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Sundance 2022: Alli Haapasalo on Girl Picture & the coming-of-age story

Alli Haapasalo interview

Director Alli Haapasalo talks to the Spool about putting a contemporary and insightful spin on a well-worn trope.

(This interview is part of our coverage of the 2022 Sundance Festival)

Girl Picture, Finnish director Alli Haapasalo’s sophomore solo feature, tells the story of three young women on the cusp of adulthood as they explore all-things love and search for their place in the world. There’s rebellious Mimmi (Aamu Milonoff), who finds herself falling in love with Emma (Linnea Leino), a career-driven ice skater. While the pair embark on their journey of first love, Mimmi’s best friend Rönkkö (Eleonoora Kauhanen) sets out to understand the concept of pleasure. 

Shortly after its premiere at Sundance Film Festival, we had the chance to speak with Haapasalo over Zoom about her new film, tackling three character storylines, and the importance of portraying teenage girls realistically.

How did you get involved with the project?

Alli Haapasalo: I was approached by the two writers who wrote it, Ilona [Ahti] and Daniela [Hakulinen], they had written a treatment at that point, not a script yet. This was many years ago, and they wanted to proceed with the director attached. I knew even from the treatment already that I wanted to be involved. So, it became this long development process. They always were the writers, I wasn’t writing out, but I was always, as a director, sort of conceptualizing and giving feedback and taking it forward. Then we just basically developed it for a long time. The story was always the three girls — two of them falling in love, and one of them looking for pleasure. But everything else around it changed. 

How did you manage to weave your own voice in with the screenplay throughout the process?

Haapasalo: We just really shared a vision, we talked and talked and talked. It took years, the first treatment was in 2014. I think the last draft they wrote was draft eight or nine. And every single one of us actually had a baby in the process, like at different times; that’s how long we’ve been working on this together. So, it was easy to develop a relationship where there’s a lot of loyalty and trust in the work. I think it has all of our voices in it. 

Your previous two works also centered on themes of womanhood. How did Girl Picture differ from Love and Fury and your part in Force of Habit?

Haapasalo: This is very specifically the story of young women, so that would be the biggest difference. They all deal with identity. In Force of Habit, my part of it is a story where a couple is on vacation when an unknown man grabs the woman. The story becomes about — the movie is about sexual harassment — the misuse of power. In that story, it’s more about the couple reacting to that, and men and women having very different experiences of sexual harassment. But Love and Fury is also a story of identity, which Girl Picture, in essence, is also. But the fact that it’s about very young women, 17 or 18, I think that’s the biggest difference. In a way the topic is more youth than girls, but there’s definitely a strong sort of feminist undercurrent going. It became a very important aspect of me, to really focus on what we say about girls.

Girl Picture (Sundance)

What attracted you to specifically making a coming-of-age story?

Haapasalo: I can’t necessarily say that I was attracted to doing a coming-of-age story. If anything, I was afraid for my life to do a coming-of-age story. Even the term gives me like, ooh, because it’s so loaded; everybody expects certain things. I was always really nervous about that aspect, and I was always nervous that the film would be belittled because it’s about young women, because it’s not like the world gives higher regard to young people to begin with, especially young girls. So, that was kind of frightening. Why we still did it, even if it frightened me, was because we felt like there’s a huge void for this kind of story. Of course, there are teenage stories and of course, there are girl stories and I’m sure that there’s many films that have wonderful representation of women in many ways, but there’s certainly room for much more because I, as a young woman, would have wanted to see this film. I’ve heard that comment from dozens and dozens of women, so I think that was a big aspect of it. It kind of felt important to do this story so that women would have a story where they can be independent, free, and lead their own lives; to be on their terms, but also terrible, fragile, mean, selfish. You don’t have to be just one thing, you are all these things. Women often represent one-sided characters, but here, we want them to be super complex. 

We see coming-of-age stories often and it’s not a fairly new type of film, but they do often have stereotypes. How did you approach the narrative, while making sure it didn’t fall into cliches or the typical tropes that we’ve seen repeated over and over?

Haapasalo: That was constant conversation, constantly asking: Are we going toward a cliche? How do we see girls? How do we see girls? How does the world see girls? How does this film see girls? And constantly having this multi-layered conversation, which can really start to spiral quite deep in the end, just a question of beauty. For example, in casting, I was constantly saying “everybody’s too beautiful, I don’t want this to have these beautiful women on screen.” Then someone asks, “well, isn’t that a little bit bad too.” If you’re shaming beauty, like beautiful people are considered not intelligent, often, not so fair either. But then at the same time, you don’t want the representation of girls in a film that they always have to be so darn beautiful. So it’s like a really vicious circle that you can go into, but it’s extremely important that we do, because those conversations really needed to be cracked. 

It was really important that we were always doing against the cliche. In everything, we were trying very hard to do it in terms of behavior, costume, choice of detail. Like a punk, a girl who’s living on her own, and is intelligent, smart, sarcastic, and everything doesn’t have to just be punk, she can have a giant teddy bear in her place that has a lot of pink in it. We can mix these things, people are much more complex than the cliche. 

I liked how the film told the perspectives of Mimmi, Rönkkö, and Emma, instead of just focusing on strictly one point-of-view. Was it difficult balancing the intertwining narratives of three separate characters, as opposed to one character?

Haapasalo: In the writing process, yes. Very difficult. The balance was really hard to hit, because it’s not only the three characters, like you pointed out, but then two of them are friends, and two of them become lovers. Then one of them has a B plot, and the other two have an A plot. It was a really big puzzle. I think the writers did a really great job with it. It was a big help when we figured out that we wanted to do the three Friday structure, so that we forced the form of the film to limit us in terms of what scenes we can do. It helped us to be strict about that. We can’t have anything in between, we have to get everything done in these three Fridays, so that helped. But then we had the script ready, then it didn’t shockingly. In editing, for instance, it wasn’t a problem at all, the balancing of it.

Girl Picture (Sundance)

Girl Picture is very much a celebration of female friendship as much as it is an exploration of finding romantic satisfaction in some way, shape or form. Could you tell me about what it was like getting to explore both platonic and romantic love, in addition to contributing to the larger theme of identity as a young woman?

Haapasalo: We talked a lot about that too. Especially with the young actors, we wanted to create intimacy in all of those relationships. I love, for example, how young women are often very at ease physically with each other, like best friends, when they weave each other’s hair and they’re lying on top of each other or throwing themselves on the other. I just really love that ease. We were really looking for that and how they would be physically at ease with each other and obviously mentally too, they share everything with each other. One really important aspect of that friendship was that I really wanted it to be positive. There’s been script drafts where we’ve had Rönkkö become a bit jealous of the love that Mimmi experiences with Emma. Then we were like no, we don’t have to do this cliche either, that a friendship wouldn’t be happy for the other girl’s happiness. Women so often in films are also antagonistic towards each other, we don’t need to do that, we can just have her be like “yes!” and lift each other up. We wanted to have positivity. 

In terms of the love story, we also really wanted that to be complicated; it’s not very interesting to see a love story that just works. That doesn’t necessarily make a great film. Unless there’s other things that come into play and make the conflict happen. Here, we wanted the youth and how a young person can be very selfish because you’re so focused on yourself at that point in life, understandably, because you’re sort of trying to figure everything out. So it’s difficult to compromise at 17 and understand what you would need to give up or compromise in a relationship. Well, Mimmi is quite mean to Emma, at some point. Then Mimmi accuses Emma of using her in her revolt, and maybe she does a little. They’re kind of goldmines for a filmmaker, these teenagers, because there’s everything at stake all the time.

Girl Film (Sundance)

Aamu, Eleonoora, and Linnea are very natural in their roles. When you’re watching them, it’s not like watching a character be portrayed, you’re just watching them be themselves. How did you go about casting each of them and what drew you to the three of them?

Haapasalo: I did an extensive casting process. It took many months because I was taking my time. I knew that this film would love and die with the cast, so I wanted to be really sure about my choices. It was three different stages of casting starting from self-tapes to actual auditions in in-person and then in the final rounds, we did very long auditions, an hour per person. They had already read the script at that point, so they knew the whole story. After those, I actually really did know. Throughout the process, I had sort of been developing the combo in my head and then I didn’t need to look at the last tapes because I knew it was them. And why? They all were really strong candidates already from the self-tape round.

Then they stayed consistently very strong throughout the process. It wasn’t just that they were clearly very good and very charismatic and had a good combo in terms of how they looked also, because that I had to, of course, take into consideration that I couldn’t have two girls who look too much the same, which actually was a problem with another actor that I was also interested in for some role, but she looked way too much like one of the other two. It was also the fact that they clearly understood the story. That’s why I wanted everybody to read the script. I really want storytellers in all positions — group positions and in front of the camera — and they understood dramaturgy and the topic. We talked a lot about the topic already in the audition process, so that was important. 

How does it feel to have the film be the first Finnish feature in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at Sundance, since Finnish cinema has been getting more international attention in recent years? 

Haapasalo: It’s a good time. It’s funny — I started in film school 20 years ago, when they talked about the beginning of a Finnish film boom, at that point. Cut to 20 years later, it’s actually happening. That’s when it started to become better. It’s taken the 20 years to get to this point where it’s really recognized now. It does feel really great. It feels like validation for the film. Everybody as a director or a filmmaker needs validation, but especially with a title called Girl Picture, definitely needs validation. It’s not like girl stories and young girl stories, like we concluded earlier, have been the hard core of the cinema industry. So it feels very good that they are accepted and welcomed to be at such an important festival. 

What do you hope audiences will take away from the film?

Haapasalo: First of all, I hope that they just sort of feel very giddy and loving after it. I really hope that it feels like a feel-good film and that it leaves you with a really warm and positive feeling. That was really important to me. In addition to that, I really hope that it evokes a conversation, either with yourself or with your friends about how the world sees girls. And, why do we need to belittle girls? Why do we need to belittle anything? Be it pink or ponies or diaries or punks? Girls are not just one thing, girls are a million things just like every human being is and we should ask ourselves why we wouldn’t think otherwise. 

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Jihane Bousfiha

Hailing from Florida, Jihane Bousfiha is a staff writer at Film Cred and freelance entertainment writer who has written for Paste Magazine, W Magazine, Thrillist, and more. You can find her on Twitter @jihanebousfiha_ and Instagram @jihanebousfiha.

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