II - PRODUCTION - THE LIVES
Helsinki: Land of the Nice and Snow (April 2014)
Helsinki: Land of the Nice and Snow (April 2014)
My first location was Helsinki. I flew there on March 21st 2014 and spent a couple weeks, staying with my friend Paul and his fiancée Julie. Paul and Julie had been engaged for a few months and asked me if I would shoot a “save the date” video to announce their wedding the following year. I saw this as a useful exercise to test my equipment before shooting any footage for my film. We spent the weekend filming their video. I was quite rusty, but I had prepared well and this short experience allowed me to practice with the camera’s functions and core settings, such as frame rate, shutter speed, ISO and white balance. This helped me hone in some reflexes I would use later when shoot PSI.
In Helsinki, I also reconnected with an old friend of mine, Antti, a Finnish guy who had studied with me at film school in Paris. He introduced me to a couple friends of his, Petri and Mikko, who worked as cinematographers in Finland. They liked my project and helped me film the scenes where I’m portraying my “Helsinki life.” I was a little nervous about these encounters at first, because I knew they would set the tone for what was to come; I thought that if they didn’t go well, it would mean that I had overestimated how much I could rely on others to help me make this film. But, fortunately, these professional guys, who I had never met before, were happy to lend a helping hand without even being paid. I explained my budget constraints and offered to sign a deferred payment contract, whereby I would pay them a certain sum if the film made a profit. They politely laughed it off, claiming that being part of the project was fun enough for them. This was an encouraging start, as I knew I would be often relying on good-willed people to work the camera. I later came to discover that, more generally, I was also in the land of an incredibly friendly and helpful people. The Fins were almost too nice for their own good sometimes - I had never been to a place before where at 3am, under snowfall and with no cars in sight, people will wait at the crosswalk for the little man to turn green.
Getting the first shots in Helsinki was extremely exhilarating: the life-story in Helsinki is one where I am professionally successful, but deeply unsatisfied and in denial about it. Most of the shots are of me walking around a gloomy, cold city, during a normal day of work. Because I hadn’t been able to travel to Helsinki beforehand and do any location scouting, most of it was improvised. With either Petri or Mikko, we would walk around and be like: “Hey, this is a cool place to shoot, let’s shoot here.” And so we’d adapt my character’s day as we saw a location that could be interesting or relevant (such as the bridge over the train tracks). I got here my first hands-on impression of how a day’s filming on this shoot would be like, and it was at once messy and enthralling. We were constantly on the edge of nothingness, and this forced us to use the surroundings to think up new scenes, all the while constructing and maintaining some coherence to everything in our head. The only issue I had during my time in Helsinki is that I couldn’t find an office environment in which to shoot. Paul and Antti’s offices wouldn’t allow it, and so eventually, we shot the office scenes over a year later in Paris, in a co-working office space called Lawomatik in the 10th arrondissement (now closed).
Towards the end of my stay in Helsinki is when I found the first inspiration for the film’s music. I had already decided that the film would be heavily sound-tracked. But I hadn’t really yet thought of options for music. One evening at Paul’s place, I heard him playing some piano and when I asked where the music came from, he replied that he had just improvised it. I immediately asked him if he would record it for my film and within minutes we were discussing the possibility of him composing the soundtrack. Paul is a classically-trained pianist and composer, and fittingly, he is a guy who, like me, had been torn as a teenager about which path to pursue. Where I saw an opportunity for getting my film’s music, he saw an opportunity to fulfill one of his dreams. However, as I’ll explain later, this plan to work on the film’s music with Paul turned out to be far more complicated than our initial excitement led us to believe.
Looking back on the Helsinki shoot, I can see the progress I made over the following year. For instance, back then, I still hadn’t figured out the optimal way for me to shoot this film. When I wandered the streets in Helsinki, going to the different locations I wanted to shoot (statues, buildings, etc.), I hauled around my trekking backpack containing my tripod, all my lenses, the monitor, the sound equipment, etc. At the time I wanted to stay on the safe side and my inexperience meant that I didn’t yet know what would be useful and what would be surplus. By the end of the shoot, my kit had been streamlined: I wore only a smaller backpack holding my camera and lenses, and usually no tripod (I would stabilize in post). I took nothing more than what I knew I needed.
On the final weekend before leaving, we sat down with Paul and Julie and watched the rushes. Seeing them for the very first time was a great feeling, and playing Paul’s music while reviewing them gave me the first glimpses at how the final film could feel. At that point I knew that getting shots from the second location, and intercutting them with those of Helsinki, would elevate this experience to another level.