China Diary

Day 9: On Fury Road

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“What hath night to do with sleep”, Milton asks.

Not much, at least not in my case. It’s been nine days and the jetlag hasn’t gotten any better. I wake up from dark slumber after few hours of sleep around 1-2 am, and manage to get few more hours of sleep after 9 am. Thus, I’m beginning to be more cranky and that’s not good for a person in my profession – nobody likes cranky directors. We don’t have the luxury of being cranky. The whole vibe of the production starts with us.

Also, as I’m writing this, I realize I’ve become a disgusting man. For once I’m happy my wife isn’t seeing me now. My clothes are all over my apartment. There’s Pringles cans in my bed, a box of some unpronounceable cookies next to it, empty water bottles in every corner of the room and moist towels line the doorframes. Today, I had a hamburger for combined breakfast and lunch and a box of Pringles for dinner. I’m deteriorating, regressing back to how I was when I was a student.

I’ll find a time to clean my act before she flies over, I promise. Also, because this feeling of “manly freedom” wears out very soon…

Later we had a meeting on visual effects and some story elements, but I had to cut the day short because I had a full script to be revised for the next day, and I really had no idea how to approach few of the more tricky problems. So back at home I wandered around the apartment for good two hours, playing a bit of Skyrim, a bit of Hearthstone, trying to get my VPN working so I could watch latest episode of Game of Thrones (didn’t happen, no surprises there…), until after enough of procrastination I attacked the script.

All went well for the first hours, then I hit the wall. Unmovable wall which I just couldn’t penetrate, climb over or ever dig a tunnel under. One of those “this-needs-to-happen-but-it-doesn’t-make-sense-why” -moments, which usually mean that you should ditch the whole bit and find a completely new approach, but that’s not really possible in this very specific case.

But usually at that point it’s better to just let it go and hit the sack for few hours since whatever you’ll force out of your brains and on the paper, you most likely will hate in the morning anyway.



China Diary

Day 8 – Notes, notes, notes…

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Another day, another VFX meeting; this time, with Pixomondo. With them, we’ve worked for years already, starting with Iron Sky The Coming Race, and my wish is that the work continues over Iron Sky: The Ark as well. Of course, VFX budget is in the hands of the producers, and while they will listen to my opinions, the decision will be made by others.

Nevertheless, it’s nice to catch up with Jan from Beijing’s Pixomondo. He’s a German, so English is the main language, which makes a huge difference for me when dealing with issues, not having to rely on translations for once. Everything is just much smoother, faster and gets to the bottom of the issues directly, and packet loss is much less.

Back at the office I heard there was still few changes coming in from Max, based on our last night’s conversations – so even though my suggested script changes were approved, there were notes.

There’s always notes. On script, on budget, on edit, on marketing… The whole business is based on notes. Sometimes, it’s tiring. But that’s the tradeoff: it’s worth taking in some notes, if in exchange you get the big stuff from your side pushed through.

See, everyone has always a different agenda on a film. Director of course wishes his or her’s vision to be clear. Writer wants the text to be followed in detail. Producer wants to make sure the audience gets it. In our case, producer is one of the writers as well, so there’s quite an intense pull into slightly different directions going on as we’re finishing off the script. But since yesterday’s successful pitching, I already know it’s going to end up being pretty good, so it’s easy to accept a few notes.

As long as you don’t get lost in them.

The  day went past with me doing research on things like Illuminati families, origin of life on Earth and few elements of Chinese mythology. We were supposed to meet an actress to audition for the leading role at 6pm, but Max wanted to see her first.

Three hours passed. We went peeking at his door to find out what’s going on. There he was, explaining the story in detail to the girl, who was staring eyes wide as he blasted away. It was quite a sight. We found a short pause in his presentation – which is rare – and slip in to introduce myself.

She’s an American-born Chinese – ABCs, they call them – who moved to China recently to become an actress on this side of the world. Asian actresses have very limited chances in American market, she said, and if nothing else, they get type casted very easily. Here, the selection of roles to play for her would be much wider. But being an American, she’s different from the Chinese actresses I had met. Many of them are very meek and subdued in their presence, but she had a touch of American arrogance and confidence in her, which works perfectly for the role.

No, we didn’t cast her (at least not yet), but she was the first candidate I felt pretty damn good about for this specific role.

I finished off the day with a hefty doze of script talk with Max, developing forward some deeper concepts of the film which probably don’t make their way to the screen but are needed to be understood to write everything properly – and finally made my way back home around 9pm.

Had I earned my rest? Maybe. Did I get it? No.

Annika writes a book about Iron Sky The Coming Race, and her deadline was just around the corner. There was one last interview left with me so just as I crashed on the bed I remembered I had promised to go through the whole production of Iron Sky The Coming Race from my perspective.

We did that, and it was good we did. It took me back to those days two years ago when we started to shoot the film in Belgium, through all the hardships, the fun times and the craziness of the production and offered a break from The Ark’s story, which sits on my brains like a fat man on a chair two sizes too small. Annika didn’t get to ask one question, I gave her a full Max-style monologue for one hour straight.

“Was it good?”

“Yeah, I think I got everything.”


I was done for. Few more games of Hearthstone and then passing out before midnight.

(Only to be woken by the most persistent jetlag I’ve had at 3:30 am…)

China Diary

Day 7 – Fonzie

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I woke up after only few hours of sleep and stumbled to the office feeling confused and unsure of what I had written last night. I had done a huge job, but I had no idea how people would respond to it. So as I came in my room, I found Lei sitting on the couch, reading it. The first thing he said was that they had actually sat down with Max until 2 am last morning, listening to his monologue on what to do with the script. The mood dropped instantly. Then, Maxine the 2nd AD gave me Max’s notes, and they were completely different from my own. I felt wretched.

But I’ve been there before. We had had some feedback from some people that the story was not clear enough. This leads naturally into the need to fix it, but when reading a feedback, you have to be like Fonzie.

What’s Fonzie like?

He’s cool. You gotta be cool.

First, identify the core of all the feedback.

Then, identify the source of feedback. You need to use it as a frame: if it’s an actor, they read different things. If it’s a screenwriter, they read other things (usually they hate other people’s writings anyway). If it’s the general audience, they understand only the end product. Usually, other producers are a pretty good source for feedback: they understand quite well the status of the film, but have no strings attached, so they can freely say their mind.

Third, remember what made you fall in love with the story. Make sure it’s still there, and build around it, because it’s the truest thing in there, the thing that’s the unique selling point that the actors, the producers and the heads of department will get from you. Everything else is disposable, but the one thing that you as a director think is important, needs to stay.

And then, respect the story. If you’re in it knee deep, you are there because you like the story. If you read a feedback from someone who didn’t, that’s not a reason to change the story – if it’s good, it’s good because you know how to realise it into a good end result. It’s only in your hand.

If I could’ve had a dollar every time I heard someone shitting on Iron Sky scripts over the years, I’d be filled with shit and few dollars in my pocket. But starting to lose your own faith in a story is the only, clear death blow to it. So, whatever you do, stick with the story, have a little faith. If it’s a good one, it can be solved. If it’s not, you probably aren’t this far working on it anyway.

So, I had a solution written down on paper which I knew was pretty damn good. Max had another approach, which wasn’t bad at all, but would’ve thrown one of my favorite characters to the sidelines and focused the story on another one. I knew that in order to convince him and the production team in general, I needed to put up a good show.

We went to Max’s office, and at first, I complimented his notes, but requested that he would hear me out on my point of view. He agreed, and I knew I had my moment right now to get him on my side, but I had to get him excited. Just reading the text written at 5am then quickly translated into Chinese would’ve been a suicide, so I decided to go through the whole script and act the film, scene by scene, in front of an audience. Lei was translating, Max was there, the writer, mr. Yu was there and Max’s assistant.

The good thing about having done so much presentations over the years is that my stage fright is gone. I have no problem making a fool out of myself in front of a big group of people.

So I let it all out.

Screaming, bouncing around the office, changing voices, acting out explosions, fight scenes and painting out the pictures in front of my audience I embarked on a five hour monologue on how I believed the story should go.

And bit by bit, I started to get there. First, it was a bit suspicious. “Hmm, aha, OK…” “Mm-hm…” – but then, there was the first laughter, the first “Yeah, that’s good”. And scene by scene my enthusiasm found its’ way into their hearts and the story unfolded, and in two hours mark, when Max had to run for the toilet, I got the thumbs up from Lei. It’s working.

We finished the pitching late in the night, and Max and everyone else was very pleased with the changes I proposed. They had made some additional remarks here and there, but finally, after working on the script for one and a half year, I felt that we had the story, the inner logic and the rhythm there. We spoke deeply about the characters and about their motivations, the motivations of different factions in the film and the whole backstory to which it was based on. It was an extremely fulfilling script meeting, although I was completely beat afterwards, like being ran over a ocean liner.

I staggered home after a hasty meal with Lei and passed out nearly instantly when my head hit the bed. I was dreaming about a weird CG production with Samuli (Torssonen) as a VFX supervisor, Jeremy Irons as the lead and me as a director, somewhere in a weird office building…

China Diary

Day 6 – Troubleshooting

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Today was a whole new story with the VFX company presentations. We visited another big one, Singapore-based VHQ, where we were greeted by the owners and the main coordinators of the company, served with tea and coffees and were taken on a tour around the facility, finishing off at a showreel presentation at their state-of-the-art theatre. Being an asian VFX company, much of the work focused on big Chinese fantasy films, but you could tell they knew their stuff.

On the way back, we started to discuss with Max the producer the script. It all started by bringing out few little details that didn’t seem to add up, but as the day progressed, we found ourselves facing a problem that was blowing up like a balloon.

We found ourselves sitting for hours at Max’s office, debating the possible solutions and eventually landed with something, but apparently, it was not quite yet there. I had to leave for a meeting elsewhere, so we agreed to continue our talks tomorrow.

Later in the evening, when I arrived back home I realised my mind was really working with the script. At first I thought I felt too tired to try anything, but decided to pop open my laptop and try out few solutions, just to see how they would look on paper.

* * *

It was 5:12 AM when I finished my work. I had typed away seven-eight hours straight, going through the whole script and reworking details and the big picture, and I must say I was pretty damn happy with the end result. I had no idea how the producers would like it, but at least I knew I had done my best. I shot the email to everyone and tried to sleep – but alas, after writing full speed for hours, it’s impossible to set the mind at ease. It took me nearly two hours of tossing, turning and Hearthstoning before I finally dozed off.

China Diary

Day 5 – Squatting issues

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So, I have two issues here: the food doesn’t sit well with my stomach, and I don’t understand how the squat toilets. work.

You do the math.

The other day we started off by visiting one of the VFX companies here. We were greeted not by the owners, or any of the artists, but two guys who appeared to be more salesmen. They showed us a comprehensive reel of their works and workflow, but unfortunately, we were left rather unimpressed. It’s the problem when the visual effects are being presented by people who sell them, but have no actual understanding on quality – I’m sure they would’ve had much better stuff to show us, the company is big and prominent, but they were more interested int he way their hair looked than how the hairs of the CG lion acted.

Later in the evening, we casted another new face to Iron Sky: The Ark. It’s one of those open-the-door-and-cast-instantly -cases, we needed to cast a girl to play the role of a very famous internet star, so what better solution than cast an actual Internet celebrity. And the celebrities here in China are a whole different world. She’s the daughter of a very well-known Chinese actor, arrived with a private plane and is 19 years of age… But so adult already, I never for a second felt I was talking to a person half my age. I guess becoming a star at young age forces you to grow up earlier – in both good and bad.

Hello, do you have a minute to talk about the Great Cthulhu?

We ended the long day to a fantastic seafood restaurant. Like I said, I had had my stomach in a pretty bad shape more or less right from when I arrived, so I was a bit shy to eat everything on the plate, but it was so good I couldn’t resist myself, and ended up chugging plates full of octopi, crabs and shrimps with half a bottle of beautiful sake.

At home, I chatted with Annika for good three-four hours. It’s funny, I just can’t get used or bored to her thoughts, her way of thinking, her sense of humour. Being apart from her feels bad, but thank the great Cthulhu for Skype, VPN and all the means of modern communication. Well, guess that’s why I married her – it’s a good idea to pick someone you’d happily spend the rest of your life in a deserted island with, just in case North Korea decides to go crazy and throws us into a full-fletched nuclear war.

China Diary

Day 4: A Tour Around The Office

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The office building where Iron Sky: The Ark is being produced is located in the heart of the old international business district in Beijing, Saite. In this area, the first foreign companies built their offices, and many main roads pass the area, serving loads of traffic and business.


The office is owned by the main investor of the film, the Jiabo Cultural Development Group, a media company doing films and TV-shows. Located in the spot of an old Banana night club, and fully renovated for its’ use as a production company office, the building serves several different functions in its’ four floors. Our production offices are located in the third and fourth floor.

Yu Hongyang the screenwriter, Maxine Zhang the 2nd AD, Alain Ming the 3rd AD and Lei Tsao the first AD discussing script details around my desk.

The director’s office is a small but efficient one. Here, our first, second and third ADs work in scheduling the film and planning the details of the execution of the actual shoot. On the walls we have spread the production schedule, concept artwork and of course, our posters for earlier Iron Sky films. This is where my office is, as well.

Cheng Cheng, the production assistant, Crystal the bilingual coordinator, Da Fang the behind-the-scenes -guy chatting away at the production office.

Next to the director’s office lies the production team. Consisting of production workers dealing with agreements and money, and their assistants, this team makes sure the whole process flows smoothly.

Zhang Chuhan, the costume designer (on the right) and her team presenting some costume plans.

On the second floor, the costume department has overtaken a chunk of tables. Slowly the walls will be lined with designs for the main cast, secondary cast and the extras. A team of six people work currently at the costume department, but when they start to actually sew the costumes and put them together, they’ll need much more and much bigger space.

Wang Rui, the art director, giving guidance to the team producing concept designs for the sets that will be built or made with VFX.

Next to it, the art department, manned by some ten to fifteen people, vigorously work concepting, drawing, planning and creating the world, sets and VFX environments of the film. New concept art gets lifted on the walls every day, and artists create everything from props to big constructions right here. We also have another team, led by the production designer Gordon Lee, working further away from the offices at his own place.

Next to me on my right is mr. Max Wang, the producer. On his right, the production designer Gordon Lee. On my left, there’s Mika Orasmaa, my DOP and on left of him is Jan Heinze from Pixomondo China.

Finally, producer Max Wang’s office is the place where they key decisions are being made. Whether its’ meeting the main members of the cast, or talking with VFX team (as in the picture here) or just discussing the script, here’s where we can always find producer Max, whose thunderstorm of ideas sweeps over the production team in an instant, leaving everyone scrambling to make sure things progress quickly and efficiently towards the production.

I myself live in an apartment few blocks away. Going back from work in the evening with my skateboard is nice, passing ancient Chinese medicine store, restaurants, McDonalds’ and bunch of banks, the area is great to live in and as its’ not as busy here, few streets in from the main streets, it’s also nicely secluded from the buzz of the downtown, which still can be seen from where we live.


China Diary

Day 3 – List Of Demands

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Wake up at 3am.

Watch some Netflix.

Go to gym at 7am.

Eat breakfast at 9am.

Go to sleep at 10am.

Wake up at 1pm.

Go to office. Meeting one: stunts. Very detailed.

Eat a Chinese sandwich. Very good.

Meeting two: Meet producer. Talk casting and have few laughs. Very fun.

Meeting three: WeChat call to German stunt team. Very detailed. Try to discuss their budget down. Crossing fingers.

Eat Indian delivery food.

Meeting four: Watch through casting tapes. Some shitty, some OK, some amazing. Choose five actors for callback, cast one straight off the bat.

Back home. Play Skyrim.

Talk with wife. Life good.

Meeting six: talk to DOP Mika, who’s coming next week.

Fall asleep at midnight. Wake up 1,5h hours later.

China Diary

Day 2: Impenentrable Language Walls

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The sleeping schedule here goes as follows: I get back from work at 8pm, go to bed at 9pm, wake up at 1:30AM and stay up watching Netflix, films, playing Hearthstone and catching up with whoever is awake back in Finland (wife for sure, maybe my son on his way to bed and some friends). Then, at 7am I head to the gym, then make some breakfast and then take a nap waking up around 12 noon.

This usually gets normalized over the course of 7-10 days, so that every day I go to bed a bit later and wake up a bit later until I’m in normal rhythm again.

Yesterday was exactly this. Today, the weather was beautiful. The sun was shining bright and the pollution clouds had drifted away. As I finally cruised my way to the office around noon, there were tons of meetings waiting for me. First, costume department wanted to go through in detail several costume designs. Then, we met with production design team who presented me a set of ideas for some of the key locations. It seems we will be shooting a big portion of the movie in Qingdao instead of Beijing, which suits me well.

The language wall is unfortunately impenetrable with so many people here. Since there is no common language, there’s no way to enjoy the camaraderie of filmmaking family with each other. Since they don’t really understand me, they are mildly afraid of me(maybe also because I’m a fucking giant here..) and treat me gently, always smiling and never understanding what I want. On the other hand, I don’t really know how to make them feel any easier since we just can’t share the inside jokes, the glances and the eyerolls or the victories easily with them. When people talk to me, they rarely look in my eyes, they talk to my 1st AD who does the translating. Of course, the jokes never get translated, only the business. So very quickly I start to feel pretty lonely, all business and no fun makes Jack a dull boy…

But the business, the business is good.

China Diary

Day 1: Moist landings

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Seven hours had gone flying past as the plane touched down on Beijing Capital International Airport. I was greeted with a dreary, gray and damp morning of Beijing with a heavy layer of smog floating over the city. Breathing in, I felt my lungs filling with particulate matters, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, volatile organic compounds and of course, good old carbon monoxide. Welcome home, I sighed, for this was to be my base of operations for the next half a year.

I hadn’t slept on the plane, so I was grumpy and tired with a nice headache building up, but meeting with our new translator turned the tide: it’s hard to remain grumpy when there’s a someone waiting at the airport holding a sign with your name written on it (correctly), and speaking fluent English.

I was whisked away on a car to my new apartment through the Beijing traffic. Watching the endless streams of cars and the pollution-darkened skies, I started feeling hopeless, and climbing to my apartment, which was probably top notch in the early 80’s but now slightly outdated, the realization that I’ll be here, mostly by myself thousands of kilometers away from my beloved wife and my son and my parents, stroke me like a ten ton hammer.

At the office, the production is in full swing. Not everything is in place yet, but everyone is really pushing these last two months before the shoot, so I have a good trust there is enough time. I read the latest script and was relieved, the little tinkering we had done had made it better, and we also had a chance to discuss with the producer for the first time the world we actually are building here. Few adjustments were needed, but we’re pretty well down the right path.

I had requested a welcome dinner, a huge hot pot meal and meeting the production family I’m starting to get to know slowly. There’s Max, the producer. He’s positively crazy, a whirlwind of thousands of things happening simultaneously, but very clear on what he wants, and not a very patient guy for waiting. Lei is the first AD, a Chinese who has worked a lot in the USA, so his English is flawless, and a top notch first AD, probably the best I’ve worked with. There’s the only-Chinese-speaking line producer who looks strangely amazed at everything constantly, whom I bet is a hilarious guy based on reactions people have for his stories. Maxine is the sharp second AD, and then there’s May, the executive producer from Canada, and her son Jonathan, who both are also in my field of communications, speaking perfect English as well. With this rowdy group we’re about to kick off Iron Sky: The Ark, and I couldn’t think of a better posse to do that with. Oh, and Mika will join me in few days as well, he’s still busy finishing Unknown Soldier’s grading back in Finland.

The only really sad piece of news was that since we’re pushing the start date a bit, it seems I’m going to have to spend Christmas here. I was really, really, really looking forward being home by Christmas to see my family, but right now it seems it might be right in the middle of the last shooting week.


We lost, by the way, you know…

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Well, the one thing everyone will remember from the Oscars is that… Moment.

So, as expected, La La Land gets the best picture Oscar… almost. Then, things turn weird. There’s a bit of a commotion on the stage as the producers are giving the final thank you -speeches, red envelopes are flicked back and forth, then the reality hits everyone: those giving their acceptance speech actually were not the rightful winners. It was not La La Land, but Moonlight that had won. They had given the announcers Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway the wrong envelope.

Suddenly, the whole stage is full of confused people holding Oscars, Warren Beatty giving a staggering explanation, host Jimmy Kimmel sort of hanging on the edge of things and the producers of La La Land taking charge of, and handling the extremely awkward situation with as much grace as possible, saving what’s left to be saved.

Americans sure know how to entertain.

But, really looking back at the Oscars, the award ceremony was actually a pretty damn good one. The true winners were the African-Americans, gays and the muslims. From Mahershala Ali‘s win as the first muslim to pick the prestigious golden statue for best Supporting Actor to Viola Davis‘ best Supporting Actress award, from White Helmets’ winning the best short documentary (the cinematographer not being allowed into the country) and absent Asghar Farhadi‘s win for best Foreign Picture with The Salesman, and finally Moonlight picking best script and -picture statues – the picks of the Academy were this time surprisingly heavy topics.

This means the Oscars are becoming a better representation of actually good movies. The fact that Moonlight, a film made with under two million USD on a topic that’s rarely even discussed about – gays in black community – won already speaks books about the search for the best film, not just the most enamouring one. Also, the diversity is becoming a norm, not just in theory but in actuality. The days of all-white winners, subjects and stories are in the past, and will be for quite some time.

Now, it’s time for the film community to stand up against what Trump is trying to make the new normal – the racism and the fear.

All in all, the ceremony was great fun, mainly thanks to Jimmy Kimmel’s extraordinarily cool handling of the whole show. While Justin Timberlake’s performance in the beginning was a bit dull, the Hollywood Tour Bus stunt was good fun. The speeches were nice – Viola Davis was strong and gripping, while Casey Affleck was relatively lame (in the fashion of the characters he likes to play). Trump and his politics had a full load of all kind of shit dumped on them, and while Kimmel and the winners were preaching to the choir, I’m sure the word got out: fuck you, Trump.

For me, the best moment was Kimmel’s note about Sweden, after La La Land’s cinematographer Linus Sandgren walked off stage with an Oscar. He said he was sorry to hear what was going on in Sweden just last week, hoping Sandgren’s family and friends are OK, in reference to Trump’s ridiculous statement “look at what’s going on in Sweden”. The bickering between Matt Damon and Jimmy Kimmel was also fun to watch, although I had no idea what it all was about and why.

Obviously, the biggest winner was La La Land, with 6 Oscars, but the real, true winner of the evening was Moonlight, of course because of the Best Picture Oscar, but also because of the cock-up. But the way La La Land’s producers handled the situation was really cool, so big props to them, too. And of course to Damien Chazelle, who, at 32, became the youngest ever Oscar-winning director.

Well, it surely wasn’t a dull show, and mostly great films won the awards – save Suicide Squad, which I think was a dumb film and a shit call from the Academy.

Here are my predictions and what I got right and wrong. Next year better, I guess!