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“It was the longest and most intense scripting process I have ever experienced”

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Dome Karukoski • Director

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- We spoke to Dome Karukoski, whose Tom of Finland – which is well on the way to becoming his seventh local blockbuster – is screening at the Tribeca Film Festival

Dome Karukoski  • Director

“No, not one failure yet – I have to knock on wood,” says Finnish director Dome Karukoski, whose first six features all ended up becoming local blockbusters. So far, his seventh, Tom of Finland [+see also:
film review
trailer
film focus
interview: Dome Karukoski
film profile
]
, has exceeded 88,500 admissions, making it this year’s second best-performing Finnish release.

The Helsinki Filmi biopic of gay Finnish artist Touko Valio Laaksonen, aka Tom of Finland (who in the film is depicted by Finnish actor Pekka Strang), was launched as the opening film of Sweden’s Göteborg International Film Festival (27 January), where it won the international film critics’ FIPRESCI Award. It has now been selected for the International Narrative Competition at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival from 19-30 April.

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The “most influential creator of gay pornographic images” (in the words of US expert Joseph W Slade), Tom of Finland was first depicted in Finnish director Ilppo Pohjola’s 1991 documentary Daddy and the Muscle Academy: The Life and Art of Tom of Finland. The former World War II veteran’s bold art and revolutionary depictions of gay men at a time when homosexuality was still illegal can now be found all around the world, from US museums (New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art) to Finnish public collections and stamps. 

An exhibition about the production of Tom of Finland has opened at the Logomo Theatre and Music Centre in Turku, Finland, where some of the film was shot. Organised by commissioner Teija Raninen, of the West Finland Film Commission, and set designer Teppo Järvinen, it includes Tom’s room (the same one that was used in the film), costumes and important props. It gives visitors “a proper peek into what was going on on set: schedules, pieces of the original script and interesting ‘making of’ photos from the set”. The exhibition will be open until August.

The son of a US actor and a Finnish journalist, Karukoski made his first feature, Beauty and the Bastard [+see also:
trailer
film profile
]
, in 2005; then, Lapland Odyssey [+see also:
trailer
film profile
]
 (2010) beat Harry Potter [+see also:
trailer
film profile
]
Sex and the City and Alice in Wonderland, among others, as the top grosser of the year. 10% of the Finnish population watched his latest, The Grump [+see also:
trailer
film profile
]
 (2014), and all six of his movies were nominated for at least one Jussi, Finland’s national film prize. He is now preparing his first US project, entitled The Starling. US actor Keanu Reeves and Australian actress Isla Fisher will star in the Matt Harris-scripted story of a man grieving over the death of his baby daughter while trying to hold on to his suicidal wife. PalmStar Media and Windy Hill Pictures will produce.

Cineuropa: What’s the secret to your box-office success?
Dome Karukoski:
 I don’t think there is a certain recipe of how to make a film work at the box office or with the critics. In my case, filmmaking was part of my upbringing. My mother loved Italian movies – comedies, Fellini, the Italian effect or the European influence. My father, who later became an actor, introduced me to the American scene – Kubrick, Leone, Scorsese. Starting from that mould of films that I idolised, which also included Kieslowski’s works, I created the cinema I make.

Where does Tom of Finland fit in?
When I was growing up, I knew his art, but I thought Laaksonen was American – he looked American, and Finland was not one of his biggest markets. I learned that he was Finnish when he died in 1991. He was honoured in Finland and received a prize, and I was really astonished – how could he have drawn all this attention? This was what I knew when screenwriter-producer Aleksi Bardy came up with the idea and suggested we make the film. I borrowed two books about him from a public library – it is funny asking for a Tom of Finland book, because you still get those looks.

Writing the screenplay took us four years – there was so much material, and condensing it into a two-hour, epic storyline was tough. It was the longest and most intense scripting process I have ever experienced, trying to find the emotional truth of his character, his growth as an artist and his fame. Everybody had an opinion on how it should be made.

But you came through with yours?
The most difficult part was to hold on to the story, my interpretation of the character, my vision – and then use the material from America’s Tom of Finland Foundation, which he created in 1984 to collect, preserve and exhibit homoerotic art. It has everything – the wildest, craziest stories of what actually happened, which people would never believe was true. During the 20-23 years he was working at an advertising agency in Helsinki, he would live out his passion at night, drawing his utopia and fantasia. When he moved to Los Angeles, he could make it his daily routine – it must have been a revolutionary moment when he realised that. What has surprised me is that his story is news to so many people.

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