Shooting on a Moving Period Russian Train: Juho Kuosmanen on Cannes 2021 Competition Premiere Compartment No. 6
In Juho Kuosmanen’s debut feature The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki, a Finnish boxer (and baker) gets a title shot at Helsinki Olympic Stadium against the American featherweight champion. At their joint press conference, the Finnish media is desperate to hear from their distinguished foreign guest: “What do you think of our country?” The real Olli Mäki lost by second-round TKO, but this movie about a small nation jostling for recognition on the world stage took top honors at Un Certain Regard in 2016. Kuosmanen is back at Cannes this year and he’s gone up a class: His sophomore feature, Compartment No. 6, is in the main competition.
The last film by the Great Finnish Hope was about the world coming to Finland; the new one is about Finland going out into the world. Laura (Seidi Haarla) lives in Moscow with her Russian girlfriend, and her wavering sense of belonging in her adopted country is challenged over the course of a multiple-overnight train journey from Moscow to Murmansk, north of the Arctice circle near the Finnish border. Her companion for this journey in a tiny sleeper car is yobbish Russian Ljoha (Yuriy Borisov), with whom she bonds, initially against her will.
Will this unlikely duo transcend their superficial differences and discover a shared humanity? Yes, obviously, but in the meantime please revel in the train journey that takes up the lion’s share of the film. Set in 1962, an era evoked through a mix of continental, rustic and rockabilly styles and spaces on a budget of about 1.5 million Euros, Olli Mäki suggested a remarkable talent for resourceful period production design, as Kuosmanen discussed with Vadim Rizov at the time. For Compartment No. 6, the director found that the dream of the Yeltsin ’90s was alive on many trains still in use by RZD, the Russian railroad: train scenes were shot, on two-perforation 35mm, on rolling stock rented from the company and run on their tracks, showcasing private compartments, sleeper berths and a dining car in all their sickly yellow-green garish glory.
Filmmaker spoke to Kuosmanen on the Scandinavian Terrace at the Cannes Film Festival, where Compartment No. 6 had just premiered in a theater named after cinema’s first great trainspotter, Louis Lumière.
Filmmaker: I don’t know how much time we have so let’s start with the train. I really want to talk about the train.
Kuosmanen: My D.P., J-P Passi, he’s a documentary filmmaker; we are not that fond of our own ideas but love what reality can give us. If the options are to shoot this in a studio or on a real moving train, it’s like of course, moving train. Studio sounds boring. People were asking: “But it’s very hard, in the studio you can control everything, we can have the scenery that you want on a green screen or whatever…” We are not interested, I don’t want to be controlling those images.
It’s a tiny place, but we decided not to move the walls—the only wall we actually tore down was the toilet wall, because we couldn’t fit in there. But with the compartment we didn’t want to. We felt that if the camera is behind the wall, you can sense it—you don’t see it, but you can sense that you are not in the same space with the actors. It must have been extremely hard for the production to schedule and rent those old trains, but for us it was the only way to do it.
For me as a director, the biggest difficulty—not a challenge, but made it different—was the fact that I always want to watch the actors with my own eyes. I’m not watching on a monitor, I’m there with the camera, watching the situation with two living characters. When I watch on a monitor, I can sense that I’m actually directing the image, not the situation—not living people, but the surface of the image. Humans become objects. You’re like… [Makes a frame with his hands, like a movie director.] As a director I hate when I’m starting to say, “Ten centimeters that way,” but when you’re watching a monitor it’s those things that you see. When you’re watching living people you see the chemistry, the situation. I think that’s the way you should direct actors.
Filmmaker: So you rented old trains from RZD and ran them on tracks? And they just had old trains that looked like they looked in the 90s?
Kuosmanen: They were still in use, but their expiring date was getting closer—the restaurant car was expired already, so we shot the restaurant car scenes on a private company track. But the day scenes are shot across Russia—we scheduled a route that we could drive without disturbing the official [timetable].
Filmmaker; I guess if you’re using Russian trains you need to use Russian tracks, you can’t just move a train. How much ground are you covering in a day of shooting?
Kuosmanen: Shooting days in a moving train were 10 or 12 hours, and we were doing a big circle. Some days we scheduled more countryside, some days more close by to the city so we can have some buildings. The night scenes are done in a train hangar. We had this hydraulic machine giving us the movement. But those are shot in the same compartment.
Filmmaker: Can you light a train at all, or are you using what’s there?
Kuosmanen: We were controlling the light, but mostly using what was there, just changing the bulbs. And we had small hidden lights—as we did with sound as well. We had lots of hidden microphones because it was impossible to fit in the compartment with the boom. You need lots of radio mics all over.
Filmmaker: Were you dressing or redecorating the cars, or did they look period?
Kuosmanen: They looked like that. The textiles, we brought them, but we checked lots of different old train wagons. We wanted to have the red fake leather on the benches, and the fake wooden walls. Nowadays I think the walls are white, but we wanted the wooden ones because it looks better behind the actors.
Filmmaker: If you know northwest Russia, northern Finland, are there cheats you’d be able to pick up?
Kuosmanen: In real life, the trip’s not that long. The trains, how they look outside—we didn’t want to have a specific date, like this happens in ’99 or something like that, because we didn’t want the audience thinking about Russian politics, “Is it during Yeltsin or is it during Putin, what was the political moment in the country back then?” We just wanted it timeless, somewhere around the millennium… but back then the trains were mostly green, this very beautiful matte green outside. These were gray and red. That’s kind of a mistake. If you’re Russian, you’re like, “These trains look a bit more modern.” That’s why we wanted to avoid showing them from outside.
Filmmaker: How did knowing that you were going to film on a train affect the choices that you made about the camera? Were you able to fit a normal 35mm camera in there? Does it affect the lenses that you’re using?
Kuosmanen: Luckily enough, my D.P. wants to be close to the actors. In Olli Mäki, even though we had all that space, we were using 16mm, mostly like 12mm and 16mm lenses. In 35 it’s like… 24mm or 32mm lenses, so pretty wide-angle. There wasn’t that much compromising, he could fit in there with that camera. We used small film cassettes.
Filmmaker: I’m curious generally about doing a period film on a fairly modest budget, the challenges and constraints. I imagine that there’s a lot of places in Finland and Russia where you can get things, find places that look like the time period.
Kuosmanen: In Russia it’s very hard to know, even if you ask, how much something will cost. For example, renting these trains, driving around with them—we didn’t know beforehand. “And how much is it?” “We don’t know. We’ll know once you’ve done it.” “Oh, come on. We don’t have an open budget, we need to know.” “Yeah, but we don’t know. We will tell you when it’s done.” We had 2.2 million Euros, something like that. If we had had more money, we would have painted the trains. When you lack money it’s more searching than planning. You can’t just plan a thing and do it. You need to search, to rethink, and find something that’s cheaper than building something.
Filmmaker: Your first film is about relations between Finland and the United States, and your new film is about relations between Finland and Russia. Olli Mäki is a great depiction of the postwar decades when there was so much American money flowing into the Nordic nations.
Kuosmanen: Olli Mäki was the period where, especially in the boxing world, we were copying the American way. We wanted to get rid of our history. It depended on the people, Finland back then was actually very divided—but in that film the worldview is that the manager is trying to bring America here, and Olli Mäki is more or less not fitting in with the big American show. Because America is huge, Finland is small, and the problem with Olli Mäki was that they tried to make him look bigger than he was. In that way, it was not about two nations, but about identity, and in this film, it is the same. I would say it’s not about these nations, but where are you from that’s part of your identity, the cultural environment where you grow up, are educated.
Here, as a Finnish filmmaker, it’s kind of a role. I’m not an American filmmaker, I’m not a Russian filmmaker, I’m a Finnish filmmaker, that’s my role. Those countries are backgrounds to show the contrast. I think this situation between these two characters on the train, it’s like a mirror. When I’m watching myself against a Russian guy, what do I see that’s similar, how do I feel, how am I reflecting myself? Always when you’re traveling you start to think: “How am I with these people? How am I different? What is my identity in the end?” In this film I wanted to deal with social and cultural roles that are kind of shields. I think this film is about two souls that have lots of cultural roles, or lots of cultural shields—they are behind them, and when they start to lose them they will… finally connect.