Festival de Cannes
61e Semaine de la critque 2022
The Woodcutter Story
May 17, 2022
For a debut feature one needs to be brave and willing to push not only your own boundaries but the boundaries of your audiences expectations. Playing it safe with a well meaning, simple and predictable story doesn’t hold must chance of leaving much of an impact. Nordic filmmaker Mikko Myllylahti gained a remarkable reputation having written the Un Certain Regard Award (2016) winning feature The Happiest Day In The Life Of Olli Maki, he’s decided to fully embrace the surreal in The Woodcutter Story.
A small town in Northern Finland is home to a small community where life is quiet, slower and calm. Pepe, Jarkko Lahti, like many men in the town, is a woodcutter working at the local sawmill. This is somewhat an idliic place to raise a family and to live life at a slower but enjoyable pace. But things begin to take a turn and Pepe’s life becomes upended and yet his outlook remains steady and somewhat unflinching. In a shock announcement to the men of the sawmill they discover that the mill is to close and a new mine will be established. Undaunted Pepe world begins to unravel which sees him losing his mother, Ulla Tapaninen, after she is attacked by a strange beast. And Pepe’s best friend, a man he named his son after, Tuomas, HP. Björkman, becomes obsessed with the idea that his wife is having an affair with the towns hairdresser. And yet Pepe remains unfazed, unwilling to react and as obsession gets the better of Tuomas and violence takes over Pepe is pushed mentally closer and closer towards the edge but doesn’t flinch.
His wife leaves, his house burns down and he ends up taking a job at the new mine which provides him and young Tuomas with a place to stay, Pepe doesn’t blink. Things begin to take an even more dark and surreal turn when a singing ‘truth seer’ Jaakko, Marc Gassot, tries to inspire and empower the deflated members of the community to rise up against the mine.
To say that The Woodcutter Story is strange would be an understatement. It verges on weird but in the most exciting and inspiring way. Though the film was written before the pandemic it holds a salient place in our society … Pepe is being given a test and that test is simple, react, be angry, scream, feel sorry for yourself. Whatever you do do something that shows your pain, frustration and anger, but he doesn’t. By not reacting Pepe is able to remain calm and realise that there is no point to being mad or being angry at things that have happened and that are happening. Sometimes the best thing we can do is to take a breather and accept it.
When working on a short animation like It’s Nice in Here do you allow yourself much flexible or do you like to stick to what you have planned?
Before I studied animation at the Willem de Kooning Academy in Rotterdam, I had a background in Live-Action filmmaking. Because of this, I actually approached much of the animation in a similarly intuitive way, often trying to imagine a camera-operator filming the characters. Also in terms of the structuring of the film, I very much relied on my background as an editor.
We had a script and storyboard that served as a solid foundation for our production, but I wanted to keep editing the film and keep finding interesting and poetic associations between certain scenes. So, I made sure that we created enough space for the animators, the art director, and for myself, to work on additional shots, much like B-roll footage. Being able to work with these puzzle pieces and put them in the right places, helped make the film feel more intuitive and honest.
What where the biggest challenges you faced bringing this film to life?
There have been many bumps in the road and hurdles we had to overcome while working on the film. About a month into production, we entered our first lockdown and all had to work remotely. Luckily, due to the film being animated, we could continue working on It's Nice in Here, but we've had to adapt and sacrifice a lot in order to make it all happen. A few months later, right when we were about to start with animating the police officer's perspective in the film, we heard the news of George Floyd’s murder and watched how the #BlackLivesMatter movement that was globally picking up steam. Through that trauma and pain, we had to find it within ourselves to work on the police officer's perspective without too much judgement. It did serve as a reminder that the film we were making was still very much needed, and will sadly stay relevant for a longer time to come.
How different was your approach It’s Nice in Here compared to your previous films?
I tend to use a lot of mixed-media elements in my films, and that was again a large consideration for this film. In 2019, I started exploring the possibilities for Live-Action components to be incorporated, but ultimately it became my first entirely animated film. Within that animation, however, we did manage to still experiment with different visual styles, animation techniques, and software.
Another big difference is the fact that I worked together with a relatively large team. As a multi-disciplinary artist, I often tend to be responsible for every piece of the process, but now I had the opportunity to rely on a team of incredibly talented artists that could help bring the characters to life and put pieces of themselves into the animations.
Where did you passion for animation come from?
It started from the idea that there are no real limitations. As long as you can draw or model something, you can directly incorporate it into your story. This flexibility and way we could quite literally think things into existence, offered us a lot of freedom and possibilities to quickly explore which direction we wanted to go into. Animation is all about constructing a reality rather than capturing reality, and for a film that deals entirely with subjective memories and contradicting testimonies, this felt vital to the story.
Had you set out for your work to be grounded in such personal themes?
I feel like I need to have a personal connection to whatever story I want to tell, especially if I end up spending years telling it. These are the projects that keep you up at night and teach you something about yourself as you're making it.
Although I've never had to directly deal with police violence, I certainly have been shaped by the many stories I've heard that have had a tragic ending. I am reminded of watching a group of police officers beat an innocent Black man on the side of a road when I was about 9 years old. I remember how it shook me to the core and terrified me. Looking at these victims, I see my father in them, or my cousins, or myself. They don’t ever feel like strangers to me.
So, in a way, this project feels personal in the sense that the characters that I wrote, became like the people that I know. There's a little bit of everyone I know in them, including experiences that I borrowed from my own life. Hopefully these lived experiences will make the characters feel more grounded and will make their world feel more lived in.
"Stories are often more nuanced than they are presented as, and there's a lot more messiness hidden underneath the surface."
Because of the personal nature of your work is it hard to ever give it up to audiences?
Sometimes it can definitely feel quite disarming and vulnerable, but I've learned to use my vulnerability as a way to connect with my audiences. I trust that there will be viewers who can, in one way or another, relate to my experiences, or thoughts, or feelings. So, although it might feel frightening to share my personal work with others, ultimately, I've discovered that there's no greater and more rewarding feeling when this sharing becomes a bonding experience with the audience.
What is it about the human condition that engages your creativity and what do you think you work says about you as an artist and filmmaker?
I see my work as snapshots of moments in my life that I can look back at and know where I was at that moment in my life. I’d like to see what I was trying to process, or felt like I had to unpack at the time. Rather than tackling big and abstract world issues, which I don't feel like I'm particularly equipped to do, I feel like there's enough internal messiness that we as human beings are collectively trying to make sense of, to continue to make enough interesting films about.
Is there any advice you wish a younger you could have been given as you started your filmmaking journey?
I would tell myself not to stress over things too much and to enjoy the ride. Wherever you want to go, do things step by step, one by one. Trust your vision, trust your stories, and trust yourself. Now go make some movies.
And finally, what would you like audiences to take away from It’s Nice in Here?
Not every situation has a simple answer. Stories are often more nuanced than they are presented as, and there's a lot more messiness hidden underneath the surface. This is not a film that intends to provide the audience with all the answers presented in a neat package, but instead aims to have them walk away with questions about the truth, about memories, and perhaps even about their own biases and perceptions.
Sometimes we can look at the same things but come out of it seeing different things. That's what the characters are doing and, perhaps, that's also what the audiences might do. And that's okay.