The Phantom Father is a new(ish) film written and directed by Lucian Georgescu, a Romanian gentleman who has also dabbled in advertising, screenwriting, and various other creative enterprises in his homeland. The plot of The Phantom Father revolves around American professor Robert Traum, who takes a sabbatical from his teaching duties to trace his family's lineage in the Carpathians. Along the way he discovers that the ancestors who he thought were dirt poor were actually a wealthy family involved in organized crime, falls in love with a government archivist whose duty is to chaperone and assist him throughout his quest, and finally reestablishes contact with the sole remaining link to his otherwise deceased family—Sami, a good friend of Robert's father who travels the countryside screening old films out of his RV because he was kicked out of his hometown cinema by the fat and greedy local mayor.
The movie shares its title with a memoir by VICE contributor Barry Gifford (whose contribution to our September issue, "The Vast Difference," is a must-read), however, its storyline has little in common with that particular book and is instead loosely based on Barry's novella Almost Oriental. Barry also plays a small but particularly memorable part in the film—Robert's dean who early in the movie tries to convince him that his planned trip will be a waste of time.
Tonight the film screens at London's Romanian Film Festival, and next week it will show at Germany's esteemed Mannheim Heidelberg film festival. We spoke with Lucian earlier today, and boy was this guy excited that his long-delayed movie is finally getting the recognition it deservers.
VICE: Being a big Barry Gifford fan, one of the most interesting aspects of the film, to me, was how you reimagined the short story on which the screenplay is based. Was there a specific aspect of its story that inspired you, and from that you transformed it into your own thing?
Lucian Georgescu: I read the book, I love the way he talks about something you don't see that comes out from the memories. He's a great writer. I love him.
Barry also plays a small role in the film, but there isn't much in common with his eponymous memoir. Certain plot points in the story, however, seemed to be based on Barry's heritage. Did he advise you while you were writing the script or anything like that?
What both of us had in mind at the beginning was a sort of road movie. I wanted to do something more related to the story of when we met and did this very weird adventure, Barry and I, through the Transylvanian mountains trying to find the roots of his family, which was a mix of black humor—of two cultures meeting together and confusion all the time. Barry wrote the first synopsis and then we had to stop because there wasn't money enough to progress. And he ended up transforming that into a novella, which he later published, called Almost Oriental. If you look at the movie as it is right now you will find some things that are close to Almost Oriental, but still the movie is not the same. So, at the end of the day, you could say that a real script for this movie never existed. There were lots of improvised things and bits, and a lot of confusion that I really liked to play with as I was making the film because life is confusing. At the end of the day, it's not the duty of movies to clarify life, it's just as it is. So I wouldn't say it was a work-in-progress with Barry and I. It was more a contamination of our spirits and our persons and our friendship—of things we share and don't share.
How did you convince Barry to act in it? Having met him, that doesn't seem like something he'd be keen on, but what do I know.
That was fun; that's the nice part. This German producer who helped with the movie had the idea. It took so long to finish the movie that, at one point, I wasn't in touch with Barry as much as I should've been—only through emails and some very rare phone calls. The whole thing was falling apart, even our relationship, which was very bad because we are good friends and I love him a lot—besides respecting him I love him. At a certain point Barry was kind of annoyed and pissed off, and Barry's not an easy character. We even had fights over email. I think the most interesting thing after this movie would be to publish the emails between Barry and I; they're lovely so I hope I will do that. So everything went cold and distant, he probably didn't believe I would ever succeed to get this done, and I was feeling very frustrated and lonely here. Then, at a certain point, we needed to shoot the scene where Robert Traum's dean advises him not to go on the trip. So this German producer whose done over 60 movies says, "Why don't you talk to Barry and ask him to be in it?" I took a long breath, wrote him an email and said, "Don't kill me; this is the idea. What do you think about it?" And he said, "OK I want to come do it."
Romanian cinema has faced some very tough times over the years, and even now not many movies are produced inside Romania. However, this hasn't always been the case, and it seems that the character of Sami represents the continuum of the old, pre-revolution contingent of filmmakers influencing people like yourself.
We had quite a cultural output before the Revolution of 1989, and the true story with that is that Sami was coming from a very traditional family of people who were giving movies protection from the early 20th century. When the Russians came in in '45 with all the army and everything, they destroyed everything and turned the cinema into a propaganda tool. Sami is a witness of the past. He knows what happened before the second World War, and then he witnessed the story of the Russians coming and the communists transforming the movies to a propaganda tool, but he's a cinephile; he's in love with the movies. The idea of him going from one village to another came to me via the Romanian media, before shooting commenced when I heard there was an old cinephile guy in Moldavia who travels in a caravan showing people movies just for his pleasure.