There are very few things more frustrating than having to cancel a shoot, but that’s exactly what happened yesterday.
The morning was foggy and smoggy, and I was feeling groggy. The food at the office was, again, horrendous and my head was completely empty of any creative ideas on how to make the day through and still be interesting filmmaker. Another four pages of script on the callsheet, and the absolutely last day in the studio, which would be torn down – not just the set, but the actual building it resided in – the next week, so there was no possibility to push anything back. We either get what we need, or we have to rewrite.
Another surprise was that in addition for us having to shoot quite a lot, we also had a reduced shooting day in our use: due to the next day’s company move to Qingdao, we needed to stop after 8 hours, instead of the 12 hours we usually shot. So there I was, facing a conundrum: how to make the day in only 8 hours, with so much to shoot, and still remain true to my main job as a director: to be an interesting storyteller.
But my day was about to turn much shittier. Just as we were about to start blocking, the unit production manager walked in – he’s a small guy with a cap and glasses and a loud voice – and told us everyone needs to go outside and present our IDs to the officials. Of course, Crystal had taken me and Mika’s IDs and to purchase the train tickets, so there we were, undocumented foreigners sitting in the corner of the studio hoping the local authority understands we actually have our IDs… we just don’t have them with us.
Eventually, after waiting for the fuzz to be over for nearly an hour, Lei walked in and told us we have to leave the studio, everyone. My hopes of shooting anything started to fade…
After few hours of sitting our thumbs up our asses we were informed we can not shoot anything tonight. It was of course frustrating, and I can’t even begin to imagine how much losing a whole shooting day costs to the production, but simultaneously, it’s a relief: at least I don’t have to rush through some of the most pivotal scenes of the beginning of the movie… So maybe there’s a silver lining to this cloud in the end.
The sunlight crept in between the heavy curtains of my room as I peeled my eyes open. I had no idea where I was, or what I was supposed to be doing today. I laid there for twenty seconds just slowly waking up, gathering myself – and then realized: shit, I have to shoot today! I scrambled my phone to see how badly late I was from the set – and it turns out it was not even 3pm, and the pickup wouldn’t be in another 2,5 hours.
I went down to the gym for some exercise. I’m not much of a gym rat myself, but I try to do it as much as my schedules allow me to, mostly focusing on keeping my back in shape, because most of my profession takes place sitting down in uncomfortable chairs hunched over a set of monitors for twelve hours.
At the set, everything was ready to continue from where we left. We started shooting right away, since cameras were still in place from yesterday and the start was all in all quick. The callsheet itself promised quite a hellish day: over four pages of script to be shot, which means tons of dialogue and actions to cover in two different locations.
First part of the day went past with a nice pace, but post-lunch slumber ate the energy of the second part, and we spent way too long time screwing around on the set number two. Our dreams of finishing at six am slowly evaporated as there was one more light to fix, one more angel to cover, hundred more shots out of focus…
In the end, I clung to the ages-old director trick that’s to be used only as the last resort: keeping the cameras rolling. It’s not an ideal strategy, but when you are running on empty and still need to get these three last shots, it’s undeniably effective. By not calling the cut, you have full control of the set and you are able to retake a shot multiple times without the usual reset time.
As the very last shot, we had a crazy crane shot we needed to do, and with that we went seriously overtime, but boy were we lucky we did it… But of that I’ll tell you later why. Anyway, not surprisingly I was stuck in the morning traffic again, fell asleep in my car listening to Type O Negative and eventually dragged my tired ass to bed.
“Hurry up and wait” sums up a shooting day pretty well – and everyone knows it. Yet, what people don’t know is that the kind of “waiting” is not really doing nothing, it’s kind of being in an active idle mode, where you have to wait, but you have to be ready to react every second. Thus, even though actively you may find yourself – well, as a director at least – sitting most of the time behind the monitors watching the camera crew setting up the cameras, it’s still very alert situation which demands 85% of your constant attention. Thus, doing anything else while waiting is impossible – it’s probably like driving a car: you don’t need to be aware of everything on an active level, but on a subconscious level, you are there the whole time. So for those who haven’t tried directing and would like to know how it feels like, I can say it’s like driving for 12 hours straight. And doing that six days a week. So the glamorous ideas of likening the work of a director to the one of a painter, or a musician, or a performer is bollocks: it’s more like being a truck driver.
So, there I was, in the cockpit of my 18-wheeler, racing down the highway, observing as the second shooting day unfolded, slowly but surely. One of the big delights of working as a director is when you get to work with a really, really experienced actors. This helps everyone’s life delightfully: they are always on time, they are capable of small adjustments with few words from the director. I enjoyed working with this older lady who plays mother of one of the main characters, a seasoned professional who has done both TV and films in China all her life. Her whole existence was all about professionalism – and it comes out usually first with a total respect towards the crew, each and everyone. I bet people of such a long history of work have learned that the nicer you are to people you work with – the better you are able to do your work and enjoy doing it. It’s not really rocket science, though, is it? But I can tell you, not everyone in the business thinks like this.
We shot like maniacs, but although the first four days in Beijing studio are pretty clear sets and supposedly easy days, they are also the opening scenes for two main characters, and those always need much, much more coverage than some other scenes might. Thus, we found ourselves shooting even closer, even tighter shots, doing even more angles and the schedule kept on dragging and dragging.
When we finally wrapped, it was already a bright day outside. I spent some time talking with Lei, which was a mistake – the morning traffic was just starting and I got stuck in the middle of it, and what usually is 20 minutes ride to the hotel turned into one and half hours of sitting tight in a car. I dozed off, and woke up only enough to stagger upstairs to my room and then I was out.
That’s a quote our producer Max loves to repeat, and it sits well with filmmaking.
So there I am, in a big set built on a green screen studio, with smoke machines, huge lighting setups and loads of extras swarming around. The crew is getting ready for the first shot: a big crane shot coming down from far above the people and descending down to a long street, along which we then travel to meet our main character. It’s going to be the first shot of the film, and setting it up has taken forever. The whole preparation has culminated to this moment. After this, we are actually shooting the film!
This was two years ago today, when we shot the first shots for Iron Sky The Coming Race. Coincidentally, it was also exactly the same setup today – same cranes, same movements, same everything – but for a different film, called Iron Sky: The Ark.
Same shit, different day.
When I left to China to shoot, I was expecting a completely alien experience, in a magically wonderous China where nothing is as in Europe (or Australia), with a crew operating a completely different way. But here I am, sitting behind a monitor, staring at the small figurine of Jean-Luc Picard, watching as the guys (and here it actually is mostly guys) in their black army pants and equipment belts run around, praying either the cinematographer or the first AD would tell me what’s happening and how long it’s going to take.
But of course, there are differences.
First, the Chinese crew is fast. In Europe, when something needs to be done, people walk. In China, first they yell something at two to three people, then they run to do it. You need to move a wall? *YELL* BELLOW* *five guys running* and boom the wall is GONE. Really fast. Really efficient. Well, sometimes they shout and run and do something completely different than what you asked… Lost in translation, I guess.
Second, there is no way to communicate with the cast. For a director, that’s pretty huge. So there I am, behind a monitor wanting to say something to my actor, my first AD is somewhere running the set and I only have my 18-year-old-assistant who has no idea how to talk to an actor close by. So it’s better I don’t say anything. Maybe I just go, look them in the eye, gesture with hand and say something like “pow-pow-pow… you know?” (meaning: “let’s do the whole dialogue faster, more on top of each other, responding quicker”) and they maybe know what I mean – or then not. Let’s see.
Third, there’s no catering. Yeah, that’s a big one too. I mean, there is food for the crew at certain time, but no catering table where you can grab a sammich when needed, or a coffee or whatever. The Chinese system is that you eat once on the day and after that, not at all. We do have our own ice box filled with some drinks and chocolate and whatnot with Mika, but for the rest of the crew, they are there just with what they have brought with them, and when the lunch time comes, they order something in. And it doesn’t seem to bother them at all. In Europe, there would be a full-on riot for this.
And lastly, the sanitation is pretty horrible. In the case of our first location, there’s a concrete shab with seven holes in the ground, so you can squat there and chat with your pals in total darkness while taking a poop. No western toilets, no privacy, no running water. I can’t wait to get out of the Beijing studio and to Qingdao, where my trailer will be, with a porcelain throne waiting for my sweet asscheeks.
Oh, and as I mentioned, the crew is 90% men. The only women you meet are the script supervisor, our 2nd AD and the ladies from the costume and makeup, and of course the cast members.
Having said all that, the crew is experienced and very well organized. It’s also relatively quiet and respectful for everyone’s work. There’s no horsing around, everyone is super focused on what’s happening and doing their part – however small – really well. The first days are a bit sluggish, yes, but that’s always the case when getting your bearings in any new job.
So, first day down, seventy more to go! Stay tuned!
PS. Due to the National Congress here in China, everyone is experiencing some Internet troubles. Thus, it may sometimes be hard for me to get online enough to blog, and especially to add photos (trying to add this one photo at this blog post took me 3 days) to the written blogs, so do forgive me. Trying my best to keep the pace up, though!
The last day before the shoot dawned smoggy and cloudy. I was feeling rather cloudy myself after last night’s dinner, but decided to kick myself in the ass as soon as possible and get ready for the day, last day before the shoot. I had requested it a day off, but there’s no rest for the wicked.
One thing I’m super happy about is that the production heeded my requests and got a brand new car for me, and only me. I’ve created few rituals to myself when shooting, and we directors tend to be quite superstitious lot when it comes to breaking those habits. For me, it’s the morning ride (or, in our case, the night ride) to the studio, when I really want to relax, listen to some David Bowie (I have created 71 Bowie playlists for the 71 shooting days), read the script carefully, check through the storyboards and possible animatics, in full solitude, by myself, without anyone else bugging me. Because the moment I step out of the car on the set, there are a thousand people circling around me with thousands of questions I need to answer. So this car ride, that’s my moment of zen, calm before the storm.
The last day was all about working with cast – existent and non-existent. To replace the lost cast member I told few days ago about, the production had dragged a full girl band to the production offices for me to pick the best for the role. Well, it’s never that easy: I couldn’t make up my mind on the matter even though there’s only hours anymore left before this actor needs to be cast – but I have to be sure!
On the other hand, I finally made my decision on the other missing cast member, whom I had been trying to figure out for quite some time. I received a perfect audition tape – actually, not so much an audition but rather a “video message” – which convinced me finally to proceed with her. I’m actually super excited about getting to work with her! Next is of course the hassle to get the visas in place and get her over here!
Most importantly, I sat down together with my two main actresses and rehearsed the key scenes with them both in the same room for the first time. Coincidentally, it was actually exactly two years ago today that I rehearsed with my actors, one day before the shoot in Belgium begun. So, we are pretty much on a very similar schedule here, although we have much more shooting days of course.
Going through the photos from that time two years ago brought me memories. I really miss these awesome people – Lara Rossi, Vladimir Burlakov and Kit Dale. They formed such an amazing triangle for Iron Sky The Coming Race, and today, I was the happiest man to find out the triangle of the main cast for Iron Sky: The Ark is just as solid. We had long, extremely creative discussions with them, improving scenes and lines and deepening the characters. As I can’t show their faces yet, let’s take a trip back in time to two years today and
Oh, if I was to give a tip from the future to this guy in this picture, what would it be? Well, it’s simple: make sure your actors know there’s a live horse on the set. To know what this refers to, you’ll have to read my wife’s book about the production of Iron Sky The Coming Race when it comes out. </end shameless plug>
Now, I’m in my bed, staying deliberately up as late as possible, since I have to turn my sleep cycle to the one of a night dweller.
When the filming begins, the Chinese are – as Lei described them – like soldiers. They are fully focused on the shoot, and all the extracurricular activities – that is, days off, turnovers and parties – are just a nuisance. For us, Europeans, it’s quite the other way around: days off are written in stone, turnover time is the law of God and there’s always a party of some kind related to the production. When the filming begins, there’s the kickoff party. After every 100 shots, you drink “klaffijallut” – meaning, the crew gets a shot of Jaloviina. Halfway through the shoot, in Europe we celebrate the “Over The Hill” -party (which is usually the best party, since mostly everyone has gotten to know each other, nobody has been wrapped yet and everyone really needs a good party) – and of course, the wrap party is hugely important at the end of the production.
Here, there’s none of that. Everyone’s too busy prepping the film to do proper kickoff, halfway through they are too focused to party and at the end everyone’s already on their way to the next production. That doesn’t mean people don’t drink during the production, but it’s a bit different, since in China people don’t drink just for the sake of partying, it’s always associated with food. So yeah, there is great dinners and white wine flowing during the shoot, but … yeah. No “parties” the way we understand partying.
Yesterday was the second-to-last day before the shoot begins, so me and Mika demanded to have at least some kind of a kickoff dinner. In the end, they managed to get our male lead to join me, Lei, Mika and Maxine for a nice but silent dinner in a nearby hotel. We discussed through the upcoming week and talked about the production in general, and I tried to ask if anyone was nervous or anything. I mean, we’re about to start shooting soon and all that…
No such luck. Lei was pretty cool, Maxine maybe even cooler, Mika was pretty comfortable with the set and everything and the male lead – young kid, age 18 – was actually surprised there was anything to be nervous about. So I was the only one freaking out… Great.
But there are many reasons why I’m freaking out. Firstly, I’m still missing two actors, one of them being shot on the third shooting day already! The script is still alive, changing here and there. The sets in Beijing are not finished yet, and in Qingdao – there are so many huge sets to be built that I’m worried they’ll ever have time for them. The animatics – previsualizations – are still heavily under way. And then there’s the national meeting – we are forced to shoot during the night, because daytime it’s not allowed to convene, and even still, if the officials decide to shut down the shoot for whatever reason, they can do it.
So yeah, I see a reason to be nervous. Actually, a few.
But in the end, it’ll be fine. I’m sure. A bit of nervousness is actually a good thing.
“She’s perfect! She’s amazing! I absolutely want her!”
I jump off my seat and congratulate the young lady. She has just auditioned for me for one of the last roles that still remain open, and she did a killer job. They took the time to makeup her, put her hair and dress her up and she was everything I wanted for the role: she had the attitude, the looks and the skills. In addition to this, the costume designer had found a perfect costume for her, after so many bad choices I had been presented with. And since we have only few days to go before the shooting begins, there’s the pressure in the back of my head that I need to find someone, but I can’t just cast anyone. She’s gotta be perfect.
So I was really excited. “Wow!” “You look terrific, the makeup is amazing and the hair is so great!” “The costume is amazing!” “I definitely want to work with you!”
What I didn’t know, and what the casting hadn’t told me, was that she was there with her mother. And to a mother hearing a weird western guy compliment her daughter’s looks (I was really complimenting the makeup and the costume designer’s work, I’m not the kind of a greasy man who goes catcalling ladies in the workplace) set all the alarm bells ringing. Later on, she had gone to Max’s office and let out a shitstorm of the ages, which led Max to call me and tell me we have to find someone else. Her mother would make it impossible to work with the actress.
AaAARRGGghghh! I was so angry at the casting – why didn’t they tell me her mother was there? I would’ve of course been much more modest, much calmer and more careful with my words – instead, now I’m left with one gaping hole in the list of actors.
Well, I just heard the company has sent a popular girl band to the office for me for casting. So I better be on my way… But this time, I have to make sure their mothers are not in the room.
I finally got to rehearse with my actors on Friday. They had, of course, loads of questions lined up for me, but when we started to break the scenes down into actions, actions into reactions and brought the lines into the lips of the actors, the scenes started to get a completely new life. It was relief to see the film starting to live, and reminded me that I actually was doing exactly the same thing – rehearsing with the actors for the first time – exactly two years ago for Iron Sky The Coming Race! Time flies when you’re having fun, I guess.
Afterwards, there was fitting with the lead actress and then a dinner.
Wow, 70 days in China! I’m practically a Chinese now! I know four words (“director”, “thank you”, you’re welcome”, “great work”) and I sometimes find myself strutting on the ground like the Chinese do, although my physique doesn’t really give in to that position. I honestly watch with envious eyes the Chinese hip/knee -versatility.
Also, 70 days of blogging! That’s a lot of writing. For myself, but also for you to take a peek into how it is running a project like this, living like an Englishman in New York, an alien in a weird, far off land. I’ve been surprisingly open with my feelings about the production and how I feel being so far from the people I love, and about the problems and issues that are brought forward every day. It’s been cleansing and has given me strength to deal with it all. So thanks for reading!
I’ve had so much Chinese food, such a variety of strange and wonderful dishes I have no idea what they are, but also realized that I really miss the home cooking of Finland, the clean and fresh ingredients and menus I can understand. I’ve had so much of the Chinese white wine I can’t begin to count, but I really miss red wine for dinners. I’ve eaten such things I would’ve never believed I’d touch: a thousand year old egg (it’s just the name, but … also the look), chicken head (I didn’t really eat that), pig feet (that one I did try) and so on.
I’ve gotten to understand a little bit more of the Chinese mentality. They are proud of their country, but they are not very politically active; you can’t really cook up a good political discussion with them easily. They don’t know too much about Europe – to them, Europe is just Europe, just like to us Europeans China is just China. I’ve started to realize it’s just as different going to northern China and then to South, as it is going to Finland then Greece – only the language is mostly the same (well, even that changes, but still).
Seventy days and so many script changes. I’ve worked with the most intensive producer, Max Wang, for seventy days almost daily, and it has been quite a ride. He’s a strong producer with a strong will and it’s easy to find oneself in a crash course with him. But he’s also very intelligent, knows film business and ultimately has a huge drive to make an amazing movie. Even today as I’m writing this, with only three days to go until the shoot, the script is being scrutinized, elements re-touched and polished – and since this all is done in two languages, it can get quite tricky to follow all the changes.
Seventy days of hotel rooms, that’s a lot. I started out in my own little apartment hotel when I came here, a dark apartment which smelled a bit of cigarettes and really crushed my spirit. I moved to New Otani hotel, which was where my soul was at rest. In Qingdao, we stayed at a terrible, rotten hotel for the first time, but the second time they put us to a huge luxury resort. Right now, I’m in a luxurious five-star hotel at a Chinese wineyard, enjoying free red wine and bathing on a tub on my balcony.
Seventy days of Chinese language, the absence of decent English and trying to understand one another. I’ve learned to deal with the production team with nods, hand gestures and thumbs up / thumbs down whenever Lei, Maxine or some other bilingual person is not around. But when real discussions happen, they are in Chinese, and I’m in need of a translation. Everything is slower: you have to wait for the translator to finish, but your mind is already racing at the next topic. It’s really frustrating sometimes, but since there’s no other way – I can’t stick a Babel fish up my ear like in Hitchhiker’s Guide – so that I just have to learn to live with. But boy do I love when the communication is in plain English.
Oh, and seventy days of being the tall, weird western giant in China. I’m a sight of its’ own, people actually stop on the street to take a photo of me. Everyone stares, constantly. I’m like a celebrity, without actually being one. There’s absolutely no place I can blend in, I never will. I’m always seen charged with expectations and prejudice, always a bit feared, looked with a wry smile, never completely trusted and seen as an incompetent western fool (which I, for sure, am!).
Seventy days being away from my wife Annika. That’s the worst part of this all. We call every day, talk for hours, fall asleep over Skype and fret over our relationship more than anyone I know. Strangely, our love has grown stronger and we’ve bonded even better now that we very clearly understand how shitty the life is without the other one around. This separation has brought me the understanding that I am with the one woman I intend to spend the rest of my life, and if this can’t break us, nothing will. And nothing will!
Also, seventy days away from my son. He called in yesterday, all teary-eyed, to ask when I’m coming back home. It’s very hard to tell an 11 year old that as soon as I can, but not right now. He’s missing me so much, and I’m missing him if possible even more, but our longing is different: for 11-year-old it’s very instant and strong when it pops up – but luckily, for most of the time it’s not the one thing in his mind, for 37-year-old-me it’s much more persistent, like knowing I’ve lost my eyeglasses, and although I can operate without them, I know something important is constantly missing from my life.
Me and my wife, we can live through me living abroad for certain amounts of time, that’s what this excursion has proven, but for my son, I’ll never do it like this again. He needs a father around for the next at least ten years, so other solutions for working abroad extensive amounts of time need to be found.
And my parents. Leaving Finland was tearing me apart. Our family had gone through a big tragedy recently, and everyone is still trying to cope with it, and leaving right now felt like I was leaving my family behind when we all would’ve needed each other the most. There was also some sickness in the family – luckily it was treated and healed, but this scared the shit out of me. But nevertheless, I left. I rationalized it, that this is a huge opportunity for me, this is my work and I need to do it now, but at the same time, I felt like I abandoned people I loved when I would’ve been needed. This, and missing my son and wife, created an uncomfortable coating over the fact that I’m doing an exciting film abroad, basically living my dream. I guess that’s the problem with “living the dream” – you’re always giving up something for the sake of yourself, and that eats a piece of your personality away, makes you one bit more self-centric – and I believe there’s already enough of self-centric people in the world for me to become one. (Says he and publishes the seventieth blog post about his own life…)
Seventy days of joy, challenges, sacrifices and self-exploration. It’s not a lot if you see it in a larger perspective, but it’s at a junction in my life where it means bigger than the sum of those days is. And still, there’s another 70 days to go. To be honest, I’m not even halfway done here.
I’m sure I should be able to write something about this day – since the date number is so special – but there’s really not that much to say. Six days to go before the shoot and those six days will go past quickly. We haven’t rehearsed at all with my actors yet, and I’m really worried about one character’s costume at this point. We still don’t have all the cast confirmed, some locations are still a big mystery and even the script is under tinkering. Mika is still missing the lenses he needs. My head is falling off my shoulders as I’m thinking about all the things that need to be done before we’re really ready, but I’m happy to say my AD team has their eyes on the ball and everything seems to be happening according to the plan.
So, apart from being scared shitless, day 69 in China was just another day at the office. Or, as Max our producer puts it so very truthfully: same shit, different day. But maybe I’ll just throw in picture of our production office for you all to admire. Yeah, it’s not much to look at, but it’s one rockin’ office I tell ya!