Entertainment » Movies

First Look: New Biopic Encounters Tom of Finland

by Frank J. Avella
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Thursday Oct 12, 2017

Editor's note: "Tom of Finland" opens in New York at the Quad Cinemas on Friday, October 13.

It will also be screened as part of ReelQ, Pittsburgh's LGBTQ film festival, on Friday, October 13 at 9:30pm. For more information visit the ReelQ website.

Most gay men have heard of Tom of Finland. Okay, most gay men of a certain age. But all gay men should know about this true icon of LGBTQ history. And thanks to an exquisite film from celebrated Finnish director Dome Karukoski, they soon will.

Making its U.S. debut at the Tribeca Film Festival, "Tom of Finland" paints a lush, often harrowing, cinematic portrait of homoerotic artist extraordinaire, Touko Laaksonen (played by Pekka Strang), who lived a necessary closeted existence during the dangerous WWII and post-WWII days but whose life eventually metamorphosed into a singular journey of pride and freedom, in large part thanks to his bold, daring work that inspired a generation of gays to embrace their sexuality and their sexual proclivities.

Karukoski was chosen by Variety, in 2013, as one of the Top 10 worldwide directors to watch. He has enjoyed critical and financial success in his home country as well as winning a slew of awards for features, internationally.

EDGE spoke with the filmmaker on the even of "Tom of Finland's" Tribeca Film Festival debut and right after finding out the U.S. distribution was acquired by Kino Lorber. (The film is scheduled for U.S. release in the Fall.)

Giggling at Huge Penises

EDGE: What made you want to tackle Tom of Finland's story?

Dome Karukoski: I was a teenager when it became known that Tom of Finland was actually Finnish. When we were younger... somebody found or stole one of his comic books somewhere and we'd giggle at the huge penises... and everybody thought he was an American. At the time, [we thought] he was an American guy who had visited Finland and got inspiration from Finland... It was closer to his death or when he died when there was news that this man was actually Finnish. And I could sense that there was this... shame effect... You could feel that people thought: Do people in American or Australia think that we're all just gays with big dicks putting on uniforms of leather? (Laughs)

Now, in Finland, you can sense that there's a sense of pride. So shame has turned to pride. We are, mostly --
especially my generation and the generation after me --proud of this guy. That is an interesting journey and (I) thought that that journey is, somewhat, what he must have endured.

In 2011, Aleksi Bardy, my producer, suggested that we do a movie about Tom of Finland. We contacted the Tom of Finland Foundation and read his letters and got to know [him] and it was obvious that there was the possibility of a very cinematic piece.

A Non-Linear Structure

EDGE: Can you elaborate on the research that went into the project as well as shed light on the script collaboration?

Dome Karukoski: We started the project with Aleksi and we first thought that maybe we should hire an outside writer and we tried a few writers. We hadn't acquired the rights yet so it was hypothetical... then we decided to write it -- Aleksi and I. We acquired the rights in 2013 from the Tom of Finland Foundation and (we were able to) go into the archives and read all the information they had stored about Tom. So that really helped the writing process...

We had some English-speaking writers who came along to enhance the English dialogue. It was a very tough project in terms of writing. The process lasted four years. You're trying to put together a man's life in two hours. It was by far my most difficult writing process ever.

EDGE: I appreciated the non-linear structure. It enhanced the film.

Dome Karukoski: That was a thought on how to avoid the normal bumps of a biopic film. To not become a Wikipedia film, where it just goes through events and years. We, very intentionally, fought against that. By breaking the linear narrative, you'd be closer to the emotional truth of the character.

It was a very key thing.

And also to be playful so him coming to America can be a little like a dream sequence. You are doing a Tom of Finland movie so you can allow quirks there that are very much in his drawings, breaking the boundaries.

At Odds with Himself?

EDGE: The film felt at odds with itself perhaps the way Tom felt at odds with himself. At times it feels like an old-fashioned Hollywood film and then the prurient portions are introduced. It was a good balance.

Dome Karukoski: Thank you. It very much comes out of his story. Post-war Finland was a very conservative, "classic" place. It'd be difficult to depict it any other way.

The stories the Tom of Finland Foundation would tell us were very helpful. In LA we got the information on all the events that occurred in his life. What he experienced in '70s and '80s America. You play through those anecdotes, the visual images and the way the film is portrayed comes out of the feeling of how these people (who knew Tom) told their stories -- in terms of emotional relationships to the story they're telling us... That becomes the form for the film... the emotions about encountering Tom's art.

EDGE: Your features have been very successful in Finland. Did you encounter any difficulty getting this one financed? And was anyone attempting to sway you to sanitize it more?

Dome Karukoski: We secured Finland and Sweden financing very early. It is financed by those countries but also private equity... There was no pressure or anything about what the film should be. The anticipation is more from the audience, when they see the drawings and they think the film is going to be like the drawings. This is the story of the man and his life, and his life wasn't the life of the drawings. He drew his fantasia and utopia. There were financiers who were afraid of the drawings... How do you tell an audience they are not coming to see an animation of the drawings?... This was the only worry the financiers had. Of course, it took a long time to acquire $5 million. That's a big budget in Finland.

Color-Coding Segments

EDGE: You can see that money well spent in the visual elements of the film. How did you decide on the film's look?

Dome Karukoski: For me it was a darkness to light story -- from shame to pride. A very specific amount of light was chosen for certain sequences so at the beginning of his life he would draw mostly in the darkness... 90 percent of his drawings happen in daytime so you have a character who is drawing after work, in the night in the dark, and drawing daylight characters... We tried to portray that in the film -- this feeling of going from darkness into light.

The set designer had this idea of introducing certain colors in certain phases. Red comes into the film in Berlin and purple comes in New York.

One thing was very important for me. Tom of Finland's drawings do not look Finnish. There's an international touch in them. It was very obvious to me that there had to be a cinematographer and production designer from abroad so the look, milieu of the film, and the feel of the film to Finnish audiences would [have] the same effect as watching a Tom of Finland drawing. So we found our cinematographer (Lasse Frank) in Denmark and our production designer (Christian Olander) in Sweden. So it's a film that doesn't look Finnish for a Finnish audience. That was very important in homage to Tom's lifework.

An Inspirational Figure

EDGE:Tom of Finland is such an inspirational figure who started an entire subculture. His is a very empowering story, especially to LGBT audiences. Was that something that you were conscious of?

Dome Karukoski: Empowering. Yes. I think it was always in the script... that's his story. When you listen to people who have been affected by him that is the story that they tell. How he basically started a revolution -- to use big words. That was very much a part of the script, especially that ending scene, a true story of 2000 men just shouting his name. And I think that acceptance and change that he was also able to see and he lived, was very, very relevant.

EDGE: Can you speak about casting your remarkable actors, the two lead males in particular?

Dome Karukoski: We had a long audition -- a few months. We preselected a lot of Finnish men who had been in front of the camera so they had some experience from super known to well known to unknown.

We had (actors) come in in pairs to find out who would work on the big screen as Tom and Veli. Eventually we did an improv with Pekka Strang and Lauri Tilkanen. And then it just felt right... There was this magic dust in the air... they were perfect for their roles.

EDGE: How does it feel to be playing Tribeca and what has the worldwide reception been so far?

Dome Karukoski: We had the Nordic premiere at the Gothenburg Film Festival and it won the Fibresci award (Critics' award), which is always a good start! That embodies, very well, the reception in Finland and Sweden. I'm very happy about the reviews so far. We opened second place, in Finland, after Pixar animation (Laughs) so that was a good opening! One would think that this film would be more difficult to release. So far it's been good.

I've been to Tribeca once before. Tom had his first exhibition in New York. So it's going to be a very emotional moment that, as with Tom's work, the very first time [the film is] going to be shown in America, it's New York.

"Tom of Finland" is scheduled for a U.S. release in the fall.

Watch English language trailer for "Tom of Finland":

Frank J. Avella is a film and theatre journalist and is thrilled to be writing for EDGE. He is also a proud Dramatists Guild member and a recipient of a 2018 Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship. He was awarded a 2015 Fellowship Award from the NJ State Council on the Arts, the 2016 Helene Wurlitzer Residency Grant and the Chesley/Bumbalo Foundation Playwright Award for his play Consent, which was also a 2012 semifinalist for the O'Neill. His play, Vatican Falls, took part in the 2017 Planet Connections Festivity and Frank was nominated for Outstanding Playwriting. Lured was a semifinalist for the 2018 O'Neill and received a 2018 Arch and Bruce Brown Foundation Grant. Lured will premiere in 2018 in NYC and 2019 in Rome, Italy. LuredThePlay.com


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