L'Atelier 2019 - Festival de Cannes
Mikko Myllyahti: "I believe all the artists can be roughly divided into two groups: the ones who are able to perceive the world honestly as it is and produce magnificent art from their perception, and the ones - like myself - who will always see inwards into their own perception, no matter what is being brought in front of them."
THE WOODCUTTER STORY | 1st Feature Film | Finland
An open-pit mine is unearthed in an idyllic town in Northern Finland. A strange chain of dreadful events affects the life of Pepe, a kind and optimistic woodcutter.
Hi Mikko, it's great to talk to you, how's everything going?
I'm good, thank you! I'm here in the countryside outside Helsinki where I've been living for a few years now. I'm preparing for Cannes festival, reading and writing - and waiting for the spring to come, we had snow this morning!
What does it mean to be at L'Atelier 2019 with The Woodcutter Story?
It means really a lot. I've been working on the project for some time already and we are preparing to shoot the film in early 2020. This is the perfect moment for us to get feedback on the script and move into financing. And I don't think there is a filmmaker on this planet that doesn't want her project to be exposed in Cannes... So I'm very grateful.
How important is this opportunity for filmmakers to be part of something like L'Atelier?
Being a first time director for a feature film I find it very important that there are possibilities to develop projects in such prestigious programs. It is a struggle to make a feature, I think it always has been, and therefore these selections truly matter. I believe that in the end, it's all about the originality of the film itself, but being able to expose the script and the project in this stage to such experienced readers can really be the final push one needs also artistically.
This is your debut feature film as a director are there any nerves ahead of pitching your film at Cannes?
I think pitching is always nerve-wracking! Last time I did it in Torino Film Lab's meeting event in November last year and I thought that I would pass out and die on the stage in front of the jury and 200 decision makers in the audience. I think it's the moment before that is killing me, but once I get into the stage and accept all my flaws and my part in this world, my destiny, somehow things work out. For me it is never just a project I am pitching - it's my life, who I am, what I believe in, all my dreams. It is scary!
You're no strange to Cannes with your short film The Tiger in Cannes Critic Week 2018 and your debut feature script The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki winning the Prix un Certain Regard in 2016 what were these experiences like for you?
I remember when I saw the first rough cut of Olli Mäki, I literally fell on my knees and cried out of joy. I immediately knew that Juho (the director, Juho Kuosmanen) had made a marvellous film. I had been quite satisfied with the script, but at the same, I had felt that it was risky, since most of the content was hidden in-between the lines that didn't follow the typical pattern of a love story or a boxing film and that really required a lot of sensitivity from the director. But then I knew that he really nailed it and I was just so happy about the result that I didn't even think about the possible release or festival premieres. When Olli Mäki was selected for the Un Certain Regard I thought that it was absolutely wonderful, but didn't even dare to dream about winning such titles like Hell or High Water by David MacKenzie or After the Storm by Hirokazu Kore-eda. We were just first-timers from Finland. Winning the Un Certain Regard was a shock. But we managed to handle it! If you think of the theme of Olli Mäki, it is almost ironic to win with the film about a person who loses what is career-wise the most important moment in his life. But that is how Olli Mäki was and I'm also extremely happy that he got to see the big success the film has had - it is fiction but the spirit of the film is his.
El día más feliz en la vida de Olli Mäki (2016)
"I'm lucky to have the head of departments from my previous short with me."
After Olli Mäki I had to decide whether I want to focus solely on scriptwriting. I had some offers even outside Finland. Before Olli Mäki I had directed several short films and never really thought that I had to choose between these two fields of filmmaking. Luckily I have a wonderful producer Jussi Rantamäki and Emilia Haukka from Aamu Film Company and it was Jussi who asked me what I really want to do. I knew in my heart I wanted to direct. And I had a feature script, The Woodcutter Story, in mind already. But I also thought that it would be good to make another short film since my last one was more than a year ago. I had the script of The Tiger in my drawer, I re-read it and thought that I really want to make this one. We financed the film through a competition held by Finnish Film Foundation, YLE and AVEK, got selected and shot the film in January 2018. Once we had the film ready in March we sent it to Cannes like everybody. And when I got the news it was as surprising as it was with Olli Mäki. Two years after Olli Mäki I was able to return to Cannes, but this time as a director, and to a different section: La Semaine de la Critique is absolutely wonderful, I have no words how good a place it is to be as an aspiring filmmaker.
How much did your time at the ELO Helsinki Film School help prepare you for making your first steps into the film industry?
In Finland, we have some three-four proper film schools. ELO Helsinki is the most sought-after of them since they only take two new students per year in each of the departments. First I majored in screenwriting, but after half a year I lost my only classmate in an accident and that really changed everything. It was horrible. After losing him, I started to think about what I really want to do in this school and I decided to focus on directing. I think it is not easy to educate people on filmmaking, at least in such small countries like Finland. We had fantastic resources in our school but sometimes there were no courses to attend. So everyone was doing their own things, mostly alone like we Finns tend to be. I think what saved me, in the end, was the friendship with other students like Juho Kuosmanen. We still debate and talk a lot about cinema and what it should be. It is very inspiring and I always learn a lot.
As an award-winning poet do you have a favourite poem you've written?
I usually am very critical towards my own work, but there are some I still can read without too much pain. I don't have many poems translated into English.
What inspires your writing style?
I think for me everything is poetry in the end. All the films that I can relate to carrying a layer of transcendence. I'm constantly looking for a way to reveal what is hidden, reach out like if I knew there is someone in my room, I cannot see or hear who it is, but I can feel the breathing. I believe all the artists can be roughly divided into two groups: the ones who are able to perceive the world honestly as it is and produce magnificent art from their perception, and the ones - like myself - who will always see inwards into their own perception, no matter what is being brought in front of them. This leads to poetry, surrealism, magical realism, nightmares and dreams.
Can you tell me a little bit about The Woodcutter Story, what is behind this film?
The Woodcutter Story is a story of an extremely kind and optimistic woodcutter called Pepe who lives his humble and modest life in a small village in Northern Finland. When an open-pit mine is opened in the village a strange chain of dreadful events start to affect the village, which is put into a turmoil and people are losing their hope - everyone except Pepe who seems to be unaffected no matter what happens. When the story progresses we get a feeling that he is being tested, but by whom or why we do not know. Him being optimistic is the also the comical premise of the story but in the end, it goes deeper, into existential layers. To me, The Woodcutter Story is a modern myth about the possibility of hope in a contemporary world full of destruction and cynicism.
What was the inspiration behind this film?
I once encountered a peculiar woodcutter from the North, not far from my hometown. He told me about his life, how he was forced to leave the village and his family, how he lost everything. It was a sad story, but he seemed to be fine with it. He accepted his fate as if he knew the meaning of his own that I could not understand. Where does this integrity come from? I started to fantasise about a setting, a kind woodcutter and his story. How can it be that someone is so sustainable, so clear-cut as a character? What happens if I put this kind of harmless man into a horrible test? I started to have almost a sadistic urge to torment him, to see if I can break him. This sadism led me to write. Like Buñuel’s Nazarin or De Sica’s Miracle in Milan, The Woodcutter Story, a loose adaptation of the Book of Job, raises the question: what is hope in our contemporary world full of destruction and cynical approaches? This is the core of this modern myth dressed as an existential dark comedy set in contemporary Northern Finland where mining business is taking its toll. I want to create cinema with deadpan thriller genre elements that are yet metaphorical, open and profoundly layered in meaning.
"This was the first realization for me that cinema can also be something more than James Bond."
How different is this film, in terms of story, shooting and style to your short films?
I think there are some similarities with my previous short films, especially with The Tiger. I am working with the same cinematographer Arsen Sarkisiants who is absolutely wonderful! There is also a wintery, dark feeling but I think The Woodcutter is much richer in tone, especially the offbeat black humour is something new. Now that I am planning the shoot, I feel very free, there are no rules. I can move from almost horror-like moments to melodrama and then to deep philosophical questions - all done in a very cinematic way. I think cinema nowadays needs to be more than just storytelling. It is fine art - and poetry without losing the audience.
As a writer/director what are some of the main challenges you face when you are making a new film?
I think what is crucial always is to find the right people to work with. I'm lucky to have the head of departments from my previous short with me. At the moment I am in the middle of the casting, which is always very fascinating - every actor carries a world in itself. Financing is difficult as well, as is the process where I need to expose my script and my ideas to a lot of people in order to get the money. I am always very cooperative, I think it is very important to be able to, but at the same time, I have noticed that I need to "guard the heart of the film" like American scriptwriter Robert Towne once put it.
Has there always been a passion for filmmaking?
I wasn't a movie buff while growing up. I come from a pretty average middle-class family from Northern Finland. It is a periphery, far from cultural concentrations. But it was a nice place to grow up. I remember when I was 14 or so Finnish television had a pretty ambitious summer programming: they showed both the World Cup ´94 and the "ten best movies of all time". They were both aired in the middle of the night. In Lapland, we have the midnight sun in the summer (the sun is up for two months, and two months darkness in the winter...). I remember watching Citizen Kane and The Bicycle Thieves during that summer. This was the first realization for me that cinema can also be something more than James Bond.
Is there any advice you've been given that's stuck with you?
There is a quote in The Mirror by Andrei Tarkovsky that I have often thought. It goes something like this: What is the purpose of a poet? It is not to gain support or collect supporters, but to disturb the soul.
Do you have any advice you would offer a fellow filmmaker?
A practical one would be just to apply to script development programs like Torino, Jerusalem and Sundance. Attending these have really helped me a lot and I am grateful to each and every one of them.
And finally, what do you hope people will take away from The Woodcutter Story when they see it?
I hope that they will feel that the film has touched them in a profound way, that their soul is disturbed - in a good way. I also want to show them that hope is still possible.