Petri Poikolainen as Jaako in The Blind Man Who Did Not Want To See Titanic. Teemu Nikki: 'I realised that this has to be a feature film because I want the audience to get used to being blind, and then see somebody else's face in the end'
The subject of the film was a very personal one to Nikki, who was inspired to write it when an old friend - who he had met while on national service in the Army two decades before - got in touch. That friend was Poikolainen, an actor, who now has the same aggressive MS as the character in the film. Nikki says despite having lost touch, the reconnection between them was immediate and adds: "I wanted to do something with him, like a short film, but I never thought that it would come to this - that we would be at Venice Film Festival."
It's not the first time that Nikki has written a project with a specific actor in mind. His previous feature Euthanizer - a black comedy about a man who puts animals to sleep and who begins to expand his business in disturbing ways - was also scripted for the star, Matti Onnismaa.
Teemu Nikki: 'That's something that I myself love in films. That you are surprised at least once, hopefully, twice, during the film.
Nikki has shown adaptability throughout his career, often interspersing his films with shorts and television work and he says this flexibility can come in handy.
"I've been working with big budgets, no budgets, different kinds of budgets, and with different kinds of TV series features, music, videos, short films, and I don't have a sort of a problem with jumping in different kinds of length of film," he says "And, for me, this was sort of all the things that I have learned making short films without money. I could use that kind of talent. But of course, immediately, when I got the idea of making this sort of the blind person's point of view, I realised that this has to be a feature film because I want the audience to get used to being blind, and then see somebody else's face in the end. So that was, for me, the reason to make it a feature length."
Given that the film strips away a lot of the visual cues an audience is used to, this made the sound design a crucial part of the process and it was something the lead actor also contributed to.
"We did a lot of work with the sound designer and we also, at some point, let Petri hear and said, 'Does this sound realistic for you?' Because, of course, his hearing is a bit different than mine, because he is sort of imagining the world by hearing. One quite interesting thing is that we also had a composer working with us for a while. And we composed music for the whole film. And then we decided not to use it. Because it started to feel too much like Hollywood - there would be violins - so we did a lot of work with the sound designer."
Although Jaako's situation is based, to a degree, on star Poikolainen's experience, there's also a lot of the director's opinions folded into the story - not least his lead character's refusal to watch James Cameron's Titanic. In one of the film's many comedic scenes, Jaako explains to Sirpa why that is - reasons, it seems, that also stem from Niikki's opinion of the film.
In terms of the character's cinephilia, Nikki admits: "It's all me. It's all me. And the reason is that, because of Petri's MS, we didn't know how long he could act. So we were in a hurry to make this film. I had my summer vacation to write the script. And then I realised that, Okay, I have to work fast, so I must write myself into the protagonist, because it's easy to write your own opinions. So yeah, I like John Carpenter, and I hate Scorpions. And I haven't seen Titanic. And I think Chandler is the best character in Friends."
The director also says that the overheard conversations that Petri catches snatches of between his neighbours - in which they alternate between blaming him for his illness and viewing him as tragic - also stemmed from his own imagination.
He says: "I thought, what would be sort of the most stupid thing to think about Petri? He was laughing about how he never heard this kind of stuff said about himself. But there were some things that are from Petri's life like, he said that it's annoying if somebody comes to talk to you and then he doesn't say when he leaves, so he's left talking to himself."
The film also takes on some unexpected shifts in tone, from its lighter moments to those in which Jaako is really under threat. "That's something that I myself love in films," Nikki says, "That you are surprised at least once, hopefully, twice, during the film. For me, that's, that's life - you never know what's around the next corner even if you're sort of quite sure how things are going to go. You never know."
Poikolainen puts in a gripping performance at the film's heart and Nikki was thrilled that the actor was able to share the limelight in Venice, where the film went on to win the Orizzonti Extra Audience Award, voted for by the festival's audience.
Teemu Nikki on the Venice audience award: 'The prize is something that, in fact, I'm giving it to Petri. So he can have it'
"Of course, the lion is a lion, it's nice to get the audience prize. But still, I have to say that the festival with Petri and the whole crew was so emotional. We were crying and laughing. And when I got the prize, I was like, 'Okay, this is also nice, but we already have had all the fun that we can sort of have'. The prize is something that, in fact, I'm giving it to Petri. So he can have it. But I think it's an important prize for the film and for all of us and I think it will help the film to spread around the world."
And Nikki says there's plenty more films in the pipeline. "I think I have about five ideas in line now, so I have work for the next three years" he says. "For the next film, I have the lead actors and I have the story and hopefully we'll start to shoot next year. In the next film, I'm thinking of combining the love from The Blind Man with the grimness of Euthanizer. I don't know if I'll succeed but I have this idea of some kind of love that can be found from death."
In the meantime, I ask if he has received any copies of Titanic yet from people trying to persuade him to give it a go.
"I have only one copy at the moment but, yeah, they are bringing me flowers and Titanic."
I'm looking forward to catching up with him in a year or two's time to see how many copies he accrues as he, no doubt, travels the world with his film.
He says if he does he'll keep them "all wrapped". "That's the most important thing," he adds, "that they are all in plastic".