INTERVIEW WITH BOGDAN MIRICĂ
BACKGROUND At 27, I’d been directing commercials for seven years with budgets that were often higher than the money I had for Dogs. I enjoyed myself but the world I was navigating in was a bit crazy and I felt like I didn’t belong anymore. I wanted to explore something else – I studied screenwriting, I went to London for a year to complete my education and then I came back to Romania. Obviously I was already considering doing a film but I started out writing a TV series and screenplays for a number of Rumanian directors. And yet I was disappointed most of the time. I couldn’t see my input in the films, once completed. As I grew more and more frustrated, I decided to direct. I made a short film, Bora Bora, in 2011 that garnered an award at the Angers Film Festival. And then I began writing Dogs.
DOGS The film is about human nature. Granted – many films are. But there’s something special about the characters of Dogs – they’re aware that their nature is profoundly corrupted but they just can’t help it. Sometimes in life you’re aware that you’ve chosen the wrong path and yet you stay the course. That’s what happens to my characters. It’s probably because this contradiction is inherent to them and it’s beyond their control. Although they know it and rationalize it, there’s just nothing doing. They choose to remain true to what defines them deep down. Dogs is about three men who against all odds are very similar. They don’t just fight each other. Actually, they mostly struggle with themselves.
THE RURAL ENVIRONMENT I’m very familiar with this part of Romania where, as a child, I spent a lot of my vacation time at my grandmother’s. It’s a poor, tough, violent world. I witnessed extremely brutal fights but the most frightening thing was that there seemed to be no justification for such violence. It was their nature; there was nothing at stake, nothing to win, just a way of expressing their profound nature and asserting their supremacy. For the little city boy that I was, who was used to some form of civilization, who embraced the idea that laws rule the world and protect life – it came as a shock! I was discovering a world where people let their gut instinct and basic urges have the upper hand and define human relationships
STARTING POINT I didn’t start with any specific idea in mind because that’s not the way I write. It was more like a feeling. It’s often indistinct and unclear. I couldn’t sum it up in just a few words. With this project I felt like writing about men who fight each other without knowing why. It’s somehow connected with the absurdity of life that however governs our existence. We’ve all experienced fighting with someone close – a girlfriend, a relative – without exactly knowing why, and channeling all our energy, all our strength, into it, and upping the ante just to prove that we’re right and they’re wrong! Under some circumstances, it can even lead to murder! This odd feeling was the basis for the film and that’s what I wanted to explore in my script. I needed a context, a backdrop, and that’s how I felt like setting the story in the countryside and telling the story of three men chasing and hunting each other literally – as a cat would do a mouse. Honing the drama, identifying the scenes, mapping out the narrative, writing the dialogue – that was the easy part. The challenging part is to flesh out the characters so that they make sense, which doesn’t mean they need to be realistic. I don’t think you can say my film is realistic. It’s a fable. When they talk, my characters seem to speak in proverbs and wise sayings. I try to step inside my characters, to find their inner truth, and then I let them develop by themselves and take shape at the crossroads between good and evil. During this immersive process, I don’t write anything. I listen to a lot of music and I first and foremost try to set up the ideal playlist for the film – the playlist that will help me throughout the writing process and put me in a specific mood that I cannot intellectualize but that I can feel and refine just listening to the tunes. There’s not a chance I’d forget the playlist I dreamt up for Dogs as I listened to it for more than five years! (laughter) It included movie soundtracks, classical music, but no songs as I get distracted by the lyrics. I was much inspired by Nick Cave’s soundtracks for The Proposition or The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, or by Ry Cooder’s soundtrack for Paris, Texas.
REFERENCES Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, The Proposition, No Country for Old Men (the best Coen Brothers’ movie!). But I’m not inspired by these films in the sense that I emulate them. I don’t seek to copy them but instead to capture in my film the feelings, the confusion and other emotions that they stirred up in me but that I cannot put into words. If you can find traces of these films in Dogs, they take on an altogether different form.
ABOUT GENRES I’m fond of film genres because they’re part of pop-culture. We make very few genre movies in Romania as we favor arthouse films. High-brow, tedious films. As if horror movies couldn’t be personal. And still, many people go and see a film without knowing who made it. They don’t care but they’re attracted to genre movies. On the other hand, I think the audience is clever. In any case it’s an idea I’m holding to. My point with Dogs was to make a film close to a genre movie that still stands apart from it. For instance, in one of the early drafts of the script, Samir, the «bad guy» of the story, appeared so from the outset. I thought it was too obvious. It was a kind of film noir cliché I meant to keep away from. The audience is quick to see all the workings of the plot and may then get ahead of what’s going on. That’s precisely what I wished to avoid. I wanted the audience to be confused and the film to be different from the beginning to the end. That’s where the audience’s intelligence kicks in as they get involved in the storytelling.
BLURRING THE LINES It was a challenging idea but one I particularly cared about. Way too often, films follow a simplistic narrative that heavy-handedly pits the good guys against the bad guys and so the writing is meant to put across a clear message: we know who’s on the good side and who’s not. Once again, it’s all foreseeable, unchangeable, predictable. I have no use for this. The big dialogue-laden scenes with two characters facing each other allowed me not so much to be preachy as to gradually reveal the violence defining and plaguing the characters, and looming unexpectedly. The tension comes from the dialogue and its length, and from the frame – and not from writing patterns whose point is to satirize the danger this or that character carries. These sparring partners reveal their psychological process through the dialogue – how they gradually let their deep nature come about and how they’re trapped by it. I’ve gone to great lengths to keep the audience from guessing ahead of time the outcome of the confrontations and the reaction of this or that character. That’s why the film remains unclear about their motives. If they fought for money or a piece of land, we’d understand very quickly the true purpose of the story. In Dogs, this remains off-screen, almost abstract.
THE VISUAL STYLE When I direct a scene, I don’t have any preconceived notion or theoretical vision. My approach to the material is more organic than anything else. I cannot claim that I know what I want but on the other hand I can tell early on when I don’t like an idea, or when it doesn’t sit well with me. However I don’t do improvisation. With my cinematographer we worked at great lengths on the shooting script very early on. But once we were shooting on location, we changed a lot of things. Very little of the shooting script, however detailed it was, found its way into the film. Several things brought about these changes. The lack of money and time (we shot the film in 29 days for less than €800,000) was a lot of pressure to put up with, which urged us to make on-spot decisions, to give up on camera angle ideas and where to put the camera choices – as we just couldn’t pull it off. It brought out in me an alertness and a keen attention to what was happening on set and it encouraged me to embrace ensuing filmmaking decisions, not based on my passion for film, but on what was actually happening at any given moment. I carried so much the film in me that this sense of urgency pushed me to trust my intuition and to work spontaneously in order to capture the essence of the film.
THE CAST Besides the supporting roles played by local, non-professional actors I hired on the shoot, the rest of the cast are portrayed by professional actors. The only actor who was attached to the project from the very start is Vlad Ivanov (Samir) who’s very popular in Romania. He’d read the script more than a year before we began shooting and immediately came on board. The others were picked after a casting process. I chose them as much for their acting range as for their ability to inhabit their roles. Their physical presence and its impact seemed integral to the film’s success. They needed to have something deep, dark and mysterious about them. I was looking for beautiful yet sickly faces, bodies that stood out in their environment and that seemed to go through the surrounding space trance-like.