Veiko Õunpuu, Sügisball
Artists’ creativity is sometimes directly proportional to their life experience, and Estonian writer-director Veiko Õunpuu has more than enough to draw on. Õunpuu was born in 1972 on Saaremaa, the biggest island belonging to Estonia, and graduated from high school in 1990 just as the country was glimpsing independence due to the dissolution of the USSR. Over the next 10 years, Õunpuu had numerous identities: a tyre repair worker, an asylum seeker in Finland, a student at the Estonian Business School, a failed carpet salesman in Sweden, a driver on Hardi Volmer’s Estonian movie All My Lenins, an advertising agency employee, a backpacker in Asia, and finally a Literary Theory and Semiotics student at the University of Tallinn. In 2000, he began to focus his energies on film, starting his own production company, Sugar Films, which made Marko Raat’s Agent Wild Duck before going under. After a hiatus as a painter and a social-critical essayist, he returned to filmmaking in 2006 by writing and directing the 40-minute film Tuhirand (Empty), starring Rain Tolk, based on a short story by Estonian writer and theater director Mati Unt.
Õunpuu once again draws on the work of Mati Unt for his first feature, Sügisball, adapted from Unt’s 1979 novel of the same name, and has Rain Tolk reprising his role from Tuhirand of Unt’s literary alter ego, Mati. Sügisball is a kaleidoscopic portrait of Tallinn, the Estonian capital, and the disillusioned, alienated residents of one highrise apartment building. It focuses on a disparate group of characters: writer Mati, who has just been left by his wife; lonely single mom Laura and her young daughter; elderly barber August; self-involved architect Maurer and his long-suffering wife; and coatroom attendant (and unlikely ladykiller) Theo. Unusually for a film like this, these understated stories of quiet desperation only occasionally overlap, instead sitting side by side, the emotional resonances playing off each other. Stunningly shot and with a brooding soundtrack featuring post rock outfit Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Sügisball looks, feels and sounds dark, and Õunpuu employs an absurdist sense of humor reminiscent of his near-neighbor, Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismäki, though somewhat bleaker. Though just at the beginning of his career, Õunpuu is a filmmaker who already has a distinct and original vision, and Sügisball is as exciting and promising a debut as you will see all year.
Filmmaker interviewed Õunpuu over email, and talked to him about the cinema of urban alienation, the production company he named after his cat, and gluing studs on rally car tyres while in a giant spacesuit.
Filmmaker: You’ve done a lot of different things so far in your life, from selling floor materials in Sweden to backpacking in Thailand and India. How important were those experiences in making you ready to be a filmmaker?
Õunpuu: I just wasn’t able to hold a job or set into anything for a longer period. So I was sort of drifting, and becoming more and more desperate until me and some of my friends decided to make a small film.
Filmmaker: Now that you are directing, do you feel like this is the job you were meant to do?
Õunpuu: It works out surprisingly well, but I’m not sure if I was meant to be a film director. If your question means whether I’m happy to be able to make films then answer is yes. My life makes a lot more sense now.
Filmmaker: How much of an impact did your painting experience have on your artistic style as a filmmaker?
Õunpuu: Painting experience was for me pretty much the only thing to cling on to when I started out – the first film I made was just a series of compositions. I’ve just barely began to grasp the other aspects of filmmaking.
Filmmaker: Your production company is called Homeless Bob Production. Where did that name come from?
Õunpuu: Some years ago I took in a stray cat that I gave the name Bob. I set up the company around that time and the name was there, walking around in my apartment, demanding to be fed.
Filmmaker: Do you see an overlap between the work you did as a social critical essayist and in how you portray the world in Sügisball?
Õunpuu: To my mind there is very little social criticism in Sügisball. It is just a bit of poetry, or rather an attempt at a bit of poetical generalization on some basic problems in our lives. I actually tried out a very “anti-Marxist” idea that the quality of our existence is not conditioned by our social status and a position in the hierarchies of the world.
Filmmaker: This film and your previous movie are both based on stories by Mati Unt. What especially attracts you to his work? In your opinion, what makes him such a good writer?
Õunpuu: I like the way Mati Unt wrote, how he constructed the sentences, the text being of a high quality but always fluid. And I like his mixture of existentialism and irony. The man was a genius. He was also a very good theatre director.
Filmmaker: Your comic style has been compared to Aki Kaurismäki, but is darker and less obviously funny. Are you directly influenced by him, or is your sense of humor more of a regional thing?
Õunpuu: I love Aki Kaurismäki’s films and I’m very flattered to be compared to him. What comes to my sense of humor… Some things make you laugh but bring tears in your eyes at the same time… I guess this is the kind of humor that I enjoy the most in films.
Filmmaker: Do you see Sügisball as being part of a tradition of kaleidoscopic films portraying alienated people in a specific city, like Altman’s Short Cuts or Michael Winterbottom’s Wonderland? Did any of these films influence you?
Õunpuu: I haven’t seen these films that you mentioned. Only after making Sügisball did I come to an embarrassing realization that so many of films like this have been made before. I just used the characters of Mati Unt’s book and generated my own events around them, hoping to achieve some sort of generalization on the subject of solitude. As I was heavily into Cassavetes at the time, I stole a scene from Love Streams but never had anything to do with Altman or Winterbottom. I guess it is very hard to come up with something truly original.
Filmmaker: In Sügisball, Theo brutally beats a famous actor-director known for his relationship comedies. Is that a personal comment on your feelings on that genre?
Õunpuu: You bet. The whole genre is a massive bullshit generator and the pushers of this vile junk, the directors and screenwriters of this kind of cinema; they should all be jailed in my opinion.
Filmmaker: In your director’s note, you quote Beckett saying “When you are up to your neck in shit the only thing to do is sing.” Is it just the characters in the movie that are up to their necks in shit, or do you think it is all of us?
Õunpuu: In some sense it’s all of us. But you know I shot the film almost three years ago. A lot can change in a man’s life during three years. I still love Beckett though: “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.”
Filmmaker: You say that the film is “quite simple… but not outright stupid.” When you are dealing with emotions, as you do in this film, are ideas of intelligence and stupidity important?
Õunpuu: They are important to me personally, yes. I’m striving to be as intelligent as I can be even when dealing with emotions.
Filmmaker: How difficult has it been to start a film career in Estonia? I believe your previous production company Sugar Films went bankrupt, so did you have to risk a lot to return to filmmaking?
Õunpuu: I don’t particularly like the word “career,” it sounds too pragmatic and way too ambitious for my taste. Even the sound of the word is ugly, like something has stuck in your mouth. I’d rather call what I’m doing just making films. Which in Estonia can be a struggle sometimes, but I’m not complaining and I haven’t really had to take any risks worth mentioning.
Filmmaker: How important has the success of Sügisball been to the kind of isolated, alienated Estonians it portrays?
Õunpuu: To my mind the film is not only about Estonians, or not even about isolated or alienated people. It’s a film about this kind of solitude that we all share but what is emphasized to the extreme in the cases of the film characters.
Filmmaker: The film seems to be a period piece seemingly set in the late 80s or early 90s, but it still feels very reminiscent of life today. Did you intentionally try to stress how little had changed?
Õunpuu: I’m greatly surprised that you perceived it as a period piece. My hope was to generate a sort of timeless space by mixing different decades. The time of the film could maybe called “Eastern Europe during the turn of the century”.
Filmmaker: Fernando Pessoa, John Cassavetes and Ingmar Bergman are all referenced in the film in one way or another. Have all of these artists been an influence on you? If so, in what way?
Õunpuu: These are some fine artists I admire greatly. Reading Pessoa has somewhat improved my sense of poetry, the example of John Cassavetes has been good for the soul, and, even though the reference to him in the film is almost ironic, Bergman has shown us the great altitudes the cinematic art can achieve.
Filmmaker: You worked with a number of the same people on Sügisball as in Tuhirand. How important is it to you to keep working with the same creative group?
Õunpuu: They’re my friends. It is good to work with the people you know and can trust. I also worked with them on a new film (The Temptation of St.Tony) that I just finished and I guess I’ll work with them on the next one should the capricious God of cinema funding still favor us.
Filmmaker: What’s the worst (or weirdest) job you’ve ever had?
Õunpuu: At the beginning of the nineties I managed to go through a whole year being a carpet salesman without selling a single square meter of carpet. That was pretty weird. But I have also lived for a while in a trailer in Finland, putting studs in the winter tires of rally cars. The studs went in with glue which was very toxic, so I had to wear a suit which looked like a giant spacesuit and it was thickly covered with glue. I was sitting behind this machine and I had to push two pedals with my feet – left one raised the tire and the right one inserted a stud. I’ve had better jobs since then.
Filmmaker: What was your cinematic epiphany?
Õunpuu: There’s so many of these films that I really love. To choose just one would mean to do injustice to others… I was greatly impressed by the early films of Kaurismäki and Jarmusch, when I was a teenager. Later in life there came Bergman, but also Tarkovsky who has not made a single dodgy film. Real epiphanies have been Tarkovsky’s Mirror, Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew and Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence and Love Streams. I also love filmmakers like Ozu, Bresson. Herzog, Bunuel etc. etc. At the moment I’m very much into older films that were made before or right after the Second World War. The very recent discoveries were Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes Are Flying. Also Jean Renoir’s La Bete Humaine and La Chienne. I was greatly impressed by King Vidor’s The Crowd that was shown at the Sodankylä Film Festival last year.
Filmmaker: Should a director always take risks?
Õunpuu: The greatest risk of all is surrendering to the Almighty Dollar. We need to strive to find fresh approaches to the image and to the way we depict our world as everything that is fresh is instantly taken from us and put to the service of commerce and only by always inventing new can we hope to survive as species capable of thinking and feeling. If that means taking some risks now and then, then we should take the risks.
Filmmaker: Finally, if the world ended tomorrow, what (if anything) would you be sad about that you hadn’t achieved?
Õunpuu: If the world ended tomorrow I would be sad about all of us who hadn’t achieved our very best.