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Markku Pätilä: Losing Credit

Markku Pätilä is a Finnish artist and production designer for film, TV and commercials. He is best known for his decades-long collaboration with award-winning director Aki Kaurismäki on such films as "Man Without A Past", "Lights in the Dusk" and "The Other Side of Hope".

Please tell me a little bit about you background, and how you came to work with Aki Kaurismäki.

I never studied production design, but studied art in Boston and in Vienna in the 1970s. After returning from a ten-year period in Austria I moved into a country house in Finland that happened to be in the same area where Kaurismäki was living. I was doing some house renovations there with a friend, and one day I went to a restaurant, and Kaurismäki was there. As the restaurant closed for the night, I told him I had a couple bottles of wine at my home. So, he came to my house and saw that I had designed my home in a very interesting way. I lived all my life this way, collecting things for my home from what others threw away. These things were old and have the patina of time.

Because of what he saw in how I designed my home, he asked me if I would like to design the sets for his short film, "These Boots are Made for Walking". Two months later he came to me with notes for another film, "Tatjaana", and explained what he needed me to do, what sets he needed for his film. This became my first full feature film as a production designer, in cooperation with artist friend Jukka Salmi, and the first film we worked on together, in 1992.

You’ve recently been involved in a challenging political situation on the job, please tell us how it came about and why it was challenging.

After 25 years of working together, Aki Kaurismäki and I ended up in a dispute. The last film we worked on, "The Other Side of Hope", was selected for the competition at the Berlinale. I know a lot of people who work there, and I heard that the film for which I did the design was listed with 3 production designers in the credits. Also, the names were listed alphabetically, so there were others listed as production designer, and I was listed as the last one. Most would look at the listing and believe all three of us were the production designer. But it was my work, and this happened without my knowledge.

Who were the other two people listed as production designer?

The others were the on-set dresser and the construction coordinator. They were listed as designers.

What was your response to this error?

Once I found out about this, I wrote emails to Kaurismäki and to the co-producer to explain that this wasn’t right, but they didn’t answer. So, I went to the production design union, and I said this was a clear case of an artist rights violation. They agreed, and offered to help me, with insurance for a lawsuit and by arranging for their lawyers to help me. Before we filed a suit, the union wrote a letter to Kaurismäki to ask him to fix the violation. He wrote back himself, it was a really strange letter, and he said that there was no violation, that they always do the credits this way, and that we should just shut up.

Next, the lawyers wrote him an official letter, saying that if he doesn’t change the credits they will ask that the Finnish court bans the screening of the film. This is normal procedure.

He didn’t write a response himself - next we heard from his lawyers. In an effort to keep the issue from going to court, they offered a settlement of 10,000 Euros, in order to sweep this issue under the rug. This was a matter of principle for me, so we took it to court.

When the court proceedings began, what arguments were made on the matter?

I brought a lot of evidence to court that made the case seem fairly clear. I brought my photobooks and lookbooks for the film, and I felt that they totally proved my case. I had images that clearly showed my design ideas from before the shoot, and I could compare them to the photos from the film. They were a one to one match.

Kaurismäki’s lawyers argued that it is no longer my design when they change something for the film after I left the set. They claimed that if you have a set with a cabinet on the left, and then the director decides to have the cabinet moved to the right after I had left to attend to the next set, then I am no longer the only production designer of the set, and the man whose job it is to move the cabinet is the also production designer for that scene. If Kaurismäki decides to take a coffee cup off of the desk and replaces it with soup bowl then now it is his design too. It is not my set anymore. These kind of changes happen all the time in filmmaking but in my opinion this should never affect the credits of person who originally created the set.

My lawyers asked him many times in court, “what did you change in this set?” And Aki would answer “I took the garbage away.” He refused to comment on what that "garbage" was.

His lawyers argued that you can’t have an artist’s right to the production design, because the art is all combined into the film. It is a combined piece of art. Our response was: “Why then does the director have these rights? Why does the music have the rights? Why does the screenwriter get these rights?”

What did the court decide?

The court said that I had a very big influence on the design of the film, and that I had made a big effort on the making of the film. But they didn’t give me the credits, and we lost the case. Kaurismäki’s lawyers successfully made the argument that they couldn’t differentiate the production designer’s influence from the rest of the film.

This is a very important case, because it means a producer can do whatever they want with the credits, and it gives them a weapon that they can use to blackmail the production designer. They could always threaten a removal of the production designer’s artistic rights.

Because I lost the case, I had to pay 90,000 Euros for Aki’s lawyers’ fees. I did not have the chance to bring the case to the supreme court, so I lost the case on all the different court levels.

Why do you think that Aki made the change to the credits?

I do not know his motives for changing the credits. In the courtroom Aki explained that he designed each of his movies (not only the ones I designed) to the smallest detail and he, as a matter of fact, never needed a designer but more a carpenter who is skillful enough to fulfill his vision. That he gave me a credit as a production designer is only because it would look funny if in the end of the movie all the credits would read “Aki Kaurismäki.”

My friend told me he thinks that Aki may think he designed the film, because I was able to create designs that so closely matched what he envisioned. It is a fact that I have always lived like one of the figures in his stories, and this makes it easy for me to create this kind of particular and imaginary world. My years in Vienna gave me all the tools I needed for production design. It was my school in all aspects artistic and practical. I have a strong feeling that my experiences in Vienna were directly placed in the sets created by me.

He may have been punishing me for when I asked if he could consider some kind of extra compensation for the extra time I had spent working. We worked many extra hours on this last project, because we did have enough crew members for the film.

What is your relationship with Aki now?

Since this happened, I have not been in any contact whatsoever. I sent a couple text messages but he never answered. I want to note that we worked together for 25 years and made 7 feature films and 2 short films together. This spring I wrote him a long letter telling him what I think all of this and what he said about me and my working attitude in the court room, but I never got reaction to it.

Did the case affect the local film community?

I have a feeling that it divided the production designer field into two sections: to ones who feel I was wronged, and to the ones who do not care. I never studied production design, but came to the “field” accidentally by mere fluke. I started my career by working with a man with whom most of Finnish designers would love to work. Maybe some designers are little bit envious, which is not rare amongst people who work in artistic occupations.

On the other hand I have heard that many production designers are very supportive of what I have done. They pay a lot more attention when they are reading their contracts and are more alert to questionable, problematic, or shady clauses in them.

Is there any advice you can give other production designers, to help us avoid such a situation?

You have to read the contracts. They usually say that you can’t show your contract to anybody, but do it, show it. If you have friends who are lawyers, show them the contract, because they usually have very strange things written into them. If you are called the production designer at the beginning of the contract, make sure there is also a section that explains how they will credit you at the end of the film. It’s really important, read the contract.

The more people accept bad deals, the worse the future will be for all designers.

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