The Woodcutter Story is one of the Finnish films at this year’s London Film Festival. We talked to Mikko Myllylahti about the inspiration for the story and his experience directing his first feature film ahead of the film’s UK premiere at the film festival.
1. Where did you find the inspiration for The Woodcutter Story?
In 2015 I had finished my previous movie work, the script for The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki, and was looking for a new subject. I live in an old wooden house in the countryside in Karkkila. The house was shadowed by a tree that I wanted to cut down. For a while I entertained the idea of doing it myself but then I remembered that I am a poet and a movie maker and that the tree would most likely fall on the house if I started messing with it. I then called a local woodcutter whose ad I found in the paper. The relaxed man that showed up and felled the tree seemed ageless. There was an odd sense of calm and optimism about him that I did not quite understand. I felt like life had mistreated him and he had had his fair share of misfortune and yet he seemed to accept his fate in a way unlike anything I had ever seen before. He was also from the north, just as I am. This encounter inspired me so much that I began writing a slightly odd comedic story about a kind northern woodcutter who ends up being tossed about by fate and loses a lot in life but still retains his optimism. The script became almost a combination of magical realism, northern surrealism, arctic hysteria, and philosophical thriller. To me, questions of the possibility of hope and meaning of existence are at the centre of the movie.
2. You have background as a poet. Do you feel that this shows in the narrative or the dialogue of the film?
I did indeed start as a poet. My first work, Autojen kuumat moottorit kotiinpaluun jälkeen (eng. Cars’ hot engines after homecoming) was published in 2003. Since then I have written four poetry collections. I feel like especially in The Woodcutter Story, my poet’s nature is clearly there. Writing it I felt much like I did back when I was writing my first poetry collection; I felt free and even brave, even if there were no guarantees a movie like this would ever get funding. To me, poetry lives first and foremost in the language – through poetry, through writing, I try to reach something that is constantly escaping my grasp. We will never pin down the nature of reality, but the poet’s (impossible) attempts create art that can confuse, make us pause, touch us deep down, or shake us to our core. My background in poetry is also evident in the slightly strange way the characters speak in the film. I did not want them to idly chat and for the true meaning to be hidden in the gaps as is often the case in “normal” scenes. I wanted the subtext and the characters’ deepest feelings to be plainly spoken. This exaggeration, in poetic terms hyperbole, started to amuse me and created a strange kind of comedic level to the story.
3. The film’s script received the Cannes Critics’ Week’s Next Step Award already in 2019. Did this create additional pressure for the production process?
Luckily for me the script was already quite far along at the time of the award and so it was more about polishing the final product at that point. Of course, as the director the award meant higher expectations and therefore more pressure. I am not sure why things worked out the way they did with this film, but once the filming started I managed to find enough courage to decide to just go for it and make the film the way I wanted to without caring about what others would think about it. Watching the finished movie now I am still very pleased with the way the entire working group managed to throw themselves into the process.
4. The Woodcutter Story is your feature film directorial debut. How did it differ from your previous projects? Can we expect more feature films from you in the future?
As you said, The Woodcutter Story is the first feature film I have directed; however, I definitely hope it is not the last! Directing a feature film is a daunting project that you cannot fully even prepare yourself for, even if I had previously directed short films and studied in film school. The journey from an idea to an opening night is so long that it wears down all your defences as a director. In my opinion this is a good thing: creating personal art requires honesty and even the recognition of your own banalities. I think that to improve as a professional and as a maker the director simply has to get the opportunity to direct more and to improve their craft film by film. It is often only the second or the third film that truly shows what kind of a director someone is. As such, I of course hope to soon begin directing my next piece! I am currently working on two scripts. One of them is a book adaptation and the other is my own work. After the absurdity and the possibility of hope that were central in The Woodcutter Story I am now interested in exploring the essence of love through the means of a thriller.
Image: making of The Woodcutter Story, Ada Johnsson