• Television

Max Malka, creator of the first Finnish Netflix series

Max Malka, the creator of the first Finnish Netflix series Dance Brothers, felt early on that producing was her calling. When she was 18 and applying to Helsinki Film School, nowadays part of Aalto University, she was reading descriptions of different majors.

“I felt most interested in managing the big picture and helping others to get towards a common goal. For me, the producer was definitely a creative force and maybe I have a little bit more of an American style of thinking; that the producer is the one who has the rights to make a film and have the first vision,” Malka says when we meet in a cafeteria in downtown Helsinki.

After producing a dozen short films for various companies and working as a freelancer for numerous other production companies, she started to work at Dionysos Films, known worldwide for the Nordic Noir television drama Deadwind. There she produced the children’s adventure Tatu and Patu, which was the highest grossing film of 2016 in Finland. From 2017 to 2019 she worked on an award-winning and popular youth series Nerd: Dragonslayer666 and after that the Jussi (Finnish Oscar) award-winning romantic drama Aurora (2019). Soon after, she moved to head the Finnish drama side of the multinational Endemol Shine company, owned by Banijay, a French television production and distribution company.

“I started as the head of scripts in November 2019: up to that point they had successfully produced big entertainment for a couple of decades, non-scripted shows like MasterChef and Big Brother. Endemol Shine as an international group had strong labels across the Nordic area. They were doing high quality premium fiction drama both in scripted series and feature films and they felt like there was also an opportunity in Finland to branch out to scripted shows. I started from scratch building up the slate of series and feature films.”

Three months later the pandemic hit. The company paused production on feature films but continued to work on TV series. The Finnish language Dance Brothers was one of them. Developing ten 20-minutes episodes during the Covid-19 lockdown was challenging. At that time, secret and spontaneous dance parties for young adults became common in Helsinki. Dance Brothers was partly inspired by that. 

“I created the series,” says Malka. “The season arc, the episode synopsis and the characters were there once I started looking for the team around the project. I was very lucky to have Reeta Ruotsalainen to come along as the head writer and Taito Kawata as the director. We talked about the story a lot from the very beginning, and as far as Reeta’s involvement went, we wrote all of the treatments and the first two episodes together, then she took over and wrote the rest of the eight episodes. Taito is a very strong director with his own vision that I was more than happy to see come alive. You could call me a hands-on producer, but really the storyteller is the director.”

It’s a story about two brothers who get tired of pursuing work in the tight circles of contemporary dance. After unforeseen events they start a dance club in an industrial area in Helsinki. The plot follows Roni’s (Roderick Kabanga) and Sakari’s (Samuel Kujala) challenges as dancers, club owners, brothers and friends. Now, after the release, Malka admits she feels a bit empty. 

“It was such an intensive couple of years, really a labor of love. And now it’s out of our hands and on the platform. I’m very proud of what we did. I’m really happy with it and I just hope that the audience can find it. The potential is huge, so I’m already happy about that. Of course, the biggest shows in the world are competing for the attention of the audience.”

Besides dancing, sustainability is close to her heart. Every department and every phase of production was restructured to be as green as possible.

“It was the principle of the company. In Banijay, being ecological and being sustainable in all aspects is really a central value. And I was really happy that our managing director, Unne Sormunen, also shared this value. For me, it’s personally important and when we were recruiting people for the project, we wanted to find people who also felt passionate, not only about their profession, but also about doing things sustainably and wanting to learn to do things differently.”

“For example they were asking questions like ‘Where are the materials coming from? How are they being used or reused and where are they going from there?’ Whether it’s clothes, paint, food, cars, batteries, paper or something else. Everything was also measured to get a better idea of how they were doing and how they could improve. 

“We had detailed data about everything, whether it was electricity use in the office or how many kilograms of bio waste per day came from catering. All of the crew and the cast had training and they were committed to work this way.”

Malka has a multicultural background. She was born in Iran, has been living in China and Taiwan, but calls Finland her home. She believes that it has influenced the way she tells stories.

“Even if your upbringing or background is a little bit different, fundamentally we’re all the same. There’s nothing to be nervous or scared of even if something or someone is new or strange. Maybe that can be seen in my projects.”

She herself has a broad appetite for the sort of entertainment she watches.

“Maybe it comes from my movie background that I always seek the kind of dramatic arc, even a season arc. I love shows and movies for the young audience, well done dramedies, sci-fi, indie films and blockbusters. I always look for something that’s a little bit surprising. I think Succession or Better Call Saul, for example, is something where every episode I’m a little bit like, ‘What just happened?’ The writers and the filmmakers are always two or three steps ahead of the audience. It’s just such a pleasure to watch shows like that and see such interesting and surprising characters that you always feel for. And on the other hand, seeing new filmmakers make fresh stuff, like I May Destroy You and Mo.”

Now Endemol Shine is developing movies again, and Malka is busy with producing both TV and films. In her downtime she relaxes by walking, eating good food and watching films with her family.