By Danny Peary
In baseball, if you want to see future major league stars, you go to minor league games. In movies, if you want to see the feature directors of tomorrow, you seek out shorts. I always try to see a program or two of shorts at the TriBeCa Film Festival. Usually, it’s word-of-mouth that influences me to make a point of seeing shorts I’ve never heard of by unknown filmmakers. This year, it was the filmmakers themselves that helped me with my choices. At a press-filmmaker party, I did the following brief interviews with American Alexander Berman, the director of App, and Finn Kimmo Yläkäs, the director of Kakara, and producer Hannu Oksanen, and was so intrigued by their pitches that I later saw their shorts–both of which are about men who make quick changes for the better. I recommend them both and suggest you seek them out.
Danny Peary: What is your background?
Alexander Berman: My background is Russian. My parents were born in the Soviet Union. They were Jewish refugees and Kissinger and Nixon bought them out of the Soviet Union; they came with that migration. I was born and grew up in Chicago. I studied filmmaking as an undergrad at Harvard, and then I worked on a documentary [The Volcano People] funded by the Fulbright program in Russia. I moved on to fiction and while I was at the American Film Institute. App was the one student film to win the Sloane Foundation prize. The Sloane Foundation has connections with the major film schools all over the US. The $25,000 prize I received enabled the creation of App.
DP: Obviously with App you’re tapping into the whole social networking phenomenon.
AB: Yeah, I made the film in Los Angeles as part of a program at the American Film Institute. But the inspiration for it really came from my brother who works as an app developer at a start-up. It’s not just about social media but the way online dating has really taken off, particularly location-based dating. That’s what App is about.
DP: It’s also probably about connectivity. There’s a lot of connections through social networking, but it’s still hard to connect.
AB: Yeah, the film is about a guy who’s trying to get his new technology idea made, while he’s completely broke. This is what he’s passionate about, but it’s preventing him, ironically, from creating any kind of emotional connections. An investor, almost as if he’s trying to mess with him, says, “I’ll invest in your prototype if you can prove that it works.” So he has to meet a young woman who’s way out of his league and make a connection with her to sell his app. His app actually gets in the way of making the connection. But something about himself is attractive to her and ultimately he has to make a decision about what’s more important in his life, selling his app or having a relationship
DP: And it takes place where, at a party?
AB: It mostly takes place at an investor bar in Los Angeles. It’s a very contained little film, it’s 20 minutes long.
DP: Who plays the lead character?
AB: Braden Lynch, who is a good friend of mine, a really excellent actor.
DP: Did you do auditions? What were you looking for in the character?
AB: Yeah, of course. It’s a difficult character to play because he’s essentially an emotionally unavailable nerd. Braden found a way to bring a charming quirkiness to somebody who’s very much in his own head and unavailable to us. The lead female role is played by Sara Sanderson, who’s a gorgeous actress and really knows how to do sexy and suave–which is how I describe it.
DP: I would think the hardest thing is to show connection between these characters.
AB: It starts out that neither of them want anything to do with each other, because it’s the investor who picks her. She’s just clearly the most attractive person there, and this guy who’s pitching him on the app is the biggest loser.
DP: This is supposed to be a permanent thing, or if she’ll like him just tonight?
AB: I think the note we leave on, without spoiling anything, is that there’s definitely the potential there for something that does not need to be over-thought.
DP: There’s a not-very-good feature at the festival from Finland called Love and Engineering. It’s about nerdy guys trying to use scientific means to hack into what women they’re dating are thinking. Is there a connection between your film and that?
AB: I’ve seen it and this film is very much a response to that. When we think about the data apocalypse, we talk about the NSA and about high-frequency trading. But a much more dangerous result of the over-quantification of our life will have to do with the universal fear of rejection. Because of our fear of rejection, we will over-quantify our connections with people to the point where the very mystery that makes love something worth pursuing will go away. So we’ll be in safer relationships, but they’ll be devoid of the transcendent qualities poetry and art have been talking about since the dawn of man.
DP: In Love and Engineering , one of the nerds almost gets a beautiful girl before she rejects him without explanation. There’s the idea that you can win somebody out of your league through technology, but the odds are against that relationship lasting.
AB: Exactly. What’s interesting is that these services are so popular because whether they work or not we’re always looking for a reason to say yes. Even if it’s a placebo, it gives you the confidence to say yes. The real challenging thing is our ability to stay together. That’s really what we’re interested in touching on in APP.
DP: How realistic is the app?
AB: I’ll tell you what is the most difficult thing about the film. We started developing it two years ago and I started writing the script and it took about a year to create. And we decided to satirize it. So it feels like something you got from The Day After Tomorrow. It feels realistic but there are points where we clearly satirize what technology is, so it works in an unrealistic way.
DP: Have you enjoyed being at TriBeCa Film Festival?
AB: Oh, it’s been a wonderful experience for me and my whole crew, who are my fellow students. It’s great to have the first professional fiction premiere of my career at TriBeCa.
Kakara–Kimmo Yläkäs and Hannu Oksanen
Danny Peary: Where are you guys from?
Kimmo Yläkäs: Finland.
DP: Are there film schools there?
Hannu Oksanen: Yep, there’s a few film schools.
KY: I went to film school.
DP: Is this is your first film?
KY: No, it’s my third film. My first was a short called The Long Gone, and then I made a documentary short, The Queue.
DP: What is the premise of Kakara [which translates as "child" or "brat"]?
KY: It’s about a man [Antti Luusuaniemi] whose life changes in the hospital. He’s taking his girlfriend [Rebecca Viitala] to have an abortion, and meets a young girl [Sonja Viikki] who is a patient there and his life changes.
DP: Is abortion a big issue in Finland?
KY: No, it’s not an issue there. It’s the woman’s choice whether to have an abortion or not. In my film, the pregnant woman has a rough guy for a boyfriend and he has decided that they don’t need a child. So he takes his girlfriend to have an abortion. But his mind changes while he’s waiting for the procedure. He meets the little girl in the hospital. She is very sick and has seizures. They become friends, so the man changes his mind about the abortion.
DP: Why does hhe change his mind, just sitting and thinking about it or because of the little girl?
KY: The little girl. The little girl annoys him at first but then he feels something for her.
DP: How old is she?
KY: She’s about eight-years-old. No one has the guts to confront the man because he’s a fighter, but the little girl confronts him and they have this connection.
DP: Shirley Temple used to do that with gruff men in her films. So he’s basically transformed because she touches his heart?
HO: The little girl acts very well.
DP: How did you get this little girl, Sonjaa Vikki, who is a good actress?
HO: We did casting in local schools. We tried ninety children.
DP: So did this little girl have a special smartness or just cuteness?
KY: In the casting process, she wasn’t acting.
DP: She’s a natural.
KY: She’s a natural, yeah.
DP: Is it basically a two-character film?
KY: Yes, you don’t see much of the woman who is having an abortion.
DP: And why did you want to make this?
KY: I wrote it about eight years ago. I had the script for a long time in my letter drawer. When I got my own child, then I wanted to make it. I wasn’t ready one day, but then I was.
DP: But it’s a cheerful ending. Hannu, how do you fit in as a producer?
HO: I became involved with this movie very, very early with this, when he got the idea. We worked on it with our company [Mediatchdas Dakar Oy].
DP: Did he present a script to you?
DP: Is it a Pro-Choice movie?
KY: I don’t know if that’s a point of the movie or not, but the man doesn’t want the abortion after all. But his girlfriend left without telling him and he has to catch up with her. She fears that the rough man will give her a hard time.
DP: She wants to keep the baby.
KY: I’m not telling.
DP: How does it feel to be at TriBeCa?
HO: It’s so much fun.
KY: Super, I love it.
DP: Kimmo, is it your goal to make features? Some people like making shorts.
KY: Of course I want to make a feature.
DP: Could this film be expanded or is this a showcase film for you?
KY: It’s a showcase. I’d make a feature film with similar kinds of things.
DP: Have you been to New York before?
KY: I was here ten years ago.
DP: What do you want the audience here in New York to take away from this movie? I know it’s funny but do you want people to cry?
KY: When people see my film I think I want them to see the little moments. Life is about little moments in time and if you aren’t afraid to seize a moment, it can change your life. Seize the moment!