Strange, funny, surreal: the playful aesthetics and irony in All Sales Final is a distinctive mark of Ingrid Serban’s filmmaking style. The absurd story of Samuel A. Dillon is rendered in clear, precise images, echoing the oldest forms of cinema. We are pleased to present Ingrid Serban for this year’s CinéWomen Edition. Ingrid, how did you get into filmmaking?
It’s truly an honor to be selected by CinéWomen and I am happy to share a bit of my creative and filmmaking journey with you.
The short answer to this question is this: I had an idea for a story and the irresistible impetus to give it life. I grabbed my IPhone, a tripod and a few brave friends and in seven hours and five locations, we created “All Sales Final.” The longer version of this answer involves a trip back in time to a small town in Romania where I was living with my grandparents. I was about five years old and my grandmother, who was a big fan of Indian cinema, took me to see a three-hour flick at the only film house in town. I was enchanted and didn’t mind the lack of ventilation, the uncomfortable chairs or the sweltering heat of the summer. The colors were brilliant. The music was intoxicating. I decided then that cinema was magic and that I was going to be a part of it somehow.
You have studied piano and voice at the Sigismund Toduta Lycee in Cluj-Napoca. What is the influence of your musical background on your filmmaking style?
When I was about two years old, I knew I wanted to be a pianist. For the next four years, I would pretend to play on my grandmother’s kitchen table and dream of the day when I would touch a real piano. That desire became reality when I was accepted into the prestigious Sigismund Toduta Lycee and my parents had finally saved enough money to buy an old grand piano. We lived on the eighth floor of a communist block building so you can imagine the effort it took to transport it to the top. I was practically dancing around the eight heavily sweating men who were painstakingly dragging it up the one hundred and thirty six steps.
That hundred-year-old piano moved into my room joining the existing sparse décor of a small couch and a bookshelf and became my closest friend, confidante and creative partner. One of my favorite games was making up stories and scoring them as I went. To me filmmaking has a musical rhythm to it, a sort of breath that transports the viewer into a waltz of images, a minuet of stories. Every story is like a song and every song is like a story.
– Improvisation is a fundamental aspect of your art practice aiming less for the traditional and all-round success of a film than at giving each shot a certain emotional quality. Can you tell something about your creative process?
This is a truly wonderful question that captures the essence of what I attempt to create with my storytelling. In improvising I follow my inner compass to uncover what may already be there. I am a miner seeking the treasures already in existence, the gems within and without.
– We want to take a closer look at the genesis of your film: how did you come up with the idea for All Sales Final?
I love notebooks. They hold my dreams, fantasies, stories and those empty pages that always beckon me to be fill them with more. On the morning I wrote “All Sales Final” I woke up thinking about a dream I just had about a hopeless man who didn’t want to live any more and was too scared to end his own life. I thought about several things: the traumatic reality of suicide, the hopelessness that so many of us live with, lack of connection with one another and the effect of love and nature on our psyches. I grabbed a notebook and jotted down these thoughts and the idea of an Elimination Agency whose sole purpose is to eliminate hopeless people. The rest was a matter of assembling the puzzle. Casting is so important for any film and I feel very lucky to have worked with the actors who did an amazing job bringing this tragic comedy to life. Thank you Nathan Benjamin Johnson, Alisa Rose, Lucy, Finn and Dawn Shalhoup and my husband, Forest Sun who not only had a featured role but also co-produced the film.
– The film’s strength lies in its plot. It’s a beautifully told story that succeeds in asking important questions about the weaknesses of our human condition. What do you hope viewers will take away from the film?
Storytelling opens a window into one’s soul and the world around, or as Shakespeare once said, “… to hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature.”
My chief hope is that in some small way, this film, aside from being entertaining, would remind us who we are and inspire us to live more fully. Hearing film festival audiences laugh out loud has been a true delight. As the opening quote of the film says “Sometimes, to find hope, it is enough to gaze into the face of a single flower.” It takes just one action to set a whole world in motion.
– Could you take us through your creative process when starting a new project?
There’s an absolute giddiness when I create. I cherish that special moment when my creation exists nowhere else but in my own mind. Then come the notebook, pen and the outpouring of images into words. I write as if I am following a scent, or a secret path I have just discovered. When I create, I feel more like myself than any other time. It’s as if I am walking the path towards my own soul, to a place of pure bliss and play. I am five years old again and I believe in magic.
– Can you tell us something about the sound score?
I love talking about the music of “All Sales Final.” It was pure joy from the very beginning to the end.
Unbeknownst to him, Wynton Marsalis sparked the collaboration that created the score of “All Sales Final.” I had recently reconnected with a dear friend and former band mate, Scott Steiner, who invited us to Wynton’s show at the San Francisco Jazz Center. Sitting in the theater waiting for the show to start, it occurred to me that Scott is a film sound designer. I told him about the project and a week later we were in the studio. As I watched the film on the screen and played an improvised score on the beautiful grand piano I was reminded of my childhood stories and my dear old piano. As C. G. Jung beautifully states, “the creative mind plays with the objects it loves. ”
– All Sales Final contains a clear reference to the silent era. Can you tell us your biggest influences in art and how they have affected your work?
Growing up, I didn’t watch a lot of television. There was a Russian cartoon about a rabbit and a cigarette-smoking wolf, some Laurel and Hardy skits and a few Charlie Chaplin films, all of which no doubt left an imprint on my creativity. In silent film, I appreciate the tight embrace of comedy and tragedy, the highly expressive emotional moments, and the speed at which everything happens; just a little faster than life, like a heartbeat rushing to catch up.
Everything influences my creative output. Rather than ascribing to individual people’s styles, I am more of a collector of moments. As in a pool, I gather sensations, sounds, images, ideas and then I let them churn and swirl and meet each other. When the time is right, something pops up for me to grab and create anew.
There are so many filmmakers I admire. Wes Anderson creates a world of magical realism filled with delightful and quirky characters. Guillermo del Toro takes dark dreams and makes them beautiful and grand. Quentin Tarantino is bold, brilliant and epic. Matthew Vaughn is a giant of storytelling who brings powerful myths to the screen in a breathtaking way. Francis Ford Coppola is a poet of the soul. Peter Bogdanovich is a master of both comedy and drama and a friend and mentor to me when I lived in Los Angeles. Peter showed me how to organize a story with sticky notes on a wall and we watched all of Cary Grant’s films together.
I am truly inspired by the talented independent filmmakers working today whom I’m proud to call friends: Richie Adams, Phillip Thomas, Marsha Baxter, Luis Bordonada, Tom and Sandi Anton, Marco Antonio Martinez, Alejandro Montoya Marin to name a few.
My choice in creating “All Sales Final” as a silent movie was deliberate. This being my first film I felt that my own filmmaking endeavor should begin like cinema itself; silent with a simple piano score.
– Thanks for sharing your time, Ingrid, we wish you all the best with your filmmaker career. What’s next for Ingrid Serban? Have you a particular film in mind?
Thank you again for speaking with me and asking these thoughtful questions.
Very soon after I finished “All Sales Final,” I had the worrying thought that maybe this was it, that maybe I just had the one story to tell. I am happy to report that this has not been the case. More stories are lined up in various stages of production. We just finished shooting the pilot for “Death in North Beach” a murder mystery short series set in the historic section of San Francisco with the same name. I recently acted in a short film under the direction of the brilliant Cassie Jaye called “Who’s There?” set to join the festival circuit this fall. The San Francisco Film Society is supporting me in creating a feature documentary about vampires, “Strigoi, the Real Vampires of Transylvania.” I am also writing a short film to be shot in Japan as well as a short film trilogy set in 1980’s communist Romania.