Alli Haapasalo is a Finnish writer and director who is passionate about telling strong female-driven stories. Her feature debut Love and Fury was out in 2016 and her second, 2019’s Force of Habit, was nominated for several Jussi Awards (Finnish Film Awards) and won the Nordisk Film Award in 2020.
Her latest feature, Girl Picture, screened online at this year’s Sundance Film Festival in January, where it won the Audience Award in the World Dramatic Competition. The film centres around three strong female Finnish teenagers and their lives over the course of three consecutive Fridays.
Ahead of its release in Finland in April, Alex interviewed Alli about the making of Girl Picture.
Nordic Watchlist: Let’s talk about your cast first – Aamu Milonoff (Mimmi), Eleonoora Kauhanen (Ronkko), and Linnea Leino (Emma) – the girls put in such a fantastic performance that feels so natural, and their chemistry is incredible. Where did you discover them and how easy was it for you to cast them in their roles?
Alli Haapasalo: I knew the film would live or die with the three leads, so I gave myself a lot of time and took it really slowly. We started with an open call and moved on from self tapes to auditions to call backs. I wasn’t just looking for three talented and charismatic individuals, but really I was looking for a band that would play together seamlessly. After a three month casting process the decisions were easy, as I was totally sure that these three amazing women were the right choices. They all embraced the opportunity of a long rehearsal process, where we built the characters and a mutual trust. It was a very committed and collaborative process.
NW: The film encapsulates a more modern era of girlhood – how did you and the creative team behind the film bring that to life? What were some of the most important factors you wanted to convey through your three characters?
AH: Like the film’s title suggests, at simplest, we wanted to paint a picture of girls, specifically teenage girls. What I mean is that it was important to not have to “earn” the right to tell a story about teenage girls by making them something more dramatic – we didn’t want girls to have to carry any labels we are used to attaching to girl characters, but instead concentrate on a more intimate portrait of simply girls as human beings.
In a way, the whole film is saying: this is a fragment of the lives of these girls – nothing more, nothing less – and that is meaningful. We were also tired of stories of women as objects and women as victims. I’m definitely not saying that we shouldn’t deal with trauma in film as well. But with this film, it was important for us to allow the characters to be who they are, without ever facing any belittling, shaming, patronising or actual danger. We wanted girls to take centre stage on their own terms – and not just in regard to the story, but also in regard to the way the film looks at them.
It was important to avoid a nostalgic, adult, masculine or aestheticized lens. The same goes for the treatment of sexuality, which is a big theme in the story. On one hand, we wanted to show desire as a beautiful, natural yet also complex thing, for which the girls are never punished. And on the other hand, we of course didn’t want to look at the girls through a sexualised lens. In one word I’d say that we wanted to convey respect for girls.
NW: Talk to us about the colour used in the film and the decision behind shooting it in a 4:3 frame?
AH: When my creative team got together for the first time to start off the artistic process, I asked everyone, if they had intuitively imagined specific colors while reading the screenplay. They all had seen an array of Finnish winter pastels – pinks, magentas, blues, cyans. So very organically our base became the colors of the bleak winter light. Of course winter days are very short in Finland, so you will have a lot of darkness and artificial lighting. Building on that cool winter palette, we added the warmth of tungstens, sodiums and coloured lights, surrounded by the velvety darkness of the night. As the story takes place on three consecutive Fridays, we repeated the pattern of going from the bleak day to the velvety night on each Friday. This light and colour repetition really gave the film its backbone.
Shooting in a 4:3 frame was DP Jarmo Kiuru’s suggestion. For a second I thought the idea was crazy, but then instantly realised that it was in fact genius. The 4:3 frame allowed us to frame for the girls in a wonderfully respectful way. It’s almost like a portrait frame, giving more emphasis to the character than to their surroundings. It’s also a very intimate frame, and if you want to see two people in frame, they need to be quite close to each other.
NW: The Moomin mug discussion is a classic standout scene – was this something that has been on your mind and had to share?
AH: It wasn’t! But it became something I had to constantly explain to people! Screenwriters Ilona Ahti and Daniela Hakulinen had written the scene quite early on in the writing process, and throughout scrip development everyone loved the scene. But then in casting I suddenly discovered, that the 20-somethings of today had no idea what Rönkkö is talking about. They had never heard of the Moomin mug method! In my youth, 20 years ago, this was a widely used terms for home insemination – everyone knew it. So I found myself explaining it to all these young people, who looked at me like I was a hundred years old. It wasn’t exactly as awkward and funny as Rönkkö’s scene in the film, but still pretty hilarious.
NW: The film has had some comparisons to the brilliant 2020 movie ‘Booksmart’ do you feel that this is a good comparison and a compliment to Girl Picture?
AH: Oh it’s definitely a compliment. I loved the very positive depiction of female friendship in Booksmart. Many films uphold a strange idea of women being terrible friends to other women, but in Booksmart the girls support each other so beautifully. That inspired us, as we also wanted no animosity between Mimmi and Rönkkö. Of course the films are totally different, but there are two concrete points of contact: in both films, there is a very awkward puke scene, and both films also feature Perfume Genius’s song Slip Away. The puke we knew about, but the Perfume Genius song we hadn’t realised before some American reviewers pointed it out.
NW: You started the year off at Sundance Festival, where the film was greatly received – where are you taking the film next?
AH: Girl Picture is the opening night film at BFI Flare Film Festival in London this March. We are all so excited about that! BFI Flare is the longest running and largest LGBTQIA+ film festival in Europe, and I have heard great things about the audiences and atmosphere there. So I really look forward to having a conversation with the new audiences about the film.
Girl Picture has its premiere in the UK tomorrow at BFI Flare Film Festival
Interview by Alex Minnis