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“A Deteriorating Mind Condemned to Hell…”: Sadri Cetinkaya on Fantasia Doc Lost Boys

Lost Boys

I first encountered Joonas Neuvonen’s Lost Boys, a sort of “unintended sequel” to 2010’s spectacular look at self-destructive Subutex addicts in rural Finland, Reindeerspotting: Escape from Santaland – which was co-written and edited by Lost Boys co-director Sadri Cetinkaya – at this year’s virtual CPH:DOX. At the time I tried but failed to take notes while watching. The film just got under my skin in a way that froze me to my laptop screen. 

Atmospherically, Neuvonen’s decade-later doc brought to mind the sensation of being trapped inside a Nine Inch Nails video. Memorably narrated by Pekka Strang (Tom of Finland), Lost Boys picks up where Reindeerspotting left off: After serving a seven-year sentence for drug dealing, protagonists Jani and Antti escape to Thailand to celebrate with Neuvonen and his camera in tow. Predictably, the round-the-clock bacchanal revolves around sex, drugs, alcohol, more sex and more drugs. Unpredictably, while Neuvonen returns home at the end of the revelry the duo choose instead to fly off to Cambodia – where they promptly disappear. And then Jani turns up dead, his demise officially ruled a suicide, and that verdict prompts Neuvonen to return to Southeast Asia once again in a herculean effort to separate fact from fiction.

Which also happens to be the task of the viewer. For though Lost Boys is a thoroughly engrossing, seamless journey into a very real heart of darkness, the film was actually shot piecemeal during the course of several trips. So how much footage was staged? How much of this madcap adventure truly occurred? And what effect did the director’s own arrest for drug trafficking – the takedown suspiciously captured on camera – have on production? Or is this film all one highly stylized, hallucinatory dream?

To get answers to this and more Filmmaker decided to reach out to the Finnish filmmaking team just after the doc’s Fantasia International Film Festival North American premiere (August 5-25). Though Neuvonen himself seems to have now also disappeared, his longtime collaborator Sadri Cetinkaya was kind enough to shine a light on all the dark matter.

Filmmaker: When I first saw Lost Boys back at CPH:DOX I noted that watching it felt like being trapped inside a Nine Inch Nails video. So how did the team come up with the film’s overall aesthetic, which includes an ominous voiceover by Tom of Finland actor Pekka Strang?

Cetinkaya: Against all odds I think I never actually saw a NIN music video, but I’ll take your word for it. The film has influences from all over the place, as the three of us (co-screenwriter and co-editor Venla Varha, Joonas and me) worked on it for a decade. Gaspar Noé, David Lynch and Muscha are among my personal references of inspiration for this project.

“Being trapped” is a word choice that pleases me, because the mental space of the movie is meant to be a claustrophobic trap for the viewer. The whole thing begins from its end, which is a dead end. A deteriorating mind condemned to hell, walking a perpetual circle in isolation. All that comes after is a horizontal fall through a maze of ever-narrowing passages that we already know will lead only to inevitable doom. The character written in the film as Joonas is heavily fictionalized, as is the actual narrative of the film itself. An unreliable narrator tells the story better, even though reality provided us with the building blocks.

An early aesthetic choice we made was that in order to achieve immersion we will mainly stay inside the “skin” of Joonas in the movie — either seeing through his eyes in handheld POV footage or thinking through him in a symbolic, visualized mental space. A challenge was how to portray the inebriated and paranoid state of the character in a visual medium. We decided that the immersion would be best served by doing as much as possible on location with composition, focus and a selection of macro and tilt-shift optics.

The fact that the film has been shot with a dozen different cameras, most of them consumer grade, is also a part of the aesthetic. We had only one day of shooting with a pro camera paid for by the production company. That was the footage from the prison cell. Everything else is shot with equipment that our personal resources could afford us at the given moment. During the 10 years of shooting we experienced firsthand how consumer electronics evolved in “bang for the buck” quality between each of the six major shooting trips. Of course the mishmash of various resolutions, video compression and optics required a huge effort from the colorist and the rest of the team, who made the film look good on the big screen after it left my editing bunker. I was simply amazed in the end; they definitely worked wonders on the material, while simultaneously retaining the subtly nauseating effect that the constantly changing camera equipment and optics subconsciously caused for the viewing experience.

A big part of the mood was created by the soundscape of ambient noise drones that dominate the soundtrack. I have a selection of synthesizers and other equipment in the edit with which I made tracks for the project as it progressed. We also used a lot of ambient stuff by the Finnish project “Reikätila.” This sound sketch was then realized into the film score by the sound designer Arttu Hokkanen and the composer Ilmari Jyskä.

The film’s main events take place in 2010, but the vast majority of the scenes are shot between 2012 and 2015. The footage is simply edited to maintain the illusion of Joonas going around by himself asking questions. For example the scene in the street where Jani was found dead was filmed in 2012. We were incredibly lucky to find a tuk tuk driver who had witnessed the event; it was not difficult to cut it so that the actual timing remains obfuscated. We didn’t actually set up any of the scenes in the sense of how a fiction film is made; even the illustrative material is mostly shot in a run-and-gun, Dogma-style on location and then refined from a huge amount of footage in the editing room.

The scripts of both Lost Boys and Reindeerspotting were “written” in the timeline of the editing software. My workflow for these films was to take the raw footage into the edit and flesh out what could be made to work as scenes. Then I would figure out what kind of narratives would be possible to be built with them. The text of the Lost Boys voiceover was written alongside the editing, but we mainly focused on it in the final years of production, when it became clearer what was needed from it for the story. We had planned for it from quite early on in the process, as the material from the actual events was so sparse that it needed a lot to fill in the blanks to make a comprehensible story. Originally I wanted Joonas to do the voice himself, but this turned out to be an impractical option. In the end I did the placeholder voiceover for the edit myself and then Mr. Strang’s voice was replaced for it in the sound post. Which turned out to be great. I could not have hoped for a better result.

Filmmaker: Though Reindeerspotting won the top prize at Locarno Critics Week, and Lost Boys became a documentary blockbuster in Finland upon its release just last year, I’m guessing these films’ subject matter might scare away certain funders. How exactly are these films financed?

Cetinkaya: Both films were at first fully financed by the core team committing resources to the project. Reindeerspotting was at first shot by Joonas with a camera on loan from a municipal youth media project. When that camera was confiscated (after his material was reviewed by the project supervisors), an acquaintance of his lent some money for a new one. A few years later he gave me a bag of MiniDV tapes to see if the contents could be made into a movie. Both Reindeerspotting and Lost Boys were edited at my personal studio.

We did get some financial relief in the form of software licenses and compensation for flight and hotel expenses when production companies got involved with the films, but the making of both projects was self-sustained by us for the first several years. Since we didn’t have resources for a proper professional shooting trip, we went for several clandestine low-budget ones. The idea was for both of us to act as a camera unit. Also, we kept together for security since it’s more difficult to discreetly hang two guys in an alley than just one. We had rudimentary plans on what we wanted to shoot and where to go, but in practice we relied heavily on on-location improvisation. Arttu Nieminen and Venla Varha also took part in some of those trips.

Filmmaker: How did Joonas’s incarceration affect production? Did you and Venla continue working on it without him?

Cetinkaya: Of course we wouldn’t have had the element of incarceration in the story if Joonas hadn’t been caught. It was the event that finally nailed down the idea of Joonas as the central character of the story.

The main practical effect of Joonas’s incarceration was that it delayed our subsequent trips to film more footage for the emerging narrative of the movie. We were racing against time to do a proper shooting trip to Thailand and Cambodia while the locations still remained similar to our existing material, and the people involved were still possible to find. Fortunately after his initial isolation period and trial, he was released without travel restrictions to wait for the verdict. We could do a quick, two-man operation already in 2012 before he went to do the rest of his sentence. It was fortunate we made it because on the next trip out in 2014 one of our main locations, the hotel in Bangkok, was already being demolished.

Working independently is what I have been doing for most of the duration of my collaboration with Joonas. When I became involved with Reindeerspotting he left me the material without a script and moved to India for a year while I made the first versions of the movie. Co-directing Lost Boys was not a huge leap from my role in Reindeerspotting, as I had in practice already been doing it. With Lost Boys my collaboration was divided between Joonas being mostly involved in the shooting of the material, and the editing work being done with Venla. I don’t think the time Joonas was in jail slowed down her creative process either.

Filmmaker: Lost Boys is indeed a search for answers about Jani’s death, but it’s also a heavily staged and stylized – one might even say sensationalized – suspense thriller. Which makes me wonder how Jani’s family and friends – including Lee Lee and her sex industry coworkers – ultimately feel about the film. What’s been the reaction?

Cetinkaya: This is really a question for Joonas, as he is the one having actual contact with the people in question. I have not heard any negative feedback from people in the film through him, though those people have only provided private commentary so I wouldn’t be in a position to discuss it further anyway.

Filmmaker: About a decade passed between Reindeerspotting: Escape from Santaland and the release of this “sequel,” which makes me curious about the next project and whether we’ll see something before 2030. Are there plans to keep following this story – “filming what you know, ” so to speak – or are there other tales and themes you’re all more keen to explore?

Cetinkaya: My current projects are both similar and extraordinarily different from these films, but at the moment I have nothing that I’m ready to discuss publicly. I do hope to make another movie in this lifetime, but I worked six years on Reindeerspotting and 10 years on Lost Boys, so extrapolating from that you might be seeing something around 2035. It’s maybe better not to hold your breath for that, as I of course can’t comment on Joonas or Venla’s plans.

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