Director Jalmari Helander talks action films and inspiration
I recently spoke with Jalmari Helander, director of the action-comedy Rare Exports and the upcoming Sisu, which follows a miner named Aatami (Jorma Tommila) on a Nazi-killing spree through scorched-earth Finnish Lapland. My conversation with Jalmari Helander, which touches on Sisu, John Wick, and his future work, has been edited for clarity.
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Ryan Bordow: Hello Jalmari!
Jalmari Helander: Hello!
It’s nice to be able to talk to you across the time difference. So let’s get into it: was a Nazi-killing miner an idea you had rattling around your head for a while, or was it a concept that came to you more recently?
Well, I had an idea of one man finding a lot of gold in Lapland and to make an action movie out of it, but I never had an idea of what the bad guys are in that movie. But a couple of years ago, I was thinking about the war in Lapland and how the Nazis burned the whole place to the ground, and then it finally clicked: okay, what if I have these ideas together? And that was one of the clearest ideas I’ve had for a movie ever.
I rather liked the look of the film— “scorched earth” seemed to define the production design, the way that everything around Aatami was burnt down or falling apart. It felt like there were always smoke and mist in the background, like he was wandering through hell on Earth. Can you talk about your approach to the production design and look of the film?
Yeah, it all comes from the scorched-earth tactic basically. I was thinking about what Nazis did in Lapland and how well that time and place could fit an action movie—because it’s a place full of danger and all kinds of difficulties and not having any kind of help anywhere. I took it from there, and I just wanted everyone to look really dirty, like all the clothes and faces and all the vehicles and everything should be as dirty as possible to make it look like everyone has gone to hell and they still have this one battle to go, and let’s see who wins.
That’s a great way to describe it. I did notice the Rambo poster behind you—
[Jalmari Helander shifts to reveal a full, framed First Blood poster between his Sisu and Rare Exports posters]
—and I thought Rambo was one of the clear inspirations for the film. Can you talk about some of the other movies that informed Sisu?
No, I actually can’t because, after Rambo, it will be such a big mashup of all the movies I’ve seen. Rambo is the closest example of a movie about a guy you shouldn’t f*** with, and I really, really enjoy movies like that. It’s so satisfying to find out what kind of a guy you’re dealing with.
That’s true. And that’s a great logline. So, the way action is shot in Hollywood has been leaning toward the John Wick style lately, with lots of elaborate staging and long takes. Can you talk about your approach to filming the action in Sisu?
Yeah, I don’t like—I know it’s cool to make an action scene with long takes, but I don’t really get all the fun that I think most people have, like what they get out of it. I don’t really understand it. Except one thing: it’s a French film called Athena, where there is a one-take wonder in the beginning of the film that’s so f***ing cool. But having said that, what I wanted to do with Sisu; I just wanted to be—I don’t know what the word is in English— “blunt”? For example, I was thinking a lot about the first kill of the movie because that’s the place where I’m gonna show what kind of a man you’re dealing with now. When he puts the knife through the Nazi’s head, that’s a sign to the audience—and also to the rest of the Nazis who are looking at the situation—like okay, you’re playing with this kind of guy now. This is what’s gonna happen next. I just wanted to be surprising and as effective and brutal as possible. I don’t want to play with it; I just want to like— [Jalmari punches his palm hard]
And I thought that worked! If you had gone the one-shot, more elaborate route, it would’ve looked too stagey, I think. But it all looked very grimy and brutal and right in your face. Your approach fit the tone very well. Moving on, as I understand, two of the main actors are members of your family.
What’s it like working with your family, especially on a darker, more brutal movie?
I don’t necessarily think of them as my family when we’re filming something. They are actors, but actors I knew and know very well, and that’s something that really helps, especially with the Aatami character. I couldn’t have pulled that stuff out of a role with basically no dialogue without knowing the actor I’m dealing with is capable of it before starting the shooting. Because how terrifying would it be at some point to realize “Okay, this is not gonna f***ing work.” But I knew it would work with Jorma.
I did like the decision to give him barely any dialogue. It made me laugh out loud when I finally heard him speak.
[Laughs] It’s a weird moment. It was actually so weird when we were shooting—it was the last day, I think, and I hadn’t heard Aatami talk for the whole filming, and when I actually heard him talk, I was 100% sure I wasn’t gonna use the line because it was so overwhelming to me. I couldn’t take it; it was too weird. So I made a version [of the scene] without dialogue, but back in the edit, when it all was finished, it was necessary to have the line in there because it is a lot to take, somehow, when he actually speaks.
It hits you like a ton of bricks.
It looks like I have time for one more question: are you working on anything right now?
We have one sci-fi film that I wrote before Sisu, which we might start shooting this year. I’m also writing new action stuff, and there are some interesting offers from Hollywood. I’m not sure what’s gonna happen next, but it’s gonna be more action coming from my end.
I’m excited to see it. I think that’s our time; thanks for speaking with me, Jalmari!
Yes, thank you!