Director Samuli Valkama: Making short films is liberating

Director Samuli Valkama: Making short films is liberating

In Samuli Valkama’s 2019 short film Ha Ha Ha, a dystopian laughter factory is rocked by an uncontrollable fit of laughter. Samuli told us about the film featured at EUNIC London’s In Short, Europe: Happy Together short film festival. 

How did Ha Ha Ha get started as a project? 

The Finnish Film Foundation organised a competition that was specifically looking for short films that incorporated dance and choreography. I co-wrote the film with choreographer Jyrki Karttunen and Mete Sasioglu joined us as the producer. We wrote an application with the competition in mind and were lucky enough to receive funding. That’s how the project got started.  

Tell us about the setting of the film. 

The film is set in a dystopian laughter factory where a burst of laughter breaks out among the workers. I drew a lot of aesthetic inspiration from steampunk and retrofuturism. We filmed it in one of VR’s (Finnish government-owned railway company) old warehouses and it turned out to be exactly what we were looking for. 

There’s no speech in the film. What was it like to make a film where dialogue doesn’t have a primary role? 

Making a film like where physicality is this prominent calls for a return to the basics of filmmaking. Many of the filmmakers I look up to can successfully tell a story without the use of speech. I hadn’t worked with Jyrki previously but I was a fan of his work so I reached out to see if he wanted to collaborate. Jyrki took the lead on developing the physical language of the work, whereas I focused mainly on the storyline. I’ve always been fascinated by the way actors use movement. You can achieve a lot storytelling-wise by utilising the movement of the camera and the actors. 

Were the performers mostly actors or dancers?

We had six professional dancers involved and Heidi Naakka, who plays the lead role, is a dancer by training but has also acted in various productions. Unsurprisingly, many dancers are also good actors.

Who were some of your inspirations in making this film? 

Jacques Tati and Charlie Chaplin were important points of reference. Of more contemporary filmmakers, Wes Anderson was a source of inspiration.

You’ve directed short films before, but not recently. What was it like to return to short film?

It’s been a little over a decade since I last made a short film. Compared to movies and TV series, making short films involves more freedom. No one assumes that a short film like this makes money, the process is more work-oriented. It was liberating and fun to make this movie.

How does making short films differ from TV series or movies?

The processes are relatively similar. You start off by developing narrative techniques based on a text, work on the visual language and identify references and so on. The biggest difference is the number of stakeholders. There are multiple group of producers involved in a TV project. 

In Short: Happy Together is organised virtually, we’re all somewhat used to these types of solutions by now. What positive changes have you noticed in the film industry during the pandemic?

We’ve been fortunate enough to be able to continue filming in Finland during the pandemic. With a lot of investment in and from streaming services, a lot of new productions are being commissioned. The number of new projects in development also lends itself to an increased level of skill and know-how within the industry. On a more personal note it was good to take a break when it was less busy last spring, I took it as an opportunity to develop new ideas. 

Join Samuli for a directors roundtable on Friday 7 May 2021 7pm BST, register by clicking here. In Short, Europe: Happy Together, 7.-16.5., register for the free festival here.  

Text: Volter Rechardt, Image: Still from Ha Ha Ha 

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