A collage of elements including Max Ovaska
Ovaska has taken an unorthodox route to arrive at his directorial debut; an approach that empathises the importance he places on maintaining independence. Image: Julia Helminen / Annika Miettinen

DO I KNOW YOU? “There’s still truth in the stereotype of Finns being silent,” says Max Ovaska

Finnish actor and filmmaker Max Ovaska is equally at home in front of the camera as he is behind it. You probably won’t hear him bragging about it, however.

James O’Sullivan

28.09.2022

For those internationally that came in late, you might recognise Finnish actor Max Ovaska for his roles in the Netflix series Deadwind and Bordertown, or perhaps from his appearances in the equally well-regarded – but stylistically polar opposite – feature films Unknown Soldier and Heavy Trip.

Yet for the Helsinki native, this recent bump in his international profile represents just another stage of an acting career that stretches back to when he was 12 years old. Now, after racking up numerous credits over the years, he is beginning to make waves behind the camera. Quite literally. His student film, Carrier, tells the story of an unorthodox drug smuggler, a pregnant woman, as she traverses the Baltic Sea on a ferry between Finland and Estonia.

Max Ovaska stands on stage in front of an audience

Ovaska strives to create a film set where everyone can enjoy creative independence. Image: KVIFF

Screened at more than 10 film festivals around the world, including the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in Czechia this summer, the short film signals a shift in focus for Ovaska; one that sees him beginning to scratch an itch to make films of his own.

We sat down with Ovaska on a sunny terrace in the Helsinki neighbourhood of Kallio to hear more. With the rhythmic sounds of a bongo player keeping us company from a nearby park, he regaled stories of being homeless, shared what he has in common with the Hollywood great Francis Ford Coppola and gave insight as to when is the best time to peel an apple whilst travelling.

You graduated from Aalto University, ELO Film School Finland in 2020. Why did you go back to study after so many years?

Well, I wasn’t actually in school before. I never studied acting. I’ve just been acting since I was 12 years old. One role led to another, and I’ve always been eager to work. So, I kind of learnt the craft while doing it. I started working less for a while when I turned 18 because I wanted to travel. I started hitchhiking around Europe. I was homeless for five or six years and had my stuff in my backpack.

Max Ovaska looks at the camera

Ovaska took time out of his acting career when he was 18 to hitchhike around Europe. Image: Max Ovaska

That must have been quite the adventure. What stereotypes of Finland did you encounter whilst travelling?

Well, I was asked very many times if I’m carrying a knife. [laughs]

And…?

I actually always did. There’s a good trick that I used a couple of times when I felt insecure while hitchhiking. You’re sitting in somebody’s car in Germany driving 200 kilometres an hour on the autobahn and you feel threatened, so you take out a knife and start peeling an apple. And that’s the end of the threat. [laughs]

I also think there’s still truth in the stereotype of Finns being silent. I’m a bit of an introvert myself, like in the sense that when I come back home from anywhere, I’ll go to a grocery store and it’s so nice. It’s so quiet. You are surrounded by this basic peace everywhere. Well, maybe not here in this part of town. [gestures to bongo player in park next door]

That bongo player might have something to say about that.

[laughs] I love having life around, but I appreciate that people generally respect each other’s private space here.

A scene from Carrier

Ovaska’s directorial debut, Carrier, has screened at over 10 festivals around the world. Image: SES

But yeah, I eventually went to Aalto University. I made some short films before applying to the school. I had a passion that I needed to go forward with. I realised that this particular education is good for opening doors properly. It felt interesting. So, I did it. You could say that it did open doors. It’s also good to have that graduation film to show around when applying for work.

Speaking of which, congratulations on Carrier. It was certainly full of surprises. Where did you get the original idea from?

Before I started school, I had this idea for a feature with a female lead who is pregnant and gets into trouble. I teamed up with [screenwriter] Josefina Rautiainen, and we developed the idea together until we had an outline, then she went and wrote it. It wasn’t based on my original idea, but I got that character out of my system.

Quite soon it became about subverting expectations, so that’s why we also have a pregnant woman as a lead. Quite commonly when you see a pregnant woman in a film, she is a clumsy, dependent character that is there to tell the men’s story. It grabbed our interest to have a pregnant lead who is perfectly capable and able. We wanted to look at all our characters with as little prejudice as possible. Another key intention of ours was to combine the comedy and thriller genres.

A man and a pregnant woman pose

Carrier was filmed in six-and-a-half days. Ovaska (left) is pictured with the film’s star, Saara Kotkaniemi. Image: Pietari Purovaara

It has done very well for a student film, being screened at over 10 festivals around the world.

It’s funny because when we were writing the film, we were told by a teacher at school that this probably won’t be a festival hit, implying the fact that short films that do well at festivals tend to be artsy. And this is quite a straightforward and entertaining film with a clear story.

We finished the film maybe four days before COVID hit. Then, I thought like, damn, this won’t make any festivals, as all the festivals would be cancelled. But eventually it was the first Finnish film at the Student Academy Awards in the States. And then it played at some European festivals. The Karlovy Vary International Film Festival this year in Czechia was the first festival that I attended physically because those other festivals had been online. It was really cool because they had this Future Frames programme where they highlight 10 European short films. We went around as a bunch of film-makers that didn’t know each other at all and that made it a really great experience.

What’s the best feedback you have received about the film?

Many people have said that they hope the story would continue. But I guess the best feedback is when you’re at the screening with the audience. Because directing a show is actually directing the audience’s reactions in a way: you’re kind of combining all these film-making elements to create moments where people can feel something specific and you’re directing that emotional arch of the journey.

Future Frames participants pose for the camera

Ovaska (far left) attended the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in 2022 when Carrier was selected for its Future Frames programme. Image: KVIFF

Laughter is a very clear indicator of reactions because it’s audible. Though in Finland, people are more like myself: I usually don’t laugh out loud when something is funny in a movie, I kind of just look at it and think, damn, that’s funny. [laughs] So, I don’t really expect to hear much. But inside the cinema, you can kind of feel what people are feeling. I think that’s the best feedback when those little things work. You sense that the audience is feeling somewhat how you planned them to.

I guess you would’ve got pretty used to laughter, though. Hevi Reissu (Heavy Trip) is one of the funniest Finnish movies in recent years and it did well internationally. Although not many people would recognise you without your corpse paint on.

[laughs] Oh, thanks. It’s like, us actors are basically selling our privacy. I think that’s one reason why the salary for actors is fairly high. People sometimes wonder about why they should get paid that much. Well, you’re basically selling your face and your privacy. So Heavy Trip was good in the sense that I only showed my face for the first act. I got a good deal in terms of saving my face that way. [laughs]

What was it like making that film?

That was a really nice experience. A lot of that had to do with the directors. Juuso Laatio and Jukka Vidgren. These guys are from up north; they’re really humble. There’s no ego in their work. So, working with them was awesome. It was just a crazy journey. I guess the thing is that the directors made it a super nice project. And it’s a special thing, you know, it’s not something you know when you read the script.

A heavy rock band driving a van

Heavy Trip premiered at SXSW in Texas and won awards around the globe. Image: Making Movies

You have also had a chance to work with one of the Hollywood greats, Francis Ford Coppola, the director of The Godfather trilogy. What did you learn from him?

I was his assistant during his one-week visit to Helsinki in 2020. He had a two-day workshop with some actors here, and I shot those sessions. That’s where I learnt the most from him. I soaked it up, for sure. It was actually quite a relief to notice that my way of directing actors is very similar to his. It kind of felt like I’m in good footsteps here as a director. [laughs] So it built my confidence professionally to notice that I guess I’m doing something right in terms of directing actors. 

Another of his biggest movies is Apocalypse Now. You also haven’t been a stranger to war epics yourself, acting in Unknown Soldier.

That was one of my best filming experiences. It was a 90-day shoot or something. And I was there for about 80 days of it. We lived in tents in the woods with all the actors. It was something really special because that’s not how films are usually made here. It had a seven million-euro budget, which at the time was the biggest budget for a local production made in Finland.

A forest scene from Unknown Soldier

Ovaska was part of the ensemble cast of Unknown Soldier, Finland’s largest grossing local film of all time. Image: Tommi Hynynen / Elokuvaosakeyhtio Suomi

We had an English special effects crew who did the explosions, and they were just coming from the set of Transformers, or something. They had been making 100 million-dollar films and then they came to Finland to make some indie film in the bushes. [laughs] So for them it was a really low-budget thing. But for all of us, it was the biggest Finnish film that was ever made back then.

Finland is trying to attract more international productions here with initiatives such as the 25-per cent tax rebate. Apart from evidently being a good place for special effects explosions, what else does the film-making landscape here have to offer?

Because we do stuff so cheap and fast, the film-making professionals here are used to making things happen. People are really sharp, flexible and professional. I think Finland is gaining interest out there in the world, too. It’s fairly easy to shoot here. I have a friend in LA who’s a director and he says it’s such a big project to even get permits for shooting out on the street. But here people are generally excited to let a film crew shoot.

We are running low on time, but before we finish up could you just describe yourself in one sentence?

That’s a tough one. I would say an adult human male. [laughs]

What inspires you?

Perseverance, ambition and compassion.

Max Ovaska looks at the camera

Ovaska has been acting since he was 12 years old. Image: Juho Mustonen

What about the best piece of advice you have ever received?

There’s this one piece of advice that I used to get over and over again from my mom when I was a kid. When I wanted something from a shop, but we couldn’t afford anything, my mum always said that “wanting is cheap”.

How about the one thing you can’t live without why?

I would say independence. Yeah. And that also has to do with my upbringing as well. Because our mum wanted me and my brother to be independent and that showed in a lot of the ways she brought us up. I guess the most difficult disappointments for me have to do with stuff that threatens my independence.

It’s interesting that you work as a director. How do you maintain your independence in such a collaborative environment?

That’s a good point. And it’s also something you want as a director: you want people to be independent in their areas of expertise. So, that’s something that I value as well. I notice that the main thing for me to get excited about any work is that I need that trust that I can do it instead of just being somebody who’s handing out tools for someone else.

Close up of Max Ovaska in Heavy Trip

Ovaska was unrecognisable under a thick layer of corpse paint for most of Heavy Trip. Image: Screenshot /YouTube

When I’m given a task where I can operate independently, that kind of gets me into the project. That’s what I want to do as a director. I want to enable people’s independent work in their art forms.

And finally, where do you see yourself in 10 years?

[laughs] That’s a long time. Man, almost a third of my life, basically. You never know what’s gonna happen, but I guess what I would hope for is to be well enough established as an artist to have the independence to make artistic decisions such as casting, for example. So, I would say making films and TV with more independence. [laughs].

And I would see myself based in Finland, because nowadays the more I travel, the more I love this place. Yeah. It’s such a good country.

Why is that?

When I left here for the first time as a teenager, I was like, “fuck this place”. But when I came back, it was like, my roots are here, and things feel right. You know? Also, the film and TV content here is getting better, the general quality of it. I wanna be part of that Finnish culture and a part of making it and be a part of allowing people to make it.

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