By Tom Ue.
Selma Vilhunen earned an Academy Award nomination for her 2012 short film “Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?” In what follows, we discuss her new feature Little Wing (2016), which follows the twelve-year-old Varpu (Linnea Skog) in her search for her father. Varpu’s meeting will bring about changes to the lives of herself and her mother (Paula Vesala). The film had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.
In many ways, the young protagonist of Little Wing epitomizes the theme of your short. What inspired the film?
While the story is completely fictitious, Little Wing does have a lot of elements which come from my own youth. I wanted to tell this story and present a world which I know well and of which I feel that I have very specific notions.
In many ways Little Wing explores the theme of people’s weakness. Films often depict strong characters, but in this film I’m drawn to the weak and fragile side of my heroines and heroes. In a single-parent family, when the parent’s strength is gone for one reason or another, she or he may begin to treat their child as a companion and a supporter instead of child. Varpu becomes the bearer of her mom’s worries.
The film is beautifully shot: tell us about the locations and your cinematographic decisions.
I wanted to be close to the characters and close to the so-called real life. We were looking for soft tones in lighting and a certain bravery in art design. I wanted to have random stuff in the images just like the real world consists of pretty random bits and pieces. I didn’t want the film to look like a beautiful picture but like life as it is: sometimes very beautiful, sometimes messy, sometimes even dull.
Each location was carefully selected to bring out the best effect from a dramaturgical point of view. For the scenes where Varpu feels that she is alone in the big and unfriendly world, we looked for the large landscape, perhaps deserted, sometimes sterile and anonymous.
An important element is the weather and the time of year. The story takes place in Finnish November, because Father’s Day is always in November in Finland. That’s the season of the color grey. Only sometimes do we let some sun break into the picture.
The horseback riding provides an apt metaphor for Varpu’s perseverance and her power. What led you to select it?
Horses and the riding school environment are a kind of society in a micro scale. Horseback riding is a very popular hobby among Finnish girls. Riding classes with a riding school horse are expensive but perhaps not as expensive as in many other countries. At the stable one can meet people from all socioeconomic backgrounds. Love for horses is what brings different people together. This is one of the reasons I wanted Varpu to ride horses. Also, as you said, riding horses reveals her strong side. Third layer of the horse theme is to have the beautiful animal as a kind of silent witness when humans go about with their human problems. The horse is there to make humans feel even more humane.
How much training did Linnea Skog receive?
She started to practice horseback riding as soon as she knew that she would get to play Varpu. So she trained for about six months, one or two times per week. In some riding bits we also used a stunt double.
There’s real chemistry between Linnea and Paula Vesala. Tell us about the casting.
When we started the casting for Varpu’s role I was looking for someone who could only act brilliantly but who would also be an especially intelligent young woman. I was looking for someone with whom I felt I could connect, reach a sort of common wavelength. Casting director Minna Sorvoja knew Linnea from previous auditions and wanted me to see her. And once I did, I understood why. Linnea was all the things I was looking for, and so much more. She’s a true artist, already in her young age.
I casted Paula Vesala sort of separately from Linnea because Paula lives in Los Angeles, and it was impossible to have the two meet before decisions needed to be made. To make an audition happen Paula and I decided to meet in New York, which is almost like a half-way’s inn for both. I held an audition in a friend’s bedroom in Queens. Paula is not as experienced as an actor as she is as a musician but she made a huge impact on me. I took a chance and chose her.
Paula and Linnea met in the summer of 2015 when we started rehearsing. We did a lot of different improvisations and just hung out together to create the sense of closeness in their relationship. Paula was awesome in the way she took Linnea under her wings and into her heart.
There’s something so liberating to watching Varpu on the horse and behind wheels. What kind of directions did you give her?
First in the morning we would talk about the general feel of the scene. Either Varpu is nervous or scared or determined. We would talk about what Varpu wants in that scene, what is her objective.
Before each shot or sometimes even during the shot my advice were concrete: look to the left, squeeze the wheel really hard, that kind of stuff. Sometimes I didn’t need to say much, sometimes I gave orders almost like reading notes.
Varpu seems to belong to a generation of independent teenagers. How important do you see this development amongst young people?
My notion is that teenagers in Finland are generally a bit more independent than teenagers in the US—about Canada I’m not sure. Kids are used to using public transport and a general feel of threat is perhaps smaller.
There are, however, a lot of teenagers who seem to have more to worry about than they should as children. A lot of adults are suffering from stress and anxiety, and that’s when the kids often take the role of a caregiver. The society’s values are getting harder and harder and people’s safety nets are weak. Kids are the ones who suffer from politics which forget that people come from very different circumstances and that some people simply need to be supported by the society—us, that is—in order to get ahead in life.
Varpu’s encounter with the wife of the man whom she thought was her father encourages the poor woman to leave (if temporarily). What effect do you think this has on Varpu?
I think that Varpu leaves the woman with an unconscious, budding understanding about life’s complexity. A pretty home does not make you happy. It can be the only nice thing you have, and there are other things far more important than being stylish and appearing powerful.
What is so important about Varpu’s discovery of these unhelpful, damaged, and/or unstable father figures?
She sees that not only her mother is sometimes very weak but being flawed seems to apply to all adults. She perhaps starts to see her mom and also herself in a slightly different light: after all her mom is a loving mom, even if a bit heavy sometimes. I would like to think that Varpu finds pride and joy in reconnecting with her father, as well. She finds a way to accept who she is as a child of two fragile and yet warm creatures.
How important was it for Varpu not to see her mother in her absolute vulnerability after she has left home?
I think that in that moment Siru the mother has already begun her own process of slowly maturing in her relationship with Varpu. Siru is already working on appearing strong and capable in front of Varpu.
What’s next for you?
I am in editing of a feature length documentary film called Hobbyhorse Revolution. It’s a film about a very special phenomenon which started in Finland: hobbyhorse riding as a serious hobby. I’ve filmed it in periods for over three years and the film will be completed this year. (Please have a look at the trailer on YouTube by the name “Hobbyhorse Revolution”.) The subculture of more than 10000 teenagers, mostly girls, is surprising and cool and simply awesome.
Thank-you so much for this invigorating film, and we look forward to many more!
Thank-you for your thorough questions!
Tom Ue was educated at Linacre College, University of Oxford, and at University College London, where he has worked from 2011 to 2016. His PhD examined Shakespeare’s influence on the writing of George Gissing. Ue has held visiting fellowships at Indiana University, Yale University, and the University of Toronto Scarborough, and he was the 2011 Cameron Hollyer Memorial Lecturer. He has published widely on Gissing, Conan Doyle, E. W. Hornung, and their contemporaries. Ue is the Frederick Banting Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of English at the University of Toronto Scarborough and an Honorary Research Associate at University College London.