#behindthescreen: interview with Daniel Sandu about One Step Behind the Seraphim

'One Step Behind the Seraphim' had its national premiere on 22nd September. Not long after, a part of ADFR team went to the cinema to see it without knowing what exactly to expect from it. After the movie ended, we were left with a big smile and the thought that this is a movie that deserves to be talked about. So we asked Daniel Sandu, the movie's director, to answer all our biggest curiosities about the filming days, challenges, the way in which the characters are built, soundtrack and many more.

  1. The movie is actually an autobiographical story about how it feels to be a teenager in an Orthodox theological seminary. Which are the main differences between your real experience and the one of Gabriel, our main character?

The movie is 81% based on the real story and the rest is fiction. And when I say fiction I mean that we changed the real names of the people, we ’combined’ two real people in order to create one of the characters in the movie and we changed the timing of some events. One of the major differences between the movie and reality is that I never ever gave away any information or declaration about any of my colleagues. I refused, I avoided and I stayed away from it. But when I was working on the script I received a suggestion from Andrzej Wajda that it would be interesting to see Gabriel defeated at some point and transformed into the thing he never wanted to become, so I found the idea interesting because it allowed me to present Gabriel beyond the limit of his values.

  1. How would you describe the experience of working with the young actor Ștefan Iancu, the one who plays Gabi – the character build around your real experiences at the theological seminary?

Really cool. He understood what we intended to do, he received my instructions really well given the fact that he already had some experience with filming and the most important thing is that we mostly have the same taste, interests and reactions – I was watching him outside the filming hours and he reminded me of myself, of the things I used to do, the choices I used to take. Maybe that’s why we stayed really good friends and we still have fun together, we go out or to the movies – and not just with him, but with other seraphim too!  So we’re really good friends even though Ștefan Iancu was just being born when the events in the movie were taking place.

  1. When and how did you realise that becoming a priest isn’t what you wanted?

Around the third year of seminary. At that time people took 5 years of seminary and after the first half I started asking myself some serious questions about my future and about what’s really important in life and for myself. I was looking at priesthood as something special and I wasn’t seeing myself practicing it the ideal way. And I was somehow afraid that after some years I’d find out I’m not happy and it would be too late to change something. So I said no. I want something else, I don’t know what yet, something that would make me happy when I wake up in the morning. I was lucky to find out what that thing is and today I’m doing something that fulfills me professionally and personally. I also remember one episode from the third year, on Saint George (23rd of April) – the owner of the seminary – it was a special day and it was celebrated with a special Church service in the presence of Roman’s bishop, followed by a show in the festivities hall and at the end we would receive a warm meal at the canteen that also included some meat, some cheap beer and an orange. The last item was the highlight of the event for most of the students but before we could enjoy it we had to listen to the bishop’s traditional speech in the festivities hall. I remember that all students and professors were there, seated and we were already bored and looking out the window. And all of a sudden, something changed in the bishop’s lecture. I can’t explain myself why, maybe he was also getting bored (he was an old man, he isn’t alive anymore) but he started saying that it is an act of courage to change our minds and not become priests, because a lot of cowards become priests because they’re too afraid to change something and start searching for what really brings them happiness. I remember turning my head from the window because I thought I didn’t hear him well. I looked around and all my sleepy colleagues were also waking up, looking as something had just hit them. The professors were also looking at the bishop full of surprise but nobody dared to interrupt him. All of a sudden everybody was really attentive to his speech, for some of us it was the very first time his discourse became interesting. Then he blessed us and sent us to our long awaited lunch. And at the table, while drinking the annual beer (cheap and warm) we were all discussing his words. And yes, some of my colleagues didn’t want to become priests at the end of the seminary but they didn’t have the courage nor possibilities to change their way and so they became priests after all because it was easier.

And now a really funny story from that day:

At that special Church service on the occasion of Saint George (which was also the name of the seminary’s owner), the chapel was topped up with people (I don’t understand how would they evacuate all those people in case of anything), all the seminarians, professors, special guests, the bishop, his priests and the local television were present there. It was so crowded that you couldn’t even get on your knees. And out of nowhere, an intense scent of freshly fried steak appeared. We could all smell it. The priest-headmaster made it clear with a discreet frown that the priest-schoolmaster, which was seated near the exit, must fix the situation before we make a fool of ourselves. The schoolmaster ran out of the chapel and searched through the seminary to find out which one of us skipped the service in order to fry some meat. He looked in all the bedrooms, all the locker rooms but he couldn’t find anyone. He even went to the canteen but their meat was already cooked the night before. So where was the smell that invaded the whole chapel coming from? In the end, he discovered that the housemaids’ room was right under the stairs that took to the chapel, and they were making some steak using the heater. He wasn’t able to say anything, instead he chose to cut their power from the electrical panel. And without any hint, he left the poor women with their meat raw. Then he kept walking around the seminary for another half hour, after which he turned their power back on and returned to the chapel. But after only 10 minutes the steak scent reappeared because the housemaids were not content with their meat uncooked. So the schoolmaster went and cut their power again and left it like this until the end of the service when he turned everything back on. He then proudly returned to the chapel and was surprised to find out that the television people were really angry. When he asked them what happened, they said they couldn’t film anything because of the power provider and the power outage that was going on. The headmaster then realized that he was the source of the power outage but he didn’t say a thing, and the bishop was really disappointed that the service wasn’t filmed and so was the headmaster of the seminary.

 

  1. `One Step Behind the Seraphim` also tells the story of Ivan, the priest-class master that wants to bring his students to the right path, but the methods he uses are not that `orthodox`. Father Ivan is also a character inspired by a real person. A person Vlad Ivanov didn’t want to meet, instead he preferred to create his own authentic version of him. Which are the differences between the human and the character?

Priest Ivan’s character is mostly built around a real person, to which I added some specific elements of a common mentality from that school’s orderly room. The real person was more impulsive, very colorful, he was like a power unit, even the ways he talked and walked on the street were somehow dramatic, he was a real character. There’s nothing crude in Vlad Ivanov’s interpretation, on the contrary, he is more discreet and calculated than the real Ivan. The real one was a mix of good and evil. It was really hard for people to realize when he was being good, when he was making mistakes, you had to permanently zoom out and re-examine some values and events in order to distinguish if what he’s doing is good or not. But at the same time, he was also doing some interesting things, I remember he once took us to an orphanage where we interacted with the kids, he tried to explain to us how important it is to turn our attention to troubled people. I also remember he organized a whole class trip to the monasteries in Neamț. It was beautiful but on return, me and other 4 boys obviously missed our train after a 20-km walk, and the class master didn’t leave with the first train, instead he waited to reclaim his lost sheep. Because there wasn’t any other train on that day, he suggested we take a ride back. And because we were in a really small city (Târgu-Neamț), there weren’t any cars passing by. During this long waiting time he was scolding us about punctuality and organization, the reasons why we missed our train. And after he got tired of arguing, he looked at the road, then at us, he realized that we are a total of six people, then he looked up and shouted ‘Please, Almighty God, let it be an off-road car!’. And I swear to God that after a minute an off-road car appeared. We were shocked and the priest looked at us pleased. That off-road car got closer and we were disappointed to see that it was already full. So the class-master looked up again and shouted ‘Please, Almighty God, let it be an empty off-road car!’. But no other off-road car passed by, neither full nor empty. Instead, after an hour, two Dacia cars stopped and took us all.

  1. How were the stories behind the characters created and how much did it matter which actor was going to play the role?

Some of the characters from the main core (Gabriel’s group) were created by mixing two real people. I wanted every character to represent something different from the others, to have a special background, special motivation and at least one distinctive sin. After I had set all these coordinates, I searched for actors or non-actors that, besides talent, also had some specific elements from that character. Once I identified these elements, I encouraged and gave them the freedom to explore even outside the filming moments, in order to make the characters as authentic as possible. The actor meant a lot for each character, especially if he was gonna exceed the limits of the text, because one can play a character in unpredictable moments only by understanding it. If I would totally change a scene or add a completely new one, the actor would accomplish it very easily because he’s becoming part of the character and not just a performer.

  1. How much did the shooting last and how did it go? (adventures, tense moments, pleasant memories)

The shooting lasted for 30 days, divided into 10-day packs for each season (autumn, winter, spring) because the story unfolds over the course of approximately 1 year and a half and we wanted to show the passing of time by also changing the season. There were plenty of tense moments, but no fights, because I avoid fighting on set – I have an unwritten constitution in which the first law is that no one is allowed to shout at anybody on my set. If this happens I take my backpack and leave to the hotel. Period. It’s not negotiable. Such a set of rules is necessary in order to create an ambiance on set in which everybody involved should feel comfortable enough not just to deliver but also to create. And if this ambiance is affected, then I don’t wish to be there. But there were tense moments also due to the absence of snow. It just wouldn’t snow when we wanted. We changed the dates, we also tried to relocate some scenes, and me and my filming crew were checking the weather reports hourly. We all wished to shoot some scenes with snow. It wasn’t meant to be. Adventures? Plenty. Especially with the younger actors who took their role so seriously that after the filming, at night, they were breaking out from the hotel, searching for excitement. They were young men living the experience of filming away from home to its fullest and this caused some problems to the production team, but at the same time it helped with the bonding and, finally, it built a friendship between the seraphim, friendship that lasted after the filming ended. I have many pleasant memories, the joy of shooting a scene better than we imagined it, the surprises that appeared during filming, like the prayer book that closes by itself, the friendships that formed there and which last until today.

  1. Did you consider a scene so important for you that it needed dozens of takes to achieve it? If so, we would like to know the number of takes. 😊

Dorneanu’s expulsion is what comes to my mind now. The challenge was that I wanted actor Ștefan Mihai to get into a state very close to crying, with wet eyes and everything. But the camera was on steady-cam, moving towards him from the other sidewalk. This required stopping the traffic for a couple of minutes for each take. Also, the wind was kind of strong and it made the actor uncomfortable. So we would basically stop the traffic, get ready, everybody would get into the filming mood and wait for me to say ‘Action!’, but I wouldn’t say the word until the actor showed me that he’s ready with a discreet sign. So we all waited for minutes in a row. And the drivers were waiting too. Basically, everybody was waiting for the actor to get into the right state. Then he would make the sign, I would shout ‘Action!’, the camera would get closer, we would film and then let the cars go. And in the end, I would ask for another take. There were around 12 takes, so we annoyed the drivers 12 times.

  1. Taking into consideration the movie’s theme, I’m very curious to find out how hard it was to receive approval to film in the Church.

It wasn’t easy. But I had a team of very dedicated location scouters. They searched for, hunted, called and talked to everyone in order to get our much-needed approvals. We found more sympathy in the area of Sibiu and we didn’t find any understanding in Moldova and Muntenia. So we filmed where we found good and sympathetic people, we filmed with them there and it was wonderful.

  1. Was there something you really wished to do as a director for this film and wasn’t able to achieve?

Yes. I wished for a lot of things, but I’ll only mention more filming days. We had 30 filming days and I think we would’ve needed about 40-45 to make it at ease. We didn’t have this, we weren’t at ease, it was a fast pace, with too many scenes a day. The volume of artistic decisions that I had to make each day was huge, tiring. Luckily, I had so many dedicated people my team, who were always by my side, offering me pieces of advice, suggestions, and solutions, and so we managed to make the ends meet. I was told I had the harshest baptism known in our industry for a debut film.

  1. ’One Step Behind the Seraphim’ takes a bold step forward and presents an unusual, surprising soundtrack. How were the songs chosen and how hard it was to get them?

I find that the soundtrack is an element that has been ignored for too long in the recent local cinema. It’s true that the decision of using or not using it in a movie is an artistic choice, the most common reason for not using it is that, in reality, when we walk on the street we don’t hear any music so the soundtrack is a way of manipulation. But if that’s true, then the entire movie would be a way of manipulating the feelings, including documentaries. I think that for certain movies, music is an artistic expression and I wanted this movie to have not only flawless sound editing, but also complex music. We had three types of music: chorus, original music composed especially for this movie and hits from the 90s for which we bought the copyrights. We were actually really close to buying the reinterpretation rights for ’Smells Like Teen Spirit’ from Nirvana, but the price was too big for our budget. We also had the chance to buy some Beastie Boys tracks. In the end, in order to fit our modest budget, we only bought the copyrights for some 90s’ hits, the period in which the movie takes place: Motrell Jordan – This is how we do it, Snow – Informer, the last one is very representative for the movie’s subject.


Interview by Romina Banu

English translation by Romina Banu & Laura Mușat

 

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