Valkeapää’s third film is the story of Juha, a surgeon, who lost his wife in a drowning accident and raises his teenage daughter on his own. Years later, he still feels emotionally numb. An impromptu visit at a BDSM dungeon where he meets Mona, a dominatrix, suddenly changes everything. Pekka Strang (Tom of Finland) and Krista Kosonen (Blade Runner 2049, Bullets) provide solid performances to the stylised film set in the world of BDSM.

The film was produced by Helsinki Filmi, in co-production with Latvia’s Tasse Film, and support from the Finnish Film Foundation. Yellow Affair handles sales and SF Studios local distribution. 

From teen protagonists in your previous films The Visitor, They Have Escaped, you go to an adult story about love, loss and redemption by way of BDSM…that’s quite a gap. What was the starting point for this film?
J-P Valkeapää.
 Producer Aleksi Bardy first pitched to me the central idea of a man who loses his wife in a drowning accident and tries to reconnect with her through a strangulation experience in BDSM sessions. I liked the contradictory elements of sublimity/perversity, darkness/lightless and started to develop the original idea from Juhana Lumme. That was in 2016. It took a while to get the project off the ground. The difficulty with the story was dealing with the different layers of fantasy/hallucination and reality, without losing the focus, the core of the story: the husband’s grief and his difficulty to adjust to reality.

We don’t know much about Mona, the dominatrix played by Krista Kosonen, besides the fact that ‘she doesn’t like the ordinary’ but perhaps it isn’t that important…
 Yes every time I wanted to tell more about her, it felt wrong to try to explain her behaviour and BDSM work environment because you would then describe it as a symptom which it isn’t. It’s the way she is. There are blanks in the story, but then it’s cinema, meant to leave space for imagination. 

Was it difficult to define the tone for the BDSM scenes and to enter that particular universe? 
 The world of BDSM is very special and it was an uncomfortable area for me to enter, and for the crew as well. I wanted to give it a human quality, and in the film, you enter it from a family angle which is quite unusual. I received some advice from an SM dominatrix who had worked 20 years in the business and helped with the script. I even attended sessions with her. That inspired me to find the right costumes, tones for the BDSM scenes. BDSM is of course about fantasy, sexual pleasure, but there is also an interesting element of therapy in it. 

Did you have specific visual references in mind?
JPV: I had seen Barbet Schroeder’s Mistress years ago, but hadn’t seen Fifty Shades of Grey. The aesthetic from Helmut Newton, the super-heroes are all visual inspirations.

How did you work with Pekka Strang and Krista Kosonen on their great performances? 
We were all very prepared. I had to be pragmatic as we had a small budget. I shot with few set ups, starting with one and if I felt insecure I would take a second. The SM sessions took more time of course, but they were essential for Pekka and Krista to get into the characters. With both of them, we spoke a lot before the shoot, and even more during the shoot. It was important to reflect on the process and what we were going through. 

Pekka said that he wanted to make an open and raw performance, not only physical but mental as well. He said: don’t be afraid to push! I gave them as much space and comfort as possible. During the sessions, I shot everything and showed them how I was shooting.

Krista had hesitations before the shoot and it took a while for her to agree to make the film. But then she pushed me to find Mona’s characters, to make it sharper.

How many takes did you have in the intense SM scenes?
JPV: Not many, 1-3 takes were the norm. I had storyboarded every shot to be ready as soon as we were supposed to shoot, not to lose any time and keep the actors concentrated. The storyboards were also the best way to communicate with the crew [Finnish/Latvian] as many people spoke with broken English. I knew precisely what I wanted and had to make sure I would get it. 

The visual style and photography are striking. Can you detail your colour-scale, particular framing, lensing and collaboration with DoP Pietari Peltola?
JPV: I worked closely with Pietari Peltola and set designer Kaisa Mäkinen in the pre-production stage, and we brought a lot of inspirational material, for instance a shot where a girl was sitting next to a neon installation. That was the key for the sex dungeon scenes with neon lights. We had to create the spaces and make them as functional as possible to support the narrative. Regarding the framing, we shot with one lens and the underwater shots with different lenses as we couldn’t fit the 65mm cooke lens and had to shoot with 40mm. The cook lens is a beautiful lens with anamorphic distortions that are more subtle than usual. The close focus option interested me as well. With the micro-lens you can shoot from very close, to very far. It was sometimes tough to film in narrow confined spaces as our camera was 1 metre long and weighted 30 kilos. We had to be pragmatic. 

How did you work on the sound and music with your sound department and composer Michal Nejtek?

JPV: We had Czech collaborators on the film and they helped us find Czech composers. Michal had sent us a wealth of material at an early stage of editing based on suggestions I made. We got all the music late, in track, we had to mix and cut it. But it was an easy job as it was so good.

What’s next for you?
 I’m working on a project with Finnish novelist Kari Hotakainen, one of Finland’s greatest poets and authors.