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.
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 Heimand 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
I’ve now been in Beijing for two full weeks, but this morning we had to wake up and make our way to the train station, where the bullet train would take us on a five hour trip to Qingdao, a smaller (only about 13 million people) city on the southern coast for China, for four days of recceing. I mean, looking for shooting locations.
The first thing I realized stepping out of the train into the hammering rain was the salty smell of ocean in the air. The history of Qingdao dates back 6000 years, but recently the most interesting fact is that the city used to be occupied by the Germans until the break of the First World War, which can still be seen in the architecture and business of the city. The Germans brought also their beer brewing traditions to Qingdao, and the city is nowadays known as the Beer City of China, or as I call it, Belgium of East Asia.
The first day was cleverly dedicated merely to getting to know the local traditions: that is, drinking beer. We were taken for a dinner almost immediately after arriving to the hotel to a small, very local restaurant which served a table full of meat and seafood so delicious I suggested to Mika that maybe we actually died on the way here and ended up in heaven.
And then came the revered, appraised beer. And there was a lot of it. There are two styles of local beers in the area, the other one is the typical Tsingtao beer, which itself is delicious, but the other one is something that’s only available in this area and only for a short perioid of time until it goes sour – seven days I believe they told me. What’s even more interesting, it’s served from plastic bags. And the taste is amazing: it’s full like Irish beers, creamy like Belgian beers yet fresh and tasty like I don’t even know what. And there’s a lot of it!
We were served enamel Mao Zedong –cups and the cups were refilled the second we emptied them – and we emptied them often! We discussed politics and film and gan bei’d away with the crew, having a wonderful time with Mika, and getting a nice buzz on.
Then, as it is very often typical in China, the dinner ended abruptly as everyone stood up. Max wanted to stay talking a bit longer with the Chinese crew, so me and Mika were to be transported back to the hotel. But of course, we also wanted to have few more drinks and suggested we could go to a local bar somewhere. This wasn’t such a good idea, we heard, since the westeners would be cleared of whatever little money they had on them, so instead, they thought they’ll give us some beer to be taken to the hotel.
By “some” beer, they meant a 40 liter keg. Two men brought the huge thing into my room as me and Mika were giggling like two schoolgirls. How the hell were we ever to finish it?
We did our best on the night that followed, but Mika being jetlaggy wasn’t much help, so I called Annika and we chatted for almost two hours while I did my best to chug as many mugs of beer as possible, but truth be told, when I finally decided to call it a night (after mandatory few songs of Manowar), the barrel had barely been touched.
I finally woke up around 2pm, after having a slept relatively good night, despite the fact that I really fell asleep not before 8am. That’s good six hours, and I know you think I’m being one boring blogger reporting in such detail my sleeping habits, but honestly I need to keep up how much I get sleep or I’ll end up breaking myself, and that won’t be any fun at all.
After fumbling around my apartment for a while, I skated to the office for some lunch – and I was happy to find out Mika Orasmaa, my director of photography, had arrived earlier in the day to Beijing. Suddenly, the whole production was in more concrete swing: we were not just rambling on about script, but talking about camera equipment, shooting schedules and locations – you know, concrete stuff, not abstract concepts.
And I had another Finn to talk to. It makes a big difference: no more am I the loner in the office, but can at least joke around with someone, no matter how much the rest go on in Chinese around me. After two weeks of being the one who sulks in the corner looking grumpy and having no access to the inside jokes of the production crew, I was now part of a completely new ecosystem of jokes and stories: the Finnish crew.
So of course, the first thing we did was we started trolling the office with a bag of Tyrsk Pebers, the Finnish salty licqourice black candy Mika had brought with from Finland. “Here, have a Finnish candy!” “Thanks!” And then the expression, which first goes from neutral to surprise, then disgust, then to disbelief. As Maxine put it, “everywhere in the world people try to make candies as sweet as possible, but you Finns are the only ones who actually make them as salty as possible.”
Mika was whisked away amidst the craziness of the production right away. The costume lady, whose name I for some reason keep on forgetting, is quite a personality. Actually, come to think of it, I’ve never met a costume person who wasn’t probably the weirdest personality of the film crew, save the cast maybe. Anyway, she was demanding Mika to explain in exact detail in what kind of a way a helmet breaks up, and in what angles will we show it, and that he provides a full concept artwork for a certain helmet breakup. Mika was trying to explain to her, showing a storyboard drawings by Anssi that it doesn’t matter, just make a hole in the helmet about the shape of this, but she went on and on demanding a detailed explanation. Luckily I wandered in the room to see what the commotion was about. She posed the question to me (through a translator) and I pointed at the same picture on the wall saying do it like this, just like Mika had been trying to tell for the last half an hour. Somehow director’s word is indisputable here, and that ended the discussion quickly.
We also finished our script discussions with Max in a much more peaceful environment now that all the hurdles had been solved and the general storyline was agreed on. There’s one change still which I just can’t accept, but I decided to push that discussion of that to a bit later date, otherwise we’ll never get to actually shoot the film.
Later in the evening, we had a welcome dinner for Mika at the local hot pot place. Hot pot has become my absolute favorite Chinese food, and the practicality of it just thrills me. They serve a pot of boiling water in front of each diner, and fill the table with different types of raw meat. Then, everyone just sinks the pieces of meat in the boiling water, preparing the food for themselves. It takes some twenty second for few slices of meat to boil, then you dip it into a bowl of sauce and eat it. Absolutely delicious, and definitely illegal in Finland because of some EU regulation I’m sure (like “food in a restaurant is supposed to be prepared only by professionals, not by diners” or some crap like that).
Joining us this time was also Tuomas Kantelinen, a friend and a musician I’ve had a chance to work with over several projects. He was in Beijing celebrating the release of a film he composed the soundtrack for, titled The Adventurers. It turns out Tuomas and Max had actually worked together, although they’d never met each other – Tuomas composed the music for Max’s first-produced movie Mongol, and oh boy the stories they started to share from the production. If I thought making Iron Sky –films had been complicated, the stuff they had to go through to get that film made, shot somewhere in Mongolia near Kazakhstan border with 14 countries collaborating one way or another, led by an inexperienced young Russian producer… Wow.
We finished the day off with Mika over few beers at the hotel beer talking about Finnish films. I got to see some clips from the upcoming Unknown Soldier –film and I can tell it looks really promising. For once, there’s a Finnish movie I hate to miss (although I’m sure it’s still in the theatres when I get back early next year, it’s going to be probably the most viewed Finnish movie in a decade or something like that).
I woke up for the first time in the last ten days feeling rested. All my stats felt like at least +1 when I crawled out from between the bedsheets and felt my way through the darkened room to find my phone. Damn. It was 1:30pm. No surprise I felt good – I had slept seven and a half hours straight!
Then, the script issues crawled in and ruined my mood. There was still too many things unfinished for me to be able to relax, so I drag myself up and started writing.
Mostly, the day went past in a haze. Sometime in the afternoon I got a call from Lei informing Max had some pretty radical ideas to one of the key characters, and that would’ve ruined my whole day’s work had I started to implement it, but luckily he called in five minutes later to let me know not to worry about it. Crystal the PA (god bless her!) brought me a Volcano Burger (god bless ’em!) for lunch. But in addition to this, nothing really happened the whole damn day. I didn’t even visit the living room, just wrote like a madman and finally, around 9pm, finished the damn thing and emailed it out.
Phew. My mind was still racing from trying to keep the whole complex story in place, so I headed for the gym to unwind. Luckily, at the gym there’s also a decent sauna (decent in Finnish terms – they have a huge room and two tiny heaters that are supposed to heat the whole room…) so my day was pretty much perfectly rounded up with that.
Exhausted, back at the apartment I gave the VPN and Game of Thrones another try, but still no luck. Then, few hours of chatting with Annika, both of us contemplating the empty bed syndrome and its’ disastrous consequences, then dozing off.
So much for the glamorous life of a lauded, international film director…