INTERVIEW: Juho Kuosmanen - director, The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki

To celebrate the debut of The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki on Curzon Home Cinema, we spoke to director Juho Kusomanen, about this charming, Un Certain Regard winning film. 

Juho, could you give us some background on who Olli Maki is, and what was it about his story that made you want to make it into your first feature film?

Olli Maki used to be a great Finnish boxer in the late 1950’s to the early 1970’s. He was a featherweight boxer who was a very peculiar kind of a boxer because he never, even though he was very good at it, he never wanted to knock-out anyone. And his personality was, for me, more interesting than his career as a boxer, so I knew him because we are from the same town but I was more interested about him as a character who doesn’t fit in the role, that the other ones are trying to fit him into.

Did you speak to the real Olli Maki before making the film, or during the film? Has he seen it yet?

They (Olli Maki and Raija Janka, the female lead, played by Oona Airola) have seen it nine times now, more than me! I met them one month before and we talked a lot with them, and also with their son who is a boxing manager, because I didn’t know anything about boxing so I also needed some professional advice. We were more interested about the backstage of these events, something that we couldn’t read from newspapers so we needed to interview them, and they were very nice and you can see them in the film, this old couple in the last scene at the harbour.

Olli’s very modest and humble and doesn’t seem to want this fame. Is he still remembered in Finland?

He is now that the film became very popular in Finland, but before, for my generation, he was not remembered, but I think people who still remember the 60’s and 70’s would remember. But we easily forget our heroes from the past.

Did you get the lead actor Jarkko Lahti (who plays Olli) to watch real footage of Olli and base his performance specifically on Olli, or was there something else?

I think it’s a combination of Jarrko himself and Olli. We had a long period with him, because he was one of the first people I told about this idea years ago, he’s a fan of Olli Maki, he’s also from the same town, and he started boxing immediately because he thought that if he’s going to play that role he really needs to know how to box, and he did two fights and was very dedicated. But when we talked about this role we decided not to imitate Olli but try to learn how he is and try to learn how he thinks. I didn’t want to start to imitate because I think that’s more fake in a way than to just try to act like the person behind this role.

On one hand it’s a boxing film, on the other it’s a love story, but I really enjoyed the relationship between Olli and his manager Elis. Did you find out about that relationship through your research or was that made on the page?

It’s from the research. I never met Elis, he died in 2003, but I found it very interesting that they were good friends and they were manager and boxer, and they were totally opposite characters. I think they both had the same idea that this day should be Olli’s happiest day, but what you need for your happiest day they had totally different thoughts for that. I liked this clash, that it’s not about good and bad but it’s two friends who have these clash of world views.

In the film there’s a documentary crew following Olli around and he seems so awkward and uncomfortable with this, did you get to watch the real documentary yourself and how was that?

(laughing) It’s very awkward. I already did some research before I saw the documentary and I found out how Olli felt about this fight and all those surroundings, and this circus around it. And then I watched this documentary, it’s in the Finnish film archive and you can really see that they are trying to portray him as a hero, or something that he didn’t feel like at all. So you can see this conflict in it, and there are some scenes very badly acted and it’s very funny. That documentary was actually like the starting point because I was just doing research and I was interested about this guy but I was not thinking about making a film but more we were thinking about the other players, or something else because I didn’t want to make a period piece, but I watched this documentary and realised OK this is actually good framing just to focus on this fight and the events around it and this could work as a film very well.

Why did you choose to make the film in black and white, and what does this add to the film do you think?

That decision came pretty late, just two or three months before shooting when we were doing tests and we’ve always worked with 16mm film so we were very comfortable with that but now we’ve also tried 35mm and also tried to find the right stock to achieve that illusion of the early 60’s, but we were doing the post production tests we realized just after taking the colours out it felt like ‘OK, now we are there’. After that we felt there’s no other option, and then we had to call all our financiers like ‘by the way, it’s going to be black and white so are you still with us?’ Everybody was totally fine with it. I think it really helped achieve that early 60’s atmosphere, you don’t have to underline that decade with sets and stuff, so you can just focus on the faces.

Boxing is arguably the most cinematic sport, there seem to be 2 or 3 films a year about boxing, was this something very much in your mind when making the film, or did you try to forget about it?

It was something that I couldn’t forget about, obviously I was not happy about it because you always want to be special. I watched a lot of boxing films and there are brilliant ones as well and it was like trying to get to know how in that tradition they filmed the boxing, in some films it’s more a clear metaphor for something and sometimes it’s just like a path to glory. But for us it’s just an everyday act, it’s not like something we wanted to have as a metaphor or anything like that so I did a lot of shooting and sometimes I felt very doubtful that I didn’t want to make another ‘boxing film’, the fact was also that we are making a Finnish debut. Finnish-debut-boxing films sounds extremely bad, but I was so interesting in this character, and when you’re making a film about Olli Maki you have to mention boxing.

What boxing films did you find particularly influential, or any other films for that matter?

There were a few. Set-Up by Robert Wise was one of the influences. But I think the most influential films were not boxing films, there were a lot of contemporary films like Sofia Coppolla’s Somewhere which I found lovely and very intelligent, and Loneliness of a Long Distance Runner with the attitude of the guy, and then lots of early 60s documentary, like Cinema Verite stuff where its shot on handheld 16mm camera.

Were you going for this documentary style where it feels like the camera’s not really there, and you just let events unfold as naturally as they could?

Yeah, the films that we made before were very social dramas, very contemporary, very European stuff at the moment. We knew that we could build this authentic feeling atmosphere that it doesn’t feel like a fiction film but is more like real life, and that was something that we didn’t want to lose. But when you are dealing with a period piece in the 60’s you need to build everything and do the costume design and all that stuff, we were a bit afraid that we were going to lose that authentic atmosphere so that’s why I think we started to watch those documentaries and try to find the lighting and that stuff from there to combine documentary and fiction in this one as well.

In the film there’s a lot of pressure on Olli to rise in the ranks of the boxing world and become this national hero, is there a parallel between how he felt and how you felt making the film, coming from making short films to a feature length film that was shown at Cannes, did you feel that similar kind of pressure?

Yes, I think that was one of the reasons why to be honest I was not just interested in Olli maybe I was very selfish in that sense that I was interested about my own emotions and I felt heavily related to this guy. In a funny sense I think I was going through the same kind of things, and when I did the research I thought some of the answers he’s given are like my answers, trying somehow to avoid the expectations and all that stuff and also feeling a bit anxious about the chance of a lifetime, which sounds very cool but in a way its also destroying the core of the love of your own sport, and it was nice to play around with this, and this film hass really helped me to laugh at my own problems because it’s a very stupid problem that I had, like ‘OK, I need to make a film that is going to be screened at Cannes’ but still it was a real problem because it destroyed the creativity and the playfulness, with this story and with Olli’s attitude that he had I think was a very comforting story for me to tell it because I could also get this distance to my own feelings and from a distance it’s easier to laugh.

What was your experience at Cannes like, debuting this film?

It was great of course, the critics were great and the atmosphere in the screening was very nice, but it was also a very stressful week and a half. Very busy and it was many things at the same time, many parallel realities going on, extremely nice and then stressful, sometimes very annoying, also very crowded, it’s not a kind of laid-back festival. But the funny thing was we were there with the film crew and lots of us came there which was nice, our plan was just to have fun together so that if we are not going to win anything it’s not going to be a disappointment that we are just having one week of fun. That’s something that nobody can take away (laughs). It was very funny because the scenes we did in the film, like eating in all these fancy restaurants and you don’t really know how to deal with that, I think we were facing these same scenes in Cannes, at the photoshoots and stuff.

The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki is available to watch in our cinema screens and is streaming instantly on Curzon Home Cinema