“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!
We are now back in Beijing, and I was revealed we have under one week to go before the first shooting day! Oh, the horror! Simultaneously, we are still missing two actors who both are key – but not leading – roles, so the pressure to find them is growing. Luckily, their shooting days are way longer in the future, but I’d loved to have my cast ready before the shoot, not during (and definitely not after). But our casting teams are on it, and if there’s one thing in China, it’s people, so we should be OK.
After the endless car rides in Qingdao, I was hoping it’s better here in Beijing, but yesterday we counted with Mika we had been sitting in the car six hours before the day was over. Some of the fun activities of yesterday’s trip consisted of: visiting our Beijing studios. Visiting another studio where our stunts are rehearsing. Visiting our new Beijing offices. Visiting a shady restaurant that was the only one still open close to midnight when we finished the day off.
Mika is to fly back to Finland tomorrow for Unknown Soldier’s premiere, making me the only Finn in Fangshang district in Beijing for the rest of the week. I’m about to set this district ablaze, be prepared all the party places, I’m coming! Bring in the booze, the girls, the party – I’m on fire!!
Only that… there is literally nothing here. The closest resemblance of a “bar” is 15 kilometers away, and even that is not exactly what the word means in where I come from. But there’s a beautiful lake outside my hotel and some nice walking around to do if the weather stays decent, so maybe that’s what I should do. Chill out a bit before the tornado hits. Yeah, sounds better.
Annika is coming here in 8 days. It feels like the last days are dragging on like a drunken snail. Yesterday, she applied for the visa, and only afterwards I realized that it actually could have been denied easily: the whole country is jumpy because of the upcoming National Meeting, which is the Communist Party’s meeting that decides what’s going to happen for the next ten years. The police presence is much heavier everywhere, getting on and off a train means 4-5 passport/body checks and people have been asked not to come to Beijing unless absolutely needed. Afterwards, things should get better: things like money transfers to foreign country can begin again and all the business gets back to normal, but for the next few weeks, everything is a bit on hold.
Not our production, of course. But everything else.
Those words I’m happy to hear. We have just moved to another hotel in Beijing, one located close to the Beijing studios, and will stay here for the next one and a half weeks. Also, today I’m realizing we have exactly one week to go until the shoot begins. Now that is some scary shit.
The film world is buzzing about Harvey Weinstein being fired from his own company, due to the alleged sexual harassment and even charges of rape being slapped on him. For years, he has been the most lauded guy in the industry, but everyone knows about Harvey’s habits – even I have spoken with two actresses who have been through the whole hotel room / bath robe -shabang. It’s disgusting, yet everyone has known about it. Why is it that only now the people in real power in Hollywood – like Matt Damon, Jennifer Lawrence and Meryl Streep – step up and condemn the man, but before were happily smiling in pictures with him, taking his money and starring in his films? Also they have known about it, heard the stories, but did nothing about it. The two-faced opportunism of Hollywood makes me sick. It’s probably the same everywhere, but this is a grand presentation of it in the most pure form imaginable. For the most part I feel terrible for the girls who have had to go through it, have been clinging on Harvey’s list for years fretting whether or not they should have had given up and just letting it go all the way with Harvey – where would they be now? Or those who did it, and feel every day that partially their career is thanks to letting someone have their way with them. This kind of revelatory piece of journalism is important, and seems to do what it was intended to do, but seeing the “Hollywood elite” so rigorously now spitting on him makes me hate these assholes just as much.
Back to my life, which includes surprisingly few actresses in my hotel room. Thankfully. This new resort is located in between two golf courses and a winery some 70 kilometers outside of Beijing, meaning at least one hour drive to get anywhere near the civilization. But at the same time, I’m looking at the same rolling hills and mountains that my ancestors did hundreds of thousands of years ago: close by is the famous Peking Man Site, where the researchers have found one of the oldest remains of Homo Erectus, dating back to 700,000 years. There’s a museum there, and I intend to visit there one day.
In production news, well, nothing much but our other production designer seems to have spent days building a piece of set everyone knew would never be seen in the pictures and had he taken a quick glance at storyboards or spoken with either me or Mika, he would’ve known this, but guess this is the reason he’s out of the picture for the most part now. It’s just dumb waste of time and resources.
Now, I’m going to get up and go test the gym facilities of this hotel. Nähdään, sano sokeet toisilleen.
The Qingdao way of doing things is … interesting, to say the least. The location managers are quite an interesting group, to be honest. There’s the older gentleman, and there’s the even-older and grumpier-looking guy with an mohawk haircut and a face that looks like the one of a cellmate from hell. Then there’s a guy riding a brand new Mercedes convertible, who actually owns a brewery that makes probably the best beer in town – and being in Qingdao, that’s a lot. The guys work … weirdly. The location process doesn’t begin with “here’s what we need”, but with “here’s who we know”. They don’t have a data bank of images, rather they wander around the town and chat with the people they know, then ask them to snap a few photos for the production to see. It’s strange, and sometimes quite frustrating – but in the end, we have found the locations we need and that’s what counts.
The other thing we found really strange are the permissions. Usually, you ask for a permission for something – like flying a drone in certain area – and the answer from the local officials is either a direct “no” or “yes”. But in Qingdao, it depends when you ask it, how many times, and how much of a firm “yes” you’re able to live with. So for example, one of our locations is near the Qingdao airport, and we want to fly drones there. Usually, that’s a no-go, but in Qingdao, the location manager knows a guy who knows a guy and suddenly a “no” becomes “well, maybe, as long as we don’t find out about it”. Lei already told me: “Timo, prepare to be disappointed sometimes – things will change in Qingdao.”
And then there are some absolutely ridiculous denials: we can’t have blank-shooting guns because the national congress meeting is happening in two weeks in Beijing. We can’t use a completely dead stretch of street in a neighbourhood because we just can’t. We can’t paint an unused motorway ground black because we shouldn’t raise too much attention – as if bringing fifty stunt cars, motorcycles, lighting a set and doing big stunts isn’t drawing all the possible attention anyhow – but we can’t paint the street. It’s strange, but we’ll have to work with what we have – and as I said, we have what we need. We just need to be flexible on the day.
Last day of tech recce was excruciatingly detailed, going through a good heap of locations, eventually ending up in an old soda factory that’s going to serve as a great location for a big set of scenes in the movie. These old factory buildings with pipes snaking around the concrete structures are beautiful and impressive – and interestingly enough, they have been made with only functionality in mind: absolutely no kind of aesthetics went into the process. Yet, they are in many cases much more beautiful and amazing than some buildings designed by architects with great visions of beauty in their head. What is that called? Beauty through function? Accidental art?
The weather is getting shittier over here on the coast, but the recce must go on. Another early wakeup call, another missed breakfast (I can’t eat in the restaurant, the holiday people make me sick, farting, burping and vacationing away, forming huge lines in front of me, preventing me from getting my dearly needed morning coffee) and another set of locations to go through.
It takes least an hour to get anywhere in Qingdao, and most of our locations are usually more than an hour away from each other, so recceing means mostly sitting in the car. I’ve gotten into a habit of playing with my phone and listening to Type O Negative – it is October after all. Mika usually sleeps. He’s amazing at that: he sets his neck pillow up and is out in less than five minutes. Depending a little who’s in the car with us, we sometimes might have a production meeting: art director presents a set of his drawings to me, or maybe another production person has some other topics to discuss. Nevertheless, the car drives are mostly a waste of everyone’s time, but these technical recces are very important to do, to ensure a smooth flow of the shoot when the day comes.
My role as a director is a bit less relevant here, because most of the questions are to Mika: where does he plan to plant the cameras, looking which way, how about lights, and what about other elements like special effects – sparkles, rain, smoke – and so on. I’m usually explaining the scene to everyone, pretending to be the director, but after that it’s mostly just a waiting game and few quick answers to some tech crew people every now and then. So, a recce is definitely not my favorite part of filmmaking. Especially tech recces, they tend to be really, really, really boring. The only thing that’s mildly interesting is to follow as our production designer’s despair deepens by every new location. I usually try to keep my requests for the setbuilding as small as possible, and throw the energy into VFX, but truth is: we have to build a lot for this one. A lot.
The cold sea water is splashing to my knees, as I slowly and tediously walk barefooted on the slippery rocks and seashells that crunch under my feet. I have to stop every ten steps, for my feet hurt so bad, but I can’t fall down: that would be the end of my cellphone, wallet, not to mention my clothes. I’m cursing, in Finnish. Someone made a bad miscalculation on when the high tide would arrive, and that’s the reason I’m standing here, seawater up soon reaching my waist and far away from any shore.
We had been dragged out of our beds early, early in the morning to take a two-and-a-half-hour ride to the location on the island that’s covered under tide water for the most part of the day. Our plan is to go there to start our tech recce, to lay down the plans, but whoever calculated the schedule screwed it up completely, and after the long ride and max half an hour on the island blocking the scenes, one of the production people screams that the tide is coming, that we have to get off the island or be swept away by the seawater.
Already it was too late: the water had covered the land bridge that leads to the shore, so the only question remained: would I like to ruin my brand new shoes I had just bought, or risk the unknown and walk the 300 meters stretch barefoot.
Barefoot it is.
Back on the shore, I curse to Lei the dumbness of the decision. Such a long ride, just few minutes on the island and even then we get sealocked. My feet are soaking wet the whole day, and we have a full day of location scouting ahead of us. It’s not turning into my favorite days, I can tell.
Mika is not happy, either. On top of that, his back has snapped yesterday when hauling the luggage, so we have to book a masseuse to unlock it. By the time we finish our day and get to the massaeuse, it’s already evening. The old Qingdao has reached its’ peak hour: bright neon signs light the night amidst the charmingly crumbling buildings and streets. The fish restaurants are packed, every corner is full of little stands selling freshest of the fresh seafood. While Mika is being brutalized, I decide to take a little walk around the neighborhood.
The production managers seem a bit worried, so they wade after me. We, of course, can’t speak anything to each other, so I just peek in and out of different shops and alleys, finding amazing little nooks and establishments everywhere. The overland electric wires in jumbled mess above me, the sickly yellow street signs, it’s all perfectly untouristy and right up my alley as a travel experience.
There’s a little joint selling beer straight from the barrels, Qingdao style: in a plastic bag. I get a bag and wander back to see if Mika is done – he is. We head for an amazing seafood dinner (again), and on the way home engage in a lengthy discussion with one of our production guys who speaks good English about politics, the kids in China
and the whole system the country operates on. It’s interesting, and quite rare – it seems people don’t seem to be talking too much about these topics, but to him – having lived in the states for quite a while – it’s a natural topic. Our talks criss-cross between Mao, Trump and Kim Jong-Un.