Finnish and UK writer/director Laura Hypponen talks about the inspiring adventure of making her stylistic, satirical, and nightmarish short film Qudraturin, over the course of four years.
CULT CRITTER: How did you discover Quadraturin, the short story by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, and what inspired you so much about it, that you just had to make it into a film?
LAURA HYPPONEN: I read Quadraturin in 2008, which is when it was first published in the English language. It was in a collection of Russian short stories, and from the first second I started reading, I was gripped! Because its language was so cinematic, and the writing so very visual and I just started– As I’m sure many filmmakers do, I just started seeing the pictures of the film! But mostly, at the time when I was reading it, I was living in a tiny, tiny room in a flatshare in London and… I was just so struck, that this something that was written in the 1920s was exactly like my life in London in the present-day! And then I started really thinking about how, when everybody lives like this, what does it do to a person. This lack of privacy, and how you start self-censoring your life.
CULT CRITTER: The film has such a distinctive style, it’s an experience that I personally find quite rare among short films. What were your influences when you were defining Quadraturin’s tone?
LAURA HYPPONEN: It took forever to find the money to make the film, which in a way was a good thing because that gave me a lot of time to really immerse myself in the 1920s… I was looking at Rodchenko’s constructivist photography, for example, the paintings of Malevich, and 1920s silent films – all the classics that we know like Dr. Caligari, German expressionism, also Russian films, it was such a rich time for art!
But I was also fascinated more broadly with the Soviet situation at the time. Quadraturin was written in 1926, and already then, there was a feeling of disappointment with the Russian Revolution; it wasn’t this optimistic time anymore. I also wasn’t so particular about making a period piece set in the 1920s, but more trying to capture this universal, timeless feeling of a nightmare.
CULT CRITTER: Unfortunately, the braver you are with your style and narrative, the harder it is to finance your film! How was this process specifically in the case of Quadraturin?
LAURA HYPPONEN: Well, here’s the thing! Once it was finished, people really liked it and they liked that it’s a film noir! But while I was trying to get it made, this was a problem. One fund in London shortlisted us, and they saw the teaser and they didn’t like it, because they said it felt like an exercise in period filmmaking. And they said they liked the story and the concept, but they wanted it adapted to contemporary London. I had to refuse; I said, we can’t do this because the film gets its gravity from the historic context. Because actually, in the 1920s Soviet Russia, people really did “disappear” for the strangest reasons. Maybe not because of lying about their room size, but this idea of neighbors and friends denouncing you was certainly real; and there really was such a thing as the Measuring Committee, which made sure no-one had more space than they were allocated. So for me, that was the whole point of why the film is not just a fun joke or an abstract concept that can be transposed to any other location… It was important that it’s about the real thing, which is about totalitarian government.
I had to really defend this view. I also felt very emotional about the fact that the author of the original short story, Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, died virtually unknown, because of the regime that he was writing in. He wrote the story in the 1920s, and 2008 was the first time that the English speaking world was able to access his story… To this date, his works are still virtually unknown! And I felt the least I can do for his memory was to try and present the story with some authenticity regarding the setting.
CULT CRITTER: It’s really heartbreaking when you read about it! It makes you wonder, how many super talented people there out there that might never have the chance to have their voice heard! And filmmakers know this feeling very well, all the steps of making a film and finding its audience are so challenging… Do you ever ask yourself, “why am I even doing this?”
LAURA HYPPONEN: I think one aspect is it’s an addiction like I don’t know what else I would do because I’ve been doing this for so long. I mean, I started making videos when I was 15, and even before that I had a video camera and I’m 40 now, I mean this is 25 years that I have dedicated everything in my life for this purpose. So I don’t really know what else I could do! Like of course I had to do other jobs to pay the rent, but especially when I do those other jobs I realize how passionate I am about filmmaking.
CULT CRITTER: What is Quadraturin really about for you?
LAURA HYPPONEN: I think it’s about the moment when a dream turns into a nightmare. If I think about the author’s intent, ten years after the Soviet revolution, you could already see it was the opposite of what people had hoped for. And a lot of artists at that time were at first excited about the revolution, but after a brief period of economic freedom and excitement, the secret police emerged, Stalin was already at work behind the scenes, there were housing and food shortages… The film is about that: be careful what you wish for. This guy who is innocent makes this choice, and the consequences are disastrous.
CULT CRITTER: It’s like one of those folk tales where the hero makes a deal with the devil!
LAURA HYPPONEN: It’s something very human because we all hope that there’s a magic shortcut! Like yeah, it is this deal that is too good to be true. And I think the reason why this story is so relatable is that we all want that deal!
CULT CRITTER: How long did it take you to make the film?
LAURA HYPPONEN: It was probably in a period of three or four years that we shot this film. We started shooting with no money, with a friend’s camera, he bought it off a sale and apparently it belonged to one of Stanley Kubrick’s assistant directors, a 16mm camera… But unfortunately, it wasn’t very well maintained so it kept breaking! So we were like, great – free camera and then the battery steaming and all kinds of horrible things! (laughs) And of course, the logistical challenge was finding a space where we can build this set! Because in a literary piece anything is possible, you know this infinitely expanding room, but how do you communicate this feeling in a film! And it was my decision because I’m not so into CGI, I don’t understand computer stuff so well so I really wanted it to be a practical set! So we built the first set inside our flat! (laughs), because we figured out, when the room is still small, it can fit inside our flat in London! So for a long time, we lived with the set inside our living room, and my partner Patrick’s daughter Callula slept inside it, which was quite funny!
CULT CRITTER: The amount of patience you need sometimes to be a filmmaker is just crazy! And then you usually need a lot of patience for the distribution as well. How did that go for Quadraturin? Where did the film open?
LAURA HYPPONEN: I actually don’t remember where we submitted first, but we got into the International Competition in Tampere and that was a fantastic premiere! It was also good for me because it’s a Finnish festival and my work hasn’t really shown in Finland, but also from the point of view of the audience, the festival is dedicated to sharing such a diverse range of short films, so immediately their audience was very receptive and Quadraturin was a really popular film there.
CULT CRITTER: What would you like to change in European filmmaking nowadays, especially in regard to short films?
LAURA HYPPONEN: I haven’t so much engaged with short films as a scene in a long time but whenever I do, I feel like they, this is a huge generalization but, a lot of short films conform to a norm of style and subject matter and tone even. Social realism about important social subjects, on the correct side of things and quite depressing, and it’s kind of almost this documentary-esque naturalism…
Human imagination is unlimited, but then what I see often at festivals tends to look very similar, and the same goes for feature films. I get very excited if something looks and feels and tastes different because then I feel like, okay this is somebody’s voice and feels more alive!
I’m thinking about what a huge responsibility the financiers and the festival taste-makers have. Especially at an early stage, because this is when you signal to young filmmakers what works and what doesn’t, and this, of course, is very subjective! Maybe the dominant taste very much comes from this social realism which I have no problem with, I love those Eastern European hard-hitting naturalistic films…
But then there’s a different kind of cinema, which I feel like it’s been, I understand maybe it’s a budget thing, but there’s a cinema of the imagination, the cinema of dreaming, the cinema of nightmares, and that is where I live more… This is why I wanted to make films, you know, this is why I fell in love with films.
Because I remember growing up in Finland where it’s dark, everything is beige in my memories of that time… I grew up on a little, like kind of council block, everything was made out of concrete… I mean as a child it was wonderful but basically, we played around the rubbish bin, there was a couple of trees and a kind of a muddy wasteland and those together formed our playground. So imagination, (laughs) was like, very important and then my parents, they were watching arthouse cinema, which I think was normal at the time, they watching Fellini and Almodovar, you know, like – it was mindblowing for me as a child. I was like “Oh my God there’s this life with sunshine and colorful people and glamorous women and night lights… And I was like wow, cinema to me is this space where anything is possible!
I think collectively we are missing an opportunity if there’s no space for this kind of dreamscape anymore and that everything must be “reality” and whose reality is that anyway?
I have faced that a lot with my current film that I’m making, this feedback from financiers, where it’s about – somebody’s opinion is “that it’s not psychologically or stylistically realistic; like, why does it have to be elevated, why can’t it just be realism?” And, I think the only answer I have is because it’s cinema and I think within cinema you can explore something in an elevated way and should be able to because it is not reality!
It’s make-believe, it’s fiction and sometimes make-believe can have more of an impact! I mean, it’s dramatized anyway, even if it’s social realism, even if it’s a documentary, still subjective, so why can’t you make it fun!
And maybe this is my personal weakness or something, but that’s the kind of films I enjoy watching the most. I can be invited to watch a film about a very dark and serious subject if somehow the surface or the package seduces me! But I resist watching films that just feel too heavy and worthy and… shades of beige… and I’m like “Oh my God”, I can look out the window and that’s what I see, so why do I need to watch a beige film, too?