Toronto 2014 Interview: Talking BIG GAME, Character Actors And 1980s Blockbusters With Director Jalmari Helander
In between screenings of the ridiculously fun and Amblin-esque popcorn muncher Big Game at the Toronto International Film Festival, I managed to have a chat with Finnish director Jalmari Helander and his young star Onni Tommila.
The young actor was a little shy (and a lot hungry) which belies his ultra-confident performance in the film, but the director knows exactly what he wants, and goes for it. Below is a slightly abridged transcription of our conversation, but rest assured that no "mother-fuckers" were bleeped out.
Kurt Halfyard: Thanks for taking some time out between your two screenings to chat. So. That Midnight Madness crowd last night, that was something, wasn't it?
Jalmari Helander: That was one of the nicest moments of my life. I cried probably something like 50 times during the screening. It was really fucking awesome.
This is a pretty international cast you've assembled here. Alongside the great Samuel L. Jackson, it's an impressive collection of character actors: Jim Broadbent, Felicity Huffman, and Ray Stevenson, but because I'm Canadian, I wanted to ask about your choice of Victor Garber as Vice President of the United States, running things from the Pentagon war room in the film.
I had some pictures and names for that part, but when I saw Victor, he just looks believable in that sense, and when I talked with him, he was a really great guy, so it was nice to have all those people together. When I was watching the monitor when shooting, it felt like I was just watching a movie, at times. Surreal.
Oh, and the wonderful Ted Levine too...
[Laughs] I really love Ted Levine, he is probably my favourite, and I will probably working with him again, he understood exactly what I was trying do with Big Game. And he is so fucking good in The Silence of the Lambs.
The humour in BIG GAME is broader, less dry than your first film, RARE EXPORTS. The films have very different tones, but was there a sense to go bigger with the gags?
I never think anything like that when writing, it i just the way it went. Because it is not a Finnish language film, perhaps it is less dry. It felt right that it had to be done this way.
Was there a language barrier on set, especially in light that you were shooting English and Finnish actors in Germany?
I might have had some problems explaining things to the actors, because I didn't have the words. I would apologize.
Did that give these experienced actors more chance to improvise on set? Or did you always stick with the script?
The Pentagon all had to be done exactly as written. Fast paced. I was more free with Sam and Onni, because I had a lot more time with them. We tried to keep the language on set to only English, but it never exactly worked out that way. Sometimes we were speaking Finnish amongst ourselves, and the Germans spoke German. But it was mainly English.
What do you think is the enduring appeal of these big 1980s style blockbusters?
Well, I love them. I miss movies like that. This is my love letter to them, and I tried to pack as many little things in the movie of things I loved. It would be nice to do more of that kind of style.
Does that mean we will get another one?
I like to think, in a way, that Rare Exports and Big Game are the same style, which I definitely will continue.
Both films have big helicopter set pieces. Is there something about the visual of kids and freight dangling from helicopters that appeals to you?
[Laughs] I wanted to make it a little better this time. We'll see what happens in the third one.
Big adventure movies often pair oddly matched couples to get the job done, and yours, with the President of the United States, and a 13-year-old boy from Lapland, might just be the strangest. Do you have any favourite oddball pairings?
I cannot think of any right at this moment, but it is always nice to get people together that are not coming from the same place, to see what will happen to them. I like the quiet scenes of Oskari and the President sitting by the camp fire and stuff like that before you really start with the action. Those moments are important.
Both of your films are anchored around the father/son dynamic, with mentorship a part of the package. Is there something about that which directly appeals to you when you are writing the screenplays?
I don't know, exactly. My father was great, and I didn't have that kind of problems in that sense with my father. But it is the easiest way to think of a nice underdog story. When nobody relates to the kid and his father doesn't believe in him. When you have your father give you a compliment, that is a huge thing. I was trying to, with Petri Jokiranta, my producer, put together an underdog story that will be the worst beginning and the biggest end.
Onni, your real life father plays your father on screen twice now, both in RARE EXPORTS and BIG GAME, what is the dynamic of father/son on the movie set?
Onni Tommila: Well, same as always. Because he is my father and he gives good advice. No, I don't think there is much of difference, because we're related.
Years ago when you were here with RARE EXPORTS, someone asked the question, "Why were there no women in the film?" And to this day, I still remember your answer, "If there were women there, they would talks some sense into the men, and the movie wouldn't happen." With BIG GAME, you have one woman in the Pentagon [Felicity Huffman] but I wonder if that element, to get away with all the craziness happening in the wilderness and the the government, do you still feel that way?
I do. It is hard for me to think of a, for instance in this movie, Oskari to have a mom. It doesn't fit. It is not there. I don't know why I think that, it is really hard to explain. Maybe I will do something with a few more women in it. Maybe.
Your THELMA AND LOUISE will get made some day?
[Laughs] Well, maybe not that kind of movie.
In North America, we are so overprotective, bubble wrapping, our children, and we didn't do this so much back in the 1970s and 1980s, the time when all the Amblin Entertainment movies were coming out. It is interesting to see, even in a movie, a 13-year-old gets to go into the woods (moms or not) for a couple days to hunt on his own, from a North American perspective. Do Northern European parents give their kids a bit more freedom, and a little less smothering than North Americans?
I had a lot of conversations with a lot of people when we were writing this thing. Was it believable, or was it too much? I don't think it is too much. Let's just do it.
With crashing jets and airplanes, exploding huge chunks into forests and lakes, was there a gag or idea for the film that was just too big or too ridiculous that it fell out of the screenplay?
Well, if I had all the money in the world, I would have made the action around the freezer longer, with more twists and turns of that scene, but it was so fucking slow to shoot that scene. We shot many days and that is what we got. It is good to have as big of an explosions as you can imagine for this kind of movie. It is really important to make funny things with this. I do not like questions of how real it is, or would it be realistically possible. Definitely not.
You've have handily trumped the "Nuke The Fridge" moment in INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL with that scene!
I think it is great. The more you do that kind of stuff, the better the movie. Of course you need some kind of rules, but if you can somehow explain or set up why this kind of thing is happening within the movie, then it is OK.
There is one particular shot in the film, when the secret service man jumps out of the plane backwards, and falls gracefully through the air looking up at the plane, obscured by clouds...
You mean seeing the explosion through the clouds? I think it was a good idea to do it that way because we are leaving from that place to come see Oskari in the forest.
Ah, to act as a transition?
Exactly, but there was one scene that I really liked, but it was just a little too slow, and had to be cut. After the explosion above, the wind starts to pick up in the trees down below, and Oskari was trying [Helender gestures with the universal hand sign of checking if it is raining] and he actually puts a rain jacket on as Air Force One crashes out of the sky. And he is protecting himself with a raincoat. [Laughs] And it was funny and stupid and I should have left it in the film. Fuck!
[Laughs] I think BIG GAME is a superb kids film, and to the best of my knowledge, it is the only kids film that uses the phrase 'mother-fucker' in it. I know when you have Samuel L. Jackson, this feels necessary, but will you run into issues in some countries?
We have also a version without it. But in Finland it will definitely have the mother fucker in it, we can have kids movies with as much swearing in it. [At this point, Onni Tomilla fist pumps and shouts "Yea!"] I don't know how it will go outside of Finland, but I will fight to the end to have it stay.
Well, with PG-13 in the States, you get one, don't you?
Mother-fucker is apparently a little worse than just fuck, but I hope we can have it.
Years ago on the local Toronto TV station, CITY-TV, they didn't censor much in the way of swearing, but with that phrase they would always just censor the 'mother' half. You would get *BLEEP*-fucker.
The other version of Big Game has the opposite, it is the line up to mother, than machine gun fire. It doesn't play out so well.
After BIG GAME, what is next for you?
I have a couple of ideas, but I do not know what I am going to do yet. But it is going to be something bigger. And it is going have more everything. It will be hard to keep this up after a couple of movies. Rare Exports was $1.9M and this was $9M, so the next would be [pause] quite expensive. And after that...THE MOST EXPENSIVE MOVIE EVER!