Big Game: An Interview Jalmari Helander and Onni Tommila
One of the most pleasant surprises in last year’s Midnight Madness TIFF program was the Finnish action flick Big Game. It stars Samuel L. Jackson as the president of the United States, which is in and of itself pretty awesome, but the movie got even better from there.
Jackson is the target of an assassination attempt that leaves Air Force One as a pile of smoldering rubble and Jackson, abandoned in the mountains, at the mercy of psychotic big game hunters. Thankfully, he’s got a little help in the form of a teenage boy (Onni Tommila) who is himself trapped in the mountains as part of a bizarre growth/hunting ritual. From there, things start to get quite strange and quite goofy in delightful ways.
Big Game is an oddball of a movie to say the least, a throwback to the old 80s and 90s high concept Hollywood action movies made by a band of eccentric Finnish filmmakers lead by writer/director Jalmari Helander. The name might not be familiar, but you likely know Helander’s work. His directorial debut was the even odder Santa Claus monster movie Rare Exports where he discovered his pint-sized action hero Onni Tommila. With Big Game finally about to hit screens and delight retro action lovers, CGM got a chance to chat with Helander and Tommila about their latest genre effort. Thankfully, it sounds like this team will continue their strange ways for quite some time.
So where did this idea come from? Were you interested in trying to revive this extinct brand of action movie or develop something specifically for Onni?
Jalmari Helander: We spent quite a while trying to figure out what the next movie would be after Rare Exports. This one started as a joke between me and the producers. We said, “It should be something like what would happen if Air Force One crash landed in Northern Finland.” We’d laugh about it and then one day we realized, “Actually that’s a pretty good idea.” (Laughs)
Was it any easier to get this sort of genre movie made in Finland after the success of Rare Exports?
JH: I think it was a hell of a lot easier, thankfully. All of the meetings we took in Cannes with financiers seemed to like Rare Exports and they thought the idea was cool enough that they wanted to be a part of it. I was surprised, to be honest, I’m sure the next one will be harder. Of course it helped that this one was mostly in English.
Did you assign Onni any old action movies to watch in preparation?
JH: No, Onni has seen plenty of movies. So he knew what to do. He’s a battered veteran now.
Onni Tommila: That’s right!
OT: I had got to shoot with the bow a few times before, so that was easy.
How did both of you find working with Samuel L. Jackson? That must have been surreal.
JH: Of course that was a big thing for me. For the first couple of days it was really exciting and a little intimidating, but it went smoothly after that. Everything gets old eventually and it just felt like normal work soon enough. There were some adjustments off-camera having a big star around like that, so that took some getting used to. There were very different rules on this movie.
OT: I was so nervous because I had never seen a Hollywood star in person. But then we went to the forest to start rehearsing and suddenly it was really fun and easy. We became friends and all that stuff went away quickly.
How was shooting in the mountains?
JH: It was hell every day. Just to get to the set we would have to leave the hotel with a car then we’d have to get on a truck and then we’d have to get on an ATV, and then we’d have to walk. It took an hour every morning just to get to the top. So, never again!
I was impressed by everything that you were able pull off on the movie despite what I’m assuming was a pretty low budget. Was there anything that you wanted to do, but just couldn’t afford?
JH: Actually no. It was quite carefully planned. We knew exactly what we were doing and planned everything so perfectly that we managed to do everything. There was no chance of any retakes, of course. But thankfully we didn’t need any.
Was it intimidating at all to shoot the pentagon scenes with so many famous actors like Jim Broadbent, Victor Garber, Ted Levine, and Felicity Huffman all at once?
JH: Of course! We actually saved all of those scenes for the last four days of shooting so that I didn’t have to think about it. I hadn’t even seen any of them in costume before. I remember at one point, I had to fly to Germany just to meet everyone. I had only one day to talk to them before we started filming, but it was wonderful. They were so relaxed and generous. Especially Ted Levine who was my favorite.
Oh yeah, he’s got one of the best voices in the business, so I’m sure it’s exciting just to hear him say your lines.
JH: Well, I didn’t really deal with any of that, but after we got Samuel I get the impression that everyone else came along pretty easily.
Was it tough for you to have to censor Sam Jackson’s “Motherfucker” at the end? After all, that’s pretty much his catchphrase.
JH: Oh yeah. Of course I wanted to keep it. Thankfully, at least in Finland we got to have a version with the whole “motherfucker” line.
JH: (Laughs) Yeah, I don’t know why you’re so sensitive about that in North America. It’s just a word and a great one.
Do you know what you’re planning to do next yet?
JH: Well, I’m working on something to shoot next summer. I don’t want to say anything about it yet because that makes it nervous, but it will be an action film and have the same sort of strange humor that we’ve been playing with since Rare Exports.
Do you always plan on writing your own scripts or would you be interested in working from someone else’s script as well?
JH: Well, if I can find a script that I love I would be happy to, but at the moment everything that I’ve gotten from Hollywood just isn’t interesting. So, we’ll see what happens.