Aki Kaurismäki once claimed that he has directed half of his features sober and half of his features drunk, and so far nobody has been able to tell the difference. It's hard to know for sure how serious the director is being when he makes statements such as this, as everything he says is delivered in the same morose deadpan with the air of a man who is frankly tired of life. And yet, his new film Le Havre is one of his most endearingly optimistic pictures, as it tells the story of a shoe-shiner living in a French harbour town who befriends an African illegal immigrant and helps protect him from the authorities. Once again, the film is marked by the director's distinctive compositions and sly humour, and it strikes a lovely balance between the light and dark shades of his story. Kaurismäki was in London recently and I met him to talk about Le Havre.
How are you today?
Not good. I haven't had a drink or a smoke for two months.
Two months? Is that by choice?
Yeah, I was supposed to get organised. [lights cigarette] But not anymore, I guess.
You made a film in London twenty years ago with I Hired a Contract Killer. Have you ever thought of shooting here again since?
Sure, I will shoot anywhere. But the laboratories are bankrupt and so is Kodak, so why not me also?
Do you intend to stick with film, even as the whole of cinema seems to be going digital?
Yes, I will die with my boots on. I won't make a digital film in this life. Cinema is made from light and I don't even know what you call a filmmaker these days...maybe a pixelmaker, and I am a filmmaker not a pixelmaker. I wish them luck, not all of them but most of them.
You last made a film in France in 1992 with La Vie de Bohème. Have you had a strong desire to go back and film there over the past twenty years?
No, in fact I planned to shoot the story in Spain but I couldn't find a real harbour town there. Then I wanted to shoot in Marseille but it was too complicated to shoot there because the streets are so narrow. If I put my tracks there it would block the traffic, and it would take six hours to the location and six hours back, so which hours would I shoot? My logical mind told me it couldn't be done. I drove all over the coast of the Mediterranean and France and Le Havre was my last hope, but it was perfect.
Did you have the whole story in your head at this point or did you develop it when you found the right location?
The story was ready but I needed a town. I couldn't start writing without the right place to set it in.
Why did the subject of immigration attract you?
It's a shame, that's why. I am European and it is a shame for Europe that we have this kind of disgraceful situation going on all the time.
Immigration stories are often very dark but this one feels optimistic.
I can't help my natural optimism.
It's a good thing to have, some faith in humanity.
No, of humanity I know nothing.
I know in the past you have often had a happy ending and sad ending ready and have made a late decision about which one you will use.
Since I knew this question would come, I counted yesterday. It seems to be quite mathematical that every second film is either a happy ending or sad ending, but with Le Havre it was always a happy ending, always a fairytale. In fact with Le Havre I have two happy endings, which is something new, but don't tell the audience.
How different is it for you to write French or English characters instead of characters from Finland?
There is no difference; people are people. My eternal plan is always to make a film that a Chinese lady from the countryside can understand without subtitles.
You live in Portugal now, right? Have you considered making a film there?
No, never. I have been there 23 winters now and I still can't understand the way they think. They are not like the French or Spanish or English. It is an interesting country.
Is silent cinema a big influence on your work? I imagine Buster Keaton was someone who inspired you.
Yes, Keaton and Chaplin were the best of all time. Both of them. I particularly like the pale silence of Keaton.
He was someone who could express so much through his face alone. Is that something you ask of your actors?
The eyes talk, not the face. That would be overacting. If they don't smile or move their hands like a windmill, they are hired.
Jean-Pierre Darroussin is someone you haven't worked with before, but he seems an actor who is a perfect fit for your world.
Yes, he was lucky. That was his only chance to survive and have a career, with me. To be honest, I dislike overacting to the extreme that I don't allow acting at all.
So how do you work with your actors on set?
If needed, I will act in front of them, to show them how they should act. If that's not needed, I will just tell them "more" or "less," and it's usually less. Casting for me is hiring the right actors so normally I don't have to direct at all, which is good for a lazy man.
That's what Hitchcock used to say, "75% of directing is casting."
Is that what he said? I always thought it was my idea.
Going back to your point about making films that can be understood without subtitles, you made a silent film in 1999 with Juha. Now that The Artist is proving a big success, do you think that's something you might explore again?
No, I have done it already. I made the last silent film of the twentieth century and in fact I started this boom with the best possible film, so I don't need to make a silent film anymore.
I understand Le Havre is intended as the first part of a new trilogy.
Well, there are lots of plans in this life. I'm so lazy that I have to make these illusions of films in the future. It keeps my mind busy. I would like to say that this is my last film but it wouldn't be a fact because I'm too young to die.
You have been taking quite a long time out between your most recent films. Your last picture was Lights in the Dusk in 2006 and before that it was The Man Without a Past in 2002.
I used to be the fastest in the world. In the late 80's I made four films a year but as you get older you get slower. Even Jarmusch is faster than me now.
Do you find it harder to get money for your films these days or is the support always there if you want to make a film?
Money was never a problem, and if I couldn't get money I would make it without. Not having money is just an excuse for lazy people.
I did read that you and your brother are responsible for one fifth of all Finnish movies over the past thirty years.
Nowadays I think it's more like one quarter.
What is the film culture like in Finland? Is it a big cinephile country?
It used to be a cinema country; Godard used to have more audiences in Finland than Paris in the old days. Now it is all the usual Hollywood shit because the distribution is a problem.
Is that why you and Mika started the Midnight Sun Festival?
That was more because of the rage we had against festivals where nobody meets nobody. We decided to have a festival in the middle of nowhere so everybody has to meet everybody, nobody can escape. We tell the directors, "If you want to escape you're welcome to. The airport is 150km that way." Nobody has left so far. Have you ever been to Finland?
No, I haven't.
Don't go. Life is boring enough.
When you and Mika were growing up, what films were an inspiration to you?
Thanks to our father we lived in the middle of nowhere throughout our childhood. Tiny villages and if there was a cinema they would be showing gladiator films from the 50's. It was a graveyard for Hollywood films, so the first serious films I saw were when I joined the film club when I was 16. My first real cinema experience was a double-bill of Nanook by Flaherty and L'Âge d'Or by Buñuel, and that's when I thought, "OK, this is a serious business." Between these two films you can put all of the cinema ever made. It's a pity for me that I never got to that level.
You have often said that you're a bad filmmaker and a lazy filmmaker, but you haven't done badly over thirty years, have you?
Well, in the kingdom of the blind even the one-eyed jack is king.
Have you ever been satisfied with one of your films?
If I had been satisfied I wouldn't have continued, so obviously not. It's not nice to die without being satisfied just once, so I keep trying.
How closely do your scripts match the final movie?
If I have a script it's 1:1, there are no changes. Sometimes I don't have a script and I improvise – the actors don't improvise at all but I improvise – and I make the story when I shoot. I can write very fast and the ideas are there so it doesn't matter if I write the film or improvise, it's the same thing.
When I told people that I was meeting you they all said they wanted to me to ask me about The Leningrad Cowboys. I recently saw for the first time the short you made with them, Rocky VI.
Yeah, it was one of the first rock videos in Europe. The band told me they had a good title for a band, The Leningrad Cowboys, and they had an idea to make some kind of movie. I improvised that day, we shot the next day and I edited the third day. I had a good time doing that, they used to be a good band. Their records were never good but they were wild live.
What are they doing these days?
They still exist but they were always a band where the best musicians would hang around for a while and then leave, so a band called Leningrad Cowboys still exists but it's not the same band.
Music is such an important component of your films. When do you start thinking about the soundtrack?
I make the film first and then I go to my record shelf. I only use music which I happen to have. It's a way to avoid dialogue, because the music talks so much and provides a kind of balance to the story. It's interesting. The only thing that interests me in cinema nowadays is to edit music because you can change everything. You can make comedy into tragedy and the other way too.
One of the great scenes is Le Havre is a performance from Little Bob. Where did you discover him?
Little Bob is the Elvis of Le Havre and Elvis is the Little Bob of Memphis, Tennessee. You can't go to Le Havre without bumping into Little Bob. He used to be a big star in Europe before your days, and he even toured Finland in the late 70's. I knew his music but I had never met the guy before. So when I met him I decided I had to write him into the film. I always use live music in my films for some odd reason. I like to make one song true.
Do you know already what the next film in this trilogy will be?
Who knows? Maybe I will retire, I don't know. Will I still have film in a few years? Anyway I am planning to go back to my original profession writing, which I never even started. I will start with short stories, but it's such a bloody lonely and complicated job. When I say, "let's shoot" we hire people and equipment, and then I have to be there on the first day with some idea. With writing I can always say, "Oh, I will start tomorrow...I will start tomorrow..." Filmmaking is the only career for a lazy man.