China Diary

Day 58: Beijing Opera


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Sunday was a day off for me, so it’s Domino’s pizza, a Clint Eastwood western and some Beijing Opera for me. Ahh, the bliss. I’ve found Domino’s to be a quick and reliable and a pretty cheap food for the hangover day over here in China, a great food for the days I don’t want to hear even a mention of cow intestines, thousand-years-old-eggs or insects. Something familiar to anchor my serotonin-deficient brains. Clint’s movie was “A Fistful of Dollars”, the start of the Sergio Leone’s western trilogy starring Clint Eastwood and featuring Morricone’s amazing music. Beijing Opera on the other hand is a bit more adventurous affair when waking up to a scalding headache, but since this is pretty much the last chance to go see it, I decided to go.

We had booked tickets with Mika and his girlfriend, who was donned to nines, to the show, and arrived to what turned out to be a hotel instead of an opera house. We were slightly disappointed, Mika’s girlfriend was happy she hadn’t put on the full-scale evening dress, because rest of the people were a group of German tourists in t-shirts and bunch of regular families.

The show itself took place in a spacious but rather shabby theatre. Beijing Opera is an old form of precise art consisting of martial arts, dancing, story telling and singing. We didn’t get to see too much of martial arts, and very little of dancing, really, and to be honest the production wasn’t too shabby either, but singing and storytelling were prominently performed. The music is mostly crashing and banging of percussions and some Chinese instruments doing melodies on top of that, while the singers sing in a weird, high-pitched voice, which they use also to perform the spoken parts. The stories are also quite weird: an old guy and a woman in a boat; a goddess trotting around China, a classical Chinese tale of an general’s wife who wants to kill herself to not to be a hinderance to her husband’s battles. Well, you tell me… but I was a bit confused. I understood the performances we saw were actually not the “full-scale” productions, which would make sense, because the show lasted some 1,5 hours and then we were out, leaving the theatre rather baffled.

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But, the intensity of the strange form of opera, the hypnotizing crashing and banging and the strange singing did leave a strong impression. I’m not saying it’s the first thing I’m running to see again, but it’s definitely an experience I’m happy I had.

 

China Diary

Day 57: Beijing Nights


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Greetings and felicitations, children of technology!

Let me tell you a story of my last night’s escapade. So there I was, after a long work day talking with one of the key actors of our movie, Friday night, sitting in my hotel room, feeling restless. Mika and his girlfriend had visited my room for a glass of red wine and few short films, but as they left doing whatever couples do on Friday nights (I have no recollection of that…), I jumped into my jeans, went outside and hailed a cab to Sanlitun Bar Area, a famous expat/red light district.

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Now that’s a nice collection of Whiskeys.

The night itself wasn’t full of too much excitement, though. I made my way past the red lights calling lonely men to watch sad-looking ladies singing on stage, and found myself in a little side alley which led me to the other part of the area, one which had much more regular bars. A nice whiskey bar called me in and I sat on the counter, ordering a terrific bourbon and listening to the jazz playing in the distance.

After a while I wandered into the adjacent bar, had an IPA and sat for a moment by myself, until an Australian group invited me to sit down for a beer. I welcomed the invitation happily and we talked a bit about Gold Coast, where I had shot the first Iron Sky what seems like an eternity ago, and where some of the guys lived in. Two of the guys were visiting the third guy, who worked as an engineer somewhere in Beijing (weirdly, he said it with an apologetic tone… not sure if that’s not a good thing?).

Aussies wandered away searching for other adventures and I decided it’s time for me to

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Then I’ll huff, and I’ll puff, and I’ll blow your house down.

head back home, but just as I was about to hail a cab a saw a little joint advertising a shisha waterpipe. It instantly brought in mind me and Pekka’s crazy little trip to Georgia (the Eastern European Georgia) in the beginning of the year, where we had stopped for a 16 hour layover in Turkey, hailed a cab and went to Taksim Square, found a little shisha joint and spent good four five hours there, listening to Finnish music on my portable Bose over a big shisha pipe. Other than that, I’ve had shisha only few times before, when I was visiting in Dubai, so it’s not a regular thing, but right now it seemed like a good idea.

To those not familiar with shisha, no it’s not a drug pipe but a water pipe where you smoke a tasty tobacco. There are different flavors – anything from blueberry to orange to strawberry to whatever crazy you can come up with – and it’s really, really, really delicious. Yes, there’s nicotine, and for a person who quit smoking some six years ago (actually, in Gold Coast), I’ve always been very careful not to get too excited about it. But now I felt I wanted to have a puff, and I ordered the pipe on the table, puffing away.

An asian male Kim Kardashian -lookalike stepped in with a group of young people around him. When he saw me, he told the others to scoot, saying “I have a date”. He sat down in my table, introduced himself being the owner of the bar and went straight to the point: “are you gay”. No, I told him. Sorry. “Bi-curious, maybe?” “Not even that, sorry.” He was slightly disappointed, but nevertheless we ended up talking for a good hour, me puffing the pipe like Gandalf and him telling about his life in the states and running a bar here in Beijing, every now and then asking if I had changed my mind about my sexual orientation. I hadn’t. He took it well.

And no, the story doesn’t end up into anything experimental, I thanked him for the company and took a cab back home, where Annika was surprised to find me still up and we had a lengthy talk over Skype. The following day would be the 1st of October, the Liberation Day in China, which is a beginning of a seven-day holiday for the country, so I didn’t have too much to do the next day, so going to bed that late was just a-o-k!

China Diary

Day 56: Second test day done


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I must say one thing of our main actress, whom I’m only starting to get to know now as we’ve worked a little bit with on tests and castings and costume fittings and so on: she’s a real gem of a person. She’s a very skilled actress, that’s obviously a given fact, and I definitely casted her because of this, but her personality off-screen is just tremendously easy-going. She’s always around, she’s always happy but miraculously for an actor, her ego is not taking over, ever. She’s just like anyone of the crew, from best boy to makeup assistant, but when she steps in front of the camera, all eyes are on her.

The second test shoot day begun pretty late, and we had a lot of technical issues with a certain light table. It turned out nobody in the crew had any idea how to use the table, and for some reason, nobody really stood up and told us straight that they have basically no idea what they are doing. We wasted a lot of time trying to get that damn thing working, and eventually as it did work, we still had problems operating it.

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The Blue Room
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I’m blue da ba dee da ba die…

Another effect we tested was reflection on glasses. Being a modern scifi film / geek hacker -themed picture, the film features a lot of different kind of screens: from cellphones to monitors to huge LED screens. In order to get them working the way we want, we needed to try out how the reflections work on glasses. Turns out, it’s a huge difference, based on what kind of a coating the glasses have. Some are “non-reflective” (meaning, in practical terms, they reflect less), some have a blue light blocking feature, which of course turns the eyes weirdly green or cyan, and so on. It’s this kind of little details that need to be thought out, because on the day, we really don’t have time to put someone to go shopping for new glasses if something doesn’t work.

IMG_0239In the evening, after the sundown, we started to do tests on the outside street scenes of the movie. We created a small light setup outside the studio, brought a motorbike there (there’s a big motorbike scene in the movie) and started to wet down the street to get nice reflections out of it. At one point I was staring at the picture and thinking it reminded me of something… almost like. Yeah. Rendel. The light setup, blue background light and orange spot light, the smoke machine, the wetted-down street and people in leather made me realize it was just like a shot from Rendel, the new Finnish superhero movie. Now, I love what director Haaja had done to the look, it’s very dramatic and graphic-novel-made-into-a-movie -like, but for our film it wasn’t what I was trying to achieve. I mentioned this to Mika who was running around between the lights, camera cranes and steadycam operators, and he stopped, started to laugh and went to take the orange spot light down instantly, for starters.

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“Rendel 2” or “Iron Sky: The Ark”? 🙂

The two test shoot days were altogether very helpful. In the evening we had a dinner with Mika at Nola, burgers and a splash of wine, and then walked home, stopping by at the whiskey bar for a nightcap with Mika’s girlfriend – and then headed back home. Home being Hotel New Otani Chang Fu Gong, an old Japanese hotel in the heart of the old international business district of Beijing.

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Home away from home.
China Diary

Day 55: Yo! This is a test


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It’s nice to be back on the set, even if it’s just a test shoot. Having worked at the office for the last two months, or at my hotel room, or at a small scouting car, being where there’s actually cameras, actors in costumes and sets (of some kind) make a huge difference. I used to think I don’t actually enjoy the actual filmmaking part of being a filmmaker, but I was wrong. Once I’ve started to understand how things work, it’s a pleasure to watch the well-oiled machine pump away.

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The tests were shot at our equipment rental company’s spaces, which have rooms designated for this. What’s fancy about the space is that the walls are made of wooden panels painted to look like grim concrete slabs, which works for this kind of film – actually, for my kind of films as general – as quite a perfect backdrop.

We arrived to the rental house after a long ride, and found our actors getting ready, in makeup or costume. After the casting, I hadn’t obviously had a chance to meet with them, and of course had no idea how the costumes and makeup would work, but I was positively delighted to see that each and every one had a distinct, really well-established look that served the characters perfectly.

Even more so, Mika had created a beautiful light setup, which I’d like to call strangely “Spielbergian” (meaning: it reminded me of many of Spielberg’s adventure movies) with the blue tones, and added with Mika’s beloved lens flares, we managed to shoot some pretty amazing shots of our cast in front of the camera. Also, seeing people in 2.35:1 wide screen format suddenly makes them seem larger than life, cinematic and smashes the production values through the roof!

What was also a relief for me was to see how well the set worked, despite everyone but me and Mika working in Chinese. There are translators at the crucial junctions, and the only problem is that when two languages clash, the sound level of the set tends to rise quite quickly. This brings back memories of first Iron Sky, especially the German shoot, where Tarja, our production coordinator, had to scream on top of her lungs every ten minutes: “SILENCE!” and “SPEAK ENGLISH!” I’m sure her unapologetic style didn’t sit well with everyone, but it did the trick – after a while, everyone learned to whisper on the set, and that made it so much more enjoyable to work.

After the tests we had a little dinner with my main cast and then I headed back home for few hours of chat with Annika and then few hours of restless sleep. All in all, a successful day!

China Diary

Day 54: Sleepless in Beijing…


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Four hours is not a lot, but that’s what I got last night. I opened my eyes to a darkened room, wondering if I was already hours late or way early – my cell had run out of battery. Unfortunately, it was early – 6:58 am. Thanks, brain… I guess going through the film twice yesterday kept me only half-asleep the night, at least based on the weird-ass dreams.

The first meeting today was about props, stunts and sets in the main action locations. Our production manager was late almost two hours, so we had to start without him, but as we went on, many of the issues became clearer and more specific, until I learned we lost one of the key locations in the film. It was one of those things that bug me: for weeks we had been asking for a confirmation for the location. Then, on the meeting I bring it up again, and one of the location people just grabs a phone, makes one 3 minute phone call and tells it’s not possible to use the location. At all. Ever. In any capacity. I wonder how long he had been sitting on that piece of information before dropping the bomb…

Infuriating. To be honest, everything should be shot in studio, so this kind of problems wouldn’t arise…

Still, all the other discussions we had were quite clarifying, and then it was time to continue the construction vs. CGI -discussion, which went on for hours and hours again, but luckily this time, we finished in time. I managed to leave the office around 6pm and arrived back home, only to find out the Internet on the hotel is dead. A quick nap later life was looking up again, I went to grab a bite outside at my beloved Chinese local joint – the one with terrible service, noisy atmosphere and food I never have any idea what it’s supposed to be. I ended up ordering randomly something, which turned out to be fried soy rice, some kind of a tofu soap and something that’s kinda like sweet bread with a sweet, sugary sauce to dip it in. Not my favorite, but it was edible nevertheless.

Tomorrow: up early, first test shoot day ahead!

China Diary

Day 53: Brainfry


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The surest way to fry your brains is to have two huge meetings in one day, during which each you go through every shot of the movie. I was already pretty tired after a badly-slept night and had to really crank myself to be able to sit through the first schedule meeting, which, in its’ level of detail, is exhausting. Also, there’s the whole crew around and everyone has questions regarding their departments. And as the meetings goes on, it becomes more clear that I’m missing 90% because either the translation is really general at best, or completely nonexistent, also the discussions seem to spread around every conceivable topic, sometimes heating up, sometimes ending in laughter. And when I ask, after 20 minutes of something being talked, shouted and laughed over, the answer is: “oh, it’s nothing, all clear.”

OK, good.

Anyway, after hours of that meeting, there was a short break and we continued our everlasting shot-by-shot construction vs. CGI meeting, which we had cut short last night because at the end the film is becoming more complicated and it needed all our brains 120% there. I found myself trying to keep the focus of the meeting there – this time, we were doing it all in English and I was running the show – but still, as complications arise, questions pile up and much of the time goes into wandering about details when the big picture should be in mind.

After another hundred and seventy two hours of this, we decided to break it off because everyone was getting tired and there still was much hard stuff to go through.

Dinner! Yay! Hot pot! We took a car and had a very nice dinner with Max and the production team, in honor of Mika’s girlfriend to be exact, which was a great way to wind down the braincrunching day. As I came home, I found Annika online and we chatted for hours. I think. I did watch a Göstä Sundqvist -documentary on YouTube, and then we chatted some more, and by the time I went to bed it was already 4 am, not good given that the next day would be an early one, too.

China Diary

Day 52: Stressful days ahead


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Today we finally begun constructions for our key sets in Qingdao, and had our first big storyboard meeting with the whole team, going through shot-by-shot how each of the shots will be made – what’s built on set, what will be done with VFX and what kind of plates we will need to compile the shot. It’s tedious, but simultaneously extremely clear way to communicate to the whole team in very practical terms all the details required for each shot.

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Keep on cheering, Chris, because there’s many more of meetings like this still to come 🙂

For whatever reason, I hadn’t slept well – maybe it was the fact that The Fear had set in – and I expect the following weeks to be more and more stressful. Thus, I’m trying to keep my head together and not start worrying about things that are out of my reach – whenever I go through a stressful work phase, also things I’m unable to do anything with start to create addition baggage. Right now, I do have quite a lot on my plate on all fronts, and it’s hard to keep each bit separated, but I’m getting better at ignoring the noise. Better focus on Iron Sky The Coming Race, Iron Sky: The Ark and trying to get my family to visit me here in China, and I should be pretty well off.

We also received the latest shooting schedule for Iron Sky: The Ark today, which dictates the start of the shoot to be 18th of October, and finishing off 17th on January. That’s altogether 70 actual shooting days in two countries, which is more than double on what we had with Iron Sky The Coming Race. Still, it feels it’s going to be very tight, but then again, the script is also big. 141 pages, dozens of locations all over the world and space and Moon, five big action sequences, tens of speaking roles – and of course, mostly all in Chinese. So yeah, I’m starting to be slightly stressed…

The weather in Beijing is slowly turning definitely towards autumn. The days are smoggier now than they were few weeks ago – the horizon looks like the game engine ran out of juice and someone turned down the graphic settings, and in the evening walking around in shorts can get rather chilly. Still, it’s mostly mid-twenties in celsius here for big part of the day. I heard also back in Finland the October Rust is slowly setting in, but the days are still long and warm and beautiful. I really miss Finnish autumn, I must say.

 

China Diary

Day 51: The Fear Is Here


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Finally, today, the Fear arrived.

This is what I’ve been waiting for, knowing it’s on its’ way, but haven’t really felt it until this morning. The Fear. The Impending Doom. The “Impostor Syndrome”.

I’ve had it twice before, and now it’s here for the third time. It happens every time a little bit before shooting the new film begins, and it hits you hard. It’s the horrific understanding that in a very, very short time you have to helm a project worth of millions of dollars, hyper-professional actors and crew around you, while the clock is ticking away and the producers are watching over your performance, and you have to deliver an impeccable film and make no mistakes. It’s the understanding of the pressure that’s been building up for the last one and a half years, and the realizing you can’t run away anymore, no matter what. It’s the fear of being exposed as a “fraud”, not knowing what you are doing, how you are going to pull this one off and the feeling that soon everyone will know you’ve just been fooling them, that you’re not a real director and should never helm a project of this or any other scale.

It’s also the throat-crushing feeling that you’re not ready for the first shooting day. I haven’t had the naked-on-the-set -dreams yet for this movie, the ones where I walk on the set in just my underwear (or did I have one the other night… not totally sure), but they are coming for sure.

For the first Iron Sky, I remember my morning jog path went right past the first shooting location. For the few weeks before the shoot I stopped there, imagined how I would direct the day minute-by-minute. For Iron Sky The Coming Race, I wandered to the big studio every day for the last few weeks before the shoot, watching as the big set was being built, again, imagining how the first day will unfold.

Of course, the first shooting day went nothing like I had imagined. And that’s just fine. It’s amazing how quickly one adjusts to the chaos and flurry of the shoot. But the fear is the guiding light towards the first shooting day, and it won’t leave you. It’s actually a friendly feeling – if I didn’t have it, I should be more worried. Then, I would know for sure I’m not prepared at all. The Fear, instead, tells me that everything is moving to the right direction.

I think it was Spielberg, whom I don’t associate myself with at all but respect as a director hugely, who said that even still, after all these years, every first shooting day of his new film he has to pull off by the side of the road to puke.

Making a film is always such a big undertaking, preparation of many months and the expectations of hundreds, thousands – and eventually, millions, but the audience you shouldn’t worry about at this point – all coming down to one focal point of your life, and there’s nowhere to run.

But the Fear tells you’re doing the right thing.

So, no fear, the Fear is here.

China Diary

Day 50: Six lanes of traffic, three lanes moving slow…


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Another one of those days which could be flushed down the toilet. Another wasted day in my hotel room bed, trying to make one decent video call to my wife to see her face for a bit, and another day of constant “poor connection”, “reconnecting”… I declined a room service since I don’t want my room to be cleaned, not today. I want my clothes stay in the corner I tossed them yesterday, I want my bedsheets messy and my tables flooded with petty cash and restaurant receipts from last night. I don’t want to see anybody. I also declined to visit the Summer Palace with Mika and his girlfriend, because I really can’t take a happy couple in a romantic park right now. I should work on the script a bit, but I can’t bring myself to open the damn file. All I do is lay here, smelling bad and feeling like shit, Mark Knopfler’s lonely guitar sounds as my only company. So, a typical Sunday mood these days.

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This is my relationship these days…

IMG_0096Nevertheless, yesterday was not a bad day, work-wise. I got around the office in the noon and right away I was introduced to the actor Tank Dong who will play the character Uncle Pan in Iron Sky: The Ark; it was a costume fitting, and we had some fun time coming up with his look and picking weapons for him (the only one we had there was too small – he’s a big guy – and actually played a role in Skyfall, giving a good beating to mr. Bond himself. He’s an ex pro boxer, so finding stuff that fits his commendable frame is a challenge, but I think we managed to find a great outfit for him.

We’ve been working on the storyboards with Mika for quite a long time now, and they are starting to be in order. Jonathan from the office has been doing big sorting through all the boards, trying to match them to the script, and finally we have most of it done. The use of the storyboards is in many ways essential to our style of production. It’s easy to color with green everything that’s going to be made in VFX, and easy to explain to all the departments on what they need to build, what not, and what’s still lacking. I’m slightly worried, to be honest, with our art department – we have so much to build, and I think they haven’t really started on anything. I know once they are on the job, they are fast, but there’s still quite a lot of questions open in the air and we are about to shoot in less than a month, so I really hope next week the construction begins, otherwise we have nothing but green walls to shoot! (Which is pretty much the way we shot Iron Sky 1, so it would be nothing new…)

After the workday, we had a dinner with Mika and his girlfriend and some people from the production. The mushrooms were above everything, although it was just a terrific meal all in all, and not far from the hotel, too! I wish I would know the Chinese foods the way the locals do. Whenever I go to a restaurant and order for myself, I get absolutely the least inedible items on the list. Whenever the locals go, they order the table full of amazing dishes… I just have no idea how they do that.

Anyway, I’m a miserable shadow of a man myself now, but I’m happy at least one of us expats has company here. Hopefully Annika can come over here when we start shooting, right now we’re trying to aim for that. Crossing fingers!

China Diary

Day 49: TGIF


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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.