I have watched a lot of horror films this past month. I have watched a lot of horror trailers, too. In preparation for all of my forthcoming October articles and in planning, researching, and being inspired by our Horrortown Interview series, I’ve inundated myself with contemporary horror. So, yes, I’ve seen quite a few creepy horror movies and just as many terrifying trailers over the past few weeks.
But nothing I have watched has left me feeling quite so chilled and uncomfortable as the trailer for Be My Cat: A Film for Anne, which I stumbled upon completely by chance.
After a little curious research, I’ve decided this effect is wholly by design.
There’s a reason first time film director, and writer, actor, producer Adrian Țofei is a Special Guest at the Dracula Film Festival this week. After stumbling upon his fascinating found footage manifesto, I realized that this young filmmaker was in possession of a philosophy that was both courageous and potentially game-changing. I also realized that, even without having seen his first film, I had to speak with him. Luckily, he responded to my request and provided a fresh and inspiring conversation about found footage and a general ambition to change movies as we currently know them. You can read my transcript of the call below, after the trailer for Be My Cat: A Film for Ann:
David Shreve, Jr. (Audiences Everywhere): Congratulations on being selected as a Special Guest at the Dracula Film Festival! That must be very vindicating.
Adrian Țofei: Thank you, thank you. My movie has been selected in the main competition. I’ve been invited as a guest at a few other festivals, but I wasn’t named Special Guest. [laughs]
AE: I think I understand how Adrian Tofei the character decided upon Anne Hathaway as the target of his obsession. How did Adrian Tofei the writer and director decide to build a script with Anne Hathaway at the center?
AȚ: There wasn’t only one single reason. My movie was inspired by a one-man show that I did back in 2013. That show was about a guy obsessed with an actress. The initial plan was to make an adaption of that one-man show, but as the movie project evolved, it become an original work and I only kept some elements of the psychology of my character from that one man show. So the movie isn’t an adaptation of that show. That character was also obsessed with an actress, and I kept that. That actress was also real, but she was from Romania. So that show had meaning to Romanians. Now, since I wanted this movie to have meaning on a worldwide scale, I had to find an actress that everybody knows worldwide.
Also, this character in that one man show that I played, he had an issue with cats, and I kept this in my psychology of my character in the movie. And this fit perfectly with Anne Hathaway playing Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises. In order for me to be very realistic, I wanted to really find an actress that I really liked. Not necessarily the way she looks, but it had to be someone whose performance I really liked. I loved Anne Hathaway’s performance in Les Miserable. When I saw her in that movie, I thought, “Oh my god, this is the actress.”
AE: Any word on whether Ms. Hathaway has heard about the film?
AȚ:: No, I don’t think so.
AE: Have you planned on what you’ll say if you meet her?
AȚ: No, I don’t make those plans in my mind. [laughs]
AE: Can you talk for a moment about the complications that come in a project that’s complex in a Charlie Kaufman kind of way—where you’re directing a fictional movie in which you star as a fictional version of yourself making a movie to send to a real person?
AȚ: Well, I don’t look at the movie as a fictional version of myself. People have said this in reviews. It’s a fictional character. Now I lived in character for a very long period of time. For about one year, I didn’t go out of my house and I didn’t socialize at all so I could begin to have the psychology of this character. This is why the character is very realistic, and people think it is some extension of me. The complexity, though, well… it’s funny. I can explain this by talking about the relations between me and the actresses who worked on this movie. The first relationship is between me, the director of Be My Cat: A Film for Anne, and the actresses working on the movie. This relationship is not seen on screen. The second relationship is between the fictional film director, who in fact tricks the actresses into thinking he’s a director, and the actresses played by the real actresses. This relationship is what you see in the movie. Now, the third relation… the director I play in the movie, he films some found footage scenes, and he plays a role in those scenes with the actresses playing another actress. It’s like a movie within a movie within a movie.
One thing we did to protect ourselves and not to confuse the characters with the real relations. When I was actually directing I had a language switch. It was like a safe word, only we had a language switch. When we spoke in English, it was a sign that we were in character. The moment any of us started speaking Romanian, we were directing and talking business and not in character.
AE: I don’t know if you were friends with Sonia Teoduriu, Florentina Hariton, and Alexandra Stroe beforehand, but how did you explain the film to them? Did they have any reservations?
AȚ: Oh, we weren’t friends before. I only knew Florentina because we studied acting together at the same university. But we weren’t friends, I just saw her a couple of times. She wanted to be in this movie very much. For Alexandra, I made a casting call, and for Sonia was also a casting call. I don’t remember them having any reservations. After we shot the movie, one of them mentioned they had some reservations, because it’s a creepy project, but they didn’t tell me anything before shooting.
AE: I want to touch on that for a second. In America, there’s a growing conversation about the victimization of women within both the general culture and the film culture. Obviously, the point of a horror movie isn’t to be comfortable, but do you have any concern about potential controversy stemming from the content of your film when it finds its inevitable broader audience?
AȚ: No. The only controversy that happens in my movie is because of the realism. A lot of people think that I really did those awful things to the actresses. They are not very sure if this is a fictional work. I tried to control the circumstances during filming. I directed the movie while being in character and, as I told you, I lived in character a long time before. I fully plunged into this character, and the only thing that mattered to me was to convince Anne Hathaway to come to Romania and star in my movie. The movie is directed by the character. Everything is dragged by the character’s goal. For example, when I first met the actresses after the online casting call, it was the same as my character in the movie. My character in the movie met the actresses on location with the camera, and I also, in real life, met the actresses with a camera in my hand. They didn’t know I was doing that, but they knew the moment we speak in English, we are in character. So the moment I arrived at the shooting location, I started speaking English, they knew in that moment that it was not me, Adrian the Director, but my character Adrian. I manipulated all these situations, in a way, to create a certain kind of realism that is 100% fictional, but it is so real that people are not very sure. They really think that I really did something bad to the actresses or to the cat. But none of it is real.
AE: As a found footage director with your philosophy, you have to think that that is a good thing.
AȚ:Yes! because this way, by believing what they see, they fully empathize with the movie.
AE: One opinion you and I have in common—where most people complain that there are too many found footage horror movies, I think we’ve yet to tap into their full potential. You’ve actually written an impressive manifesto on found footage. Can you tell readers about that for a moment?
AȚ: The majority of movies made in this world are not found footage. I want to talk about their essence. You see a story, you empathize with the characters. But at the same time, there’s something in your subconscious mind that tells you that what you see is not real, because of simple film conventions. The fact that you see it! You see an intimate scene, it’s very well acted, everything is great and 100% realism, but there is something in your sub-conscious mind tells you that someone was there with those people filming that scene. That can not be real! Because you see everything because of a camera, and a camera has no place in that intimate life situation. This puts a barrier between the audience and the movie. You can’t fully empathize with a movie. That’s the whole purpose of film and art; you need to empathize with what you see. You need to be a changed person at the end of a film. But, in a found footage film, this is removed! This obstacle is removed because the camera is part of the situation. It’s not reminding you that what you see is not real. And so you can fully empathize with what you see and hear.
That’s why I don’t understand films with big budgets. Do you know why films that aren’t found footage spend such huge amounts of money? They’re trying to make you forget you’re seeing things through a camera. That’s why they spend millions of dollars on post-production, on color correction, and expensive cameras– in order to make that camera disappear. Why do this? Why don’t they simply try to include the camera in the story of the movie? Why spend millions hiding the camera when you can simply justify the presence within the story of the movie.
AE: And all those big budget adjustments really just end up being reminders that it is in fact a movie.
AȚ: Yes! That’s why I think the future of filmmaking is found footage. It should be! You spend all this money, but you still can’t make a work that people can fully empathize with. Found footage started as a horror genre, but it has huge potential for drama. Found footage isn’t a genre, it’s a concept of filmmaking. I hope a lot of filmmakers– not only genre or horror filmmakers– will, at some point, understand this concept and the potential of this concept and try to tell all kinds of stories. There are some. Exhibit A and Zero Day are not horror films. They are incredibly powerful films.
AE: As a filmmaker whose first feature had a limited budget, you have to have some strong feelings about the advantages found footage medium provides to new filmmakers, right?
AȚ: The main reason for making a found footage film was these things I’ve explained. It was part of the manifesto. I didn’t decide to make a found footage film because I didn’t have money. It started as a type of method acting that I studied in school. A revolutionary form of method acting here in Romania started by Ian Cojar. He tried to make a theater show where audiences would have no evidence whatsoever that they were watching theater. He tried to destroy all the elements that reminded the audience of what they’re watching. When I made the connection to the found footage films, I said “Oh my god. This is what I have to do.” It would be impossible for me to make a movie that is not found footage. First, because I do not believe 100% in that kind of movie and second of all, I can’t make that kind of direction. I don’t understand that kind of direction. It would be impossible for me to make. Even if I had a huge budget, I would still not make a regular movie. I would spend that budget on special effects if I need them, but not visual effects. There are some found footage films where you see monsters made with visual effects. They are so fake. I do not like them at all. You see a creature and it’s obvious that it was made on a computer. So if I had a huge budget, I would spend it on those old special effects where things are really in front of a camera. If I needed to have a huge fire, I would buy a city and burn that city.
AE: What existing found footage films do you think have done it best so far?
AȚ: It’s The Blair Witch Project. It didn’t have a very deep story. It was very simple and they made it perfectly. There is no mistake. They took the actors, they put the cameras in their hands, and they didn’t direct the movie. They created the circumstances in a way that when the actors plunged into improvisations, what happened was something authentic, something real. We talk about creation in the art of filmmaking. When you know what a scene should be, you can’t talk about creation. Creation is something new. When something is anchored in something you know or something you have in your head, that is not creation. You already know that thing. Creation is something authentic, something that appears in this world for the first time. That’s why improvisation in found footage film is so powerful. It’s creation. It’s a random but controlled improvisation. Found footage films make two mistakes that go in opposite directions. One direction tries to control everything, a script in found footage. The actor, it doesn’t matter how great he is, when he already knows what will happen, it’s impossible for him to react like it’s happening for the first time.
AE: So you had no script for Be My Cat?
AȚ: I had only points. That’s what I mean. I said there are two mistakes. The other mistake is to have uncontrolled improvisation. To improvise, but not control. You need to have 100% improvisation, but the same time, improvisation must be 100% controlled. You don’t tell the actors what they do, but you need to control the circumstances. I controlled circumstances months before shooting– I talked to the actresses online, gave them goals they should reach. I also had a lot of points I had to reach. Not only psychological circumstances. I had major points, but between those points, it was improvisation.
AE: When you put out the casting call, did you audition anyone who wasn’t willing to adhere to your approach?
AȚ: Sonia wasn’t the first choice. She was the second choice. The first choice– the first actress, she was studying acting at a university and after I chose her, her teacher told her that she’s not allowed to act in movies in her first year of acting, because she doesn’t know how to act and she will not act good enough in the movie and she will make a bad image for the university. It’s a shit thing. I don’t know what’s wrong with them. If you’re studying acting, it’s your goal to be in the movie, not not to be in the movie. It proved to be a good thing, though. It proved to be a very good thing. The first actress wasn’t that harsh. She was cute like a puppy, and Sonia is stronger… I don’t know the word in English. But there was a moment when Sonia, in character, called the police for real. We were improvising and she called the police. That was totally unexpected.
AE: Did they show up?
AȚ: Yes! They showed up and those moments are in the movie. This is an example of controlled improvisation. I told Sonia that she needs to respect everything my character will say in the movie. When we started to improvise, I asked her to reject me, I mean, to reject the director played by me. And she called the police for real. This way, we ended up a very powerful conflict situation in the movie. I knew she would do something extreme. I was hoping she would do something extreme. But I didn’t know exactly what she would do. This is controlled improvisation. You don’t know what will happen, but you control the circumstances so good, that you’re 100% sure that what does happen is what you want in the movie. This is how you obtain that realism and naturalism, and at the same time have the movie you want to have.
AE: You’re following up this film with a movie called I Put the World to Sleep. Is that film found footage?
AȚ: Well… [laughs] I am definitely using the basic found footage principles. Um… This movie needs to be big.
AE: Is it too early to talk about this audition process is?
AȚ: I can talk, because the basic audition just ended. I didn’t choose the actress, but the deadline is passed. I made an online audition, asking the actresses to record themselves with cell phone cameras, webcam, everything and to convince the people watching the video that the world must be brought to an end. And then upload to YouTube, Facebook, and so on. I got some very powerful auditions. A lot of people ask why I made this a public casting call and not a private one. I don’t believe in actors who just want to be in a movie, who just want to do something. I don’t believe in this kind of performance. I want an actor that really empathizes with this project. An actor that is ready to do everything for this performance. An actress ready to have the performance of her life. Only those actors will be able to expose themselves with a public audition. Also, I’m going keep the names in the movie, so I wanted actresses who are not afraid with having themselves publicly mixed up with their characters.
AE: So this is a different kind of revolutionary approach…
AȚ: When I was a teenager, the movie that influenced me a lot and made me leave behind my passion for physics and science and get involved in the arts was 2001: A Space Odyssey. With I Put the World to Sleep, I want to combine two things: the power of the found footage concept that I’ve used in Be My Cat, and the power of making a movie that speaks about the essence of everything. I want to make a movie that, in two hours, speaks about everything. The meaning of life, the essence of humanity, the essence of the universe.
AE: That sounds like something that hasn’t been done before.
AȚ: This is a movie that I’m afraid to make. I saw a comment on Facebook from a filmmaker who said “If you’re not afraid to make a movie, if you find it easy, don’t do it.” The fact that I’m afraid to make this movie gives me a huge hope that it’s going to be a big movie.
Be My Cat: A Film for Anne will show at the Dracula Film Festival, which runs October 7-10, 2015. Adrian Țofei will be in attendance as an invited Special Guest.
All images and trailer courtesy of Adrian Țofei and bemycatafilmforanne.com.
Public auditions for I Put the World to Sleep can be seen on the film’s Facebook page.
Author’s Note: Edited for content 10/07/2015.