Director, screenwriter and UP participant Johanna Pyykkö's short film The Manila Lover has been released to Critic’s week at Cannes Film Festival for its world premiere. In this interview, Pyykkö tells about the process towards the finished film and about her artistic work.
Can you tell us a little about how you have worked strategically with the film to reach the goal of getting the film in program in Cannes?
We always had Cannes as a goal. We creatively pushed everything as far as we could, but "always in our way" - the photographer, production designer, the editor, sound designer and I talked about the film and process like that, “doing it our way”. In the writing process I also had a similar strategy, I told myself that I should take the wildest ways my intuition could.
The producers and co-producer also agreed that Cannes was our dream premiere. I also knew that we needed the best actors we could get. I wanted to work with a male actor in the lead who dared to enter something intimate and sensual - a room "private" for the character. Therefore, I'm thrilled that our Norwegian caster, Luise Nes, found Øyvind Brandtzæg - he is fantastic. I remember how our Philippine co-producer Bianca Balbuena-Liew (Epicmedia) looked at the monitor during the shoot of one of the scenes I like the most, and she said "Øyvind as Lars will go all the way, I think this film is going to Cannes».
How has the process been?
It has been fun. We have worked incredibly much over a long time. The pre-production period was 2 years. During this period, the producers Nina M. Barbosa Blad and Lotte Sandbu from Barbosa Film, and our co-producer Bianca Balbuena-Liew from Epicmedia, worked hard to get a good shoot and production. I was focused on keeping life in the vision alive during this long pre-production, while at the same time working in writer’s rooms on a couple of drama-series. The shoot in November 2018 in the Philippines and the post production in Norway, went very quickly and smoothly.
The shoot in the Philippines was a thrill, I got a huge crew, three times bigger than I have had before. The crew had a lot of experience from feature films and drama-series, and with a crew this big we really could push the artistic result even more and everything went fast. I loved the collaboration with the cinematographer Torbjørn Sundal Holen and production designer Ana Lou Sanchez, they have such good ideas and understood my vision from the start.
The editing of the film was also playful and fun, I co-edited together with Brwa Vahabpour and Margrete Vinnem and the sound designer Inger Elise Holm (from the post-production house Shortcut) did a fantastic job.
Why did you make The Manila Lover?
I meet a Filipino woman in my hometown who told me about Nordic men approaching her with prejudice. She told me that these men did not see her real personality. This made a strong impression on me. I have partly a working-class background, and therefore I know these men. I saw both sides in this situation as complex and interesting. This inspired me and from there I got the idea. From the start of the story process, I wanted both characters – the Nordic man and the Filipina – to surprise each other and the audience, with their personalities.
You develop many projects and have recently received development funding from The Norwegian Film Institute - Nye Veier, and you have also had a feature film project selected for Focus Pro' in Cannes, can you tell us about your upcoming projects?
The new feature film, "Mirror on Evy”, that has received New Paths Idea Development, is a kind of futuristic science fiction. It's about a woman in her 60s, who lives in an alternative reality in Oslo. I don't even have a reference that is similar, so it feels in many ways like a “new take" on the sci-fi-genre, for me.
The feature film EBBA & THE LOVER, which I have pitched at Focus Pro' in Cannes, has also received script development from The Norwegian Film Institute. It is produced by Verona Meier at Ape&Bjørn production company and I co-write the story together with screenwriter Jørgen Færøy Flasnes. It's fun to be in Cannes with two projects. The theme of EBBA & THE LOVER is similar to short The Manila Lover, it’s nice to show both projects here and Cannes has a good program for both films.
I also develop a sci-fi drama series for youth, produced by Kristoffer Sindre Vittersø, at Nordisk Film Production and a Swedish feature film produced by Verket Produktion. I like working with several projects at the same time, projects develop faster, and it becomes more joyful for me.
The Critic’s Week also provide their Next Step feature film lab for us who have short films in the competition. It is really a good program around that lab with international script mentorship. So I’m looking forward to taking part in the lab with one of my projects.
Can you tell a us about who you are as an artist?
Topics that I continue working with is power, exclusion/belonging and identity. I think I return to these topics because I have Finnish background and I had difficulties speaking proper Swedish during childhood in Sweden. I had a feeling of exclusion back then. That does a lot with your identity. I guess I develop characters and stories that have something similar to my own experience. My stories therefore contain questions about identity and some kind of power-games.
I’ve returned to a method I used when I made my first short films in Sweden: I have always drawn and painted pictures and now in the writing process of The Manila Lover I tried to draw the scenes with words, in a way similar to my painting style. The paintings I do are often sensual and abstract, I tried adding that tone in the script. It gave a lot of life to the cinematic language in the film.
You are also a member of the UP, Talent Norway and the Norwegian Film Institute's development program for female filmmakers. How is it to be there?
I applied for the UP because they offer a professional program over a long time in Oslo and Norway - with development funding, mentor scholarships, workshops and networking with other participants. The program also focuses on you as a filmmaker and on your projects. All that in one package, is very helpful. Everyone in the film industry seeks various labs and workshops with their projects, and as filmmakers. These labs and workshops are often over a short period of time, sometimes too short time. Therefore, I really like the UP program and I also like the fact that we in the program develop each other through sharing experiences and talking processes.
We have heard that you will, among other things, meet Agnieszka Holland and Jane Campion for an interview - which UP has organized for you. What are you going to ask her for?
UP has a mentor grant. When I applied for UP, I wrote that I wanted to do interviews and get mentorship from successful directors and creators for drama-series. I want to ask about film politics, about their processes and how they work with their voice over a long time. Jane Campion and Agnieszka Holland were on the top of my list of names, and they agreed to meet me. I had a fantastic first meeting with Jane Campion in Cannes. I love all her work and have seen her films several times. I’m also a fan of Agnieszka Holland’s wonderful job as an episode-director on The Wire.