It is an honor to publish the first guest post on White City Cinema: Matt Fagerholm, of RogerEbert.com and Indie Outlook, recently interviewed writers Barry Gifford and Lucian Georgescu about their great, too-little-seen 2011 film collaboration The Phantom Father:
Mystery is Better Than Truth: Lucian Georgescu and Barry Gifford on “The Phantom Father”
Sometimes the story behind the birth of a film is no less worthy of being made into a film itself. That’s certainly the case with 2011’s “The Phantom Father,” a beguiling Romanian dramedy currently streaming in the U.S. on Filmbox. It grew out of an unexpected friendship that blossomed eight years prior between the revered Wild at Heart author Barry Gifford, whose story “Almost Oriental” serves as the film’s source material, and Lucian Georgescu, the enterprising writer and academic who served as president of the advertising firm, BBDO Romania. While speaking separately with Georgescu and Gifford in the early months of 2022 about how they met, I found myself captivated by their memories, and the fact they occasionally differed from one another made them all the more intriguing.
According to Georgescu, he was asked to moderate a screenwriting master class with Gifford at the 2003 Transylvania International Film Festival in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, causing him to embark on a “nine-hour drive with rain and fog and mountains and Dracula showing up.” After arriving that night, Georgescu first laid eyes on Gifford the following morning.
“I saw him through a window, sitting outside, and he was very American in the most positive sense of the word,” recalled Georgescu. “There is a machismo in Barry as well as charm about him. He has a face straight out of the American movies, and there he was in a Hawaiian shirt and with grayish beautiful hair. I’ve known him now for almost 20 years, and he is as surprising as his writing.”
What Gifford remembers as being the primary reason he was asked to attend the festival that year was to hand out the award for Best Picture. He agreed to make the trip specifically because it would grant him the opportunity to track where his father’s Jewish family had lived in Bukovina, a region divided between Romania and Ukraine that was formerly a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. When Georgescu learned of this, he offered to take Gifford on the road trip after the festival, while making use of his contacts at the Israeli Embassy. Gifford recalls Georgescu making him this offer as he was waiting for his rental car to arrive.
“At the time, Lucian had long, black, wild hair, and he reminded me of ‘Professor’ Irwin Corey, the comedian who lived to 102,” laughed Gifford. “Corey was like the professor of everything who knew nothing. He wore an old dilapidated tuxedo with tails. The tie went this way and his hair went that way. Lucian kind of reminded me of that guy, only he was brilliant. His wife Andrea, who is a sweetheart, was standing there, smoking a cigarette. She looked at me, shook her head and said, ‘He’s a madman.’”
Gifford says it took him all of thirty seconds to take up Georgescu on his offer. Accompanying the author on his trip to Romania was his longtime friend since childhood, Vinnie Deserio, a plumber who proved to be a fascinating character in his own right. His mother’s family had also come from Bukovina, and Gifford likened the combination of him, Georgescu and Deserio to the Marx Brothers, which made their time on the road all the more enjoyable.
“One morning, when I went to the car, I heard some mantras like, ‘Ohm,’” said Georgescu. “I looked in the car and saw Vinnie in the backseat doing this chanting. He also had some sticks and some incense, and I’m like, ‘What’s up with him? Is he sick?’ And Barry said, ‘Oh no, actually he is a Buddhist, and he used to be the bodyguard of Chögyam Trungpa, the author of Born in Tibet. I looked at him and thought, ‘Vinnie was supposed to be a plumber from LA…’ This is when I began trying to record the atmosphere of this fantasy.”
“Vinnie was living in a monastery years ago, serving as the bodyguard for another Tibetan lama, when he was loaned out to Trungpa,” said Gifford. “He is a martial artist and all around watchful tough guy, even though he’s a Buddhist, so it was a good combination. Vinnie is an off-the-wall kind of guy. He’s collaborated with me on projects when I’ve worked with David Lynch and Coppola, which is always very useful because he thinks outside the box, and Lucian immediately took to him. They were quite companionable and still are.”
A dramatic turn of events, however, nearly halted the trip before it ever began.
“I tried to fit my bag into the trunk of the car, and suddenly I had this huge pain in my back,” said Georgescu. “I’ve never felt anything like it, and one of my legs almost went numb. I was laying on the street and literally crying, in part because I wouldn’t be able to make the trip anymore. Then Barry gave me two pills and said, using another American cliché, ‘This is what we used in Vietnam.’ Within five minutes, I was walking again!”
Gifford has no recollection of what this “magic pill” could’ve been, apart from aspirin, though he believes there may have been something magical about it, considering how fortuitous their meeting proved to be. Once Georgescu’s back pain was cured, the trio set off on their three-day trip through Transylvania, toward the Russian border.
“On the first night, we stayed in a motel in the middle of nowhere,” said Georgescu. “At around 2am, I heard a knock on the door. I opened it and there was Barry, looking like a phantom in the darkness. He said, ‘I can’t sleep, so I wrote this poem for you on a piece of paper, and don’t throw it away. One day, if you’re starving and need money, go into any American museum and don’t accept less than $10,000 for it.’ It was a line right out of a Gifford script. I still have that beautiful poem. I’m not starving yet and I’ll probably never sell it.”
The poem, “Eurydice in Romania,” can be found in the published collection of Gifford’s work, Imagining Paradise, and was translated by Georgescu for Romania’s top literary magazine, România Literară. The seemingly fated nature of Gifford and Georgescu’s encounter is reflective of a running theme in his life best expressed by the police officer in David Lynch’s 1997 film, “Lost Highway,” who observes, “There’s no such thing as a bad coincidence.” Gifford co-authored the script for that film, and a few years prior to his adventure in Romania, he was tracing where his father’s family had lived in Vienna upon leaving Romania at the end of World War I.
He ended up finding the house where his father had lived in Leopoldstadt, across the street from Prater Park with its iconic Ferris wheel featured in Carol Reed’s 1949 masterpiece, “The Third Man.” While having lunch there with the old girlfriend of his companion, Swiss director Daniel Schmid, she revealed that when she had first moved to Vienna, she lived at the exact same address as Gifford’s father. It was a librarian the author met in Vienna who suggested that his father had lived in Bukovina. While guided by a local woman who inspired a similar character in “Almost Oriental,” published in the 2005 book, The Stars Above Veracruz, the trio of Gifford, Georgescu and Deserio arrived in the small town of Siret.
“We go into the local movie theater to meet the projectionist, Sami, and what’s the big movie poster they have in there? ‘Wild at Heart,’” marveled Gifford. “So he was thrilled to meet me, and he was the only person who had the key to the garden gate and to the town’s synagogue, which has long since been abandoned. It looked like what became of the Havisham estate in Great Expectations, with the garden all overgrown and the parlor left unchanged since Miss Havisham got jilted on her wedding night.”
Sami guided them to a black marble wall filled with names etched in white of the people who were laid to rest there, one of them being “Stein,” the surname of Gifford’s father. This inspired an observation from Gifford that remains lodged in Georgescu’s mind to this day: “I don’t know if this was my grandfather, and I don’t even want to know if he was or not because mystery is better than truth.” When I brought this up to Gifford, he said that it’s a common line for him to use, indicative of a belief system that comes with writing fiction. He also cited Proust’s immortal quote, “Literature is the finest kind of lying.”
What followed was the eeriest stretch of their trip in which the trio drove through a series of hallowed-out caves as dusk crept closer.
“We were driving through the gorges of Transylvania in the middle of the night, and a white figure suddenly appeared in front of us, like a ghost on the left of the road,” said Georgescu. “I thought I had a vision until I realized that we all saw the same thing.”
“We were in the middle of nowhere, and through the driver’s side window, I saw a young guy walking along the side of the road, dressed all in white,” affirmed Gifford. “He had golden blonde hair and the Romanian clothing he wore was very old-fashioned. I don’t think he was a ghost from the past—he probably was some local guy who worked in the woods—but it was still spooky.”
The best part of the story, according to Gifford, took place when Georgescu informed them that they were lost, resulting in them having to stop at a small village in Transylvania. Gifford and Deserio had to make a flight back to New York the next day, so Georgescu told the writer that he had to be the one to ask for directions, considering they were in a part of Romania populated by Hungarians who felt the area belonged to them. Upon agreeing, Gifford entered the bar and found it filled with loggers, a profession he himself had while living with his wife Mary Lou over thirty years prior in the woods of Northern California. Once he began speaking to them in English, the bartender and his daughter were only too happy to help him.
“One of the logger guys had an axe over his shoulder and he was dressed in this country outfit,” recalled Gifford. “He was three sheets to the wind, and he put his hand on my shoulder and said, according to the translation from the bartender, that he wanted to buy me a beer. So I said, ‘Oh no, I’ll buy the beer,’ and I got drinks for him and a couple of his friends. Meanwhile, Lucian was standing in the background the whole time, refusing to speak or even raise his head.”
Georgescu’s back pain forced them to stay overnight at a local motel, which he likened to the Overlook in “The Shining.” Luckily, the trio survived, and before Gifford left Romania, he shook hands with Georgescu on the idea of eventually making a film together. “Almost Oriental,” the story upon which it was based, follows an academic from Stanford on his search for a Jewish writer in Romania. It was inspired in part by Gifford’s friend and colleague, Andrei Codrescu, who had lived in the country until he was 17 and described it as being “almost Oriental.”
The film itself centers on Robert Traum (Marcel Iures), a professor from Stanford who journeys through Romania to find Sami (Valer Dellakeza), a projectionist who could provide him with the key to his local Jewish origins. Georgescu felt “The Phantom Father,” the name of Gifford’s own 1997 memoir, would serve as a more appropriate title, and the author granted him the permission to use it for a nominal fee. Yet a series of problems combined with creative differences between Georgescu and Gifford caused the project to be repeatedly delayed.
“I was supposed to be a producer and writer, not a director,” admitted Georgescu. “I’m not a director. A few months before we were supposed to be in pre-production, the director who had signed on to the project died of cancer, so the whole thing was in limbo for years.”
Eventually, Gifford called off the film, which resulted in a period of time when he and Georgescu didn’t speak to one another. It wasn’t until Georgescu had back surgery in Germany that he felt ready to tackle the project as its director, with the help of renowned producer, Joachim von Vietinghoff (“Werckmeister Harmonies”). He got back in touch with Gifford, leading the author to quickly realize that his old friend had become a new man. With a star like Iures cast in the lead role, the film received the funding it needed to get made, prompting Georgescu to ask Gifford if he would play the role of Robert’s colleague in Stanford who warns him of visiting Romania.
“He sent me the pages, and of course, I didn’t like what he sent,” said Gifford. “So I flew over, got to the hotel and the night before we shot the scene, I had a dream about a message written in blood on the wall. When I went to do the scene, Lucian was shooting in an old abandoned insane asylum with a big piano. I’m acting opposite Marcel Iures, who is the Laurence Olivier of Romania. He later performed in one of my ‘Hotel Room’ plays at the National Theatre Bucharest, which still has bullet holes in the walls from the revolution to overthrow Ceaușescu. Marcel also happens to be a great improvisational actor, so when Lucian said, ‘Action,’ I made up all my lines, and Marcel went right with it. Afterward, Lucian got down on his knees in front of me and said, ‘I knew you could do it!’”
This improvised monologue from Gifford foreshadows the most galvanizing sequence in the picture, where Robert finds himself in a Turkish bath while surrounded by nude lesbian vampires. Gifford said he would only appear in the film on the condition that Georgescu shoot the scene, and insisted that he cast the sort of plus-sized women one finds in the work of Federico Fellini—and throughout “Wild at Heart,” for that matter. When I told Georgescu that I felt the vampires’ bodies were being celebrated and feared at the same time, he replied, “This is a good definition of Transylvania—you have a lot of beauty and you have a lot of fear with it.”
One of the most interesting aspects of “The Phantom Father” is its tone, which combines humor and whimsy with mystery, ambiguity and an overarching celebration of cinema. Georgescu believes this was born out of the confusion of the narrative, a result of him relying heavily on improvisation in part due to challenges during production. As a professor of screenwriting, Georgescu found himself going against the very principles he had used to guide his students.
“Valer Dellakeza is one of our biggest and most amazing theatre actors,” said Georgescu. “When we cast him as Sami, we asked if he knew English and he said yes. We eventually found out that he had no clue about English, and that his niece in school was teaching it to him. I ended up having to read him the text through an earphone and he repeated it. At one point, I directed him to ‘run out and stop,’ and he said the words as if they were his lines. That’s when I said, ‘This old man is driving me crazy!’”
The endearingly casual singalong to Supertramp’s “Breakfast in America” performed in the car by Robert and the woman he falls for, Tanya (Mihaela Sirbu), came as a result of Sirbu’s improvisation upon being informed they had more time to film on the road. Contrary to Georgescu’s feelings about the film, Gifford argued that it stays true to the most important parts of his original story, and he values the ways in which it is different.
“The award-winning films I had seen coming out of Romania around that time were very tough and depicted the awful living conditions of the characters,” said Gifford. “What Lucian had in mind was very different, and so his film became almost Felliniesque. It was fantastical, and that’s what I love about his vision of the film. It was completely different from the movies that were being made by his peers.”
Alas, this is the precise reason why Georgescu felt that his film was released at the wrong moment, when the moviegoing public was primarily focused on the New Romanian Cinema. After premiering in March 2012 at the Transylvania International Film Festival, Georgescu was dismayed—being a former critic himself—by the savage reviews of local writers. Since then, it has been reevaluated and praised by numerous viewers internationally, though the director’s first glimmer of hope arrived in the form of a particular audience member.
“After one of the screenings, I was approached by a lady who was an important actor outside of the film world,” remembered Georgescu. “She said, ‘I want to thank you for the happiness that you brought me today, and for this beautiful, strange, weird, romantic film you have made.’ I thought to myself, ‘She loves this movie. That means if there is one, there could be more.’”
As for Gifford, his memories of the premiere are much happier, in part because he was seated next to his old crush Jacqueline Bisset, whom he told, “I wish I had met you in 1968 when you made ‘Bullitt.’” On a previous road trip to Cluj, the trio of travelers had stopped at the little farm of Georgescu’s aunt, Florica, in Luna, Romania.
“I remember we ate outside with all the pigs and chickens and everything kind of brushing up against us and all around the table,” recalled Gifford. “Outside was her niece she was raising, and she fell in love with Vinnie. Her husband had died, and she told him, ‘You would make a great husband for me.’ When we premiered ‘The Phantom Father,’ Florica—who had basically never been outside of Luna—showed up at the festival with her niece. I took her up on the stage with me, and she said it was the greatest thrill of her life.”
Later that month, the film was screened at Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center with Gifford and Georgescu in attendance. It was Georgescu’s first time in the United States, and he was joined by his daughter Illinca, who took the picture of Gifford standing outside the Seneca Hotel—where he lived as a child—that was featured in his book, The Roy Stories (which formed the basis of Rob Christopher’s subsequent documentary, “Roy’s World: Barry Gifford’s Chicago”).
At the end of “The Phantom Father,” there is a dedication card that reads, “To Balkanski and Stein,” the respective family surnames of Georgescu and Gifford, which is fitting in light of how the film spawned from the bond they serendipitously forged. The pair refer to each other by these surnames, and Gifford enjoys kidding his friend about his new professorial look, a far cry from the wild man he once resembled. Georgescu says that he hopes to one day make a low-budget film out of another Gifford story, suggested to him by the author, “when this fury”—referring to Russia’s current invasion of Ukraine—“finally ends.”
“I hope he does it and I hope this fucking war ends,” said Gifford. “It’s just horrifying. The Russians are right there on the border of Romania near Odessa, and it’s clear that Putin wants to restore the Russian Empire if not the Soviet Union. At one point during my road trip with Lucian and Vinnie, I tried to meet a friend of mine who was working as a costume designer on a film shooting in Kyiv. I didn’t have a VISA, so it didn’t work out, but I was still able to give her a wave while standing on the border of Romania and Ukraine. This was about 25 miles from Kyiv, right where the Russians are now. There’s a very strong Ukrainian population in San Francisco as well as where you live in Chicago. If you run into any Ukrainians, raise your arm and say, ‘Slava Ukraini!’, which means, ‘Glory to Ukraine!’ They’ll buy you a beer.”
“The Phantom Father” is currently available to stream in the U.S. on Filmbox. Gifford’s two new books, The Boy Who Ran Away to Sea and How Chet Baker Died, are available for purchase on Amazon and in bookstores.
“Roy’s World: Barry Gifford’s Chicago” will screen on Saturday, April 30th, at the Wilmette Theatre in Wilmette, Illinois, and on Saturday, May 7th, at the Roxie Theatre in San Francisco, California. To read my conversation with Gifford about the film, click here.