To get a sense of Finnish director Petri Kotwica’s Rat King, try imagining a standard thriller. Then infuse it with a heavy dose of Hitchcockian suspense, add a dash of high school drama and flavor the whole thing with a cyberpunk aesthetic. Having its international premiere at this month’s Tribeca Film Festival, Kotwica’s third feature starts by introducing Juri (Max Ovaska), a high school student whose obsession with online gaming has begun to take over his life, alienating his girlfriend and affecting his academic performance. When Niki (Julius Lavonen), an online friend of Niki’s who bears more than a passing resemblance to the gamer, shows up one night out of the blue, he tells Juri about a new sort of game… one apparently too dangerous even to quit. We at MovieMaker don’t want to spoil anything for you… but suffice it to say, the new game is not as innocuous as it first seems.
In advance of his new film’s first stateside screening, taking place Thursday, April 19th, Kotwica shared with MM his inspiration, influences and favorite silver screen villains.
Rebecca Pahle (MM): There are several different genres that are blended together in Rat King—you have thriller and high school drama, and the whole thing has a noirish/sci-fi aesthetic. What were films from different genres that influenced you?
Petri Kotwica (PK): I’m fond of thrillers [that] are wrapped around a strong [dramatic] core, e.g., Fatal Attraction. On the other hand, I’m a huge Kubrick fan. I especially love the intensity of acting and camera work in his films.
MM: As a film that relies more on suspense than explicit violence, Rat King has more in common with old-fashioned thrillers than modern horror, even though its story is told through the modern lens of online gaming. What is it about gaming that made you see it as a good fit for the thriller genre? Have you any experience with gaming yourself?
PK: Online gaming is a fantastic, creative activity! But in rare cases an addiction toward them could result in terrible consequences. In these cases, the subject might have been practicing [for] the last 15 years how to enter different places and kill as many people as possible. When a sense of reality is diminished, this might be a bad combination.
I have quite limited experience with gaming. I tried to do some research by playing the most recent games, and most of the time my character ended up dead in two minutes. I actually gave my teenage son a raised weekly allowance in order to be able to follow his gaming for a while.
MM: When did you begin writing Rat King? How long did it take for you to get the film made, and what was the biggest challenge you faced in doing so?
PK: I got the idea in 2007 while I was in Berlin supervising the post-production of my previous film, Black Ice. At that point, the first school killing had taken place in my home country [of] Finland. I wrote a synopsis for a realistic drama/thriller. Quite soon I wanted to transfer the idea into an entertaining genre piece without losing the more serious subtext.
MM: One of the parts of the film that stood out for me was the character of Niki—he’s an extremely terrifying screen villain, in part because he plays on this natural fear that someone you know and trust could be playing you false. What was the genesis of that character? Who are some of your own favorite movie villains?
PK: My favorite movie villains seem to be characters with [a] strong contrast, namely regarding their intellect versus what they do. Se7en, The Silence of the Lambs and, by the way, very recently Albert Brooks’ character in Drive.
I also would like to mention that the guy who plays Niki acted in a film school short film of mine when he was six years old! In my debut feature he was already the protagonist.
MM: Do you have any upcoming projects you’re working on?
PK: I’m developing a drama/thriller called After You, where the female protagonist accidentally causes the death of a man [and] then befriends his widow, who is not aware of the protagonist’s part in the tragedy.
Plus, I’m writing a thriller called Deadline, where a twenty-something woman loses her father, who is killed abroad in a terrorist attack. She then learns that she has a stepbrother in that country and travels there in order to get acquainted with the brother and bring him to their father’s funeral in time. But was the brother involved in the father’s death?
MM: Is there anything you’d like to add?
PK: I’m really looking forward to seeing how Rat King will work for American audiences!