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Tom of Finland: An interview with Dome Karukoski

No other artist has done so much to define gay masculinity in the public mind as Touko Laaksonen, known around the world as Tom of Finland. After returning home from serving his country in World War II, Touko finds life in Finland during peacetime equally distressing. He finds that Helsinki is rampant with the persecution of the homosexual and men around him are being pressured to marry women and have children.

Tom finds refuge in his liberating art, specialising in homoerotic drawings of muscular men, free from inhibitions. His work – made famous by his signature ‘Tom of Finland’ – becomes an emblem for a generation of men. The rough and manly men in his drawings influenced the works of artists as diverse as Robert Mapplethorpe, Bruce Weber, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Freddie Mercury.

The upcoming film, titled Tom of Finland, follows Tom’s journey to acceptance through his art and relationships. Directed by Dome Karukoski (Lapland Odyssey, The Grump), the film is already one of the most anticipated releases of 2017 in Finland and throughout the Nordics. Karukoski is known for his humane and original films, that have attracted both large audiences and critical acclaim in Finland and abroad.

We sat down with Dome Karukoski to talk Tom of Finland.

Cinema Scandinavia: This year you were Executive Producer on a few major Finnish films, including The Mine. What does your role in these films involve?

 Dome Karukoski: Well, it varies per project. Sometimes it’s commenting on the script, posters, editing or sometimes it can be very little and just be supporting the project in our company (Helsinki Film). It can also be visiting the set but I’ve been doing Tom of Finland so that’s overshadowed everything else. With The Mine, I was with the project early on in the script and research process. I helped the project start, but then had to leave to do Tom of Finland so I was more just in the background.

As an Executive Producer, I’m usually engaging discussions with the hands-on producers about what the film should be. I think my role is more a bystander who yells and gives commentary, hoping it will help. I think it’s vital to distribute information so that not everyone does the same mistakes I’ve done.screen-shot-2016-11-30-at-8-03-11-am

 CS: Your last film was The Grump, and now Tom of Finland seems to take a much more serious tone. Do you have a preference in a genre? 

DK: Of the six films I’ve directed, two of them are comedies and four of them are dramas. And even in the dramas, I do tend to mix comedy. When I approach film-making, I like to have a heavy undertone or a tragic element in the film. With The Grump and Lapland Odyssey, which are comedies, you do have this tragic element or undertone. Heart of a Lion is very strict in the drama genre. It was a film about a neo-Nazi trying to flee his past. But even then it does have some comedy in it. I see that people try to have humour in their life, try to add humour in their life, and it’s common for people to try to make others laugh and feel good. I think that’s a part of us as human beings. As social beings. I think in that sense it’s quite normal for me to convey that kind of character. And the film’s humour derives from that. So genre-wise, I don’t have a preference. I think I’m a very humane and optimistic man so whichever genre or story fits my views, I respond well to.

CS: With Tom of Finland, where did the idea to make this film come from?

DK: I was working on Heart of a Lion alongside my partner in crime, Aleksi Bardy, and he suggested we make Tom of Finland.  Actually, our line producer Heidi Laitinen kind of had the idea originally. As far back as 2011, there were several people who thought I was the right person to direct a film about Tom of Finland. So it’s been five years in development and production. When we spoke about Tom of Finland (Touko Laaksonen in real life), what struck me most was his personal history. I’ve seen his drawings and his art but his personal history gave depth and insight into his drawings. There was a conflict in it. I think 90% of his drawings happen in daylight and show men walking in the daylight. But this is a man who basically drew this images in the night time, hidden from the world. And in Finland, it can be quite dark. In the early years of his life was working in an advertising agency in the daytime and then have to do his drawings during the night. His characters in the night contrast to those in the daytime. I think that’s a real conflict that made me take interest; it’s a story from darkness to light. It’s about a man who drew this utopia eventually being able to see it happen, his creation happen.

The story is quite epic. In the 1940’s when he started drawing, we were at war with the Soviet Union. After the war, it was a dark era for the LGBT community in Finland. I would say that queer people were very much oppressed in many ways and it was considered both an illness and illegal to be gay. At the same time, Tom was an ultimate hero, he didn’t feel shame about his sexuality. He was not the norm. He fought the oppression with his drawings and his attitude in life. So ultimately the film and his story became a story of freedom of speech. It’s about liberation and the freedom to be who you are. That’s how the story started to unfold, and it’s the kind of story I wanted to make.

CS: Is Tom of Finland very well known in Finland?

DK: It’s changed largely in the past five or ten years. The Tom of Finland foundation has been very active in promoting his art here in Finland to get his name recognised and they’ve done a really good job. Finland is a very liberal country like the Nordic countries are, but we have a conservative side in us. I would say there has been a very conflicted emotion against Tom of Finland for a long time because a lot of Finns were fairly ashamed of him. But especially in the younger generation, we are quite proud that this man who came from Finland and the fact he was able to change an entire generation of men. So, in general, one could say in Finland he is quite known and most Finn’s are quite proud of him.

  CS: How did you find the balance between using true story and creating a narrative?

 DK: For me, it is a fiction feature, it’s not a documentary. Of course, a lot of the scenes are dramatised so it helps to connect scenes and emotions together. But his life was quite rich and we’ve been able to fulfil most of the film with scenes with true events.

We’ve taken a lot of liberty to make the story work while trying hold on to the emotional truth of many situations. How a specific scene must’ve felt to him. But we have to make the drama and flow work so we have to add elements to the story. In all honesty, the film is respecting the legacy of Tom of Finland with a dramatised touch. I feel that where ever Tom is looking at us now, he’s saying “They didn’t do that bad of a job”. The difficulty, of course, is that we’ve met a lot of people who knew him when he was older, but we haven’t really had the chance to find people who met him when he was twenty something. So we are basing our picture of him on his letters and memoirs.

One of the most difficult things with biopics is the danger of it being just a story that unfolds with event after event happening and becoming a Wikipedia page. I think we’ve managed to avoid that and tried to respect the character as much as possible. But it took us years to write the script to be there. The hardest screenwriting process I’ve ever been part of.

CS: Where did you find the perfect actor to play Tom of Finland?

DK: It’s difficult looking for someone to play Tom of Finland, a gay icon, and in a film that follows him through four decades. So you need an actor who is talented, experienced and also has kind of the feel that Tom of Finland had. So it wasn’t an easy task and we did the casting over a period of two months. I cast a lot of men in that age range who could perform forty years with the help of makeup. What was really important for me was to find a chemistry between Tom and then his lifelong partner of 28 years Veli Mäkinen, so what I did in casting was I had two men together and had them act out scenes and improvise. When I found a couple that had that chemistry then I knew I found what I needed. That is how Pekka Strand and Lauri Tilkanen were attached. It was relevant as a big part of the structure of the story is his life with Veli but also his life with his sister whom he lived together for over a decade as an adult. That kind of chemistry was really important. The sister is played by Jessica Grabowsky, I knew her from before and she’s also acted with the lead Pekka Strang before, so I found a chemistry between these three. The dynamic feels real and authentic and then you can build the script through that foundation.

CS: What’s the message you hope to achieve through this film?

DK: I think if I were to live in Tom’s utopia I would want more queer people that feel secure, and hopefully, this feel will help them to feel more secure and trust their instinct and be proud of who they are in. It’s a story and meant to be entertaining also, but there is a message in that film. And conveying that message was probably one of the main motivations why I did this film. It was to help and encourage people who are insecure about their sexuality and who maybe feel oppressed by something else. To be just proud and trust yourself. That’s what I hope the film the convey.

Secondly, I think it’s about accepting sexuality for all people. We do tend to have a lot of shame in our sexuality and one of the great things that Tom of Finland showed in his art was that there is no shame in sexual feelings or emotions, and I think when you get rid of that shame of sexuality you are a much happier person. It will be great that this film evokes others and people feel more open about their sexual emotions. It will help all couples in the world, and it’ll help even all married couples in the world!

You have to add that it’s about making it with a smile and with a wink, and part of Tom’s art when you look at it is that wink. Basically say “Who cares, let’s go!” I like that his art has a straightforwardness and there’s nothing to hide about what the characters want to do. 

CS: What do you feel is the biggest challenge facing the Finnish industry?

DK: The industry is doing quite well. We have a wide variety of different films. It is difficult, as it has been, for the middle film. I think middle film used to do quite well in cinemas with a long run and now it’s quite difficult for those films to succeed. These are the middle dramas who are not a comedy or a festival winner but lie somewhere in the middle. I think that film finds it quite difficult to find an audience because that audience has found streaming services. First, it was the DVD, now it’s the streaming service. That audience finds their dramas in those streaming services. Getting that audience to go watch a film in the cinema is the challenge. I see a lot of Finnish dramas that would’ve performed well ten years ago but are flopping in today’s cinemas.

Of course, I think a good, a really good film, will always succeed. For example, The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki, which won the Cannes Film Festival Un Certain Regard, is a really good example. It didn’t get a big opening domestically and did less than everyone expected. But now it’s very slowly starting to get numbers. It’s getting a long run. When a film is really good it will always find its audience because the cinema’s here help you. They trusted Olli Mäki. I think it’s difficult when the film makes you wonder ‘is it good or is it not?’ The film might have a core audience that it works for, but if that audience doesn’t find it on the opening weekend or in the second weekend it will be gone. I think that’s the challenge, especially for drama directors. That’s a huge challenge that they face.

Not to be too negative in our Scandinavian melancholy, the good side about Finnish film is that people want to see Finnish films in Finland. A huge percentage of tickets sold are to Finnish film. So when you have a good Finnish film you have the ability to find an audience. As film-makers, we have created a relationship with the audience and it’s a very strong relationship: the audience trusts a Finnish film-maker to make a film for them. And that’s a huge trust we have.

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.