Portrait of an artist

Dome Karukoski on his biography of influential gay icon Tom Of Finland

by Amber Wilkinson

Dome Karukoski: 'When discussing with the hardcore Tom fans, the answer often was: The drawings are my sex, now I want to see the story behind the artist'
Dome Karukoski: 'When discussing with the hardcore Tom fans, the answer often was: The drawings are my sex, now I want to see the story behind the artist' Photo: Kino Lorber
Dome Karukoski: 'I’ve always been an outsider. I relate to that'
Dome Karukoski: 'I’ve always been an outsider. I relate to that' Photo: Kino Lorber
Biopic Tom Of Finland – written by Aleksi Bardi and directed Dome Karukoski, who has recently announced a JRR Tolkien biopic is his next project – tells the story of the Finnish artist behind the drawings that fuelled much of the gay iconography of the Seventies and Eighties. The film, starring Pekka Strang as the artist, tracks Touko Laaksonen from his experiences in the Second World War to his development of the pen name Tom of Finland – necessary because of his homeland’s draconian anti-gay laws – up to the loss and grief of the AIDS epidemic. We caught up with him via email to chat about the film.

When you're tackling a person's full life - and in Tom of Finland's case, one that was full of incident - it must be difficult to decide what to leave in or emphasise and what to leave out. Can you tell us a bit about that process?

We worked on the project from 2011 with writer Aleksi Bardy. We researched every possible way to do this film. We wanted to find a time period where we could narrow it to five years or something similar, that could give us a shorter period, but Laaksonen’s development as an artist happened in the 40-year span that we also eventually portrayed.

We then decided to build the storyline into five segments of his life that were relevant and close to him, but also cinematic, as much of his life was.

Firstly war, as it was both his best time of life sexually and it was the really tragic time. Then finding his voice as an artist post-war Finland, that was a time in the country’s history where the conservative oppression was strongly felt (it was illegal to be gay in Finland until 1971 and it was considered a sickness until 1981). Encountering Veli [played by Lauri Tilkanen]- his long-time partner and love. And two eras in America - Pre-AIDs and Post-AIDs.

His life was rich and as one can see in the film quite eventful. A lot of interesting material was left out also.

Although Tom's art was quite hardcore, you take a much more chaste approach to his sexuality. Was this to emphasize the clandestine nature of Tom's early relationships and/or did you have another reason in mind?

When discussing with the hardcore Tom fans, the answer often was: The drawings are my sex, now I want to see the story behind the artist. Then it became a question as always when making a film, how to show the story of the artist as a dramatic whole? Every sex scene must be drama-wise justified. Otherwise it becomes provocation or a filmmaker trying to show off.

Dome Karukoski: 'I’ve always been an outsider. I relate to that'
Dome Karukoski: 'I’ve always been an outsider. I relate to that' Photo: Kino Lorber
Also, the idea was to keep the eroticism in the looks, under the surface, so that the explosiveness of his art would have a better effect on screen.

Thirdly. It’s really hard to show any sex scene that is on the same standard as his drawings are. Any sex scene after showing his drawings would’ve been a downer. Basically, all the choices were made for the emotional focus of the film to be in foreground.

Quite a lot of your work seems to concern 'outsiders' - even in this film, you might say that Tom's sister Kaija is also an outsider of sorts, what draws you to these types of characters?

Kaija never married, never had kids whereas Tom always found different places giving him a different kind of a home. I’ve always been an outsider. I relate to that. I moved from Cyprus to Finland when I was four, [which led to] difficulties with name, language, adjusting. I was bullied and had to change school. Once again, I was an outsider. The feeling of being left out or not finding a home is thus very near to me and it is definitely something I relate to many of my characters. I seem to lean into projects and stories about these kinds of characters. Trying to find a home, peace and spiritual comfort.

Can you tell us a bit about the use of colour palette to shift mood in the film, which begins in the more sombre, muted colours of Finland which blossom, as Tom himself blossoms, in the bright and flamboyant California sunshine?

We chose a very specific palette. Red was released in Berlin to the film, purple in New York. It was very much a story from darkness into light. So we were very selective about how to release the amount of light or colours. They help us feel the energy and light that Tom must’ve felt in LA. Our cinematographer Lasse Frank, production designer Christian Olander and costume designer Anna Vilppunen did an outstanding job.

This film must have been quite a challenge for the art departments, because you're covering such a wide-ranging time period - not to mention more than one country - were there any specific challenges from making such a lengthy biopic?

Dome Karukoski: 'Basically, all the choices were made for the emotional focus of the film to be in foreground'
Dome Karukoski: 'Basically, all the choices were made for the emotional focus of the film to be in foreground' Photo: Kino Lorber
There’s always the budget challenge and especially as we shot in five different countries: Finland, Sweden, Germany, Spain and the US. We didn’t want to focus on specific years, but on the emotional effect these years had on the human mind. That guided very much the styles, lines and milieus we were using in the film. Did the location or the clothes speak the emotional feeling of the characters in it? With the budget we had, I have no idea how the team was able to pull it off…

Pekka Strang is a thoughtful actor and a good physical match for Tom, can you tell us a bit about casting him?

We had an intensive casting period of two months, where I always had two men in the room at the same time - so several men of the right age to play Tom and Tom’s partner Veli Mäkinen. I casted them in pairs. We did some scenes from the script and improvised.

Once, when Pekka Strang and Lauri Tilkanen did a scene together it felt that the dynamics and chemistry was best with these people. Their souls seemed right for this and I just knew I had found my perfect pair.

Finally, it has been in the news that you will direct a film about JRR Tolkien next - another outsider of a sort, after he was orphaned - can you tell us anything more about that project?

Unfortunately, I can’t comment on that project at the moment.

Tom Of Finland poster
Tom Of Finland poster
Tom Of Finland is out in UK cinemas today (August 11). The JRR Tolkien biopic is a Fox Searchlight and Chernin Entertainment project, which they have been developing since 2013. The film will open in New York on October 13 and in LA on October 20.

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