Finnish Sakari Lerkkanen left his home country and headed to Paris at the age of 16. Now in his mid-20s he’s settled in London after working around Europe and earning the reputation of an international storyteller who masters the capturing of emotion. In 2012 he was chosen the best international young artist of the year at Venice Biennale, and in 2014 his music video for Lintu but the band Le Roi won the main prize at the Oulu Music Video Festival. The young director talks about his relation to film and possible future plans.

Cinema Scandinavia: You took off to Paris in search of career at 16. What took you there? When did your love for cinema ignite?

Sakari Lerkkanen: It’s a funny coincidence you mention these two things at once, because they are actually related. I started at a post-production house doing adverts, 3D modelling and, given the opportunity, also directing a few TV spots. I was studying at the time, and my boss and teacher kept telling me to try my luck abroad. They reached out for my first opportunity to work abroad and I literally asked my parents: ‘’Should I go to work in Paris?’’ They encouraged me to go, so I did.

However, my strong love for cinema started after Paris. Growing up very young at a foreign city, surrounded by culture, beauty and art, had a big impact on me. I felt I had to change my career path out of the office towards a field where I could express myself better. All of a sudden, I became a fanatic follower of art house cinema, Japanese films and westerns from the 60s, experimental storytelling that cinema had to offer. I read a book based on Pedro Almodóvar’s interviews, and, inspired by his passion, I decided to take my camera and make something serious – direct and shoot a short film.

CS: Did you have a lot of experience before Paris?

SL: Just enough for the work I was applying and an insane dose of passion. As mentioned before, I was working with post-production at the time, meanwhile, filming was closer to a hobby that I just did constantly, occasionally leading to professional work.

The way I got into post house is a better story. My friends had PlayStation and all the other fancy toys, which I didn’t – so I earned money by doing snow work and mowing the lawn for my neighbours, just enough to get a decent PC. It didn’t take long until the new computer games stopped working on my computer, so I decided to make my own. Ambitious enough to achieve a fine look, I ended up teaching myself the basics of 3D modelling. When it came to coding, the problem was patience, so I ended up making mainly just computer game trailers. Then one of our neighbours saw these trailers by accident. He was an owner of a post-production company and introduced me to the right       people.

CS: Even though you left Finland to search work abroad, did you ever end up studying the field?

SL: I studied film at the Tampere University of Applied Science Film & TV. My parents are teachers so I had no other choice than to keep studying – in fact they still try to push me. I was chosen to study at TAMK on the first round, so this was a way to keep my parents calm and continue doing what I wanted.

The decision to return to working abroad came after military service. Even there I managed to sneak and make films, but I felt so restricted and limited that as soon as I got out, I gained thirst to work abroad again. I felt I like lost a lot of time there, so I decided to speed things up. Isn’t it funny how these kinds of coincidences in life lead you to new directions and places that you wouldn’t have expected?

CS: What kind of an effect has leaving to Europe had on you both as a person and as a film-maker?

SL: It’s nearly impossible to summarise an answer without having a comparable experience of staying in Finland. From certain aspects, I would even claim to have become more Finnish after all. It’s quite hilarious. You realise you’re the one getting called ‘Nordic director with Nordic taste abroad’, which I think is a great advantage. Taking perspective, I’ve learned to appreciate and love my own country even more, perhaps because I miss it at times. It’s almost embarrassing to admit that I was listening to our national anthem before going to see world cup final of ice hockey a while ago.

But when it comes to living around Europe, I’d mention that it has helped me to understand quite fast how there is simply no correct way to live or to make films after all. Things aren’t as serious and restricted as they might sometimes feel. Living, working, competing, meeting people and learning about different cultures, you witness pretty strange things. You take some of them with you because it feels right. Quite often the correct way is your own way, and it can be the most valuable way, too. But it is important to know the boundaries, listen to and respect others as well. This being said, eventually there is certainly a mix of European influences in my personality and craft.

CS: How does the film industry in Finland differ from the London scene? What could they learn from each other?

SL: Obviously, the biggest difference is how the industries have formed throughout the years, both nations having their own culture, system and history. The establishment of the two structures has been developed in a long period of time within different surroundings and demand.

To generalise, I’d say London is busier and more risk-taking. The demand, competition, amount of film-makers, ideas and funds are insane. Obviously, this way there are some amazing talent, stories, films and projects discovered constantly at a high speed. Film as a format develops quite fast and the market is bigger. The amount of competition and resources to fund film-making obviously lead to huge budget ranges and big differences in the skills of crews in general. In a way, following only numbers can sometimes be slightly misleading.   Personally, from time to time, I do miss a proper development process in some UK productions compared to the Finnish industry. Everyone is simply busier in London.

Finland clearly has a smaller industry, so sometimes I do miss variation. But I think the craft and talents there are great. Many of my colleagues in the UK embrace Nordic shorts and their professionalism. They are very well respected. Generally, film-makers have a high level of technical skill, but to really get into the film scene can be difficult at start. Finland also has a good funding programme, although the resources to fund your films are smaller. For example, I tend to spend a lot of time developing my projects, and if one is being disqualified from grants, it’s hard to find an alternative path to approach the same market again.

CS: What makes film the best storytelling format to you?

SL: I used to write novels, paint, draw, compose my own music and even work briefly as a professional photographer, but I didn’t get the same fulfilment from those as from making films. With film I could combine all the previous interests. These days I’m not even very good at those things, because during the latest years, film has taken all my time – so there is no other option than to stick with directing. I also believe I have something new to offer to the industry, which is personally important to me when working in a certain field.

CS: What is your favourite thing about film?

SL: If I had to choose just one favourite thing about film, I would most likely quote the emotional side of it. The way film combines so many other storytelling formats to express a feeling is very powerful and fascinating. It can be extremely entertaining, emotional and maybe even life-changing all at the same time. Sometimes the way emotions are created in a film doesn’t even make any logical sense. I put a lot of effort on how my work feels because everyone can understand feelings.

ideas had actually an interesting premise. Talking a while about it, the idea then took shape pretty fast.

The process changes a lot and sometimes the ideas come super fast, like a flash. And sometimes I need to break the concept down or take steps back to figure out what was the spark that got me to work on it in the first place. When working alone, I surround myself with the things that inspire me. Recently, I’ve found it great to talk about the project with other people, they bring good perspectives. A while ago during a Sunday roast, I even started a competition with my friends, competing who would get the best idea for my new project. It was great fun and some of their ideas were fantastic.

CS: What makes a good movie?

SL: Many films could be translated into great books, photo essays or theatre pieces, sometimes into something better than what they appear as on-screen. I often pay attention to how a story is told in conditions of a film. For example, I recently saw Loves of a Blond by Milos Forman. I thought it was a well-made film, nice acting, nice atmosphere, but one scene really stood out.

In this scene, a group of military guys are on a holiday, sitting at a party flirting with girls. One of the guys pulls out his wedding ring – trying to hide it from girls – but he loses it. The ring rolls across the parquet as he chases it. During this chase scene, we see people jamming, changing looks, partying – the whole surrounding can be felt. There is tension, drama, suspense, comedy, enjoyment and certain sadness – all in one scene! Great cinematic storytelling.

Even more importantly, when watching a film is I want to really forget myself into the story. I want to feel and believe what I see. That’s why I prefer watching films at the cinema. I like the feeling of entering the theatre, being in peace, surrounded by an environment designed to screen a film – it has class.

CS: You found some of the actors for the music video Lintu from the streets of London. Is this kind of a casting process typical in your projects?

SL: In recent years I’ve started planning my projects very early on with the crew. I like to know the concrete facts and gain the knowledge on which I can reflect my ideas during the development process. I want to simply find out how far the borders can be stretched with the resources given and have the input of other professionals when searching for the best approach.

Casting, on the other hand, depends on the nature of the film. I have worked with a wide range of people from celebrities, dancers and models to professional actors and so on. Every casting choice gives slightly different opportunities to explore, so depending on what I need and which kind of charm I’m after will lead the choice. With Lintu, I had a few extremely good actors, but also a dancer, a musician and a few characters from the street to give a certain look to the video. Having this range of cast, I felt confident, because I knew how each member would support one another in the final outcome.

CS: Do you have certain role models, influences or idols in the field? What inspires you? Which films have had the biggest effect on you?

SL: I love the works of Sergio Leone, Wong Kar Wai and Sion Sono. Their films are so simple, but complex at the same time in terms of how you can tell a story in the film. Ridley Scott, Steven Spielberg and James Cameron are fantastic too! For a Few Dollars More, The Godfather, Postman Blues, Love Exposure are some top notches that come to my mind. I could keep on naming directors and titles, but there are just too many of them.

And yes, I do have role models and idols, even though I often don’t admit it. I am not constantly trying to become the next Sergio Leone – I don’t think I would be at my best with trying to be        him –  but when facing a hard decision or creating a new project I might think of one of his scenes. I might seek influence in him, but then again I filter it through my own experiences and form my own kind of way to approach it.

What inspires me? Everything, but it is also related to the moment and what I’m searching at the time. I like to listen to a lot of music and look at images, those bring me new ideas. Fantastic stories, comics, films and life are equally important sources of inspiration.

CS: What do you do when inspiration runs low?

SL: A few days ago I had a problem like that. It was a music video request, but I’d had an exhausting morning, a pile of deadlines due the next day and too many other things were on my mind which made the work challenging. In this case, I just wrote down a lot of ideas, did research, did a breakdown of the brief, took a nap, wrote again, then drew, then looked at pictures of Helmut Newton, they somehow felt like they could fit, ate a mega sandwich and read all the ideas. They weren’t that great, but I kept five of them. After talking about them with my girlfriend, I figured that one of the ideas had actually an interesting premise. Talking a while about it, the idea then took shape pretty fast.

The process changes a lot and sometimes the ideas come super fast, like a flash. And sometimes I need to break the concept down or take steps back to figure out what was the spark that got me to work on it in the first place. When working alone, I surround myself with the things that inspire me. Recently, I’ve found it great to talk about the project with other people, they bring good perspectives. A while ago during a Sunday roast, I even started a competition with my friends, competing who would get the best idea for my new project. It was great fun and some of their ideas were fantastic.

CS: Do all your short films have something in common? What do you usually want to say with your films?

SL: One of the producers I work with calls me an extremely romantic guy, and I believe he has a point. I like to give hope and encourage people. Even when being dark or strange, I like to show a certain light. As a storyteller, I try to choose universal themes and topics. Maybe it has something to do with my own background. However, this doesn’t mean to restrict that I could not speak about cultures or different nations, but the main feeling should be possible to relate to.

Also, since I’ve made short films, I often want to bring something new to traditional storytelling. Try ways of telling a story that hasn’t been done before, or that didn’t previously give me the feeling of fulfilment. I try to add something new to each of my work, something that might develop the way cinema communicates. For me, the most influential short films have this feature.

CS: What have you got to offer to the industry?

SL: As mentioned, the emotional side of cinema really excites me because feelings have no language – everyone can relate to them. I’ve lately taken small steps towards finding out how to approach them in even a richer way. I don’t know if there are ways we could see bigger, more complex or more vivid emotions on screen yet, but maybe I will find out with my next project!

CS: How do you think the role of cinema as an art form and a way of communication could change in the future?

SL: Obviously, the technical development of cinema has been quite rapid. Just compare how the first sounds, close-ups or even colours were used to tell a story and how they are used by modern film-makers today. As a director, you have more tools more knowledge, more ways to tell a story, which is great.

As an art form film is still extremely young compared to, say, music and literature. Just like any other art form, a film has and will develop, too. I like to believe that in the future we’ll see even more personal, artistic, daring and vivid projects being done as the audience will be ready to take that.

CS: What has been the greatest moment in your career so far?

SL: There are too many to mention. I really move on a project by project thinking it’s my last. Every time there’s a new opportunity, I get this emotional burst and start working like crazy. Then, when the project is done and I can breathe again, I look at how it moves on, which festivals it’s shown at, what the feedback is like, where that project takes me next. It is extremely exciting!

Learning is another thing I feel personally excited about. When I started with 3D modelling and animation, I tried to reach an authentic and a realistic look. Moving to film, the first steps were also focused on the look. Soon, the focus moved from the beauty closer to understanding the importance of your vision, and how to express something personal within you with that vision. Even though it might look great to film a person with 35mm walking on mountains, to get the authentic and emotional reaction from the viewer – simply to make it cinematic – it is much more about what you show about the character. What do your images tell about the person and the story?

CS: Is there something you’ve had to learn the hard way?

SL: Dozens of things – and it doesn’t make it easier that I only learn from my mistakes. Maybe the biggest lesson has been when it comes to choosing, collaborating and knowing the people I work with. In the past, I had a few projects where I chose the wrong people to collaborate with and it was just one horror show – because not even miracles can save that kind of a mistake. I just had to live with it.

CS: What are your plans at the moment?

SL: Just now I’ve directed a TV commercial and a second one is on its way – so I’ll finish those two first and try to get best out of them. I spend my spare time trying to find good short film scripts and good screenwriters – I would really have a use for one! There is also one script in development now that I feel excited about.

CS: What can you see yourself doing in 10 years?

SL: If the stars are aligned, I will have my first successful feature under the belt, and I would be already writing the next one, dreaming of becoming feature film director. That would be great. I also like the balance of commercial work, to me personally it’s refreshing and exciting, so hopefully I will have moved forward on that field as well. All combined, yet hoping to remain a nice person.

Mimmi Ahonen

Mimmi is a student at Tampere Arts-Oriented Senior Secondary School with growing interest for culture journalism, Norway and all things film.