Mika Kaurismäki • Director of Gracious Night
“There is coronavirus, but there is also Corona Bar”
by Marta Bałaga
- Finnish director Mika Kaurismäki assures us that only the finest wines were imbibed during the making of the Tallinn-screened Gracious Night
In the Tallinn Black Nights competition title Gracious Night [+see also:
interview: Mika Kaurismäki
film profile], which sees him reunite with the cast of 2008’s Three Wise Men [+see also:
film profile], Mika Kaurismäki shows three not-so-wise men coming together during the pandemic, finding refuge in his very own Helsinki-based Corona Bar. Before the night is over, they will have found out more about each other than they had bargained for. Luckily, the drinks are on the house.
Cineuropa: You found a way to make something out of the lockdown, it seems. How did it even start?
Mika Kaurismäki: After Three Wise Men, we always talked about making another film using the same method, and we actually started to do so last year. We were supposed to shoot in Dubai and have these Finnish men coming together in some bar, talking about their personal crises. In March, we were still planning to go there and look for locations, and then the lockdown came. The engine was already idling and the actors had worked on their characters, so we decided to adjust it. There is coronavirus, but there is also Corona Bar. It seemed like a good match.
It was a fast shoot, and everything was improvised. There is no written script, and the characters don't know their backstories – I worked with each actor separately. When the camera was rolling, they had to figure out what was going on, just like in real life: you meet a stranger in a bar, and eventually, you find out more.
Did they bounce some ideas off you first? Some of them are quite extreme.
We discussed it, and then decided together. The takes would be very long, up to one hour, and nothing was ever repeated. They came up with ideas, and then I had to see whether it was the right direction to take – otherwise, the whole thing would have got out of control. Not every actor could do it, but these guys are very, very good.
Coming back to the same idea as that featured in a 2008 movie could have been very peculiar, so what made you even consider it?
We meet very often, and we talk about things, just as friends, and as you get older, there are not that many interesting roles. They were eager to do something where they could create a character. Making a film like this can be very therapeutic. There is no money and no script, but there is freedom. We drank real wine, the best that we had in the bar. But I didn't want them to be drunk and make some Icelandic movie, with everyone wasted and acting like an idiot. It's not about the booze, and it's not about the pandemic – it's about their problems. At first, our film was called Corona by Night. I meant the bar, but I didn't want to scare people away! We all like John Cassavetes, all these improvised films like Husbands or Faces. We were inspired by him.
All of the action in the film happens through their stories. There are some kids who come to the bar, demanding beer, but that's it.
We wanted these stories to be different. Once they know that one of them is guilty of something, it changes the mood. When I was editing, and that took me quite a while, I just didn't want people to get bored. But people can listen to 20 minutes of dialogue if it's interesting, and so far, nobody has complained. Although it's certainly not for young people looking for explosions and action. It's like a stage play in a way, with this red curtain we have in the bar.
When we made the film, nobody else was doing anything, because of the restrictions. But we were such a small team, making a home movie, basically. I actually wanted to have more people coming to the bar, some strange characters, but because of COVID-19, I couldn't arrange it. The ones who do are these actors' children.
They seem very comfortable around each other. After so many years, presumably you didn't have to work on their chemistry?
It's not the kind of film that has all of these “jazz solos” and where you can do whatever you want – you have to build on what the other actor just said. This freedom is not absolute, but I think this method works. We wanted to create an atmosphere that would feel real, authentic. For me, it was a bit like shooting a documentary. I had to observe these guys and react to what they were doing with the camera.
The marital exchange that happens at one point – why did you want to have it? This trio talks about personal things as well, but that's a whole different conversation.
I wanted to bring in the wife and hear what she has to say. Of course, nobody knew what she was going to do or whether she was going to be aggressive or not. When Three Wise Men came out, many women came to me afterwards, saying that now they understood their husbands better. They never got to see them talk like that in real life. Finnish men don't say too much, unless they are drunk, and they certainly don’t talk about their personal issues. But men also have feelings.
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