Peeter Simm’s film ON THE WATER is the official international feature film Oscar entry from Estonia for the 94th Academy Awards.
Estonian director Peeter Simm’s coming-of-age dramedy premiered in competition at The Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival. A veteran of Estonian cinema and an alumnus of the Moscow State Institute of Cinematography, the Kiviõli-born director, Peeter Simm, rose to fame with his 1980 directorial debut, “Ideal Landscape,” which, although was banned during the Soviet Union years, was subsequently anointed as one of the best Estonian films of all time.
The story of “On the Water” is based on the book of the same name by Olavi Ruitlane and is set in 1982 in rural Soviet Estonia, at the end of Leonid Brezhnev’s rule. This Estonian SSR setting is beautifully recreated by the excellent production design; the numerous echoes from the 1970s and 1980s late Soviet comedies, particularly visible in terms of style, the score and comedic devices
Bijan Tehrani: What encouraged you to adapt “On the Water” into a film?
Peeter Simm: The offer to direct On the Water was made by the producers. It had already been adapted into a screenplay and it was quite faithful to the novel. Imaginary characters had been added, I call them ‘spirits’ and I’ve never had a good relationship with them. I got rid of a pilot with a wooden leg, a Native American chief and some other spirits who, in addition to floating, also gave lessons and carried out stunts. A moment later it turned out to be the boy’s fantasy, of course. Only the mother remained, occasionally appearing in reflections during moments when the boy was experiencing real distress. I promised the screenwriter hypocritically not to do violence to the story and threw out two thirds of fishing. Who will want to watch those wriggling fish anyway? The main thing is that on the water the Red Army veteran calls the young boy ‘Sir’.
BT: “On the Water” has very clever, sharp and dark humor, how challenging was it to interpret this humor into the language of cinema?
PS: It seems to me that life actually has ‘clever, sharp and dark humor’. Even though most of us never had a microwave oven nor a thermos bottle with a pump during the Soviet era, almost all of us had a better life than the residents of that yard. But no viewer has said that we lied. There have been bootleg sellers, prisoners who can’t find employment and women whose guests can’t find their money after paying a visit. I asked the actors to recall crude, cantankerous, dishonest and otherwise wild personalities and accurately pinpoint the details of their behavior. Not big but specifically the small things. The mood transitions, gestures and sentence structure. On the set, they were free to do whatever surfaced from the shadows of their memory and there was the result. 99% of the traits in those cartoonish characters might be repulsive. The remaining 1% retains hope that is seen by the growing boy as well as the viewer. To sound sentimental, this is how harmony is built out of chaos or something like that. As a side note: we used an 8K digital camera, sometimes two when necessary. We would not have had enough film stock had we shot on film. There would have been problems with light sensitivity and mobility. In short, the amount of improvisation would have been several times smaller.
BT: Audiences could one way or another identify themselves with the characters in “On the Water”. Did you draw from any personal experience in your own life in making this film?
PS: It seems that the actors first empathized with Andres who was at the end of his childhood and then started reminiscing about some character who could be trusted even in the worst circumstances, for example when a house caught fire. We then reminded ourselves how funny people are when they fight or when they’re sad and that’s when you get the the result that’s 99% grotesque and 1% redemptive. I have had neighbors who have not gone to their daughter’s funeral. They weren’t evil or heartless. They either didn’t have the money or they were hung-over. When I gave them the money, it still turned into a hangover by morning.
BT: The performances in your film are amazing, how did you go about casting and working with your actors?
PS: Our casting process was the most usual kind, including the setbacks. The production was postponed and the boy we chose grew out of the part. We found Rasmus who had just accompanied his brother during the screen tests a year and a half earlier. It’s just hindsight and applies to this film alone but it seems to me that it would’ve been difficult to totally miscast this part. The character on the screen would have been different but he still would’ve been plausible for sure. All actors used their personal memories, temperament and fantasy. They never heard the word ‘no’ on the set and everyone had the right to ask for another take. If something really did go too far and didn’t fit the whole then it was saved in the edit. It was made clear to us already in film school: if on the set it seems to the director that the result is not quite there or something went a little bit wrong then on the big screen you’ll discover that everything is missing. My whole practice has only confirmed this rule. During On the Water an exception was born to this rule. Our driver was kind enough to play a man who was thrown out after getting robbed. I took 13 takes and I wasn’t happy with any of them. I gave up. On the screen, all 13 looked good, choose whichever one you like.
BT: How did you decide about the visual style of the film?
PS: Most of our crew remembered the year 1982. Some were even already making films back then. It was the epilogue of the Soviet epoch. There was no mass terror, everyone tried to manage somehow and use fewer big words. Both time and space were faded. There are recent films set in the Soviet era and as a rule, there are many red banners with slogans on the screen, there’s a stress on the leaders’ portraits and plaster sculptures of sportsmen. We aimed to avoid all kinds of props like that. Even speeches from the loudspeakers don’t reach our yard. Not even through television from the Red Square. We find that in a bleary and tired society we don’t need any bright colours and finger-pointing. Some say that we made it look nice. It probably means scenic. We never had that goal in mind either and if we did then only during a couple of the most romantic parts of the film.
BT: How do you feel about being chosen to represent Estonia at the Oscars?
PS: First, the whole crew is very pleased. We were surprised because we were deliberately making a local film and suddenly it seems to affect others as well. There are films that Estonians have been fond of for half a century but already 10 meters beyond the state border no one has heard anything about them. It’s characterised by a steady pace and a plot that develops along plausible events. The characters tend to be lifelike and not grotesque. Our story doesn’t have any powerful heroes, their magnificent confrontations nor any new world views as a result of that. Estonian rivers flow calm and steady, they are beautiful and pass through lonely places and various town districts. They’re quite good for fishing. Still, they have some 20-meter terraces. And so does our film.
BT: How has “On the Water” received by film critics and audiences so far?
PS: At the Moscow film school, my teacher Aleksandr Stolper claimed that when a film is successful then everyone in the credits is its author. When the film is crap then it has one author, the director. Decades ago it seemed to be a paradoxical joke, now I’m convinced that it’s exactly how it is. If the director manages to win the trust of his crew, evoke enthusiasm and the feeling of creative freedom then it will also reach the viewer and the film critic. We have been lucky to have found understanding from both the audience and the specialists.