At the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, ‘young, handsome and talented’ chokes the footpaths. So for Romanian writer/director Bogdan Mirica to tick all those boxes and still rise above the din is no small feat. His Coen-esque debut feature Dogs (Caini) tells the story of an inheritance gone bad, when Roman (Dragos Bucur) takes control of his late grandfather’s land only to find local criminal interests need the site for their ongoing operations. Mirica’s fierce, blackly humorous western-noir earned a slot in Un Certain Regard, his command of the narrative and vision within the frame tagging him as one of international cinema’s ‘Next Big Things’. Utterly charming despite my delayed arrival, he spoke with SCREEN-SPACE on the famous Palais de Festival Balcony about mounting such an ambitious first production….
SCREEN-SPACE: What were the origins of your narrative?
MIRICA: I never start a movie with a story; I start it with a feeling. When I was a kid I would spend a lot of time at my grandmother’s home in the countryside, where I witnessed a lot of conflict between the locals; big fights, with axes and hatchets and bike chains. What I found really frightening was not the fighting itself, but the random nature of the conflict. There was no cause, no goal, no real purpose to it. With no causality, you can’t really predict what is going to happen. I kept this sense of dread, that the person in front of you might smash your face with no reason with me for a long time. After 25 years, I knew I had to make a movie to get rid of this fear. That’s what I needed to capture in the movie.
SCREEN-SPACE: The sparse landscape and the ‘good guy/bad guy’ plotting have been compared to the classic American western genre. What cinema inspired your style and storytelling?
MIRICA: Absolutely, the set-up to my film is The Good The Bad and The Ugly, the classic three-guy face-off. The vast wide shot, the cinemascope frame, is clearly taken from the great western era. But the movie is a hybrid of genres. It has western elements, but also the noir thriller, the personal drama, some social realism, some dark humour. I don’t want to be cornered as a filmmaker, as some kind of student of cinema. I am a film buff, for certain, but I am not a scholar. I watch a lot of movies but I don’t try to find theory in a film. I prefer to simply feel it, to react to it organically, especially the first time I watch a movie. If it feels right for me is the only criteria I follow when I’m looking for inspiration. (Pictured, above: Dragos Bucur as Roman)
SCREEN-SPACE: There’s plenty of praise for those ‘contemporary noir’ elements, some critics comparing the mood to classic Coen Brothers works.
MIRICA: That’s very flattering but the directors who inspire me aren’t necessarily reflected in this film. For example, John Cassavetes or Jean-Pierre Melville or Billy Wilder. These directors, amongst others, inspire a certain feeling that I then metabolise into something new, something of my own. I don’t like to quote or reference other works and use them literally.
SCREEN-SPACE: From your background in advertising, where you have lots of money to shoot over a few days, to independent filmmaking, where you have no money and shoot for 30 days. How easy was it to move between the short form and long form movie making?
MIRICA: (Laughs) You’re right! Ten years ago, I had a budget of 1millionEuro to spend in 5 days. I made my movie for 800,000Euro over 25 days. We had a lot of rehearsal time and I spent a lot of time with my DOP on the shot list. When we got on set, we knew exactly what we wanted to shoot, from what angle and with what lens. We still had to adapt to conditions and veer off those plans, of course, but at least we knew what could be changed or gotten rid of without impacting the drama. We moved lean and fast. (Pictured, above: Mirica on-set with actors, l-r, Gheorghe Visu and Vlad Ivanov)
SCREEN-SPACE: Did that help in post-production? Did having a finite amount of footage make editing easier?
MIRICA: Initially, the movie was way more epic. We shot some huge stunts and amazing scenes with lots of animals but decided to cut them out simply because the early versions were just too heavy. We went for an edgier tone that I think stemmed from the unorthodox way in which we edited. The intention was to make the first half of the film quite abrupt, to cut then cut then cut again. I wanted play with the form, to have fun and take some risks. So the editing became a huge and unique creative process that altered the DNA of the movie.
SCREEN-SPACE: Amidst all the darkness, the weighty themes dealing with machismo and violence and so on, there is the wonderfully absurd, almost surreal moment with the foot…
I’d written seven, maybe eight feature scripts and two TV series before I wrote Dogs. And all of them were comedies! It is hard to prevent myself from writing funny, silly stuff (laughs). Sometimes my sense of humour is shit, the kind of humour that has people saying, “What the fuck…?” Now, the scene with the foot, which was a very difficult tracking shot that had to be done very carefully, was initially envisioned as a series of ‘macro’ shots that captured detail and texture, like toenails and skin. But we decided that the scene should not be about the foot specifically, but how it bonds the protagonist with the nemesis. The tracking shot captures that particularly well, I think. And that sequence was originally much longer, like 10 minutes or more of tracking. But the economics of the movie dictated otherwise.
SCREEN-SPACE: What is it about the people and issues of this remote Romanian rural setting that will be relevant to international filmgoers?
(Laughs) But some Romanian people said to me, “Why are you making this movie, which is more like an American western or Australian outback film?” One of my favourite films is John Hillcoat’s The Proposition. I listened to the soundtrack by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis all the time while I was writing Dogs. Another favourite film of mine is Wake in Fright, which not many people in my country know about. These films were more than the sum of their elements, more than just films set in the Australian outback, and I hope my film amounts to more than just a Romanian outback story. I hope it speaks to audiences everywhere about humanity’s corrosive and corrupted nature. That is something mankind must come to terms with in all parts of the world.
Dogs (Caini) is currently in limited release in selected European cinemas; other territories to follow.