China Diary

Day 21: BYOB


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Production designer, a production assistant and DOP Mika Orasmaa digging through the latest concept artwork.

Mika left back to Finland for a week on Saturday, so on Friday we decided to throw a little party for him, as a thanks for the hard work he had done so far. The day went by slowly by scribbling more storyboards and meeting actors, and around 9 pm, we finally jumped on a car and drove to my so-far-favorite seafood restaurant in the … well, probably the whole world.

The place is crazy! It’s really local, so plastic table cloths and noisy atmosphere are a default. The food lies there in fish tanks – big lobsters, ugly-looking fish and endless selection of different type of clams.

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Almost waiting to hear one of them start talking in the voice of “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero: “You know I’ve been working with the government, right, Ton’? “

The tables have a built-in steamer in them: the waiter brings a bucket of whatever dish we are currently having – say, shrimps, that are of course still alive and kicking – and pours them in the steamer. Then, a lid is placed over, and the steamer hisses away for minute, and voilá, the food is ready!

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To get some more action to the dish, you dip it in a sauce you get to make yourself, and down it of course with a huge glass of Chinese white wine. And as I’ve told before, the white wine is definitely not a nice glass of perfectly chilled Chardonnay, but a plastic petrol canister filled with what we call “The Gasoline”. It’s 55% strong pure booze, which the production manager lugs around to every dinner we have (apparently the restaurants around here are BYOB – Bring Your Own Bucket), and me – as a director – I get a special treatment of full glass of white wine and am expected to drink it as well.

Nevertheless, we enjoyed the amazing dinner and sent Mika back to Finland in style. For me, it was a relatively weekend ahead, which I had decided to take as easy as possible, because honestly, there’s no rest for the wicked here in China…

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China Diary

Day 20: Casting challenges


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Casting is the most important part of director’s job, and also the easiest. Once you meet the right person for the role, you know it instantly. All kind of auditions are a waste of time, it’s the first “hello” when you know whether or not this person is the person you’re looking for the role. What makes it hard is to make up conversation with the actors you don’t want to cast, to not to make them feel bad for taking the trouble and coming over for an audition. There are of course exceptions: when I casted Lara for Iron Sky The Coming Race, I nearly passed her because the first casting tape wasn’t really what I was looking for. Luckily, she did another one and that was a ten. But for Julia for Iron Sky 1, and Vladimir for Iron Sky The Coming Race, it was really clear the moment they walked in: that’s who I want for this role.

Casting Iron Sky: The Ark is a bit different experience. This time, I’m not the only one who has a say on things: Max knows the market here and has great experience with actors around here, so with many roles I go with his recommendation. This time, we also have to deal with the big casting agencies in USA, which adds another layer of confusion to the pot, but if the cast that I’m planning to get works, I’m going to be really happy.

Sometimes, finding the right person can be just a terrible drag. I remember casting for The President of the United States of America’s role in Iron Sky 1. I saw tens of casting tapes from actors of which none were anything close to the role, and the shoot was creeping up closer. On the last minute I got the last casting tape from this great Australian lady, Stephanie Paul, and she was perfect! I was just about to give up on the role, but she stepped in the last moment.

Right now, much of my days here go by meeting actors, doing auditions with different combinations and trying to find one or two very important actors. In addition to this, we’ve been sitting with Mika doing storyboards every night until it’s nearly midnight, so when I get home, my brain is a toast. I might’ve even written about it here, but I can’t remember anymore…

China Diary

Day 19: Little Trouble in Big China


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The biggest city in the world, and the only places I go are between my office and the darkness of my apartment. The weather is starting to get a bit less humid and murky here as the days grow shorter and we move closely towards the autumn. It also brings much-needed gusts of wind that travel down the city streets and alleys, making the air fresher – but it’s still definitely the summer, although autumn is knocking on the door. Well, soon it’s September and yet another year has tilted towards its’ steady slide towards the end. Time slides.

Yesterday, I heard some bad news for my personal life, and much of the day went to recover from that. It’s funny how a single Skype message can truly push the day off the track. Afterwards, it was hard to follow the discussions and the meetings – I was only half way in the game, when the other half was going around in circles trying to figure this other issue. Also, I do feel like I’m in a need of a full day off. I’m starting to feel a bit robotic here, and especially this week has been extremely hard, since we work the whole day first with the production, and then, just as I’d normally head back home, we open the Skype connection back to Finland and start doing storyboards, over an extremely bad Internet connection, which adds a twist of stress to the whole experience.

It feels there’s so much to do still with the production, yet the first shooting day nears steadily. Soon it’s under 1,5 months away, and I’m feeling the good old panic starting to dig in. If it wasn’t for this other shit, it’d be easy, but right now it’s like I’m fighting a war on two fronts, and while the other front is victorious, the other side is doing some pretty nasty damage to my troops’ morale. I know, it’s vagueblogging, I should just go ahead and tell what’s on my mind, but I’d rather not. But let’s just say I’m happy I have my wife’s support, without her I’d be a wreck, even if we are going through this weird long-distance relationship thing right now…

Coming back home from yet another hard day at work at 10pm, I felt pretty bombed. I started watching The Founder on Netflix, but of course the VPN decided to give up the ghost right in the middle, so I grabbed my wallet and went out to get a bite. I wasn’t even hungry, I really just wanted to see some human beings doing normal, non-work related things.

I wandered to a nearby traditional Chinese joint around the corner and sat down having few beers and some great dish of something I had no idea of what it was. They were renovating, so there was quite a commotion going on. There were loud families around, people banging with hammers on the walls and the service was as bad as you can expect – and the food: simply put – delicious. I enjoyed the whole chaos to the fullest, and even thought about heading over for a nightcap to a bar somewhere, but realized the closest one was some fifteen to twenty minutes walk away in some dark alley, and decided to call it a night instead.

 

 

China Diary

Day 18: The Stuff That Gets You


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The days are starting to melt together here in Beijing. Another day at the office, I guess! Most importantly, we started the big storyboarding work with Anssi Rauhala over the Skype, who already has drawn a huge pile of amazing storyboards for Iron Sky -movies – he did the first Iron Sky, the second one and now he’s working on The Ark. Already earlier this year, we storyboarded few hundred pages (that’s 5 pictures / page) for The Ark, and now we finish it based on our updated script needs.

Just as an example, here’s two pages of his work for Iron Sky The Coming Race from few years back:

Being a graphic novel artist, he’s capable of drawing extremely fast extremely descriptive storyboards, finding the correct facial expressions, the movement and the three-dimensional environment with just few well-chosen lines.

Working over the Skype isn’t ideal, but luckily – as we’ve done so much together already -we already know in quite a detail what it is that we want and need. Every day for the whole week we will sit few hours with Anssi and talk through the script, shot-by-shot, and he makes notes, and then gets on the drawing board, sending us finished storyboards as we go along.

Julius, my son, called. They had done some kind of cups at the school, and got to choose what to write on it. He chose to write “I ❤ Isi” (isi=dad) because I’m away for so long. Nearly crushed my heart. Also, promised to myself that I won’t be doing this kind of a ridiculously long stint of foreign work ever again, unless I’m more prepared to bring my family along much more frequently.

It’s the stuff that gets to you in the long run, and it’s never worth it. Maybe once, now as I’m still starting my career outside of Europe, but this will be the last one I will allow myself to do it this way.

China Diary

Day 17: Dreams Of Broadway


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Yes, as I said before, the wakeup wasn’t too gentle. I started to be aware of the world around me around 9 am, but it took me well over eleven to finally lift my body up from the confines of the bedsheets and into the shower. Also, I had to speak in front of an audience of tens of Chinese film producers, investors, teachers and overall important figures at 2pm at China Film Group, so I really did pick the best night to go out…

I remember I was years ago at a big event, where I was to do a keynote presentation. The night before, we were sitting at the hotel lobby bar with some of the festival people in Vienna staying up way too late, and the next morning I hadn’t even reached the state of hangover yet, so I was practically drunk when I went on stage in front of some 1000 people. Luckily, the only side effects were a dry throat and a phone I forgot to close, but other than that, it went well. But, it could’ve been a disaster.

Thus, although I had had few drinks the night before, by the time I got to China Film, I was prepared, alert and awake and even though I had to rely on a translator, I think I managed to do a pretty fine job, presenting the story from Star Wreck to Iron Sky and onwards to the Iron Sky Universe. It’s of course much harder to keep the audience’s attention with a translator pauses, especially in getting the laughs and the direct response when there’s someone translating, but it is what it is.

There were many questions afterwards, one of the most interesting one was about other franchise products that are actually not things like books, games or merchandise. The question came from a gentleman who produces musicals from UK to China market, and he asked if I had ever thought of that. And yes, I had.

To be honest, one of my biggest dreams regarding Iron Sky franchise is to create a stage musical out of the story of Iron Sky 1. It would be *glorious* – dancing, singing Moon Nazis, 1/6 g gravity effects made on practical wires, hundreds of men singing Kameraden, Wir Kehren Heim and all that! I repeat, it would be *glorious*. And a big hit, too!

Maybe one day. Maybe, Bobby, baby, maybe.

The rest of the day I decided to dedicate to myself. I went back home and cooked myself a nice pasta, watching an episode of Twin Peaks and then playing some Skyrim. Later in the evening the VPN suddenly stopped working once and for all, and I decided to call it a night after few pages of this weird-ass 80’s crime novel I’m reading because I found it lying around in our apartment before leaving to China. It’s not amazing, but it’s something, I guess.

China Diary

Day 16: A Night Out


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We were dragged out of our beds yesterday to go to a media company somewhere close by to see a presentations on some fresh film tech they were trying to sell us. First was actually a pretty cool system which would replace need for tracking markers on the green screen by placing reflective markers on studio roof and a receiver on camera to give the tracking data. It’s sort of weird we were taken there, when in fact it should’ve been the VFX supervisor who would say if the system is usable in their workflow or not. The other stuff was either pretty obscure or seemed too much like student projects instead of actual, solid filming solutions.

In the afternoon, I had a chance to meet young, talented and surprisingly tall Chinese actor, who I spent the afternoon hours doing some audition tapes and chatting this and that. The crew were waiting to get a chance to talk with Max, but he was busy afterwards with the actor for few hours, so I decided to bail out. I was skeptical the Korean BBQ dinner we had been promised for days would actually happen tonight…

…and just as I got into a comfy position in my room, Crystal called to let me know she’s picking me up in 10 minutes. So off we were, for quite a long drive, to a great Korean BBQ restaurant. First thing, they poured us glasses full of Chinese white wine, the 55% stuff, which set the tone for the evening. We ate and drank and talked about movies, comedy (what’s the thing people in China laugh about – the answer was: stupid people), North Korea (Chinese don’t really know a lot about North Korea, since they don’t interact with them) and drinking habits. I was taught that when you say ganbei, you should finish the drink you have. It would’ve been a murder with the 55% white wine, so the production manager taught a trick: when you touch with your fingers each other’s fingers when ganbei‘ing, it’s OK if you don’t finish the drink at once.

After the dinner, we walked to a bar! That has never happened here before, so I was excited… excited to find out that bars in China are just the same as everywhere else. There was a pool table and expensive drinks and crappy music and I played a bad round of billiards, downed few more wet ones and then we were taken back home.

I must admit I had few drinks more than I expected, or then it was the white wine, but waking up the next morning was rather an unpleasant experience.

China Diary

Day 15: A more peaceful world


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Ah, nice to be back in my own quarters, instead of the crappy Qingdao hotel. I slept like a baby the whole night, and erased some of the sleep debt that had been cumulating over the few weeks. It finally seems my jetlag has reached its’ peak and now we’re on a slope down towards normality.

Nothing much had changed in the Beijing office. I met quickly an actor and discussed with Mika the script in depth, and then all the ADs disappeared, one by one, into Max’s office, and few hours later I got the message that the meeting is going to run late and our plans for a Korean BBQ experience was to be ditched for the night.

It was OK for us, we found a little joint close by and had a decent dinner, idly chatting and then back to our place for some rest. The production meeting ended somewhere around midnight and Lei informed me that all the locations we chose were approved (yay!) and we’ll be shooting major part of the movie in Qingdao, either soundstages or on locations (yay, too!), and that we now have the starting date, at least it’s something we’re aiming for: 17th of October. We never know if it holds, but if there’s a common goal, everything is much easier.

And then there are the terrorist attacks, in Barcelona this time.

The people who fell victims – who didn’t succumb under the wave of terrorism and decided not to fear, decided to go out that day to do whatever they wanted in their lives, should be treated with just as much respect as the war heroes who died in the field of battle fighting for the freedom of their country. They were fighting with their own existence against the threat of terrorism, which has been amplified by the far-right fearmongering and headline-hungry media. They didn’t survive, and that’s the real tragedy, but they stood, unknowingly but still decidedly, bravely until the end. We can honor their sacrifice by doing the same, by not giving in on the fear of terrorism. The real battle against it will be fought not with weapons, but by education, social security and stable governments. Ongoing wars are doing exactly the opposite.

One day, we will learn. But that day hasn’t come yet, so more casualties will come.

Still, I’d like to remind us of the fact that for the first time, we in the most peaceful era in history, as writer Yuval Noah Harari noted:

“We now live in the most peaceful era in history. There is definitely still violence – I live in the Middle East so I know this perfectly well. But, comparatively, there is less violence than ever before in history. Today more people die from eating too much than from human violence, which is really an amazing achievement.”

The whole Guardian interview is a good read, as is his book Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind, and – although I haven’t read it yet – the follow-up, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow seems to be a worthy read as well.

And then there’s the other, unrelated event of random violence in Finland. A guy went out on a knifing frenzy in the city of Turku in Finland, killing two and wounding 8 others. Knife attacks are nowadays more rare in Finland – the used to be the norm in Pohjanmaa some hundred years ago – but mass killings are not completely unheard of. Remains to be seen what are the facts around this event, police hasn’t been very informative so far.

China Diary

Day 14: Beijing bound


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Me and Lei and the weird smoking island.

The last day on our Qingdao trip was, again, amazingly hot. We left the (terrible) hotel behind and jumped on a car to drive for nearly an hour to see the first option for one of the key locations of the film. I had described that I wanted to have a big industrial kind of a harbour, with preferably cranes and ships around. Well, there was a ship, and there was a crane – but the ship was an old cruise liner, the crane was a very small one. It was really nice bask in the sun, though, and enjoy the view over beautiful sea.

The second location was nearly two hour drive away. Mika dozed off, as did most of everyone on the car, and I spent time emailing, playing Hearthstone and listening to Hawkwind. To drive for two hours to see a location, especially knowing that we only would have some twenty minutes to spend on the location, was a bit of a hazard, but when we arrived, we knew we had found what we were looking for. A massive old container port, with an abandoned, huge container ship in mint condition sitting at the dock full of mindbogglingly huge cranes of all sorts and styles.

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These kind of things really make it all worth the long trips: you instantly start seeing the movie in your head, mind racing for shots, lighting solutions and action pieces. Even more so, adding new scenes. And that can be hazardous, too, for budget and schedules… But the idea of shooting in real location much of the movie after Iron Sky The Coming Race, which was 100% shot in studio, is promising and a nice chance of events.

Back at the airport, the first thing we learned was that our flight was to be delayed. So me, Max and Mika found a nice table from the VIP lounge and spent few hours there, working, drinking Tsingtao beer Max managed to grab for us and contemplate the production. The reason to take the plane was that we wanted to be earlier in Beijing, the rest of the crew took the 5 hour train, but thanks to delay they arrived to Beijing some three hours before we did…

And of course, there was another screwup waiting – the production hotel we’ve been using was fully packed and Mika was left without a room. Max lost his shit to the production, and rightly so, because after such a long, hard and complex trip, we had to share my apartment for the next two days. It’s not a problem since there’s an extra room, but at 2am, totally exhausted, the whole hassle of getting the luggage and fighting over the room was indeed badly timed.

 

China Diary

Day 14: Wandering the Wanda City


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On the second day of the recce, the weather got much better. The sun was shining bright, turning our little rubber-wheeled muskrat trap into a Swedish sauna. This time, we drove a long way to the area where Wanda Pictures, one of the world’s biggest film companies, have their studios. We visited a newly finished shopping mall we could close down to shoot a scene in, and then went to visit the studios.

Located just across the street from the sea, the thirty two studio buildings line the Wanda Studios lot in a neat order, basking in the sun under the big “Wanda” text hoisted on the mountainside, to remind us that we indeed are in East Hollywood. Here, they’ve just shot such films as Kong and The Great Wall, and just finished the shoot for Pacific Rim 2, so we knew we would be in good hands. The quality of the studios is just amazing: stages of different sizes and heights, with high-end rigging solutions, water tanks and whatnots ensure best possible filming experience.

It was also nice to sneak in another scifi film’s (“The Wandering Earth”, based on Liu Cixin’s novels and produced by China Film Group with $50m budget) set and see all the great set pieces being constructed. The Chinese art department surely know their stuff.

On the way back, I started to feel suddenly really bad. My stomach was doing somersaults and I asked for a toilet break. Of course, we were just then at the busiest highway in the area, which was – of course – stuck because of an accident, and there was absolutely nowhere to stop. Searching for a toilet, our driver decided it’s probably the quickest to take the bridge back to the city – the longest overwater bridge in the world. I’ve rarely been in such pain when riding on this 25-kilometer-long bridge, praying for a McDonald’s or Burger King to appear from somewhere. And of course, they didn’t. I mean, usually they line every possible human-populated area densely, but when you actually need them, they’re nowhere to be found. So finally, when I found – after forty-five minutes of searching – a toilet, I decided it’s time for me to learn to go the Chinese way.

I’ll save you the details, but one thing I will say: every day you learn something new.

The evening ended again with a huge hot pot dinner. I had finished my work on the script earlier the day and got it sent out to the production and to the writer, so the production manager wanted to celebrate with me with a bottle of Jägermeister to go with the dinner. Many glasses were raised in appraisal of the crew and I even did a little dinner table speech, which I usually abhor, but since we had another early morning the next day, there was no time for too heavy partying.

At home, I had a nice two hour talk with Annika. Even as we’re far apart, it’s nice that she’s still the person I most prefer spending time with over anything, even if it’s just a Skype call. She was just finishing the Iron Sky making-of book, which is coming out around the same time as the film, in February next year. Annika has interviewed the crew, cast and even some fans for the book to tell first hand the (sometimes a horror-) story of how the film got made. I won’t spoil you for the fun, but I can say that it’s quite a strange, chilling story to read.

So congratulations, Annika, for finishing your first book! Now, I’m married to an author!

China Diary

Day 13: Surrealism


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Location recce is like a box of chocolates: you never know what you get. The idea of it is simply to drive around the city and find locations to shoot at, but the problem is that you’ll never find exactly perfect locations. That’s the reason even more simple setups end up being built on sound stages, in the controllable environment of the studio.

We knew that we want to shoot many scenes of Iron Sky: The Ark in the city, in real locations, to make the film feel more tangible. It’s also helping us to save some much-needed money from visual effects, to be used in sets that can’t be replicated, like on Moon.

So for this, we moved to Qingdao, to see what kind of locations they have to offer. The city itself reminds me more of Los Angeles, where as Beijing has more the New York feel to it. Located by the sea and pretty south in China, the weather can be warm and air is fresh, better than in Beijing for sure.

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On the first day of the recce, we started the tour by visiting an abandoned construction site somewhere a bit outside the center. It’s really interesting: if this kind of a site was somewhere in Europe or USA, it would be full of homeless people, graffitis and drug needles, but here – nothing. For whatever reason, the builders ran out of money and the construction site was left to rot there, but it was completely untouched. We started to envision some of the action scenes there with Mika and our action coordinator, and I started to fantasize shooting a quick post-apocalyptic zombie movie in the set as well.

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After that, we drove to the seaside, to a rocky beach near a fishing area. The scenery there is really surreal: tens of big, old, weathered fishing boats sit on the beach waiting for the high tide. Then, another fourty-five minutes in a car and we found ourselves in an amazingly beautiful beachside hotel, which also had a western-style toilet for me and Mika to enjoy. The long day ended at a half-finished multi-level intersection we could block and use for our car chase scenes.

The weather was terrible the whole first day. By the time I got back to the hotel just before midnight, I was completely drenched. Sitting in a car and wandering around the locations can be really tiring, so by the time my face hit the pillow, I was already out.