“If someone visits me, this shelf tells them who I am,” Jaakko (Petri Poikolainen) detailing his well-curated DVD collection to his friend Sirpa over a phone call in “The Blind Man Who Didn’t Want to See Titanic,” when she’s unable to what movies he has and he isn’t able to see her, confined mostly to his apartment these days after a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis that has taken away his mobility and much of his sight. As he struggles to make out anything beyond silhouettes in his flat, Jaakko jokes with Sirpa that he hasn’t upgraded to Blu-rays when high-definition would be wasted on him, but as he describes one movie to another after another to her, mostly pre-‘90s John Carpenter, his vivid references show just how far his mind can take him, making it seem entirely possible, if completely impractical that he finally make the trip to meet Sirpa when it sounds as if she’s in distress with a medical condition of her own.
Although Jaakko has done the math before on making it to the other side of their native Finland well before this — it’s a mere “two taxi rides and a train ride,” he says confidently — the urgency of Sirpa’s sudden needs leads to action that one might expect more from the star of one of his favorite films, though as writer/director Teemu Nikki suggests, among Jaakko’s blind spots may be his own heroism. Still, it’s a treacherous journey that he embarks on and one that has never been sensually evoked in quite the way that Nikki has with the taut thriller, refusing to leave Jaakko’s side and creating a sonic silo around him to immerse audiences in the same level of perception as he has, navigating the world. When his consistent allusions to the action adventures he enjoys would seem to make the limitations of his own experience more apparent, it actually has the opposite effect as one is able to pick up on how his mind is working overtime to envision the parameters of any given situation, a mental calculus made even more trying when his backpack is stolen on his way to see Sirpa and a random fall could derail everything.
A morning routine at home looks intimidating enough in “The Blind Man Who Didn’t Want to See Titanic,” so Nikki is able to wring considerable suspense from Jaako’s travels as well as bring about a real compassion for his circumstances and if it seems like there’s an unusual level of intimacy between Pokolainen and the camera, it might be due to the filmmaker’s own connection to his lead actor, who he once shared barracks with at officer training in the Finnish Army before the two separately embarked on careers in the arts. Now reunited, the duo has brought audiences together around the world since the film’s celebrated premiere at the Venice Film Festival and more recently at SXSW where Nikki and his longtime producer Jani Pösö came to hear it tug on heartstrings at its North American debut. The pair graciously took a moment to talk about how the gripping, experiential drama evolved and the intricate technical details that made it possible.
How did this come about?
Teemu Nikki: It was in 2019 when Petri Poikolainen, the lead actor and an old friend, contacted me. We haven’t spoken to each other in over 20 years because we used to be in the Finnish Army together. He had a photo of my carrier and he was very happy to see that I’d become a filmmaker and he became an actor, but he also told me he had MS and at the moment, he was blind an in a wheelchair. Immediately I asked, “Would you still want to act?” He [said] “yes” and then I said, “Okay, I will write something, but let’s work together.” From there, quite quickly, I said, “Jani, should we make this kind of film?”
Jani Pösö: And I [said], “Yes!”
Teemu Nikki: But we had to make it quite fast because Petri’s condition is getting worse every year. We had to move fast because we wanted to make sure he still has the strength to do the part. From the idea to make the film, it took half a year and then we were shooting it already.
Jani Pösö: It was four months, I think.
Teemu Nikki: And when I wrote the script, it took three weeks. But the idea of the blind person’s perspective came from when I was trying to figure out how to make the film. I was fascinated to put the audience in the wheelchair, and to have the experience of Petri’s life, so before we had the script, I had the idea of how it should be done and then I started to write.
Did it take some time to figure out how the camera would relate to Petri as Jaako on screen?
Teemu Nikki: Yeah, I was thinking that if we are doing this blind person’s perspective, it would be easy to make it all black, so that we wouldn’t see anything. But then I thought the character also feels and can smell things, and if we want to show his feelings, we have to show his face. I decided to talk with Sari Aaltonen, [the cinematographer] and she was against the idea. She said, “It won’t work to have it all in closeup throughout the film.” And I said, “Trust me, it will work.” So we decided to try to find the kind of angles that the audience can sense what is happening, but not see much about what is happening. The whole film is shot with one 35mm lens with plastic wrapping around it, so it’s very old-school.
Jani Pösö: It’s Kitchen Aid – the thing that you put your cheese on when you put it in the refrigerator – so I think Teemu and Sari should get the Nobel Prize for the idea. [laughs]
Was Jaako always such a movie buff in the script?
Teemu Nikki: In the first idea, I thought Jaako would be a carpenter – not John Carpenter, but a carpenter. [laughs] But because I was in a hurry to write that script, I realized I don’t know anything about carpenters, so I decided to put myself into the film because I’m a huge John Carpenter fan and I hadn’t seen “Titanic,” so it was very easy for me to write the character. And when I was writing it, I understood it was interesting that Jaako loves films, but in a way he never can see them anymore, so he stopped watching them, but still lives in the ‘80s genre world.
Was there anything unanticipated that made it into the film that you really like about it?
Teemu Nikki: Not that much. There were a couple lines that were made by Petri during the shooting, but it’s following the script quite strictly.
Jani Pösö: Yeah, actually the script is really good! [laughs] But one of the things that Teemu usually does when he’s directing is when it’s written precisely, you can actually try things, but thinking about how we never worked with this type of actor and then you try to find references about films that are shot only with closeups and there are no references, it was basically jumping into the unknown. The script [being] precise [was the only thing] you know how it goes.
Teemu Nikki: And it’s quite difficult to improvise with a blind person because he can’t [say] “I will go there” because he doesn’t see, so all the improvisation was with the dialogue. There was something during the scene where he’s trying to find his way out of the strange nightmare place [where] we did it in a way where I said to Petri, it’s safe to go everywhere, but you have to go alone, so he was acting in the darkness. That was only one line in the script and the scene takes like 15 minutes, so of course it changed a bit.
Jani, it sounds like this was produced in a whirlwind, but you have to take those safety precautions into mind. What was it like figuring this out?
Jani Pösö: It was easy because of course, Petri has an assistant and that assistant was his son, so let’s say they knew each other pretty good. [laughs] But Teemu and I didn’t actually have any clue what Petri can or cannot do in the film, so it was [a lot of] discussing and trusting, but then checking that Petri wasn’t trying too much because when you are a filmmaker or an actor and you do something that you love, it’s like really, really hard to stay in the lines where you have to stay, and when Petri hadn’t been able to do his profession and execute his passion for years, and it’s second [nature] as an actor, of course then you try like hell.
Teemu Nikki: You want to do your own stunts.
Jani Pösö: Yeah, but [Petri] is a fantastic character. Every time you complain about something, you should think a little bit about Petri Poikolainen and how much he complains. He doesn’t.
Teemu Nikki: Yeah, he’s the most positive guy I know.
You also convey his perspective so well through sound. What was it like working with?
Jani Pösö: That was a fantastic process.
Teemu Nikki: Yeah, immediately, Heikki Kossi and Sami Kiiski started to work with the sound with Jussi Sandhu, the editor, doing the sound and the editing altogether and playing it to Petri and asking, “Does your world sound like this?” And Petri was always like, “Okay, it’s like my world but bigger” because the sound design is quite interesting. At one point, we had a composer making music through the whole film and then we decided not to use it because we realized it was too sentimental.
Jani Pösö: And the score is actually pretty good. That was not the easiest decision when you have [already] composed it.
Teemu Nikki: But we had the idea of making a bubble around Petri’s world, so we hear things different that are close to him and then the sound starts to change to something else. And of course, it’s very dynamic that we have very silent moments and quite loud moments. I wanted the audience to be as afraid as possible at some points in the film, just to realize what it would be like.
Jani Pösö: And at one point, [I thought] “This is fantastic. Heikki is communicating with Jussi the editor and they haven’t called me. [laughs] Which tells you a lot about the filmmaking process. People come and they give their heart to it and sometimes it clicks. And Sami Kiiski, the other sound designer, has been working with us since our first short film and we actually have known Heikki for ages, but Sami and Heikki have been speaking that they should do something together and then Peter [Albrechtsen], the final mixer, have been working together for ages on all kinds of things, so that’s how it was born. It was so great to be in the final mix because it just got better and better and better.
What’s it been like taking this around the world?
Teemu Nikki: It’s wonderful. Of our films, it’s the most interesting because everywhere we have been with the film, the audience is touched deeply, so we are used to people are crying during the Q & A.
Jani Pösö: Yeah, and then the cries like are sort of a happy cry because it really gets into your emotions and gets into your head.
Teemu Nikki: And it’s so nice also to feel that we have done something — that I would say Petri has done something — that touches people around the world. The film is universal and of course that’s fantastic.