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Talking Finnish television with Rike Jokela, the director and writer behind ‘Deadwind’

Move over Sweden and Denmark, Finnish Noir is here. Incorporating traditional elements of the Scandi crime genre and blending them with the unique identity of Finland, Deadwind is the latest Nordic crime series to hit our screens. With an international release on Netflix, audiences around the world will be able to this Finnish Noir and get a glimpse into the dark underworld behind the facade of the ‘happiest country in the world’. Deadwind follows female detective Sofia Karppi, who discovers the body of a young woman on a construction site. The series blends in traditional crime with the socially conscious debate around renewable resources, and provides a captivating but intelligent story that is sure to draw in Netflix audiences.

We spoke to the director and writer of the series, Rike Jokela, about the process of creating a crime series in Finland.

 

 


 

Rike Jokela

Can you please tell us a little about your background?

I started my career as a musician, playing guitar in punk bands and writing songs. I made some records and performed around Europe and the USA, and that’s where I got interested in lighting, which then developed into an interest in fiction. I began working as a lighting designer in a dance theatre and then went on to study film and television. I planned on becoming a cinematographer and am currently a member of the F.S.C (Finnish Society of Cinematographers). Still, I ended up directing when I was in school. I worked in both jobs, often directing and shooting some shows at the same time. I worked alongside my brothers, Juha Jokela, who is a recognised writer and director working in the Finnish theatre.

I wrote and directed in television for twenty years before I became interested in this new job that was emerging in Finnish television called the ‘showrunner’, and that led me to Deadwind. Sometimes, I still like to get behind the camera; I shot the opening scene in the first episode of Deadwind as a second unit cinematographer.

What is the process of writing a television series like in Finland?

The process is the same everywhere, but the difference in Finland is the money. In Finland, most writers work for independent production companies. In YLE (the Finnish Broadcasting Company), the process is a little different. Usually, a writer a group of writers will develop an idea for a show with no money. Then, they have to get an independent company interested in the idea, who might pay a little sum of money to develop the idea further. It can then be presented to a television station or a streaming service, who will pay you a little more money if they like the idea. From that, you can write a few pages of the script or introduce the concept of the show. From there, the broadcasters will order a pilot script, followed by all the scripts. It is often the producer that is working in between the television station and the writers, mediating the process.

The system works well if the writers are free to write what they want. In some cases, the television company wants to control the script and that’s where writing becomes difficult. A good producer is one who protects the talent and the story. If there is a solid concept in the first place, everything works well – which luckily happened with our show.

The problem with writing television in Finland is that there aren’t many writer’s rooms like what you’d find in the US, and the price of a script is the same if there is one writer or many. Deadwind is one of the rare shows in Finland where the writers work for months together in the writer’s room. We have one main writer and episode writers, who work alone. However, more writers rooms are emerging in Finland, which is great.

The series was co-written between yourself, Jari Olavi Rantala and Kirsi Porkka. How did you three work together?

Deadwind was done in a completely different way to how Finnish television is normally made. The three of us worked for a long time writing storylines and developing characters, and after that, the writers were able to quickly put together scripts as we’d done so much background work. My job was to be in charge and write storylines with the writers, but I didn’t write episodes. I then direct the series, and I think we have a fluent workflow from writing to directing.

At the start of our process, we try to develop the basic idea for a crime story and the main topic for the season. We think about a theme, what we want to say, and what we want the message to be. This frames the whole series and took the longest time to develop. We then collect lots of items and put them on the wall of our writer’s basement, visualising ideas we’d like in our story. Initially, we write mini-stories that aren’t always relevant to the overall idea, but they just cover themes we find interesting – characters, tragedies, etc. A lot of them never make it to the series, but sometimes we incorporate them into the story.

After writing the initial mini-stories and ideas, we move on to writing the antagonist. We try to figure out who they are, what they have done, and why. This leads on to forming the mystery, one of the most important elements in a crime story. We then walk through the story backwards, initially writing the crime plot-line to ensure that the core plot-line is correct.

It’s also important to write a specific backstory, determining what has happened before the series starts. In concept, there are three main plots and all of them involve the main character. These three key plot-lines are the most important, and we are constantly finessing them, envisioning different scenarios of how characters could meet and how their paths could cross. Everything slowly becomes connected, firstly on a large scale and gradually focusing on the details, which is the most rewarding part. At this stage we are constantly challenging ideas and making changes, asking ‘What if’ about the plot lines and characters we have currently constructed. When the plot is beginning to form we shift our focus to the inner life of the characters and begin to discuss them in a lot more depth. This is the final step, and by this point, in the process, I try to already have cast the show and to have an idea of who will be in each role. We also find it really beneficial at this final stage to meet the actor and further develop his or her character collaboratively.

Where did you find the idea for Deadwind?

Ten years ago, I did a crime show called River (Virta in Finnish). This show is about a young female cop in her thirties. She is a complex individual, but good at her job. I started to imagine how she’d be ten years later – if she didn’t get fired.

This is the concept that Kirsi, Jari and I created, and it took a year to put it together. Everything started with our protagonist, Sofia Karppi. We discussed who she is, what she wants, what her weaknesses are, where she lives, her husband, her boyfriend, her girlfriend, her kids. We spent a long time asking these questions before starting to think of a plot.
We even thought of her name: Karppi means carp – a koi fish – and she has a black koi fish tattoo. ‘Karppi’ is also the Finnish name of the series.

You also directed the series. How long did it take to direct the entire season one and can you tell us anything about the process?

Pre-production took us around four months, which is not too long. After that, we had to wait for the green light from the television company. The series was shot in 90 days plus 5-10 for the second unit and underwater work. We started filming in October 2016 and finished at the end of March 2017. Post-production then lasted eight months, which was just enough to get the show ready two months before the premiere.

Being a director and also in the writer’s room is beneficial in two ways. First, we write one long story, effectively a nine-hour movie, and it helps that I also direct it. I can make changes, take a sequence from one episode and place it in another if I feel it improves the story, and we can make budget changes with the producer if needed without causing problems to other directors. Second, I maintain fluidity in the process because I control the story at all stages. Of course, it is easier to maintain the look of the show and the overall voice. So, my job is a mix of directing and show running. Shooting the script comes very organically, and since I already work with the writing team, my directing style influences the writing. My colleagues know my style and can write the way I direct. It’s such a natural process because we know each other well. In season two, we have brought in a fourth writer, Harri Virtanen, who is very experienced and highly regarded. He is pushing us even further, which is great.

How important is it for you to use a female character at the forefront of your series?

Equality is one of the key themes in Deadwind. From the beginning, we decided that Sofia must not differ from any male detective characters just because she is a woman. Sofia does things we are used to seeing men do in the genre, which reflected the equality of women in Finland compared with countries that suffer from gender inequality.

Sofia Karppi is trying to balance being a mother of two kids and chasing bad guys, and she has no interest in having a husband. She doesn’t care what people think about her, doesn’t bother to brush her hair, which even her ten-year-old son points out. But Sofia loves her children and she is empathetic. She cares about the victims of the crimes, which may make her special within her profession, but also creates a lot of issues.

Can you tell us a little bit about the lead actors?

I have worked with these actors many times and know them well, so perhaps I am just too lazy to change my ‘winning team’ I have worked with and enjoyed so much! Pihla Viitala (Sofia Karppi) is one of the top actors in Finland. She is dedicated but charming, and very easy to get along with. She socialises with the crew, and this inclusive, grounding attitude means she is loved by everyone in the show. Pihla brings to the character honesty, brutality and sensitivity that is needed to play such a complex person. We wrote the character knowing Pihla will play her, so we reflected some of her own mannerisms and features into the character. Lauri Tilkanen is another known actor in Finland and plays Karppi’s younger rookie partner, Nurmi. He is the opposite of Pihla in many different ways. Pihla is often very social, but Lauri is quiet and a ‘thinker’. Their personalities make a good team.

Then we have Tommi Korpela, who plays Alex, the creative director of the Tempo construction company. Korpela is perhaps the most respected male actor in Finland and has won many awards and is known for his great talent. Tommi has been in almost every show and movie I have done! Jani Volanen plays Usko, the husband of the murdered Anna, and he is the other guy I always try to get in my shows. He is also an acclaimed director and writer and has often helped me write my scripts. Jani and Tommi are also best friends since the acting school and the scenes they act together are always exciting and fresh.

How did the series perform in Finland?

It did really well. Every episode was the top fictional show (sports always get higher ratings in Finland) on YLE 2. Today, the broadcasting company is more interested in online streaming. YLE has a very good streaming service called Areena where every Deadwind episode was released at the same time the first episode aired. I think now that Deadwind is the most-watched drama series ever on Areena, so YLE is happy.

How does public funding support influence the television series?

We discussed the scripts with some YLE producers, and they used to send us some notes. While editing the show, we showed them rough cuts and got more notes. They did give us artistic freedom to do the series that we wanted, and I’m very happy about that. It’s important to trust the talent you are working with. We received support from TEK and the Finnish Film Foundation, and they didn’t influence us at all.

In what ways does Deadwind stand apart from the other Nordic crime series?

The people and the cultures in the Nordic countries are very much alike, except Finland. The Nordic languages are very similar, again except Finnish. I believe it’s the mix of Eastern and Western roots that makes us different. The characters in Deadwind are little more harsh, a little more introverted, and a little more complex. But when something shakes them enough they begin to unravel, which we see well in Usko’s character when he starts to break down. This also happens to Sofia’s character when she breaks down at a low point in the narrative.

Humour is also different in Finland. I personally just found a little humour in the Danish or Swedish crime shows. In Finland, we have this constant presence of black humour. Look at the films of Aki Kaurismäki, for example. I hope more people will notice Finnish film and television around the world.

Finnish television also has smaller budgets, which forces us to come up with new ways to do complex scenes. For example, in season one we have about 700 hidden digital effects that we use to achieve the same effect that other countries would be able to accomplish for real on set. Luckily, the budgets for Finnish productions are getting better – so that’s great!

Of course, our main character differs from the others too. Sofia Karppi is a good cop but over-confident, which gets her into trouble a lot of the time. One of her biggest weaknesses is that she doesn’t want to ask for help, and in season one she struggles with this as she deals with the loss of her husband. Hiding her grief creates more problems not only at home but also with her rookie male partner.

We decided to play with one of the clichés of the crime genre, which is the ‘dead female body’. Anna, our first victim, is not just a body used to influence the plot. Rather, we try to show her as a human being. We were influenced by Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks, and in Deadwind we slowly add new layers to Anna through the use of flashbacks, using plot twists to surprise viewers. In doing so, Anna becomes an important character in the story.

Deadwind discusses real-world Finnish issues. Why is it important for a crime series to be socially conscious?

All writers write because they’ve got something to say about the world. Sometimes it is hard to write a television series about a current topic, such as renewable resources. However, in a crime story, we can use the format for discussing any social and environmental issues. As a lifetime punk rocker part of me is also into the message found in a song by the Ramones – “I don’t care”. This says everything in just a couple of words!

Finland was voted the ‘happiest country’ in the world in 2018, yet we see so many dark and gritty crime series. Why do you think the Nordic region is perfect for crime?

I think the answer is right there. In Finland, we are fortunate to live quite peacefully. However, there is always something in human nature that gets us excited about danger, fear, and suspense. I think we have a need to deal with the dark side of life and a crime story gives audiences a safe way to do that.

Scandinavian light and weather is dark, cold and sad – elements perfect for a crime story. In Game of Thrones, for example, the evil comes from the ‘north’, which could be seen as a reference to Nordic Noir. Finnish nature is also made for dark stories. Although we are considered to be happy, we have bad self-belief and are always doubting ourselves. I think this is a good start for a crime story.

Deadwind premieres around the world on Netflix. What can you tell international audiences that would entice them into watching the series?

There is a universal appeal of good stories and interesting characters regardless of where they are from. I hope audiences around the world will enjoy it in the same way I do when watching a Sicilian crime show, for example. I’d love to see the main plot lines and themes resonating with them but with a different location, which makes the story unique.

Crime stories are very much alike, and it’s hard avoiding similarities. All crime stories are basically telling a tragedy of someone being killed and the hero trying to solve it while struggling with their personal lives. But I believe there is no problem with that.

What can you tell us about season two?

The second season of Deadwind is progressing well. We are currently finishing developing the storylines for eight episodes in season two, and then there will be another eight episodes in season three. The next stage of development will be the writers starting to put together scripts, which due to the attention to detail will be a far quicker part of the process. The focus of season two will be the idea of ‘Helsinki-Tallinn Twin City’, which includes the plan to build a tunnel under the sea. We also focus on politics and a very different murder case.

 

Deadwind premieres on Netflix on the 23rd of August 2018. You can find out more about Rike Jokela at his website, www.rikejokela.com

Watch the trailer for Deadwind below.

 

Emma Vestrheim

Emma Vestrheim is the editor-in-chief of Cinema Scandinavia. Originally from Australia, she is now based in Bergen, Norway, and attends major Nordic film festivals to conduct interviews and review new films.