Interview with the director of Finland’s first “Open Film”

Night Goes Long’s open film set

Night Goes Long, which premiers today (Sept. 25th) at the Helsinki International Film Festival, is not your typical film. From start to finish, the film was shot in 48 days as an “open film,” meaning that the general public could participate in the filmmaking process and the filming process was in turn openly accessible. Using social media and the 48-day film website (plus the occasional drone), members of the public were called upon to get involved by scouting locations around the Helsinki through photos on Instagram, commenting on the script online, attending an underground techno party that served as a scene in the film, editing the film trailer, and more.

The concept was conceived of by a Finnish early-career independent filmmaking duo, Vesa Kuosmanen and Henri Huttunen. The film’s plot is based loosely on the magical realism of Antoine St.-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, which entered into the public domain this year, with an urban twist. The directors have referred to the film as a “love song to Helsinki.” They enlisted hot local musicians (with live performances from Finnish rapper Paperi T and the ethereal Manna) and shot in locations all around the city to capture the spirit of this northern capital.

So is this concept madness or a new era of open art? I had the opportunity to interview one of the co-directors, Vesa, in a very honest conversation ranging from what is was like to make an open film to the essence of artistic freedom to the future of filmmaking. Sitting in Rupla, a café / art gallery / vintage shop in Helsinki’s Kallio neighborhood, surrounded by the vibrant colors of the paintings in Night Goes Long leading lady Manuela Bosco’s first art opening, it seemed like the appropriate place to conduct an interview about a project meant to foster the creation of art by and for the people of Helsinki.

Vesa Kuosmanen sitting amidst Manuela Bosco’s paintings at Rupla

Molly: How did you come up with the idea to make an open film?

Vesa: I think the idea originally started with the thought that people should have the chance to make films with complete artistic freedom, whereas traditionally in Finland you need the approval of the film and TV distribution channels and the Finnish Film Foundation. I have been thinking about how to do Uneton48 [a 48-hour open film competition] as a feature film, and thinking that setting a time restriction of 48 days might not be a restriction but freedom. I wanted to welcome a community of filmmakers to take part of the process. Opening the process as much as possible seemed the best way to get people involved and give them that freedom. It was also a way of promoting free and open filmmaking.

M: What does it mean, in your opinion, to make an open film? What are the main characteristics that distinguish open art from other kinds of art?

V: For us, it has been that people actually have a chance to participate. People have been able to read the script, comment on it, there have been people with little or no experience filmmaking who just popped in our office and asked to take part in the project, and they have been involved for a day or the whole process as location assistants or part of the lighting group.

It has been a super interesting group of people that have made the film what it is. It creates an element of surprise that gives it a certain vibe and energy that you can see on the screen. It might be that or the tight schedule or the craziness of the process. We were thinking when we were mastering it the other day, what film does this resemble? None of us can think of one film. Even if it turns out to be shit, at least it’s unique shit.

You should always keep the set open because that element really makes it special. It mixes art and education. I’m interested in seeing how many people for whom this has been their first feature film (which is over half the crew), will be recreating the industry in 10 years. I want to see how much of this model they take with them when shaping their own careers and ambitions.

Openness here of course means transparency, but it also means giving people the chance to be part of the process.

One good thing about this is that it has people with vastly different experience levels, like the most well-known DOP [director of photography] and composer in Finland along with kids in high school, are all working together. It is top-notch professionals and high school kids together making this film.

The cast and crew of Night Goes Long on set at Ihana Kahvila

M: What worked particularly well throughout this project? What didn’t? What would you do differently next time?

V: What worked well was that people were able to take part of it: we got lots of cast, lots of crew, composers, through the open process. The quality that has come to us has been super great. I’ve been really happy about how well our professionals, like the heads of the department who head the artistic work, have been able to maintain complete artistic freedom, but have also had the patience and taken the time to teach people who are new to filming what to do.

In terms of what didn’t work well, due to distribution deals and bad agreements we haven’t been able to publish as much of our source material and footage as we would have wanted. We also didn’t realize how many resources it would take to use and distrubite footage openly. That kind of transparency has been lacking. Simple things like call sheets and personal blogs have made the openness work well, but there hasn’t been much structure, which is something we’d like to improve. Timeline wise, we needed more time to actually implement people’s feedback on the script .

The internet is good for sharing, but you should set time to meet with people face-to-face to get more meaningful involvement. The level of giving feedback online has been quite hard, whereas by having a chat when I run into people randomly in the cafeteria I’ve gotten really good feedback. 11 minutes of the film (or something like that, for example all of our aerial shots) has been shot by second units who got involved with us online by asking to shoot something, but we should have more time to meet with people face-to-face rather than relying on online. When doing art you need that personal touch.

M: Obviously the filmmaking process for Night Goes Long was experimental and unique. Was the process or the final product more important to you?

V: That’s always the question when you talk about art. Does a good process make a good piece of art? I personally believe that the process needs to be inspirational, not necessarily enjoyable, but it needs to be a good process to be able to give birth to something inspirational. This is a classical question, especially for theater and filmmaking. You create art for the vibes it gives, what it gives to the future. I don’t think that the end goal justifies the means. I think that good means and good intentions often lead to a good piece of art. Especially in a film process like this, because we’ve had complete freedom to choose. Time has been a limitation but it has given with it other freedoms in the production. Mostly we’ve been able to work with the people we want to, doing things how we want to. As a result of that we have a great film, or a unique film. Or at least a film.

M: How do you think the process affected the final product?

V: I think the process made the final product surprising because there’s a really strict form for how film is supposed to be, at least in the industrial way of filmmaking. But I think we needed to embrace the changes in the world, and we needed to be able to make quick decisions, to work as an independent group, to make script changes every day, to always have new characters coming, embracing that, letting it breath.

Film is such a big budget thing. If you invest a million euros in a film you want to know exactly what the end product will be by authorizing the script, for example. People want to know, if this is what we paid for this is what we get. Whereas we didn’t have money, we had the freedom to change something dramatically on set.

We have made the film more, well, surprising, something that doesn’t quite fit into the categories that have been made before. I’m not saying that that is automatically a positive quality, but it portrays the views of the people on the crew. What is good about this process is the quickness of it, the things you feel most strongly about in the moment (whereas the average time it takes to make a film is 5 years).

This film looks and feels exactly how we see the world at the moment. In a sense the process made it honest to the makers of the film.

M: Do you think this type of project could have been completed without the use of new technologies? Which tools did you find the most useful?

V: The internet technologies and online community made it definitely easier to gather the community around us and get people involved because obviously there were lots of people who we didn’t know before. Through social media lots of people got interested in the film project and it grew bigger over the 48 days. We got rental cars, better sound studios, shops catered food, people volunteered their time, because people have heard of it through social media and got in touch asking to get involved. We have some shots that were shot outside Helsinki from people we haven’t even met because they sent it through internet.

The crowdfunding platform [Mesenaatti] was useful. For aerial shots, lighter camera equipment made it possible to give pretty good air shots of Helsinki using drones. For the location scouting, Instagram worked well. That was super useful. Instagram worked well for the open casting as well. It was so much easier to see 15 seconds of video of someone rather than seeing a picture. You get a hint of personality and it’s super quick. Social media was super useful for finding extras for our scenes, mostly through Facebook.

M: With pushes in many areas of society toward openness, (sometimes radical) transparency, and audience participation, what are your thoughts about the role of the director in filmmaking today? Is the auteur model, with a powerful visionary director shaping every aspect of the film, still viable today?

V: I’m sure it’s still viable, and for some people it’s working. We’re actually launching and using a new term through this project: we call it ensemble cinema. It’s not the vision of one person, but kind of the collective consciousness of the artistic group. For a project like this I think it should always start by collecting people that you enjoy working with, and then you start working together. The process is quick, so the people working on it can reflect a notion of the world at this particular time that you want to share with the world. We came up with shared acknowledgment of what we wanted to say as a group that we want to share through this project.

M: Do you think that some of your open filming process would transfer well to other kinds of artistic media?

V: I would think so. Different site-specific art, like theater definitely, and more kinds of festival things, like living room festivals and different district festivals would work. Any representative art could use it.

I think film in its nature involves a kind of teamwork with a big team with lots of resources needed, and as well it’s a digital copy that stays with us and lives forever, so it fits perfectly. This could definitely be used to create albums, or sound worlds, or theater pieces, where people can add in their own knowledge banks and ways of doing things.

The public feedback system creates an atmosphere where you’re proud of what you do and you want to share it and you are open to take critical comments and you try to use criticism to create the best art possible without feeling shy about it. We saw that we can take this community to help us, and we want to show that attitude and hopefully make it easier for other artists to embrace it as well and help them to create better art.