Interview | Alma Pöysti and Jussi Vatanen discuss Fallen Leaves

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With Aki Kaurismäki’s new film Fallen Leaves hitting cinemas, we chat to its stars, Alma Pöysti and Jussi Vatanen. 

Aki Kaurismäki’s Fallen Leaves has stunned global audiences ever since its debut at the 2023 edition of Cannes Film Festival. It speaks of loneliness and love, of finding connection, andhas resonated with people in every corner of the world. Fallen Leaves fits neatly into the Finnish auteur’s filmography, exploring similar themes as Kaurismäki’s previous films such as The Man Without A Past and The Match Factory Girl. 

Fallen Leaves, however, represents Kaurismäki at his most romantic and playful. The film tells the story of two lonely souls in Helsinki, Holappa and Ansa, who against all odds find solace in each other while the world around them seems to be crumbling. The radio in Ansa’s kitchen is on a constant loop of coverage from the ongoing war in Ukraine and Holappa, a lonely alcoholic, seems to be hanging on by a thread. 

As the film emerges in UK cinemas, we speak to its two stars, Alma Pöysti and Jussi Vatanen, about representing Finland and working with such a respected auteur. 

Fallen Leaves has been a huge success all over the world. How does it feel? 

Alma Pöysti: Amazing! (Laughs)

Jussi Vatanen: It’s been great, it’s been fun to see how well the film has been received everywhere we’ve been. It’s been a lot of fun and very easy, ever since Cannes. We don’t have to do anything but show up, which is nice!

AP: The film really seems to speak to people. We’re thankful that the film has touched people and it gives them hope and warmth during these difficult times. We need films like this. 

fallen leaves ansa holappa
Credit: MUBI

Aki Kaurismäki is arguably the most famous Finnish film director and we’ve very much grown up with his films, so what’s your first memory of watching a Kaurismäki film? 

AP: I remember seeing The Man Without A Past in a cinema, which was really impressive. That was the first one I’ve seen in a cinema for sure. It’s a generational thing I think, the earlier films have been on TV before that, but that was a special experience. 

JV: As you said, we grew up under Kaurismäki’s influence. It’s wild how big his influence has been and how long he has acted as an ambassador for all things Finnish, although he certainly won’t see it like that. I can’t remember which film was the first one of his I’ve seen, but I’ve always found it funny that his films use a specific language and phrases that have become common expressions that people use. We might not even completely understand just how big his influence has been, on many levels. 

AP: His films are available to stream on Yle Areena [a Finnish equivalent of the BBC iPlayer] so it’s been really easy to access, which was an amazing resource when I got the part in Fallen Leaves and I could rewatch all his films. It was a gift. Like Aki says himself, his films are made for people to watch them, he makes films for an audience.

Read more: Fallen Leaves review | Kaurismäki applies his minimalist approach to love

Finland produces an incredible amount of films each year, what’s the overall mood of the industry now? Is AI as big of a concern as it is in Hollywood, for example? Even though Finland rarely makes big, CGI-heavy films!

AP: It’s a big deal. I’m sure AI will land in Finland as well, we’re a pretty tech-savvy country! These are really important conversations and it’s important that we protect our rights and have some regulation, but it’s also a bit of an unknown still. We’ll have to wait and see, technology is advancing so fast, but the concerns are definitely valid. At the same time, I’m not worried because you can see and feel when something has been produced without a human touch, it lacks a soul and it doesn’t resonate. 

The dialogue in Fallen Leaves can be quite a challenge for non-Finnish audiences, especially the rhythm of it. Is it challenging to perform? 

JV: It’s very carefully constructed and formal, I don’t know many people who speak like that. But then again, I’ve had to perform a lot of different styles of dialogue during my career and there’s nothing different about it in that sense. 

AP: It’s very clean and clear. 

JV: Yes, and Aki’s writing is very complete. I wouldn’t think of changing it, it’s honed to perfection. All the lines are like gifts. 

Were there a lot of rehearsals? Or was the clarity of Aki’s writing you mentioned helpful in that sense? 

JV: Aki actually told us not to rehearse. 

AP: We didn’t rehearse at all! Of course, we had to memorise lines, but otherwise, Aki’s artistic vision is that it should be in the moment and we shouldn’t break it or wear the moment down with rehearsals. If we get it in one take without rehearsals, we have something valuable. It’s very challenging and scary, but once I understood it, it became really rewarding. 

The characters felt very familiar to me. Did you feel like you knew Holappa and Ansa from your own lives? 

JV: Sure, from my life, but also from the world that Aki has created [in his films]. They’re very recognisable characters from the Aki Kaurismäki Cinematic Universe. They felt very familiar. Holappa had some qualities that I recognised from myself and from Finns in general, like that specific sense of shyness and stubbornness, pride and prudence. 

AP: Like Jussi said, we didn’t have to add anything to Aki’s writing. It was all there, on the page. As long as you learn to read it in the right way, you have all the clues to your character, like how Ansa works or how she reacts to an electric bill, it tells you so much about her. It tells you everything you need to know. 

fallen leaves jussi vatanen
Credit: MUBI

You started this journey in Cannes, you’ve been around the world and now you’re here in London. What kind of an image of Finland does the film give to the world? 

JV: A lot of non-Finns wonder, is this really Finland? Is this an accurate description of Finland? It’s not. 

AP: It’s a fairytale. Obviously, we’ve got smartphones and technology, so it’s not like time has stopped in Finland, but there’s something very quintessentially Finnish about Fallen Leaves, like the silence. You don’t see that often, that rich, very Finnish silence. That felt real to me. 

JV: That’s what I came up with when someone asked me to summarise the Finnish-ness of the film. I think we’re very good at withstanding silence. We’re better at it than others, we don’t always need to talk, we can be quiet and in fact, it can be a sign of trust and camaraderie. It’s very Finnish. 

Globally, Finland is known as this uber-happy country but the film has a lot of tragic elements. Does Fallen Leaves also challenge that view of us that the world has? 

JV: Probably. That’s a constant theme in Aki’s films. The film is part of his Proletariat series and really fits into that world. Finland has so many shades, happy and tragic. 

AP: There’s so much hope in the film. Life is complicated, challenging and lonely sometimes. Aki is so honest about all of it. 

Fallen Leaves BTS (1)
Credit: MUBI

Acting in an Aki Kaurismäki film must be such a dream come true for any Finnish actor. What did you learn from the experience? What will you take to future projects? 

JV: It was definitely a dream I didn’t even dare to dream. I learned that you can combine tragedy and comedy, but you have to also be sincere and genuine. 

AP: It was such a cleansing experience, in many ways. I learned how little you sometimes need to do to tell a lot and how much life there is in a minimalist film. 

Fallen Leaves is in cinemas on 1st December. 

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