A freewheeling chat with Paavo Westerberg

Actor, writer, director Paavo Westerberg talks to Ramchander about film, art, emotionally honest storytelling; allowing us to get acquainted with his unique perspective.

20 min read

Paavo Westerberg is an award-winning screenwriter, playwright, theatre and film director and actor. Westerberg has worked as a screenwriter for the feature films Princess [Prinsessa, 2010], Frozen City [Valkoinen Kaupunki, 2006] and Frozen Land [Paha Maa, 2005], as well as for the television drama Fragments [Irtiottoja, 2003]. Paavo Westerberg has won the Jussi Award for the Best Script in 2007 and 2006 for the films Frozen City and Frozen Land. Westerberg also wrote and directed the television drama Latent Heat [Jälkilämpö, 2010], which was nominated for the Prix Italia Award. Westerberg is a resident playwright at the Finnish National Theatre and he has written and directed almost 20 plays. Westerberg graduated in 2000 with a Master’s Degree in Theatre Arts and currently lives in Helsinki. The Violin Player [Viulisti, 2018] is his debut feature film as a film director. He was in Singapore for its screening as part of the European Union Film Festival 2018.

Paavo began his career as a child actor. While speaking at a lunch gathering in the Finnish ambassador’s residence, he mentioned that he does a short cameo in Viulisti too. “There’s a little Hitchcock in there!” he said, with a glint in his eyes.

“I want to touch people through my films and maybe even change them,” he added. And that’s exactly what happened after a screening of Viulisti at the National Gallery. Viulisti is the journey of Karin, a celebrated violin player who injured her arm in a car accident and loses the ability to play the instrument she loves. Her life intersects with Antti, an ambitious violin student who’s twenty years younger, and she falls in love with him.

Many members of the audience were deeply moved by the film and were bubbling with questions after the screening. There were questions about the symbolism behind certain shots and the climax, whether the actors had a musical background and why Mendelssohn’s composition was chosen as a prominent piece in the film. Paavo replied, “It fit the story. There are not many concertos in which a solo violin starts in the beginning. The fall of the song is quite recognizable and it’s short.” Paavo himself has played the piano for 7 years and then learnt to play the drums. He revealed that Viulisti‘s screenwriter (Emmi Pesonen) wrote 8 drafts of the script, after which he wrote two more before arriving at the final shooting script. The protagonist in the first draft was male but in subsequent drafts it became a woman (Karin).

Paavo also mentioned how he worked on Viulisti‘s edit in a countryside house and drove back home each day, immersed in thoughts about the film. One day while driving back after editing a particular scene he felt Karin’s pain inside him and broke down. He spoke with the same intensity and passion when Ram caught up with him for a chat on two separate occasions, one at the residence of the Finnish ambassador after a buffet lunch and the other outside a bar in Havelock Road.

Some images from behind the scenes of Viulisti:

Photo: Malla Hukkanen | From left to right: Actors Olavi Uusivirta, Kim Bodnia, director Paavo Westerberg and actor Matleena Kuusniemi
Photo: Malla Hukkanen

The following is an edited version of two conversations, in which Paavo opens up about his journey as an artist, writing for different mediums, his inspirations and how an artist needs to dig out rather than invent.

Ram: I’ll start with your journey as an artist. You mentioned that you started as an actor at the age of 7. Which did you fall in love with first—theatre or cinema?

PW: Hmm, very good question. I think one of the most important chapters in an artist’s life is the first strong artistic experiences that he has, especially as a child. For me, I have a few. One was when I was a four year old. It was winter time. I went with my mother to the cinemas. An old film was showing. For some reason, it had come to theatres in Helsinki again. It was Charlie Chaplin’s film The Kid. I saw it, and when the film ended, we went out, to one of the biggest streets in Helsinki called Mannerheimintie—Mannerheim was one of our presidents during the Second World War. He was a big character in the war—Anyway, I was walking on that street with my mother, and I felt totally different than before, because of the film I’d just seen. I was very confused because something had happened in my soul and body, and since then I have carried it with me. That experience when I was four years old, that was the beginning of my cinematic journey.

I had a similar experience, a little bit later, in theatre. I saw Uncle Vanya in Helsinki City Theatre. Near the end of the play, there is this character Sonya, who cries to Uncle Vanya about how miserable life is. Even though she can see how miserable her uncle is, she still wants to believe in God, she still has some hope. She feels that we will see the beauty of life after we die. But before that, we just need to live—there is a famous monologue at the end. Of course, I was so young, I didn’t totally understand what she was talking about, I wasn’t aware who Anton Chekhov was. I just saw the play, and I felt this character that was crying, this beautiful character Sonya. I felt sorry for her, but I also felt that I would like to be her. I remember thinking I would like to be there in her position, crying and finding myself, finding the truth. I think that Sonya was trying to find her own truth.

Those two moments have been the most powerful artistic experiences of my childhood, as the audience. There are some other experiences as well, but those experiences are ones that I still go back to. As a filmmaker or as a playwright, I keep returning to those experiences. I try to capture the emotional connection I had with Chaplin and Chekhov.

Photo: Ilkka Saastamoinen

Ram: I see. So did you start out by writing for plays, or the screen?

PW: I started as a child actor when I was seven. I also did theatre and radio plays, a lot of television and films. So I had a career as a child. I did one TV series when I was twelve, which became very popular in my country. And again when I was sixteen, we did another TV show, which was even more popular—after that, I couldn’t go outside! Two million people watched it every week. It took my freedom for few years, so to say.

After that, I went to the Theatre Academy in Finland and I started to study acting. But then, after two years of studying acting, I realised I don’t have any more dreams as an actor, because of my background. I also started to be more interested in the whole process of making a play.

I went to my professor and said I want to start directing and writing. Back then, our school was very flexible. So I started to go for directing and writing classes. I wrote three plays when I was studying, and also directed a few. After that, I was asked to act in a TV series. It so happened that a friend of mine had read the plays I had written back when I was in the Theatre Academy, and he liked my writing. He recommended me to a director, that I could be a good writer for a TV series that he was going to make. I wrote one episode, kind of a pilot, and they loved it. They asked me to write all the twelve episodes.

That was my break—as a scriptwriter for the TV series Fragments, in the beginning of 2000. After that, I wrote two feature films—Frozen Land and Frozen City. Those were very popular films in Finland, critics loved them too. Frozen Land was sold in 27 countries around the world. So, it was kind of a huge start for me as a scriptwriter.

After those films, I found that I wanted to go back to theatre. I was missing it. I wrote my first play in 2006, for National Theatre in Helsinki. It was also very successful. They asked me to do more, and later they asked me to be Resident Playwright at the Finnish National Theatre. So, after that, I have written eight plays—I have directed them all. I have also directed classical plays by Arthur Miller, Anton Chekhov, Shakespeare, Molière, Ibsen… In 2010, I wrote and directed a TV series Latent Heat, which was an important step for me—it was nominated for the Prix Italia Award.

Ram: You’ve written a video game (High Seize) as well…

PW: Yes yes, that was very interesting! I did it back when Nokia was still big. They had invented this phone called N-Gage, which was kind of a phone and a gaming console. They had a huge budget, and it was a pirate game. I was over thirty years old then, and I worked with twenty year old guys on the game (laughs). When I went to their office, they were all drinking Coca-Cola and eating chips and playing games. They didn’t have shoes on… I was very confused. But it was a lovely project!

Anyway, there was a good response to my TV series from critics and audiences. And so I started work on what would be my first feature film, The Violin Player. We started to develop it five years ago. Nowadays, I am developing my own projects, as a director and writer—I have my own production company. I am also developing projects of other directors and writers. And I’m continuing to work in theatre.

Ram: What do you think is the most striking difference in writing for these various mediums?

PW: A film is a story told through images, and a play is a story told through words. As a writer, you have to understand this fundamental difference. On a practical level, in theatre, you can invent anything you like. For instance, you can say “Jesus Christ, there is a big monster coming!” or “Hundred horses!” and they don’t cost anything. You just need one actor and one light. In cinema, those horses and explosions and pirate ships cost a lot. In film, it is often a question of what you can afford, what is possible, especially in smaller countries, in languages not spoken by many people. The audience is already limited, the budgets are limited as well.

Artistically, the heart of these two mediums is the same—you tell stories, you try to tell something about the world right now, what bothers you, you want to be honest about how you see human beings and life and society. I try to find something that really bothers me, or something that I don’t understand—why is something the way it is? As a director, if you work with material that’s not yours—be it a classical play or something new—I try to read the material emotionally, to find the core of the material. If you don’t find it at the beginning, you won’t find it during the process either. The intuition is very important here! For television—it’s different from cinema. Fifteen years ago, when I first started working in television, I found it to be linear. There was a week between episodes.

But the difference between these mediums is mainly dramaturgical—by that, I mean the way you tell your story. A two hour film, or a three hour play with an interval, or a one hour episode—these are all different. For instance, this TV series about a guy who starts to cook methamphetamine–what was it called?

Ram: Breaking Bad?

PW: Yes, Breaking Bad. In that series, the makers had already understood that the way we watch television has changed. So they found that people watch approximately three and a half episodes in a row. That is the most common way to watch television shows nowadays. So they made their dramaturgic choices based on that. That’s why the main characters change very slowly. If you look at the entire arc of the main character, he changes a lot. But the change is slow. It’s almost like a novel. You don’t need to have a cliffhanger in every episode—I mean, you still need to, but not like before when you had one week in between episodes. I think the ways we watch media has changed, and so the ways of making media have changed.

The game industry…the most interesting thing about that project was that, we had multiple versions of the story. It is something that you are rarely doing in theatre or cinema. Well, theatre is one of the oldest art forms we have and cinema is one of the newest. Because it’s a linear art form, you need to be aware of so many things as a storyteller. Even though we have many different ways to do it now, the way we deal with time is similar. The game industry works with time in a totally different way—you can spend hundreds of hours with the same story. It was very cool!

Ram: Do you remember how many versions of the story you had?

PW: For the game…I can’t remember. But I think there were at least a hundred, if you count the different characters. The endings were more or less the same, but how do you reach these endings? There were many paths and subplots.

Photo: Ilkka Saastamoinen

Ram: A hundred! … I want to ask you about the current film scenario in Finland. The trends, what you like and don’t like about it.

PW: I feel we have a very strong film culture right now. It’s getting stronger all the time. We have many great artists working in cinema, great actors and directors. What we’re missing, I think, is scriptwriting. On the other hand, we have a strong playwriting scene. It’s the exact opposite of Denmark, where they have a very strong writing scene for television and cinema, but not that many playwrights.

For example, I’m writing a play right now, for the big stage at the National Theatre. If you go to Denmark, what is going on in the big stage is mostly musicals. Or take America, the best writers want to go into television. I hope in the future, we are able to make our cinema scene so attractive for writers that they want to come. But the competition is hard, there are many great writers who haven’t had opportunities yet, for their material to be produced.

When I look at what we have produced in our country, I hope and believe that in the future we can have even more variation, in the kind of films we make. We make around 30 films in a year—some years, it’s more—it’s understandable that there is a lot of competition. It would be interesting to see more variation in themes, stories, characters, more of local culture…

Ram: Which filmmakers from Finland have inspired you?

PW: Hmm…well, there are a lot of great filmmakers in Finland. I grew up watching European, American, and Russian films. So most of my influences come from there. I think of myself as more of a European director, rather than a Finnish director. That doesn’t mean I don’t have a strong connection to Finland and Finnish, I do. When I write a play, I write it in Finnish.

But with cinema…images are more universal. It might be something to do with that.

Ram: I want to understand your perspectives on cinema. Which films do you think have defined the way you look at cinema?

PW: Let me see…from what point of view I want to look at that question. I have loved movies since I was a little child. I have seen 1000s of films. I have a film library at home—about 2000 films.

As a human being, many films have inspired me.

It’s very hard for me to say what films have affected me as a filmmaker. Because as a filmmaker you try to get inspiration from so many things. Film is a very unique art form—it combines the art forms of photography, music, theatre, literature, painting. As a filmmaker, I can be inspired by other films, and I am. But often, when I am developing a project—film or theatre, I use different art forms as inspiration. I think of filmmakers as artists.

It’s easier for me to name directors who have inspired me. It’s a wide scale. Like Robert Benton, Darren Aronofsky, Asghar Farhadi, Alejandro Iñárritu—especially his first three films. Also Spielberg, Kieslowski, Tarkovsky, Ingmar Bergman—very special to me. And Chaplin, Ruben Östlund—if I’m thinking of newer talents. Scorsese…there are many. If I’m thinking of one filmmaker, mostly how he deals with directing as a profession, is Sidney Lumet. He had written a book, Making Movies. I’m very curious….or what do you call it, interested in many things?

Ram: Eclectic?

PW: No, another word. I’ll tell you… I’m enthusiastic, yes. About films and filmmakers. For me, making films is a lifetime process of studying cinema.

There are many films that are close to my heart. Like Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid, which I mentioned earlier. There are several films America made in the 70s that have influenced me. Kieslowski in the 80s… He made a TV series Dekalog—it’s ten episodes, I don’t know if you’ve seen it—one of the most beautiful TV shows ever made. Very well written.

Since I’m very interested in writing, there are many playwrights who have inspired me as a filmmaker. If you think about cinema as a tool to tell stories with, there are many good playwrights who do this with depth.

I’ve told you that I sometimes borrow from theatre for my films, and vice versa. A very practical thing I’ve borrowed from theatre to film is… In my country, film people are not that interested in analysing their films through the lens of themes or complexity of themes—I don’t know how it is in other countries. If you take a play, even the best plays ever written, what you read is only the tip of the iceberg. There is so much more underneath. In theatre, we are used to working with the layers that are not seen—the stuff beneath the tip so to say. But many times, in films, since we work with images, people are more focussed on that which can be seen. As a filmmaker, I feel you need to focus on what is seen and what is not. I’m not talking about the subtext of a scene or characters. I’m talking about the subtext of the story, of themes—which we are very familiar with in theatre. When people are watching something, they are following the story, they may be touched or moved by what they see. But afterwards, when they go home, they have a feeling that something has happened, something has changed in them. They may think “I’m a little bit different now than I was before.” They start to analyse, they connect the images they have seen to the society they live in—how they exist in their society, how they would like to be in society.

The most interesting piece of dialogue we can have is the unconscious dialogue that continuously takes place between the created work of art and each member of the audience. It’s very intimate, private, deep. It’s personal even when there are hundreds of people in the room at the same time. There is intimate dialogue, and collective dialogue, happening simultaneously. And there is another dialogue that goes on in your mind, as you think over the film. Sometimes it’s very hard to express these feelings in words. That’s why I think film journalism is one of the most difficult jobs! Because you need to put into words those feelings from your subconscious. A good film affects you, your body feels different. That is the power of art.

What I’ve learned in my career as a storyteller is that—if I’m not willing to go all the way, to be brave enough, to be honest, to open myself up as an artist, to be willing to allow my subconscious to influence my film—there is a danger that the film becomes flat. I need to be able to give the audience this complexity. A film can have this complexity and still be very easy and entertaining to watch—they are not opposites.

As a director, my job is to entertain the audience, so that they are willing to digest what I want to say. If they are bored, and not travelling with the film, I can’t deliver to them the heart of my film. It’s good to remember that we need to have all those layers in a film. You need to face your own fears and anxiety, your feelings of insecurity and artistic impotence, during filmmaking. You need this to be able to reach that honest space where the film becomes organic, a living entity by itself.

My biggest fear—in theatre and cinema—is what if my creation is not living? What if it dies? That’s why I try to keep the process alive. I try to help the other beautiful artists I work with, to keep that living process going. As a director, one of my responsibilities is the atmosphere. What kind of atmosphere do we have here, to create art? At what level of honesty can we all work? If I try to act like a better human being than I really am, then the honesty has already been compromised. I have learnt, and I am learning.

I like filmmakers who have a strong vision, and a truthful quality. I like it when they have their own signature—Lars von Trier for example. When I watch his films, I feel that it was absolutely necessary for him to make that film. And that it had to be made in the specific way he made it. He has that quality. But am I the biggest fan of Lars von Trier, do I like every film made by him? That’s not the point here. The point is that I can recognise if somebody has put everything of themselves into their film, and I can see his or her handwriting all over the film.

I want to do that too. I want to put everything into my film. The biggest compliment a film director can get is someone telling them, “I felt that it was completely your film, I saw you in that film.”

I don’t see any barriers between arthouse or entertaining films. I’m very inspired by Spielberg’s films. He’s so visual. The thing about Steven Spielberg is that, his way of thinking, his cinematic language happens to closely match the taste of the mainstream audience. But that doesn’t mean anything, he is truly an artist. Raiders of the Lost Ark—is it not art?

Take Hitchcock. Truffaut went to America and wrote this book about Hitchcock, after that, Hitchcock was considered an artist. Before that, he was just an entertainer. Or think about Clint Eastwood—he started as an actor and then became a director. After Unforgiven, he has made some strong films, like Mystic River. Can you say what he’s done is not art?

That is why I love cinema. There are no barriers. It’s important for every director to find their own language and handwriting. That’s the kind of director I am inspired by, and that is the kind of director I hope to be. Stanley Kubrick for instance. Pedro Almodóvar. They don’t need to be big names though.

There are so many ways to make a film. A film can be so many different things. One important aspect is the writing—everything starts from there, and ends there as well. The film is after all, a linear concept. It is one movement. But all this is theory. Practically, a film is a very concrete thing, made of many parts. Sidney Lumet is very clear about this in his book. But at the same time, people have said that he’s the kind of director who has done everything. If you look very carefully though, at what he has done, I think that his handwriting is more invisible. I see it, and I love it, but it’s not that apparent. This also depends on what material you work with.

If you are working with the work of American playwrights, like he did, their plays are like food for the actors—their work is so strong. It has a strong voice. And you have cast very good actors. And then, as a director, you do your job so well, that you start to be invisible. People can see, hear, smell, taste the writing and the actors, but not the director so much. This is also a very beautiful way to make films. This doesn’t mean you don’t see the handwriting. This quality is now the handwriting. It’s just a different pen, or a different way of using the pen.

Take Aaron Sorkin, who I think is a very good writer. There was an interesting roundtable conversation—Darren Aronofsky and Aaron Sorkin spoke about screenwriting. Their methods are very different. Their films are also very different. But they had a great dialogue.

If you look at classical American playwrights like David Mamet—the language itself has a strong voice. Not just the cinematic language, but the way it is written even. This is common to both theatre and cinema.

Few years ago, two films came out. One was Locke—I don’t know if you have seen it, it’s the film in which the guy is driving a car during the whole film. There is story in there, but if you look at what happens in the film—one guy drives for two hours, making phone calls, talking. It’s just him, the other talking characters are radioplay. One week after that, I watched another film—All is Lost by Robert Redford, in which the main character is alone for the entire film, in a sailing boat. There is no dialogue in the film, except for the one time he says “Fuck.” These are both very different films, very good films in their own way. They are good examples of what writing can be, what we can do with cinema and storytelling. It can be talk-talk-talk or sail-sail-sail (laughs). There is no right or wrong.

Sean Penn is another great director—an American actor who has made beautiful films.

If you take Farhadi’s films—The Past is a good example, his second film—in a way, it was very theatrical, the way he used his dramaturgy. But at the same time, it was very visual, very cinematic. That’s interesting.

You make choices, you decide what kind of director you want to be for the material—visible or not.

I love to watch genre films as well. I have studied with many of these American screenwriting gurus—like Guillermo Arriaga, who was the screenwriter for Iñárritu’s first film. I think this quote is by him—“There is only one rule, there are no rules.” Another one I like is—“The hardest thing is knowing what to write.” The third favourite quote of mine is—“If it’s not on paper, it doesn’t exist.”

What I want to say here is, it’s not just the directors who inspire me, but also the writers. For example, when I think of screenwriters, Paul Schrader has inspired me a lot, especially when I was younger. He has a great method. Very often, in his films, the problem of the main character is the heart of the film. Taxi Driver is about loneliness, for example. Again, there is no right or wrong. What matters is how the audience sees the film, it doesn’t matter what kind of system you use.

I have always been interested in different techniques of filmmaking, writing, storytelling. Direction has a lot to do with dramaturgy. Actors are all different from each other. You need different tools to work with different actors. As a director, you need to have a big toolbox for all of these concerns.

There are so many levels to filmmaking. Framing for instance. It is a very big artistic decision. How you frame each shot, what lenses you use, the playing format—we used in The Violin Player 1.85:1 format. But then again, a lot of this depends on your material, your themes, what you’re hoping to say.

I always get so inspired by the masters, whom I mentioned earlier. They all have the skills you need as a film director. You also need to have a skill that is beyond analysis. Something intangible, that you cannot put words to. I think this is the most important thing that a filmmaker can have. How he or she sees the world—the worldview. What bothers him or her the most. You try to show something to the audience, in a way it hasn’t been shown before. At least, this is how I work—something bothers me and I start thinking about it, a theme then emerges, later I develop the story and characters.

Maybe Truffaut said this—“Everything you don’t light is dark.” You want to put a light on it, so that everyone can see it. To continue this metaphor, how you use your flashlight depends on your own story, your history, your worldview, your dreams, your hopes, your vision, how you view society. If you are honest in that process, you can show the audience something they haven’t seen before. Everyone I mentioned, they have these skills. And they are professionals! They are passionate artists, they are painters and poets. A film is everything—a painting, a poem.

Well, my father is a writer, actually a poet, that could be why I always have been very interested in writing. He has been one of my teachers in life. He always says that, “If you want to make a poem, you don’t have to make it, it already exists. You just need to dig it from the ground and find it. You don’t invent it.”

Somebody said that a film is made in the editing room. But I haven’t seen any director who has been able to edit or cut a shot in the editing room that they haven’t shot in the first place. The digging—in the context of making movies—means that you have to write, plan, shoot, edit, so on.

Darren Aronofsky said that most of the writers work this way—they work on their drafts, they don’t know how it will end. Aaron Sorkin, however, is very methodical, from what I understand. He makes plans and then executes those plans. But he also said that he has suffered all his life, from a writer’s block. This is kind of funny (laughs), because Sorkin’s work is so full of words.

There are things that you can analyse and break down, from a creative process point of view, a professional or filmmaking point of view. But I still maintain that the most important emotion is the one that makes you say, “I don’t know what it is, but I just love this film.” That is something you try to evoke as a filmmaker. You try to control and feed this emotion. And then you hope for happy accidents. Of course you create an environment for the happy accidents, but you have to wait. Sometimes, the film ends up becoming bigger than anyone imagined. A miracle. It doesn’t happen because we planned for it to happen. I am grateful when it happens, but there are some things you cannot control. Or you learn what to control, when to control. You learn this throughout your career. You keep learning about filmmaking itself, but also about yourself and your process.

In theatre, I have more experience, a longer career. I know almost exactly when I have highs or lows or periods of anxiety. So I am more okay with that process, I can go along with it.

As a filmmaker, I am most happy when I can work with other artists. The work itself is its reward. But when the miracle happens, I’m truly grateful!

About the interviewer

Ramchander is a freelance writer who’s written on cinema for Film Companion. Depending on his mood, he oscillates between Medium and Tumblr for blogging. On his desk you might find photos of Steve Jobs, Buddha, Isaac Asimov and Satyajit Ray.

Special thanks to Shirlene Noordin for arranging an interview session with Paavo after a lovely lunch at the residence of the Finnish ambassador in Singapore.

Cover image credit: Stefan Bremer

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