INTERVIEW: Diving Into Action with Writer-Director Jalmari Helander

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Jalmari Helander — But Why Tho

We can all get behind killing Nazis, and that’s the hook that gets you into the Finnish action film SISU. But you know what keeps you there? Some of the most absurd, high-octane, and creative uses of violence I’ve seen in action cinema. As the silent Aatami Korpi moves through the countryside to keep his gold from the Nazis, while the latter of which is on a burned earth campaign across Finland, he dispatches them with increasingly violent and visceral confrontations. We got the chance to talk with SISU’s writer-director Jalmari Helander about his new film, creating action sequences with bite, and what he wants audiences to take away from the film.

This interview was edited for length and clarity after transcription.

BUT WHY THO: My first question is about genre. SISU has a lot of elements that fit a Western. A lot of elements fit war movies and a lot of elements are just raw action. What went into kind of creating the genre footholds for SISU to move through?

JALMARI HELANDER: It’s a combination of a lot of things of course. Most of all, if you think about the Western style, I realized that there’s no way of avoiding it because you have a man on a horse riding in that kind of landscape. It is there like automatically, so it would be useless to try not to be a Western. There are a lot of different things going on in the film, but I really was trying to make a classic. I wanted to make an old-school kind of movie. Which ultimately resembles all the kinds of good movies and genres I loved as a kid.

BUT WHY THO: I think that one of the things that you did phenomenally well with the script is the pacing—specifically around a character that does not speak until the very end of the movie. What is it like to make something with a lead who doesn’t speak?

JALMARI HELANDER: It was really interesting and a good learning process of, how movie really works. It was always asking the question: “How can you solve the problems and tell your story without explaining it in a stupid dialogue?” In the beginning, it was really hard, because, of course, I’m used to writing a dialogue that explains something. But when you don’t have it, you just have to invent it in cinematic ways. You have to deal with everything individually and as cinema first, and that automatically creates a better movie than just relying on dialogue, in my opinion.

Read Our SISU Review Here.

BUT WHY THO: I think you really captured that by building the legend around Aatami throughout the film. It starts in a very grounded action way—granted a knife through a head is a very specific type of grounded action—but it culminates in this really absurd and high octane last act. But that’s after the audience has gotten the chance to see the legend build up around him, we hear people talk about him, and also see what he’s capable of. What is it like to kind of create a myth in a legend within your own film and kind of let that speak for itself?

JALMARI HELANDER: Well, [building the legend] was one of the coolest things to me because it was important not to have that, like an opening act of where we would see Aatami doing all the shit he’s capable of. It’s like in Rambo: First Blood here in my background. It’s more interesting to just see someone that you don’t know everything about. I always think that when you are tough enough, you don’t have to speak about yourself, everyone else is speaking about you. And that’s a more cool way to handle a [protagonist]. He doesn’t have to explain himself to anyone, he just is what he is. And I really enjoyed it because I always love building a legend. Like John Rambo we have in those movies, we have a lot of scenes where they are just talking about how badass he Yeah. Like, the “don’t forget one thing a good supply of body bags” kind of lines.

BUT WHY THO: Yes! One of the other things that struck me is I mean, we can all get behind this premise, right? Like it is just killing Nazis. But one of the things that happens in a lot of WWII films is you see the Nazis and they are all prim and proper and have their nice uniforms. But in SISU, their nastiness on the inside matches the outside. Was it a conscious choice to really just put them in that view?

JALMARI HELANDER: To me, it was about being in a situation where the war is already ending and the Nazis don’t have anything anymore. They don’t have rules, they don’t have anything. And because they don’t have rules, they don’t give a shit about anything anymore. It makes them more like, scary in a way because they’re going to do what the f**k they want. No one is like telling them not to do anything, they’re choosing to burn down towns. Of course, somebody is trying to tell them that maybe they just go home now because they don’t want to deal with this [Aatami]. But they don’t take even that advice, but maybe they should.

SISU — But Why Tho

BUT WHY THO: I’m a big action lover, but a lover of effects work. I think SISU has this really beautiful balance of practical and computer generated. Do you have any advice for other directors looking to blend the two together?

JALMARI HELANDER: Most of the VFX job in SISU is done so well, that if you are not really trying, you don’t see where it is actually. If I would have to say something about how to do it, I would say do as much practical as humanly possible. And if something doesn’t work, you can enhance it with CGI. Of course, there’s like the epic finale scene of the film that you just can’t do it in practical. But even still, we had a real plane where we shot it and we tried to do as much as practical as possible.

BUT WHY THO: And I think it really reads extremely well on the film, it immerses the audience in such a different way to see the blood spout out and to see the different elements. How did you create, though those visceral moments of the film, like where Korpi hooks his leg wound on a nail to save himself? Something like that hits the raw action element, but it also tells you so much about the man that we have been following this entire time. What is it like just kind of like writing a scene like that and directing a scene like that, because it was intense?

JALMARI HELANDER: Well, the writing part is, is the hard part of the process because you have to have the idea of how to how to survive or how to kill. And because we’ve seen so much of that in all the action films that we love, I really wanted to stand out with some really weird inventive ways of dealing with [violence]. So that was the hardest part, just to have those ideas in the first place. But I’m lucky that they came from somewhere, but it never happened when I was writing. It always happened when I was doing something else, and that’s something I’ve learned now with this process. You shouldn’t sit on your computer trying to figure out everything there is because it’s not going to happen in front of that screen. It’s going to happen somewhere else when you’re doing something else.

BUT WHY THO: And do you have a specific scene that you can’t wait for audiences to see or if you could be in every theater for one scene to see how people react to it?

JALMARI HELANDER: I would be watching the underwater scene or the first kill of the film. The last one because with all the audiences I’ve seen it with, it’s like a start of a rock concert. We have been in so much silence and peace for something like 11 minutes and when Aatami starts to do what he does best, that’s I think something we’ll see.

BUT WHY THO: What do you want fans to take away when they’re done with the movie like the moment those credits roll? What do you want someone to feel?

JALMARI HELANDER: I hope they feel entertained and surprised in ways that they like never could have guessed before. I want them to laugh at everything and have like wide smiles on their face after seeing something that is different than in other movies.

SISU is in theaters nationwide.

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