• Festivals

From Science to a Premiere at Venice, Director Hanna Västinsalo’s Journey Started with “Jurassic Park”

Finnish filmmaker Hanna Västinsalo attended the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s and Film Independent’s residency program earlier this year with her movie Palimpsest. Her background in molecular genetics gives her film a unique point of view.

She says she wants to make movies that shake the audience a little as well as provide a sense of escapism. Her first feature, Palimpsest, is an unusual coming-of-age story about two elderly people, who are selected for a medical trial, which makes them physically younger. As they find themselves facing the world in younger bodies, with the memories of their old lives intact, they realize that growing young is not just fun.


“I had a really crazy idea of a sci-fi adjacent drama about aging, and second chances focusing on a woman’s experience of getting young again. It was just overwhelming after the film screened at the 79th Venice Film Festival and received a four-minute standing ovation,” Västinsalo said, over coffee in Beverly Hills.

Even though Hanna has a backstage view of the research world, she didn’t want technology to be the center of the story.

“What if you could manipulate your biological age? The method to do that isn’t interesting, but what happens to us psychologically is. How would it feel if you were the first one to do it? When you have to reinvent yourself completely without any kind of precedent? That’s the story I wanted to tell and place it in a setting that is more realistic like a medical trial, where we only know what the subjects of the trial know, which is almost nothing about the science behind it all.”

When Hanna was growing up on a small farm town in Finland, she saw the movie Jurassic Park and was inspired to study genetics, even though none of her family had ever gone to university before her. Years later, she received a Ph.D. in molecular genetics at the University of Helsinki. While she was doing medical research, she often spent nights at the lab.

“The lights were timed and, in the nighttime, they went off every hour so I needed to switch them back on. There were nights when I was sure that I was there by myself, but before I managed to switch the lights back on, they turned on. It was spooky because I realized that there was somebody else in the same wing, but I had no idea where they were,” she said.

One night she got an idea: “This would be a perfect horror film.” 

She recruited her sister, and they filmed a ten-minute-long horror film where Hanna played an evil scientist who killed her sister and made samples of her for research.

Hanna showed the movie to her scientist friends. They ended up filming three shorts, collectively called the Grant Trilogy, where scientists were killing each other in a lab to gain research funding. Hanna’s horror shorts got more and more elaborate, and she was impacted by how much these simple stories affected the audience. After she got her Ph.D., she decided to apply to film school and got accepted into the directing program at the American Film Institute Conservatory (AFI) in Los Angeles.

“I had zero experience in the film industry as a professional when I arrived. I remember googling what a first AD did. I loved the sink-or-swim atmosphere at AFI. It was really intense, but at the same time, I think it was the best school for me because you learned by making mistakes.”

After AFI, she fell into virtual reality, when a dancer friend described a dance film she wanted to make. Hanna realized that the story about pregnancy was a story about space within the mother’s mind and body. The 360 contemporary dance experience, Wombsong, showed how a pregnant dancer contemplates the nature of expecting life to be born and the pregnant body’s relationship to the harmony inside the dancing body. After that came Man Under Bridge, which mixed museum archives, 360 footage, and 3D animation, into a virtual reality experience using an interview of a homeless man about his life in 1960s Helsinki. Man Under Bridge premiered at the 77th Venice International Film Festival, where she found out about the Biennale College Cinema, artistic training, and internship program.

“The story of Palimpsest had been brewing inside my mind and I figured that the program would be the perfect fit for a film that does crazy things, like having the lead female character be played by four different actors as she gets younger.”

She describes that it was like going to AFI all over again.

“We had two weeks to develop the project with the mentors and convince them that we could do this sci-fi story with only €150,000 and in nine months if we were chosen. They understood what we saw in the fates of the characters and off we went.”

Hanna gathered her team with US and Finnish talents like the other AFI graduates: producer Cyril Jacob Abraham from New York, editor Tarek Karkoutly, who edited Palimpsest while working on Lucasfilm’s Bad Batch and cinematographer Henry Dhuy, another Finnish AFI graduate. They filmed the movie in Finland and Hanna got her dream cast to play the parts, including Krista Kosonen, Riitta Havukainen, Emma Kilpimaa, Antti Virmavirta, Leo Sjöman, and 11-year-old Kaisu Mäkelä in her first acting role as an 80-year-old woman living as a child.

“Kaisu came to the audition, and asked straight away if the ending scene was supposed to be happy or sad. I got chills that she had understood the human complexity in the ending of the film, just from reading the script.”

Palimpsest was screened at the 79th Venice International Film Festival, but because it was financed by the film festival, it couldn’t be part of any competitions. Västinsalo was awarded another way; she was invited to attend the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s and Film Independent’s residency program in Los Angeles, in January 2023.

“It’s like a steppingstone to the future. There were different kinds of mentorships, from pitching to writing, to how to get your movie to film festivals, to how to find the right distributor, and how to approach your next project. I was also able to attend the official Golden Globes viewing party and meet the other filmmakers in the program.”

During the mentorship program, she was also invited to speak at the Nordic Oscar Week, a creative conference for industry professionals in the fields of film and TV, music and gaming in Los Angeles.

“I’m currently developing new projects and finding homes for them here in the US and internationally. I think all stories are universal in the end, even the most obscure Finnish story merged with its local weirdness resonates with non-Finns, as we are all human. That’s the same reason we can relate to Luke Skywalker or Catwoman, Ellen Ripley or Roy Batty – they all desire the same things we all do, even though the settings are fantastical.”