China Diary

Day 103: Highway Blues

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Sometimes, filmmaking is like watching a 12-hour-long train wreck. Yesterday way was exactly one of those days.

For months, we had been preparing for one of the key scenes of the film, a big motorcycle race, and one of the key parts of that scene would take place on a big highway location, which was out of use and built slightly out of Qingdao center.

The reason people shoot films in studios is because shooting in location is just unpredictable. First, there’s always the weather issue – it may rain, or may not, or there may be too much wind, or whatever. The other issue is – the owner of the location usually is not a film professional, so although they allow you to use the location, they may get very jumpy when you see what you actually do there. There may be local politics involved, or government may have their say on the lot… So much can go wrong, and the one thing that each shooting day is for sure is that there’s absolutely no time to start fixing external issues, since all the time goes trying to solve how to make a scene work.

As the Long Night – the ten day night shoots in a row -schedule hell – continued, the nights were getting colder, and as we moved to the highway location, I admitted to being underdressed, big time. The problem is no longer my upper body, I found a great Black Yak jacket from the mall nearby, but the lower: I can’t find long johns that fit me from China. Actually, nobody can. The costume department tried. The production tried.

So there I am, literally freezing my balls off, standing in the roadside watching as this train wreck unfolds in front of my eyes. What was supposed to be a perfectly planned shoot just waiting for execution becomes more complex, more restricted and harder to achieve as the night grows old. First, we are denied of using any kind of cranes to put up lights to light up the scene. Then, solution by solution we are reduced of any lighting chances but a strange, low-light highway set which, luckily, turns out to be working but wasn’t our first choice.

Then, the stunts take forever to prepare with all the stunt drivers and motorbikes zipping in the traffic, and since these days are mostly just stunt shots, there’s not a lot anyone else can do while they are prepping. So much of the night goes just sitting around waiting for the preparations to finish – and even still, as we shoot the main stunt of the evening, there is an accident (the road is too slippery) and a stunt is whisked away to a hospital (luckily nothing more but a bruised leg, the guy is back in the game the next day), with the ambulance nearly driving over Mika as he just steps out of the video tent as the ambulance roars past.

Not that there’s much more to do anyway, the dawn is already breaking and the local officials inform us that it’s time for us to go. Now. Quickly. We make ourselves scarce in a matter of minutes before the local officials get any more antsy, to make sure we still get to shoot here tomorrow night.

The Break of Dawn at the Highway
China Diary

Day 102: Night Shift

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Slowly, the sky turns from black to ultramarine as the light of the approaching dawn fills the set. The crew is running fast and furious, as the last day at the factory location comes to an end. We still have one complicated stunt to finish, then two shots with actors – one of them a 5-year-old toddler – before we can call it a wrap. Mika goes around trying to match the changing lighting but the truth is: what started as a night shoot is now a day-to-night, and there’s not a lot we can do about it. But for the first time, I’m happy for a polluted day; the sun doesn’t make its’ way over the smog, so although the day is already dawning, we’re still able to do a bit more. But yeah, we burnt all the midnight oil and are now running against the daylight. I’m thankful for my actor for being so precise, fast and understanding; sometimes, the cast gets all pissed off when the crew is in a hurry, but these kids are true soldiers, they understand how important it is to work fast.


I’ve found Chinese actors a bit different from Europeans and Americans I’ve worked with. While both are hard-working by definition, the Chinese question the director and the script much less than the Europeans. This makes shooting slightly easier; you don’t have to engage into lengthy debates for every line and the actors listen more carefully the director. Of course, if a scene doesn’t work, they will let me know about it, but usually at that point I’ve realised myself as well and we are already fixing it.

Nights are cold, even colder than in Helsinki, here in Qingdao. So better wear a hat!

Directing a language you have absolutely no grasp on is pretty much the same as directing in any language. Of course, you can’t stop and ask the actors in detail to work on a specific word or the way it’s pronounced, but usually that’s anyway nitpicking – in directing actors, the same rules apply: talk about the character’s intentions, not your intentions; try to find the reasons for the action from inside, not from outside, and so on, and so on.

During this block – which I call the Night Shift – where we shoot from 6pm to 6:30am for 10 days in a row, I’ve found a nice way to unwind. I go to my car, grab a little breakfast and call Annika a 45 minute call during my car ride. She’s usually sleeping then, but knows to wait for my call and wakes up to babble with me until I arrive at the hotel. I usually arrive around the time of breakfast, so I grab something from the breakfast room and then head to bed.

We still have quite a lot to do before the Long Night is over. After the factory location we will move over to the highway. We already made the local owners of this location rather annoyed with us, riding with motorbikes and buzzing with drones all night long, so they for whatever reason seized some of our lighting equipment. The production is negotiating with them, but yeah, it’s time for us to change the location.

Suddenly, the set became a scene of a horrible tragedy.
China Diary

Day 101: Pulling the same rope

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Yesterday we worked the whole day on one big stunt – something that takes only seconds on screen, but involves so many elements that preparing everything, rehearsing and timing them to happen exactly at the same time is just nerve-wreckingly slow. I had requested a multiple time that we would do a test of the stunt before the day, but got shut down just as often: doing something so complex without the cameras rolling just doesn’t make sense. Fine.

The stunt itself was good fun. It involved a ten ton truck loaded with seven hundred cases of Tsingtao beer, three motorcycles and … well, you’re gonna have to see the movie to get the rest. While preparing, we managed to grab one other scene elsewhere, and then went on to work on the big one. By the time we got in the action, we had stunts flying in the air, mortars blasting beer (actual beer, mind you – so everything smells like a local bar at 4 am) and beer cans crashing all over us. Such fun!

Seven people was needed to pull the stunt bike with a rope.

We have one more days to go at the factory location, and then we move to the most complicated part of this action piece, to a highway. There’s only seven more nights to go before one day of rest. Bring it on!

China Diary

Day 100: Cameras everywhere!

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Digital actors? Even crazier VFX? Higher resolution? Virtual reality? Pffht…

The future of filmmaking is in capturing as much of the material you can at one take! Visual effects have made it easy to paint out cameras, tracks and light stands, and drones have given an additional perspective to the filmmakers without massively expensive helicopter shots. When we started to shoot Iron Sky in 2010, we had two cameras covering everything; when we shot Iron Sky The Coming Race, we had always three cameras on the set. With Iron Sky: The Ark we have five to seven cameras capturing as much as possible, plus five drones buzzing around us constantly. Now, the only thing missing from this kind of a setup is a film camera that could do focus stacking, so we wouldn’t have to mind if the focus puller hits the mark or not.

Yesterday, which marked my 100th day in China, was great fun. We shot a beautiful scene with great cast, revving motorbikes and great location – an old, abandoned factory which we lit up and made alive. The scene itself worked really nice, we found a nice little detail around which we created the interaction between the actors, and working with our new drone team we were able to do some really big scale shots to pump up the production values. Although we had a lot to do, having half a dozen cameras everywhere helped us to get through the day.

In the morning, after the 15-hour-day I stumbled back to my hotel. Outside my room, I saw two working guys who had nasty looking instruments in their hands. Never minding about them, I stumbled across the hallway into my room and fell asleep nearly when standing, only to be kicked up awake to the beautiful sounds of an angle grinder screaming right outside my door.

I tried explaining to the main lobby that we are working night shifts, you can’t do that renovation in our fleer in the morning hours, but the language barrier was too heavy. Thus, the sleep was not only short, but very unsatisfying…

China Diary

Day 99: Got 99 problems but the…

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…lovely wife, whom I greatly respect, love and regard highly among the living, ain’t one!

This has been now my 99th day in China, the longest time I’ve been away from Finland, so these kind of thoughts wander in my head, and I wanted to spill them out somewhere. This post is not about filmmaking, so for those looking for stories on set, there are more to come soon!

I had a long discussion yesterday with my wife about how to and to where our lives are headed to. We met each other many years ago when she wrote a story about me to a Finnish newspaper, and started dating two years after that. We got married in 2015, meaning it’s our second year of being legally sharing a bed, which is important in our religion (no, it’s not). We don’t have children together, but both have a child with our exes. Neither of the children live with us, nor do they even live in the same city as us, but visit frequently over weekends and during holidays, and she spends even more time with her kid in Jyväskylä during weeks as well.

She works as a freelance entertainment journalist, so her job is mostly in Helsinki. It’s very rare there’s anything worthwhile to Finnish entertainment media to write about outside of Helsinki, save occasional film festivals, Eurovisions and stuff like that. I have an office in Helsinki, and since the release of Iron Sky I have mostly worked from Helsinki, but much of my work takes me abroad – whether is for prepping and shooting a film, visiting seminars and film festivals or preparing or pitching and negotiating with financiers. If I stay in Finland for a long perioid of time, I get antsy; but not, ironically, because I love to travel (I actually don’t, I find it rather tiresome business that makes very little sense ecologically and economically), but because I’m not very good with routines.

My wife travels with me whenever possible, but there’s only so much to do at the film festivals (Cannes, Berlin, AFM, plus the small ones) once you’ve been there for few years; to paraphrase Max: same shit, different year; also, film shoots tend to be pretty much the same once you get into the roll, and the general truth known to mankind about filmmaking is that visiting the set you don’t work at is as exciting as watching the paint dry.

So, we had this discussion – we’ve had it a few times before – about where do we want to go with this thing of ours. Apart from being married, there’s no technical reason to keep us together; no kids, not even a house together (although looking at today’s couples, it seems owning a house together is a much bigger reason to stay together than the kids). It’s all in the love and lust, which are plentiful, and the world’s most horrible sense of humour we’re sharing in the confines of our home, careful never to let it spill out to the world outside. But truth be told, we both would probably easily find a companion with whom to form a more stable relationship; well, at least she would. My constant traveling and working abroad doesn’t really allow a stable relationship, no matter what.

But for whatever reason, we’ve never found anything wrong with the way things are with us, although any relationship council probably would spot out a thousand things that could go wrong. Living apart a lot, having kids in different cities, to begin with. But since no relationship is a formula that needs the X’s and Y’s in the right place to produce a result of a success, we’ve decided to live ours like it is. Sporadically romantic, frequently apart, often wistful.

But there’s something noble in the missing, something nerve-exposing to the passing of time. It makes sense, more than it should. If applied correctly to a relationship, it can strengthen it; it’s an element you share together, feel together – you become a team fighting the world every single day; it becomes part of the way things are,  a catalyst that enhances emotions rather than surpasses them. It’s alchemy; it can turn a stale reality into an exciting venture. You are no longer at each other’s disposal as much as you want, but the absence makes the expectations stronger, the encounters more electrified and it can become a binding agent that instead of separating you, keeps you even stronger together.

Minä olen kadulla
Näen sinut joka nurkalla
Kahviloiden kassoilla

Asemalla pydähdyn
Katson suurta kelloa
Kuinka monta tuntia
Siihen että tavataan, taas

Siin on helvetisti järkeä
Et on koko ajan ikävä
Helvetisti järkeä

China Diary

Day 98: Father’s day in Korea

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For our turnaround day, we decided to visit South Korea with Mika. Seoul is just across the water, only one hour flight away, so we thought it would make sense to pop by check out the city since neither of us had never been there, so we thought we get on the plane, head over to Seoul and get a nice massage there in the city and eat a bit and then head back home.

Well, that was the plan at least, but – as you, dear reader, might already expect, it didn’t go exactly like that.

In the morning, my assistant had miscalculated the time it takes to get to the airport, so we missed the first plane. The second plane took us to the airport, but just as we were about to step out of the airport we checked the clock and realized it was honestly only few hours to go before our return flight – the last one tonight – would depart, so well, we decided not to risk it, and stayed around at the airport instead.

This was closest to South Korea I got this time around…

Good thing was, there was a Korean spa in the airport, so we decided to check in and head there for some relaxing times, but even that plan failed: what we didn’t realize was that the spa was before the immigration, not after it, and re-immigration was completely out of question due to huge lines in the airport.

So, the only thing left to do was to do some people-watching and have a burger at the airport. I don’t really know anything about Koreans, other than they seem to be very fashionable. Everyone seemed like they had just walked out of a magazine photo shoot, and the airport was lined with the biggest, most expensive clothing brands, from Gucci to Bally, from Givenchy to Burberry. Also, the language is interesting. It’s definitely different from Chinese, and people use their voice differently to speak it. It seems to be a great language for different type of yelling. It’s hard to explain why, but that was my impression.

Anyway, I wouldn’t count myself an expert in South Korean cultures based on our visit, but it was a refreshing visit and made me realize one thing: I really need to get to visit Seoul, properly.

Back in Qingdao we decided to check out a big spa built just next to our hotel. We had a massage and some Japanese-style bathing before turning in for the night.

Next up will be 10 days of shooting complicated action scenes, and 100% night shoots, so it’s going to be hell. I try to write if I can, but if not, see you on the flipside.

Oh, and it’s the Father’s Day! I called my dad, who had just bought a summer house for him and his wife, and congratulated him for that – and of the father’s day, of course, as well. He mentioned, sadly, that this was also the first time he only gets greetings from only one son, due to my brother having passed away sadly nearly a year ago, and that of course was – yeah. Sad but true.

My dad and my little brother.

I also called Julius my son who asked me one very important question: would you rather have a million Euros, or endless supply of sausages. I thought it for a moment and chose the million. He had chosen the sausages, for two very good reasons: he likes sausage, and if he had an endless supply of sausages, he could sell it, and make much more money than million.

He’s already a much better businessman than I am…

China Diary

Day 97: Hospital Blues

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Kids, don’t eat your fingernails. If you happen to scrape the skin underneath, it becomes exposed to all the grime and dirt the world holds, and may get infected. Then, the skin heals but the infection brews inside, and it makes your finger become unusable and grow at least twice in size. I’ve had this thing few times before, worst one was in New York where I had to go visit an ER to get it fixed (price of the 5 minute visit was $1500), and now, there it was again. I couldn’t make a fist of my right hand and the pain kept on throbbing and throbbing, so I told David to find out where’s the best hospital in Qingdao, that I need to get there on my way from Rizhao to Qingdao.

Well, it wasn’t that easy, now was it? Nope. The first hospital was packed with people, and the doctors took a quick glance at my hand and told me I need to have a surgery to fix it, and that they don’t do it here. Well, shit. We went to another hospital, where the doctor looked at me, then told me they don’t treat foreigners here. One more hospital… This one had a doctor checking my finger for two seconds, cleaned it and gave me antibiotics and sent me home.

Kaikki paitsi Mårtenson on turhaa. Sen tietää nyt myös Qingdaon kadut (ja kuljettajaparkani).

I was happy to get medicated, but had wasted my only day off in a car and chasing hospitals. Disappointing day off, that was. But at least my finger is now better, which makes a world of difference! At Qingdao hotel I checked into my apartment (yeah, it’s more an apartment, since it has two separate rooms, which suits me very well) and decided I wanted to have a beer downstairs in the bar – called Movie Bar.

Well, the place was, again, completely empty. Only bartenders chatting to each others and music playing loud! I ordered a Jack and Coke (and got a glass of Jack Daniels and a can of Coca-Cola, guess what they wanted to say is make your own damn cocktail you sad bastard) and stayed there for some twenty minutes but then felt like the biggest idiot in the world and headed back home.

Few old Finnish songs, a Club Sandwich from the room service and then off to bed with me!

China Diary

Day 96: Rude Awakenings

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IMG_1611Last night went on until 8 am, and the pickup to the last shooting day in Rizhao location would be at 13:00; I got barely 5 hours of sleep and felt like a truck had backed over me. As I staggered through the hotel room, gathering my thoughts and clothes I realized tomorrow would be the first day off in a long while, so that was worth the celebration, but first there was a rough day I had to soldier through.

We started during daylight to do a quick reshoot of something we had shot few weeks ago but didn’t like, and then went on to prepare the main action of the night: a fight scene between two key actors. The catastrophe was ready to happen when we realized none of us had thought about exactly how a certain piece of props would be destroyed on the day. So, it took us whole 6 hours (6 hours!!) to figure this out, definitely the longest time I’ve ever spent on set doing absolutely nothing. While the teams were trying different approaches, I sat in my trailer, then in my tent, then walked around watching things happen extremely slow… But after the other day’s row with the stunts coordinator, I also understood it’s not a place to go hurrying people up.

Mika going full-on Tetsuo

This happens on a set very often; things slow down, then everyone slows down. The set gets quiet. People work hard, but if there’s nothing much to do but wait for certain department to finish their part. I knew today was the last day in Rizhao, last day on the set, last day with one of the key actors and last day altogether to do any of these scenes, so I had to grab the mic and start running the show.

It’s really exhausting, running around and shouting to keep everyone on their toes. I don’t enjoy doing it, but sometimes that’s the only way to get what I need. We still had a full fight scene to be shot, and only three hours of night remaining, so I told Mika to grab a camera and then we started blasting through the scene. I barked orders like a general on a battle field and Lei translated, and kept my eyes nailed on the upcoming as much as current shots. Water down now! Get stunt mats out of the way! Half speed rehearsal, ready… ACTION! Get the actors in, full speed rehearsal, ready, ACTION! Ok, let’s shoot! Costume, help with the jacket, props get the weapon for the next scene, let’s do it again, ready, ACTION! The pace picked up very soon as the crew realised I was hell bent on finishing the scene tonight, and soon people were up on their feet running around, while I kept my eye on the watch and the other one nailed to the horizon to spot the first rays of lights, which would mean the end of the day and my failure.

I’m very proud of the fact how the cast and the crew performed tonight. We managed to slam through an extremely complicated fight scene like never before, never compromising, never leaving anything out. Only at the very last moment, when the night had turned from pitch black to slowly brighter shade of blue, the action coordinator came to tell me the last thing would take two hours of preparation, and we don’t have the time for that. But he had an alternative option in mind, and I went for it. A beautiful but simple flip, and BOOM that’s it!

When the sun finally hit the horizon and the rays turned the world into colours again, we nailed the last closeup and were done! I was absolutely exhausted from all the shouting and screaming around, but knew that we had shot a mighty fine fight scene and got what we needed out of the location. I staggered to my car, popped open a Qingdao and put on some Beatles and headed home.

Bye bye Rizhao, tomorrow it’s time to head back to Qingdao – and now, staying there for good. But not before a visit to South Korea, apparently…

The last sunrise over Rizhao for me.
China Diary

Day 95: Shooting action

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Night shifts are starting to take the toll on me. We are doing long days and long nights and I can barely walk after a shooting day and since you have to keep the head at full speed the whole time when shooting, it’s really hard to slow it down before you go to bed, and even then, the sleep is erratic at best. Also, my room is devilishly hot. The central heating is on and can’t be turned off, because right now it should be colder in Qingdao than it is, so the moment sun rises (which is usually by the time I get to bed) it starts heating the room and I wake up sweating like a pig many times during the night (I mean, day).


During the days, I try to go to the gym to lift some weights to keep my back in shape and do some leg work to keep my knees operational (I may have mentioned this but I have pretty shitty knees, we tall and big guys usually do). After the shoot, I have a nice one hour talk with Annika on the way home from the set. The breakfast/lunch is usually terrible McDonald’s or KFC bag of junk food, because I don’t feel at all adventurous during the shooting days. I munch my lunch while listening to David Bowie and go through the day in my head. My car is my little cocoon where nobody can bug me.

The day went past waiting big stunt actions to happen, explosions and more explosions, trying to keep up with the tides (we want water on the picture, but the tides are always up at the wrong time and down at the wrong time). But one thing I can tell you:

Nothing is as boring as shooting an action scene.

Most of the day I just wander around the set waiting for the stunts and SFX rig and prep for it, and then suddenly when it’s done it’s all over in 10 seconds. Director’s duty takes about 15 minutes: explain what you want, how you want it to look like, and then all you do is wait for hours.

But oh boy does it look good on the playbacks.

So yeah, we shot some amazing scenes!

China Diary

Day 94: Stunt row

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One can’t avoid arguments when working on a high-speed production with hundreds of people running around on tight schedules. I’m not the most aggressive person in seeking the arguments, but I’m not avoiding them either. Yesterday we ended up clashing with the stunts coordinator. He had been preparing for a stunt based on my instructions for quite some time, but when he finally presented the stunt for me, it was a big disappointment. People just sort of slumping down, when I wanted them to FLY out because of an explosion. He had not paid attention enough to my description, and only after I told what I thought of the stunt, he suggested he needs another 45 minutes to set it up.

Film set time is always to be tripled, so that would’ve meant over 2 hours of preparation, so I couldn’t allow it. I barked at him some words of disappointment and the translator didn’t really do great job, so the only word left floating in the air was fuck. He got really upset and started shouting to me something in China, and I came back to him and we both were shouting at each other with languages neither of us understood, and Lei was trying to be a mediator to keep everyone cool.

We broke off the fight and went to our corners for a bit of a cooldown, and for round 2, we started off with much more constructive way. I took the stunt coordinator aside and spoke privately with him (and Lei) and explained my problem in clear terms about the stunt. He said he understands and wants to rebuild the stunt, and needs only a little bit of time. I told I don’t believe we get this shot done in under two hours, he said it’s only fifteen minutes.

Stunts rehearsing

Turns out I was right, as I very often am when it comes to predicting the amount of time wasted on things on the set. This time, the reason was an accident which followed immediately after the first attempt: a stunt came head first to the asphalt from five meters high, because the jump he made was a bit too short. He was taken away with an ambulance, and I learned later on he only suffered a minor concussion, which was a relief, but right then I thought the man had just died right there.

Mood of the shoot went sour understandably, but we decided to continue. We spoke more with the action coordinator and he said he wants to try this once more. I gave him the permission and they prepared the stunt a bit more and then it was a go-time.

This time around, the stunt was just beautiful. Big explosion, guys flying across the air exactly the way I had wished for and nobody got hurt. We didn’t dare to celebrate until we heard what was going on with the injured guy (which we did only the day after), but managed to move on.

So, three lessons I learned here.

First, when working with a bilingual team, be careful with the words, because it may be that only the one, most commonly-known word (“fuck!”) goes through, and you end up having a heated argument for nothing.

Second, be very precise when describing a stunt. Hand gestures are not directing, you need to be specific with words and explain in great detail what kind of a stunt you need, how far the person should fly and what kind of an effect it should have on it all.

Third, never rush the stunts. They are professionals working on a tight schedule and know what they are doing, and they never slacker around, but just want to make things perfect and plan carefully to make sure nobody gets hurt. It will take time, just accept it. It may even seem ridiculously detailed sometimes, but that’s the way it is. Give the stunts the time they need for the preparations, and you get a great one-shot wonder. Rush it, and you get bad action and a higher possibility of injury on set.

The only thing you can do is to ask much before the shoot how long time they will need preparing it, and then work around that info.

On a side note, this is Russian Arm. A car with a remote-controlled crane attached to the roof. It’s one nasty piece of equipment!