Director Statement

Who are the people mentioned in the end credits dedication, “Bose, Stein and Balkanski”?
They are all Phantom Fathers… Stein was Barry Gifford’s grandfather, while Balkanski was my father’s family name before WW2. As far as Bose is concerned… Bose was one of my best friends, regarded as the most talented Romanian film director, even though he made mostly shorts and documentaries… For a long time during the first decade after the Romanian revolution, everybody eagerly waited for his feature film debut. The Phantom Father was supposed to be this debut. But Bose left us just weeks before us signing the first financing contract. The film is dedicated to his memory, even though I believed he would have made a better one. The only way I could put his signature on the film is the presence of Iosif, his younger son, who plays the part of little Robert in the flashbacks.

This is how you came to direct?
No… I was the writer and the producer of the film so my mission was to complete the movie, that’s all. I tried working with two other directors, but things were not progressing and the deadlines set up by the financiers were approaching. By the time I met Joachim von Vietinghoff, who joined the production, I was desperate. But he liked the script and suggested that I should direct it. It was too personal, he said… After a couple of months of agony, I accepted to step behind the camera. The Phantom Father is a buddy movie – production wise I mean. It is a film made by friends, all together on the road, some disappearing on the way: Bose, Barry, Marcel, Lucian, Joachim, Johannes, Liviu, Kim, John… and all the others.

Is The Phantom Father an adaptation?
No. Or at least not one of the book with the same title… The Phantom Father is a memoir book by Barry Gifford, a collection of short stories in which he created a portrait of his father from past and faint recollections. A brilliant text, but nothing actually related to the film, apart from the image of the childhood of a Chicago gangster’s son. However, the Foreword of that book contains the original idea – Barry recalls a trip to Europe and the discovery of his grandfather’s transit visa papers in Vienna. The rest is more or less fiction, and the first treatment of the film is actually a short novel that Barry published under the title Almost Oriental. We both loved The Phantom Father as a title, though... But the film is still very far from Almost Oriental. Robert is a Traum himself, not a biographer of the family, as in Barry’s early version. Sami now has a much more important role and meaning, his little subplot becomes a major plot of the movie. Tanya is less mysterious, but more feminine, while the Ukrainian mobsters are not to be taken too serious – a decision I made at the story level and which stylistically changed the whole concept for the film.

Some could argue that Robert’s quest is not linear. He comes looking for his family roots in Eastern Europe but, on the way, he becomes distracted... A bit confusing, isn’t it?
Life is confusing. My character is confused. He has his midlife crisis and seizes the opportunity to leave, looking for a change – any excuse is good though! And let’s not forget that, in life, things do not evolve as in the “how to…” manuals. In a way, Robert’s arrival is similar to Barry’s coming to the Transylvania Film Festival in 2003, the place where we met. He had come there as a Jury member, but he had a hidden motive – to see the “Old Country” from where his family left in strange circumstances before WW2. On the other hand, when we entered the Synagogue of Siret and we discovered there, on a stone between some other names, that of one of the Stein family, his ancestors, Barry stormed out and later told me: “I don’t want to know whether this Stein was my grandfather or not. Mystery is better than truth”. I agree with him. And I do agree with his former film buddy, David Lynch, who once said “Why should we explain everything?”

Is Sami, the film projectionist, a fictional character? Is it yours or Barry’s?
Sami is real. We discovered him in our trip through Bucovina, in a small town called Siret, close to the border with Ukraine. Sami was one of the last surviving male Jews and the bearer of the keys of the local Synagogue, which had already been closed for good – there weren’t enough men to perform the ritual. At the same time, Sami was a real film projectionist and we met him in his cinema, the only one in town. After the war, it was renamed “Maxim Gorki”, but in the film we changed it to “Excelsior”, for the good old times’ sake – good old times which are never coming back… the Romanian “Belle Époque”!

In the film, he is traveling in a caravan, showing movies to the people...
This is fiction. Partially, at least… Funny enough, just a few weeks before principal photography started, I watched in the news the case of an errant projectionist: a local cinephile was traveling through North Moldavia and Bucovina showing movies with an old projector. I wrote this new sub-plot into the script and then it became essential to our story: Sami is chased from his old cinema by a greedy local politician who wants to build a shopping mall and travels the country showing movies with his improvised Kino caravan. This is critical to our story: Robert discovers the Old Country is full of weird characters and situations, but this situation of the cinema being replaced by a mall or any other crap is emblematic for a nation which tears down the old values set in stone and replaces them with some plastic kitsch. Sadly, a few months before completing the film, Sami passed away… our last old-school film projectionist was gone…

Where are the cinema scenes shot?
We didn’t want to use a set – we wanted to film it on location, and it was a nightmare to find an old cinema still close to its initial purpose and look. Finally, after scouting Romania from North to South and from East to West, we found this fabulous building in Braila. It is a very sad story… Tragic, even… old cinemas have been transformed into casinos, cheap bars or discos. Gorgeous buildings vandalized by the new bourgeoisie of the young Romanian capitalism. Horrible… Braila is a good example – in the 19th century, this city used to be one of the most important inner ports of Europe on the Danube, with an amazing architecture and a vivid social and cultural life; today, it is a ruin and people are unhappy and resigned to their grey life.

What about the Turkish bath scene?
This scene is important to me because it was written by Gifford himself. And there are very few scenes written by him left in the final film. Had I not left it in the film, Barry would have never forgiven me. But he still would have liked for the bathers to be fatter… MUCH fatter…

How was your working relationship with Marcel Iures?
If The Phantom Father is alive today, is because of him. As I said before, this is a film made by friends – a type of production one cannot find anymore, I think. Marcel is a great actor but, in addition, he is a great person and a great friend. I enjoyed every moment spent together, even the difficult ones. He saved me from agony and despair with his humor, philosophy, calm and warmth. I was so lucky having him around.

How do you see your film in the context of the New Romanian cinema?
I don’t… The Phantom Father has a different look and feel than the New Romanian cinema, but the same is applicable for the Old Romanian cinema. And, actually, this is what makes this film worth watching. It is different.