Cannes Winning director Cristian Mungiu discusses his approach to sound and framing in his film Graduation.
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In Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation, Romeo (Adrian Titieni) is so desperate to help his daughter, Eliza (Maria Dragus), escape the corruption of Romania that he himself becomes deeply implicated in it. On the eve of her final exams, Eliza gets raped. The timing couldn’t be worse: success on the exams would mean a scholarship to university in England and a ticket out of Romania. Romeo is so intent on helping Eliza succeed that he doesn’t mind if he has to cheat to make it happen, becoming everything he hates about his country.
Mungiu, who picked up the Palme d’Or for 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, shared the Cannes Best Director prize last is year, with Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper, for his work on Graduation. When the film screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, I talked to Mungiu about how he approaches framing, directing actors, and his great passion: sound. Cristian Mungiu talked at length about how to create a naturalistic sound design, including doing takes with actors in which they only do the movements without the dialogue, so he can capture the sound.
Seventh Row (7R): You tend to favour scenes with a single, long take. How do you decide where to put the camera and how to frame the shot?
Cristian Mungiu: I believe that it’s best for the film to have everything shot in just one shot per scene. Once you decide this, the rest falls into place. Before deciding what to shoot, you think a lot. What would be the best position of the camera to make you focus on what’s important? You have to make these decisions scene by scene. Very often, it’s a very logical decision given who speaks, who delivers the most important message in the scene. What’s more important: to listen to the reaction or to listen to the guy talking?I believe that it’s best for the film to have everything shot in just one shot per scene.Click To Tweet
My camera won’t move unless there’s a movement triggering the camera to move. If I invent in a situation, by staging, a trajectory for the characters, the camera will follow, always. In the kitchen, for example, when they speak at the beginning, there are a million different positions of the camera. We start with a one-shot, then a two-shot, then it’s a one-shot again, and so on. It’s the result of a lot of choreography, always trying to favour what’s more important in the shot.
If you don’t shoot the way people shoot normally in mainstream cinema, with coverage, you win something and you lose something. If you don’t edit, the scene needs to work precisely. It needs to work with the lens that you use, with the rhythm that you use, and finally, with the sound that you use.My camera won’t move unless there’s a movement triggering the camera to move.Click To Tweet
7R: How do you decide whom to favour in a scene and when in your film Graduation?
Cristian Mungiu: Whenever I can, I try to favour all the characters. But always, there’s going to be the main character who matters, because it’s his perspective that matters. This is my third film where the perspective is very, very subjective. He’s in all the shots. You know as much as he knows. He’s not always facing the camera. It’s not about this. It’s about this need to feel his presence over there.
For example, in the scene where he speaks with his daughter, he’s not closest to the camera. They’re both facing each other. It’s just that he’s speaking so much and she’s listening. So more of the attention will be on him.
By the way, that’s a very difficult scene for the actors. She asked me when we were shooting this, “Give me something to do. I need something to do. I’m just sitting here and listening.” And I said, “But this is what you’re supposed to do, so figure this out. You don’t have to do anything. If you do something, I will just watch what you do. I won’t watch him. That’s not what I want the spectator to do. What’s important is not to fake what you’re doing but to listen to him. He has something to tell you. It’s an important moment in your life. It’s really important.”I am very much attached to all of my sound coming from my shooting.Click To Tweet
What’s difficult for an actor is to listen to him the 20th time. But if the actor is really good, he will listen the 20th time. Because if not, you feel that he’s not there. This is not good for the partner and the film. She was making this effort, and you can’t tell in the film that this is the 35th take. You can’t really tell this because she’s there. It’s important to see that there’s a reaction to everything he says. What he says is not very nice. He uses a lot of very nice words and he’s packaging this thing, but actually, it’s not very nice. There’s a lot of manipulation. So it was important for me to get this from the girl.
7R: What is your approach to sound design in the film Graduation?
Cristian Mungiu: We don’t use music. But I want to have a very rich soundscape. I really believe that this is a very important layer, which gives spectators the feeling that this is reality, if the sound carries all the elements that are in everyday life. You won’t notice them, but I need to have them there. Some people work with very clean sound. I don’t work like this. I try to have the dialogue recorded as clean as I can, but then I add a million extra layers. I think it’s important to have all the elements which the frame allows you to have because they contribute a lot to the atmosphere. The sound is also important for the rhythm of the shot.We do the same take with the actors, just without the camera, to get the sound very clean. Click To Tweet
For that scene, with the grandmother, for example, we have a million layers of sound. The sound has the same role that music does in other films. The soundscape keeps up the rhythms. But it’s natural sounds. It’s the TV sound — maybe, it’s a bit louder than you’d listen to it. It’s this guy on the second floor who is repairing something in his apartment. He’s drilling. Then, there’s this telephone that rings that nobody has the time to answer. This helps a lot with the tension in the film.
I encourage people to speak in a very low voice in the film. I think that you are much more expressive when you talk like this. There are a lot of shades in the way people tell their lines and a lot of subtext. It’s not what you say. It’s also what you imply with this, what you mean. A lot of context comes with this. It’s very difficult to get good sound like this. Sound people learn how to work with me so that we can listen to what they say and have the atmosphere in the film.
7R: The sound that you’re adding in the film Graduation, is that background sound recorded on the day? Or is it all added afterward?
Cristian Mungiu: I am very much attached to all of my sound coming from my shooting. I try to have very clean takes, but then I take as much sound as I can. If there’s a glass being broken in the film, I like to have the sound of that glass being broken there. Because the sound belongs to that place with all the buildings around. So this is what we do always.
We take a lot of extra sound for the actors. Pretty often, we do the same take with the actors, just without the camera, to [get the sound] safely and very clean. I encourage them to act as well as they can, even if there’s no camera movement. Then, we take a separate sound for everything which happens without the lines. They will do the same things, as much as possible, with the same rhythm. They will do all the actions. I will try to have all the sound. Later on, in post-production, when we do foley, we will double [the volume of these sounds] again. But you can choose.My editor will cut the last consonant from another take and place it here at the end of the word.Click To Tweet
I like to encourage my sound people, when we shoot, to send someone from the sound crew, and take the sounds of the place where we shoot: the traffic, the bees. We take the sound of everything: all the doors, all the squeaks. Everything that makes a sound, we will have it later on. When we were shooting, I found some trees over there with loads of bees. I like that thing so I want to have it. There are specific sounds of the place where we decided to shoot. You won’t notice most of these things in the film. But if you watch how the sound looks before the mix, there are a lot of layers. So, the mixing is not so easy for us. We need to find someone who knows how to do this so that it’s still clean in the end, and it’s balanced a certain way.
7R: Because the sound is so important for determining the rhythms of the scenes, how does this affect how you edited the film Graduation?
Cristian Mungiu: It’s difficult for me to edit without the sound. First of all, the scenes don’t carry the sound. They just have the dialogue.
I start editing during the shooting. My editor would come on the set. He brings all the equipment with him. We set up this editing room in one of the hotel rooms. This gives me the possibility to watch some of the material in the evenings, to choose with him. But I trust him to make the first pick himself.As soon as the editor has two scenes connected, he starts working with the sound.Click To Tweet
I know already when I shoot which is my take. I’m quite organized. Sometimes, I don’t have this take because there isn’t one that’s obviously better. I will just circle two, three, or four, and he will start by watching these. As I advance with the film, we have a bit of a rough cut.
As soon as he has two scenes connected, he starts working with the sound because the rhythm of the editing won’t be right unless you have the sound. Sound gives you such a different perspective. By the end of this rough cut of the film, we already have a first rough cut of the sound.
I encourage my actors to say the same thing in all the takes. I do this also for another purpose. No matter how good the actors are, it’s very difficult to have a five minute scene, an eight minute scene, with everything said perfectly in a way that I think is the logical way of expressing this. You might have one which is neutral.
Therefore, I edit the sound. If the sound is very clean, sometimes, I can edit for which has the right rhythm, which I can’t change. This is how I pick the takes. It needs to have the right rhythm and be well-played, but not 100%. 90% is okay. The rest I can correct. I can edit sound from the other takes, and the rest is the best they could do.
The editor that I work with is very good. He manages to put things together from different takes that you wouldn’t notice. When you speak, your speech is not [always enunciated clearly]. You speak in a very mumbled way somehow. I like to have these kinds of things in the film.
Sometimes, he will cut the last consonant from another take, and place it here at the end of the word, like that. I don’t know how he does it. And you don’t notice. Until this film, we were using just words. Now, we started using pieces of words. He manages to do this: letters, sounds.
Meanwhile, he was having his computer and doing the computer graphics for this film. It seems like there are no computer graphics in the film, but there is. Every film has some computer graphics.
7R: What kind of computer graphics does the film Graduation have?
Cristian Mungiu: He did something very creative for me aside from just erasing cables. There was a shot that I liked a lot, with this Bulai guy [the Vice-Mayor], the first scene in his office, and you see the town behind. The first take in that scene, the camera was such that I could see the mountains. I liked those mountains. But after the second take, we had better adjusted the position of the actors and everything, so now the camera [had moved down slightly to obscure the mountains].You choose the best take for the actors, not for anything else.Click To Tweet
You choose the best take for the actors, not for anything else. But I’d lost the mountains. He moved them down. He tracked them down from that other shot, and there were some birds in the sky. He took them down. That was very creative. It’s a very little something, but, for me, it’s important. I did my best with my material for the film.
Read more: Olivier Assayas on the sound design of Personal Shopper >>
This article was originally published on April 5, 2017, for the U.S. release of the film Graduation. It has been republished for the Canadian release of Cristian Mungiu’s Cannes-winning film Graduation.