With the world’s ever-growing interest in gaming, social networking and the Internet in general, the lines between reality and fantasy often become blurred. It can sometimes take a morbid, devastating event to make people addicted to technology realize that there are more important things in life than continuously connecting with people electronically. This is certainly the case in the new Finnish suspense thriller Rat King, written and directed by Petri Kotwica, which uses Hitchcockian plot elements to showcase how extensive gaming can truly endanger a person’s life.
Rat King follows 18-year-old gamer Juri (Max Ovaska), who has become so absorbed in his gaming world that he has become isolated from his girlfriend, Mia (Niina Koponen), his friends and his mother (Outi Maenpaa). When his gaming friends all disappear from the Internet, Juri is unsure how to cope in the real world. His life dramatically changes though when his gaming friend Niki (Julius Lavonen) shows up at his door, saying he has become caught up in a new mysterious game.
Wanting to help his friend, Juri begins to play the game, against Niki’s opposition. While the game initially seems to only consist of a series of trite tasks, Juri comes to realize that he’s actually playing for his life.
Kotwica took the time to speak with us recently about Rat King at New York City’s Hilton Fashion District Hotel during the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival. He discussed where he came up with the inspiration for the film, the casting process for the roles of Juri and Nikki and his excitement after he heard the drama was selected to premiere at the festival.
Check it out below.
We Got This Covered: You served as both the writer and director for Rat King. What was your motivation in making a film that focuses on people being addicted to gaming?
Petri Kotwica: The material came up when I witnessed my teenage son spending way too much time playing games. It shows what a weak father I am, I have limited insight into my son. I just noticed him playing way too much. I had to put zero tolerance on his playing. I thought of the worst scenarios. Luckily, now he’s 17, and much more interested in girls.
WGTC: Did your son provide any insight into gaming when you were writing the script?
PK: Absolutely. I even tried to update my knowledge by playing, but my characters always died within two minutes of playing. (laughs)
WGTC: Do you feel writing the script helped in your directorial duties once you began shooting?
PK: To be brutally honest, writing was a difficult period. My original idea was to make a realistic film. I decided, for many reasons, to change it, because the first school killings in my country occurred when I started writing this. So I decided to distance the film from a real-life tragedy.
I actually asked a famous colleague to write it for me. Two years later, it was obvious that we had resulted in nothing. Due to financing reasons, we had to put it together quite quickly.
WGTC: So did the finished film vary greatly from your original vision?
PK: I think so, yes.
WGTC: What was the casting process for the roles of Juri and Niki, since they were the main characters and so important to the story?
PK: This is interesting. The guy who plays Niki, Julius, I first collaborated with him when he was 6. I just entered film school, and I was making a short film. He was already so fantastic then that I wanted to work with him again. When I wrote the script, I already knew he would play this role.
Then I started looking for (someone to play) Juri. The guy who played Juri, Max, is a very good friend of Julius. We’re from a very small country, so if there are young actors, they’re going to know each other. After I cast both of them, I found out they were both born on the same day. (laughs)
WGTC: Did you write the script with the two of them in mind?
PK: Yes, I did. I also discussed this with them while I was writing it.
WGTC: In the beginning of Rat King, before Juri meets Niki, he becomes devastated when his gaming friends disappear from the Internet. Do you feel this is reflective of modern society, especially young adults, who have become too reliant on social networking?
PK: Yes. Without pointing any fingers, the Internet is fantastic, and gaming is superb, unless someone takes it too far. Yes, it is something that takes place in this millennium, that has never taken place before. Before you had to drink alcohol or do drugs. I think if I replace gaming with drugs or alcohol, it will more or less be the same story.
WGTC: You mentioned earlier that you make short films. What was the transition like from short films to feature films?
PK: Well, obviously, doing a feature film requires a lot of time and stamina. But the process itself is similar. The difference is, doing your first feature, it’s very difficult to get it done, financing-wise, especially in my latitude. They make like 10 films a year.
WGTC: Do you think it would be easier to make films in America?
PK: Oh, that would be lovely. America is where the films get made. Of course, every director who says that it doesn’t matter, if you have the necessary time and equipment, is lying. A director wants to do decent work. They want shooting times, a budget and days.
WGTC: You shot the film in about 35 days, and had a limited budget. Did that put any kind of limitations on what you could shoot?
PK: Of course. But my fantastic DOP (Director of Photography, Mika Orasmaa) spent a lot of time planning and story-boarding .He took like six weeks story-boarding this movie. We wanted to make a film that looks more expensive than it is. That’s what we did, thanks very much to our DOP.
WGTC: A large portion of the film is set in Juri’s bedroom, his school and the club he goes to with Mia. Where the locations sets that you built specifically for the film?
PK: Juri’s room, the whole basement, was a set in a studio. But that’s really it. There were certain sets that we partially built, like the hospital rooms. But the only thing we did fully was the basement in Juri’s house.
WGTC: Even though Rat King is set in Finland, do you feel that the story is something all audiences can relate to?
PK: Yes. By the way, the film was shot in Estonia, 100 percent. So it’s not even shot in the country where it takes place.
WGTC: Rat King had its international premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. What was your reaction when you found out that it was going to be playing at the festival?
PK: Of course I was incredibly happy. I’ve always wanted to come see New York. In Finland, as a director, you can’t afford to come here on your own. So I was extremely thrilled.
WGTC: What has the public reaction to the film been like so far?
PK: Well, you either like it or hate it. It’s a very controversial film.
WGTC: Why do you think it has become so controversial?
PK: Well, it creates thoughts. I hope people go home from the theater, and maybe take something from it.
WGTC: Juri and Nikki really begin to look similar as the film progresses, and they begin playing the game. Was it your intention to have them look identical, so that they could beat the game and take on each other’s lives?
PK: Yes, absolutely. I also wanted to play with the metaphorical idea of, does everything happen in one person’s mind?
WGTC: What was the working relationship between Max and Julius like? What was the rehearsal period like? You said you spent six weeks story-borading-did you spend that long rehearsing?
PK: I like spending a lot of time discussing and rehearsing. When we shot in Estonia, we even lived in the same building.
We didn’t have a chance to have a long rehearsal. We spent long periods discussing it while I was writing it. We had a short rehearsal period right before we began shooting.
I mentioned earlier that I worked with Julius before. That time, we had a longer rehearsal.
WGTC: Did you allow the actors to do any improv on the set, or did you stick to the script? Where there any scenes that you wrote that you couldn’t shoot, that if you had the chance, you would include?
PK: There really wasn’t much space for improv on the set. There were some things I wrote that I had to compromise or cut away, because of the tight schedule.
WGTC: What was the process of shooting the actions sequences?
PK: I would have loved to have had more time to spend on it. The action sequences were technically hard. It’s easy when you have a large budget, and hard when you don’t.
That concludes our interview, but we’d like to thank Petri Kotwica for taking the time to speak with us. Rat King had its international premiere at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival.