When did you learn of the story of Olli Mäki’s championship bout and the romance he began with Raija while he trained for it? What made you want to make a film about it?
It was 2011, and I met Olli and Raija in Kokkola. Olli has severe Alzheimer’s disease now, but he still remembers his old stories. He told me about this championship fight back in 1962, and when he ended his story by saying: “It was the happiest day of my life,” he had this smile on his face that forced me to ask incredulously “How come?” That’s when he told me about buying the engagement rings together with Raija that same day. Nice story I thought, but a bit too classic to be told again. As the weeks passed, Olli’s story stayed on my mind. Why did he buy those rings on that same day? I didn’t know much about boxing myself, but it was still obvious to me that if you’re preparing for a world championship fight, you should be 100% dedicated to the fight. Buying your engagement rings the very same day seemed like something that would be totally forbidden.
Then, as I started to dig deeper into Olli’s story, I realised that it was full of beautiful details and complexity which lifted it from the average into something unique. Art is in the details, I’ve heard. I soon realised that Olli’s story was not only about losing the fight and winning in love. In fact it wasn’t about winning or losing at all, but about finding your own way to happiness regardless of outside expectations. The fight and Olli’s participation was in a sense a clash of worldviews - a small communist town from Finland under pressure to become a star in the American show business machine.
In the popular imagination, is Olli Mäki seen as a national hero or a national failure?
If he’s not a national hero, he’s at least a working class hero. Generally speaking he is definitely considered to be one of the best boxers to ever come out of Finland. After his defeat to Davey Moore, Olli Mäki continued boxing until 1973. He won the European Championship in 1964, he had good fights and left a legacy that partly wiped away the memory of this great loss in 1962 from the national consciousness.
There are some people who say that Olli Mäki wasn’t ambitious enough and didn’t have the right personality to ever become a great boxer, that he was too kind a person and too much of a ‘good guy’. One example of what led to that reputation is Olli never wanting to knock out his opponents. He thought there was no reason to if the fight already seemed to be won. So sometimes the same things that make you a better person aren’t the ones that will take you to the top of your sport.
The basic mood in The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki is light. Although it’s a story about an existential crisis and finding oneself, it is crucial to the narrative that we don’t wallow in the mud but instead, fly like a kite.
What is your relationship to the real Olli Mäki now, and was he involved in the film?
We’ve met a few times with Olli and Raija since. Unfortunately Olli is quite seriously ill, enough that he’s not fully aware of the film. Raija is such a beautiful person, and she has been a great help for us. They visited a few times during the shoot, and they are actually seen in the film, in the very last shot. The real Olli and Raija pass our characters, and then our fictional Raija asks “-Do you think we’ll become like them? -You mean old? -Yes, and happy. -Of course we will”, says Olli, played by Jarkko Lahti.