Jalmari Helander on Making TIFF 2022’s Wildest Midnight Film
Sisu is a “seeing is believing” kind of movie, but hopes are high for this interview with the director Jalmari Helander and the cast will offer a clear sense of how they went above and beyond with this deliciously bonkers and wildly gory action epic.
The story takes place at the end of the Lapland War. Finland fought for months to withdraw German troops from the region, but in April 1945 Nazi Germany adopted a scorched earth policy, decimating the region. This is where we find Aatami (Jorma Tommila), a former Finnish soldier pans for gold in the wilderness of Nazi-occupied Lapland. After finding some, he leaves to take it to town, but when a group of Nazi soldiers led by Aksel HennieObersturmführer Bruno Helldorf tries to take it from him, Aatami will stop at nothing to protect what he worked for – even if it means killing every one of them in the most gloriously violent way imaginable.
While celebrating the Sisu world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, Helander, Hennie, Jack Doolan who plays Bruno’s right-hand man, and Mimosa Willamo who plays one of their POWs all visited the Collider Supper Suite and Marbl’s Media Studio to talk about their experience bringing this gory spectacle to the screen.
Once again while I can sing SisuAll day praise no description or acclaim will do the full experience justice so it wasn’t all that surprising with Hennie admitting that after his first reading of the script he wasn’t quite sure if the movie would work.
“When I first read the script, I couldn’t figure out if this movie was going to be fantastic or shitty because the script was so crazy. So I asked my agents to have a chat with Jalmari to see if I believed him to be the right director for this crazy script. Two seconds into this conversation I fell in love with Jalmari and the project. There was no turning back. I wanted so badly I would play any role in this movie just to be part of the project.
It’s a good thing that Hennie got to that level of enthusiasm after talking with Helander because the Sisu the actors had their work cut out to film in the mountains of Lapland. When asked what the biggest challenge of filming was, Doolan couldn’t narrow it down to one thing. “Shooting in the mountains of Lapland in -20 [degrees] with 40 mph winds and snow and dirt, the sound of tanks and Jalmari very kindly made me shirtless for the first half of the film. However, like Hennie, faith in Helander was just the inspiration he needed to pull through. He continued, “Reading the script for the first time, because there’s so little dialogue throughout, is a bit like reading a short story. It was like reading an amazing short story. And then getting up there and Jalmari is so precise that everything described in this script is on screen and it’s just amazing.
Helander’s ability to bring things to the screen the exact way he envisions them was a popular topic of conversation during the interview. Hennie remembers:
“When I arrived [on] three days after shooting started, I called Jalmari and said, ‘How are you feeling? How is it going? How do you feel?’ These are his exact words: “I feel like a man who makes a historical masterpiece. [Laughs] And that’s Jalmari and that’s how he is! And when you get on set, he knows exactly what he wants and how he wants it done and made. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t listen to his actors because he’s a really good listener, really really good director, but it’s inspiring to be part of a set where the director has so much control over his vision and its visuals and its narration and its narrative.
Given the importance placed on Helander’s ability to achieve his goals on set, I had to ask him for a day during production when something didn’t go to plan and he was forced to pivot . Helander immediately replied, “It almost never happens because if I have a plan of how to do it and know where I’m going to do it, it usually goes as it should.” However, eventually Helander admitted, “Horses, actually. It was like going through hell with the horses. Like, what is it, going everywhere, and then we must have had different ideas [for] how to get out of it, but it was crazy.
As for Helander Sisu star, he turned to frequent collaborator Jorma Tommila, but Helander had to make a specific concession in order to convince Tommila to embark on such a physical film. “I promised him he could wear the jacket, which was not originally planned because it was too windy and cold. My plan wasn’t to have an orange jacket for Aatami. I still regret it a little. Helander continued, “He’s a badass. He really is. All the shit he went through in this movie, he was in some really weird places.
Need more evidence than the team Sisu had to go to extremes to make this movie? Doolan revealed, “We had a bit of a mantra on set, which I take some credit for the introduction, which was, the pain is temporary, the movie is forever.”
Yes, Sisu is a gloriously violent epic with expertly crafted gore setting after the next one, but Hennie also took a moment to explain what the gold and lengths Aatami is willing to go to for it really stand for:
“At the end of the day, the story isn’t about the gold. The gold begins. It’s about a man working for something for a very long time, hard to get, and someone steals it. They don’t They’re not stealing his gold, they’re stealing his dignity, they’re stealing his pride. And so the object is gold, but the theme of the film, I think, is about humanity. It’s about self-respect. It’s about “It’s about revenge. It’s about dignity, it’s about pride, and it’s about blowing up Nazis.”
Eager to know more about the team behind Sisu? You can watch our full 20 minute interview at the top of this article!
Special thanks to our TIFF 2022 partners A-list Communications, Belvedere Vodka, Marbl Toronto, COVERGIRL Canada, Tres Amici Wines, Toronto Star and Blue Moon Belgian White beer.