With Twentieth Century Fox’s Tolkien about to release in cinemas, directed by Dome Karukoski, we spoke to the director about his previous film, Tom of Finland.
Dome Karukoski is one of the most successful Finnish film directors, with more than thirty awards to his credit. He has directed six feature films, which have all become blockbusters. In 2017, he released his film Tom of Finland, a major biopic of that artist. Of major significance to LGBTQI social history, Tom’s homoerotic drawings were instrumental in transforming many gay men’s lives through the ‘70s and ‘80s, due to their unashamed depiction of gay sex as something joyous, to be celebrated.
In 2017, Finland celebrated 100 years as an independent country. Your film, Tom of Finland, formed part of the official program for this event. It is wonderful that the country now recognises the importance of Tom as a major cultural figure. Do you think that he has been universally accepted there?
The older and more nationalistic generation is actually starting to be quite proud of our most internationally renowned artist. They see that this man from the small town of Kaarina has been able to do so much and give a voice to thousands of people. And I don’t think the younger generation sees anything wrong in Tom’s work, or his sexuality. They’re very curious about him. There are always the conservatives, but I believe in the past 10 years we’ve seen a rise in the respect of sexual minorities. The true change is that it has become unsophisticated and unacceptable to speak negatively about sexual minorities, and this has basically forced the conservatives to rethink their position. And often conservatism and nationalism walk hand in hand. So, Tom’s art will probably always be hard to bite for some people, but I think overall most Finns are just proud of him.
In 2014 the Finnish postal service released a line of stamps featuring Tom’s art – the first ever homoerotic stamps produced in the world. The Victoria & Albert Museum acquired a set for their collection. But Finnish supermarket chain Halpa-Halli refused to stock them, claiming they could offend customers. It seems that art still has the power to upset?
I’m always happy to see art that provokes. In Tom’s case, it just demonstrates the power of his imagery. I honestly don’t think that the stamps themselves are ‘too dirty’. I think normal underwear ads or even a soda commercial can be dirtier. I think it’s more about a gay person getting his own stamp, which shakes the minds of the conservative. Because of this a supermarket store can be just afraid of losing clients. I love the people at Finlayson which is a very old linen brand. When they made their Tom of Finland linens, some old customers brought back their old Finlayson linens saying they will never shop in Finlayson again! Finlayson’s response was wonderful: “Have a nice day, and we will be here if you change your mind. Maybe with a new spring collection from Tom!”
Screenwriter/producer Aleksi Bardy has said: “This isn’t the story of a victim of oppression – it’s the story of a hero who survives. We chose to make it like a homosexual James Bond.” Could you elaborate on this?
I think we often make films about sexual minorities where the protagonist is weak and oppressed. But what Tom did is so courageous that it’s quite difficult to think of him as ‘weak’. He made his art in a time when it was illegal and considered a sickness – when he might have lost his job if people around him had found out. He definitely had inner strength and power that drove him – the very attributes of a secret agent, one might say. We have a very powerful and ambitious protagonist, in the way that James Bond is. The big difference is Tom wasn’t a Martini man. His drink was Gin & Tonic.
I understand that Tom’s actual drawings were used in the film?
Although making a film about an artist without his art can be done, I would have found it quite difficult to do a Tom of Finland movie without the drawings. They are so unique. We used the art in the film when it added to the dramatic purposes or helped us tell the story.
Tom’s drawings became the emblem of an entire generation of gay men. His drawings of bikers, cowboys and leather-men, were differentiated from mainstream culture and suggested they were untamed, strong, and self-empowered. This was directly counter to the then-prevailing idea of gay men as weak and pathetic creatures. Do you think this was one of the reasons why his work became so important to gay subcultures?
I’ve heard countless stories of men telling how they felt when they first saw Tom’s drawings and how that changed their lives. Many said they left their previous lives to start afresh – often in LA or San Francisco. As I’m younger and wasn’t there, I can just imagine the self-empowering moment and the strength the drawings must have given. We tried to bring this into the film, with the help of people who actually changed their lives because of Tom. The Tom of Finland Foundation has been a great help when trying to find these stories and be face-to-face with a true Tom’s man.
Pekka Strang plays the role of Touko Laaksonen (Tom), and Lauri Tilkanen plays his long-time partner, lover, and muse. Did the actors know of Tom already, or did they have to research for their roles?
They just knew the name and of course the art. Pekka told me that he went to the library as soon as he heard he had been called to do an audition. When he had got the two books by Tom, he had to pee and asked the librarian where the rest room was, with the books in his hand – you can imagine the librarian’s face! So that was the start for him. For me it was very important that the chemistry of the actors playing Tom and Veli was sincere and there was electricity between them. I had to breathe heavily when I saw them kissing. But research is important for actors also. We had the chance to bring Pekka to Los Angeles to visit the Tom of Finland Foundation and talk to people who knew him personally, both in the US and Finland. There is not that much information on Veli, Tom’s partner. We had to draw his character from small bits and pieces of information. But the importance is that this film’s Tom and Veli are the vision and interpretation of the filmmakers and actors. I can’t imitate real life. The film and its characters is a creation, not an imitation. As Tom drew his own world, we draw ours. We had to draw the character with respect to them, but also so that their soul and actions best helped the film. I honestly believe that the real life Tom and Veli would be proud of this film.
Swedish figure skater Niklas Högner plays Kake, a figment of Tom’s erotic imagination. How did this non-actor rise to the challenge of the role?
I’ve worked with non-actors before. They can often bring something virginal to the presence of the character. We had numerous applications for the role. After I saw Niklas’ photos and a video of him, I knew we had found our Kake. Niklas had a great story and a smile to kill. It was pure instinct and luckily I didn’t have to be sorry.
Tom was a war hero, and the film does refer to this aspect of his life.
We do see war in the film, and it was an early choice to include it in the plotline of the film. Tom used to say that war was the best time of his life, sexually. At the same time, it was a dramatic experience, meeting an enemy of the size of the Soviet Union, experiencing death and mayhem, but also the brotherhood and joy of his fellow soldiers. It’s obvious that wartime is reflected in Tom’s art and influenced him enormously.
In Finland it was illegal to be gay until 1971 – and homosexuality was considered to be a sickness until 1981. In America, homosexuality wasn’t removed from the American Psychological Association’s list of mental disorders until 1975. Do you have any thoughts on this?
It is difficult to define where liberality is the norm, as it still is so rare. I actually read a study which showed that the large mass of homophobia rose only 200-300 years ago, when the traditional roles of men and women first started to erode. You could say that homophobia is actually a sickness where the virus has been installed by a society which needs ‘normality’. It would be an interesting battle to try to get homophobia put on the list of mental disorders instead! I do believe that when society feels strong and healthy, it understands the differences of humanity better. I think there are many ways to change the attitudes of society. One is the silent way, where we start slowly to accept and understand ‘the nice gay men’ or the ‘funny gay character on a TV-show’ etc. The other is by being loud, proud and like a stone wall. Then you throw a brick or you dance like you’ve never danced before on pride walks. Tom’s way was by ridiculing his oppressor. I can’t even count the number of policemen having sex in his drawings – enjoying it, loving life. And that is the essence of his art – joy. And it’s very difficult to hate joy.
Cultural historian Joseph W. Slade once wrote that Tom was a “most influential creator of gay pornographic images”. I am interested in the way in which the pornography of one era begins to look quaint in subsequent eras. Do you feel that this has happened with Tom’s work? Is it still subversive?
Maybe it’s quaint for some people whose eye for gay art is overly trained, but I still think the power of his images is quite impressive. When I introduce Taschen’s XXL book in my office to people who are not so familiar with his art, I still see the goosebumps they get. How their eyes widen. I, myself, see that Tom’s art is similar to some films: they just don’t seem to get old.
In the lead-up to the film’s release, your producer, Ingvar Þórðarson, said: “The battle for equal rights for gay people is far from over and we have a responsibility to aid them in that. Tom of Finland will do a lot for that battle, I’m absolutely sure of that.” Would you care to comment? Did you anticipate any negative reaction to the film from the more puritanical parts of the world?
I would have been surprised if we hadn’t got some negative reactions. After all, if some people couldn’t understand an official stamp being made of him, how could they digest a feature film? Film as a medium is so strong that I hope this one can change something. It probably can’t change the most puritanical people, but maybe their cousins and their friends. That’s how change also happens – by affecting the individuals around the negative people. But, for me, the number one rule was to just make a good film. So, I tried to do that.
Tom of Finland is available now on Digital. Tolkien is in cinemas June 13, 2019