Winner of Un Certain Regard at Cannes 2016 and recently chosen to represent Finland at the Oscars, “The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki” is one of this year’s most pleasant surprises. As its director Juho Kuosmanen would firmly explain, this unusual true story is not your typical boxing drama. Based on the exploits of its title character Olli Mäki, it follows his preparation for the biggest fight of his life. But while his country primes him to be their next sporting hero, Olli is much more concerned with his burgeoning romance with his sweetheart Raija. Earlier this week, I had a chat with Kuosmanen to learn more about his approach to this unique character, the making of the film and his personal attachment to its themes. Below is an edited version of our conversation.
Shane Slater: What attracted you to make a film out of this character? He’s not your typical inspirational sports hero.
Juho Kuosmanen: It was not so much about the sport. I felt the contradiction between this peculiar character and the sport he is doing was very interesting. During this fight, they really tried to build a new boxing hero out of this guy, who didn’t want to be seen in the way they wanted to portray him. And then when I started to do research, I felt that there were so many issues that I am interested in. And if we focus on this one certain fight, it would be much more than just a story of a good boxer who wins or loses. So that’s how I got interested. He’s kind of a local hero in my town, that’s why I knew of him. But he’s not that famous anymore in Finland.
SS: I’m curious about his legacy in Finland. Was there anything particularly new that you were trying to reveal about him?
JK: He is still considered one of the best boxers we’ve had. And people who remember the 60s and 70s still remember him. But I was not that interested in him as a boxer, but as a character who didn’t fit into the role he was supposed to play. One of the main issues I wanted to portray was that the success people were hoping for is not something that we are all after. If you are a good boxer, people think your aim is to be the best and sometimes that’s not the case. Sometimes the people around you are more interested in your success than you are. That’s something I really felt with Olli.
In his own words, he said that this was the happiest day of his life. And I found that funny because most people thought that must have been the worst day of his life! A very humiliating loss in a full, packed stadium. [Laughs]. It was very advertised and it was the first time that this kind of media circus around the sport even happened. And they actually made a documentary about him becoming the next national sports hero. Everything failed and he still thought that this was the best thing that happened to him.
SS: The real life Olli makes a cameo in the film. How involved was he in the development of the character and did he approve of the portrayal?
JK: Well, Olli has very serious Alzheimer’s but he still remembers these old times. And we did lots of interviews and also the actors met him and Raija many times. Some people in Finland questioned why we were making a film about a good boxer but focusing on the fight that he lost. [Laughs]. But I was much more interested in this guy that had his own ideas of success. And he could still hold on to these priorities that he had, even though he had these huge expectations from lots of people around him.
Raija said after seeing the film that it really felt like how she remembers Olli from the early days. She also said it felt like she was living those days again and it felt very nice. So they approved of the film and they’ve seen it 7 times already. They are happy to be portrayed the way we did it.
SS: How did you cast the lead role?
JK: Jarkko is a longtime friend of mine and he’s a very good theatre actor. Also, he’s a big fan of Olli Mäki. So when I got the idea of making this film, he’s one of the first persons I thought about. And he started boxing immediately because he wanted to have the experience of a boxer, going through the training twice a day and the rituals so that he could play the character, not the profession. But I think he didn’t realize how long it takes to write a script. So he started boxing in 2011 and continued doing that. He did two fights and lost them both, so he got the humiliating experience as well. And then when we started doing the real casting a year before shooting, there were no other options than to work with him.
It was quite hard because we needed an actor who is very short and also looks like him. Also, he should be believable as a boxer. We didn’t have that many options and I am very happy with the way he did it. Also, when you are writing a script, for me it’s important to know who is going to play the role. You can actually think about the way he would do the lines and reactions. So I think it was very useful that we had this very long preparation for this role.
SS: Was there any influence from the film “Rocky”? There’s a similarity in the romantic element and a reference to Rocky Marciano in the film.
JK: I wouldn’t say so, but of course I’ve seen that film many times. We used to watch it when I was a kid. And I also watched that film when I was watching a lot of boxing films. The first “Rocky” is very good, but I still wouldn’t consider it an inspiration. When I watch it I was a bit surprised that we had so many similarities.
I think our inspiration was more Eastern European films, early Miloš Forman films and some English films like “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner”. We were trying to find the right way of doing a period piece, so that it could still be lively and you could relate to the characters. So that’s why we watched a lot of films and documentaries from that period.
SS: What was the thinking behind shooting in black and white?
JK: We were talking about the idea and my DOP said “I hope you’re not going to make it black and white.” [Laughs]. He was afraid to be compared to other boxing films like “Raging Bull”. He was also terrified of doing a period piece, because he’s more of a documentary filmmaker and the things we’ve done before are very contemporary films with amateur actors and poetic elements of the world we are living in. We really try to find things from the existing world and not build up anything. And now we knew that we had to build everything.
In trying to find the look, we wanted to have the same way of filming like we did with our previous films. To get the small details with long shots and long scenes. We tested a lot of color stocks and we wanted to find film that would be instantly ready, to minimize digital post-production.
It was when we took the color out of this 60 mm stock that we felt like it had to be black and white. There is no other option that really takes us to the 60s. And the way we were filming very freely, it just felt right. We could then focus on the faces, the eyes and the way the actors are seeing each other. I think using this black and white film stock gave us lots of freedom to focus on the emotions and the actors, not on the decade. The stock already took us to the 60s, so we didn’t have to be concerned about it. In the end, we were very happy and enthusiastic to work on black and white. It changed lots of things. Ways of using light became much more interesting.
SS: How was the experience of winning at Cannes and now being selected to represent Finland?
JK: Well, it’s of course a huge honor and we are extremely glad about it. It was something we really didn’t expect. We are a bit amazed at the response. With Cannes, we were just really happy to be part of Un Certain Regard. So when we went there, our aim was just to have fun for those 1 1/2 weeks. Just to enjoy our time and be happy that we made a film that we were very satisfied with. Then when we heard about winning, it took quite a long time to actually realize. It’s just great. When you’re making a film, it’s almost against this kind of success. And then you get the success and win awards at festivals and it’s pretty weird. [Laughs].
SS: So the film is a bit like Olli Mäki.
JK: Yeah, already when we were writing it, that was a very personal point of view. You could see it as an allegory of filmmaking. The things you have to go through, all the expectations. In the end, what’s important? Is it to please other people or to find the joy and love of filmmaking again? That was something I was dealing with myself after the graduation film I did with the same crew. It won the student section at Cannes, so as part of the prize you are automatically selected for the Official Selection with your first feature. It’s usually a special screening that doesn’t necessarily mean anything, but for a Finnish first-time filmmaker it means a lot.
When I would read Finnish newspapers, it would say I’m this young promising director for Finland. At the same time, you’re alone trying to write the masterpiece that you hope will fulfill all these expectations. You start to hate everything. There’s a big contradiction between the way you’re being seen from the outside and the way you’re feeling yourself. I think I got lost with this. I was trying to meet expectations, not making the film I should make. Then I found this story and I felt it was perfect. A funny setup and a guy I could actually relate to. But far back enough that I could have distance from it, so I could actually laugh at it being my own situation. Having this chance of a lifetime, but still thinking about what I really want and what makes me happy. Yeah, there’s a parallel story.