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Working in a circle - an exclusive Interview with EAVE graduate Jussi Rantamäki

“Coming from EAVE is always like a stamp of approval of this certain community.”

Jussi Rantamäki (Aamu Film Company, Finland) about winning the Grand Prix in Cannes, shooting Compartment No. 6 in moving trains and smuggling film material over the Russian border.

photo: © Arsen Sarkisiants

 

EAVE: Congratulations for the Grand Prix in Cannes! Winning in Cannes is nothing new for you, you won already the Un Certain Regard award with The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki, but the Grand Prix is certainly something different. How do you feel?

Jussi Rantamäki: Well, it has now been one and a half weeks since we won, and I think I am starting to settle from the clouds back to the earth. Even though we won with the same director Un Certain Regard 5 years ago, and the Cinéfondation section 11 years ago, but it’s still always surprising. I think for us the first win was that we actually got into the Competition, because we realized that we might have a chance after winning Un Certain Regard. After being there in Competition and having the standing ovation for 10 minutes and the great reviews, we had the feeling to have it all, and this prize was just the cherry on the top.

What do you think, does the Grand Prix make your future work easier or is it getting more complicated?

I think in a way easier…. Juho Kuosmanen, the director, has had the biggest pressure when he had won the Cinéfondation section and he knew that his debut feature would be in the official selection somewhere. Then he had about a year when he couldn’t write and when he was thinking that nothing is good enough for Cannes and that whatever he now does will be a disappointment. But after he lived through that and actually made a film about it, The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki, which was about these expectations and pressure, after that everything became easier.

In a way it’s never easy because making films is not like building houses, once you’ve made a house, you can just build the same one again, or maybe change it a little bit or make it a little better. Of course we all know in the film industry that even though how great a film you’ve made, you’ll always start again from the beginning and in the beginning there is nothing. And you just have to come up with a gut feeling or an idea. In any case the artistic process is always the same: even though you won the prizes, in the beginning there is nothing. You learn that there will be those difficult moments when you doubt the film, but you will get over it. Something like that you can learn, but otherwise not much.

And how is it from the producer’s point of view?

I think, we will now have so many good and solid distribution partners after these two films all over the world, which will make distributing the next film easier. Financing might also be easier, but we have already good long-term partnerships in a couple of countries, collaborations like with ARTE Germany. ARTE has been part in both feature films that we’ve made with this director. It’s more about continuing that collaboration.

COMPARTMENT NO. 6 © 2021 Sami Kuokkanen, Aamu Film Company

 

You have co-produced the film with EAVE graduates Riina Sildos, Natalia Drozd and Jamila Wenske. Was that a natural choice for you to work with these three?

Yes, Jamila was an old partner. We did The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki also with her, so it was a good match and we wanted to continue. That was kind of reward of the history. The other partners came because the film takes place in Russia and I didn’t know anything about co-producing with Russia or shooting in Russia. But I knew that Riina knows quite a lot about it, so we started with Riina and the screenwriters also came from Estonia. And then through Riina, because I knew that she had lots of organized meetings at Baltic Event with Russian producers and with producers from other parts of Europe, so she was the match for us to hook up with Natalia Drozd. Riina felt she was the only option for this kind of film. So with Jamila we have a history and the other 2 co-producers came because they were right for this project.

… because the film takes place in Russia?

Yes, the film takes place in a Russian train and we wanted to shoot the film in Russia, so we needed the right people to help us do that.

And your co-producers were in the project from very early on?

Riina was there really early. Riina actually called me because a friend of her from Finland read the novel by Rosa Liksom – the film is the adaptation of her novel – and he had called Riina so that Riina should option this book, that she should make a movie about it. Riina had asked for tips for good Finnish books. So Riina tried to option it, but she heard that we have already optioned it. And then she called me – we knew each other actually from EAVE. She was not yet a group leader back then, in 2013, but she was one of the professionals there, she took part in one or two workshops.

She thought that Natalia Drozd would be the best option as a producer from Russia, because she knew her?

Yes, she knows many Russian producers and for this kind of film and for European arthouse she felt that Natalia is the first option. They have co-produced together – they have a history together (Riina and Natalia have been working on EAVE’s programme B’EST together). We met Natalia at the Berlin Co-production Market and she was the last producer to come on board.

Unfortunately, I haven’t seen the film, so I don’t know too much about it… but the film is shot on a train. How did you manage that? I learned that you rented trains?

When you read the script or the novel, you see that it takes place in a train all the time. But in our film the train actually stops quite many times and a part of the action also takes place outside the train. The third act is set in Murmansk, where they have already left the train. So less than half of the film is actually in the train, in the cabin. But this is still quite much. We had 3 train wagons: one with the compartments, one open compartment with beds, and then the restaurant car. We shot a lot in the moving train, mostly in St. Petersburg, in this train yard where we could drive around. Up north we also had a train (in the story they go up north from Moscow to Murmansk) so that we could shoot also those snowy sceneries. And sometimes the train had stopped, so that in some scenes it isn’t moving, because it is quite difficult to shoot in a moving train. But when you do the basis right in the first couple of scenes and you see that the train is actually really moving, after that when you set it up, it’s easy to do night shots without the train even moving. Just move the lamps outside and have some snow in the windows, etc. But in the first scene in the train, it is actually moving!

So the viewer doesn’t realise that it doesn’t move?

Many people said: I thought you were crazy when you said that you were shooting in a moving train. But I realized that it was the only option. And actually it was not being shot completely on a moving train… – it’s just set up in the beginning.

I read somewhere that it is the third biggest amount of employees in the Russian railroad, I mean it’s a huge company! To get the right person on the phone or in the email…. And when you drive from St Petersburg to Moscow, they are different regions, with different people to give permission to the trucks, different people who give permissions to the train wagons… our Russian line producer had to work for hours and hours on it or even days. And when we started shooting, we had no price of how much it’s going to cost. The gap was from something decent into something astronomic… at a time we were prepared to pay more than we had thought. In the end it was expensive, but it wasn’t as expensive as we have feared.

COMPARTMENT NO. 6 © 2021 Sami Kuokkanen, Aamu Film Company

 

You said you had some difficulties with shooting in Russia, with the production in Russia – was it mainly because of the train or were there other problems?

The crew was super professional; they do Hollywood films and all that stuff. Of course there is a bit of a language barrier, so we had to have some people who speak English. In the end it went well, there was nothing difficult with that, but of course when you are constantly moving and changing the city, always going to a new location, to a new hotel, that’s not easy in any production.

Have you been to Russia before?

Yes, it is our neighbouring country. Not in Murmansk, but in Moscow or in St Petersburg.

So Russia was not so new for you?

No. But they have this strange old legislation from the KGB era, accordingly you cannot take film material across the border, from Russia to another country. We did the whole film development in Russia’s MosFilm, but in the end we needed some special development for the film, we had to smuggle the film material with us to Finland. And it was also the time when COVID had just hit the fans. Borders were already closed, and we had a trunk full of illegal film material… I don’t know if people actually care about it, but it is illegal.

You shot on 35 mm material?

Yes, it was really material that had to be sent.

Sounds like the former iron curtain times with spies and agents… How important were your co-producers from EAVE for the project?

From these co-producers, Riina is the only one that I met actually at EAVE. All of them have done EAVE, but we’ve met through other routes. But of course, Riina was crucial because she provided the screenwriter and she provided immediate contacts to Russia. The previous film, The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki was co-produced by Nicklas Wikström Nicastro from Sweden who was with me in my EAVE group.

But knowing that they are all from EAVE, was that something that has brought a basic understanding?

Yes, I think it’s always like a stamp of approval of this certain community. Of course, it’s useful. In the end it’s about personal contact, what kind of people they are, what are their strengths and weaknesses, what they can bring to the table for the project. It’s not only money, it’s more the network and expertise and what are they good at, to make a good combination.

… or just knowing a country very well because they come from there.

Definitely. This film could not have been made without a Russian producer. Of course, there are production service companies in Russia, but it was clear that with Natalia we managed to get the best one. There was also this back up from a Russian producer who knew the service providers. And there is also this personal connection to them which is I think crucial.

COMPARTMENT NO. 6 © 2021 Sami Kuokkanen, Aamu Film Company

 

Do you have a new project in mind? Are you working on a new project?

I work with 4 fiction directors, actually we know each other from teen age, and we are from the same town. With Juho Kuosmanen we have something in development, nothing yet to be announced, but surely it could be shot in two years. Then I am in post-production with Mikko Myllylahti. He participated at EAVE with me because he was the screenwriter of The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki – which was my EAVE project. We are now in post-production with his debut as a director: The Woodcutter Story. Jamila Wenske is also a co-producer in that one. It will be ready perhaps by the end of the year or early next year.

The other 2 directors are now developing. Hamy Ramezan premiered at Berlinale this year, after his fresh film he is now developing a new one. Hannaleena Hauru‘s film premiered last year in Venice. With these 4 we are heavily on premiering and in post-production and then starting again development.

So you are working in a circle?

Yes. But it means that we won’t shoot anything in a half a year or in a year.

When did you shoot Compartment no. 6? During COVID time?

Just before covid, we started in February. When we ended the shooting, the Finnish-Russian border had already been closed for maybe 8 days. It was the first heavy hitting of COVID when no one knew how long it would last, when there was this shock of closing the borders. So, we just managed to shoot the film.

You were lucky, so to say.

We were lucky and we were also patient. The crew was patient and not panicking. The situation in Murmansk and in North Russia wasn’t there yet. It was more in the big cities in the south, in Central Europe… Later on, with the statistics we knew that we were quite safe but it’s difficult to feel calm when borders are closing and people start locking themselves in their homes everywhere in Europe. But we still managed to shoot the film and come back home. Then everything went really quiet.

How was it in Finland? Were you working in home office for a long time?

We’ve had a lockdown from March until summer, summer was open and autumn went quite well, then we’ve had half a lockdown this winter and spring, but cinemas hadn’t opened completely yet even though the infection numbers have been good all the time. A couple of times numbers have gone up but then down straightaway. We haven’t had many deaths on this disease. Of course, everyone is really anxious on getting the cinemas open and lots of films are waiting to get released.

In Germany the cinemas have opened and I have been to cinema lately twice… that was nice.

It was also crazy with Compartment No. 6… For the last 15 months I have been to cinemas maybe five times and there were about 8 people or less because of restrictions. And then the first time you go to cinema with your own film, Cannes premiere, and there are 2300 bookings, people sitting side by side, and the reactions and the standing ovations, it was a lot of emotion… already being in a real full house cinema after 15 months was overwhelming.

 

Page published 30 July 2021. Updated 4 August 2021.


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