Finnish writer-director Selma Vilhunen discusses her feature debut, Little Wing, dysfunctional families, and working with child actors.
Finnish writer-director Selma Vilhunen’s feature debut, Little Wing, is a touching mother-daughter story about 12-year-old Varpu (Linnea Skog), who has to grow up too fast to care for her depressed mother. Varpu spends her time riding horses, but never quite fits in with her friends at the equestrian stables who are physically larger, wealthier, and have two parents. Their cruel teasing is part of what sends Varpu on a mission to find her biological father. Within the conventions of a family reunion story, Vilhunen explores mental illness, toxic relationships between parents and children, and the way we learn to live with our parents’ imperfections.
For the film’s world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, I sat down with Academy Award nominee Vilhunen (for the 2012 short film Do I have to Take Care of Everything?) to discuss creating this realistic family onscreen and working with her actors.This film is my way of meeting my dad whom I lost to mental illness when I was a baby.Click To Tweet
Seventh Row (7R): Where did the idea for the film come from?
Selma Vilhunen (SV): It has some elements from my own youth and my own family. I also lived together with my mom. It was just the two of us. Ever since I started to make films, I always felt that I had a special story to share, something that I had not quite seen on screen yet: this kind of story of a loving yet somewhat troubled family. Varpu’s story is not exactly my story. But I’m handling notions and issues that I experienced, and I made them into a dramatic piece. In a way, this film is also my way of meeting my dad whom I lost to mental illness when I was a baby. Through fiction, I get to see him again.
7R: You show a lot of tenderness between Varpu and her mother. But you also get a sense from the beginning that she’s the one that has to take care of her mother.
SV: In this family, where there’s only one adult and one child, they share a world together that no one else shares with them. It simply happens to them that when the mother is weak, she’s having a hard time. She’s lost her strength. She doesn’t have many people to turn to She doesn’t have a great network or a safety net. So she turns toward her child who is the closest one and knows her best. That’s the tragic downside of their closeness.
7R: The film feels very much shot from Varpu’s perspective. How did you think about doing that?
SV: Part of that comes intuitively. We talked a lot with the cinematographer. We talked about, in a very concrete way, being close to Varpu, and following along what she does. One important approach in the cinematography was that I liked to first rehearse with the actors, to see how they are in the space where we were and how were they together. Only then would we make the precise decisions on how to shoot what they are doing. Of course, we had some rough plans. Sometimes, we had more precise plans, depending on the scene. But mostly, we rehearsed the scene and looked for what’s important in what the characters do and what’s important between the characters. Only then would the camera try to capture what we saw in the way that we felt would feel right so we can follow Varpu and the story with her.'Even though I wrote out it, it felt like it was really her where the text comes from.'Click To Tweet
7R: The production design seems really precise. Varpu is the one with the room full of her things that’s very home-like. Her mother just has a bed in the other room that she doesn’t seem to like to sleep in. When she goes to see her father, one of the things that seems a little off is all of those pizza boxes you can see in the kitchen behind him. How did you think about making those decisions and subtly giving those hints?
SV: The most important thing for me was to make everything look and feel as real as possible. I wanted the set designers to not make it too tidy or too neat. I wanted the set to include some random elements just like all of our homes are, more or less, unless you’re a home style blogger sort of person. My home is just random. There are all these things that we don’t even know where they came from, and they’re definitely not colour-coded. I wanted to go for those kinds of details.
I like props. I like to bring my own little things to a set. I tell the set designer, I brought these things and I want them in my character’s lives. There’s my daughter’s drawings on the walls, for example. Some things are almost like tokens or trinkets, these magic little objects that are there to bring good luck.
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7R: You get a particularly impressive performance from your young actress, Linnea Skog, who plays Varpu. How did you find her and what was the process of working with her?
SV: I worked with a casting director, Minna Sorvoja. We were initially looking for girls who could both act and ride horses. We auditioned dozens of girls. [My casting director] wanted me to see Linnea [Skog]’s audition, as well, even though she did not know how to ride a horse. My first encounter with Linnea’s work was through a laptop screen. I watched her monologue, and I immediately understood why Minna wanted me to meet Linnea. She really stood out. She was right on top of the text. It felt so real. It felt like she really took the text to be through herself. Even though I wrote out it, it felt like it was really her where the text comes from. I was just really blown away.'We created these memories for the actors, which they could carry to the shooting with them.'Click To Tweet
Physically, she kind of looked like what I had imagined what Varpu would be, even the fact that she’s quite short. I kind of hoped for finding someone who is not very tall, but rather tiny. I met Linnea in the callback, and this sense of being overwhelmed by her talent and her intelligence. I was looking for someone who I thought was intelligent and who I thought I could connect with despite the age difference. I found Linnea who is all that and so much more. During the shooting, I felt like I was given this gift from her in her work.
7R: Did you work together before the shooting to develop the character?
SV: We talked as much as we could. We talked everything out as well as I could. We talked about the fact that the film was, at the time, I was thinking the film was probably for adults or older audiences, perhaps not people of her age. Now I think a bit differently. I see the film as something suitable for people from 12 and up. But at the time, we were talking about all the difficult themes and situations in the characters’ lives. I just wanted to tell why I am making this kind of film, my point of view of the screenplay. I wanted to hear what she thinks of these scenes.'We improvised scenes from the past, from the mother and father characters’ past.'Click To Tweet
Then we did rehearsals. I wanted Linnea to get to know the people she’s playing with as well as possible. We rehearsed quite a bit with Paula Vesala and Santtu Karvonen who played the mother and father. We also had some rehearsals with each of the actors that Linnea is playing with so that she knew them before the shooting period started.
7R: Is that just talking through the script? Or getting up and doing the lines?
SV: We were doing quite a bit of improvisations around and between the scenes that are written in the script to explore the characters and create even more substance in their being, in addition to what is actually seen on screen. What was important for Paula [Vesala who played Varpu’s mother] and Linnea [who played Varpu] was that we improvised scenes from the past, from the mother and father characters’ past, when they did spend time together. We created these sort of memories for the actors, which they could carry somehow to the shooting with them. They would somehow create some kind of a baseline for the scenes that take place in the actual story.
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