Juuso Syrjä is a Finnish film director who’s been in the field ever since he graduated from high school. The 41-year-old filmmaker specialises in commercial films but dreams of working as a Hollywood director. Syrjä talks about his career, plans and what the new Finnish Nordic Noir hit Bordertown has to offer to foreign markets.
Cinema Scandinavia: You studied at the Tampere Arts-Oriented Senior Secondary School, the starting point for many known TV names and filmmakers in Finland. Did your interest for film struck in high school or was it a hobby from before?
Juuso Syrjä: My theatre teacher Marja-Leena Haapanen was a great source of inspiration for me, and all my dearest memories from high school have something to do with her lessons. In my second year, Marja-Leena asked me what I want to do when I grow up. I don’t know why I answered ‘to direct films’ – I was no film enthusiast, but the interest and the idea had been born out of something, somewhere. She then replied ‘then we’ll make you a director’. On the spot, we decided that during my senior year I would direct a play called Uhana. The entire school was in the project. I was the school’s first student who’d been given the responsibility to direct a whole project alone. The previous experience I had was with a few animation experiments and some climbing and mountain biking films, but these were the only link to my film hobby.
CS: Did you study the field after high school?
JS: I didn’t, I’ve learned everything by doing this job. Right after graduation I headed to Helsinki. My goal was to get into the film industry. It didn’t take too many weeks until I was hired to work in what was the first film of my career. I started with the title ‘chauffeur’ in a Nordic production called Vita lögner. The same summer I got into a few other films, such as Esa ja Vesa – auringonlaskun ratsastajat (Sunset Riders) and Vääpeli Körmy – taisteluni, in which I played the role of a Swedish soldier.
Later the same year I went to the navy to perform military service, and I also spent a while working as a seafaring officer. Concurrently I made more films in different positions until I moved to the film industry for good. I have now been in the field for twenty years. I moved from feature films to commercial and did all kinds of tasks, I did casting, I worked as the director of photography, a lighting technician and a co-director, to name a few.
In 1998, I started working primarily as a director and made it straight to the biggest and most successful commercial film production company in Finland at that time, Also Starring. I’ve directed commercial films ever since and made over 500 of those around the globe.
CS: What makes a good film? Are there certain qualities that make a film better for you, or can anything work under the right circumstances?
JS: A film – whether it was a commercial film or a music video – can be good on different, individual levels alone, too. The film can touch people, the casting can be well done, the visuality can astound, the humour can work, or it can be the excellent audio engineering that impresses the audience. But usually, the best films have succeeded in pretty much all the individual sectors. I believe that in all my work and the best stuff out there there’s been a lot of attention paid to even the smallest details.
CS: Do you have certain role models or idols in the field? What inspires you? Which films have had the greatest impact on you?
JS: I admire the individual works of different directors, so that’s why I have no role model in particular. But to name a few directors whose work I look up to, I’d say David Fincher and Francis Ford Coppola. Some of my favourites are such works as Se7en, The Godfather and Apocalypse Now.
I feel that life in itself and everything that happens to me are the greatest sources of inspiration. I’ve always wanted to do a whole lot of things, travel, study cultures, be open to new and seize every interesting opportunity. It’s easier to figure out what once went wrong than to ponder what one has missed on or should have done.
CS: You worked on the new Finnish TV show Bordertown. As you have experience with doing all sorts of things onset, what did you do exactly? What made you jump in on the project?
JS: I was one of the three directors of the show, and I was responsible for the last four episodes of season one. However, all of us we ended up directing a bit of everything, and I was the head director of the second film crew.
I had been waiting for the right moment and the right production to make my first drama work. After the producer, Matti Halonen had approached me and I had read the script, I got very excited. There was no question whether this would be a good project to be my first drama production or not.
CS: Bordertown has been called Finland’s first Nordic Noir show and it’s often been compared to productions of the same genre, such as the Swedish-Danish Broen. What does Bordertown have to offer in comparison to the neighbouring countries’ series?
JS: Bordertown gets somewhere with its visuality, script and the entire content. It’s not only a crime show that focuses on the police – family is also an important element in the narration. The major parts are not played only by the crimes but the family, too. So personal drama and crime solving are linked closely in the series.
CS: Does all of your directorial work have something in common?
JS: It’s difficult to look into my own work from such a point of view, but my friends have often told me that visuality is an element from which people recognise my work.
CS: What has been the greatest moment of your career so far?
JS: There’s been a whole lot of those in these 20 years. I am now in my early 40s, and a couple of years back I realised that I’ve spent over a half of my life making films. So, that journey is bound to have had an insane amount of great moments on the way. But then again, one must remember that I’m doing my dream job and it hardly ever feels like work. I’ve gotten to see countless countries and meet incredible people, and I’ve been given the chance to visit places I doubt I would’ve ever gotten to see under any normal circumstances.
CS: Is there something you’ve had to learn the hard way?
JS: Not necessarily the hard way, but through tough guts and an endless amount of work and toil. Some things would have probably been easier if I had studied. But personally, I believe in trying relentlessly, and in the fact that I have been able to show people I truly, sincerely want to do my job.
CS: What are your plans at the moment? What’s underway and what’s happening in the future?
JS: There are many directions my career can go. Right now I’m boosting my commercial film career in Los Angeles, and we’re also planning my first feature film in Finland and waiting for the decision on season two of Bordertown. I’d also love to make a longer film about my dear hobby that is fly fishing. My calendar is currently filled with dates for commercial films for both Finnish and German brands, and working on my own feature film.
CS: What do you think you’ll be doing in 10 years?
JS: More than likely the same as now – hunting, fly fishing and making films in different formats. But if I dare to hope for something on top of that, I’d like to be directing films in California.