China Diary

Day 39: Stu-stu-stu-stu-studio Line!


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Wanda Studios in Qingdao are bound to become the biggest film studios in the world, when the additional buildings are finished later this year, and I have no trouble believing it. Riding through the rather unimpressive gates, the first thing you recognise is that there are no huge logos hanging above them like in Paramount or Universal studios, but then again, there’s neither the same charm since they only made a handful of films there so far, not like the other ones with nearly 100 years of history.

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The studio lot itself is typical: big, square-shaped white and rather uninteresting buildings line the empty streets – riding around in a golf cart makes you feel almost like being on a university campus after an aggressive Zombie outburst. Only thing missing is some of them creepers starting to swarm out from one of the buildings…

These studio halls house some of the biggest film productions in the world today. Just recently, they had wrapped shooting Pacific Rim 2, so you get the scale. Many of them are, of course, Chinese pictures, but nowadays, as the Americans are hungry for slice of the Chinese markets, more and more films are done either completely or partially here.

Inside the studios is – of course – nothing. And that’s the very point of a studio building: it’s a huge hall without anything in it. Well, that’s not true: each building has been built with extreme precision to keep the stages free of any external light or – and that’s another important thing – sound. Thus their alternative name: soundstage. The roofs are built also with complex sets, stunts, light rigs and different kind of green, blue or black screen hangings in mind, so although they rise up to twenty meters in height, the roof structures are easily reachable.

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Other than that, studios have very little difference in the structure. Each is different in size – they range from 1500 square meters to 10000 square meters – and some of them may have an water pool (kinda like swimming pool) for underwater shots in them. Then, the filmmakers choose what size sets they build, book the studios and shoot there for as long as required. Each studio has also green rooms, makeup rooms and other stuff like that required for comfortable shoot.

In few words: I love shooting in studio.

Everything is in control. Everything is much faster. Everyone is more relaxed. Everything works better.

So, I’m happy we get to shoot quite a lot in the studios. It’s more convenient and effective. If it was up to me, we would build everything in studio, but… well.

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Say hello to my little friend.

We’d run out of money very quick.IMG_9762IMG_9762We spent most of the days checking out the studios, and before that, another key location some two hours drive away from the center. In the evening, the production got this idea that I had once said I really enjoy the Tsingtao beer, that I would like to have a full keg of it. Now, I do love the beer, but honestly, what do I do with a keg of beer in my hotel room? It’s not like I’m going to start drinking alone in my room a keg full of beer and work the next day? But nevertheless, now I have a keg of beer in my room.

Many don’t.

China Diary

Day 38: Here comes the Sun! (Tydydydyy…)


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Hello, Sun!

Walking out on the balcony of my hotel room here at Mangrove Tree hotel in Qingdao is every morning quite an amazing experience. On a foggy day, the sea blends into the horizon and it feels like you’re staring into the gray abyss – or, more like you’ve went past the designed area in a game and are now floating in the nothingness. The difference between these two is, actually, rather small.

But on a sunny day, that’s a whole different story. Living on the 22nd floor, the sunlight pierces my eyes painfully as I step on the balcony. Below me, the people walk on the beach as small dots, while the sea, gleaming in the sunlight, drifts to horizon, changing to the blueness of the sky in an inimitable manner. It’s a glorious way to start the morning, stepping butt naked to greet the scenery. Hello, Sun. It’s me, and I’m made mostly out of particles from you. Hope you have a great day dying the speed of hundreds of millions of tons of hydrogen a second!

 

Today’s agenda was pretty rigid: we had two hours drive ahead of us to a small, desolate island located far out of Qingdao, a location we’re hoping to use for Iron Sky: The Ark. We packed in the car and dozing on and off, I enjoyed the world slipping past me, reading a new book (“What Do Women Want”, by Daniel Bergner) and listening to some music. Mika was fast asleep next to me for the whole time – which is mostly a necessity for him, since his motion sickness doesn’t allow him even to glance at a phone when he’s riding in a car, let alone to read or work on the laptop.

The island itself has an extremely interesting composition of rocks, which make walking on it extremely painful, even with good boots. The surface is uneven with jagged stones digging into your feet, and just to get there, you have to wait at the tide that’s opening a walkway for 6 hours a day, then closing it again. With these elements in mind, you might already figure out what kind of production problems the location might prove.

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Np. Edu Kettunen – Tuulisilla rannoilla

First, getting anyone there is already a pain in the ass. Usually, you prelight a location on the night, then get people there first thing in the morning for rehearsals and when the sun is up, shoot for as long as it goes down, and there you have a full shooting day. In our case, we first need to wait until 11:30 am until the tide goes down and opens the route, and only then can we go there.

The surface can be really tricky for the crew hauling heavy equipment on the island, and the unforgiving, scorching sun is staring down at us constantly. Being located at the seaside, the weather can also get very nasty quite quickly, and when the tide goes up again – the whole island is flooded underwater until the next day! This really leaves the team some three effective hours of shooting time.

The main problem, though, is that it’s the best, the only and the most beautiful location I can think of for this scene. It’s either this – with challenging shooting schedules and complicated logistics and safety – or we shoot the whole scene in a studio, which of course allows much more easily controlled environment, but also explodes things like VFX budget etc.

Still, I really want to shoot there. And that was my message to the production: let’s try to make it work. They are.

In the afternoon, we wandered around several locations until hitting the restaurant for a hefty dinner and some white wine. In the evening, I decided to get to know the local nightlife and wandered downstairs, to a club called MOVIE BAR. Great name, I says to myself, and walk in. And it is huge place – and of course, as Chinese bars usually are – completely empty. Only bar staff having fun with each others, music playing loud (because that’s how it is in bars… only, usually there’s also people to enjoy it)… There was even a casino, but for some reason, you couldn’t really use the tables, although the casino staff was there…

So I sat down and Whatsapped with my friends back in Finland instead of interacting with anyone. The Finnish way. Not to say there was anyone really to talk to, but at least it was nice to hear shitty music being played too loud for a bit. Then, back to my room and ready for the next day’s challenges.

China Diary

Day 37: Rainy Sunday Scouting


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IMG_9676Qingdao trip started off in rather rainy mood. We headed over to scout some of the locations we had already visited; them being namely an abandoned construction site and the mall that’s just below our hotel. After the welcoming dinner, the day started off in rather tired mood, but lightened up as we started to do some practical planning on how we would actually shoot some scenes, what kind of stunts there would be, and discussions of that sort. The most amazing thing about this location is that it has been here for years without anyone taking over the building – but there’s no graffitis on the walls, anywhere! If this was anywhere in Europe, the walls would’ve been filled with tags and colorful art pieces which we would’ve had to cover with art department, but not here in China. There’s one old guy and his tiny dog watching over the construction site, meaning anyone could easily sneak in and do whatever they wanted there. But guess that’s one of the cultural differences we have with Chinese.

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Big, abandoned construction site.

The frustrating thing, though, turned out to be that for some reason, all of the communications that we’ve been having with the local location scouts haven’t been as accurate as we had hoped, and pretty soon we learned that most likely we’re going to have to lose one of the key locations for the film. This was a depressing setback and truly kicked the mood down. The location, a silent, closed business district area where we wanted to stage a motorcycle racing sequence, turned out to be great in every other way, only that we couldn’t do any of the stunts planned there, because the location manager feared we would end wrecking the location. I understand this completely, but standing in after having spent hours of planning those sequences, the question remained: why didn’t we learn about this a bit earlier… Well, life is all about learning to deal with setbacks, and here’s one for you.

After a long day of sitting in car or standing in a street corner in the rain somewhere we had a dinner and headed back home. I had a lengthy Skype session with Annika and went eventually to bed, listening to the crashing waves and rattling AC unit in my otherwise super high-end hotel room…

China Diary

Day 36: Back in the Beersville


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The bullet train slid to halt on Qingdao station. The doors hissed open, ever so lightly, and we found ourselves back in the Beer Capital of China. We had five days of scouting ahead of us, but not today. Today, we were promised a Qingdao welcome – which means beer, white wine and seafood.

Qingdao is a weird mix between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, a city for hedonists. Everything happens here half the speed of Beijing, and the distances are huge, so much of the time goes sitting in cars while going from one location to another. Another interesting thing I’ve found out about China is that there is basically no kind of bar culture. People drink what they drink over dinner, but afterwards, there’s not the “let’s go have a drink at a bar” -phase anymore. Basically, everyone goes to bed and is awake at the next day, bright and early.

IMG_9655Our Qingdao welcome was again in this rather seedy little restaurant. Waiting for us were three huge kegs full of Qingdao beer and a round table to be filled with seafood of all imaginable sorts: shellfish, crabs, shells… you name it. Arranged by mr. Zhu, the production manager, a man who loves to eat and have a drink, we were treated royally. As the evening progressed, me and Mika downed endless glasses for each crewmember’s honor, and continued to the adjacent room where the rest of the crew was dining. We got to know the Mongolian propmaster, a man of formidable stature and drinking habits; we got to talk more with our production designer – both of them, Gordon the actual production designer and mr. Wang, the art director, both of whom are great people, just as long as we forget the fact that we don’t really share a common language.

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Qingdao welcome

After the dinner we were driven to the hotel. This time, the production has treated us with rooms at this massive resort just by the sea. It took me forever to find my room from the 22nd floor, and as I entered, the room blew me away. A massive suite with a balcony overlooking directly at the sea. Having said that, the immense size of the establishment is just mindblowing. Whoever built this, wanted to create this area into a weirdly European-style resort. In front of the place, there’s a huge, interestingly designed “church” – or a wedding place, since although it resembles a church, it definitely isn’t one (this is, remember, not a Christian country). Right behind the church is a huge German-style square, surrounded by European buildings, cafes and that sort of stuff, but it all looks more like a film set than a real square, since there’s hardly any businesses, everything is in prim shape and there’s no grime anywhere.

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The weird church and the square.

Coming back home, I listened to some Riki Sorsa (my new favorite, don’t ask me why, must be the longing for home) and tried to talk with Annika, but she was having a night out with her friend so instead I headed to bed, falling asleep listening to the waves crashing to the shore twenty-two floors below me.

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This was all I got out of her last night, so… 🙂
China Diary

Day 35: …some questions.


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I had a lousy night of sleep last night, waking up after only four hours of tossing around. It took me a long time to get out of the bed, and finally when I did, I crashed instantly back in and decided to play a bit of Skyrim first before actually facing the day and going out to the office.

I was grumpy for most of the morning, bracing for the afternoon of meeting with an actor who had “few questions” about the script. It’s never a good sign, but knowing this actor, I was also half expecting for some really awesome conversations. And boy, did I get some. We started at 2:30, and finished at 6:30 for one hour of dinner, followed by another two hours of dialogue. Although it was hard and unforgiving, this gentleman’s approach is commendable: he wants to understand in depth the role, the world he is in, the characters, each of their motivations and the backstory, and he’s willing to drag into the light questions and issues that we hadn’t even thought. In short, after today’s meeting, we will go back and work a bit on some scenes of the film to make the script’s inner logic stronger. It’s good to do it now, because once you’re on the edit, it’s too late.

After the dinner, I felt my strength waning. Much of the discussion was in Chinese, so following that through Lei’s translation can become very daunting, and given last night’s lack of sleep, I found myself mostly shutting up for the last two hours. We decided to call it a day and continue later, and I skated back home.

Of course, at home I had another meeting waiting for me – this time, a Pixomondo meeting regarding Iron Sky The Coming Race post production. Budgets, excels, three-letter shot abbreviations and crappy Skype connection really blew the wind out of me.

China Diary

Day 34: Caribbean thoughts


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Thanks to the Chinese white wine, the red wine and the beers from last night’s amazing Mongolian dinner, I was feeling a bit under the weather the morning. By “a bit” I mean I couldn’t get out of the bed until 1pm, and by “under the weather” I mean I felt nauseous, my head was hurting like hell and something had crawled into my mouth overnight and died.

Of course, today we were to meet one of the key actors for the movie, but luckily as I arrived to Max’s office, I wasn’t the only one. He was also feeling rotten from last night’s dinner and singing, so we were equally hangoverish as we spoke with this intense, handsome young man who spoke perfect English and Chinese, and whom we really want to hire to play one of the key roles for the film.

The meeting went well, despite our compromised vitality, and afterwards I went back to my office and tried the Internet, but with no luck. I decided to retreat back to my hotel room where at least the net works a bit, and spent the whole evening in my room, rattling away emails and doing skype calls – both business and family – and watched a movie (4 Little Girls – a documentary on a bombing of an African-American church in the 60’s, by Spike Lee. Very good, very strong) and with Annika both were finding out shocked that hurricane Irma is doing bad damage in St. Martin, the place where we went few years back to our honeymoon. All the locations we had visited were destroyed, since the storm destroyed 90% of the buildings on the island! It’s incredible!

So if you are planning a trip, go to the Caribbean – they need your tourism dollars to repair the damages of Irma, badly. Here’s a picture of us in St. Martin, safley outside the hurricane season in 2016. Stay strong, my Caribbean brothers and sisters!

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China Diary

Day 33: Mongolian dinner


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Last night, we had the craziest dinner experience I’ve ever been to. Producer Max Wang is originally half-Mongolian, so he took us and some of his friends to a dinner at a place I want to call Little Mongolia, in Beijing.

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Max, Mongolian beauties, yours truly, and Mika!

The area consists of bunch of jurtas set up to serve as dining rooms, a huge lamb grilling station and a small pen for three camels. We were seated in one of the jurtas around a huge round table where the food was served. First, they brought in Mongolian tea – a big pot of boiling hot cow milk, which was then portioned into small wooden cups – not unlike Finnish kuksa of the indigenous Saami people.

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Max doing seating arrangements.

For drinks, they served beers, terrific red wine and – of course – the damn Chinese white wine. I mean, I love it, but it’s really heavy stuff, as I’ve told before… Anyway, we drank and enjoyed the Mongolian tea, and then the main guest was brought in: a full lamb that had been picked up to fry already one day before, and was now served to us on a huge platter. The lamb itself was sprayed on another table, it even had a pretty red ribbon on top of its’ head.

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Baaaaa!

Then, the dancers and the musicians swarmed in. At least 20 people, all dressed in traditional Mongolian dresses came in. We were given ceremonial golden vests, and me, Mika and Max were asked to the front to cut the lamb with a ceremonial knife. Afterwards, they started singing and dancing. There were beautiful ladies dancing, the guys were banging drums and we were whisked away on a trip through the Mongolian grasslands with throat singing and strange melodies.

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After some twenty-thirty minutes of performance, they left and we started eating. The lamb was just delicious, perfectly prepared and seasoned, added with the red wine and some sauces, I was in seventh heaven!

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As we had few more drinks, Max started to feel like singing, and later on, everyone was singing songs from their own culture – even I was forced to sing, and I chose “Pyydä mahdotonta” by CMX. I don’t know why. It was the only thing I could think of at that time. I did receive nice applauds for it, though, but really hearing Max sing (and he can sing!) and this Mongolian actress who was there singing, was really special. We do too little of that in Finnish culture – of course, there’s karaoke, but these guys were great without anything.

It was a terrific evening with great food, music and an experience I’ve never had! I only wish I had my lovely, dear wife Annika there with me to share it.

China Diary

Day 32: Noodles and Twin Peaks


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Mika is back in town, which means we organized the first big schedule meeting with every department, going through in detail what, how and where are we going to shoot and on which day. Lei had done fantastic work with the schedule – already on the first draft everything seemed to work very well; only some actor scheduling means a bit more hassle with the sound stages, but nothing we can’t solve. Mainly, we decided to cut one big set into two smaller studios where we have the access earlier to, so the building can start quite soon. Also, spacesuits pose a slight problem since their manufacturing time takes way too long for some scenes, so we have to find a way to go around this problem. But all in all, everything seems pretty good.

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\m/ Production designer Gordon Lee giving the horns \m/

I also got to meet the coolest actor I’ve met for the project so far. This girl, who works at the company, will play a small role of a street smart kid, and it turns out she has the exact background the character should have. Knowing all the secret underground clubs, rap acts, illegal super car races and whatnot, she told us all about the dark side of Beijing, and it was fascinating! For example, there are these big secret underground car racing parties, just like in Tokyo Drift, with rich kids with their super-expensive cars their parents have bought them. And that there used to be bike races across Beijing, but police started to hunt down the racers and set up nets across the streets to stop them. It was effective, and motorcycle street racing is no more such a big thing. In addition to casting her, I also asked her to consult on several scenes and some wardrobe decisions.

After a hefty set of noodles I settled in my room and finished off Twin Peaks: The Return. The final episode was – as a standalone – a David Lynch masterpiece, and the ending scene climbs right up there next to the level of the ending for Sopranos. What a great show, most important thing that happened to TV since Sopranos and before that, Twin Peaks’ first season.

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Just a pic of me watching Twin Peaks: The Return finale in my hotel room…

 

China Diary

Day 31: Keep your damn jack…


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Having to deal over the Internet with a VPN is driving me mad. We all know China has blocked its’ country from normal Internet, which is fine and it funnily doesn’t seem to matter almost at all to the locals, but for us, who are used to using Spotify, Netflix, Dropbox, WeTransfer, Skype, Whatsapp, Gmail, Google Calendar and Google, we’re pretty much screwed over here. So the only solution is to purchase a 100€/year VPN account. The problem is, whenever VPN is on (I’m using ExpressVPN, which is probably the best here in China), the data transfer is slow. And by slow I mean it doesn’t happen.

But it seems to have its’ bad days and its’ good days. Yesterday, I was able to watch a film on HBO Nordic via Finland VPN connection quite well. Every 20 minutes it stopped for some buffering, but it’s bearable. Today, same connection, same site – I was able to watch maximum 30 seconds of Twin Peaks at a time, with 5 minutes buffering time for every new 30 seconds. Needless to say, I decided to give it a rest for the night. Keep your damn jack…

We had a lengthy script meeting today with Max. These meetings tend to always go the same way: at first, we talk. Then, we argue, and Lei tries to translate as Max goes on like a bullet train and I’m trying to keep up to where we are headed for. Then, we settle for a solution – whether Max writes his bit and or I write mine (last time it was me, now Max wants to add few things by himself), and then we have to wait for the translated versions to hit us and see what changed.

Luckily, we are both trying to deliver the same kind of a movie, but it’s interesting to see the little cultural differences there are. For example, the importance of “hero” in Chinese storytelling is much different than in Western films. In Western films, a hero is usually an ordinary person who has an unordinary set of skills, and using them he or she saves the day. In China, it seems, an ordinary person is an ordinary person and possesses no unordinary skills, and becomes a “hero” through circumstances, not through given set of skills – and even the term “hero” doesn’t really mean the same. It’s just a person whom we decide to follow through the movie, and he or she doesn’t have to be in the center of the main events at all! So, trying to fit both of these worlds into one can be challenging, but I feel we’ve struck quite a good balance by bringing best of both worlds together.

The meeting started off grimly, but ended on a high note, and I’m quite keen to read the changes. Meanwhile, the production train is moving forward, so I of course hope nothing too dramatic will change set-and-scene-wise, but we both understand that.

I’m also happy to say we have found pretty good solutions on the costume design and the production design front. I’ve struggled to find the right look for our male lead, but finally, after a lot of googling, references and tons of discussions I’m happy with what the costume designer has provided me. It’s simple, it’s very “regular” but it works well with the character.

We also had a huge problem finding the right look for the Moon Base in the film – I mean, it’s an Iron Sky, so the Moon set is the one people come to see in these films, right? I had tossed tons of different ideas to the trashbin, until today I wandered off just almost by accident to the production design department, and saw one of the guys working on something interesting on his screen. It turned out to be a new, unfinished sketch of the Moon Base, and it was spot on! I was very excited to see it, and told right away to mr. Wang the whole thing was beautiful. He was happy to hear it, and I could hear the unified vision clockwork slowly starting to rattle on, like Götterdämmerung’s engine on the first Iron Sky!

Since Tuomas is still in town, we went out for a hummus and guy talk (we have it too, ladies – it’s not as sophisticated as yours but we do share our heart with our friends every now and then!). Then, I came back home and tried watching Twin Peaks, failed at that, spoke with wife an hour or so and well, now I’m watching through the window as the steady flow of car headlights flicker on the street fourteen floors below and chewing the life’s gristle.

Always look on the bright side of life, as Eric Idle reminds us to do. I will! I just want that damn VPN to start working…

China Diary

Day 30: Planning Ahead


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Sunday’s my day off, and I decided to spend it the best way I know: by not getting out of bed at all. I placed the “bugger off I’m sleeping” -sign on my door and stayed in my bed the whole day. I played some Playstation (yeah, I lug that thing with me whenever I go away for a longer stay), watched a movie (3:10 to Yuma, the 2010 version with Russell Crowe and Christian Bale – really good!), ordered a room service hamburger and that was that.

Next week seems busy. I have two important cast meetings ahead of me, to begin with. First, there’s this big Chinese star whom we want to join the production, but he has some questions. So I’m expecting we’re having a nice talk over the script. And then there’s this American-Asian star whom we also hope to join the production, and I’ll meet with him, too. Much of the cast is coming together pretty nicely, but there’s still few holes on the list. Our plan is to nail the cast by the end of September, preferably slightly earlier, but before that, everything is still just talk, speculation, drafting the agreements and so forth.

Later in the week, we’ll be relocating back to Qingdao for the second recce. Mika is coming on Tuesday and we’ll be going through the locations we’re going to shoot the film in on. This visit also includes, of course, the visit to our sound stages. We’ve booked now two stages – one smaller, one humongous, to where we will build everything that needs to be built.

Oh, and last episode of Twin Peaks is coming tomorrow! A double-episode, which I suspect will be quite glorious. Unlike Game of Thrones, which has really gone down after George R. R. Martin left the show (well, he didn’t leave but it’s not based on his books anymore), Twin Peaks has been a huge success story in terms of artistic creation like you’ve never seen before. For sure, the show doesn’t gather enough eyeballs so it’s definitely not going to go on the fourth season, but that’s just fine. It shouldn’t. They found a perfect concept, wrote and executed a perfect last season and gave the big finger to every other show out there by telling them: “yeah, we created you – now watch what you’ll be trying to do for the next 25 years”.