[Night Visions ’13] AJ Annila talks “WE ARE WHAT WE ARE” Prequel, “NUMBER 13″ & More
As we recently noted in our report on Helsinki’s Night Visions Festival (see our report here and their list of prizewinners here), genre film production is ramping up in Finland in recent years. One of the directors leading the charge is Anti-Jussi Annila (AJ Annila) whose JADE WARRIOR (2006) – a Wuxia-infused take on Finland’s Kalevala epic – and gruesome, pitch-black period horror SAUNA (2008) established him as a filmmaker with a grand-scale, visionary approach to the genre.
Aside from prepping a spring shoot for the WE ARE WHAT WE ARE prequel WHAT WE WERE, Annila is at the AFM this week pitching his admitted “dream project” NUMBER 13 (formerly called HUMAN) and is also in development on a third Scandinavian crime thriller, DON’T COME AFTER ME. Here FANGO talks to Annila about what the immediate future has in store for fans of Nordic horror.
FANGORIA: Tell me about all the films you’re working on right now.
AJ ANNILA: I’m actually working on a prequel to WE ARE WHAT WE ARE, Jim Mickle’s film. We are aiming to shoot next spring. And then the original director of the Mexican film, he’s going to do a sequel. So they are actually going for a trilogy.
FANG: A sequel to the remake of his own movie?
ANNILA: Yes – we met in Cannes, these three directors, and there was Jorge [Michel Grau] who did the original, who’s also going to do the sequel, then there was me, who is going to do the prequel, and then there was Jim who had done this remake.
FANG: How did you guys all meet, was that something arranged by the production company or did you just all happen to meet?
ANNILA: We basically happened to meet. Because the production company contacted me, and said we would like you to do a prequel to this remake called WE ARE WHAT WE ARE, and my first impression was, thank you guys, but sounds strange. I don’t want to do a prequel to a remake. But then I saw Jim’s film and it’s a masterpiece. And there’s a story we can tell that will be a stand-alone story that will still pay homage to the remake. I haven’t even seen the original film, and I’m not going to see it just yet. The prequel is a love story that happens before the story of Jim’s film.
FANG: It’s the parents?
ANNILA: It’s the story of the parents, yes. I want to make a stand alone film from Jim’s vision, because I like it so much, I don’t want to copy that. So I’m going to do something totally different. What can I say…it’s the story of these two lovers, one is a cannibal from birth, he has been part of these cannibalistic rituals that run in the family for 200 years. And then you have a girl who has nothing to do with cannibalism, who falls in love with him. And the reason why I’m so excited about the film is that our main character is a person who we need to travel with trough this hell, so that at the end we can believe that she is able to turn to cannibalism. And that’s a huge journey for any character, because it doesn’t happen like this [snaps fingers]. For me it’s like REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, but with cannibals, if I can put it in a box like that.
FANG: Where are you shooting it?
ANNILA: We’re shooting in the same location that they shot the remake, in upstate New York. So that’s one thing that I’m working on; another is my dream project, called NUMBER 13, which we’re pre-selling at AFM. It’s a survival thriller that we’re doing with the Finnish producer Tero Kaukomaa from Timo [Vuorensola]’s film [IRON SKY], Canadian producer Dean English and the German production company and sales agent Picture Tree International. It has wolves and humans in it. And we’re planning to shoot that in the winter of next year.
It started with an idea a couple of years ago when I wrote the first draft, and then Doug Taylor who wrote SPLICE came on board from Canada. We wrote a couple drafts together and then we had one more writer – who actually wrote SAUNA – and now it’s a collaboration of three writers. And it’s a story about this group of wolf scientists that track down this very isolated wolf pack in Northern Canada in order to GPS-collar them. And all of a sudden they run into a bloody and naked stranger, running in the frozen tundra. They give shelter to this man, and then find themselves surrounded by this very aggressive wolf pack. And when the identity of the stranger is revealed, it also unleashes the hidden motive of the human characters who start to act almost like animals. It’s a film that finds the true difference between wolves and humans, because there are hundreds of similarities between humans and wolves but there’s only one difference – and that is our capability to lie to ourselves. That’s the unique talent that only the humans possess in the animal kingdom. Because even a wolf can lie, but they can never lie to him or herself. And we can do that. It’s a very claustrophobic survival thriller.
And we’re working with a pack of amazing wolves. Almost the entire first act we are just following the wolves, almost like looking at a nature documentary. And so we needed to find the best wolves in the film business, and we found them in Canada. We are working with a pack of 16 trained wolves that are working with an animal wrangler called Andrew Simpson. I went to meet these wolves three years ago already, because that was the first thing we needed when we just had a treatment. If we couldn’t find a wolf wrangler then this film would be impossible to make, because we need to do some strange things with the wolves. And we would never have the 60 million dollar budget to do it digitally, and that always looks fake anyway. So I went to meet the wolves and I had storyboarded segments from the film where the wolves needed to act schizophrenic. And I thought we would have to do everything in separate shots, but he just brought in a big wolf and said “calm” and he just sat still looking into my eyes. And then he made a signal and it started to bare its teeth to me. And then another signal and it started to submit. So they are really amazing animals, and they are working for sausages. After every good take they get a piece of sausage. And of course I’m going to do that with the human actors also [laughs].
FANG: Did you get to pet any of the wolves?
ANNILA: Yes, yes. But they are really wise animals, because when I go to their fenced area, I’m a man, I have a beard, so they don’t trust me. They circle around you, they don’t come close to you; their ears are pointed back. They only come to me when the trainer tells them to. But still they don’t trust me. And my wife works with animals, so she insisted that I take her to meet the wolves also. And immediately when they see my wife they all come running to her. They smell her once and then lay on the ground waiting for belly-rubs.
FANG: I’m a big animal freak so I’m always jealous when people get to make films that allow them to pet and touch all these animals.
ANNILA: Those are the most beautiful days in developing this film, because they are amazing animals. I’m surprised people even bother to do digital wolves in their films, because they can do anything.
FANG: Would you ever make a movie with just animals and no humans?
ANNILA: I would love to do that, because people are the hardest part of filming.
FANG: There aren’t enough films made with just animals that aren’t made for children. You know, that aren’t nature documentaries, and aren’t made for children. THE BEAR is the only one I can think of.
ANNILA: Our wolf wrangler Andrew has actually been in China for the last three years, working with the director of THE BEAR. They’re doing one of the biggest wolf films in history, WOLF TOTEM. So it was very lucky that we found him, that he fell in love with our story, and that then the biggest animal director in the world scooped him up too, it just proves my point that he’s the best.
And then I’m also developing a thriller with my own company called DON’T COME AFTER ME and it’s about this 17 year-old girl who lives in Finland, and was left in a frozen forest when she was only two months old to die. Her birth mother disappeared. Now 17 years later, she has had a very rough life in child care in Finland and she has never wanted to find her mother. But now, she escapes form the foster home, travels to Sweden and wants to find her mother for the first time, because she thinks that she’s going to find her mother doing drugs or selling herself or whatever, but she actually finds her mother running a multi-million dollar business with a new husband and two lovely kids. And so now this girl doesn’t want answers about her abandonment, she wants revenge. So she changes her looks and her name and applies for a job as the new babysitter for the children.
FANG: That sounds great. And right now that’s in development?
ANNILA: It’s in development and we’ve started the casting process already. If everything goes well we’ll be able to shoot it next year in the fall.
FANG: I’m adopted, and I was raised in group homes and foster homes, so stories like that I’m always interested in!
ANNILA: Well, there you go. And it’s a very sophisticated thriller. I’m very excited about it. It’s based on a Finnish book that was written in 2001. And then a scriptwriter started to develop it into a film, it went through different stages and different production companies , and ten years later it landed on my desk with a new take on the old material and I just fell in love with it.
FANG: So will the WE ARE WHAT WE ARE and NUMBER 13 both be English language?
ANNILA: Yes. So will DON’T COME AFTER ME.
FANG: So any chance of Tommi Eronen being in any of them?
ANNILA: There’s a big chance, I would love to have Tommi Eronen play something in all of them.
FANG: Does he speak English?
ANNILA: He does, but not fluently.
FANG: Because I think somebody needs to put him in more movies.
ANNILA: He needs to be in all the movies! He’s one of the greatest actors that I know – of course I’m going to say this because he’s been involved with my films, but I’m serious. My other favorite actor in the world is Michael Shannon, and there is something very similar in both of them.
FANG: Well he has this look in his eyes like he’s gonna cry, any second.
ANNILA: He actually can cry on a precise second. That’s what you dream about as a director, that you can go into long takes with the actors and you can actually ask precisely, “when this line is through I want to have one tear coming from your left eye”, and this guy’s like “You got it.” Take after take. It’s quite an amazing talent.
FANG: It’s interesting, NUMBER 13 sounds the most like your other films, JADE WARRIOR and SAUNA. I saw SAUNA many years ago at the DEAD BY DAWN Festival in Edinburgh – it’s a gorgeous film. They’re very epic, very folklore-based, so I was going to ask about the place that Finnish folklore has in your life and your work, but it sounds like you’re going another direction a bit with some of these new projects.
ANNILA: I think it’s still there, the Finnish folklore, because it has more to do with your mentality than just the narrative focus of the film. But right now, no, I’m not doing anything that’s straight from the Finnish mythology, like JADE WARRIOR was from the Kalevala, and SAUNA was of course from the tradition of sauna.
FANG: So what was it about the Finnish folkloric traditions that drove you to make two films in a row dealing heavily with this subject matter?
ANNILA: I’ve always found it a treasure that we haven’t exploited enough. And maybe the key point with JADE WARRIOR was to do a take on the Kalevala epic and find something unique about it. But SAUNA was something that just happened, because that actually landed on my lap from the producers. Two Finnish producers had a great idea when they were in Berlin getting drunk. They had this idea that they want to do a horror film called SAUNA, and that I would direct it, and then they wrote a synopsis, and even without reading it, I said, “that sounds horrible. Let me guess, you have a film where there’s a group of young people who go to a summer cottage where they’re going to have a lot of drinks, good food, a lot of sex, and then they’re going to go into the sauna, there’s going to be a lot of naked ladies in the sauna, and then there’s going to be some kind of monster that starts killing people.” And both producers go: “Exactly!” And it sounded too horrible, so I said no thank you. But they really wanted to work with me so they said, “If you don’t like it, do something else.” And I’d always wanted to do a film about sins and redemption, and forgiveness. And when I started to look into the folklore of sauna, I realized that sauna really, before Christianity came to Finland, it was the church for us.
ANNILA: Yeah, yeah. It was the place where you go and wash the newborn babies, and where you go to wash when you get married; it’s the place where they wash bodies, and they leave the bodies in the sauna so that they can bathe with things from the other world at midnight, and then transform.
FANG: Wait, so they would put dead bodies in the sauna and then living people would go in with the dead bodies?
ANNILA: No, they would leave the corpse in the sauna, to continue their journey to the afterworld. And it really was like a church. And then we had the idea with the scriptwriters, what if there could be a place, a sauna, that would really wash your sins away, for real? And if you go in, you could come out, without your sins. That would be something horrifying, so then that came to be the story.
FANG: And it was a really interesting trajectory getting there, the whole idea of mapping out the Finnish/Russian border. In JADE WARRIOR is that connection between the Kalevala and the Chinese tradition real?
ANNILA: That’s based on real facts, yes. In the end of the 19th century there was a teacher who started to study language and he found a connection between the word ‘Sampo’, which in the Kalevala is the name of a machine that brings all the happiness, and one of the oldest Buddhist temples that is called ‘Sang-phu’ which means “the place of all happiness”. And the Mongolians pronounce this temple as ‘Sampo’. So there are some historical facts that bring these myths together. But of course all the myths that we are telling all come from one place, so you can always find things. But I think it was more in the mentality of the Chinese Wuxia film that is about heroes, sorcery and swordplay, and love – very melodramatic. And that is also what the Kalevala is, heroes, sorcery, witches, swords. That’s what was unique in the Kalevala – all the nationalities in the world have myths about heroes who fall in love and fight to get the girl they want, but in Kalevala, the Finnish national epic, it’s the saddest story in the world, because nobody gets anybody. Nobody gets the one they love.