China Diary

Day 112: Hard start


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“Let’s bring in the smoke cracker.” “I think you’re not allowed to smoke in this hospital.” “What?” “I think you’re not allowed to smoke in this hospital.” “Umm… we’re not in a real hospital, this is a set. And I asked for a smoke machine, not a smoke.” – A conversation overheard on the set.

I just love having her over here, that I must say. Waking up next to someone, touching, talking to someone without the constantly breaking Internet connection just makes life ridiculously much more enjoyable. It also gives me much strength when things are a bit on the low. We had the unfortunate duty to inform our Iron Sky fans the other day that the film Iron Sky The Coming Race would be delayed from the projected release date. I was feeling really sad for having to push the release, since we’ve been working on it so hard to get it ready for release next February, but now we had to accept the facts the way they are: the film won’t be ready in time for the February release, we just need more time. Letting down the fans this way is, to be honest, really depressing, so I was fretting about it the whole day. Lucky she was actualy around to help me get over the disappointment, just to offer a few reassuring words at the right time can be the most valuable thing in the world when you’re in need. And that’s what a great relationship is all about: being there for the other one, especially when things are bit rough. It’s easy to love when things are great, but the real trick is what happens when things are not so peachy, that’s what measures the relationship for real.

The shoot was something I had been dreading over for quite a while, actually. We had two scenes, both in different locations, but most importantly, it was an opening scene for one of the most important characters in the movie, an actor whom I’ve worked a lot on table readings and rehearsals, discussed the logic of the role inside and out for months on now, and today it begins.

I wasn’t really happy with the set, and we spent a lot of time in the morning trying to get it in a decent shape, which kinda took the wind out of the expectations of the actual scene. I was already exhausted by the time Lei called action for the first shot and had to fight to keep the energy up.

Shooting the first scenes of every bigger character is always much more taxing than a normal shoot. That’s when you both establish a certain type of working method, you create the framework of the character right there and then, no matter how much you’ve been preparing for it, so starting that off with an exhausted mindset was not probably the best thing. But we nevertheless hammered through the day and walked out as a winner, even though the location wanted to kick us out before we had finished the scene… but we got what we needed, and that’s what’s the most important thing.

In the evening, we had another dinner with the actor and some of his people, as well as our production guys. After the shooting day it was very nice to hear the actor in question complimenting me on my “character-focused directing”. In the end, director’s work is of course only judged by the film itself, but I do find it nice to hear that actors like to work with me on the set (not everyone, of course) as well.

 

China Diary

Day 111: The Wife’s Back!


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Eleventy-first day here in China! In Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, “eleventy-first” is an important number to the Hobbits, and to me, well, today it means the world; for my wife comes over for a little over a week today, and those who’ve been reading this blog know it means a lot to me. A world, to be more precise.

So it’s not a surprise I’m a bit antsy the whole day. Also, we have kind of a dumb shooting day ahead of us: three company moves, only one actual scene and the rest is just b-unit stuff. Sometimes I feel the scheduling is not the strong point of this movie: another days we have days like this, just one-sixth of a page to shoot, and another days are just packed with scenes and pages. Preferably, they’d be a bit more even, but it’s a lot to do with actor availabilities instead of anything else.

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It may not look like much, but I actually loved this little location. There was a train track that crosses the view in the background, and I was hoping for a train when we shot – and lo and behold, just as Lei called “Action!” a train passed by and we got a very nice establishing shot with some real production value right there!

So, today was a light day. And it turned out to be even lighter: I shot the only scene with actors in it, and then decided to call it a day and let the 1st AD take care of the rest. David had picked my wife up from the airport and after I was done with my work, I rushed to the hotel where she was fast asleep after no sleep on the plane. We snuggled in the bed until the evening, when I had a costume fitting and then a dinner with one of the big star actors of the film.

The fitting went pretty OK, and afterwards we headed for the dinner with my wife and some of the production people, and had a fun evening over seafood and even more seafood. To be honest, I’ve had so much seafood the last week that although I thought I’d never get fed up with it, I think I’m craving for a big-ass pizza right now more than anything.

The unfortunate thing with my wife on this trip was that the jetlag hit her really bad. It was very much like mine was when I first came over: we fell asleep around midnight, like I normally do over here, but she could only sleep for 2 hours, then she had to spend the rest of the night up and awake, until after breakfast she was able to get some more sleep. She would then wake up around 5-6pm, head over to the set for the last shots and then we’d be off to a dinner somewhere. It’s actually pretty good rhythm if you think about it, but she was really, really tired after every night getting absolutely no sleep at all.

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Happy together!
China Diary

Day 110: Music videos


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It’s been a while since I’ve written, and the reason is simple: she was over here for a little over a week. Now, she’s gone again. She’s actually right now in a plane on the way to Beijing, from where she’ll fly to Finland. I’m not sure if she’ll make it over here again during the shoot; I have my hopes up, but I’m not sure if it’s possible. I miss her already so much. I had to leave off to work today in the afternoon, and by the time I got back, she had already left. She left me a note on the bed. It was a very beautiful one. I admit I shed a tear. Man, I love that woman.

Today’s shoot was a concert in a green screen studio. We had built a big stage, but it was merely a small piece of the actual stage we want to have in the movie, so it had to double up as different sections of the stage, which made the shoot annoying: it wasn’t such a long shoot, but we had to shoot a thousand plates for every shot we were shooting, which made it all very complicated and rather tiresome to be honest. We had also a great team of dancer and a demo version of a song to do, and that’s what we were doing for the most part of the day: dancers dancing, music playing over and over again. By the time I got out of there I was absolutely fed up with the whole song, although it’s a pretty good piece… This is exactly the reason I don’t like shooting music videos: you ruin a perfectly good song when you start doing a vid for it. I’ve shot few music videos but haven’t really enjoyed the process that much. When I was starting my film career I thought it’s absolutely the thing I want to do, but nah, no. Shoot few, and you’ll know why not.

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I was feeling a bit jumpy the whole day, since I knew Annika was on the flight and on her way to here. She’d be landing tomorrow afternoon, but already the anticipation was killing me. Soon, the room wouldn’t be so lonely, the days wouldn’t be so miserable. But there’s still one more day to go before that…

The shoot went well and then I headed home, where I had a quick dinner and slept like a baby bear.

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Day 109: Early to bed, early to rise…


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Damn that white wine… Whatever they put in it, it gets in your head and leaves a nasty, grinding hangover for the next day to enjoy. This morning I woke up when it was still dark – it must’ve been 5:20 or something, but I had no way to get back to sleep. The bed was sweaty and the room smelled bad, and all I could do was to watch as the day slowly rose in front of my bed, revealing the beautiful ocean scenery and smoggy Thursday morning.

Although I had stuffed myself last night, I was still feeling hungry as hell, so I stumbled down to the restaurant for some breakfast. The place was absolutely packed with women in their early-to-mid 50’s wearing military uniforms (no idea what’s going on there), but I literally couldn’t find a seat for myself, which is indeed quite something since the breakfast room is massive. I crouched into one table corner and wolfed down my bacon and eggs, and then returned to my room.

I wasn’t still feeling any more sleepy, so I decided to watch a movie (Stand and Deliver, with Edward James Olmos as the leading character – what a performance!). Rest of the afternoon went past in a slumber, I did sleep a bit, played some Skyrim and Hearthstone and basically tried to do anything but think about the production itself.

What I also realized that actually Annika is flying already tomorrow over here! I had no idea the time had passed like this, since I was shooting long nights every night and we had our lengthy evening talks and all of it had become like a little lovely routine so that at one point I was feeling like hey, this is almost bearable like this, and although I can’t see her, we still have a chance to chat some good hour every night, which is always amazing with her. But to really have her here, with me? That seemed like a fantasy that’s just something written on a schedule but nothing real – but no, sometimes dreams do come true. And yeah, tomorrow she’s flying in the town! (So do excuse me for reduced blogging on that time, I intend to spend my evenings in a slightly different activities while she’s around).

In the evening, I went for  a great thai dinner downstairs with Mika, his girlfriend who’s also in town, our drone master and VFX supervisor. We had to plan a surprisingly complicated shoot that’s happening tomorrow VFX-wise and went through everything as well as we were able to. Then, back to room and early to bed. Day shoots (at least mostly) are the name of the game for the rest of the production, so early to bed, early to rise makes man healthy, wealthy and BORING!

China Diary

Day 108: Seafood Fantasy


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Ahh, a day off! I can do anything I want, just kick back and relax and not to worry about the shoot at all, just enjoy the time when there’s absolutely nothing to do.

Well, not exactly. The night is a terrible one. I’m having nightmares of the scenes the b-unit is shooting today – not really nightmares, but one of those dreams where you’re not completely aware if you’re awake or not, and the brain is on a high speed mode, figuring out how to do the scene. In the dream, I’m having the most boring conversation with Lei trying to explain what we’re about to do. When I stumble awake after only few hours of real sleep, I’m groggy and barely aware of what’s happening.

First, the driver drags me off to the studio, where we go through every set being built in I think five sound stages. We have great construction projects like Moonbase, Moon surface etc. slowly rising – first in wood, then being painted over, patinated and so on. It’s really inspiring, but being really tired I can only take in half of what I’m seeing. The production designer is excitedly explaining what he’s building and where, and I try to keep up with him my best.

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Afterwards, we convene at my trailer planning the B-unit shoot. It’s basically a bunch of leftovers from the days before, shots that need to be shot but were not shot on the day, but as they are on a board, they truly make a full shooting day for the b-unit crew. I’m wondering if I should actually stay in directing, but the production wants to leave these to the b-unit, while they have a dinner set up for me.

We drive over to a small local seafood restaurant for yet another shockingly great seafood dinner, Qingdao style. The food is simple yet beautiful: steamed in a big pot in the middle of the table, the main dish consists of shrimps, crabs, cochleas and some octopi. The water used to steam the food has some lamb stew in it, which they serve after the main course, and it’s a brilliant, perfect addition to the meal. We have buckets of “green bucket” beer, a local raw beer that only lasts for few days in the bottles, and of course, white wine.

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My plan has been to check out the local nightlife after the dinner, but the heady drinks and the bad sleep last night just makes it impossible to continue. At home, I listen to some black metal and crash to bed even before midnight.

China Diary

Day 107: The Long Night Comes To An End


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Finally, the last shooting day of the ten day straight night shift dawns. The location itself couldn’t be easier for me: it’s just downstairs of my hotel, at a shopping mall, which we have closed down for the night and are about to ride some motorbikes through it!

One team I really want to praise here is our special stunt motorbike team. These guys come from South Korea, and the stuff I’ve seen them doing is just crazy: falling on a bike at high speeds, riding up the escalators, jumping off huge ramps or flying across the air with wires, sliding under a truck, you name it, these guys can do it. Their approach is pragmatic and pretty amazing indeed, you just tell them what you want and they’ll design and deliver it right there on the spot.

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That’s a motorbike, hanging up in the air by wires, with a guy stradded on it. Soon, it’s about to come down. 

Now, this added with our crazy drone team, we have a killer combo to kick some serious ass on the screen!

All in all, the day is loads of fun to shoot – riding and jumping in and out of the mall, zipping past stunts and extras like bikes are absolutely not supposed to do in closed spaces and crashing through shelves and tables… What more can you ask? We are also relatively quick on this day, and manage to do all we need to do in the location, and as I said, we are just under my hotel, so for lunch I can order a burger from the room service, which is probably the only time in my career that’s gonna happen.

By the time we’re done with everything, the day is already dawning, but I’m happy to call it a night and get ready for two days of chilling. Unfortunately, the production doesn’t really believe in turnaround days for the crew, so they have one more night to shoot some b-unit stuff and pickups, but me and Mika, we are off the hook… for now.

Also, this concludes the most intensive stunts phase for the production. There’s still some complex wire works coming up, but for now, the hard stuff with real vehicles is done. Next up, I’ll be shooting only with the cast, and next week many of our key cast members are joining me on the set for the first time.

I have to say, I’m looking forward for that. Like I’ve said, shooting action is like watching paint dry; it takes forever and progress is slow. With actors, you get to feel you’re really doing the job you’re paid to do!

China Diary

Day 106: Nurrumieli


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Mika has coined a great term: nurrumieli – in English something like poutymind. It’s a good description of what happens when things don’t go right and then you feel bad about it. Say, for example, we are shooting a scene and one camera doesn’t capture the best moment available, but we have to move on: that would result in nurrumieli for Mika. Or if my actors do something completely different from what I’m asking them to do, it might result in nurrumieli for me.

Apparently, I’ve pissed in someone’s cereal on the set, and now this person barely agrees to speak with me, which is a bit hard since he’s one of the HODs (head-of-department) – he’s all nurru for me now. It started probably when I pointed out that he was building a solution which would be ridiculously complicated for the VFX to hide, after which he got suddenly ill and left the set. There was some tension before, but I never expected it to really blow out like that… And since the Chinese are not the most confrontational people by nature, it’s sometimes hard to see the signs of somebody being nurru until it’s too late.

Oh, well; we are here to make movies, not friends. The atmosphere on the set can get quite tense every now and then, especially after shooting night shoots for 8 days in a row without a day off in between or coming up in near future. The language issues don’t make it any easier, that’s for sure, when dissolving the approaching crisis, but nevertheless, we have to work together whether we like each other or not; to say it the other way around, we don’t have to like each other to work together.

The shooting day was the last day for me at the highway set; there’s still some motorcycle action ahead of us, but location will change to the most convenient one for me: it’s just downstairs of my hotel, in a shopping mall. I don’t have to hike to my trailer to go to the toilet, I can just take the elevator into my room! I’m looking forward for that!

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Smoke is essential when filming motorcycles! As a side note, this shot will never make it to the movie, because the camera we used to shoot this decided it’s not worth saving it to the memory card, so we were super happy to find out after the shooting day that one of the five cameras didn’t record a thing…
China Diary

Day 105: Reality (Out there)


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Once you get it going, filmmaking can be pretty addictive way to live. Every morning, somebody picks you up, gives you a very tightly-planned schedule of what’s expected for the day, feeds you, gives you a script on what you need to shoot today and eventually drives you back home. The worries of the outside world start fading out and the small village mentality sets in: what matters it what’s going on on the set, and within the crew, and the rest of the world feels slightly more unreal, something that’s just out there to read about in news, emails and Skype conversations, but it’s not really there, at least not that much.

But of course, it is. So, as a filmmaker, it’s important not to be lulled by the fake reality of the sets, studios and actors around you to forget that the reality is right there around the corner ready to smack you in the head with a hammer the moment you let down your guard.

So, the bills still keep on coming, the non-production-related issues keep on popping up, the people around you keep on living their lives and it ripples to your reality, sometimes harder, sometimes softer, changing and shaping your future. If film itself is an art of escapism, so is filmmaking, too. It’s a bit like going on a long hike in the middle of nowhere; you just have the road ahead of you to hike, and the world keeps on revolving, but you take an exit from it, partially.

Well, there’s some armchair five-cent-philosophy for you, dear readers. Yesterday we changed the location from the highway to finish the car-and-motorcycle stunts at the Wanda Studio Lot, where they had built a piece of the street in front of a huge, two-hundred-meter-long green screen, where we would be shooting the next two even-colder nights.

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Big-ass green

While shooting, the production designer came over and took me on a quick tour to one of the studios where they are building some of the sets. I can’t wait to get shooting in a studio, I’m literally done with locations, these long nights and the freezing temperatures. It’s great to see the huge sets being built: that’s one thing in China the productions know better than anywhere, how to build big sets quickly and with an impeccable style. I’m always more and more amazed as I wander through the studios, trying to understand how the hell do they make all this happen in such a short time.

 

China Diary

Day 104: Drone Nation


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Finding a single unique visual language to a film is always a tricky business. Whatever you do, everything has been already done before and there’s absolutely nothing you can throw at the audience they haven’t seen a thousand times. But as a director, that’s your job anyway, to bring something new for the audience to chew on.

Sometimes, the answer can come in through quite a surprising way; in the case of Iron Sky: The Ark, the drones are (part of) the answer. When I started planning one of the key scenes of the film, I wanted to have drones in the picture following our road racers taking the highways, but I never realized how amazing stuff you can achieve with a killer drone team in a high-speed action scene.

See, action is always about four things: camerawork, stunts, special effects and visual effects. Whatever you do with cameras, it’s always a bit clunky: whether you’re following a the action with a camera mounted to a vehicle, do tight close-ups or handheld style, it’s all been done before. But when you add a really skilled drone team with actual drone racers who can zip in between the action, you have suddenly entered into a storytelling mode nobody has really seen before. You’re not just following the action, but actually riding in between the characters, just inches away from all the craziest stunts and wildest action, in a way that no human-operated camera could ever be, just for the sake of security to begin with.

So, one line in the script – “drones follow the racers” – turned out to be a loot box full of amazing treasures for us. We had brought in a team over from Europe for the Long Night to bring their expertise to the racing scenes, and they exceeded our expectations tenfolds. Added with the Chinese drone racers, we certainly made a set of scenes I bet nobody has seen in a cinema before, and just can’t wait to get editing this stuff!

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China Diary

Day 103: Highway Blues


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Sometimes, filmmaking is like watching a 12-hour-long train wreck. Yesterday way was exactly one of those days.

For months, we had been preparing for one of the key scenes of the film, a big motorcycle race, and one of the key parts of that scene would take place on a big highway location, which was out of use and built slightly out of Qingdao center.

The reason people shoot films in studios is because shooting in location is just unpredictable. First, there’s always the weather issue – it may rain, or may not, or there may be too much wind, or whatever. The other issue is – the owner of the location usually is not a film professional, so although they allow you to use the location, they may get very jumpy when you see what you actually do there. There may be local politics involved, or government may have their say on the lot… So much can go wrong, and the one thing that each shooting day is for sure is that there’s absolutely no time to start fixing external issues, since all the time goes trying to solve how to make a scene work.

As the Long Night – the ten day night shoots in a row -schedule hell – continued, the nights were getting colder, and as we moved to the highway location, I admitted to being underdressed, big time. The problem is no longer my upper body, I found a great Black Yak jacket from the mall nearby, but the lower: I can’t find long johns that fit me from China. Actually, nobody can. The costume department tried. The production tried.

So there I am, literally freezing my balls off, standing in the roadside watching as this train wreck unfolds in front of my eyes. What was supposed to be a perfectly planned shoot just waiting for execution becomes more complex, more restricted and harder to achieve as the night grows old. First, we are denied of using any kind of cranes to put up lights to light up the scene. Then, solution by solution we are reduced of any lighting chances but a strange, low-light highway set which, luckily, turns out to be working but wasn’t our first choice.

Then, the stunts take forever to prepare with all the stunt drivers and motorbikes zipping in the traffic, and since these days are mostly just stunt shots, there’s not a lot anyone else can do while they are prepping. So much of the night goes just sitting around waiting for the preparations to finish – and even still, as we shoot the main stunt of the evening, there is an accident (the road is too slippery) and a stunt is whisked away to a hospital (luckily nothing more but a bruised leg, the guy is back in the game the next day), with the ambulance nearly driving over Mika as he just steps out of the video tent as the ambulance roars past.

Not that there’s much more to do anyway, the dawn is already breaking and the local officials inform us that it’s time for us to go. Now. Quickly. We make ourselves scarce in a matter of minutes before the local officials get any more antsy, to make sure we still get to shoot here tomorrow night.

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The Break of Dawn at the Highway