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Berlinale 2016 Women Directors: Meet Livia Ungur – ‘Hotel Dallas’

Berlinale 2016 Women Directors: Meet Livia Ungur - 'Hotel Dallas'

Livia Ungur was born in Communist Romania. She immigrated to America to study art, graduating from the Yale School of Art in 2015. She make films, sculptures, installations and performances. Since 2015, she has exhibited works at the National Gallery of Art in D.C., the Stavros Niarchos Center in Greece, the National Library in Buenos Aires, the Black Maria Film Festival, Kassel Dokfest and Stuttgarter Filmwinter. “Hotel Dallas” is her first feature film. (Press materials)

“Hotel Dallas” will premiere at the 2016 Berlin International Film Festival on February 15. The film is co-directed by Sherng-Lee Huang. 
W&H: Please give us your description of the film playing.
LU: I need to get better at my elevator pitch! But here it goes: The TV show “Dallas” becomes a hit in Communist Romania and inspires a young woman to immigrate to America. She starts making films and directs “Dallas” star Patrick Duffy in her first feature, “Hotel Dallas.” I play the woman, and the story is based partly on my life.
The Hotel Dallas is a real place in Romania. It’s a life-size replica of the “Dallas” mansion, built by a Romanian superfan. Patrick plays a soap-opera character who dies on screen and wakes up in the Hotel Dallas, in an alternate-reality version of his show.
I identify more as an artist than as a filmmaker; “Hotel Dallas” started as my thesis project at the Yale School of Art. It’s an unconventional film, combining fiction and documentary, as well as found footage, poetry and musical numbers. The film takes chances stylistically, but at the same time, I hope that it’s fun and engaging. I believe that audiences are willing to be challenged if you can meet them halfway. Negotiating that halfway point is the tricky part!
W&H: What drew you to this story?
LU: I grew up in Romania in the ’80s. It was a time of food shortages, secret police and paranoia. But once a week, we turned on the TV and watched a fairy tale about rich Americans in cowboy hats, hanging out at their big, white mansion. “Dallas” was the only American show allowed on TV; it was our window into life in the West. I eventually moved to the States in 2004, but watching “Dallas” was the first step of the journey. I essentially play myself in the film.
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
LU: I wrote and directed the film with my husband Sherng-Lee Huang. The push-and-pull of the collaboration is what made the work unique, but the process could be a pain in the butt! I am a video artist by training, while Sherng-Lee has a more traditional filmmaking background. “Hotel Dallas” is like an argument between these two perspectives playing out on screen. We clashed a lot — especially in the editing phase.
We live and work in a small Brooklyn apartment, with a small dog named Dexter. He’s quite sensitive, and whenever we have an argument, he hides in the only place in the apartment that offers any separation: the bathtub. Dexter was a helpful barometer for us, actually. How do we talk about the film and have productive disagreements without sending Dexter to the tub? He forced us to be better collaborators.
W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?
LU: The film starts from a very specific, seemingly ironic place — “Dallas” in Romania — but I hope that the film captures emotions that we all feel. We all have fantasies about how our lives could be different. We all want a home — a place to belong. The storytelling style is unconventional, but my hope is that the style deepens and complicates the emotional experience.
When I have a meaningful encounter with art, whether it’s a film, a book or a sculpture, I feel more alive, more empathetic and more connected to the world. David Foster Wallace said that great fiction makes us “feel less alone inside.” I think cinema can do that, too.

W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?
LU: One of my teachers at Yale, Michelle Lopez, had a default critique: “I want to see more of you in this work.” She said this to everybody! And at the time, it drove me crazy; couldn’t she be more specific? Of course, she couldn’t be more specific, because every artist has to cross that threshold on her own.

Originality comes from expressing your personal vision: making work that only you can make. It doesn’t have to be autobiographical; your personality can come through in your style. In art school, we learned that you can’t be a painter at this point in time and be an Impressionist. You have to bring your own voice to move the medium forward.

I think this applies to cinema as well, especially when you’re working with a small budget. The only way to stand out against the big-budget films is by having an original vision.

W&H: What’s the biggest misconception about you and your work?
LU: When I first tell people about “Hotel Dallas,” they think that it’s an inspirational story about Hollywood changing the world. Well, in a way it is — but it’s complicated! Larry Hagman, who played the greedy tycoon J.R. Ewing, claimed that “Dallas” inspired the fall of Communism. There’s an element of truth to that.

But “Dallas” was also a distraction from how bad things were in real life. Our lives back then were about waiting. My mom waited all day for her shift at the factory to end; she waited in line for hours to pick up our food rations; and she waited all week for the next episode of “Dallas,” to see what the beautiful people would do next. Maybe without “Dallas,” people would not have waited as long, and the revolution would have happened earlier.
And finally, even if “Dallas” did usher in capitalism, it was a corrupt, crony capitalism that plagues Romania to this day. Imagine a country run by oligarchs like J.R. Ewing — or maybe you don’t have to imagine. The film is about Romania, but I think the themes will resonate with American audiences as well.
W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.
LU: I received a grant from Yale, where I was attending graduate school. That covered eight weeks of travel in Romania, during which we shot most of the movie. Another grant from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts helped us complete post-production and get us to our premiere in Berlin.
The budget was lean. Sherng-Lee did most of the shooting, and we split the editing. I played the lead, and Sherng-Lee and my parents played major roles as well. None of us had ever acted before.
Landing Patrick Duffy was a big piece of the puzzle. We approached him with a rough cut after the Romania shoot. We found his manager’s email on IMDb and wrote to him cold. We never thought he would agree, as we obviously could not pay the fees that he deserved. But less than a month later, we were shooting with Patrick in L.A.

He was so brave to take a chance on this crazy project made by complete unknowns. And, of course, his performance was flawless. He’s such a natural that people sometimes don’t realize what a great actor he is.
W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

LU: I love Maya Deren’s “Meshes of the Afternoon” [which was co-directed by Alexander Hammid, her husband]. She does so much with so little, and I’m not just talking about the budget.

The film contains no conventional narrative, no dialogue and no sound at all in the original version. It conjures a woman’s interior state — and makes us feel as she feels — entirely through the visuals.

My own films have been quite verbal; the words tend to come first, and then I find images to support them. But I’m interested in shifting that balance, to concentrate on the power and mystery of images. Deren was the master of that.  

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