Business

The filmmaker who swapped communism for Hollywood

  • 11 April 2016
  • From the section Business
Vlad Paunescu Image copyright Castel Film
Image caption Vlad Paunescu was a filmmaker for the Romanian communist government

In the maelstrom of the Romanian revolution, filmmaker Vlad Paunescu found himself appointed as minister of culture - for a few hours.

Mr Paunescu, who today owns and runs Romania's largest film studio, Castel Film, was a 37-year old-cinematographer living in the country's capital Bucharest back in 1989.

When the revolution broke out in December of that year, he picked up his camera and rushed to film the mass protests outside the vast palace of the parliament building, where the then communist government was based.

After Romania's leader Nicolae Ceausescu fled by helicopter, Mr Paunescu joined the protesters who stormed the building.

Amidst the euphoria and sense of hope, Mr Paunescu, now 63, says he and a fellow cameraman did a "dance of happiness".

The protesters occupying the palace decided to form a new administration, and as Mr Paunescu worked in the film industry he was tasked with leading the department of culture.

Yet only a few hours later, a more formal interim government was appointed instead, and Mr Paunescu's political career was over before it had properly started. So he went back to his job at the state-run film studio, Buftea.

Image copyright Castel Film
Image caption Vlad Paunescu now helps Hollywood make movies

But with the Eastern European country opening up to both the world and private business, in 1992 Mr Paunescu registered his own business, Castel Film.

Castel Film has gone on to build a vast 11 hectare (27 acre) film studio 40km (25 miles) outside Bucharest, and remains much in demand among the big American film and TV companies.

Everyone from Paramount to Miramax, Universal and Sony Pictures, regularly uses Castel Film to help them make movies in Romania. Such films include the Oscar-winning Cold Mountain, and Borat.

Castel's studio has no less than nine soundstages and four permanent sets - an urban street, a US wild west town, a mediaeval town and village.

For Mr Paunescu, who is worth an estimated €11m ($13m; £9m), it is a far cry from his younger days under communism, when he earned so little as a filmmaker for the communist government that he had to also drive a taxi to supplement his income.

'Beautiful country'

It is often said that out of adversity comes opportunity, and in Mr Paunescu's case, it was the Yugoslavian wars of the 1990s that gave him his biggest career break.

Back in the early 1990s a US film crew was filming a movie in Yugoslavia (today's Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, Kosovo, Montenegro, and Macedonia) which bordered Romania.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Mr Paunescu filmed the Romanian revolution from the front line

When fighting broke out in Yugoslavia, the US film crew fled to Romania, which Mr Paunescu says they found "a beautiful country, with qualified personnel in the industry, and the studios from Buftea".

Mr Paunescu was asked to provide some examples of his filming work, and the Americans were so impressed they employed him as a director of photography.

Image copyright Castel Film
Image caption Mr Paunescu and his wife Oana with Hollywood actor Glenn Close

After a couple more successful films, Mr Paunescu and his costume designer wife Oana were invited to Los Angeles to discuss future plans, and it was proposed that he set up his own film-making business to help American studios make more movies in Romania.

So with some backing from Hollywood, Castel Film was up and running.

It now makes between 10 and 14 movies per year, and in 2014 had an annual turnover of €4.6m.

'No blood'

On a recent morning at Castel Film's studios, two actors from the Game of Thrones TV show are filming a mini-series about the founders of the well-known US motorbike company Harley Davidson.

To help them and other visiting overseas crews, Castel employs 114 permanent members of staff.

Image copyright Castel Film
Image caption Castel's studio has its own wild west town

Mr Paunescu is happy to admit that a big reason why Romania is popular with the big US film studios is its low cost - a day's shooting is typically 70% less than in the US.

Yet he says Romania also offers a wealth of other benefits.

"Actually it is a combination of what we offer in terms of stages, skilled labour, and a beautiful, absolutely superb country," says Mr Paunescu. "We have the Carpathian Mountains, the Danube Delta, Transylvania."

In terms of the type of movies that Castel Film helps make, Mr Paunescu says he is pleased that Hollywood has moved away from the early days when it wanted films about Dracula, the fictional Romanian vampire.

Image copyright MARK RALSTON
Image caption Mr Paunescu says Nicole Kidman was "more normal than I am"

He says that these releases were not greatly appreciated in the wider Romanian movie industry. "They were considered blasphemy," he says.

When it comes to his own taste in films, Mr Paunescu says: "I don't like to see blood in a movie, I can't stand seeing people who suffer.

"But at the same time, I don't like comedies too much either. I watch movies that have received important awards, or that have been [at least] nominated."

Numerous Hollywood stars have now filmed in Romania with Castel, including Nicolas Cage, Glenn Close, Sharon Stone, Kevin Costner and Steven Seagal, but out of everyone, Mr Paunescu seems most smitten with Nicole Kidman.

He says that the Oscar-winning actor initially "seemed untouchable, like a crystal statue", but after speaking to her, found that she was "more normal than I am".

As Castel Film continues to thrive - Mr Paunescu is unlikely to ever have to go back to driving taxis.

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