“If You Can Cut the Boring Scenes Out, That Saves Time”: Juho Kuosmanen on The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki
Juho Kuosmanen’s first feature, The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki, is a modest-seeming film that hits all of its marks with unusual precision, following featherweight boxer Mäki (Jarkko Lahti) in the two weeks leading up to a big fight against American champ Davey Moore. Mäki is nervous and evasive, slacking on his training and running away to the distraction of his maybe-fiance. Throughout the film, he’s trailed by a documentary crew (a detail based on reality) that repeatedly stages faux-verite scenes of Mäki in training, meeting financiers, et al. — in a sly way, Kuosmanen is almost congratulating himself on the high degree of period verisimilitude he’s achieved by contrasting it with the fakery of Flaherty-rooted documentary practices. The film is out now in US and UK release from MUBI; I spoke with Kuosmanen at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival.
Filmmaker: The film was shot on 16mm.
Kuosmanen: It’s 16mm reversal black and white film, a material that they haven’t refined for a long time, so it has this very old tone in it. How it handles the contrast, it’s quite difficult to expose. We sent it to Berlin for development, then we scanned it in Brussels. So, from the first day of our shooting, it took two and a half weeks to see what it looked like.
Filmmaker: Did that make you nervous?
Kuosmanen: Yeah, it was terrible. We had done all our films on 16mm, so we were familiar with this stuff, but not with black and white reversal.
Filmmaker: Was it easy to arrange to shoot it on 16mm?
Kuosmanen: It was very easy, because I’ve been working with the same producer for a long time, so we don’t have to have these kinds of conversations. We can do what we want, but of course we have to understand that it’s expensive, and if film stock is expensive then we have to take the money out of somewhere else. But I think that’s part of the creative part of filmmaking — it’s also how you’re using the money that you have. You always have to find ways.
Filmmaker: This is your first feature. What have you been working on with this producer before?
Kuosmanen: We are teenage friends, so we’ve known each other more than 20 years. We’ve been acting in theater, and he produced two of my short films. He’s also worked as an art director for me before he started producing. I’ve also worked in opera. I do it because there’s a nice, crazy opera ensemble in my hometown, and I spent my summers there and I like to work, so I’ve been working on almost every production that they’ve made in 11 years, and I’ve directed two of those. It sounds big, directing an opera, but it’s more like directing a music video, because the music is the main thing and you can just play around.
Filmmaker: The film looks expensive in a certain way. There’s a number of locations, there are period cars, and the bubble of that is not burst. How did you think about how much you could afford, what you could build, and what you could not do?
Kuosmanen: I think we would have wanted to have more extras in the stadium, and then we had to figure out how to manage that. We didn’t want to multiply them digitally.
Filmmaker: The shot is very specific when he walks into the stadium: he’s surrounded on both sides by people, and you can’t see anyone beyond them.
Kuosmanen: Yeah, I think you can see everyone who was there. We were happy that it was in the late evening, so it was already dark and you can’t see that the stadium was empty. That’s Helsinki Olympic stadium. We had the Olympics in 1952, and it’s an extremely big space for a boxing event. I think there were 25,000 viewers. That was one of the places that’s now under reconstruction, so we filmed during the last moments where we could shoot there with those old chairs. We tried to find locations that were almost ready, and that’s because we also wanted to find spaces in which we could shoot 360. It was quite demanding to find them; we did a very long location scout. The only set that we built in the studio was the fun fair.
Filmmaker: There’s a lot of rain in the movie. Are those machines or did you just wait?
Kuosmanen: I think two of the scenes involve water towers. That scene where they go to the house to get the money, and the scene after the wedding when there’s heavy rain and they’re running outside. We were shooting 500 kilometers from Helsinki, and we had to bring the technicians from there. It was extra expensive to do that for a few seconds. Maybe not that wise!
Filmmaker: How long can you shoot people getting soaked before you have to stop?
Kuosmanen: It depends on who you ask, because some people are very excited about this film and shooting it, because Olli Mäki is from that area and everybody knew him, so, “OK, they are making this film about Olli Mäki and they are coming to shoot in our very small town,” so we got lots of extras and the first thing we did was to shoot that scene. After the first shot, they ran inside and came back out and were a bit wet. Then I had to say, “OK, you need to sit down again, we are doing this once again.” And of course, all the chairs were totally wet. I think we did it three times. I think they didn’t quite understand: “Yeah, I want to be in the film!”
Filmmaker: There’s a lot of children in the movie, and it seems like they’re responding in a way that’s undirected. There’s period television sets in the movie, which would be unfamiliar to them, but they didn’t seem confused by those.
Kuosmanen: The idea was to use kids that I knew or that somebody knew. So they weren’t just anybody, because when they come to the set they are afraid and excited, so it’s always easier if they have family on the film crew. So in the scene during the wedding when they try to catch that fly, one of those kids is mine, one is our producer’s, and Jarkko Lahti, who plays Olli Mäki, his kid is in there. So they all know each other, and they know what they are doing: they’re acting, but they’re quite free. I don’t force them: “OK, at this moment you need to do this.” It’s easier for them to all get along, because they have history and go back together.
Filmmaker: The film is a biopic that takes place within a compressed timeframe, but there’s no obvious exposition: no scenes where anybody is introduced as having such and such number of fights, wins and losses, etc. How did you think about including necessary background information without making it too obvious?
Kuosmanen: When we were doing the research, reading and watching clips of Mäki, even though we thought that we were just focusing on this fight, at one point the script started in 1959 and then ended in 1964. So there were lots of big events that we thought we needed to have, and then we tried to squeeze all this information into this short period of time, because we wanted to make an intimate portrait rather than a biopic. We decided to drop those big events and focus on these two weeks. Once we got that, we didn’t need to explain the background of these people that much. There’s some, in that one press conference, where he’s asked whether he’s a Communist, but the only information that was essential was that he’s a good boxer, he has been boxing a long time, but now he’s in the very early stage of his professional career, and that’s said in the press conference. That’s a place where you can say things, and it’s natural. We left a lot of information out, because we were writing this script for so long. The idea came in 2011, and of course we were not writing it all the time, but I was writing it for maybe two years alone, and I couldn’t find the tone. I knew what I wanted but it wouldn’t come out, and then I had a co-writer, which was great. In the beginning, you know when you are doing this research that you are going to have to stop dropping it out if you’re not making a documentary or biopic. We also knew that if we’re following him for these two weeks, we didn’t want to tell anything more than the present. If you can’t put the information in in a nice way, it drops you out of the story. It feels like you’re being given information, and it’s always very bad storytelling.
Filmmaker: In terms of what we know here about the Finnish film industry, basically we know about Aki and Mika Kaurismäki and that’s about it. Is this a comparatively large production for the Finnish film industry?
Kuosmanen: We had at one point 1.5 million Euros, which is an average Finnish film. Maybe for a debut film that’s a bit more expensive than the average, but we had lots of locations, so in that sense it’s big. We shot two days in one location once, and all the other days we had a new location every day. There was a lot of moving around. The farthest was 500 kilometers away from Helsinki, and then the train scenes were 200 kilometers away from Helsinki, and all the rest was in Helsinki. We did location scouting when we were writing the script.
Filmmaker: Is being able to see the spaces while you’re writing part of your process?
Kuosmanen: Totally. It makes a big difference. Some scenes can click together when you’ve found the right place: “OK, now I know how I need to write it.” I think location scouting, I love it and it’s also very, very important. We had 32 days, so we had enough time to shoot. I think that’s a bit more than usual, but we had a very small crew, and we didn’t have that long of a script: it was only 72 pages. That was wise, because you always end up having not enough money, so if you can cut the boring scenes out, that saves time.
Filmmaker: Can you tell me about shooting the boxing scenes? Most of the time people just end up trying to rip off Raging Bull.
Kuosmanen: The choreography is from the actual fight, because they made a documentary about him back then. We were thinking about how to shoot the scenes, and then we decided to shoot them with the same philosophy that we had in the other scenes: we don’t try to make a cool-looking fight, because it’s too late, you can’t change the style of the film. The sound design is a bit more uplifted, if that’s a word. The cinematography in the whole film, we tried to make it as smooth as possible so that you wouldn’t think about the camera movement at all, you would just follow the characters. We tried to have this also in the fighting scene. I watched lots of boxing films just to get an idea of what kind of diversity there is, and my DP didn’t want to watch any. He’s a documentary filmmaker himself, so our references were more early ’60s documentaries, like Salesman, direct cinema handheld 16mm camerawork, but not any boxing films. In a way, it’s a trap: when you have this boxing set-up, you think, “OK, we could actually make quite nice shots,” but then we decided not to go on that trap.
Filmmaker: Is there room for improvisation during the shoot?
Kuosmanen: If there’s any improvisation it’s in the rehearsals, where we can try different things, but when shooting they’re not improvising any movements or dialogue. I don’t like that much improvisation in film; it’s good for when you’re rehearsing, it gives this natural, organic rhythm to the scenes, but then you have to focus. The camera movements always have to be modulated and it’s moving, and if somebody’s improvising it just collapses. We usually do the choreography with the actors, and then we take the DP with us and he starts shooting. We are planning the scenes from that perspective, not with storyboards, so we have basic movements, where you start from here and need to end up here, and then you just need to figure out how to do it. We’ve also been doing this in our previous films, very very long takes. I think this gives an organic feel to the acting as well. You shouldn’t see that it’s constructed. It shouldn’t look like acting, it shouldn’t look like directing.
Filmmaker: Because you’re shooting on film, presumably you can do fewer takes.
Kuosmanen: We had lots of that film. We ordered everything from the Kodak warehouses in Europe, and then everything from the States, and then the guy dealing with films like this said, “You have to say the exact amount you need, because Kodak said they will make some more, and afterwards you won’t get any more during this film.” I hope I can find an aesthetic that would be best shot on digital, because that would make things easier, but so far we always end up using film. I think in shooting, it loads the scene. When you’re rehearsing, you’re trying to find a way to make the scene, and then you’re like, “OK, we’re actually shooting.” When you know it’s expensive and limited, you really need to make the scene ready before. Then I think this tension gives a bit extra to the actors. The moment is more special than with digital. With digital, it’s like “Let’s try it,” and then when you’re editing you see you have too much material and it’s not even good, because you didn’t make it ready before you started shooting. In this film, we wanted to get this early ’60s look, and that’s why we used reversal material: it’s not as good a quality as negative, the contrast is much higher and it’s hard to control, but we were not interested in controlling the whole production. We’re happy that none of our financiers had any complaints.