A boxing movie without boxing in it? The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki isn’t the sporting movie you expect. It’s based on true story, but not one about winning. It follows the build-up to a big fight, but feels light as a feather. It’s a tribute to a country’s prized boxing legend, but lasts just 92 minutes. It’s also in black-and-white. And in Finnish.
If that sounds like a tough sell, it’s safe to say that the people making the movie were all too aware of how unusual their idea was. Speaking to director Juho Kuosmanen at the movie’s London premiere last year, he was a man smiling with relief – relief at having a positive reception in the UK, not to mention winning the Un Certain Regard at Cannes 2016.
For leading mean Jarkko Lahti, who has since picked up a Jussi Award (Finland’s equivalent of the Oscars) for his portrayal of Maki, the film’s success has certainly been a surprise.
“I didn’t have any expectations,” he tells us, honestly. “I just concentrated on my work. You know, having this kind of chance, I felt like I had a one-in-a-lifetime chance in the same way as Olli Maki has in the movie. I just thought ‘OK, it’s time for me to put everything I’ve got into this role and see what happens’. The last year, it’s been totally unreal.”
The film follows Maki in 1972, as his manager lines up Olli’s big break: a World Boxing Association title fight against American boxer Davey Moore. It was set to be the biggest in Finland’s sporting history: world-champion Moore versus Olli, winner of the European lightweight title a few years earlier. And nobody really expected Olli to win. Did they?
For Juho, the pressure felt very similar: after his short film The Painting Sellers won the first prize in Cinéfondation in Cannes in 2010, he knew his first feature film would be screening at Cannes. What’s surprising is that Jarkko also identified with the fighter – a shared underdog spirit that perhaps stems from the fact that they’re both from the same town in the west of Finland. Today, kids in Finland haven’t heard of Olli Maki. In their hometown, though, Olli was something of a legend, particularly among the older generations.
“Olli has always been a kind of hero,” says Jarkko. “When I was a kid, I remember my father and uncle talking about boxing and all about the legendary boxers like Ali, Frazier and Olli Maki was mentioned always. He was like Ali. For younger generations, he was a pop culture legend, in a way. But people who are into boxing, they’ve always known him well, because he’s one of the best we’ve had in the country.”
Taking on that role was a “huge” challenge, admits Jarkko, who felt the moral obligation to do his hero justice.
“I wasn’t sure Juho would have the script and finance together,” he recalls, “but I had to join the boxing club and start training just in case.”
Their shared history played a big part in helping Jarkko commit to the project, as well as get the tone and portrayal just right.
“We’re childhood friends, but it wasn’t clear that he went up in the film industry. I was an actor already graduated when he got into film school in Helsinki. We got to know each other again as adults, as colleagues, but the history that we share and the landscapes and the same dialects and the same hometown… when you communicate with somebody and you know the background or you know some specific details or images that you can brainstorm together, you understand one another without words, in a way.”
Trust was also vital, especially as this was Juho’s first time at the helm. The director was nervous, he confessed to us at the London Film Festival.
“The pressure for him was huge,” smiles Jarkko. “He was preparing his first feature film and people in the film industry in Finland already had big hopes for him and he knew that he could get the first feature into the Cannes Film Festival… and when the pressure is huge, what matters is trust. For Juho, I believe, it was very important that we could have a crew where we knew each other very well and we could share a view of the world and cinema together, so that was good.”
“The boxing had to be iso true that I didn’t have to focus on pretending to be a boxer.”
How difficult was it to get into Olli’s shoes – and gloves – without just doing an imitation of him?
“That’s a good question,” says Jarkko. “It can’t be imitating, it can’t be that. Imitating is just the surface, so you can steal some details, like, for instance, how Olli walks or how he smiles, things like this, but you have to create your own actor’s process toward the role, always, no matter if it’s total fiction or based on real events. It has to be your process. You just need to make your version out of the human being and out of the events and not try to imitate, because then, you are on thin ice.”
With such a hefty physical presence needed, did the physical part of the role come first, or was it about finding the character first?
“They went hand in hand. I started physical training first, because the challenge of playing a boxer was huge, but it was also mental training. I had the luxury of time to spend with Olli – every time I went to the gym, although it was me there, the goal was the movie. We agreed that the boxing element had to be in the body, had to be routine, had to be so true that I didn’t have to focus on pretending to be a boxer on set, but concentrate on the situation and fellow actors and so on.”
It’s the same approach as the film, in a way, which effectively relegates any in-the-ring action to focus more on Olli as a character – and, specifically, his relationship with both his ambitious manager and love interest, Raija (played by Oona Airola). Olli Maki? It’s a boxing movie. But you can forget about the boxing.
“The bottom line is that you had to take the real challenge of the physical world that there is in the boxing movie, but after that, it’s just a circumstance that you have around you and I felt that I just lived through the romance, this love story that he really went through,” agrees Jarkko. “There’s always this working side, pulling the weight, having the sparring sessions, but the order was first, build up the physics, and then, forget about it.”
Since its release – and its impressive haul of awards – Olli and Raija have both seen the movie “about six or seven times”.
Did they like it?
“They loved it,” reveals Jarkko, “which was a big, huge relief for me!”
“They were the only ones in a way that I felt responsible for,” he explains, “because it’s made out of their life, so when I had a phone call from Raija and she was crying and was really touched by it, I was really… all the weight was taken away from my shoulders.”
Olli, Jarkko explains, has Alzheimer’s, but he still recognises old details and remembers old events pretty weel.
“I hope it might be some kind of therapy, in a way, to go back to the situations again and watch the kind of familiar elements that there are in the boxing and so on,” he remarks, “but it’s been a good journey with them. I’ve got to know them pretty well – and we still keep in touch. Not long ago, I went to see some amateur boxing match and I sat with Olli and Rai, we watching boxing together, it’s true friendship.”
The film arrives this weekend on MUBI, the subscription VOD service that snapped up the film after its Un Certain Regard win at Cannes last year. MUBI distributed the film in cinemas last month, before releasing it online to subscribers this weekend, where it will be available to stream for 30 days.
What does Jarkko think of streaming films?
“I don’t mind, I don’t have any strong opinions,” he comments. “Time’s change and that’s how it should be, in a way. But nevertheless, live cinema is the original art form, that’s the basis of everything. I think it’s beautiful that people still have the strength to get out of the house and seek a film in a cinema, spend some money, take some time of their own to go to another reality. I think it’s beautiful, in a way. But then, of course, everything has good and bad sides, it’s not black and white.”
With three kids and work on the go, though, VOD has become a useful way to catch films he can’t get to in a cinema. Does he stream much?
“Sometimes, it’s just practical to watch films online,” he adds. “Especially many Finnish movies that I just don’t find time to go to the cinema. It isn’t as special, for me, at least, as really going to the movies. I prefer that, when I have time. It’s more than just watching a film.”
Work, though, isn’t about to slow down any time soon: he has a theatre group of his own.
“I work actively in the theatre. I’m creating a project where the Icelandic national theatre and the Finnish national theatre are working together with my ensemble and we are working in both languages.”
As for film, he’s already moving on from his first role.
“Last summer, I shot a feature film called The Unknown Soldier, which will be in cinemas in October. It’s a war film about the Second World War and Finland against the Soviet Union, based on a famous novel in Finland.”
It’s the third film adaptation of the book, he continues.
“We have Finland’s 100th anniversary this year as an independent nation. It’s as part of that we’ve made this remake.”
Jarkko Lahti may go on to find more professional success than Olli Maki. That pressure, though, doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.
The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki is available to watch online in the UK exclusively on MUBI UK, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription. Read our review here.
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