September 07, 2012
Fully-endorsed by best-selling Finnish author Sofi Oksanen, the film Purge produced by Solar Films is landing on 108 Finnish screens today. Hollywood-based director Antti Jokinen (who was in Tallinn last Thursday for the film’s world premiere, alongside cast and crew members) told us about the challenge of ‘staying as close as possible to the book’ while turning the film ‘into a piece of its own’.
Less than a week after its world premiere in Tallinn, Antti Jokinen’s film version of Finnish author Sofi Oksanen’s best-selling novel Purge is landing today on 108 Finnish screens. The film was produced by Solar Films with support from Nordisk Film & TV Fond.
The Hollywood-based director Jokinen spoke to us.
How and when did the project of Purge land in your hands?
I was working on the Hilary Swank movie The Resident when Markus Selin (Solar Films producer) sent me the book after it won the Finlandia Award. I had told him I wanted to come back to Finland to make movies as I had been 12 years away in Los Angeles.
I was immediately taken by the story, the characters and the non-linear storytelling. Visually I thought it would be very interesting to stick to the way the book was written which was to show the character’s reactions to the actions they did and then to jump back in time to see the motives for what they did. Often it happens the other way around. So I said to Markus: let’s make the film.
How did you collaborate with writer Marko Leino? Usually on a film, I make thematic decisions, discuss them with a screenwriter and we start writing separately. Here, based on my initial notes Marko wrote a first version, creating the backbone for the script. Then I wrote another 12 versions. I enjoy working this way, seeing another writer’s vision on my initial ideas.
Did you meet the author Sofi Oksanen to discuss your vision and how did you squeeze her 400 page book into a 110 minute film? I sent her the script of my previous film The Resident which I had co-written and she came to the film’s premiere in the UK. We discussed Purge and she liked my vision. Basically my idea was to stay as close as possible to the book but also to turn the film into a piece of its own. Sofi liked my approach which was to build a story around true love and redemption.
Then I wrote and shot a film that was basically based on the elderly Aliide and the young Zara, two women with similar violent backgrounds under different eras. I tried to split the film equally, focusing on each woman’s story, but the end result evolved in the editing process which took over six months!
You obviously focused much more on Aliide and her questionable choices in life that ended up having dramatic effects on the people around her. Why? Indeed after the editing, the film ended up leaning much more towards Aliide. The thing is that her choices in life are non-heroic and I was worried the audience would fall out of love with her and that her story would not be understood. I wanted to explain that Love became her reason to live and a way to survive under very difficult situations, during wartime in Soviet-occupied Estonia. I focused on that aspect and on her redemption, when she decides to help Zara. What also carries the film is the wonderful acting from all the cast, especially Laura Birn (young Aliide) and Liisi Tandefelt (older Aliide)…
How did you work on creating the characters? I was extremely happy with all the Finnish and Estonian cast and crew. Everyone was very well prepared because we did a lot of rehearsals before the shoots, reading the scenes like in a theatre play. I also changed the dialogues quite a bit when I had the final actors for each part.
The violence to the women is almost as unbearable in the film as in the book. Was it difficult to decide how far to go? I think it was probably the most difficult thing. In a book you can take breaks whereas in a film you see things, get the music, it’s more traumatising. So I set myself a few rules. The first one was that I wasn’t interested in violence in itself. 90% of the time I showed how violence affects the person, not the action itself. The second thing is that I tried to concentrate on the feeling of violence, like smoke in the air. You know it’s there but you can’t see the fire. Then the third thing is that I didn’t want to shy away from it either.
Those violent acts (including rape) happened then and still nowadays. I wanted to bring it in but in a way that people would not feel sick or want to leave. It was extremely difficult and we did a lot of editing.
I actually tested the film twice to avoid putting people off. The funny thing is that in the test screenings, the people who had read the book thought the violence was just right whereas those who had not read the book thought it was too violent. That helped me to make adjustments. Could you explain your artistic choices to describe the different time periods in the film (Estonia in the 1940s-50s and 1992 Estonia and Berlin)? I didn’t want to use title style, dates to explain when the action was taking place. I wanted the film to have different looks so the people would understand the era.
Also the whole Berlin section (where Zara is detained in a brothel) was shot hand-held. I used a 40mm lens to give a big brother feeling, plus extreme close ups to give a claustrophobic feel. Then with the period section set in the 1940s, I wanted to give a cinematic style with wider lenses, dollies. It was more precise in a sense.
What's next for you? The Nicolas North epic adventure project produced by your company Estar Studios that has been in development since 2009? We’re still trying to put it together. We were ready to go a few years ago with Julianne Moore in one of the main roles. But when we were supposed to start I had to go back to The Resident. It pushed the project by one year, but then Julia Moore couldn’t make it and I concentrated on Purge.
The experience on Purge was great. My career as a music video director took me to Los Angeles, where I made my first feature, the horror film The Resident. I was afraid I would be stuck with the reputation of a genre director, but with Purge, I was able to fully develop my own vision and can go back to pure drama which is what I really want to direct.
So my next project will be Finnish again. It will be either Nicolas North or another project to be announced very soon.
What did Sofi Oksanen think of the film? You have to ask her the question. But after she saw the film, her email to me started with EXCELLENT and had six exclamation marks!