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Sisu Director Jalmari Helander Reveals How He Made a Badass WWII Action Movie in the Northern Part of Finland

Over the past few decades, filmmaker Jalmari Helander has made a name for himself as one of Finland’s finest purveyors of genre cinema, first getting attention in the States with 2010’s Rare Exports, which he followed with the Samuel L. Jackson movie Big Game a few years later. 

Helander’s latest is called Sisu, (a Finnish word alluding to a concept of bravery, grit, and stoic determination) and it’s a WWII movie that stars his regular collaborator, Jorma Tomilla, as Aatami, an ex-soldier living in Finland’s remote Laplands who finds a cache of gold and must survive against a band of ruthless Nazis to get his score to the bank. The Nazis think they can kill Aatami and take his gold, but clearly, they have another thing coming.

Sisu displays Helander’s impressive ability to create amazing action set pieces with seemingly a fraction of the budget of most Hollywood movies, and those scenes of striking violence are why the film received a wide theatrical release in North America, where it played on more screens than any Finnish film before it.

Our own EIC, Jeff Sneider, sent Helander’s agent a congratulatory note after seeing Sisu at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, as he thinks the director has a bright future ahead of him in Hollywood. Fortunately, Above the Line was able to jump on Zoom with Helander for a quick chat about Sisu before his career really starts to take off.

Jalmari Helander
Jalmari Helander

Above the Line: It’s been some time since you directed Big Game, although I know you did a TV show since then. What first got you started on the idea that became Sisu?

Jalmari Helander: I had a difficult time after Big Game. I was a bit disappointed for the film, and I was writing all kinds of stuff. Everything felt not as good as I wanted it to be, and then I wrote this big sci-fi film. Basically, we were developing it for six years, and when we were supposed to start filming, the pandemic came, and everything went to shit. I thought, “I will never do anything anymore,” because I was so angry and frustrated and all that, [and then] something happened. Sisu came, and I wrote it in two months. That’s the fastest process I’ve ever had [in terms] of writing anything, and I’m glad I did.

ATL: You had both Jorma and Onni in your previous movies, so are you generally writing specifically for them at this point?

Helander: Definitely Jorma. He was the first person I called when I had the idea of Sisu — what would he think? He loved it, and I didn’t have any other choice in my mind; I knew it had to be him. Of course, he’s over 60 years old, but he’s still in pretty badass shape.

ATL: I know that when other filmmakers are writing scripts, they’re careful not to write for specific actors, even ones they’ve worked with before, just in case they’re busy or say “no” to do better-paying projects. Did you check in with Jorma even before you started writing to make sure he would be interested, or did you want to have a script closer to being finished before mentioning it?

Helander: I told him the first second I had the idea and warned him that he [would have] to be in shape in a year because we would start shooting. Jorma was doing theater, basically* — movies not so much — so he was really glad to take a vacation from the theater and make a film. [*Tomilla has a full-time job at a local theater in Finland.]

SISU Jalmari Helander
Jalmari Helander on the set of Sisu/Lionsgate

ATL: I’ve never been to Finland myself, but I’ve seen some movies that show off its vast landscape. With that in mind, was it easy to find a location that provided everything you needed without having to move around too much?

Helander: I had one place in my mind, but there were no hotels or enough cabins to drive all the people in, because I had never been that far North in Finland, where we actually shot the film. That’s the Northernmost part of Finland, right next to the Arctic Sea. You can’t get any further. When I first went to that place, I knew immediately, this [was] going to be the place, even though it was really far away and a really hard place to get all the people and crew and [gear]. But it definitely was worth it.

ATL: Did you shoot in the summer, at least? I assume in the winter, it would be impossible to do anything that far North.

Helander: Well, not impossible, but really, really hard, because basically, there’s no sunlight, either, in the winter. We shot in the fall about two years ago.

ATL: Besides giving him the script, what else did you tell Jorma to prepare him for what he would need to do in Sisu? I assume he had to do some training or prep… 

Helander: He started with his hands because he wanted to have [the] hands of a man who’s basically doing everything with his hands, like digging and stuff like that. He started to do that kind of exercise to have fingers like a man who was just digging stuff. That was his first thing, and, of course, some [there was] horseriding and stuff like that he had to learn.

ATL: This is a pretty big cast, so were there any other actors you’d worked with before, and do you have a list of Finnish regulars you typically approach for your movies?

Helander: [There are] many Finnish actors playing Nazis in some small roles, [who] have been in some other of my [other] projects.

ATL: Do you feel like you’re slowly veering more into directing English-language movies? 

Helander: I basically have to, because to get money to do that kind of film, you just can’t do it in [the] Finnish language. What I learned is that it’s easier just not to speak, and that’s why the main character doesn’t speak. You can’t go more Finnish than that, basically, because Finnish people are not [big] talkers [anyway].

ATL: Are you generally able to work with most of the same crew on these movies, particularly the heads of department such as the DP and Production Designer, for instance?

Helander: I’ve worked, basically, with almost every one of the crew. I didn’t have the same DP I had on Rare Exports and Big Game, because he had just had his first child the same day we started shooting, so I used Kjell Lagerroos. I’ve done a lot of commercials with him, and it went really well with Kjell, also.

Sisu image via Lionsgate

ATL: This is a pretty epic movie with a lot of big set pieces, some amazing action, and you have a tank. Do you generally try to do stuff in-camera or on set as much as possible, or are visual effects essential in making some of that work?

Helander: Of course, we try to do as much as possible with practical effects, but there were so many things that we had to fix with VFX. Of course, the whole plane sequence in the end, it’s not possible to do that for real, but we did as much as we could.

ATL: Are there any VFX houses in Finland that you’re able to use for your projects?

Helander: This is actually a Finnish VFX house, Troll VFX, which [did] all the visual effects for Sisu. They’re now doing a lot of big films everywhere now. 

ATL: I think a lot of people who see this will be impressed by both the practical and visual effects, since you can’t really blow up your actors or run them over with a tank. Is there a person you work with who creates all the body parts and things like that?

Helander: That was a lot of fun. I’ve done basically everything with him. He’s one of my oldest friends. We started to do all kinds of explosions together when we were kids, and it basically started from there.

ATL: I do want to ask about getting Samuel L. Jackson on board for Big Game. Was that just a matter of sending him the script and a copy of Rare Exports?

Helander: I guess it was a combination of, he liked Rare Exports, and he liked the script, and he probably had a convenient time slot on his calendar to do [it]. It was a surprise to me also.

ATL: I love the three films you’ve made so far, and I hope an American studio will try to hire you to direct one of their projects.

Helander: I have some projects now coming up in [the] U.S. also, but at the same time, I’m writing a really badass action film here in Finland, [so] let’s see what happens [with Sisu] first.

ATL: Great. I’m hoping to get a chance to see Sisu with an audience since I’m sure it’s a movie that plays even better with a crowd reacting to all the mayhem.

Helander: In Sitges, it was really great also. I just came from Belgium, from Brussels, where we showed it in BIFFF, and that was probably the best screening ever. Like 1,400 people cheering and applauding and shouting. It was crazy, like a rock concert.

Sisu is now playing in theaters nationwide courtesy of Lionsgate.

Edward Douglas
Edward Douglas
Edward Douglas has written about movies for print and the internet for over 20 years, specializing in box office analysis, reviews, and interviews. Currently, he writes features for Below the Line and Above the Line, acting as Associate Editor for the former and Interim Editor for the latter.
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