . . this curious thing that we do up there on the screen.
Did you two prepare together at all to form a basis for this relationship, or did you solely do it isolated? It’s surprising to hear how cold you all went into this project, especially since the film has this strange dichotomy of feeling both heavily rehearsed and extremely natural.
Cristina: We didn’t talk at all about the characters, about the story, about anything. We related to it personally, and for me it helps because I have more intimate relations to the story and the character so I like to just be myself and work with it. It was good that we both went very passionate into the project, and we did our best and it showed. I could feel the other actors all wanting to be there, having done their homework and all that, because it is also about chemistry. When you meet somebody for the first time or during the audition, you don’t have much time to actually build a relationship with the director or the partner. It’s a chemistry or its not. It’s either white or black, and I believe Cristian has a really good sense at feeling chemistry between partners, not only between me and Cosmina but also the others actors and at creating a great network. And this is one of the talents that a director should have. It’s important for the team that you rely on to be a strong unit. And it’s also important the first note, how you begin a film. In theater you have a month, a month and a half, to rehearse, and you try different things because the premiere will be in two months. So you can make mistakes, and even change it over time during the run if you feel something is not true to a character. But in film you don’t have time to rehearse, and you need to have this connection with the character, and to catch the character from the first note like a symphony. If the first note of a symphony is false, you cannot save it. So the first day of shooting was very important for us, and I felt a connection with the other actress, felt a connection with the director, and felt a connection with the team so it was just “Whew! This will be OK.” But the first day is very tough, because if you make the wrong step, if you go on this road and its not the road of the character, there is no time to go back and try again. You don’t have the luxury that you have in theater.
Does working in more films feel like the next step?
Cristina: I would hope to, but I hope the projects that will come will be at least as interesting as this one. It’s important when you have a very good story, very good character, very good director, and very good partners because its just heaven, and you want to be in it! Everybody worked with so much passion on the project.
It’s interesting that you call it heaven when for the audience it is anything but. Maybe its just a testament to the film’s success, but the whole experience is so strenuous and exhausting. Was this the same experience while shooting, or did you find the experience to be easier than what it seems?
Cristina: It’s never easy even when it seems easy. But especially this kind of story in itself, it isn’t very easy to relate to. I read the script and just went “How. . how can this be? How is this possible?” from the reality point of view, because its based on a true story. I couldn’t find in the script when things go in the wrong direction, because violence just enters so smoothly. You don’t exactly know the moment where it CLICKS and it goes in the wrong direction.
Do you find your own future in film, Cosmina?
Cosmina: I want to try to do more films, but different types of characters. I think this is the price for an actor. If you are an actor, you can do different types of characters. If you are just revealing more aspects of your personal life, this is not acting. This is just relieving yourself, but its not acting. It’s really hard to pick stories after this one. I don’t want to say “Oh I want to work, but I don’t want to work with this one or that one.” I want to work. I had some offers but they aren’t very good ones, so I will wait. We have been away for some time, but it was released in Romania about a month ago. I think it did pretty good there, considering we don’t have a really cinema educated public. They aren’t really accustomed to going to the cinema, paying for a ticket and seeing a movie. But for our level of being accustomed with cinema, I think it went alright.