Interview: A Chat with ‘Concrete Night’ director Pirjo Honkasalo

Pirjo Honkasalo is one of the most experienced and knowledgeable filmmakers working today. As a cinematographer, director, screenwriter, editor, actress and producer, she has built up an impressive resume that dates back to the 1960s. It was a great pleasure then, for me to get the chance to interview her about her latest film Concrete Night, Finland’s official submission to this year’s Academy Awards. A gorgeously shot coming-of-age tale, it’s a formidable piece of work. In our chat, we discussed the making of the film, as well as her thoughts on the current state of cinema in general.

Here’s the edited transcript of our conversation…

Shane Slater: At the beginning of the film you have this amazing sequence involving the train. How did you come up with concept and execution of that scene?

Pirjo Honkasalo: That scene was taken from the novel. The basic idea of the dream and the bridge falling down is from the novel. The images were developed by me, the cinematographer and the specialists in post-production. The boy’s drowning was done for real. We really dropped him in the water. [Laughs]. He was scared to death, he was vomiting.

We built it piece by piece. If you look carefully we added some elements for the right atmosphere, like the jellyfish under the water. The rest of the film is done in a very traditional way, but this scene was built from several pieces. The basic thing is real, but with some added elements. Of course, there was some important work in the sound aspects. The post-production guys wanted us to build up everything digitally and I’m so happy that I said “no, thank you”. The fact that you can see how scared the boy is, you just can’t act it against the green screen. The rest of the film we hardly used any post-production, just traditional filmmaking.

SS: Being a cinematographer yourself, why do you think it was so necessary for this film to be in black and white?

PH: To begin with I was convinced that it has to be black and white. It’s because of the theme of the development of an adolescent mind. The novel was published in 1981 but the world unfortunately hasn’t changed too much, maybe we’re in an even worse direction when you think about manipulating a young mind (the internet etc.). So I thought the black and white takes a lot out of the sense of time and place when this happens.

I like black and white as a way to express the truth. To get closer to the content, I think you have to minimize the elements. You need to have the courage to take away. Using black and white simplifies matters and that’s what I liked about it. These are the basic reasons, plus I just like black and white. [Laughs]. Of course the financers don’t like it, because there still is this myth that nobody comes to the cinema to see black and white but I think it’s not so true anymore. I was really surprised when the film came out, the same year there were several black and white films at festivals. So maybe it’s coming back. Like, we have graphic art and then we have oil paintings and they don’t kill each other. They can exist at the same time.

SS: How did you go about casting the lead character and trusting him to carry the film with a role that requires such subtlety?

PH: Of course when you’re looking for a 14-year old boy, nobody is professional. So you just have to start scouting boys. It would have been natural to try to find a boy with a hard social background, but I think the social workers would never have allowed these boys to act in some of the scenes in the film. So then I just started to just go through the schools and I had a girl helping me. We did some test shoots and auditions and when this boy was in front of me it was clear. I didn’t have five top choices, it was him. It was obvious immediately that he was the one. I didn’t need to know what he had inside, it was like his secret. He had the courage to show himself. The other boys, I felt I didn’t find their soul. He’s an amazing boy. It was actually very easy to work with him because had an unbelievable ability to concentrate. Believe it or not, we were laughing all the way through when we were shooting this film. We had a very nice crew and we had a lot of fun. But within two seconds when I would say his name, he was immediately in the role. It was exceptional.

SS: What is the situation like for female filmmakers in Finland today?

PH: Well, it’s so surprising to me that in the Nordic countries where you’d think that women are equal and they have equal possibilities, it hasn’t changed at all. So in all Nordic countries like Finland, Sweden, Denmark, the percentage of films directed by women are between 13-17% depending on the year, which is very little. When Finnish film turned 100 years old, there were 5 female directors. Except for me, the rest have directed only one or two films. Finland was the first country in Europe to give women the vote but the film industry is very much behind. I think it has helped me a lot that I studied and worked as a cinematographer. Men mystify the technique but they can’t do it to me. [Laughs]. I think the technique is rather simple. Maybe now the new digital post-production technique is not so simple, but the male cinematographers understand just as little about it as the female cinematographers. They always need some kind of “nerd” to help them.

SS: You’ve been working in the Finnish film industry for more than 40 years now. What is your perception of how the industry has changed or not over the years?

PH: When I came to film, television had just destroyed the film industry in Finland. Our studios had disappeared and most of the educated workers (production designers, costume designers) had gone to work in television. So the only ones actually producing films were “film freaks”, directors who loved films so much that they produced their own films. They were going bankrupt every 5 years because they didn’t understand anything about money. But it had its benefits because it wasn’t so controlled.

The shooting time has really gone down. My first big film Flame Top (which played in competition at Cannes) we shot for 119 days. Now in Concrete Night I had 21 shooting days. So basically, when I started you could shoot as long as wanted. Now, they say “21 days, take it or leave it”. It’s a big change but it wasn’t a big difficulty for me because my style is very controlled. In this film we didn’t shoot many extra images, maybe less than 10. We only shot what we used, what was needed. But when I think about younger filmmakers, it might be difficult to be so controlled when you start. Maybe your style is different and you don’t want to be so controlled. So I think the very short shooting times are a bit dangerous. I would rather take a smaller crew and have more time.

My crew in this film represented three generations but it wasn’t difficult to work together. I don’t think the younger filmmakers are less ambitious. They may be even more skillful than my generation and they are very devoted. They were really interested in shooting black and white because they hadn’t ever done it. It was funny when we were looking at the dailies and accidentally got some color pictures on the screen and everyone in the crew went “yuck!” [Laughs]. When the cinematographer went to shoot another film after, I got text messages all the time saying “I hate shooting color”.

I think the schools are better now and of course with digital, you have more possibilities to test your skills because the material doesn’t cost anything. For example, when I was in film school you could shoot 1 1/2 minutes of 35 mm film in your first year and that was all you could shoot! So I learned to be a rather skillful photographer because I took photographs, since we didn’t have money to shoot film. Of course it has its disadvantages as well. When you shoot on film, your blood pressure goes up every time you push a button because it’s expensive to shoot an extra frame. Now everybody’s pissing pictures 24 hours a day, so I think they’re not so excited when the camera’s running. These pictures aren’t so intense because they just say “if this isn’t good then I can take another”.

I’ve been teaching quite a lot and I’ve noticed the young people are really confused because they have 500 hours of material but they don’t know if anything’s there. So I’m very strict in the editing process. I edit digitally but other versions of the scene aren’t allowed. If you change something then I delete. You’re building a whole film and you can improve it, but don’t save 15 different versions of the scene because then you kill the film. There’s a limit to how much time you can actually work on the material. I’ve seen so many students with so many versions of a film that they are totally lost in the editing room. There’s nothing wrong with a digital editing system, it’s just how you use it. You should think before you use a “trick”. To make a cut on film (a physical cut), it’s so complicated that you always think before you make it. In digital, your hand acts before your brain.