'Olli Maki' Cinematographer Approached Project as a Love Story, Not Boxing Movie

"I avoided all the boxing films," says J-P Passi.
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
'The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki'

Finland’s selection for the best-foreign-language-film Oscar competition, The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki, is a black-and white drama inspired by the true story of Finnish boxer Olli Maki (Jarkko Lahti) as he prepared for a 1962 world featherweight championship match against American titleholder Davey Moore — then lost his drive when he fell in love.

To prepare for production, cinematographer J-P Passi made the conscious decision not to re-watch Raging Bull and others from the genre that might bring comparisons. “I avoided all the boxing films,” he says. “I have seen them, but I knew that we were making one. I thought I shouldn’t watch them and be affected by them.”

With first-time feature director Juho Kuosmanen (a 2014 graduate of ELO Helsinki Film School), Passi did, however, watch cinema verite classics from the ‘60s and research the sport of boxing. He also visited Maki (now 79) and his wife, Raija (played by Oona Airola), as well as some pros from the boxing world.

“I approached the film as a love story, and an intimate portrait of a boxer,” Passi says. “The boxing was more the surrounding for the love story and also for the story of the relationship between Olli and his manager Elis (Eero Milonoff).”

The decision seems to have paid off. Olli Maki was honored with the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes, and in September, it won the Golden Eye for best international film at the Zurich Film Festival. Now it’s generating buzz in the foreign-language-film Oscar race.

Olli Maki was filmed on location, primarily in Helsinki. To give it an old-film feel, it was shot in black and white, primarily with Kodak Tri-X 16mm black and white reversal film stock. “It was the natural and logical choice,” Passi says. “It was the best format for the period, so it would feel like it was made back them. Shooting on video would have felt very strange.”

Adds the director, “I never wanted to make a period piece, and we weren’t tempted by nostalgia too much. The idea was always to make a contemporary film that feels like an old film. The film stock was a great help. We could rely on it feeling like the '60s without having to point it out too much ourselves.

“We had to order all the [Kodak Tri-X] stock there was in Europe, then everything they 
had in the States, and then Kodak had to produce some more. I think it’s not meant to be a film stock for feature films. It was used in the news in the '60s and '70s.”

"For the boxing scenes, we wanted [the actors] to be as free as possible,” says Passi, who also operated the camera, mostly handheld. “We didn’t choreograph them; they themselves made the choreography.”

For the final fight, “we had to give the feeling that there were 25,000 people there, but of course we only had some hundreds of extras. So we really had to plan, to give the impression that the stadium was totally packed. That’s something we didn’t have to do in the other scenes. And we wanted to still have the organic feeling that this was really happening around us.”

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