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‘Women are not always nice and beautiful’: An interview with Nina Laurio about OFF THE MAP

Off the Map is a Finnish road movie about two women: one running from her boyfriend’s affair and a little girl running from her living conditions. Not quite a comedy and not quite a drama, Off the Map is a healthy combination of the two and another shining example in contemporary Finnish cinema. We sat down with the films producer and scriptwriter, Nina Laurio, to talk about the film’s themes.

Can you please tell me about Off the Map?

I started writing the script when I was on my maternity leave. I became a mother quite late and it really made me think about the role of a mother. The whole idea of motherhood made me wonder what makes a good parent. Does it have to be a biological parent or can it be a good role-model and is the mother of the child always the best? The plot started from that. I was also noticing a lot of neglected children. While we may live in the Nordic countries and things are quite nice for us, there is an underworld that is strikingly different and I wanted to go there but not necessarily in a dark way, but rather a hopeful way. I wanted a film where you could both laugh and cry.

Also, one of the main purposes of the story was to have women in a role not typically designed for women. Women are either in serious drama’s or romantic comedies. There doesn’t seem to be a lot between those two. I wanted a film where the women are not always nice and they aren’t beautiful all the time. They are humans with dark and light sides. I wondered about women being the character with all the action so they are the one making things happening and not always following the action. I’m a scriptwriter and a producer so I was ways considering the marketing side. I tried to think of a way to make a film that people would want to see and think about.

So the road movie concept is practically a type of film we generally don’t see women in?

When we think of female road movies it’s practically only Thelma and Louise. I wanted to leave out that kind of storytelling where females are searching for themselves and making rash decisions. I wanted romance and lightness in this story.

Also, the film really embraces the concept of getting out of the city and enjoying the natural world. Was that an important theme?

I needed the main character to be so self-centred and so focused on her career, which is actually quite typical of our time. We only think about our needs and where to get them. I wanted to pull this character out of her routine and her normal lush life so she can find who she really is. It’s not about money or career. It’s not about the things you own but who you are and who the people are besides you.

And nature is perfect for that?

Out in nature you have to stop. It’s silent and you have so much space for yourself. If you’re in the big city all the time you struggle to find somewhere to sit back and be silent, but in Finland we have the space and the beautiful nature. It felt natural to take her out of the city and to somewhere she doesn’t normally go. It’s difficult but it’s there that she finds who she is.

You chose a really beautiful region for her to find herself in.

Yes, the centre of Finland is absolutely beautiful. We have made many films previously in Lapland, which seems like an obvious choice for a road movie, but I didn’t want to go that far. There’s this beautiful area in the centre of Finland with beautiful scenery and I chose to have her head to the east coast, near the border with Russia. The length of the road trip itself had to be long enough so that the men chasing her have to really make a big journey. I looked for a region that had potential for film funding. This gave me few options but the scenery and the facilities in the area were really great for the film and the crew.

nina-laurio

The little girl cast in the leading role is perhaps the best character I’ve seen in a Nordic film. Where did you find her?

When working with children, you either win or you collapse totally. That was the main worry for me and the director: where to find the child? I already had my eyes on my friend’s little girl. Her face was so great and I knew that she’s very interested in acting. Her sisters were in acting and the little girl wanted to follow. She was ten years old but so tiny and had her baby teeth left so she was perfect. The role was quite hard and quite challenging so it’s hard for the child to express herself. I wanted to have someone a little older who could play someone younger. So she was ten years old and she represents an eight-year-old in this film.

So I introduced her to the director and that was it. They tested the girl and the director thought she was absolutely perfect. All the professional actors were actually terrified of the script because they didn’t know how they were going to play their roles so this little girl wouldn’t be damaged by what they say and do.  But the little girl is from a very nice home and is very intelligent. She has lived in the United States of America and speaks English fluently and her life is totally different from the film. But she knew how to go completely into her role and then step back. We had an assistant for her if she felt unsafe while shooting but she didn’t. In the end she challenged the professional actors to do their best. They were so amazed by her that they wanted to do their best and she really pushed back. The actors all said that they had never seen this kind of girl before.

The film takes a very serious tone towards the end. How hard is the balance between comedy and drama?

I wanted to mix comedy and the serious side in a way that you can laugh, cry, and then laugh again. When I’m in the audience I like films where I can go up and down and feel all the emotions during my experience. I decided when I was writing the script that there are moments with no laughter. I wanted to surprise the audience and have the film start out as a comedy, but throughout it becomes deeper and darker until you really fall for the character and in a way root for them. You like the characters and don’t want to see the negative side.

Looking at the choice of cast and crew, it seems you went for a really female-heavy film?

For me, the director doesn’t have to be a woman. I prefer to look for the best director for my film and Tiina, the director, had only directed a seventeen-minute short film before this.

She is a very well known actress in Finland and has written and directed many theatre plays. I loved her short film and I knew that her way of seeing the world and the particular side of comedy I was looking for would be perfect for the script.

It’s quite hard to mix difficult topics with comedy. Tiina was the best for the role, and yes she is a woman too, so that’s fine. We also had a female crew but that’s up to the cinematographer. He chose a selection of women which is also fine. Luckily for us in Finland we have a lot of women who are educated in the technical side of film-making. It’s not just about acting but it’s about behind the camera.

So in the end they chose them. I didn’t tell them to only hire women, they just chose the best people for that job. In the end it was quite nice to see, when there was a break in shooting, that there were both sexes equally represented. It was a good experience.

So the film was released in February. How did it do locally?

It was interesting because when it’s an original script there are no expectations based on a book or a sequel. This story is quite hard to market as it isn’t a pure comedy. I knew that the main audience would be women adults, so how do you make the marketing so it is commercial?

Overall, we found our audience mostly through word of mouth. Our Facebook and social media networks were full of comments of people saying things like “I liked it!” and “go and see it!” and people really went to see it. Some people went to see it twice or even three times. The distributor was really happy because they didn’t know what to expect from this film and they didn’t know who their audience would be. It was a female-driven audience and what was delightful was that teenagers found it, so it wasn’t just mothers. The comedy side was really popular with teenagers.

Comedy seems to be quite popular in Finland at the moment. What’s making the Finns fall in love with comedy?

Well Reunion has been one of our biggest hits and that is just pure comedy, but a lot of our comedies do have these serious themes behind them.

I think we rarely make comedies, actually. It’s not what Finnish film is mostly about, we tend to stick to serious dramas. So when a comedy is released it’s quite a special thing and I think it’s not so that it’s necessarily planned: we shall make more comedies!

Finnish audiences like comedies and they like to see their lives up on screen. I think we have noticed that with comedy you can tell many stories, perhaps more than in serious drama.

Emma Vestrheim

Emma Vestrheim is the editor-in-chief of Cinema Scandinavia. Originally from Australia, she is now based in Bergen, Norway, and attends major Nordic film festivals to conduct interviews and review new films.