Wednesday, 11 September 2013

TIFF13: Meeting Concrete Night Director, Pirjo Honkasalo

Pirjo Honkasalo at TIFF '13
Photo by donna g
Remaining Screening:
Saturday, September 14
Scotiabank 14
9:45 PM

Deciding that we both liked the cool temperatures of the September morning, Finnish director, Pirjo Honkasalo, and I decided to sit on the patio of our downtown meeting place rather than chat inside the "old boys club" (her words) ambiance of the main floor bar. 

While she had a cappuccino and patiently sat through my mishap, first with my recorder then camera, she delighted in my reversion to pen and paper, lamenting the fact that digital technology doesn't allow our memories to retain information the way we used to. When you write, you remember, when you allow technology to do everything, your mind doesn't have to retain it in the same way. "Will you remember what we had discussed?" I assured her that I would and we segued into talking about Concrete Night, her thoughts on filmmaking, and the film industry. 

A fearless director, who clings to her indie spirit of making films on her terms, Pirjo filmed Concrete Night using only the shots she would need for the final cut. As a veteran director, cinematographer and editor, she has the experience to shoot a seven-minute sequence in the film, despite her gaffer's suggestion that they might need a master shot for coverage. "Why start something with the thought that it might not succeed?" is Pirjo's attitude. Knowing the scene in question, I am amazed at her guts and even more in awe of her experience.

Based on the much-lauded Finnish novel Betoniyö by Pirkko Saisio, Concrete Night is set in a rough Helsinki neighbourhood and relates the story of a teenage boy on the eve of his elder brother going to jail. After reading the book, Pirjo knew the one hundred and eighty-eight page book could be transitioned completely into a feature film. She strongly believes that distilling longer books into film language inevitably leads to a diminished creation.

After being tempted away from the book-to-film project by documentary work (The 3 Rooms of Melancholia, Ito Diary of an Uban Priest) Pirjo returned to the novel ten years later. In crafting the film, Pirjo immediately began planning the lighting she would use in the film: "I begin with images, rather than the story." Allowing the images to develop in her mind, she simplifies everything to the essential elements until the film is an expression of what is needed. She chose to shoot in black and white because she trained in black and white, and that is what she felt was was called for in Concrete Night. Why use colour if it's not needed? "Finns will be surprised at how the city looks," she says of the cinematic vision of Helsinki which she has created with black and white and lights. Why use artificial rain if the weather is cooperating? "Nothing is as good as natural rain. With artificial you can always see the source of the rain somehow."  

She called actor Jari Virman whom she had originally chosen for the roll of the elder brother, Ikko, and demanded that he"come and show his face." Upon seeing him, Pirjo decided that he was even better for the roll than he had been years earlier. As for the casting of Johannes Brotherus as younger brother Simo, she awarded him the role based on his ability to pass the audition of listening to a twenty-minute symphonic piece and reacting naturally and without words. "He was different from the others," Pirjo points out. While she observed them through her lens to see if they were suitable for the character of Simo, some young men would become restless, bored, and even leave mid-audition. Brotherus was able to react to the music, which is what she was looking for and why she didn't have a rehearsal period for the film. "I chose well," she says with conviction, to which I agree readily and whole-heartedly. Simo is at the core of the film, and had Brotherus been miscast, the dramatic tension in the film would have fallen flat; the boy's gradual awakening to the harsh truth about life would not have been communicated to us so thoroughly.

Making up the main quartet of actors in Concrete Night is, Anneli Karppinen as the Mother and Juhan Ulfsak as The Man. While Estonia-born Ulfsak is quite well-known in Finland, Karppinen is from what Pirjo calls "the treasure of older women" living in areas outside Helsinki, who are quite well-known in their small theatres but are not given a chance to participate in major projects. While she understands the financial need of some filmmakers to choose continually from the same roster of "twenty actors" she says that style of working is not what she wants. 
Pirjo's belief in her actors is what allows young Brotherus to show the innocence and experience necessary for his close up shots, and it is what allows him to withstand the nerves needed for the many underwater sequences that are a part of the film's metaphor. Virman, as the hardened older brother, is ruthless and irresponsible which makes his cry from the soul so much the more devastating when it arrives on screen. Karppinen's garishly made up face shows the age and hard living of her character, and Ulfsak's monologue on life manifests splendidly his years of training.

As the publicist gives us the five-minute warning and disappears inside to set up Pirjo's Skype interview, I ask Pirjo if she had any advice for young filmmakers. She acknowledges that there are many ways to learn and that film school shouldn't be mandatory, she does say that attending school gave her "the peace to try anything, to experiment without fear. You can make films and not succeed, but you can grow." Whichever way young filmmakers choose to go, she suggests that "they take the time to decide the type of filmmaker that they are going to be, to make films without self-censoring, and to make films for themselves, never for the financiers." Making films for financiers leads to a treadmill of compromise that will take them away from their original passion. Even at her stage of the game, she secured her financing before she started shooting because she  didn't want to go through the experience of filmmakers she knows who make a film and spend the rest of their lives paying for it. She wanted to make the film she wanted to make, not something that would be turned into a "product" as she calls the Hollywood system.
In a twist of fate, Pirjo and Betoniyö author, Pirkko Saisio now live together. I ask if her partner has any plans to have the book translated into English. I assure her that after seeing the film at TIFF many people would probably want to read the book. Apparently, Saisio is content with being famous in Finland and although a reprint of the book is scheduled for launch when Concrete Night opens there, we English speakers will either have to learn Finnish or be content with the magic that Pirjo has translated through the language of cinema.

The honking horns, truck deliveries, and Monday morning pedestrians stream by, oblivious to the fact that one of Finland's celebrated filmmakers is in their midst. I sit and enjoy a fresh, well-made Americano--the coffee shared earlier with another Finn, Dome Karukoski (Heart of a Lion) had grown cold in my travel mug--and looked forward to my second screening of my favourite film at TIFF '13, Concrete Night.

For all this TIFF13 visit
416-599-TIFF (8433) or 1-888-599-8433
Film stills courtesy of

1 comment:

Hayward Sirk said...

Great interview, too bad I missed the film!!!

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