2008 Grand Prize Winner Timo E. Peltonen

The Piano Tuner

In 1943 Germany, where trust has collapsed and fear burns brightly, a piano tuner investigates the mystery of a war widow’s son disappearing from his room.

When did you start writing creatively?

Oh, I suppose my first creative writings came about when I was seven years old. I drew and wrote comics, nothing fancy, but comics nevertheless.

All through primary school I always preferred writing short stories instead of the usual stuff – themes about hobbies, books etc. The problem with this was that I never managed to finish the stories within a school period and thus ended up doing 2-4 hours of homework on each story. On one occasion I realized I was already on page fourteen and the treasure hunters had not even left their office – luckily our teacher gave me a break on that one and I didn’t have to finish the megastory. A good, early lesson on getting the story moving right at the start!

In my high school, Finnish classes short story writing was forbidden – the texts had to be themes or essays. However, our English teacher allowed short stories as writing exercises – and, very importantly, applauded the quirky tales I came up with. I think it’s always great when a teacher is ready to bend the rules a bit in order to nurture imagination.

So you were a big comic book fan as a child?

A fan, but I suppose I wouldn’t call myself a big fan. Around the age of seven, I really liked a Belgian comic called Yoko Tsuno, named after its female heroine, with science/sci-fi oriented adventure stories. Then there were Tintin, Lucky Luke, Asterix, Tarzan (I also liked the original novels a lot) and probably my all-time favourite, the realistic French comic Alix, with adventures set in the age of the Roman empire.

A bit later on me and my big brother read a lot of Superman, which through the years became a bit boring, and we started preferring the more human Spiderman and Batman. Also The Phantom was a popular comic in Finland, as well as Donald Duck.

Did comics have any influence on you as a storyteller?

I suppose that ever since I was a kid I’ve been interested in the joining together of picture and word, but by far my main interest, also in that respect, has been filmed.

The experiences of watching Disney’s Peter Pan and Robin Hood at the age of five at the Dar es Salaam drive-in theatre were quite magical. At that age I could also very easily relate to the small kid in the ending of Shane, pleading the hero not to leave. I can still remember that moment and feel myself pleading with him.

Did you work with movies when you were a kid?

My first “moviemaking” memory is from the ages between 7-8. I and my brother used small Playmobil action figures to stage a train-robbery, then took pictures with my small still camera. What happened was that the camera could not focus even close to the distances we were shooting at (1-10 inches) and thus the photoshop didn’t even process the pictures.

I was already a teenager when I made my first video movies.

What did you start working on when you were a teenager?

We made a couple of short films. One was called (English translation) The Postman Always Plays Guitar (as in The Postman Always Rings Twice). It was a story of a mailman who gets fed up with his job and decides to woo the lady he’s been pining for. Another was about a loner who is making an audiotape voice letter to his parents, lying about his well-being/going-ons – the untruthfulness of his words become obvious through details in his apartment. Both were comedies, by the way, the latter a bit darker than the first.

Those sound great. Did you write those by yourself?

The first one was mainly written by my friend Mikko, the second one by me.

What did you do next as a filmmaker?

During my early university studies, I and a couple of friends made a short black-and-white film, somewhat experimental, with a jagged, almost hidden story of a break-up. This one had the artsy title (English translation) …Leah Laughing.

Did you show this to an audience? How was it received?

I did show the film in two of my classes and then it was shown at a “film festival” another friend used to have a couple of times each year, showing films his friends had made. I suppose you could say the reception was mixed. Some liked the film, usually the ones who could piece together the storyline, others weren’t as enthusiastic.

Where did you study?

I studied Theatre and Drama Research at the University of Tampere. With both practical and theoretical theatre courses, plus some student theater acting, I think I ended up with a pretty good basic understanding of drama. But speaking of film, by far the most important part of my studies was my exchange year at Montana State, where I studied film making.

How long were you at Montana State?

One study year, 1994-1995.

How did you develop as a screenwriter there? Do you consider yourself a writer first or filmmaker?

That’s a tough line to draw. If I look at myself back then, I’d say I saw myself as a filmmaker or a writing filmmaker. The main part of my studies in Montana were the three production courses I took. In two of them I wrote and directed a short fiction film and in the third wrote and directed a short documentary, all about 12 minutes in length.

My fall fiction project, Payback Time, was about a shy guy who decides to summon his courage and knock on the neighbour’s door to borrow some sugar, only to find out that the very source of his anxieties, a pretty girl who laughed at him at a crucial moment in high school, has moved next door. The spring fiction film, Into, followed a nightly drive back from a robbery, peppered with short flashbacks. The first had a happy ending, the latter a solemn one.

As far as developing as a screenwriter goes it was extremely useful to see one’s own words turn into a “well-made” film. And by “well-made” I mean that there actually was a (small) crew working, not just two guys plus actors. It was also reassuring to see that events did work on film in the way I had envisioned them. One notable exception to this was the gimmicky (I suppose more directing related) stuff – for example, the camera gradually turning upside down when the Payback Time protagonist sees The Girl. Gimmicks are interesting to try and can even be interesting to watch but almost always distract from the main thing, keeping the audience emotionally involved.

And to get back to your question about my view of myself: Nowadays I do see myself first and foremost as a screenwriter.

What happened after you came back to Finland? What did you write next?

The next thing I wrote was a stage play. A Greek foundation, The Alexander Onassis Public Benefit Foundation, organized a playwriting contest with the first prize of a whopping 250 000 dollars. I took several months off from my studies to write This Taste, a full-length play about a man whose mind gets more and more fragmented. In this process film also plays a part. The plays had to be either in Greek or English. So I wrote mine in English. 🙂

You don’t know Greek, so this was a smart decision.

Yup, even though Greek would have been a fitting language for tragedy writing!

Where did the idea come from for THE PIANO TUNER?

I was trying to think about that just today, and couldn’t come up with a definite answer. I know that what I had first was the ending (which I don’t want to reveal here). This first idea dates back to the late nineties.

I’m a big fan of writing down ideas when they arrive. I have hundreds – no kidding, more than three hundred ideas written down. Quite naturally many are only the beginnings of something good and out of the hundreds maybe about ten are close to as good as what became The Piano Tuner, but still, I think almost as important as having an imagination is writing down the fruits of that imagination. Because one forgets, even the best ideas, if enough time passes.

My list of ideas is kind of like having a dialogue with myself. When I go back and look at my ideas from, say, ten years ago, it’s almost as if a stranger wrote them down, since most of them I have no recollection of. And if I’m lucky an old idea connects nicely with a newer one, or things I’ve learnt within a decade take an old idea into a surprising direction.

How many feature-length screenplays have you written?

This is my first – so yes, the ideas really keep piling up. Only shorts before this. The only exception is a ten-part miniseries I and two other guys tried to write, in Finnish. I wrote the first episode and then we did the storylines for the rest, but in the end the TV channel wasn’t interested. All in all that project was marred by compromise. What I really do like about The Piano Tuner is that it’s all mine – I only let my wife and a Dutch friend read it before sending it off.

How many years have you worked on it?

Several, I can’t really give you a definite year count. After coming up with the ending, I began to create a chain of events that would lead to that point. And while I was creating that chain, I wrote scenes that fit the arc. The work has been awfully fragmented, but it is possible that this has also worked in my favor: Having to take a break for two to three months because you need to earn a living means a fresh perspective when you return to the script. Quite naturally along comes also the frustration of repeatedly re-immersing oneself into the story.

Do you have any idea of how many rewrites/drafts you did?

This rewriting and re-drafting of a screenplay kind of boggles me…

(I know what it is but it doesn’t seem to be the way I work.) What I do after finishing the first draft is I read through the script over and over and see what catches my eye. I think the biggest change I have made into The Piano Tuner since the first draft was that I cut the single dream sequence down from one page to half a page.

So in other words: if all the different read-throughs that brought about changes count, maybe 35-45 drafts, but as far as major changes are concerned, just one draft, and then a hell of a lot of fine-tuning, mainly to make the descriptions concise but descriptive, and the dialogue natural but gripping.

That’s about the best description of actually working hard on a screenplay I’ve seen in a while. 🙂 Well, you can see the work in the script, because it’s very powerful. You seem to have genius writing action with great clarity and tension.

Thank you. An afterthought about messing with the plot in rewrites: The thing about a detective story, at least this one, was that if you change one link in the chain, you destroy the whole.

Yes. What I loved was the time you took to develop the relationships between the detective and the young girl. You needed that connection to be established.

Yes, that connection was extremely important for the events, in the end, to ring true. By the way, speaking from a critic’s point of view, this is an area where very many films fall short: the relationships between characters are not developed strong enough to justify the affection/action which follows.

Where did you think you script needs work?

Hmmm… I really couldn’t say. I knew I had a powerful story and knew how a film narrative could and should work. I was also very happy to see how the main themes (which I don’t want to reveal here) fell into place and bound the whole together. If I’d have to name one thing, I suppose it would be the fact that I’m not a native English speaker – not that I would make stupid blunders but that I might have a disadvantage compared to the very best native-speaking writers. Very happy to find that this is not the case.

How could you do a low budget version of your screenplay?

As far as large action sequences go, there aren’t any, so I suppose the film could be worked into a smaller budget, simply by limiting the wideness of the wide shots.

However, since the mindset of World War II Germany plays an important part in the film, I really do feel the budget should be at least medium-sized so that the monumental shadows could also be seen, not just echoed in dialogue.

Are you working on anything new?

We now have two daughters, aged one and two-and-a-half, so the past two years in my life have really been dedicated to childcare and taking care of / renovating this 1950s house we bought in 2007, but yes, I have also been working on a screenplay, a contemporary detective story, with a more comic angle to the hard-boiled detective genre.

Parallel with The Piano Tuner I have also been writing a novel in English. The starting point of this was actually an action screenplay I wrote about fifty pages of. However, I realized that the pivotal moment in the script could easily be worked into something much stronger and deeper than an action movie requires. So now I have some snappy, original, unused action sequences left over. Any takers?

You live in Finland. What challenges do face as a screenwriter?

Plenty plus plenty. I believe it was a couple of months back when you wrote in your internet column about writers outside L.A. feeling, well, like outsiders, and you told that it’s pretty much the same way that most L.A. writers feel. So yes, you can definitely count me into the merry circle of outsider writers.

However, I do believe that for a writer the distance is not as big a problem as it would be if I were I director, for example. The writer mainly works alone anyhow, and in the age of e-mail, the reader of new pages can’t really tell whether I’m next door, on the other side of L.A., or in Finland.

(And if I want to get really optimistic about this in a best-case scenario the time difference might even work in the same way as the New Zealand – California time difference worked with the CGI work of the Lord of the Rings trilogy: You can get a double shift pace going with one shift in each country.)

Having said this I’m quite naturally ready to fly to L.A. if need be, and ready to stay a long while. My aunt and uncle live in Orange County.

But the bottom line still is: I really REALLY could use that L.A. agent.

What’s the film community like in Finland?

It’s small, with about ten feature films produced each year. The upside is that in the past 10-15 years the business has developed into a more professional one, with the films also looking more professional. However, since the market is so small – Finland has 5,3 million inhabitants – most of the productions are at least partly based on public funding.

We do have a couple of good directors, and people actually do make a living in the business – as long as you don’t count in the screenwriters.

An interesting development of recent years has been the emergence of animation – a genre which can more easily be exported. The upcoming reindeer story Niko and the Way to the Stars, with a budget of approximately USD 9 million, is the most expensive Finnish film to date – which also says something about the size of the industry.

Having said all this, for example, The Piano Tuner is a type of film I can’t imagine being made here.

Hopefully, the BlueCat win will shine some light on your great story.

I do hope so, and already I’m so very thankful.