Big Game: 3 Years to Write, 45 Days to Film
Jalmari Helander discusses his latest film, the need for the fantastical, and argues that it is time for new ideas in Hollywood.
By Brock Swinson.
In his first film, Finnish screenwriter and director Jalmari Helander delivered a fearsome, avant-garde story that uncovered the guarded secret of Christmas: in the horror-fantasy-thriller Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale, audiences were invited to scale the Korvatunturi Mountain to uncover a sacred grave, which resulted in the disappearance of the town’s supplies and children.
Four years later, the 38-year-old director premiered his second film, Big Game, at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival, which received recognition for it’s 80s throwback of grand adventure and tall-tale violence.
The most expensive film ever shot in Finland, Big Game follows a young teenager (Omni Tommila) on a traditional quest of manhood, as he discovers a haggard, U.S. President (Samuel L. Jackson), locked inside an escape pod near the scorching wreckage of a terrorist-attacked Air Force One.
What were some of your influences for making this film?
My main influences come from 80s cinema. E.T., First Blood, films like that. My original idea for making this film came after one of my conversations with Petri (Jokiranta), the film’s producer. Suddenly, we had an idea: What would happen if Air Force One crash-landed in Northern Finland? Who would be the ideal person to meet with the President of the United States?
After that, the next idea came about when we realized the same problems occur, whether you are the President of the United States or a 15-year-old boy from Finland. Either way, you have to act tough every day of your life so people do not think that you are weak. This seems like a manly problem to have, but it’s really the same problem for everyone. Everyday, people try to make the President look weak and these circumstances bring a unique aspect to the film.
How much time did you invest writing and directing?
I’m a really slow writer. Every day, I almost hate doing it because it feels like 90 percent will not be used and only about 10 percent will reach the final. I’m terribly slow because as I write, I’m trying to direct the scenes and I’m always picturing myself on the day that I will actually have to shoot so it has to be as good as possible. Overall, it took about three years from the original idea and then about 45 days to film—something like four years for the entire process.
There are very vivid scenes in this film, almost like panels in a graphic novel. Do you picture these elaborate shots while writing or do they come about on location?
For the most part, it’s just the way I imagined it. I always need to have some type of picture in my head in order to write it. I need to picture something—a key frame—in order to deliver a great scene.
What are some of your writing rituals?
I don’t know (he laughs). I smoke a lot of cigarettes.
But it seems that the best ideas come when I’m not writing. Whether I’m walking in a forest or doing something else all together. With my next film, I will try to remember that you don’t need to bang your head in an office, but you can actually do something else, which will be more useful for your day and your writing. Sometimes you need to do something else to figure out your writing problem.
Do you consider yourself more of a writer or director?
I’m definitely a director. I don’t even consider myself a writer; it’s just something I have to do. With Rare Exports, I tried working with a writer and it just didn’t work out. With an outside writer, working on the scenes feels unfamiliar. I need to go through the writing process to make the film.
How else does directing change the writing experience? Does it limit or expand certain scenes while you’re visualizing the shots?
It’s hard to say, but it usually goes how I imagined it. I do usually know which resources I will have available when making the film so that can be limiting. If I’m writing a million action scenes with exploding cities then I do need to understand the limits of what we are capable of doing.
In your opinion, what makes a good story?
For a movie, it’s important to have something that you couldn’t see in your normal life, such as a fantastic journey. If you’re going into a movie, you should see a miracle happening on the screen. I want to tell stories that are new to the viewer—something else entirely.
I also love underdog stories where we follow a main character that no one believes in. It’s a classic story, but I love it. Everyone believes that this protagonist is unable to perform a task and then he does something truly amazing. That is important to me.
Is there any truth to Finland boys hunting big game on the cusp of manhood?
Probably a hundred years ago (he laughs). Too bad we don’t have that anymore. Maybe I will do it for my own kids.
When evolving the story, were there any parts that were particularly difficult to develop?
When writing Big Game, I had some key points written out, but the most difficult time was writing the second act. I pretty much knew what would happen in the third act so I knew how it would end and how it would begin, but the middle point was very difficult to create. It took a long time and it felt like I had millions of versions before the final, but the beginning and end remained basically the same throughout.
I loved the scene that reveals the father’s lack of confidence in the son. Could you elaborate a little on that as a story arc?
In the beginning, the story took place in the winter. It was easier to think that you could find an animal [trophy] from his father because it would not have rotted during that time period. When we changed the story to summer, we began to wonder how the hell his father could have left him something. We first considered the freeze box, which felt like a really fucking stupid idea but then I realized that it was a good thing and it helped several of the following scenes. So, what began as a problem actually solved several problems in the end.
Can you share any details about what you would like to do next?
Well, I’ve had a lot of offers from Hollywood but at the moment, I’m not interested in doing a Marvel sequel or anything like that. I’ve got an idea I’m developing with my producer for a third film. I’ve written a treatment and I’ll probably begin the screenplay after the summer and hopefully finish a first version during the year. It will be a bigger film than Big Game with a little more action.
Obviously, I can’t reveal too much but I’m sure Omni (Young Teenager, Oskari) will have some type of role in the third film and I’m hoping to work with Ted Levine (General Underwood) again. We were on the same page from the very beginning and I would like to have a bigger role for Ted next time. He’s great to work with.
Do you have any advice for young writers and filmmakers?
Try to think of something different than all of the others are doing. That’s what I’m trying to do and it can be really difficult but necessary. It seems like Hollywood is lacking original, good ideas. It’s time for original ideas to bring something new to the screen. The business seems somewhat desperate. Let’s hope they come along soon.
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