Interview: Girl Picture director Alli Haapasalo

I was fortunate enough to speak with director Alli Haapasalo about her new film Girl Picture, which I was able to catch at Sundance. We talk about female friendships in film, sex scenes, and changing the title to ensure people don’t think you made a film about strippers.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Ben Miller: How did the film come to you?

Alli Haapasalo: Well, I was very lucky because already a long time ago in 2014 the writers Daniela Hakulinen and Ilona Ahti contacted me with just the treatment of the film. They had developed the film for about a year and they had decided they only wanted to move forward if they had a director attached. Luckily, they chose me. I could see already from the treatment that they were doing something special. But it took producers a little while longer to realize that. So we developed the film for a couple of years; just the three of us. They started working on the drafts and I had the privilege of being present in the conversations. Sort of figuring out together what kind of world we wanted to create.

Ben: What was the timeline as far as when this first came to you and then to “We start on Monday…”

Alli: 2014 was the treatment and the first draft was in 2015. We started looking for a producer and everybody said no. We did find a company in 2017 who said yes and then we got a greenlight from the financers (Nordisk film) in early 2020. So six years from treatment to greenlight, and of course production was another 1 1/2 years.

Ben: Getting ready to go in January 2020 is almost bad luck.

Alli: Right? It was, oh my God. I started casting the week COVID arrived in Finland.

Ben: The fascinating thing I think about this film is about how the three girls operate. The two close friends (Mimmi and Rönkkö); that friendship is not one where they are next to each other the whole time and they are inseparable. They have their inside experiences, but they can do their own separate thing without having to be together. I feel like that’s a big part of the film.

Alli: I agree with you. We had drafts where Mimmi becoming so close to Emma and dedicating her whole life to that relationship caused a rift between Mimmi and Rönkkö and Rönkkö’s quest for pleasure was motivating by a sense of jealousy she felt between Mimmi and Emma’s relationship. And then we realized at some point, “Wait a minute…why on earth would we be doing this?” It’s a cliché that female friendship has this antagonistic quality with elements of jealousy and competition. Why? Why can’t the best friend be extremely happy for her best friend? Nothing is taken away from her really just because her friend has found love.

Ben: Even the one time they have their rift and they blow up at each other, they immediately it’s, “We still love each other. That was stupid. I’m sorry.” It’s true to life instead of the cliche. This is how real people would react in this situation. There’s no reason to make this movie-ish stuff.

Alli: I love that you’re saying that. That scene came from the actors. It wasn’t written that way. The scene ends in a fighting mode, but the actors were feeling that they would go and grab each other, hug each other, and hold each other. That’s the reality, as you pointed out.

Ben: I see the big theme of this film in general is being seen and having someone who understands you, sees exactly who you are and says, this is exactly who I want in my life.

Alli: I agree with that. Being seen is so important at that age for any of us. The characters need to be seen in order to see themselves also. In a bigger way, girls in general in this world, these girls are not insignificant. The world looks down on girls. I have done that certainly like when we started this project, I thought people would see me as a “girl picture” director. There’s a lot of that bias. I think being seen has a lot to do with connection. Someone asked me about the scenes of intimacy and what happens in those. I think the main thing in Rönkkö’s quest for pleasure, she can’t be seen because she is not connecting. Whereas Mimmi and Emma’s relationship is working because they are connecting. That’s a very human message where we should all be seeing each other and connecting to each other.

Ben: In Rönkkö’s quest for pleasure, I view it from my own perspective. I understand what she wants, but teenage guys are not good at what their doing. You’re behind the eight ball already. It doesn’t matter how far you want to push things, these guys just aren’t going to be good at this. You’re fighting against a force you have no control over.

Alli: But neither is she. She’s not good at it either. And I think one of the terrible things we do in life, we expect the guy to be good at it and somehow come and deliver. She’s not helping matters. She is so focused on what the guys is doing while everyone should be connecting and then together find out what to do. Maybe the message is that nobody knows what they are doing until they find out together. I hope that guys don’t watch those scenes and see it as laughing at teenage inability because it is certainly not the point.

Ben: Speaking of those scenes, I’ve always been interested, especially with female directors, presenting that sexuality without needing the carnality or the nudity. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t sexy. Where did you try to strike that balance between the two?

Alli: I decided very early on, even before casting began, that I wasn’t going to have nudity. Let me point out that I’m not against nudity in film, more against making the body a taboo thing. I think we’re hysterical about nipples [laughs]. I just thought in this film, it was the right way to go. Because these girls are playing parts that are underage and also they are very young actors too. Two of them were 20 at the time of shooting and the other was 25. I know what happens to clips of female bodies online after the movie is released. I also thought it was a good challenge. It’s kind of like, they can still be sexy scenes, so how do you do that? It goes back to the connection. If you have the emotional desire and pleasure in the scene, then that’s more than the physical desire and intimacy. You don’t actually need to see body parts to see the scene emotionally. That’s what worked out and that’s largely due to a rehearsal process with our great intimacy coordinator. Together we were able to create choreographies I could have never created myself. There’s always an aspect of awkwardness in the room, but when you have a professional with tools, methods, and vocabularies, it felt really safe. And for example, the actors who played Mimmi and Emma (Aamu Milonoff and Linnea Leino) said their favorite scene was their intimate scene because it was so well rehearsed. They said it felt easy and safe to do.

Ben: In the marketing, the Finnish trailer, it’s called Girls, Girls, Girls. I would imagine if you have that name in the United States, people have different connotations. Is that part of the reason for the name change between the two?

Alli: This is exactly the reason. All I could think of was a blinking neon sign. But this is weird, the UK distributor is actually releasing it as Girls, Girls, Girls. Maybe the British have different neon signs in their strip clubs.

Ben: So this is your third feature film. Are you trying to focus on this one or do you always have the next one in mind?

Alli: I do have the next ones in mind. All the projects take as long as this one. So there’s something that has been in development forever that is still in the works. There is something we just got some development funding for that will hopefully be shooting next year or the year after. My husband keeps joking to me that I should aim for a Marvel movie so we can get a bigger apartment. Truth be told, I mean, he’s American. I don’t see that happening, it’s probably not my forte. This is an exciting time for Finnish films. The only annoying things are the small budgets. There’s momentum now to make films here.

Ben: Do you have any film recommendations?

Alli: Good question. If people like Girl Picture, I assume they would like the film Force of Habit, although I don’t know how easy it is for them to access it. It’s a film directed by seven female directors together and it’s about gender bias and sexual harassment. It’s not as terrible as it sounds, it’s got a lot of black humor in it.

Ben: Could you do me a favor and pronounce the actual name of that film?

Alli: The Finnish title? Tottumis-Kysymys. Finnish is a terrible language.

Girl Picture releases in select theaters on Friday, August 12th.

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