‘Fallen Leaves’ Star Alma Pöysti Explains How Making the Deadpan Rom-Com Was ‘As Pure as Possible’

TheWrap magazine: “(Director) Aki Kaurismäki doesn’t rehearse with us and he prefers to get every shot done in one take,” says the acclaimed actress

Alma Poysti, star of "Fallen Leaves" (photo by Guerin Blask for TheWrap)
Alma Poysti, star of "Fallen Leaves" (photo by Guerin Blask for TheWrap)

Taking place among the working class in Helsinki, the Finnish film “Fallen Leaves” resonates with the vibe of a previous era. It feels like a movie that’s not just set 30 years ago, but was made then, too. But it is, in fact, a modern-day
story — sort of.

“If you look, you can see there’s a calendar on the wall in the movie,” said Alma Pöysti, the movie’s exceptionally soulful lead actress. “And the calendar is for the year 2024. Isn’t that something fantastic? That is Aki Kaurismäki.” 

Kaurismäki is Finland’s most acclaimed filmmaker, a charmingly deadpan auteur of yearning and wistful romance. His four decades of work has consistently focused on characters from lower economic rungs making their way through the world.

“Fallen Leaves” is Finland’s 2023 Oscar submission for Best International Feature. Kaurismäki’s 2002 film “The Man Without a Past” is the country’s only nominee in the international category.

“I’ve been watching his movies my whole life and, like everyone in Finland, his work is almost in our DNA,” Pöysti said. “He makes stories that are as honest as you can get, but they’re also rough fairy tales for grown-ups.”

The actress is best known as the star of “Tove,” which was Finland’s 2020 Oscar submission. Her touching performance in “Fallen Leaves” – as a lonely supermarket employee who connects with a ragged boozer (Jussi Vatanen) – has been pulling the heartstrings of audiences since the movie premiered at Cannes. The film has elevated her profile but also altered her philosophy towards acting.

“Aki doesn’t rehearse with us and he prefers to get every shot done in one take,” she said. Pöysti admitted that she was slightly terrified at first about one having a single shot to nail every scene. “But I loved it, loved it,” she admitted. “When you do takes again and again, you start including your acting technique and it drains the quality a bit. But when you get one and only take, it’s as pure as possible.”

She said the one-and-done shooting style also kept her on her toes. “Because the last thing you wanna do is screw up this movie. But it almost always worked out on the first take. If an actor totally forgot their line, then there might have been a second take. But for there to have been a third take, that would have taken a disaster. I don’t think we ever did a third take.”

The film is replete with cinematic references — a stray dog, for example, is named Chaplin and a movie poster for David Lean’s “Brief Encounter” is displayed in the background of a tentative romantic scene. In one knowingly ironic scene, the characters visit a movie theater to see a film by Jim Jarmusch, a real-life friend of Kaurismäki. The movie they watch is Jarmusch’s recent zombie flick “The Dead Don’t Die.”

“Aki is constantly is talking about movies and references,” said Pöysti. “But there’s nothing dusty about it. He’s constantly watching movies and reading books and listening to new music. In one scene, he has a current Finnish group performing. Their name is Maustetytot, which translates into ‘Spice Girls.’ It’s brilliant that they are in the film.”

The title of the movie is also a reference to a song. “But the film’s name can be translated in a few different ways. It could mean ‘Autumn Leaves’ or it could mean ‘Dead Leaves,’ but those all start with the leaf falling off from its branch. So the leaf is dead but it gets to blow through the air for awhile. Thinking about it that way, Aki is actually so romantic.”

The story also includes simple emotional tableaus, such as the sight of Pöysti’s character riding alone on a bus or a train.

“The framing of those scenes is so beautiful,” she said. “In the background, you can see other people, sometimes it’s a couple, and I think that we relate to that no matter who we are. Because we have all seen someone else alone, looking lonely, on the train. And we have all been that lonely person, too.”

She added, “The people in the movie, and even the dog, are all past their due date. It is a story of the little people being run over by the system, but the film is a big counterforce against cynicism. Aki is really saying that you don’t have to be disappointed. There is compassion and empathy and standing up for each other in the world. You can find meaning and purpose. And, well, hey, there might be something in this life.”

A version of this story first ran in the International Feature Film issue of TheWrap awards magazine.

Read more from the International issue here.

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