Transformed into an obscure landscape with endless possibilities, Helsinki comes alive in Pirjo Honkasalo’s latest work “Concrete Night.” Through her lens,
the acclaimed Finnish filmmaker navigates the city and its characters while following Simo (Johannes Brotherus), a young boy who loses his way as he tries to find himself by connecting with his brother Ilkka (Jari Virman).
Shot in spectacular black and white, the film combines its stunning visuals with the human darkness that Simo encounters along the way. Poetic, tragic, and above
all beautifully executed, “Concrete Night” marks Honkasalo’s return to narrative filmmaking after working in the documentary realm for many years.
The film is based on the novel by Pirkko Saisio, who is also Honkasalo’s lifelong partner, and it presents a coming-of-age story that highlights the city
it takes place in and the ambiguity of its character’s choices. Despite the stark themes her film exposes, Honkasalo humorous demeanor speaks of her
incessant passion to reinvent her work without taking herself too seriously. Watching her film it’s easy to see she has an observant eye for human
nuance that can only come from years of experience working in non-fiction and with actors both in film and theater.
“Concrete Night” is Finland’s official submission for the Academy Awards in the Best Foreign Language Film category. The colorful and warm Pirjo Honkasalo
talked to us recently in L.A. about her extensive career and her return to fiction.
Carlos Aguilar: You worked in documentaries for several years before making “Concrete Night.” What did you decide to concentrate on non-fiction for a
big part of your career?
I had worked in fiction a lot before I started making documentaries, but when I was around 32 or 33-years-old I suddenly got so fed up with the world of
fiction, which is so money-centered. It’s said that if two documentary filmmakers meet they talk about the world, if two fiction filmmakers meet they talk
about the million that they don’t have to make their film [Laughs]. That’s probably why I got tired of it. I went to film school when I was 17, and of
course when you are very young you think that there is nothing else in the world except film. At some point I started getting hungry to see something else.
For five years I didn’t make any films, I was traveling around the world, writing for newspapers, working in theater, working in opera, I thought I would
never return to film [Laughs]. Of course, it didn’t go that way.
Aguilar: The novel on which the film is based was written by your partner Pirkko Saisio several years ago. Was it the novel that pushed you to return
to fiction? Why did you decide to make this film now?
I first read the novel when it came out 30 years ago. This is the first film I’ve done based on a novel, and I think that too often we, film directors,
think that a big epic novel and feature film are the same. It’s a lie. A feature film is much closer to a short story actually. If you take a big epic
novel and you shoot it, when you get to the editing room you notice that it has 2 million climaxes, which fill the whole 90 or 100 minutes. Then you
realize you can’t cut them out because if somebody is dying and you cut that out it seems like they just disappear from the film [Laughs].
If you have all these climaxes then you have no time for the rest of the film. This way the film would lack depth because you have all the things that
happen but you have no motive for them on a more profound level. This novel immediately felt like it was the perfect size for a feature fiction film. The
story is simple enough that it gives you the possibility to portray all these layers with image and sound. I was also very touched by the main character
and how he was portrayed in the book.
I didn’t do the film at the time when I first read the novel, and then ten years ago I decided it was time to make it. I held auditions and I chose the
actors, but suddenly I was invited by German and Japanese people to make a feature documentary in India and Tokyo. I fell into the temptation [Laughs].
After that I continued making documentaries for some time. At some point I felt like I had come to a certain borderline in documentary. I had always felt
like I was able to bring something new until then. Documentaries started to come too close to fiction, which showed me that it was time to go back. I had
chosen the actors back then, and when I finally decided to make it I called Jari Virman, the actor who was going to play the older brother, and I said
“Come visit me, I want to see what you look like now “ [Laughs]. He was, of course, ten years older, but I took him anyway. With the actor I had originally
chosen to play the 14-year-old that wasn’t going to work because he was now 24.
Aguilar: When adapting a novel into a screenplay it seems like one of the biggest issues is to know what to include or what to leave out? What was this
process like with Pirkko?
Pirkko wrote the first version of the script by taking out a few things and rewriting some dialogue because amazingly enough in 30 years the language has
changed quiet a lot. We don’t use certain words anymore, so she rewrote the dialogue. I work with her on the actual script but I didn’t shorten much. We
didn’t really need to shorten it because it was the size of a feature film to begin with.
Aguilar: One of the most remarkable qualities of the film is the cinematography. Tell me about your approach in terms of the visual aesthetics and why
did you decide to shoot the film in black and white?
Yes, the cinematography was of course incredibly important to me because I graduated as a cinematographer. In all my documentaries I did all the camera
work, but in fiction I didn’t want to do it myself. I think the machinery is so heavy and demanding that you would leave the actors alone for a long time.
If you fill your time as a director talking about lights and technique with the crew then it’s frightening for the actors to be left alone. Somebody has to
keep them safe from the mess that is the machinery. [Laughs]. Still, I did test shoots to show the DP what kind of lighting I wanted. We did very profound
test shoots, so much that when we started shooting the film we new exactly the visual look we were going for. We only had 21 shooting days.
Somehow the film naturally felt to me like it had to be black and white. Not only because black and white is wonderful, which is really not black and white
but 260 shades of gray [Laughs], but I also felt like it is not important for the story to be placed in a particular year like 1980 or 2012. It was better
for the time period not to be so clear. Almost everything was shot in Helsinki and the city looks very different in black and white. It’s really a
different city, and that was also great because it took away any over realism that comes from all the colorful commercial signs. This way the film centers
on the people. Most of the crew was quiet young and they had never done black and white. They totally fell in love with it, so much that when some of the
dailies had color in them all the young filmmakers would go, “Yuck” or “Eww” [Laughs].
Aguilar: However, the dream sequences in the film look different from the “present.” There is a bit of color in those scenes.
I decided to do that so that so I didn’t have to tell the financiers that it was entirely in black and white [Laughs]. “There is a little color there is
not black and white.” Of course, the colors in the dream sequences are highly manipulated. These scenes are not meant to be fully in color.
Aguilar: This is Simo’s coming-of-age story, what did you find so fascinating about this teenage character in particular?
The central element in the film is the relationship between the two brothers. When I think of this story I think about this 14-year-old boy who is still
totally open to things, yet he could never lean or rely on his parents or anyone in his family. He is from the suburbs, and this night with his brother in
downtown is his first night in downtown. It’s a completely new world and he has no tools. He is seeing things as they are as none of us see them anymore
because we have built filters to protect ourselves. We would go insane if we saw how things really are, it’s unbearable.
Aguilar: Simo’s older brother Ilkka is the only role model the boy has. Yet, Ilkka seems to be a bit hopeless and warns Simo about he dangers of
nurturing hope. Is he really hopeless?
I actually think that at the end of the film he represents hope in the sense that he cracks. At the end he allows himself to feel again. He has been
protecting himself for so long in such a negative way that he can’t express positive feelings at all anymore. It’s hard to know if he is serious when he
talks to his younger brother. It’s so flattering for him to know that he can manipulate someone else. He is really driven by this power to manipulate
another soul because it’s wonderful [Laughs], and he has no idea that it’s so serious for Simo. I think we all do a lot of that.
Aguilar: What’s the difference between working with actors and dealing with real subjects in documentary filmmaking?
We exaggerate the difference between documentary and fiction. I think that on some level a fiction film is also a documentary on the actors. You can’t wash
away your life’s history, which is written on your face, unless you get a facelift [Laughs]. That’s the only way you could lose all of your history. That’s
why it’s so important to know which actors to choose, because you are choosing their history to be in the film. You have to build the role accepting that
they are bringing this history.
When you read a book you have a certain image of the character, but when you have a concrete person he or she never looks like what you imagined. You can
interpret the character in the book through this real person, but you have to accept that the actor brings his history. I think that I have seen hundreds
and hundreds of hours of ordinary people through my loop in the camera that I’m super allergic to anything that’s fake. I’ve seen how real people are. If
an actor offers me something that is fake I don’t buy it. Why should I demand actors less than what I demand from real people when they are in front of the
camera? When I make a documentary I shoot very little but I hang around with my camera for a long time. I look at the people for a long time though the
loop and then when I see something interested then I shoot. I think that I have become very sensitive to these things.
Aguilar: How do people, both actors and non-actors, change when they are in front of the camera? Is there a way to really find objectivity when there
is a camera rolling?
Every documentary is subjective. It’s a total lie to say there are objective documentaries. When you frame the first shot you have made a choice. Of
course, having a camera around affects those in front of it. This is going to sound crazy, especially in America where there is a total inflation of the
word “love,” but in a sense you have to love the people in front of the camera. There has to be trust between the one who is behind the camera and the
people on the other side, so that they can relax. They have to feel they are safe, and that way they don’t have to pretend just because they are scared.
It’s the same with actors. I don’t think the concept of “directing actors” exits in the sense that if you get what you order from an actor you’ll always
get bad acting. Every actor is scared just like a regular person. You have to place them in a situation that creates the content of the scene. You have to
take away their fear, and then if you succeed in doing this you get something you didn’t order, which is the only thing that is interesting. I like to get
something that is impossible to verbally order. Sometimes it’s something the person is not even conscious of, and it’s something you could never ask of
them specifically. It’s just there.
Aguilar: Given your vast experience with actors and the way people behave in front of the camera, what was it about Johannes Brotherus, who plays Simo,
that caught your eye?
I auditioned dozens of 14-years-olds. When I auditioned actors I never make them act. I choose a long symphony, then I tell them to sit down and I play the
symphony for them. Then I sit and I look at them. I always pick a piece of music that has up and downs, very dramatic parts, very quiet parts and really
sensitive parts so that it can produce different emotions. All the other boys reacted in an expected way, “What the hell is this?” They didn’t know how
long it’ll last or what to expect from me. Some of them started to laugh, some walked out, Johannes was the only one who chose to solve this by going
inward. He went inside himself. He experienced the music by going inward and it was so beautiful to watch.
Aguilar: Besides your personal connection to Pirkko, what was it about this novel that inspired you to transform it into a film? Was it the subject
It was because of the way it portrays this interesting age in the life of a human being. At this age your ego is so fragile, it hardly exists. I remember
how I felt in my own teenager years. I felt. I went to England when I was 13-years=old and then I went again when I was 14. When I went for the second time
I felt like the first summer I was there it was a waste because I didn’t exist yet. At 14 I thought, “Who was that girl who was in England last year?
Because now I feel that I am me” At 13 I was someone that didn’t have a personality yet. It’s a fascinating period in a human life. It’s so exciting
because you are in between childhood and adulthood and I think the novel describes it perfectly.
The novel says that when Simo is looking in the mirror he feels that he doesn’t have a face. He understands that one doesn’t get a face as a birth right.
You have to deserve it. You have to build it. The film questions, “How do you get a face in one night? “ or “How do you find yourself in the mirror?”
Without consciously thinking about it I have made several films about characters of that age. It took me 20 years to ask myself, “Why do I always make
films about teenagers?”[Laughs].
Aguilar: You film is representing Finland at the Academy Awards, is this something that excited you or puts any pressure on you?
I think it’s wonderful and it’s a very interesting position to be in, but I also take it with humor. One shouldn’t take it too seriously. [Laughs]. I think
that as a filmmaker your work ends when the film premiers. The filmmaker’s job lasts from the first thought to the premier of the film. If you look to find
satisfaction in what follows after the premier you’ll never be satisfied because human beings are so greedy.
“Concrete Night” won 6 Jussi Awards, which are the Finnish Oscars, but for some people that might not be enough and they might want to
have the real Oscar. Once they get that they will want to go after another prize. It’s the wrong way to find what belongs to you regarding the film. What’s
yours is the trip from the beginning to the premier. If you are not satisfied with that then you better start doing something else. You give your film away
to the audience once it’s done. I never look at my films after the premier. The film needs to start its own history.