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.
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.
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.
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.
We’d run out of money very quick.We 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.
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.
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.
Qingdao 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.
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…
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.
Our 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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 kuksaof the indigenous Saami people.
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.
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.
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!
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.