Deadpan Poet: Director Aki Kaurismäki in interview
It can sometimes be dangerous to make assumptions about an artist's personality from the work they produce. David Lynch and Gaspar Noé are engaging, softly spoken men who happen to be responsible for some of cinema's darkest nightmares, while many of Michael Haneke's collaborators cite a sense of humour that you won't find in his films. Aki Kaurismäki, however, is in every way the man you expect to meet based on his body of work. Slouched in his chair and fortified by coffee and cigarettes, the Finnish director is a morose, taciturn presence, offering short answers in an unwavering deadpan that often makes you wonder how seriously he intends to be taken.
He's at his most passionate when you get him onto certain subjects, like music, which he says is the only aspect of filmmaking that interests him nowadays, or the theme of his charming new film Le Havre, which deals with illegal immigration. "It's a shame, that's why," he responds when I ask what attracted him to this subject, "I am European and it is a shame for Europe that we have this kind of disgraceful situation going on all the time." Unlike many filmmakers who tackle the darker side of such stories, Kaurismäki finds a note of hope and humanity in the relationship between ageing shoeshiner Marcel (André Wilms) and an African boy hiding from the authorities (Blondin Miguel). "I can't help my natural optimism," he says and, although he has admitted in the past to making a late decision on whether his films will have a happy or sad ending, he didn't have any doubts about this one. "It seems to be quite mathematical that every second film is either a happy ending or sad ending, but with Le Havre it was always a happy ending, always a fairytale."
When Kaurismäki talks about filmmaking there is no pretentiousness and no self-aggrandising; in fact, he makes it all seem like the simplest thing in the world. When I ask him about directing actors he shrugs and says, "if needed, I will act in front of them, to show them how they should act. Casting for me is hiring the right actors so normally I don't have to direct at all, which is good for a lazy man." This idea of Kaurismäki as a lazy man just doing enough to get by is an image that he insists upon, and he claims that such laziness is what prompted him to become a director in the first place rather than a writer, which was his original intention. "When I say 'let's shoot' we hire people and equipment, and then I have to be there on the first day with some idea," he explains, "With writing I can always say, 'Oh, I will start tomorrow...I will start tomorrow...' Filmmaking is the only career for the lazy man."
But for how much longer will Aki Kaurismäki be allowed to pursue that career? Throughout our conversation he makes references to the digital revolution that is currently altering the cinematic landscape, predicting a bleak future for directors like him who are "filmmakers not pixelmakers... The laboratories are bankrupt and so is Kodak, so why not me also?" he asks, and when I enquire about his next feature he glumly responds, "maybe I will retire, I don't know. Will I still have film in a few years?" One thing is for certain, Aki Kaurismäki won't compromise on his belief that cinema is light, and he scoffs when I suggest embracing digital technology rather than fighting against it. "I won't make a digital film in this life," he states sternly, "I will die with my boots on."