When you hear a film with the title, Monsters, the last thing that comes to mind is a couple struggling with extra marital affairs, bi-sexuality, motherhood and the traditional concepts of love and marriage. That is precisely some of the issues that the couple in Marius Olteanu’s latest feature are faced with, while doing their utmost to work through their issues, both independently and as a team. The Romanian writer/director celebrated the world premiere of Monsters. (with a period) last week at the Berlinale, winning itself the Tagesspiegel Readers’ Jury Award for Best Forum Film.
We had a chance to sit down with Olteanu along with his 2 leading stars, Judith State and Cristian Popa, to delve into the heart of the film and peel away at the common controversial topics that many are faced with today. Our wants and beliefs are constantly challenged by societal norms, the media’s influence and traditions that have long overstayed their welcome. Oltreanu challenges these beliefs and welcomes viewers to make their own interpretations based on a couple who are bound together by a sincere love. Call me a romantic, but I too believe that in the end, love does conquer all.
LRM: I’m curious to know as to why you called this film, Monsters.
Marius Olteanu: Well, I decided to call it Monsters. because, in the beginning, the name was Tie. Speaking of game, in which, the score is 0 to 0 in this sense and also, there was a tie between them … indestructible tie between the characters.
In the end, I decided that being a film a tolerance and acceptance and loving someone and willing to do whatever it takes to stay with that someone.
It is also a film about labels and how we label the things and the people we don’t understand. That’s why the title of the film, also besides Monsters, has a closed dot at the end because usually when we put labels to people and things we don’t understand, we’re not exactly able, afterwards, to change our point of view and I think a lot of people are going to judge these characters and say that, in a way, they are monsters.
LRM: I don’t see the characters as Monsters. I see them as flawed humans like the rest of us.
Marius Olteanu: Yeah, I think that says something about you, too and your ability to accept people who are maybe different from you but, I think that’s something we all have to work on, to be more accepting of people who are different from us.
LRM: Do you find that there is a lot of judgment regarding the sensitive topics in the film, like homosexuality and infidelity in Romania?
Marius Olteanu: Yeah, I mean, I’m talking about the experience I had, and I’m having, in Romania. I don’t think it’s that different from the rest of the world. Maybe it’s clear, it’s easier to see there and there are topics in the film that we are just opening up to, but I don’t know. I would say that it shouldn’t be too different. I think people are getting judged everywhere by everyone and having labels put on them. Speaking of homosexuality, for example, yeah, probably that’s a more touchy subject that it would be, let’s say, here in Germany or in Western Europe.
Marius Olteanu: Probably, yeah. Yeah, exactly. I mean, big cities. I think probably if you go to Hungary of if you would to Bulgaria or to Poland, you would probably have the same leashes-
LRM: Where did you draw inspiration from in writing this script. Did you base it on people you know or perhaps your own life experiences?
Marius Olteanu: Yeah, I think it’s all of that. I mean, there are parts of me and my experience that are in the film. Also, when I started writing it, I started doing these interviews with married people because I was curious what happens in a marriage based on love and relationship based on love after 10 years, after a longer period of time and the more input I got on this subject, the better I felt. I felt more secure, in a way, talking about this.
It definitely has a personal level, but also, some of the stories that I heard … I mean, I was never married. I’m not married and I, personally, don’t really believe in this institution but, I know people who got into marriages, in love with that person and who are struggling to stay there because it’s socially acceptable, because it makes them feel more secure or because they got attached to the person they are married to in a way they don’t really know how to deal with. It’s complicated…
It is a film about how much we are willing to do, in order to get close to the other one and to connect to the other one. I think the longer you’re staying with someone, even if you would say it gets easier, most of the time I think it gets harder.
LRM: You can sense that the couple truly loves one another and share a strong unbreakable bond.
Marius Olteanu: Yeah, because they still love each other and I think that makes it even more complicated and uncomfortable because the love here, in this situation, hasn’t disappeared. They are still really loving each other but they haven’t sorted those issues. Like his homosexuality and the fact that she doesn’t want to have kids, which is, not socially acceptable necessarily for a woman and he wants to have kids but on the other hand, he knows he’s flawed, himself, from the social point of view. They have to deal with each other’s flaws and it’s kind of like a negotiation that they keep on having but they don’t really know how to solve or to-
LRM: What are your views on what your character is going through, Judith?
Judith State: I was thinking that Dana could easily be any other woman in any other kind of relationship, not necessarily struggling with a partner who’s dealing with these sexuality issues. That above this, it actually addresses all people, in relation to other people, in relation to other relationships, really questioning the ability of going outside of yourself and trying to honestly meet the other person’s needs or expectations towards a relationship of two and not really hanging to your beliefs and to your truths.
For me, this character is really important in this regard because it raises this question of, also like Marius said, of how much are you willing to let go of yourself, of your side of the story and the truth to actually be able to really understand who’s on the other side. To really see the other person as he or she is with his or she’s needs.
Marius Olteanu: That’s exactly how you Judith is saying. I feel that on a social scale, we’re kind of leaving this crisis of properly communicating with each other and it’s hard to connect to the other one and most of the time, we are going to meet someone but not willing to get rid of our ideas, so if the other certifies the ideas that we came with then it’s great, the connection happens. But if he or she comes with different ideas, then, it’s a bit more tricky to connect.
LRM: It really is all about communication…
Judith State: They are actually doing this because they both know. They have, obviously, at the end of the film, you as a viewer are being let in on the information that they have been talking about it. They are talking but socially, I think it’s not something acceptable and it’s not even easy to communicate and that’s obvious also in the relation that he has with the other man, which keeps requiring and asking assurances that he’s discreet and not many people know about him and also, with the grandmother, who is so stuck on this idea that they should have children and they should get in line with the normal people.
Marius Olteanu: That’s really important, actually, that the viewer thinks for a very long time that they are lying to each other and they don’t actually know what the truth is. In the last scene, you realize that actually they knew all along and they are trying to deal with this, not on their own, but together. I think that’s really important because these two characters aren’t liars, you know. He might not say what happened the previous night but when he found someone, two years before, that he was in love with, he confessed that to her. Despite that, he decided to stay with her and she decided to stay with him. I mean, that in a way, is the definition of love. They don’t really have the clear answer to anything, but they decided to stay together.
LRM: In regards to playing a homosexual, were there any hesitations or concerns by the actors when getting cast for the part?
Marius Olteanu: Yeah, it’s clear in Romania that this is an issue. When I casting the other character, Alex’s character, I remember I met him and we had a discussion for two hours and he asked me, “Why do you want me to play this part?” I gave him three reasons. I said, “You are already an actor who’s famous, and a guy who’s married and has children, so your position is not going to be affected by the fact that you are playing a gay character in this film because he said, “why don’t you pick a guy who’s actually a gay guy and also a fresh face,” and stuff like that. Then, I said, “Well, it might affect his career very drastically. With you, I know you’re safe that this part is not going to do you any harm afterwards.”
Cristian Popa: I remember Serban, Alex the character, said it’s easier for people to accept that I’m playing a criminal than a homosexual.
LRM: Is that why there was no kissing?
Marius Olteanu: That didn’t come from this reason. No, it was, in terms of casting, I wanted to have someone who looked very manly so he didn’t go at all in the direction of, “Ah, I see this guy and I know he’s a homosexual.” He looks exactly opposite to what people would expect for someone in that position. All that happens in the scene doesn’t happen for the sake of keeping the actor comfortable. No, it happens because Cristian’s character, Arthur, is desperately reaching for a connection. He really wants to connect to this person, to this other guy and every time something almost happens, the other guy holds back. Kissing is the gentlest part of this sexual interaction and the other guy refuses that. He’s trying to get close and to get intimate, but on a, let’s say, beautiful level, and the other guy says, “No, I’m not doing this.”
LRM: I commend you, Cristian for your portrayal of this character. You played this part with authentic sensitivity and kindness. You were painfully honest, yet so lovable.
Marius Olteanu: Also, going back to what she said about Monsters. There is this question, who is the Monster? The one that does these kind of things or the one that puts the label of this person, saying, “You are a monster.” I hope it’s going to be reflected in a certain way for the audience too say, “When did I put a label on a person like this that seems,” as you said, “gentle and kind and emotional.”
There are two people who actually found love but in the same time, they are looking for a different kind of love.
LRM: Do you find that most people you meet actually don’t reveal their true selves, that everybody is hiding something and if yes, I guess I could ask each one of you, what can you reveal about yourself that people don’t know?
Marius Olteanu: I feel that people are, all people not just the characters in this film, are gentle and fragile. Most of the people are. In order to preserve that, they aren’t showing themselves. It just becomes out of the need of protection. I don’t think people are wicked and that’s why they hide themselves. I think it comes of this need of protection. The downside of that is that, very few times you actually get connected to the other one because there’s so much need of protection that a distance is kept always in between two people that are interacting.
I think I’m a very honest person, and I actually say things as I think they are, and I talk about myself in an honest way.
I remember I was talking once with an actress and she told me that she was raped when she was five. I remember how uncomfortable that made me. I kept on thinking afterwards, why did she say that to me? I think we also need to think of that. It’s like a dance, and that dancing scene is not there just for the sake of having a beautiful moment. The way we interact to each other is, in a way, a choreography and a dance, we’re doing this by, “How much should I reveal of myself in order for you to know me but in the same time, not to hurt you in any way.” Honesty is not something you can just slap the other one with. “Okay, here I am. Take me as I am.” Yeah, I don’t know. It’s just my take on things.
LRM: Do you guys have anything to add to that?
Judith State: Yeah, I think we are reluctant to really showing ourselves and more and more, I feel that I personally become savage, I think is the word that I feel like I truly connect less and less and less, really, emotionally to see that I’m engaged and I really vibrate on an inner level. It’s getting more and more difficult to me and I think it’s also because we live in this world where everything is shown, super fast and in ridiculously big amounts, like perfection. We always have this, I think, I don’t know maybe I’m completely wrong, this need to adjust ourselves to these images and these labels that are being served to us in all communication media and somehow comparing ourselves puts us in the position of questioning and not trusting that we are good enough and socially perfect enough to be … so, we always try to change.
Judith State: Also, what you were saying today about Instagram and we always have this tendency of showing something that maybe necessarily doesn’t have much or anything to do with what we actually feel or are like. We always have this need to validate, being validated, by the outside world which almost always seems to be perfect. I don’t know, on the channel-
Marius Olteanu: I’ll show you my best side with my best filter and everything looks amazing and you have no idea of who I really am.
LRM: Yeah, absolutely. Is this why you think so many men are afraid to reveal their sensitive side, in fear of criticism?
Cristian Popa: We had some discussion about this and sometimes I prefer to keep to myself and then not to show too much. This doesn’t mean there is not a lot of sensitivity or empathy. We have a discussion in the morning if I am or am not an empathetic person?
LRM: What inspires you, motivates you, or keeps you up at nights?
Marius Olteanu: The biggest issue that I have is that time is limited and I have only a limited amount of time and hours to understand what’s happening around me and that kind of makes me scared, most of the time, because I feel that I only get this opportunity to understand what’s happening to me and sometimes this blocks me because I feel that I want to do so many things and understand so many things and have so many experiences that look like that, I know I won’t be able to do it. It kind of makes me feel like saying sometimes, “Fuck it, I’m not doing anything anymore.” Yeah, time is my biggest issue. The limited side of time.
Judith State: My biggest issue is regarding my own self and always questioning whether I’m being truly honest to myself. That’s the question that I always ask for myself and I always squeeze and turn each situation, an important context to me on every side. I’m always focusing and thinking and rethinking about what I said wasn’t really what I meant and these strong beliefs that I’m having right now about myself and about the people around me and about life, in general. Are they really honest or is it just something that I found some answers to protect myself from and to be able to just sleep better at night. I’m always questioning because I’m talking a lot about being honest and I’m asking from the people around me to be honest. I always question, “Am I really being honest to myself?” Yeah. I always turn it on many, many sides and, “What if I’m just lying to myself? That’s a big issue for me.
Marius Olteanu: There is one more thing I realize now. It’s kindness. Are we kind enough to each other? Even for us, for me and Cristian, it was very difficult to work on this film because there were a lot of things that had to be addressed and Cristian came from very far away towards this character. I feel that Judith resembles Dana a lot. Cristian is quite different from his character. A lot of his acting abilities are actually shown in this character and because there was tension at some times in the relationship. I was going back home after the shooting and thinking, “Was there a way [I could have been] kinder in the way …” Sometimes, being a director puts you in the situation in which you are not kind enough to people.
LRM: You’re the kind of director that’s demanding on set?
Marius Olteanu: I am very demanding. Yeah, I’m very demanding because I feel a responsibility towards my characters. That makes me feel the pressure. I don’t want to show a character in a way that’s not an honest way. I want to give that character all the chances that he or she deserves. Yeah, I feel that pressure and because of that, sometimes I feel that I’m not kind enough. That’s not just in my directing experience. It’s in all my experiences and in all my interactions to people. Is there a kinder way to do what I just did.
LRM: Did you all work well together, otherwise?
Judith State: I loved it.
Cristian Popa: It was a creative tension. It was different because, for me, I work a lot in theater. It was my first feature, this movie. They are not the same ways to express. It’s a little bit different, theater from this process. There was tension, but it was a creative tension and they felt that because we’re shooting almost in one month. After the last day of shooting, I had a show, a performance in theater and I was so …affected about this character. Something new appeared from that character on the stage. My colleagues from the theater asked me, “What happened with you?” It was something different. It was a nuance? It was a little bit of transformation.
LRM: That’s a positive thing, to be able to grow and learn from your character, on a personal and professional level.
Marius Olteanu: Yeah, I think we all learn. Even I, I changed these characters and the script also from the interaction I had with Judith and with Cristian. The film is the way it is, in terms of story, also because of them. There were a lot rewrites and things that we discovered together were put into the … There were rewrites on every level. I rewrote the script myself and I decided the rehearsals. Then, I rewrote it again.
Everything that was new was taken into account with. We didn’t say like, “No, we set up to do something else, we’re going to stick to that way.” No, if any question or anything new that appeared, it was discussed and if it was saying something valuable about the characters, we would introduce it in the film. Even the ending scene was different.
LRM: Did you have your cast in mind already when you were…
Marius Olteanu: No. Casting-wise, most out of all the things, it changed a lot. I started with a different main actress, and I changed her two days before we started shooting.
Because, she’s an amazing actress, the other actress too but the thing is that we were aiming for this vulnerability and there was a sense that we couldn’t find that together. I wanted the audience to look at these two people and kind of be with them at all times and then, there was a distance.
The other actress wanted to know for sure if she cheated on Arthur or not. For her, it was important to know that she was even, that she did the same thing to him that he did to her. I said, “That’s not relevant. You can’t say that to him that you cheated just because you want his attention and his affection,” and she wanted to know how he feels about that.
With Judith, it was different. I felt that she instantly loved Arthur so much that it didn’t really matter. It was more she was there for him and she wanted to be there for him. Judith was supposed to be in one tiny scene and we rehearsed that scene and there was something so magnetic about her and the way that she was related to all the other woman in the scene that were all pregnant, that made me feel that vulnerability that I was looking for in the character.
With Cristian, it was different. I wrote the part for another actor and with that actor and with all the other actors that I saw in the casting, like 40 actors, I think more or less, I felt that they were obviously heterosexual men trying to play a gay character and faking it. There was something that I felt fragile and insecure in Cristian’s acting that made me think, “Okay, he is Arthur. He should act that part.” I think.
LRM: You chose well.
Marius Olteanu: Yeah, thank you. I’m really proud of the cast. I feel that I wouldn’t change anyone in the film. There’s no part that I feel it’s done halfway. They are the characters.
LRM: What is the advice would you give to other directors or to your younger self?
Marius Olteanu: Don’t make compromises. Never compromise when it comes to your story and being truthful to your characters. Even if your film turns up less perfect, it’s better to see your film and to say, “This is what I tried to say and I was honest in the process, through all the process towards my film and my idea,” than making compromises and saying … by that, I don’t mean be inflexible. Be flexible but when it comes to compromises, don’t do them because you’ll get to regret them. When you see a compromise on the screen, your teeth are going to just clench and no. That’s the only advice I would give.