Shot in B&W and framed in the Nouvelle Vague style of films of the early 1960s, you could be forgiven for thinking that The Happiest Day in The Life of Olli Mäki was actually made in the period in which it is set – 1962 – by master filmmakers of the era.
But think again. The charming, wry-humoured, real-life, pugilistic biopic – which has received multiple awards, five-star reviews and goes on release in Spring 2017 – was actually shot on on 16mm KODAK TRI-X Black & White Reversal Film 7266 in 2015. And it marks the feature-length debut of talented Finnish film, theatre and opera director Juho Kuosmanen, with cinematography by his longtime photographic partner and friend Jani-Petteri Passi (J-P).
“I, along with our lead performers Jarkko and Oona, come from Kokkola, which is Olli’s home town, on the western coast of Finland. Although Olli has been largely forgotten in Finland, he is still celebrated by the local townsfolk,” Kuosmanen said. “I wanted this film to transport us right back to the life and times of Olli Maki. Both J-P and I knew that only film had the right qualities to do that.”
The movie, written by Kuosmanen and Mikko Myllylahti, recounts the true story of Olli Mäki (portrayed by Jarkko Lahti), the Finnish boxer who had a shot at the 1962 World Featherweight title against champion Davey Moore. When he lost the bout in the second round, Mäki curiously declared it was the happiest day of his life. In the run up to the match, the shy, mild-mannered fighter had quickly come to realize that the advertising endorsements, high-society hobnobbing and media circus surrounding the world of boxing were simply not for him. Furthermore, he had recently fallen head-over-heels in love with the equally humble Raija (Oona Airola), but she had taken a step aside to let him focus on his career.
“In losing the match, all of a sudden Olli Mäki felt he had got his life and the love-of-his-life back once more,” explained Kuosmanen.
Kuosmanen's 2010 graduation film, The Painting Sellers, shot on KODAK 16mm by Passi, won the first prize the Cinéfondation section of that year’s Cannes Film Festival. With this spectacular win came the sensational promise to screen the director’s first full-feature at a future edition of the festival.
The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki was screened at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, where it won top prize in the Un Certain Regard section. Subsequent film reviews lauded the production as a mini marvel of “impeccable craftsmanship,” praising its B&W cinematography, as well as the exemplary, natural and understated performances of its lead performers.
To achieve the 1960’s period look for the production, Kuosmanen and Passi started by testing color negative and reversal 8mm, 16mm and 35mm formats with different ASA ratings. They then desaturated the footage in post production to achieve a monochromatic result. While these tests proved visually interesting in themselves, Kuosmanen said they wanted to go further in pursuit of their final on-screen image. This took them to further tests of B&W negative and reversal film stocks.
“Our aim was to emulate documentary newsreel footage and photographs from that period,” Kuosmanen says. “When we looked at the test footage of the KODAK 16mm 7266 Tri-X Black & White Reversal Film, we discovered a stock that has high contrast but richer tones, deeper blacks and cleaner whites in the image than other B&W stocks, with a thickness and texture that took us right back to the 1960s. It has a special visual quality that you could never get with digital.”
Passi operated during the 30-day production using an Arriflex 416 Plus S16 camera fitted with high-speed Zeiss Distagon lenses, chiefly using a trio of 12mm, 16mm and 25mm focal lengths. To support the vintage look of the production as well as the rhythm and intensity of the narrative, the camera was mostly handheld. Kuosmanen said most scenes, although intercut later in editorial, were shot in long takes of between one to eight minutes depending on the content and the mood of each scene. He also said that “shooting in B&W, there are fewer distractions for the audience, and they can focus on the essentials – the characters and their emotions.”
The production was shot mostly in Finland’s capital city Helsinki, including the Olympiastadion, where the title match takes place, and a house on Vartiosaari island, where Mäki goes into retreat after the boxing match.
As Tri-X, which has a recommended ASA rating of 200 in daylight and 160 under Tungsten, is sensitive to both under and overexposure, Kuosmanen said lighting control was critical during production.
“I have never been so interested in lighting than I was on The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki. I did not want the lighting to appear too visible or too stylized because the film needed an authentic aesthetic. So in daylight scenes, we went with the natural light, supplemented by practicals or non-bounced daylight lamps that were far away enough to give us the right exposure and allow the actors to perform,” Kuosmanen explained. “We generally lit the interiors from outside, with or without diffusion as determined by the exposure, as well as practicals, which again gave the actors freedom and delivered a natural look. We shot some of the night exteriors at dusk with a combination of practicals and big HMIs as required.”
“Apart from the final look, one of the beauties of shooting on film is the focus and concentration it gives the cast and crew on set,” Kuosmanen commented. “My experience with digital is that you get easily tempted to shoot too early, to try things before a scene is ready. Film is more specific. By its nature, film forces you to seek the best way to the end result. You set up the scene, rehearse with the actors and then the camera, adjust the choreography and the blocking. You only turnover when the actors and the crew are settled in terms of the pace and rhythm you want. It makes a big difference.”
Film processing for The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki was done by Andec Filmtechnik in Berlin. Editing took place in Helsinki with grading and VFX work completed at Chimney Pot in Stockholm.