MovieMaker‘s weekly series “Foreign Contenders” will feature interviews with the heavyweight helmers behind their respective countries’ entries for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
Each week, we’ll explore the subjects, issues and modes and means of production that have placed moviemakers’ foreign features in the running for international Oscar gold. The Academy releases their shortlist in December and will announce the eventual nominees in January. This year, a record 85 films have been submitted.
Eluding the stodgy thematic and structural tropes of many a boxing saga, Finnish director Juho Kuosmanen makes the leap from the stage and smaller film projects into feature moviemaking with his remarkable debut, The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki.
The film focuses on a specific chapter in the career of a real-life boxer from Kuosmanen’s hometown of Kokkola, who faced imminent defeat against an American star in 1962. The black-and-white period drama took home Cannes’ Un Certain Regard Award this year for its narrative originality and aesthetic fearlessness.
Unlike other biopics, Olli Maki is not concerned with deciphering its title character in his entirety, instead eliciting his essence through one of the most contradictory and significant periods in his life. Fame, money and the demands that come along with them were never Maki’s—nor Kuosmanen’s—ambitions, and the film reflects that in its portrayal of a homegrown hero mostly unknown outside of the Nordic country. Through cinematographer J-P Passi’s timeless execution, each frame conveys a contemporary dynamism, reaffirming the modern resonance of the protagonist’s struggles.
In conversation with MovieMaker, Kuosmanen and Passi discussed the specifics of their visual approach, down to the unique stock they pursued to revive the ’60s on film, and the significance of making a movie about a boxer—but a not a boxing movie.
Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): For people outside of Finland, Olli Maki is not a household name. How popular or iconic is he as a boxing figure in your country?
Juho Kuosmanen (JK): People have forgotten about him. He is a local hero in my hometown. I think that’s why I know him and his reputation, but when I would tell people in my generation that I was making this film they’d ask, “Who is Olli Maki?” If you don’t follow boxing and you didn’t live in the ’60s or ’70s, then you don’t know him. For me, the fact that he was possibly famous was not the reason to make a film; I was more interested in his personality and the contradiction between this man and the boxing world. The business side of this world was most present for him during this fight, and that’s why I focused on this time—because that was something that I really felt I could work with. I also related to Maki because of the huge expectations surrounding him, much like my fear in making my first feature film and asking, “Is this going to be a disappointment for everybody?” That’s why I chose this segment of his life and career.
We felt a bit guilty in a way because we didn’t show any of his victories, and people would ask, “Why are you focusing on the one that he lost?” I tried to convey that is not about winning or losing, and I think we were true to Olli himself because he wasn’t that much into winning. He wasn’t especially ambitious. He loved boxing as a sport and not as a means to be famous.
MM: Despite the fact that the film is based on a true story, this is not a typical historical drama or a traditional boxing film.
JK: I always told myself: This is a portrait of Olli Maki and not a biopic. When we were doing the research, we found so many interesting facts about him, but we knew that the film would be about the spirit of Maki. If somebody is looking for a regular boxing film then I’m sure this will be a disappointment. However, if you want to see a regular boxing film, then would you go watch a Finnish art-house film? [Laughs] This was a problem from the beginning when we were pitching the script. “We want to make a film about this Finnish boxer who is not even famous,” we would say. Their response was always, “You are an art-house filmmaker, but you want to make a boxing film? What is this?” If you just follow the plot, it is quite flat, but a lot of the reviews we’ve gotten have been extremely good. The more negative ones have to do with the expectations of those who wanted to see more prominent drama. If you miss the details of the film, then you miss the whole film.
MM: There is also a film within the film, in the form of the documentary that is being shot about this fight. Is this also based on fact, and why did you decide to make it a part of your vision of Olli Maki?
JK: When I started doing research, I was thinking about a play I saw, where Maki was the subject. It ended up not really being about him, and I thought, “They actually missed a very good character.” Since I also work in theater I thought, “What kind of play should I do with this?” Then I found this peculiar fight that Olli Maki referred to as “the happiest day of his life” in an interview. After finding out more about Maki and this fight, I went to see the documentary made about him in the Finnish film archive. Watching this fight, I could see that he felt he was going to lose, because he’d had to lose so much weight and was exhausted. That’s the moment when I felt, “OK, this actually needs to be a film.” In a way, I guess that documentary was a big inspiration. It was also the public image of him they were creating—they wanted to build a hero out of him. His public image merging with his inner feelings is what interested me. It’s also a theme that’s very contemporary.
MM: Jarkko Lahti gives a subdued and authentic performance as the title character, who is unsure of what path to follow. Why was he the perfect actor for the role?
JK: Jarkko Lahti and I are longtime friends. We grew up on the same street when we were kids. We have known each other since we went to the same school together, but we only became friends later in life. I really liked him as a theater actor. When I saw the play that was supposed to be about Olli Maki, Jarkko was the artistic director of that theater, and he felt the same way I did about that play. When I decided that this needed to be a film, I sent Jarkko an email asking, “If there was a film about Olli Maki, could you box as him?”
He is very physical, but to be a boxer you really need to train. As he is a fan of Olli Maki and because he is a big boxing fan, Jarkko started boxing immediately. This was in 2011 and, at that point, I don’t think he realized how long it takes to make a film. He even ended up taking on two actual fights. Besides practicing for the role, he also fell in love with the project. I wanted him to avoid acting like a boxer when we were shooting… If you have been boxing for years, you don’t need to act because everything you do, even how you put your gloves on, comes naturally. He had already been beaten up twice because he lost the fights he got into, so his reward was being cast in the film. When you are writing and you know who is playing the lead role, it makes the process a lot easier.
J-P Passi (JPP): We shot on the Arriflex 416 Plus S16. The original plan was to use the production company’s old Aaton XTR S16—it was originally Ingmar Bergman’s camera, but we bought it from Aki Kaurismäki. However, there were some electronic issues with it because we needed power for all the accessories, wireless follow focus, monitoring, etc. It was an easy decision to go with the new one because, although we shot on Tri-X, we are not big fans of trouble.
JPP: The lenses were production company’s high-speed Zeiss Distagon lenses.
JK: We shot on 16mm black and white reversal film, Kodak Tri-X (7266). It was crazy, and I don’t think anyone has shot a feature film on reversal after the ’60s. We like the old-fashioned look it had. We ordered everything from Europe and the U.S. Eventually, Kodak needed to make some more because they ran out of stock.
JPP: Its latitude is very limited, which means that it naturally has a very high-contrast look. But the limited latitude also means that exposing it is very critical, because Tri-X is very sensitive to under- or overexposure. If you miss the exposure by just one stop, either over or under, it can have a very significant impact during postproduction. Often you cannot bring those missing things back in post, unlike when working with the negative. The peculiar feel of the material in this kind of film also means that the small mistakes—dust, scratches, the sway of the emulsion or the exposure issues—just look like something that should be there.
Compared to video productions, the biggest differences are that you have to wait longer for the dailies with film, and with video you can check the takes afterwards from the video recorder. In my opinion, this is only a good thing—assuming that you can deal with the pressure—because it makes you alert and aware when the camera is rolling. You also have to concentrate more on the following scenes and days, not on something you have already done. This is because, unless there are major problems, there is usually not much to do after the material is shot.
JPP: One of the main purposes was to make our lighting work relatively invisible, because the film needed an authentic feeling. We didn’t want to stylize too much because that would easily break the illusion, especially in this kind of black and white period film that already is, in a way, set in some other time and dimension. So, we always had a reason for the light—meaning that light always had some logical source. The day exteriors were mostly non-bounced daylight and the interiors were lit with or without diffusion, but always from outside, to give the necessary freedom in the set and to have the natural look.
JK: The only specific thing was one big 18kw Fresnel. We used that a lot and from far away. We also used the Arrimax M40 quite a lot, as well as a lot of practicals.
JK: We had to use a lab in Berlin, because there were not so many options for a lab that will process black and white reversal stock. The scanning was done in Brussels, so the biggest challenge there was the patience. We had to wait quite a long to get our dailies—in this case “weeklies,” as we sent the materials once in a week and got them after one week of waiting. Of course we did several tests, so we knew what we were doing, but it was still quite exciting.
JK: We had a pleasure of working with Mats Holmgren (Her, Control, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) from Chimney, Stockholm. He understood that we were dealing with material that had a strong original texture and we needed to keep it, not clean it up. I think it was mainly about balancing artistic expression and technical mistakes. We used two scanning techniques to get the best out of the Tri-X. We had to shoot some of the scenes with negative color stock, and it was much easier to deal with in post, but the challenge was to make it look like the black and white reversal.
JK: Thirty-two; some of them with a mini-crew because we needed intimacy in certain scenes.
JK: The budget was 1.5 million euros. In Finland the industry is heavily supported by the state. We got most of the money from the Finnish Film Institute and the national broadcasting company YLE.
This was also a co-production between Finland, Sweden and Germany. From Sweden, we got money from Film Väst and from Germany, we got a pre-buy from Arte. We also had support from the Nordic Film and TV foundation.
JK: Almost everyday, we had a new location, and some days we had multiple new locations. Because the film takes place in the early ’60s, and because we didn’t want to build the sets in studio, we had to do quite a bit of location scouting. We already had some of the places when we were writing the script, so it was easier to imagine how the scene would look. The only studio scene is the funfair with the mermaids. With a limited amount of money, we knew we had to find places that would be almost ready to shoot. We also wanted them to be available in 360 degrees, so that we didn’t have to limit the movement of camera. Of course, in some scenes, we had to make compromises. MM