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Jalmari Helander Fulfills His Dream to Film in Finnish Lapland

Sisu is a Finnish term that can be roughly translated into English as strength of will, determination, perseverance, and acting rationally in the face of adversity. Director and screenwriter Jalmari Helander showcases the Finnish Sisu in extraordinary circumstances in his latest movie, the action Western named after the term.

In Helander’s movie, lonely prospector Aatami Korpi (played by Jorma Tommila) crosses paths with Nazis in Finnish Lapland at the end of WWII. When the Nazis steal his gold, they quickly discover that they are not dealing with an ordinary miner. Korpi, who has lost his family in a war and has killed 300 Russian soldiers, has nothing to lose. No matter what, he is determined to get back what belongs to him. Goldenglobes.com talked to Helander via Zoom about Sisu – both the movie and the attitude.

How much Sisu did you need to make this movie?

I needed a lot of it because this movie was born in a really dark place for me. During the pandemic, I was in my office thinking that I will never do anything cool again. But I’m the kind of person that, when everything feels hopeless, then something really cool comes out of you. And from that dark place, I don’t know what happened, but I wrote the script in two months and it was financed something like three months after that. I needed Sisu to be able to squeeze this out of me.

The Finns needed Sisu to fight the Russians and to kick the Nazis out of Finland. Your movie is based on your imagination and your leading character has more Sisu than any soldier. Was the character of Korpi inspired by someone? Are you worried about the feedback regarding the character?

First of all, I’m not worried about anything anymore. I’m happy. I think we need guys like Aatami now more than ever. And I wish they would exist for real. We could send somebody like Aatami to Ukraine right now. But Finland has a long history with war and the subject is kind of almost holy in a way. So, of course, one of my worries was how Finnish people would feel if they saw this kind of war movie. It’s a totally different kind of war movie than all the other war movies in Finland. But I’m really glad people in Finland like it a lot. And it seems that it’s been liked everywhere now. I’m really glad that the concept of Sisu will be known all over the world.

Korpi is a man of few words. Why doesn’t he speak that much?

I didn’t want him to speak. I didn’t want him to speak even to his dog or to his horse, because it felt really good to have a main character who doesn’t speak. Aatami doesn’t have basically anything to say to Nazis. He doesn’t even speak their language. He just does what he does. He doesn’t need to speak about it. Action speaks louder than words. And definitely, in a movie, you have to find a way to show it, not to tell it. And that automatically creates a good cinematic way of telling a story. And it’s also a very Finnish thing to be silent.

You’ve worked with Jorma Tommila many times. How has your collaboration developed over the years? What is your shorthand with him nowadays?

Our relationship has grown quite a bit since the first short film we filmed twenty years ago and now the respect is mutual. We know each other really well and we have worked a lot and there’s trust. What we did in Sisu, I knew exactly what I would get. He knew exactly what I wanted. It was really nice working with him.

Sisu is extremely violent but still funny. Is it okay to laugh?

Yes, it is. And that’s the funny thing about it, because when we screened Sisu to the press in Finland in January, many elderly female reporters said they didn’t know that they would love to see something like this and they felt confused. They were laughing even though they felt that they shouldn’t. But if something makes you laugh, just go for it.

You also have some badass ladies like Mimosa Willamo’s character, Aino. How much Sisu does she have?

She has a lot of Sisu, and she’s basically in the same situation as Aatami. She doesn’t have anything anymore. She’s lost her home, her dignity, everything. And she basically knows she’s going to die. So she is able to speak how she wants to the Nazis and scare them as much as she can about the legend of Aatami. I think it’s pretty cool that the women have their revenge as well.

Some of your previous movies, like Rare Exports (2010) and Big Game (2014), are based in Lapland, but Sisu is the first film you actually filmed in Lapland. How was it? And how much Sisu did you need to survive there?

I didn’t need that much Sisu because I had a lot of clothes on and safety glasses and all that because of the wind. The wind was probably our biggest challenge there because there were no trees and the wind was blowing really hard. But it still was one of the best moments in my life filming there. I had all my friends there, and even though the conditions were hard, it looked amazing. I love being somewhere in the middle of nowhere. Everybody’s together and no one goes home after a shooting day. We are all there doing this one thing. It made the whole crew come together and it was cool.

Can you talk about your collaboration with cinematographer Kjell Lagerroos? How did you create that style?

I’ve shot a lot of commercials and a couple of short films with Kjell Lagerroos and he knows exactly what I was aiming to do. I had a few references for him and I knew what kind of lenses we were going to use. And what we were aiming at was like a really classical storytelling of really wide shots of beautiful landscape, and on the other hand, very tight shots of somebody’s eye. The film is quite slow-paced in a way. And I like that kind of storytelling, to use the time to tell what you want to tell.

Were there any movies you were inspired by?

A lot of old Western movies like Sergio Leone‘s films. Other than that, it’s basically pretty hard to say where the influences come from but of course, from a really big variety of all films I’ve seen.

You told this story in seven chapters. What was your idea behind that?

The chapters came along when we were editing. I had an idea of what if we had chapters, and we tried it and it felt good. I was planning to take them out before the movie was done, but everyone liked them so much at that point, even me, that we decided to use them. I think it somehow makes it an even more simple and somehow blunt way of telling the story.


This is one of the biggest budget movies in Finland, about €6 million. How much pressure did you have because of that? Did it create more challenges or did it give you more freedom?

It doesn’t feel like you have a lot of money to do something when you are doing action. If you would do a film about a man and a wife having a fight in their kitchen or something like that, then that budget would probably mean that you have a hell of a lot of money to do that. But when you are doing an action film, everything is very expensive. It never feels like you have a lot of money. 

You still needed to be very creative. You just couldn’t blow away the money.

You always have to be and that’s a really good thing. There are a lot of examples of Hollywood movies where you have almost an endless budget and you just throw money at all the problems. But it doesn’t solve anything. It’s basically the opposite way around it. It makes you lazier and you don’t have to be creative anymore.

What was your collaboration with Hollywood studios and investors like? Did you need any Sisu with that?

Actually, I didn’t. Sony was so nice during the whole process. When we shot the film, we were supposed to have a meeting every week with the producers to say something about what we were shooting. In the first meeting, they said, “Just go for it. We don’t need to have these meetings. It looks awesome.” They had a couple of good ideas when we were editing. But I didn’t have to struggle with any kind of interference. 

Sisu is opening widely in the US. What are your expectations and are you nervous?

I’m not nervous. I’m excited. I’m already really happy with everything that has happened for me, but of course, I hope that people will go to see it also in the US.

What does Sisu mean to you?

You just have to see the movie and you will know.