Mălina Ionescu: All the seats have been taken.

By July 7, 2018

Mălina Ionescu

From: Bucharest Born on: 15 February 1982 Occupation: Scenographer

Mălina Ionescu is a woman of film and theater. On her beautiful occupation, the dazzling spotlights in case of an actor or director are here unfairly diffused.  Poziția copilului, Două lozuri, Marița, Toni Erdmann and Charleston are among the projects were she was involved in, either as art director or as a production designer. She creates costumes, scenes and atmosphere, managing to think a movie from head to tail with memorable consistency and aesthetics. Contributions often omitted by the general public, but imperative for the emotion and trembling of every soul. That’s why it’s worth looking at the backstage. We will find demanding work, but especially dedicated and beautiful people like Mălina.

For me, the awareness of this situation suddenly came from watching the movie Charleston. Certainly, there were a lot of impressive stories who remained implanted in my thought for days in a row. But, here, somehow, it was more than just a good story. It was well said, but especially well supported by the physical context created: locations, objects, clothes styles, lights, music and much more. That’s how I found Mălina Ionescu – looking desperately in the evening of watching the movie, for the person who brought charm and unity to the eyes of the spectator that I have been. Scenes from the bittersweet and humorous movie rolled on my retina independently of my will. The story of the widower Alexandru, who lost his wife, Ioana, a couple of weeks ago and who bears his mourning with Sebastian, the unexpected lover in her past 5 months – more or less, is striking.

I didn’t ask too much about Charleston for fear of breaking the wonderful result into actions and reasons.

Mălina Ionescu doesn’t have a personal definition of the ideal decor, but through an exercise of imagination she builds it as a puzzle. She puts pieces from all around the world and place them next to each other. Barcelona’s segments of streets, bars in Madrid, museums in New York and fragments of Berlin are welded together, forming a picture with meaning or not for intruders. With a fascination for people and decrepit or abandoned places, the artist has also made some photography exhibitions. She confessed to me that an artistic object or work of art, in any form, plastic, film or theater, must be emotional in one way or another. This is the only way in which the goal is achieved – with feeling, with inner questions marks, with dilemmas or even discomfort for the audience. If you’re honest, you agree with her. She is a woman with a discreet politeness and sense of humor who demonstrates her dedication to everything that she begins, from important projects to small aspects of her everyday life, which I have had the chance to see during our discussion.

So, until the rest of us will succeed to recognize, and not just for us, what makes us say that a movie was really good, I leave the interview with Mălina below. Have a cigar and enjoy, darling!

MS: Can you tell me your journey to scenography?

I think it started a long time ago when I was 8 or 9 years old. I remember going with my father, also a scenographer, when shooting in different areas of country or on a movie set in Buftea. That’s how I came in contact with the world of film and decor, where I had all sorts of initiatives, although most of the time I was thinking about details that were not necessarily visible to the public. But I considered them important at that moment. I think that then the passion for decor and film costume was born, when I was not even aware of what was sedimenting in me.

MS: But why did you go to german high school Hermann Oberth?

Because during communism time my parents wanted me in a secure place if I had to leave Romania. They made sure I could handle a foreign country. The German language is a difficult one to learn and they thought it best to start with it. They thought of Germany also because they had a few friends there. And after high school I wanted to go to art, but eventually I enrolled at the Faculty of Foreign Languages.

MS: And later photo …?

Yes. I was frustrated after college because I didn’t want to teach or translate. I’m not the sort of person sitting on the chair and doing the same thing in a classic routine, and for this reson I decided one evening: I’m going to sign up to the photo-video section of UNARTE. The faculty was not the greatest joy, though I learned quite a lot of good things. There I felt that if you didn’t get into a template, you cann’t have a place for yourself. Generally, you can not tell to an artist how to create. He sees everything in his own way, in his purely subjective manner. The artist by definition is subjective.

MS: How it was your first project?

A short bachelor’s degree, where I made the costumes. I remember that I processed them exactly on the day of the filming and I had to dry them on the hood of a heated engine car. One week I had brown fingernails from the deterioration process. My gloves slipped from my hands when I rubbed my jacket with different solutions to bring it to the required damage stage.

MS: What did draw you to the scenography?

The fact that I can create an atmosphere and that I have the chance, by decor and costumes, to add verity to the characters. I really like what I do and every project I have, actually, involves reinventing myself.

MS: How it is for you the whole process behind creating film decorations?

I always start from the script. I read it once, twice, maybe three times, depending on how complex it is. I write down the moste important things, then I have a meeting with the director. He tells me his vision and sets me the direction he wants to take the film and the characters. It comes with a more detailed description of these. In other words, it gives me more than I managed to identify in the script.

And then, after I gather all this information, I ask myself: How can I believe that person is exactly who wants to be, and not just an actor who says some replies? I have to use different types of aesthetics to achieve a certain credibility. Because it does not have to be nice all the time. And from ugliness you can create atmosphere.

And after I have the whole picture set in my mind, I can transpose it on paper and make sketches. After that begins the search for decoration objects, the construction of some decors, practically all the process that makes a space become a film decoration. In general we work with people specialized on props, who are looking, under clear specifications, for the decoration items, but I prefer to go with them and to choose them personal, with my own hand. There is a need for me to feel these objects and to view their utility and impact. The direct relation with the object itself seems to me more beneficial.

MS: But how do you know that a certain decoration is enough? That you do not have to add a chair or put a pen on the desk …?

You just know!

MS: But how?

You feel it extra. You can put it, but you can see it and you take it out, because it’s extra. It has happened to me that I have a very beautiful object that I would definitely want to use in the decor, but to move it around and realize that it is not from that story. All seats have been taken.

MS: “The design is not in detail, but the details are the design.” What do you think about this quote?

Yes, it is true! The details create the atmosphere. A well-placed lamp, a color in the right proportion, a pattern, a wallpaper, counts. There is nothing random or should not be in my job.

MS: Can you make a good decor with a small buget?

You can, if you choose your locations well. You have to make sure these spaces match your plan and do not choose a place hoping to be what you need.

MS: How are the differences in scenography between the film and the theater?

They are quite large and start from the way you start thinking. You go on different lines of thought. One way is to create something on a theater stage, where the decor actually interacts directly with the audience and in another way you creates a movie decoration. In the last situation, the decor is “on the move,” you do not always see it all, and it’s as if it’s different depending on how you look. The movie is a bit harder because you have to create atmosphere in every movie setting.

MS: What happens to a decoration after a movie or a play ends?

Some theater pieces still preserve the decorations, but depending on the available storage space of the institution. And for the movie, the purchased props are set aside, and the rest is trew away or demolished, in general.

MS: It sounds pretty painful …

It’s very painful, but you can not save them all. This is one of the trade-offs.

MS: Because I’ve just seen the Charleston movie, where you worked on, I have to ask you: what role does the elephant have in the movie? We can find him in the car, hanging from the mirror, on Ana’s bedside table and on the kitchen apron.

Considering that Ioana has disappeared from the story of the film for very little time, her “presence” had to be somehow imposed. And this elephant does that – he tells that the character Ioana liked the elephants. Andrei Cretulescu, the director of the film, wanted this elephant in the movie and after a negotiation, between a bear and an elephant, we chose the elephant.

MS: But the watch on Alexandru’s bed would also say something … that time stopped in place … or was it just normal to see a watch on the bedside?

It didn’t mean anything, it’s just a watch on the bedside table. There are other aspects to which we have given meaning even though I do not know how visible they were. For example, Alexandru at the beginning of the film was wearing a red blouse, then gave to Sebastian his red shirt. It’s a ping-pong of pain. There is also the blue dress of Ioana from the beginning of the movie, a blue that can be found on the walls of their bedroom, which seems to have been intact after the disappearance of Ioana.

The colors in this movie tell something about the emotional state of the characters.

MS: What did you enjoy most about this story and at the filming?

I liked this movie ever since I read the script and I was very excited. Andrei and Codruţa Crețulescu are firstly my friends, and with Andrei I have been collaborating since his first projects as a director and we work very well together. Most of the time I realize the direction in which he wants to take the film only reading the scenario. And besides our friendship, the fact that he was filming in the neighborhood where I grew up resonated with me. It is also the neighborhood where Andrei has grown, so we have a fairly common background. Perhaps this justifies better our professional relationship.

Another positive thing was my freedom as a set designer. The locations are real, but everything else is built. For me it was a challenge to control the decor and the costumes, because it is practically everything you see on the screen.

MS:  Aren’t you scared by this responsibility?

Sure! But, I had time to do it. For example, I first made the costumes and then I focused on the decor. Certainly, step-by-step work helps you in terms of chromaticity and the clearer outline of characters. You also gain consistency and unity, when one person deals with both.

MS: There is an unreal scene of irony at a bar, with some magnificent lamps giving a familiar effect to that moment. Why did you choose the Have a Cigar pub for that sequence?

It’s a funny story here. Some time ago, I had been filming with Andrei Creţulescu a sequence from a short film, Şapte Luni mai târziu (Seven Months Later), and the people there were very nice, welcoming us with open arms. Because we had a pleasant experience, I said we should make a visit also for Charleston. Once we saw that they were in renovations, we told them what was in our minds and what color fits both for the bar and the film … We got a little bit involved in the renovation, being pressed by the filming program. Then we started to decorate the bar for our film sequence.

It was ready, in the last minute.

Mălina Ionescu and Charleston imprinted the smell of cigarette in my olfactory memory. An association that started from the dozens of cigarettes smoked by Alexandru, the movie character, went to the Have a Cigar pub and ended with Mălina’s request to interview her on a terrace – for smoking, she said. The whole experience was like a nostalgic wave of smoke, nostalgic felt, but with a smile on lips, by a healed addict.

More about Mălina Ionescu’s activities and projects you can find on her Facebook page or on her personal platform – malinaionescu.ro.