Florin Serban’s debut, the story of a boy about to be released from a juvenile detention center, is the latest entry from this Romanian New Wave.
Film Watch: How did the idea for the film come about?
Florin Serban: Catalin, my co-screenwriter and Andreea Valean, the author of the theater play If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle, visited a re-education center more than 10 years ago. Andreea then wrote the play and Catalin the first draft of the script. Two years ago, Catalin sent it to me and asked me if I wanted to work on it. I read it and couldn’t take my mind off it. I’ve worked on the story for a year and a half. It went through a lot of changes and countless drafts. But the crucial changes came when I first started working with the boys from the penitentiary. At this moment I started to get to know them, to understand some of the reasons for their mistakes, to finally understand how much their deeds had been influenced by their families, the environment they come from and last but not least, by all of us, the ones outside prison walls.
Film Watch: How did you work with nonprofessional actors and with real convicts?
Serban: Working with the boys took more than two months and it consisted of an acting workshop held in two penitentiaries. The ones who were selected to act in the film were the boys who proved to be talented, serious, committed and who didn’t have major misbehavior problems in the previous months.
I wasn’t expecting to find children so committed and so willing. Many are very clever and naturally sharp from the years spent in prisons and orphanages. Some of them are also incredibly talented. Some were born to be actors and I hope with all my heart to be able to work with at least two of them on my future projects. I am even thinking about writing a screenplay for one of them. In other words, working with them has been a great joy and the chance for great discovery.
The hardest challenge was to gain their trust, to make them realize that I’m not using them and that I’m not patronizing. That I consider them normal children. Children who made mistakes. Some of them did terrible things, but I did not once judge them for this. These children are people whom we judge too fast. The moment we start to see them differently than just a phrase in a tabloid article, things change fundamentally. Generally, these children look at opportunities you offer them very differently than those outside bars, and they open their hearts in a way other children will never do. All you have to do is grant them the respect that every human being deserves.
Film Watch: How did you choose your cast?
Serban: Casting for the leading role took seven months. I saw thousands of photos; I interviewed hundreds of boys. I had seen young actors, acting students, boys from different high schools, junior football teams, casting agencies. He was hard to find because he had to fulfill more requirements than normal: charisma, poise, intelligence, a strong presence and a personality to match. He would then need the ability to “close his eyes” and allow himself to be carried by his emotions. To act, in other words. There have been many boys who had one or more qualities, but George was the only one who had them all. Were there disadvantages in this being his first part? I don’t think so. He was very professional, and he showed a lot of strength and this is what the character needed. Since we both found a way to communicate, things worked out well. There were times at rehearsals and during the shooting when we thought we’d never get through it, moments when we improvised within the screenplay limits. George is now a first year student at the Theatre and Film School and I can only hope he will perform as well from now on.
Film Watch: What are your influences as a filmmaker?
Serban: I love Bresson and Almodovar. I am fascinated by N. B. Ceylan, Bruno Dumont and Ken Loach. I can’t wait to get old and make movies like Ozu, but in the meantime I want to make a movie like Gladiator.