China Diary

DAY 61: Sleepless Nights Ahead


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It’s surprising how some things can get under your skin without you noticing it. I’m extremely good at blocking things that worry me, but when I’m sleeping the deflector shields are down and I’ll sustain a direct hit to the hull. And only after a night like that I’m able to understand what was it that was bugging me so much. So after a very badly slept night and nightmares, I realized it was this certain actor who was bothering me so much. Indeed, I have never worked with an actor who’s so intense, and his questions and my ability to approach them made me feel inferior. Usually, I’m pretty good with the actors, but now I feel like I may have found my match, and that bugs me. I have to up my game here, which is good: one must challenge oneself on each project, and although this one is much bigger than anything I’ve ever done, it’s quite a natural progression and in that way not really “challenge”, but with this one specific actor, I feel like a chance for me to grow as a director, becoming better at my actual job. But that’s a lot of work, a lot of worrying, a lot of sleepless nights ahead.

The second day of the table read was actually much easier because now we already had discussed all the big questions on each character, we already knew these characters and mostly because by the end of the movie the characters become more active and things move at a faster pace. So instead of 10 hours table read like with the first part, we did what we had to do by lunchtime, and then I headed for a quick lunch with one of the actors to discuss his character in more depth. We had a bunch of great ideas I tried to convey to the writer, but the lack of common language didn’t really help, so I tried acting things out – yelling, jumping around the office, ripping papers and all that jazz to get him excited about a specific idea – but I don’t think he got it, not completely. We’ll see when the next version of the script arrives, I guess.

Then, it was time to head back to Qingdao, for the location scouting and finally to begin the actual technical recce, when all the crew is there and we lay down in exact detail where we place which lamps, what happens to whom and where. Train ride I was reading my new favorite book “What Women Want”, a study in women sexuality and talking a bit with Mika about the progression of the preparations. After a while, Mika dozed off and I tried to work a bit, but for some reason the whole car was packed with SCREAMING CRAZY KIDS! And I mean, INSANE. And the parents did absolutely nothing to calm them down, they were running around the car, jumping on seats, SCREECHING. I was shocked.

Another thing I don’t like about Chinese are that they have no manners when it comes to portable electronics. You wanna watch a video on your device? No problem. Just turn the volume up, so that the whole fucking train car can hear you. Oh, you wanna play a game with super-annoying sound effects? Hell yeah! Just remember never to use headphones, the louder the better the experience, the more you piss off other people, the better!

So when I finally, after five hours of train ride and one hour car-ride, arrived to the hotel, I was absolutely knackered. The room has a huge tub in it, so I decided to make myself a relaxing bath before hitting the bed, getting ready for sitting in the car for the next seven days.

China Diary

Day 60: Striking The Balance


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Every actor works differently. They approach their roles from a very different perspectives, their methdos are vastly different and their process of acquiring the character are all very unique. Some think their characters very deeply, requiring a lot of information, discussions and challenging the director at every turn, some are more accommodating and require only information on where to stand, what to say and where to look.

Also, every director works differently. The director’s job is to meet with each actor individually, and try to find out their method, and then guide the actor to the role the way you want it to appear on the screen. There’s no one right way, since everyone works their craft differently, but in general, the more clear, confident and informed the director is, the better it is for everyone.

But it’s not just that. Also, every producer works differently. To some, a film is merely a business venture where they hire professionals, find the money and the let the people work their magic. To some, the kick is in the marketing. And to some, especially those who are also writers, the line between a director and a producer is blurred.

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Tuesday, we all sat around a big table with four actors present, producer and writer on the other side of the table, first and second assistant directors and me on the other side, and the actors lining the sides of a big meeting room, and begun a two-day procedure known as table read.

In short, it means you read the script through with the actors for one time, and everyone discusses their thoughts on the dialogue and action on the script, before really starting to act it out in front of the camera. This process can be a quick in-and-out, or – as it was in our case – a big, tedious job that took all the energy and attention I was able to muster.

One of the actors, a very well-known actor on Chinese market, is exactly the type of an actor I described in the beginning: he was challenging everything. And my producer Max, whom I’ve so often described on these pages, is a very… involved producer. They’ve known each other quite some time already, and engaged in lengthy, lengthy conversations about every line and moment in the script. I found myself listening Lei and Maxine trying to translate a huge discussion about the way another character knocks on the door that went on for half an hour, in Chinese. Trying to get involved there was almost impossible: Max’s fast-paced talking that goes back in the backstory ten twenty years before the film begins and the actors’ need for background details was daunting. At one point, the ADs stopped translating as the conversation went on and on, with other actors trying to understand the point.

Nevertheless, the vibe was strange for the most of the first table reading. On another break, one of the actors came to talk to me, slightly worried about how everything was progressing, but I told her this happens every time, the first table read is a chaos. More than reading the story, it’s about the questions and the answers, and this is the time to present those questions, doubts and ideas, since on the set we already have to be very, very clear on what we are going to do. We can’t sit down talk hours about something while rest of the crew is sitting around waiting for something to happen, so even though it was a harsh start, it was essential for the project I felt.

We went through the first half of the script, and agreed to continue the next day. Just as I was on my way out of the office, Maxine grabbed me and sat me down for another hour of costume change details (for some reason our costume designer had thought every character has only one costume throughout the movie, and I had to correct her that no, there are most likely seven to eight costume changes for everyone through the movie, which of course sent her into a screaming fit since there is only two weeks left before the shoot…)

China Diary

Day 59: Batteries Not Included


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I’ve now returned to the healthy 5-hours-a-night sleeping cycle, so Monday wakeup was another groggy and slow one. Early morning we were taken on a long ride to our Beijing studios, where the shoot of Iron Sky: The Ark is to begin very soon. Interestingly enough, one of the key people of the production has taken his leave at this point, leaving us scrambling to find a replacement. This person was someone I was very excited to get on board at first, but as it so many times happens, you really don’t know how a person is until you start working. More and more, over the last weeks, I’ve been disappointed with the outcome of his work, and his presence at the meetings had been very absent-minded, so when I heard the production had decided to let him continue working on other projects, I was relieved. It’s harder now with one set of brains less, but as I soon realized when arriving to the Beijing studio, it’s better to do with less people than with the unmotivated ones.

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The Beijing studio is heavily under construction, but already the first glance revealed that we were building absolutely unnecessary parts, while the ones we needed were either too small, too big or just wrongly shaped. The reason for this was that I never had a proper floor plan, where I could have easily told the construction team actually what to build, what we actually need and where. Now, some things need to be torn down while others need to be built from out of thin air. Some stupid waste of time and effort (not to speak of money).

Afterwards we went to grade some of our test shoot material. One funny thing I’ve found when working in the film is that no matter what you do, with whom, where and why – everything is always in wrong aspect ratio. It’s like sometimes people just don’t see the difference – this face here is stretched, warped, tilted the wrong way… It’s supposed to be the basic stuff, the very essential basics to have the actual footage in correct aspect ration to even to begin the work on it, but it’s not one or two times I sit down at a grading suite and first have to tell to find the correct image relations.

This annoyance carries on through the whole production chain, leading to nearly every trailer shown at laptops at film festival to be fucked up, every showreel being wrong… I wouldn’t be surprised seeing a 2.39:1 films in 4:3 in theatres…

Anyway. That was the case with our material, and we spent a huge amount of time trying to fix the screwup, and when we finally succeeded, we had to be on our way already. Luckily Mika got the footage on a hard drive and managed to arrange with a Finnish color grader to take a look at it properly when he goes to Finland next week.

 

 

China Diary

Day 58: Beijing Opera


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Sunday was a day off for me, so it’s Domino’s pizza, a Clint Eastwood western and some Beijing Opera for me. Ahh, the bliss. I’ve found Domino’s to be a quick and reliable and a pretty cheap food for the hangover day over here in China, a great food for the days I don’t want to hear even a mention of cow intestines, thousand-years-old-eggs or insects. Something familiar to anchor my serotonin-deficient brains. Clint’s movie was “A Fistful of Dollars”, the start of the Sergio Leone’s western trilogy starring Clint Eastwood and featuring Morricone’s amazing music. Beijing Opera on the other hand is a bit more adventurous affair when waking up to a scalding headache, but since this is pretty much the last chance to go see it, I decided to go.

We had booked tickets with Mika and his girlfriend, who was donned to nines, to the show, and arrived to what turned out to be a hotel instead of an opera house. We were slightly disappointed, Mika’s girlfriend was happy she hadn’t put on the full-scale evening dress, because rest of the people were a group of German tourists in t-shirts and bunch of regular families.

The show itself took place in a spacious but rather shabby theatre. Beijing Opera is an old form of precise art consisting of martial arts, dancing, story telling and singing. We didn’t get to see too much of martial arts, and very little of dancing, really, and to be honest the production wasn’t too shabby either, but singing and storytelling were prominently performed. The music is mostly crashing and banging of percussions and some Chinese instruments doing melodies on top of that, while the singers sing in a weird, high-pitched voice, which they use also to perform the spoken parts. The stories are also quite weird: an old guy and a woman in a boat; a goddess trotting around China, a classical Chinese tale of an general’s wife who wants to kill herself to not to be a hinderance to her husband’s battles. Well, you tell me… but I was a bit confused. I understood the performances we saw were actually not the “full-scale” productions, which would make sense, because the show lasted some 1,5 hours and then we were out, leaving the theatre rather baffled.

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But, the intensity of the strange form of opera, the hypnotizing crashing and banging and the strange singing did leave a strong impression. I’m not saying it’s the first thing I’m running to see again, but it’s definitely an experience I’m happy I had.

 

China Diary

Day 57: Beijing Nights


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Greetings and felicitations, children of technology!

Let me tell you a story of my last night’s escapade. So there I was, after a long work day talking with one of the key actors of our movie, Friday night, sitting in my hotel room, feeling restless. Mika and his girlfriend had visited my room for a glass of red wine and few short films, but as they left doing whatever couples do on Friday nights (I have no recollection of that…), I jumped into my jeans, went outside and hailed a cab to Sanlitun Bar Area, a famous expat/red light district.

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Now that’s a nice collection of Whiskeys.

The night itself wasn’t full of too much excitement, though. I made my way past the red lights calling lonely men to watch sad-looking ladies singing on stage, and found myself in a little side alley which led me to the other part of the area, one which had much more regular bars. A nice whiskey bar called me in and I sat on the counter, ordering a terrific bourbon and listening to the jazz playing in the distance.

After a while I wandered into the adjacent bar, had an IPA and sat for a moment by myself, until an Australian group invited me to sit down for a beer. I welcomed the invitation happily and we talked a bit about Gold Coast, where I had shot the first Iron Sky what seems like an eternity ago, and where some of the guys lived in. Two of the guys were visiting the third guy, who worked as an engineer somewhere in Beijing (weirdly, he said it with an apologetic tone… not sure if that’s not a good thing?).

Aussies wandered away searching for other adventures and I decided it’s time for me to

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Then I’ll huff, and I’ll puff, and I’ll blow your house down.

head back home, but just as I was about to hail a cab a saw a little joint advertising a shisha waterpipe. It instantly brought in mind me and Pekka’s crazy little trip to Georgia (the Eastern European Georgia) in the beginning of the year, where we had stopped for a 16 hour layover in Turkey, hailed a cab and went to Taksim Square, found a little shisha joint and spent good four five hours there, listening to Finnish music on my portable Bose over a big shisha pipe. Other than that, I’ve had shisha only few times before, when I was visiting in Dubai, so it’s not a regular thing, but right now it seemed like a good idea.

To those not familiar with shisha, no it’s not a drug pipe but a water pipe where you smoke a tasty tobacco. There are different flavors – anything from blueberry to orange to strawberry to whatever crazy you can come up with – and it’s really, really, really delicious. Yes, there’s nicotine, and for a person who quit smoking some six years ago (actually, in Gold Coast), I’ve always been very careful not to get too excited about it. But now I felt I wanted to have a puff, and I ordered the pipe on the table, puffing away.

An asian male Kim Kardashian -lookalike stepped in with a group of young people around him. When he saw me, he told the others to scoot, saying “I have a date”. He sat down in my table, introduced himself being the owner of the bar and went straight to the point: “are you gay”. No, I told him. Sorry. “Bi-curious, maybe?” “Not even that, sorry.” He was slightly disappointed, but nevertheless we ended up talking for a good hour, me puffing the pipe like Gandalf and him telling about his life in the states and running a bar here in Beijing, every now and then asking if I had changed my mind about my sexual orientation. I hadn’t. He took it well.

And no, the story doesn’t end up into anything experimental, I thanked him for the company and took a cab back home, where Annika was surprised to find me still up and we had a lengthy talk over Skype. The following day would be the 1st of October, the Liberation Day in China, which is a beginning of a seven-day holiday for the country, so I didn’t have too much to do the next day, so going to bed that late was just a-o-k!

China Diary

Day 56: Second test day done


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I must say one thing of our main actress, whom I’m only starting to get to know now as we’ve worked a little bit with on tests and castings and costume fittings and so on: she’s a real gem of a person. She’s a very skilled actress, that’s obviously a given fact, and I definitely casted her because of this, but her personality off-screen is just tremendously easy-going. She’s always around, she’s always happy but miraculously for an actor, her ego is not taking over, ever. She’s just like anyone of the crew, from best boy to makeup assistant, but when she steps in front of the camera, all eyes are on her.

The second test shoot day begun pretty late, and we had a lot of technical issues with a certain light table. It turned out nobody in the crew had any idea how to use the table, and for some reason, nobody really stood up and told us straight that they have basically no idea what they are doing. We wasted a lot of time trying to get that damn thing working, and eventually as it did work, we still had problems operating it.

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The Blue Room
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I’m blue da ba dee da ba die…

Another effect we tested was reflection on glasses. Being a modern scifi film / geek hacker -themed picture, the film features a lot of different kind of screens: from cellphones to monitors to huge LED screens. In order to get them working the way we want, we needed to try out how the reflections work on glasses. Turns out, it’s a huge difference, based on what kind of a coating the glasses have. Some are “non-reflective” (meaning, in practical terms, they reflect less), some have a blue light blocking feature, which of course turns the eyes weirdly green or cyan, and so on. It’s this kind of little details that need to be thought out, because on the day, we really don’t have time to put someone to go shopping for new glasses if something doesn’t work.

IMG_0239In the evening, after the sundown, we started to do tests on the outside street scenes of the movie. We created a small light setup outside the studio, brought a motorbike there (there’s a big motorbike scene in the movie) and started to wet down the street to get nice reflections out of it. At one point I was staring at the picture and thinking it reminded me of something… almost like. Yeah. Rendel. The light setup, blue background light and orange spot light, the smoke machine, the wetted-down street and people in leather made me realize it was just like a shot from Rendel, the new Finnish superhero movie. Now, I love what director Haaja had done to the look, it’s very dramatic and graphic-novel-made-into-a-movie -like, but for our film it wasn’t what I was trying to achieve. I mentioned this to Mika who was running around between the lights, camera cranes and steadycam operators, and he stopped, started to laugh and went to take the orange spot light down instantly, for starters.

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“Rendel 2” or “Iron Sky: The Ark”? 🙂

The two test shoot days were altogether very helpful. In the evening we had a dinner with Mika at Nola, burgers and a splash of wine, and then walked home, stopping by at the whiskey bar for a nightcap with Mika’s girlfriend – and then headed back home. Home being Hotel New Otani Chang Fu Gong, an old Japanese hotel in the heart of the old international business district of Beijing.

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Home away from home.
China Diary

Day 55: Yo! This is a test


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It’s nice to be back on the set, even if it’s just a test shoot. Having worked at the office for the last two months, or at my hotel room, or at a small scouting car, being where there’s actually cameras, actors in costumes and sets (of some kind) make a huge difference. I used to think I don’t actually enjoy the actual filmmaking part of being a filmmaker, but I was wrong. Once I’ve started to understand how things work, it’s a pleasure to watch the well-oiled machine pump away.

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The tests were shot at our equipment rental company’s spaces, which have rooms designated for this. What’s fancy about the space is that the walls are made of wooden panels painted to look like grim concrete slabs, which works for this kind of film – actually, for my kind of films as general – as quite a perfect backdrop.

We arrived to the rental house after a long ride, and found our actors getting ready, in makeup or costume. After the casting, I hadn’t obviously had a chance to meet with them, and of course had no idea how the costumes and makeup would work, but I was positively delighted to see that each and every one had a distinct, really well-established look that served the characters perfectly.

Even more so, Mika had created a beautiful light setup, which I’d like to call strangely “Spielbergian” (meaning: it reminded me of many of Spielberg’s adventure movies) with the blue tones, and added with Mika’s beloved lens flares, we managed to shoot some pretty amazing shots of our cast in front of the camera. Also, seeing people in 2.35:1 wide screen format suddenly makes them seem larger than life, cinematic and smashes the production values through the roof!

What was also a relief for me was to see how well the set worked, despite everyone but me and Mika working in Chinese. There are translators at the crucial junctions, and the only problem is that when two languages clash, the sound level of the set tends to rise quite quickly. This brings back memories of first Iron Sky, especially the German shoot, where Tarja, our production coordinator, had to scream on top of her lungs every ten minutes: “SILENCE!” and “SPEAK ENGLISH!” I’m sure her unapologetic style didn’t sit well with everyone, but it did the trick – after a while, everyone learned to whisper on the set, and that made it so much more enjoyable to work.

After the tests we had a little dinner with my main cast and then I headed back home for few hours of chat with Annika and then few hours of restless sleep. All in all, a successful day!

China Diary

Day 54: Sleepless in Beijing…


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Four hours is not a lot, but that’s what I got last night. I opened my eyes to a darkened room, wondering if I was already hours late or way early – my cell had run out of battery. Unfortunately, it was early – 6:58 am. Thanks, brain… I guess going through the film twice yesterday kept me only half-asleep the night, at least based on the weird-ass dreams.

The first meeting today was about props, stunts and sets in the main action locations. Our production manager was late almost two hours, so we had to start without him, but as we went on, many of the issues became clearer and more specific, until I learned we lost one of the key locations in the film. It was one of those things that bug me: for weeks we had been asking for a confirmation for the location. Then, on the meeting I bring it up again, and one of the location people just grabs a phone, makes one 3 minute phone call and tells it’s not possible to use the location. At all. Ever. In any capacity. I wonder how long he had been sitting on that piece of information before dropping the bomb…

Infuriating. To be honest, everything should be shot in studio, so this kind of problems wouldn’t arise…

Still, all the other discussions we had were quite clarifying, and then it was time to continue the construction vs. CGI -discussion, which went on for hours and hours again, but luckily this time, we finished in time. I managed to leave the office around 6pm and arrived back home, only to find out the Internet on the hotel is dead. A quick nap later life was looking up again, I went to grab a bite outside at my beloved Chinese local joint – the one with terrible service, noisy atmosphere and food I never have any idea what it’s supposed to be. I ended up ordering randomly something, which turned out to be fried soy rice, some kind of a tofu soap and something that’s kinda like sweet bread with a sweet, sugary sauce to dip it in. Not my favorite, but it was edible nevertheless.

Tomorrow: up early, first test shoot day ahead!

China Diary

Day 53: Brainfry


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The surest way to fry your brains is to have two huge meetings in one day, during which each you go through every shot of the movie. I was already pretty tired after a badly-slept night and had to really crank myself to be able to sit through the first schedule meeting, which, in its’ level of detail, is exhausting. Also, there’s the whole crew around and everyone has questions regarding their departments. And as the meetings goes on, it becomes more clear that I’m missing 90% because either the translation is really general at best, or completely nonexistent, also the discussions seem to spread around every conceivable topic, sometimes heating up, sometimes ending in laughter. And when I ask, after 20 minutes of something being talked, shouted and laughed over, the answer is: “oh, it’s nothing, all clear.”

OK, good.

Anyway, after hours of that meeting, there was a short break and we continued our everlasting shot-by-shot construction vs. CGI meeting, which we had cut short last night because at the end the film is becoming more complicated and it needed all our brains 120% there. I found myself trying to keep the focus of the meeting there – this time, we were doing it all in English and I was running the show – but still, as complications arise, questions pile up and much of the time goes into wandering about details when the big picture should be in mind.

After another hundred and seventy two hours of this, we decided to break it off because everyone was getting tired and there still was much hard stuff to go through.

Dinner! Yay! Hot pot! We took a car and had a very nice dinner with Max and the production team, in honor of Mika’s girlfriend to be exact, which was a great way to wind down the braincrunching day. As I came home, I found Annika online and we chatted for hours. I think. I did watch a Göstä Sundqvist -documentary on YouTube, and then we chatted some more, and by the time I went to bed it was already 4 am, not good given that the next day would be an early one, too.

China Diary

Day 52: Stressful days ahead


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Today we finally begun constructions for our key sets in Qingdao, and had our first big storyboard meeting with the whole team, going through shot-by-shot how each of the shots will be made – what’s built on set, what will be done with VFX and what kind of plates we will need to compile the shot. It’s tedious, but simultaneously extremely clear way to communicate to the whole team in very practical terms all the details required for each shot.

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Keep on cheering, Chris, because there’s many more of meetings like this still to come 🙂

For whatever reason, I hadn’t slept well – maybe it was the fact that The Fear had set in – and I expect the following weeks to be more and more stressful. Thus, I’m trying to keep my head together and not start worrying about things that are out of my reach – whenever I go through a stressful work phase, also things I’m unable to do anything with start to create addition baggage. Right now, I do have quite a lot on my plate on all fronts, and it’s hard to keep each bit separated, but I’m getting better at ignoring the noise. Better focus on Iron Sky The Coming Race, Iron Sky: The Ark and trying to get my family to visit me here in China, and I should be pretty well off.

We also received the latest shooting schedule for Iron Sky: The Ark today, which dictates the start of the shoot to be 18th of October, and finishing off 17th on January. That’s altogether 70 actual shooting days in two countries, which is more than double on what we had with Iron Sky The Coming Race. Still, it feels it’s going to be very tight, but then again, the script is also big. 141 pages, dozens of locations all over the world and space and Moon, five big action sequences, tens of speaking roles – and of course, mostly all in Chinese. So yeah, I’m starting to be slightly stressed…

The weather in Beijing is slowly turning definitely towards autumn. The days are smoggier now than they were few weeks ago – the horizon looks like the game engine ran out of juice and someone turned down the graphic settings, and in the evening walking around in shorts can get rather chilly. Still, it’s mostly mid-twenties in celsius here for big part of the day. I heard also back in Finland the October Rust is slowly setting in, but the days are still long and warm and beautiful. I really miss Finnish autumn, I must say.