We are incredibly excited to be hosting Finnish filmmaker and poet Mikko Myllylahti at the festival this year. His film The Woodcutter Story, also shown at Cannes this year, is set in an unnamed Finnish timber village in the far north during the pervasively dark winter. Deadline calls the film “deeply melancholy, strange, and surreal.” Myllylahti is both a director and writer and has received prizes for the 2016 film he wrote, The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki.
It is interesting that you work creatively as both a filmmaker and a poet, how do you think that background in poetry has influenced and enriched your approach to film on the whole as well as this film in particular?
“My background is indeed in poetry. I was 23 years old when my debut collection was published and later I’ve written three more – and I also went to film school. But for a long time I thought that I needed to keep poetry and filmmaking separate from each other, I was more or less trying to do the same I thought the others were doing and somehow poetry didn’t fit into that very well. For me poetry has always been an attempt to use language to reach into something that is beyond language. I guess this is what some people call transcendence. When I was a young poet I adored films like Bresson’s Au Hazard Balthazar or Pasolini’s Teorema. They were ambiguous and complex and were able to reach that transcendence level that I had only found in poetry. But I had to make quite many short films and write one feature script before I understood that perhaps for me the most personal way of filmmaking is to combine my poetic approach to cinema, and eventually this also influenced the script of The Woodcutter Story.”
Where did you find your inspiration for this film and its wonderful narrative? Is there anything you remember as being a catalyst for initially creating it?
“The first idea of The Woodcutter Story came to me when I met an actual woodcutter. I live in the countryside one hour from Helsinki and I had a tree in my yard that I wanted to hew down since it was blocking the daylight. I found a woodcutter’s ad in the paper and called this man that came and cut the tree. There was something very fascinating about him that I couldn’t really understand. He was from Northern Finland like myself and from what I gathered he had faced a lot of ordeals in his life, he had lost a lot in his life but he seemed to be fine with it. He was very serene and even happy and optimistic in a way that really inspired me. I started to imagine a story of this humble and calm woodcutter who is able to stay positive and who carries a wisdom that is rarely seen nowadays. It has a lot to do with the rural way of life in the North and its connection to the wilderness and nature. At first, I didn’t know whether I was going to write a novel out of it or even poetry but since it started to be a comedy I thought this could make a nice film as well. So the narrative is actually something that came straight from the content, it needed to be somehow “mythical” and far away from psychological realism. This made me think of films like Fellini’s La Strada and De Sica’s Miracle in Milan which combines neorealism with magical realism or even Chaplin and Buster Keaton.”
What is your favorite part about showing your films on the festival circuit, especially now that you are here as a director as well as a writer?
“I’ve had the opportunity to visit some film festivals also with my previous works as a writer and what strikes me every time is how devoted audiences one can find! There are a lot of Finnish films that do well at the box office but don’t really travel. But we are a nation of only 5 million people so it is actually possible to get a bigger audience with an art house film internationally than even the biggest hit domestically. And there is also the more idealistic way of thinking, personally, I really love to discover films at festivals, and usually, the ones that I’m really excited about are the ones that have something new, something very unique in their way of approaching cinematic narrative.”
What was directing your first feature film like? Did you find it different from your experience in shorts?
“Directing a feature was completely different! By making shorts you can find the tools of filmmaking but for me, it was the process of making the feature film that really helped me to understand who I am as a director. It is such a long and weary process, that makes you drop all your guard down. I think it is a good thing though since the personality of the filmmaker becomes visible and this is where things start to get interesting. It is really a jump into the deep end.”
Are there any filmmakers or films that have influenced your personal path and filmmaking style?
“It’s no surprise that I’ve always enjoyed poetic cinema, whether it is the magical realism of Bunuel or the poetic realism of Andrea Arnold or the profound storytelling of Ingmar Bergman. The films of Robert Bresson have stayed with me. All of his films deal with the problem of existence and mercy, his laconic characters trapped in existence trying to find their way out. I guess one can find this theme also in The Woodcutter Story, although it is dressed in dark comedy and surrealism.”
Lastly, what was your favorite moment in shooting or creating this film?
“For me, it was the last day of shooting. We were shooting the very end of the film when my main character is climbing up the snowy mountain hill. We didn’t want to use digital effects or green screen but rather took all of our crew and equipment to the top of the mountain. It was midwinter in Northern Finland, the snow was perfect with thick coated spruce trees that one can find only there. Jarkko Lahti who was playing the lead was astonishing like he usually was, but there was something unique in the atmosphere and I remember that we are all very happy to be there, working on this wonderful business.”
You can see The Woodcutter Story at the festival this year, where it is competing in our New Directors Competition. Click here for further information, tickets, and screening times.