In the 80s, in the twilight of communist Romania, “Dallas” is the only American show allowed on TV.
It offers a vision of wealth and glamour that captures the imagination of millions. Among them are Ilie and his daughter Livia. He is a small-time criminal and aspiring capitalist; she is in love with the show’s handsome leading man, Patrick Duffy. After communism falls, Ilie builds the Hotel Dallas, a life-size copy of the “Dallas” mansion. Livia immigrates to America, becomes a filmmaker, and directs a movie starring Patrick Duffy, as a man who dies in Texas and wakes up in Romania, in a hotel that looks just like home.
Here, in their feature debut, artists Livia Ungur and Sherng-Lee Huang, combine dramatised scenes with documentary, using the techniques of experimental film and music video narratives in order to unfold a multi-layered and often surreal parable about Communism, childhood and the power of art.
‘Hotel Dallas’ screens as part of the 2016 Berlinale‘s Panorama Documents programme, with one final screening on Saturday, February 20. With its premiere screenings at the renowned festival down, we spoke with the film’s Co-Director Shern-Lee Huang on “Dallas” impact on Romanian culture, it’s abrupt cancellation and more.
Find more information on ‘Hotel Dallas’ at the 2016 Berlinale HERE
How were you first introduced to this subject, specifically ‘Dallas’ influence on Romanian culture? Why did you feel it was a subject you wanted to pursue at the feature length level?
My wife and collaborator, Livia, grew up in Romania in the 80s, so “Dallas” was huge for her— it was her first image of the West, and indirectly, the first step in her journey to eventually becoming an American. I came to subject, really, because I’m married to it! Our starting point for the project, besides Livia’s childhood experience, was the Hotel Dallas, a real place in Romania that looks exactly like the mansion from the TV show. As we researched the hotel’s history, we found that it was a perfect microcosm of Romania, from the 80s, through the revolution, and into the present. The film takes a very specific, seemingly trivial subject—the popularity of a TV soap in a small country—and uses it as a lens to examine big themes: the failed utopia of communism, the crisis of capitalism, the influence of mass media, and the power of art.
The film is a hybrid documentary and fiction, was this always the case? Was there ever a moment in its life where it existed as just a narrative or just a documentary? If so, what made you fuse the two?
The film was pretty experimental from the start, but we initially thought of it as fiction. Our casting sessions consisted of interviewing the actors about their experience of “Dallas” and the 80s. Their memories were so vivid and compelling; that’s when we started thinking of incorporating documentary storytelling into our approach. The finished film is a hybrid of documentary, narrative, and experimental approaches to storytelling.
What are your own recollections and impressions of the show ‘Dallas’? I know this is easily researched, but I think they recently made a ‘Dallas’ remake. I’m sure it was unnecessary.
I watched “Dallas” as a kid, but I actually can’t claim to be a huge fan. Of course, unlike the people of Romania, I had a lot of television to choose from! I don’t think any prior knowledge of “Dallas” or Romania is necessary to enjoy the film; we try to incorporate the necessary explanations as the story unfolds.
It’s funny, ‘Dallas’ was intended to be shown to US audiences as a cautionary tale of the evils of Capitalism but, in my own experiences (my mother’s family is from Romania and I DISTINCTLY remember crowding around the TV once the show aired), many actually saw Capitalism as a draw to them. What were your impressions on its ultimate effect on the society? Did it become a more pro or con look towards the West?
The impact of “Dallas” in Romania has been complicated, and we try to show that in the film. On the one hand, perhaps its vision of wealth and glamour helped prime peoples’ hunger for capitalism; on the other hand, the corrupt capitalism practiced by the villain J.R. on the show is very much on display in Romania today. There is also a third interpretation, which is that “Dallas” was a kind of opiate of the masses; it distracted people from how bad things were in the 80s. Ceausescu, by the end, was pretty nuts, but I think he understood power and how to keep a population under control.
I also talked to my Aunt in preparation for this interview, and she said that the show was cancelled “out of the blue”. Do you have any insight into this?
How did you approach Patrick Duffy to participate in the film?
God bless IMDb—that’s how we found the email for Patrick’s manager. We wrote to him cold, with a rough cut of the footage we had shot in Romania. It was a Hail Mary pass, really—but he wrote back right away that he would do it. We asked about fees and he said, “Bring me a good bottle of wine.” We filmed with him in LA about a month later, and he wore a Romanian flag pin to the shoot. Maybe it shouldn’t be so surprising that Patrick is open to crazy out-of-left-field projects; check out “Patrick Duffy and the Crab” on YouTube, which is a strange and hilarious bit of performance art.
As the film is Co-Directed with your wife Livia, how did you split the responsibilities on set? Do you find it difficult, not only working as a husband/wife team but also with a collaborator, in general?
On set, Livia was in most of the scenes, while I was behind the camera most of the time. But we talked constantly about the direction of each scene. I don’t speak Romanian, so any ideas I had for the actors, Livia would translate. I think, factoring in the two directors and language issue, we tended to move at a slower pace than would be typical for an independent film. Our shoot in Romania was 8 weeks, and then we had about 2 weeks of additional shooting in the U.S., spread out over a year. As husband and wife, probably the most difficult aspect of working together is that there is almost no division between our personal and our working lives. Our “office” is in the living room of our one-bedroom apartment, and that’s where we edited most of the movie. I think Livia probably is better at work-life balance, whereas I tend to be a workaholic. I rely on her to put on the brakes; she’s the one who says, “Let’s forget about the film for a couple days and actually enjoy the weekend.”
Both Livia and I have a big fear of failure, which can be very paralyzing. I think that’s the best part about working in collaboration—we are more confident together than we are apart. And even though we may have really intense arguments, we trust each other completely.
I know Berlinale is the world premiere of the film but has it screened anywhere in Romania? If so, what was the reaction? Where do you take the film after Berlinale?
We have not screened the film yet in Romania, but we would love to play at a festival there, or theaters if possible. It’s a bit of a tricky situation, politically, in that the film is about Romania, but I’m American and Livia is a Romanian living in America. What gives us the right to speak for Romania? I think that’s partly why the film has such an experimental, self-reflexive style—it came out of our struggle with how to represent this source material. We’re quite anxious to see how the film would be received in Romania. For us, having a good reception in Livia’s home country would be even more satisfying than premiering at the Berlinale.