Grumpy old men seem to be all the rage in the Nordics these days. The Swedes have their 100-year-old who climbed out the window, and that guy called Ove, over here we have the movie Volcano—it’s high time the Finns, which one would presume to be naturals at this, made their entry.
In fact, they did, as early as 2008 with the radio series The Man Who Gets Upset About Things. Author Tuomas Kyrö turned this into a series of novels starting in 2010, and last year, director Dome Karukoski made that into a film called The Grump, which went on to become the movie hit of the year in Finland. The pair of them recently came to Iceland to promote the film.
“IN FINLAND, NO ONE TELLS ME WHAT TO DO”
“I am half-American and part Swedish, and when I first saw the cover of the book which showed a Finnish fur hat, it seemed like something very local. I never thought I would be the one to make a movie of it, but there was something emotional there I could grasp onto,” says Dome the director.
“No, I never thought you would be the guy to direct it either,” says Tuomas and laughs. Karukoski is, in fact, one of Finland’s biggest directors. His last film, Heart of a Lion, was about a neo-Nazi who has to come to terms with his girlfriend having a black daughter.
Dome: “I signed with an American agency after that one. I get good scripts sent sometimes, but none so far have represented what I am trying to do. I will probably make an American movie one day, but it’s not an obsession. In Finland, no one tells me what to do but in Hollywood the investors always want to have their say.”
They got a Norwegian to do the very English Imitation Game, but there hasn’t really been a major Finnish Hollywood director since Renny Harlin [of Die Hard 2 fame]…
“Not really. Our language is very different. It seems to be easier for Swedes and Danes to make the transition.”
And so you made a film about a grumpy old man instead. How come?
Dome: “My father was a bit of a complainer. This character is from rural Finland and my father lived in New York City, but you can still see the similarities. My previous films were about 15 year olds wanting their first kiss, neo-Nazis wanting their first kiss, but my father complained that I had never done anything about his generation. So now I have.”
Tuomas: “I wrote about twelve books before this and I never thought this one would be so big. I have always been engaged in various things, such as writing comic strips or columns for magazines. After this one sold so well, I can concentrate on one thing at a time, but I don’t know what I will do next. Generally, I just do what I feel like.”
WHERE ARE ALL THE FLYING CARS?
Do you have any explanation for the film’s success?
Dome: “Society is becoming colder and there are greater distances between people, families don‘t do things together any more but this was a film they could all go see. There are so many superhero movies about people trying to destroy the world but this was a chance to do something else.”
In the US they are called “the Greatest Generation,” but in Finland they fought even harder and suffered more….
Dome: “In Finland, they are known as the generation that built the country.”
Tuomas: “They made it possible for us to live there.”
Done: “The grump’s generation worked very hard and this is our last chance to remember them.”
The grump goes from the countryside and has to try to adjust to the big city. This is also a big theme in Icelandic cinema…
Dome: “One of the films that influenced me is Friðrik Þór’s Children Of Nature. You can see that transition many places in Nordic cinema. Post-War Finland was a big agricultural country, and now the EU is supporting the potato fields but they haven’t been able to protect the localities. People have to move to the city, which is an ongoing tragedy. We used to be happy to get Finnish farm products, but now it‘s harder.”
Tuomas: “I grew up just outside of Helsinki, but I used to spend my summers working on farms. That’s where I got to meet a lot of characters like the Grump.”
My friend told me he saw imported ice cubes from Colorado in an Icelandic supermarket. Surely, this means we are all doomed.
Dome: “The older I get, the more I think the world is getting derailed, but the Grump is the character who says it out loud. It would ruin his day if he found a box of ice from Colorado and I salute him for that. He tries to save the world but always messes everything up.”
This is different from the hippie generation, which had a lot of faith in the future but also didn’t want to hear anything about older people.
Dome: “The optimistic future has changed into a pessimistic future, people are more realistic now in what they can achieve.”
Tuomas: Where is world peace and flying cars?
Dome: “We will have flying cars when the oil industry allows it to happen. They keep buying up all the patents, we could have cars that run on trash like in Back to the Future 2, but since we have oil for another 40 years they won‘t allow us anything else.”
We need to get our future back, then.
Tuomas: “I have been thinking about writing a book about when the character turns into the Grump. I am not sure when that happened. Maybe in 1954.”
Dome: “The moment you change into a Grump is the moment your back starts hurting. Then you become more annoyed if the paper doesn’t come on time. My father hurt his back in an accident, and mine is going now from carrying a baby around. I can feel it happening…”
Your father was the poet and actor George Dickerson, who had roles in everything from Hill Street Blues to Little House On The Prairie. Did this help your career?
Dome: “I kind of grew up with people like Woody Allen and Costa-Gavras in the living room, but the only time I was star struck when I met Martin Scorsese and couldn’t get a word out. My father did his job until he hurt his back; he always respected work and never talked about stars. Kind of like the Grump, who also respects work.”
Tuomas: “For him it’s not a question of being an optimist or a pessimist, it‘s just about work.
Dome: “People don‘t want to do shitty jobs any more. My first working day was at a flower factory and my first job there was to shovel a big pile of horse manure from one place to another so the farmer could move his tractor. Icy horseshit was splashing everywhere and it took a whole weekend. After the farmer was done, he told me to put it back. The Grump would not complain about that, but he would complain about the e-car.”
He’s also a little bit like the father in Frasier. His son is a nuclear scientist, but the father doesn’t respect him because he doesn’t know how to do the plumbing.
Dome: “He doesn‘t value books or anything you can’t do with a shovel. His son Pekka moves to Belgium for work, but also to get away from his father. In the sequel there might be a grandchild coming from Belgium, a birth and a death. My father died last year and I also got a son. The cycle of life goes on.”
THE BEST-OF HILMAR
At this point, composer and pagan chief Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson enters. He wrote the music for the film. Also present is producer Jukka Helle, who has co-produced seven Icelandic films from 101 Reykjavik to Life In A Fishbowl (Vonarstræti).
Dome: “I met Friðrik Þór and I watched his films and noticed the music, so I started listening to Hilmar Örn. When I made The Grump, I used old music of his on it before I could get him to write something new.”
Hilmar: “They were using the best of Hilmar so it was very hard to compete. I can outdo Hans Zimmer any day, but it is harder to compete with myself. The first thing we recorded was Kammerkór Suðurlands, which re-appears through the film.”
Dome: “There is a similar tone of humour in Finnish films and Icelandic ones, you can relate to the melancholy. Most Icelandic films get at least DVD distribution in Finland, and I don’t think that’s because of the Icelandic Diaspora there.”
Hilmar: “Whenever you go to a Nordic gathering you find that at ten in the evening, the Swedes and the Danes go to sleep, the Norwegians go to their room to pray and the Finns and Icelanders drink and tell stories.
Dome: “And we always have to find the last drink in the city. Another thing we have in common is that everyone is quiet until a certain moment and then no one is.”
So do you know what your next project will be? You have been attached to the long awaited biopic about Marshall Mannerheim.
Jukka: “There is no Mannerheim project.”
Dome: “You could do a movie about a few days in his life, but what made him great was the whole history. He went to five wars and that would be expensive to make, it’s impossible to put the whole epic-ness into a story set over a few days. I am also writing a movie about Tom of Finland, who affected how we look at men. When you see Beckham in swimming trunks, then that is influenced by Tom.”
One can only hope that one, at least, will make it to the screen one day.