Twenty-five years later, the Romanian-American film “Hotel Dallas” illuminates the connection between the television show and its Romanian audience. I talked with the husband and wife filmmaking duo Sherng-Lee Huang and Livia Ungur – who grew up in 1980s communist Romania.
So “Hotel Dallas” is part documentary and part fiction. Could you tell me how you went about making the film?
SLH In concept, the film started out as a fiction. While we were auditioning our actors, we interviewed them about memories of watching “Dallas” in Romania in the ’80s during communism. The interviews were just so fascinating that we started thinking about incorporating those interviews into the film. It developed into this sort of this hybrid beast, documentary and fiction.
LU The element of truth and documentary was always there from the beginning. We started with this bizarre love affair with “Dallas” in Romania. That’s real. So is the Hotel Dallas – which is this replica of the Southfork Ranch that a very rich man built in Romania. It’s still standing.
Sherng-Lee Huang and Livia Ungur
You shot a couple of scenes at this hotel in Romania, right?
SLH Yeah, the “Hotel Dallas” is a real place in Romania. The guy who built it was one of first generations of oligarchs in Romania, who rose up in the 90s after communism fell. He just loved “Dallas” so much. He modeled himself after J.R. Ewing – the villain from the show – and he built this hotel that looks exactly like the mansion from the show. He was in a big scandal and went to jail for embezzlement and tax evasion. The hotel kind of fell into disrepair. The way it appears in the film is as a kind of ghostly, semi-abandoned shell. We meet the owner of the hotel after his fall from grace.
Livia Ungur, you actually grew up watching “Dallas” in the ’80s in communist Romania. How did that affect your childhood?
LU It’s important to know that “Dallas” was the only American show that was allowed on television during communism. We had two hours of television every day. That would be some state-controlled news, a communist speech and then we’d have “Dallas.” So that was kind of like an hour where we could really dream about the West and escape the reality that we were living in. I guess I kind of experienced it in a way through my parents, also. I think my mom was a bigger fan than me, but it was a big part of my childhood.
Is it fair to say that the TV show “Dallas” played a role in the fall of communism in Romania?
LU It’s hard to say. Certainly, I think for us watching “Dallas” in Romania, that was the only access point to the West. Seeing the wealth, the skyscrapers, the Ewing’s cars, their pool, their house, I think it showed people a different way of life. At the same time this show that was sanctioned by the state. So it’s hard to know whether it brought about the revolution sooner or whether it bought the regime a few more years.
SLH In a sense the show was a distraction. They could escape for a little bit to this wealthy Texas land. I think television can serve as an agent for change, possibly even revolution, but it can also lull people into a complacency. It certainly does both of that in the United States.
So you managed to get a familiar face from Dallas in the film. How did Patrick Duffy decide to be in your movie?
SLHPatrick’s character in the film is a ghost. He’s the ghost of Bobby Ewing. When we were making most of the movie, we didn’t have Patrick on board. He had no idea who we were. This was very a low budget and under-the-radar kind of film. Originally it was my voice that would speak back to people as the ghost of Bobby. After we had made most of the movie with this Sherng-Lee/Bobby ghost, we then sent this draft to Patrick’s manager. It was basically a cold call. We found his information on an internet database, really not expecting anything. Two days later, we heard back and the answer was yes. We asked about fees. We couldn’t afford much, but we offered what we could, and the answer was, “Just bring me a bottle of wine.” He did it basically for free.
So you’re coming to Dallas for the screening. Have you been here before?
SLHYes we have. We went to Dallas last summer and we shot pretty much the final scenes of the film. Well, they’re actually the first scenes of the film, but they were the parts that we shot the last.
This is the scene where Livia tours the “Dallas” set, correct?
SLH Yes, exactly. We shot as Southfork. I think the way we were accepted and helped and treated at Southfork was really a piece of this entire movie. It was a very low budget film. They opened the gates for the Southfork. No shooting location fee. They just took us around. We had a guide. It was the same in Romania. I don’t know maybe it’s just all for “Dallas.” People just have such fond memories of this show that they are willing to help a film that kind of commemoration it in a way.