The night was restless and sweaty, and I woke up already at 7 am for the first time, just to toss and turn in my bed for an hour or so until falling back to sleep. When I finally woke up, it was already nearly eleven and I had royally missed the breakfast, which was fine since I was still quite full after last night’s heavy burger dinner.
Back in Finland, my pal Jesse Haaja had just had his first feature film released, a Finnish superhero movie Rendel, and my wife and most of my pals back home had celebrated the premiere, which I totally missed of course, being stuck here on the other side of the world. Well, anyway Jesse, if you read this – congrats, man!
The day at the office was pretty fun, though. Maxine, our 2nd AD, had worked all through the night to translate the script, so when I arrived, she left home for sleep – but not before delivering me the brand new script! I started reading it instantly, but the day was dotted with loads of meetings: first costume fittings for one of the actors, then a meeting with Max who had just returned from Iran (he praised the country), then few meetings with production designer, stunts coordinator and propmaster… See, the fact is, we are shooting in less than a month! There’s so much to be done by then, and since we haven’t really even started to build sets yet, a lot of things are about to hit the ground and they better do so running! But now that we finally have the script, it’s much easier to operate. Now I’m able to set all the meetings and make all the decisions that have been a bit in the air and which I’ve been reluctant to nail before I read the script – and good that I didn’t! For example, the new script has expanded one location from one scene to three scenes – so the studio plan for that scene needs to be completely re-taught. Nobody wants to see us crammed in a small corner if we are about to spend five minutes of the movie in there…
After the hectic day, me and Mika headed for a very spicy dinner, visited a barbershop to get our hair straight, and finished the evening at a local, beautiful whiskey bar over a glass of high quality whiskey sour, made into Maker’s Mark, of course. Now I’m sitting in my bed, cursing the bad Internet connection and playing a bit of Skyrim. TGIF.
I was feeling antsy yesterday, needing something different to do instead of just sitting in my hotel room bed and waiting for the script translation to finish, so I googled what events would Beijing have going on – and just by accident, I noticed a Finnish heavy metal band Battle Beast was playing not five kilometers away from the office! Although I can’t say I’m a huge fan, I thought it’s a great way to spend an evening, so I arranged tickets and headed over there. This would be my second time I see a metal band play in China – last time was Gorgoroth show in Hong Kong many years ago on Iron Sky 1’s release tour.
I arrived to the venue way too early, got my ticket and wandered off to the small Hutong streets, and found a little corner restaurant where I enjoyed a beer and some lamb skewers before the show. The venue was just like these rock venues are, in a pretty good shape and of a good size for the band like Battle Beast, and the sounds were pretty good, too. It was fun to see Chinese metalheads suddenly appearing all around, when normally you don’t see them anywhere. I spotted tens of familiar band t-shirts, just like in any European metal club, and to my great surprise, the people really seemed to know Battle Beast the band and even some of their songs, which is interesting since I’ve hardly even heard of them before. Big in China, I guess. And it’s pretty good idea to be big in China, since, well, it’s a big country!
The evening was nice, but also I did feel like not really belonging there. During the whole evening, not one person approached me or spoke to me, so apart from the sideway glances, I was left pretty much alone. After the show I thought about getting a cab, but realized it’s not easy, and ended up walking few kilometers instead, and found myself close to the place where I had the burger the other day – Great Leap Brewing. And indeed, I was feeling a bit hungry despite the lamb skewers, and decided to pop in for a glass of high-quality craft beer and one of the best burgers I’ve had in my life.
Again, I was left alone, but the curious glances are constant. I realize i don’t really fit in here, being a European giant among the normal folk, but it’s still getting a bit on my nerves.
Later on, I found a way to get a taxi and headed homewards. The metal show was a nice interruption to my daily routines here, and the burger is always a wonderful way to end the day, so all in all, I had a pretty nice day.
Ah, another joyous trip to the Visa Renewal Office half an hour car ride away, and another instant rejection at the counter because now they were missing a correct stamp. We waited for another two hours at the office, after which I got fed up, informed Crystal the assistant that me and Mika would be getting the hell out of there and they’ll let us know when they have the papers in order.
Back at the office, I finally got to hear the rundown of the changes for the script. Max had worked with the Chinese writer and produced a five pages longer script, which focuses on some important points of the movie, but luckily didn’t really change the key set pieces too much. I had feared we might be in for a huge production overhaul, but it seems it’s all “just” in the dialogue and the logic behind everything, so it should be controllable.
The office guys thought they’ll run a little practical joke on me today. For lunch, I asked for a hamburger, but instead of a normal burger they – for whatever Chinese comedic reason that evades me – they ordered a 1,5kg burger the size of a pizza! It took nearly two hours to produce and when it landed on our table, we both were nearly knocked off of our chairs with Mika. Who’s gonna eat that? Not me (at least: not all… and in the end, I ate half of it). That, of course, led to a feelings of self-loathe, instant ugliness, dramatic weight gain and other fun stuff that comes along when eating nearly 1kg of utter crap… And remember, yesterday I had had a burger as well.
So when I came back to the hotel, I went to the gym to sweat off some of the disgust I had accumulated, and managed pretty well in it, actually. I spent good nearly two hours there, listening to a handful of podcasts (my favorites are in addition to Dan Savage’s magnificient Savage Love Podcast, also BBC’s History Extra -podcast, How Stuff Works -podcast and Mark Kermode’s film podcast) and working on the weights.
The Internet Gods who dwell this hotel blessed my floor with pretty good connection, so I managed to finish this Jeff Bridges -movie “A Dog Year”, a TV-movie from 2009 which did gain him an Emmy nomination, and no wonder. The film itself was easily brushed off as a typical midlife crisis film with dogs, but instead of the dogs being intelligent, talking superhero Lassies of the story, they were just dogs. Lovable, a bit dumb and absolutely out of control – but it was more about Jeff’s character, a bitter writer fighting writer’s block (I wonder how many films like that are in existence, not to mention novels…) and how he learns – you guessed it – something about himself.
Oh, and we did get our Visas renewed, Mika for another 30 days, me for another 60… We had asked for a longer extension, so that we wouldn’t have to fly around during the shoot which only has one day off each week and we’d rather spend it relaxing than sitting in planes en route to Seoul or Hong Kong, but oh well. At least we don’t have to fly out right away…
We were ushered to a van early in the morning and driven across the town to the Visa Offices, where our intention was to renew our Chinese Visas. See, me and Mika both managed to get a multiple-entry Visas for China, but unfortunately they only gave them for 60 and 30 days, respectively. This would mean that during our trip, I would have to travel out of the country every 60 days, and Mika every 30 days. Flying to Hong Kong and directly flying back counts as a re-entry, so that would be the solution, but that’s just stupid, not to mention the fact we are actually working on an “environmentally aware” film, this kind of carbon footprint is what Planet Earth could live without.
The office building is just as office buildings everywhere else in the world are, but the one thing that I’ve found different from authoratives in China compared to Finland for example is that they are a damn grumpy bunch, many of them. First, we waited for about two hours in line to meet an officer, and when we finally got to sit in front of her, she took a glance at our papers, handed them back and said: your company is registered in the wrong district. Well, that’s just awesome.
We went back to the office through a nasty traffic and wasted most of the day (well, I did, at least, Mika managed to do some real work actually) just sitting around. I’m still waiting for the latest script, and before I get that, I’m a bit reluctant to start anything major because it could potentially be a waste of time and effort, and anyway I have this underground drain of motivation already filling up to the brim, so instead I headed back home.
The whole hotel room has started to crunch me, day by day. The 15 square meters or something seems to be getting smaller and more depressing every time I step in, and now it was not even 5pm – and the idea of spending the next 8 hours in this cell of mine didn’t sound like a plan. Instead, I Googled “Best Burger in Beijing”, and decided it’s time to see what this city is made of.
One of the perks I enjoy is having a personal driver at my disposal whenever needed. As a humble Finn I’m reluctant to use such perks more than once a week, although the driver is always really happy to drive me around. But today, I decided, I needed a lift instead of an uncomfortable Berlin taxi experience, so soon I was being hauled to a restaurant/pub called Great Leap Brewing #12 Brewpub.
Another retreat for the expats, the place was positively packed, with very few Asians faces around – outside of people behind the bar (and no, it doesn’t mean I don’t like to have Asians around, it’s just the fact in this specific bar thank you very much now sit down). I decided to find my seat and the next few hours of my evening sitting at the bar counter, enjoying an amazing Cheese Burger and few craft beers from across the world.
After yesterday’s disappointment, I decided to gather myself and we agreed with Annika a new schedule for her arrival, and now we have a clear date in mind when she gets here and although it’s far in the future, it’s still much better than not having a date set at all.
Otherwise, the day went past in a blur. I went swimming in the morning – I really hate it, it’s dull and boring and splashy and wet and what not, but it’s good for the joints, we big humans should give our joints a rest every now and then. Then, at the office I heard Max had finished a new version of the script and now I’m waiting to get the translation.
Afternoon, I started to feel a bit weak. I’ve got no idea what it was, probably the bad air quality outside, but it was almost a bit like a fever, but then again, not exactly – kinda sore throat and overall fatigue that set in. I skated back to my hotel quite early and took a good two-hour nap, dreaming of a Mongolian punk band doing Suicidal Tendencies covers (don’t ask).
As I woke up, the news of Annika not being able to come to China next week hit us both hard, so most of the night went recovering from that. Like I told already yesterday, I tried watching a movie, but the Internet wouldn’t let me, so I ended up playing some Skyrim, and started something that could one day be a screenplay.
Now it’s 01:15, my brains are still overheated from all the stuff that went down today, but since I have an early one tomorrow – we’re trying to get an extension to our Visas, so a lot of sitting around at Chinese government offices ahead for me. Better try get some sleep.
I’m gonna start by getting this off my chest first.
It seems my wife Annika won’t make it here in China in the next two months. We were looking forward for her flying here next Monday, but thanks to some unforeseeable complications, the trip can’t happen now.
When I realized this, it felt like somebody had punched me right in the fucking stomach. That’s the only – the very *only* thing – that’s been keeping me sane here for the last one and a half months, knowing that on this specific date, she would be flying in – and now, well, she won’t. And the next window of opportunity will be in more than two months.
And I can tell you, she’s just as devastated about it as I am. We both fell apart over Skype collectively, and have now been trying to gather ourselves. It felt like somebody shoved a vacuum cleaner in my head and sucked all the motivation and inspiration out of there.
Oh, well. What can you do?
I was feeling pretty good yesterday, before learning all this. I skated around the town, visited an old Chinese observatory, called Beijing Ancient Observatory, learning a hell of a lot of things about the history of astronomy. The place has been there since early 1400’s, and still retains many of the original instruments used to observe the movement of the universe. Walking between the equatorial and ecliptic armillas, astronomical sextants, azimuth theodolites, altazimuths, celestial globes and quadrants made me think about all the great minds who had been tinkering with these devices for us to understand a bit better where is our little planet headed for.
At home, I watched three movies. First one, 50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus, was a touching HBO doc about a couple who set out on a journey to save 50 Jewish kids from Nazi Germany in ’39, reminding us that the last time USA turned down huge masses of immigrants was in the Second World War, when they didn’t want to let the Jewish refugees in, who tried to escape the Holocaust.
The other film was 50 First Dates, the Adam Sandler/Drew Barrymore -starred Peter Segal -directed rom com from early 2000’s. Well written, not a fantastic classic but served my mood perfectly. I’ve always enjoyed Adam Sandler, maybe as a guilty pleasure, and this is him at the top of his game.
The last film was the weirdest, a TV movie called 7 Days In Hell, a mockumentary where Kit Harington fought Andy Samberg on a a tennis court. I didn’t have a clue what was going on in that one…
Nevertheless, it was a thoroughly enjoyable day, and a much-needed day off, and today, waking up I learned about all this shit and now the whole world reeks like a dumpster. I was feeling so bad I thought watching a movie where divorced Jeff Bridges gets a dog to comfort him would cheer me up, but the Internet at the hotel had been shitty the whole day so no luck there.
So now I’m sulking in my bed, grumpy as hell. I better go to sleep early, and then start my two-month crawl towards the light with a bit brighter mind.
One of the things that everyone who has ever seen one film about Beijing knows is the local Hutong areas. Hutongs are typical Beijing local areas of small streets and a certain type of old buildings around them, located in the heart of Old Beijing. These street corners have been here forever – first ones were already built in the 13th century, so their historical and cultural importance is immeasurable.
Immeasurable to the level that it’s absolutely forbidden to shoot a movie in there. Of course, being Chinese, these crafty bastards have circled the issue and built at least two hutong sets in Beijing area: one in China Film Studios, the other one somewhere outside the city. And since we’re shooting in Wanda Studios in Qingdao, the production rather wants us to use the one outside the city.
We set in the car for over one hour to get to this one abandoned, huge warehouse located amidst some old, rotting buildings and a desolate lot which looks more like a place where the mobsters dump their bodies than an area to shoot movies. But lo and behold, stepping inside the warehouse is like stepping in a completely different world. A perfectly crafted Hutong streets spread suddenly in front of us, with flying walls (that’s a term for a removable wall, sounds better that way – and much easier, gives you an impression that moving the wall can be fast and easy like flying – I can tell you it takes hours of shooting time every time anyone so much as mentions a flying wall), green screens and whatnots. And inside the buildings, perfectly crafted houses, almost like the Chinese families living here had just taken all their furniture, trash, posters and vehicles and left, leaving empty buildings behind. I was, of course, very happy to get a fully crafted set for my use, and so was the poor production designer Gordon Lee, who already has a world and a half to build – and we’re shooting in just over a month from today!
Back at the office, we had a huge planning day with the stunts coordinator set out for us. We have basically storyboarded every scene in the film, and now it’s time to start splitting the scenes into single shots, into camera setups and into concrete shooting days. But this meeting was not about that – it was about the stunts. We had chosen two main stunt-requiring sequences of the film and broke them down into shooting days and what we’re planning to shoot every day. We had (well, Mika had, I would never have enough discipline for that) drawn maps of every location, pointed out every explosion, every special feature and every piece where something will happen in detail.
Our action coordinator, mr. Liu, is a great guy. He’s quite a silent type, unlike most of the stunt people whom I’ve worked with – they tend to be many, rowdy bunch of guys who love to play out their stunts, come up constantly with exciting ideas and loudly explain them. But not mr. Liu. Mr. Liu sits in the corner, listens dutifully as me and Mika blast away our plans on how to shoot this stunt, how to crash this guy through this piece of wall. When he speaks, he speaks with a soft voice, but he’s always on top of his game: he’s ready to suggest multiple ideas, all very story-driven (another feature that’s not as common in stunts as one would hope), but listens carefully to our wishes.
We sat around the storyboards and the plans for hours, but managed only to finish two sequences – but these sequences are already two of the three actual main action sequences, so we were pretty good. We decided to give it a Saturday celebration, since Sunday was a day off, and although Mika had to stay back and had another discussion with the gaffer, I headed back home.
Now, no matter what anyone says, understand one thing: in Beijing, nobody speaks English. And by “not speaking” I mean they have absolutely no kind of a vocabulary. For example, today I went to a restaurant and asked for a toilet. None of the five people had ever heard that word. Then, I asked for a Coke to go with my noodles. Five people, again, and nobody had any idea what I was talking. Google Image Search didn’t help much: the red Coca-Cola logo didn’t ring any bells – until one of them spotted the Chinese-written Coca-Cola sign on one of the thumbnails, ran to a big container full of Coke cans and asked (well, communicated) if this was what I wanted. Yeah. So no, nobody in Beijing speaks English. That’s rule nr. 1. Rule nr. 2 is: don’t get frustrated by it. Remember, it’s actually *you* who don’t speak any Chinese. I have no idea what a “toilet” is in Chinese, or “Coca-Cola”, so I’m no better – besides, I’m in their home turf, they are not responsible for learning my language… But still, you would think in a restaurant people speak few words. But let’s leave it at that.
Mika had his own trials with the gaffer. Being an extremely fast-paced and technical job which relies heavily on the duality of a Director of Photography and gaffer (that’s the guy who does all the lighting), a common language would be helpful. But in this case, there is none. Only way for Mika to communicate – and they even had a translator, but really you have to know the terms and the equipment so well to be able to be helpful – was by drawing the style of equipment they needed. Later on he looked like he had been drive over by a truck…
We enjoyed a nice dinner at the restaurant Nola. Well, there was one hiccup: a woman came in with a scruffy dog. I’ve seen her there before, and warned Mika: she has absolutely no control over her dog. And it became very apparent quickly: the dog was sniffing under everyone’s table, and that’s fine for me (for others it may be a nuisance, but I like dogs, although I’m a bit allergic to them so I try not petting too much), but in addition to this, the dog is fucking loud. He barks out happily, loudly, randomly and constantly – and even that is bearable. Like I said, I like dogs. Sometimes, dogs do bark. But what I can’t stand is people who can’t handle their dogs. If you want a dog so badly, at least take a moment to learn to work with it. What she was doing was rather appalling: when the dog wanted to go somewhere, she grabbed it by the tail and dragged it. Of course, it was yelping. And when it did that, she slapped it in the head. So the dog was totally confused: whatever it was doing was apparently wrong.
We had to move inside before getting into a fight with this madame. Fuck her. Some people shouldn’t have a dog…
Later, I introduced Maggie’s to Mika. It was another rather slow night, although it was nearly midnight on Saturday. The same band was playing the same versions of the same songs, as they have done every day for the last God knows how many years… My friend bartender was there, so were the pretty girls who spotted me – the big tattooed guy – instantly and came swarming about. We had few drinks there with Mika, talking about everything between the Earth and the sky above it, and I did a bit more of people-ogling. This time, a group of ugly fat businessmen had parked their asses into one of the cabinets, and pretty callgirls were swarming around them. The evening was headed for something I’d rather not picture, and didn’t care to stay to witness more, so we decided it’s time to head back home.
As I woke up, the room was dark. I decided it means my jetlag is back and it’s too early to wake up. But it took me a while to understand that no, it wasn’t because the sun hadn’t risen yet, but because I had pulled the blinders down the night. I scrambled my phone to my hands and realised it was already 9 am, and I had slept full nine hours last night. No wonder I was feeling good.
After a breakfast (yay, I found out they actually do have oatmeal, but the kettle has been so well hidden none of us Finns have ever found it!) and an hour at the gym, I skated at work. I didn’t have anything planned for the day, but as soon as I sat my ass on my chair, Lei pulled me for a big meeting regarding our recent Qingdao trip.
We went through every location and spoke in detail of their pros and cons. I made a big point in trying to emphasize the importance of the otherwise easily dismissable island location, which I really believed would make a huge impact in the film as it was the best, although not the most accessible, location we could imagine of. Max shared my view and we both pleaded the production to really find ways to use it.
They also had produced the first copies of the spacesuits we would have in the movie. They were these big figures that were presented to me to discuss the tech and the details, before they actually start producing them, because they will be a massive task for the costume department, not to mention the costs, but after being slightly disappointed with some spacesuits in first Iron Sky, and after shooting one video with paper-made spacesuits, I wanted to have pristine, high-end space suits for Iron Sky: The Ark.
And based on what I saw, that’s what I’m going to get.
Max is about to leave to Iran for some business for few days, so we were about to have a hot pot dinner, but that got cancelled the last minute, leaving me and Mika scrambling for food. We settled in a nice Japanese restaurant right across our hotel, which serves some amazing sushi and assorted meats.
Home – Skype with wife, some blogging and off to bed. Tomorrow is early.
I must say I’m not made for this lifestyle. Being an international filmmaker is probably what I thought I wanted, but now that I see the reality, I think I’d prefer going back to working more from home, not staying abroad such a long times. First I thought it would be really cool, flying around in business, being treated in style by a very international crew – but truth be told, the novelty soon fades, at least for me. I know there are people out there who are able to enjoy it, popping into a hotel, popping out, flying to China, then to USA, then back to Europe somewhere, but I really have come to realise I need to root down, properly. “Where I lay my head is my home”, Metallica sings. Although a very romantic thought, I can’t agree with it.
I’m no different from anyone else, I want my own home, my wife every morning next to me, my son and my family close. I know, it sounds like cheesy country song lyrics, but sometimes those guys and gals down South got it right.
Does it mean I can’t do films like this, shooting a film every now and then outside of Finland, doing post production elsewhere? I think not. Only thing it needs is to have a better plan for the future. I’m working on it. I just haven’t nailed it yet, really.
But I have time. Endless evenings in my bed, wishing the Internet would allow one continuous Whatsapp call without constant delays, hang-ups and bad sound quality.
Still, it’s weird what can become a cheap substitute for “home”, when one is not available. I think it’s an innate need for humans, to find one place they can call their own, be it their tribal grounds, their home cave, farm or even a spot under the bridge somewhere. For me, it’s far from that, but I too have it: my little hotel room (it’s really not that small, I’m just being emotional and make too much out of this feeling) at the hotel here in Beijing.
As we came back from our Qingdao trip and as I slipped my hotel key card to my door at room 429 (number changed, fans, don’t come swarming behind that door, I’m not there, really), the one the production had so thoughtfully had me keep even though I wasn’t there, I felt a slight tingle of the feeling one has when returning home after a long trip. My clothes were where I had left them, some fruits I had bought were still in place, my Playstation was patiently waiting… It was far from home, but it felt good after the few days in Qingdao.
We had planned to go to see a movie with Mika, and even booked the tickets, but right when I was stepping out of the door, my Skype chimed: “we’re ready!”. Shit! I actually was supposed to have a big VFX meeting on Iron Sky The Coming Race, starting right now! So I had to cancel my movie night, leaving Mika to have to go by himself.
The meeting went well, although it was quite taxing as we were following four Excel sheets and cross-referencing them, and I didn’t even have the movie on my hard drive so I had to try to remember each frame – but as Thilo, our VFX supervisor, said: you know your film. And funny enough, I do. The film is in my head, both current cuts etched almost in frame-by-frame detail, and I was able to discuss it as if I was watching the cut, only few times I had to admit I have to see what we’re talking about. It’s amazing how it really goes in the head and stays there in detail.
Anyway, that was the day. Sorry for rambling on about this nonsense of loneliness again, it just struck me harder than usual today. Kisses to home in Finland, wherever you are.
Last scouting day in Qingdao dawned promisingly beautiful, but as the sunwheel slowly rolled across the skyline, the mood turned dire. Every location we went to was either depressingly bad, full of vegetation (we’re supposed to make a film in the future where all the green is dead) or just so thoroughly rotten that renovating it even to the state that we could bring any actors or crew in there without fear of a serious infections would be impossible. The location team was suggesting an endless row of wrong kind of street stretches to us and eventually Lei made the decision that it’s better we just head back to Beijing and let them find better locations.
Luckily, one of the places we decided to re-visit turned out to be pretty much perfect stretch of roads. Somehow weirdly, they had built few years ago a massive multi-lane intersection in Qingdao, but so that it only partially connects to roads – rest of the roads just end up into nothingness, in twenty meter height. These unused roads turned out to be a blessing for us. We could use them the way we want, just blocking the endings to thin air with big concrete blocks and otherwise, bring in as many stunt cars and stunts as we wanted and shoot our scenes.
Being so close to the airport, unfortunately we can’t fly drones, which we were planning to do, but cable cam will have to do.
Still, this felt like only half a victory. We were still missing one key location and had no idea where to find it. What we were looking for was a block where we could set up one motorcycle action set. Previously, we had had a perfect one in the Qingdao center, but it turned out we can’t do any actual stunts there, so we had to give it up.
It was already very late when we had an idea with Mika to ask from our driver to go around for a quick drive around the center. Dozing on and off, we ogled out of our car window as streetlights waved past, one after another unsuitable street corner gliding out of our view. We were just about to head back, when suddenly I screamed: “stop”!
Ahead of us, was a perfect street. It was pretty wide, it was totally empty, and the neighbourhood was charmingly desolate and depressing. This was the old Qingdao center, very local, very New York. Also, exactly what I had had in my mind even before I set foot in China, for the location. It’s hard to describe the joy I felt as we wandered around the dead empty streets, each corner revealing more interesting sights and possibilities. The mess of electric wires crossing the streets. The restaurants with tons of AC devices nailed to the walls. The lonely guy sweeping the ground from trash, the slightly rotten smell of market stands… Perfect!
By the time we arrived back to the hotel, it was already 2 am and we had an early wakeup call waiting for us. I did try to down at least one glass of my big green beer keg, but managed to get only a glass full of foam and merely half a decilitre of actual beer… Ah, well. This relationship between me and the keg was just never was meant to be.