‘The Whistlers’ Director on How a Documentary and a Lot of Classic Noir Films Inspired His New Comedy

TheWrap Oscar magazine: “When I decided to make a movie about people double-crossing each other, I said, ‘OK, I have to re-see noir films,'” says Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu

A version of this story about “The Whistlers” first appeared in the International Film issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.

Director Corneliu Porumboiu was a central member of the influential New Romanian Cinema, which has shockingly been completely ignored by Oscar voters. His new film, “The Whistlers,” is his second to represent that country in the Oscar race after his deadpan, talky 2009 film “Police, Adjective.” Porumboiu discussed his new movie, a wry film noir about a detective on one of the Canary Islands, where the residents have perfected a language that consists entirely of whistling.

I know this film was inspired when you saw something on TV about the whistling language on the island of La Gomera, but how did you get from that to this particular story?
It took 10 years. It was TV reportage about the island, and at one point they showed something about the whistling language. I got interested right away. I had just finished “Police, Adjective,” and after that I start to read things about the language. After two or three years I spoke with a friend of mine who was on the island who knew some teachers, and I went to the island and I saw the classes where they teach the language.

I was all the time interested to have in the center of the film the process of whistling. I wanted to make a film about a guy who was going to learn the language to do something bad, and after that this language became more important to him. All the time I was thinking, “Let’s do this film with this second character from ‘Police, Adjective’ — someone who in his ideology can’t last.”

Was it always clear that this was going to be a genre movie, a film noir?
When I decided to make a movie about people double-crossing each other, I said, “OK, I have to re-see noir films.” “The Big Sleep,” I like a lot. Also “The Maltese Falcon,” “Gilda,” “Double Indemnity,” “The Third Man,” “Notorious,” “The Night of the Hunter” … But I think “The Big Sleep,” mostly, because I wanted the story to be quite messy in the middle for the audience. The character thinks all the time that he’s in control, but he’s not. And maybe the whistling language could clarify things for him.

The film can be very funny, but it’s a deadpan, dry humor.
I had some funny dialogue scenes that I cut. The first draft was 40 minutes longer, and I took out a lot of scenes. Trying to keep a certain type of structure, to be more with action, I had to cut. So I had quite good dialogue scenes of humor that I cut. I’ll use them in another film.

This was your biggest budget film. Did you run into challenges because of its scale?
Yes, yes. We shot in Spain, but we didn’t find the money there. We found money in Germany, Romania, France and Sweden, and I had to do parts of the film or the postproduction in all those countries. Of course that brought new challenges. And also, it was the first time I had fighting scenes and shootouts, but I liked to do that.

Does it seem as crazy to you as it does to some of us that Romania has never even been nominated for an Oscar in the international category?
Yeah, I don’t know, I think the Romanian cinema in the last 15 years is quite present in festivals and all around the world, but I don’t know. For me, it’s my second time as the Romanian submission. That first one, “Police, Adjective,” I think was quite hard to be nominated. Let’s see with this one.

Read more from the International Film issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.

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