The last one hundred and sixty one days have been a hell of a ride for me. Being separated from my family, working in a strange land and culture, on the biggest picture I’ve worked so far in two languages, I’ve been lucky to experience something I know a lot of filmmakers dream of going through. I’ve had the privilege of getting to work in China, for China film industry, which has long roots and massively interesting wealth of stories and talents the Western world knows nothing about, and I feel I have done some deep cultural exchange with Iron Sky: The Ark between the East and West, at least I hope so.
I set out to write this blog to help me process my experiences, and decided to make it public because I thought there might be something interesting for other to read here too – if nothing else, at least a bit of entertainment, maybe with some small informational value, as well. I’ve received emails and tweets over the perioid of six months as I’ve been writing this blog from readers from all over the world, friends and people I don’t know about, so although I wasn’t expecting anyone to really read all on the blog outside of myself, it has surprised to hear some have. So thank you for your readership and your support, you’ve been instrumental to me wanting to carry on writing these notes, even though sometimes I’ve been completely dead after a shooting day… I knew there’s someone out there reading my ramblings.
The main reason, in the end, for me writing this blog was to have a channel to tell my family what have I been doing. Trying to explain the loved ones everything over constantly breaking Skype connections from behind the Great Firewall of China, with seven hour time difference between us, it would’ve been impossible. I also wrote this to my son, Julius, who may one day come back and read these – or then not. He probably will remember the year 2017 as the one where his dad suddenly disappeared abroad and only came back half a year later. I owe him a good explanation, I hope this serves at least in some small way as one.
Yesterday was the last shooting day in China, and as I’m now on my way back to Finland as I’m writing this, just flying over Vytegrad, Russia, I felt like reflecting back a little the last half a year.
I started out in smeltering hot Beijing, doing preparations, skating daily between my hotel and the Jiabo office. Then, we went out for countless recces around China – from south to Qingdao, Rhizao and back to Beijing. During that time, we were hard at work deassembling the script into shots, shooting plans and storyboards and animatics. I wasn’t sure if the film would ever happen, during that time. The casting wasn’t there, we got turned down few times by important cast members and it felt rather hopeless that we ever get everything together.
But eventually, we did. That’s a huge thanks to our producer Max Wang, who believed that we have to start shooting this year, and he made the effort to get us there, although I know for a fact it wasn’t easy. He convinced every entity who needed convincing that what we are doing is something amazing, and gathered an amazing team to realize our vision.
The first shooting days in Beijing were cut short because of the National Meeting, and we had to move to Rhizao to continue shooting. As we started there, it was already getting chillier, but the days were still beautiful and we had great time shooting in the old port. Then, came the Long Night, a 10 days in a row night shoot burst which was mostly vehicle action. During those ten days I lost at least five kilos and aged five years. It was by far the hardest single stretch of the whole production. Every day I slumped back into the car, feeling I had given everything in me, calling Annika and talking with her for the whole trip back, lasting one to one and a half hours. I was a wreck, but she was there for me, although over the phone, helping and supporting. It was hard, but I loved it.
After those long nights, we moved to the Wanda Studios. The huge studios hosted a perfect location for our shooting, and in the beginning we were doing pretty strict nine-to-seven –production schedule. We had new actors coming in, mr. Duan Yihong, Andy Garcia, Udo Kier… it was all very energetic, very actor-driven, with no crazy visual effects waiting around the corner, no real big action pieces either.
Then came the wireworks: we went to the Moonbase location, where we started to do all these crazy wire works stunts, imitating low gravity, with loads of action and drama; we started to shoot a huge fight sequence and split the unit into drama and action. I zipped between the two teams. My brain’s hard drive was overheating, bad.
Finally, we moved to the last set pieces; Moon Surface with all the dust, the reshoot of our Beijing stuff and the final moments in big green screen studio depicting the key location where the most wondrous stuff would happen.
The last shooting day, which was yesterday, took place in the newly built Beijing Hutong home of one of the main characters, plus loads of missing pickups and closeups from throughout the production. It was fun to take us back in time for each shot through the whole shoot: we need a closeup of hands on this one we shot five weeks ago, this is from the first shooting day, we need a bigger reaction to this, we need to add one turning from the characters to this which we shot three weeks ago… It was like best-of hits of the production, grabbing those little moments…
But all good things come to an end. Yesterday marked the last shooting day in China for Iron Sky: The Ark. There still will be two more days in Turku, Finland to go, but the main unit was wrapped. With heavy hearts, I tried to find words to thank everyone for their crazy hard labor – and it has been hard – but couldn’t really find words to measure my respect. I’d have to be a poet to do it. So I did what I can, thanked everyone, as many as I could, personally.
Funnily, the Chinese are not really good in taking compliments. They feel very awkward when you go praising their work. They look at you slightly puzzled, saying “of course I did it, it was my job”. You have to respect that kind of an attitude. Never during the months did I ever encounter anyone complaining, even if the shooting days stretched to sixteen, seventeen hours. Never did I see them grumpy the next morning. They worked, they worked hard, and they were always doing their best – and that’s the kind of spirit I hope to see more in film sets.
Then, we all faded out in to the night. These hundreds of people, most of whom I will probably never see again in my life, who had formed my China family, are already traveling all over Chinal, off to new projects, off to new challenges. I miss them already, dearly. I had challenging times in China, but the overall feeling that prevails was that it was a priviledge to get to experience this, and even if this would be the last film I make in China, it would be an experience that changed me forever, for better, as a director.
But it was not easy.
Looking forward, I feel I have been on the very edge of my skills working on Iron Sky: The Ark. The huge budget, big crew, complex and ambitious script and big stars from China and Hollywood have taken their toll on me. The last few weeks, I was not all there. I was feeling like a ghost, rising up from behind the monitors felt like an impossible task, approaching the actors felt like a mountain I had to climb. Every time somebody came to ask me a question, I felt ten thousand brain cells dying. After the shooting days, I wasn’t anymore toasted, I just felt empty and just prayed that the last days would be over.
Now, don’t take me wrong, I love what I’m doing. I loved working on the film, the cast, the crew, but the whole responsibility and the complexity of it all, the dual language nature of everything, the high demands and expectations just weighted me down. I did my job, but the last two weeks I felt it was eating myself away bit by bit.
I think Iron Sky: The Ark was in the brink of being a too big a film for me at this point of my career. I survived it, and I know it will turn into a good movie, thanks to the enormous amoun of talent and care people poured on it, but looking at my mental state, I feel I wasn’t prepared for it.
I don’t have a new film booked yet, and I’m absent-mindedly fiddling through options, but I feel the next picture should be actually a smaller one. Maybe a scifi-minded drama. I’m developing something with Dalan, which might turn into something, and I have a clear idea on Iron Sky Endgame, but I feel I should not go bigger on next project. I already know I can do crazy action setpieces and big visual effects, but I love working with the actors, making believable moments and finding something interesting in the characters on the paper.
The year ahead calls for me to finish two movies – Iron Sky The Coming Race and Iron Sky: The Ark. What comes after them, I don’t know, but I intend to spend the year much more with my loved ones, resting from this push.
This is the end of the China Diary. This blog will remain, I will occasionally write here on stuff, but the China Diary is now done. Thank you to Annika for supporting me over the year, thank you to Max for trusting me with this big film. Thank you to Lei for helping us making this movie possible. Thank you to the family back in Finland for their understanding and support. Thank you to Tero for having the braveness to take Iron Sky franchise down this strange but interesting road. Thanks to the whole cast of the film, the crew and every producer and financier backing us up with this one. And thank you, readers, for sharing these times with me.
PS. If you want to start reading from the beginning the blog, the first entry is here and from there you can just click next entry at the bottom of the page to go forward.
To quote Manowar: Carry on, my friends, forever carry on!