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Simon Read [Film Festival 12.07.09] movie interview

Faye Jackson fields some questions from projectcyclops about her first feature film, a horror/thriller/mystery about the Romanian myth of the Strigoi. You can read his review here.

How did you become interested in the Strigoi myth? Before seeing your film I’d never heard of it, and the Internet has so many convoluted and alternative descriptions of what Strigoi really are. Was that part of the attraction?

I’d never heard of the Strigoi myth until I went to Romania (my husband’s Romanian and I’ve visited a lot over the past 10 years).

I was researching the origins of Dracula out of curiosity and became interested in the folklore stories that appear to have inspired Stoker. I immediately loved the accounts I read of Strigoi. In particular I remember reading a story about a guy burying an uncle only to go home and find him sitting in his favourite chair, eating his dinner. To me, Strigoi are the people you can’t get rid of, even after they’re dead and it immediately seemed a good way to tell a story about history and family and corruption.

I also liked the way that the accounts are so varied and contradictory. It seems so unlikely that when a supernatural entity shows up it’s going to obey a bunch of consistent foolproof rules. Strigoi refuse to make complete sense and that seems more realistic. And it’s something I relate to a lot more. How do you deal with a problem you don’t even understand?

Strigoi features Romanian actors, speaking English, with a Romanian accent. Can you explain the decision for this treatment? Was it difficult to find actors who spoke English well enough to handle the material, or were some lines delivered phonetically?

Romanian is a language that uses a lot of word play and slang and my Romanian simply isn’t good enough to write dialogue that sounds like Romanian as it’s spoken. So I had to write it in English.

There is a Romanian translation (made quite early on for cast and crew) but I just didn’t have confidence that this literal translation worked as well as the English version. I know it’s weird, but it is a Romanian story written in English by an outsider and pretending it was “authentically” Romanian seemed just as weird (and a lot harder for me to accomplish as a director).

It was tough to find Romanian actors who could handle the English but British actors just don’t look Romanian enough. We just spent that bit longer casting and the actors we found are fantastic. There was a range of English proficiency, but the leads all had really good English.

The film features many bizarre characters interacting with each another as part of village life. Were any of their quirks inspired by people from your own life? Vlad’s grandfather is a wonderful creation, he was my favorite.

Vlad’s grandfather was partly inspired by my husband’s grandfather (who hated communists but as far as I know had nothing against gypsies). He was this amazing tough guy who lost an arm fighting in Stalingrad and then lost his land to the communist collective farms. His story was one of the reasons I wanted to make the film.

Most of the characters have some kind of link to someone or something real, whether it’s a character trait or an attitude or incident. You might be surprised which parts of the film are based on true stories.

As a horror, thriller, mystery, dark comedy and revenge story, Strigoi is quite a hard film to categorize. I’d consider this a strong point, but were you ever worried it might alienate people by not sticking to any one specific genre, or was the intention to create something more baroque that would work on a number of levels?

I always thought the fact that it wasn’t really like anything else was a good thing. Personally, I like movies that take me somewhere I haven’t been before. I was more interested in telling the story and creating a particular world than fulfilling specific genre expectations. I have had a few people complain about what Strigoi isn’t (sexy teenage vampires became insanely popular during our production period, obviously). But ultimately, it’s more fun to do something ambitious and piss some people off than to try to please everybody (which is impossible anyway).

There’s a fair amount of gore in the film, including one pretty brutal act of corpse desecration, was that fun to work with? Can you tell us anything about working with such elaborate props and make-up effects?

I do enjoy working with gore (and I was very lucky to have Special Effects Supervisor Kristyan Mallett on board). It can get very tricky on set because things never behave quite the way you expect them to, and budget restrictions mean that you are limited to a very few set-ups (rubber is expensive, so is fake blood for that matter). But a perfect reproduction of internal organs in prosthetic rubber is a joy to behold (for some reason) and it is exciting working with such skillfully rendered make-up effects.

As part horror and comedy, Strigoi also seems to be a film about social alienation, with the hero Vlad returning home from a depressing stint working in a fast-food restaurant in Italy. He’s also failed to follow in the family tradition of becoming a medical doctor, yet he seems very clever and bright. How did you find creating and writing for this character and to what degree, if any, did actor Catalin Paraschiv have a role his creation and the characters actions?

Vlad is a smart character at a low point. He has tried and failed to live up to his family’s expectations and then he’s failed to execute a decent escape (resulting in the depressing stint in fast food). I wanted a character whose identity seems pretty clear cut to the people around him (they think he’s failed because he’s weak) but who has a strength of character that doesn’t allow him to get side-tracked by any of the easy answers or solutions that corrupt the others.

Catalin was the only choice for Vlad as soon as I met him. He’s an incredibly funny and charming actor and he just made Vlad real. He brought his own particular brand of self-deprecating humour to the part and I think he conveys all of Vlad’s contradictions and doubts with real intelligence and subtlety. I don’t know what we would have done without him.

I read in the press notes that there were instances in Romania just a few years ago of people actually believing in a Strigoi, to the extent of taking things into their own hands, much like in the film. Was this part of the inspiration for a modern Strigoi film, and were you wary of these myths still existing in some parts of Europe during filming?

I think I only found out about the most recent instance of a village trying to eradicate a strigoi (by digging up a body and cutting out the heart) after we’d finished shooting. I actually saw more evidence that this myth is still part of the fabric of society by observing the burial traditions. Everyone is Greek Orthodox, but certain things (the death watch, digging up a body after 7 years to re-bury it etc.) seem to refer to more Strigoi-like beliefs about what happens when a spirit isn’t at rest.

Rural Romania is changing at a phenomenal rate, and there are all these great clashes between the old and the new. On one hand everyone is watching HBO and speaking on mobile phones, then you’ll hear on the news that someone got into trouble for performing an exorcism.

Do you have any amusing anecdotes or memories of shooting Strigoi?

I think my favourite one (that I’m allowed to tell!) is about Nicolae Stanila, the elderly actor who plays Florin Cojocaru. Basically, he’s dead throughout the entire movie. Nicolae must have spent about two weeks lying in a coffin completely still as we kept saying things like ”can you stop breathing for a few minutes?” to him. And no-one else would get in the coffin, I couldn’t even persuade anyone to act as a stand in when we were setting up shots.

We shot the funeral scene in a real church, and the actor who plays the priest (Dan Popa) sang the real death rites. So for all intents and purposes this is a real funeral. The atmosphere on set was electric.

On a break between shots, Nicolae can be overheard saying to the make-up assistant “when I get back in, can you take a photo? I want to send it to my family to freak them out.”

Can you tell us what you’re working on next?

I’m writing a few things. At the top of the pile: a sci-fi thriller set in London about a Marketing Company that’s using CCTV to read people’s minds and a tv series about minicab drivers who solve crime (sort of Dirty Pretty Things meets the A Team, except nothing like that at all).

Who do you consider to be the most interesting directors working at the moment, and who are your film-making heroes?

Ack, I’m never any good at these questions. I love so many movies and directors and my mind short circuits the minute anyone asks. I lack favourite-list-making skills.

I love classic Hollywood screwballs and Preston Sturges is a major hero of mine. I love the directors everyone loves: Kurosawa, Scorcese, David Lynch, the Coens, Wong Kar Wai, Kusturica.

I am looking forward to Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant, and whatever Paul Thomas Anderson, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (The Lives of Other) and Paolo Sorentino are up to next. And about 50 others I’ll remember in about 20 minutes time.

Many thanks to Faye for taking the time to talk to us, future projects sound amazing! Strigoi will be screening at the Anchorage Film Festival on Thursday 10th December, get yourself a ticket and check it out if you can.

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Jerome (12 years ago) Reply

Ahhhhhhhh how I love those good ol' horror stories. Love even the bad movies and this one sounds pretty good.
Got any readers of horror here? I like the books even better than the movies. Here's one for ya, Annie's Gift by Holden Herbert. It a novel about a woman coming to grips with her new found power to manipulate body energy. Yes, its a psychic vampire story. It's got great blood and guts, sex and a sense of humor.

After you see the movie above, go to Amazon and check out this book. You'll be glad you did.


Red (12 years ago) Reply

"a sci-fi thriller set in London about a Marketing Company that’s using CCTV to read people’s minds"

That just sounds Boss! Hope it gets made!


Faie (11 years ago) Reply

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Lee (11 years ago) Reply

To me, the movie looks and feels like it was written in Romanian then, another Romanian translated it into English. As a Romanian and as an English educated person sounds absolutely incredible! I am not sure of the impact it had over the English spoken world! With a little touch, and a bit of English translation for the English viewer, the movie gains the initial loss.


kari (10 years ago) Reply

I don't know...seems like a legit idea but I don't think english language and culture can ever understand the meaning of romanian old tells.
even so I still think it'll be better than most of the stuff in the entertainment industry. kudos for the idea though


Tom (10 years ago) Reply

Bravo, Ms. Jackson! After enjoying Strigoi, I look forward eagerly to your next film and, I expect, a notable career as a film maker.

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