Dome Karukoski’s (Heart of a Lion) latest film is a biography of Finnish homoerotic artist Touko Laaksonen and the events that influenced his drawings.
After serving in WWII, Touko (Pekka Strang) finds no peace at home in Finland, a country where homosexuality is illegal. He commits to art, drawing muscular men, and receives notoriety for his work under the name, Tom of Finland, ultimately becoming a highly influential figure of twentieth century gay culture.
We spoke with the director and star, plus supporting players Seumas F. Sargeant (Doug) and Jessica Grabowsky (Kaija Laaksonen, Touka’s sister).
Did you always know about Tom of Finland in Finland?
Dome Karukoski: Not really. When I fourteen, I remember that someone in our gang had stolen or found all these comic books from somewhere. And we were giggling that they must be an American guy, who’s visited Finland, and been inspired by Finland and taken an alias, or used Finland in his name, some Tom, somewhere…. So, we didn’t know he was Finnish until his death, which was a couple of years later. Even after, it was a silent period in the ‘90s, because it was still illegal to promote gay material until ’99. It was illegal to be gay in Finland until 1971, a sickness until 1981, but then a law against promoting, the same law they have in Russia now, until 1999.
What does promote mean?
DK: I would assume visible material, like Tom of Finland’s art; you’re promoting gays or being gay. And, I don’t know exactly, but I would assume that’s pretty much it because it’s quite silent. And then in the new millennium, you could see it start slowly popping up in Finland.
Did you know anything about him before?
Pekka Strang: Well, there are two parts of him, there’s the Tom of Finland brand and all the images, and then there’s the artist behind the images. And I didn’t know anything about the artist, and I think that’s the case with most people in Finland, we know the brand, and we’re starting to get proud of the brand, but who was the artist behind it? And that’s what our movie is about; it’s about the artist.
Is there a fashion element to it?
PS: Yeah also they’ve now done coffee, Tom of Finland coffee…
Jessica Grabowsky: Stamps. The stamps were a huge thing. I was working in Sweden at the time when they came out, and people were like, ‘can you buy me the stamps, can you get me the stamps?’
The stamps have sexual imagery?
DK: It’s not the most hardcore, of course, but there is a man’s arse and the funny idea of you licking a man’s arse when you send your stamp. There is this double entendre. I think that it sold to 154 countries this time, it was sold out, and probably the most sold out stamp in Finnish postal history.
Was there anything in research you found interesting?
Seumas F. Sargeant: Well, I play the role of Doug in the movie [a combination of two characters from Touko’s life], and I was thrown into the picture quite late in the game. I didn’t have enough time to research, which is a little disarming if you know that you’re playing a living person and you want to do that person respect. But I had the pleasure of meeting [one of] the real Doug(s) at the Helsinki premiere. And I turned around, and I recognised him, and he recognised me, and I said, “I hope I did you justice.” And he gave me a big hug, so that was quite rewarding.
PS: I knew the brand, and when I got the phone call for the casting, I started to read about him. I didn’t know that he went to war. I met a few of his friends, but the problem was he died in 1991, and almost everybody who knew him was quite old, and they knew him in the ‘70s and ‘80s. We didn’t have firsthand material from the ‘40s and ‘50s, from his younger years. Of course, I met a few friends, and just tried to make my interpretation of his life.
Were people generally, ‘oh I love this guy’, or ‘oh, he’s a strange guy’?
PS: It was like this: he was funny, he was nice, he was a beloved uncle, was successful at work, good in the army, he just succeeded in everything that he did. Tom was a Nordic God, and I was like, ‘okay, let me play that’.
One of the fascinating things was the different sections of the movie, the war and the post-war era, but you almost film this like an espionage movie; it’s like a spy movie where people are making handoffs.
DK: I always felt that part of his life has to be a little bit like that. He must have felt, because he was smuggling his art in trains, and as we try to illustrate in the film, that he would shoot these catalogues small enough; tiny enough that it would fit in a letter, so it doesn’t look suspicious. If it’s a big letter, if you’re customs, you’re going to think that’s got to be something like photographs, so you open it. He would make it as small as possible, so it just looks like a letter somebody sent. He had to think of all these ways, so it did inspire a kind of thriller element, also, in his actions. And you could have done a whole movie about that alone.
Did you set it up, when you and your co-screenwriter were writing the script, ‘Section 1, Section 2, Section 3, Section 4’?
DK: We did, very well noticed, we built it into five segments. We were trying to find a timespan where you could narrow it down to five years, but you couldn’t because his transformation as a character, his transformation as an artist happened to him in four decades. So, we had to have the four decades in this movie, which we divided it into five sections that we felt were important emotionally to Tom, and started building the script from that. War is obvious when you look at his influence with uniforms and his art, and everything that happened to him in wartime, and it kind of went to the end, and him having several wars during his life, including of course the AIDS war, which must have felt like being in a war again, because it’s again a time where you’re fighting against an enemy, which is young men dying around you.
The art itself is super masculine. Huge bodies, leather, does he ever get criticised by the non-masculine gay community?
DK: Yes. There was a phase where I think it was called Sex Wars? There were different families inside the LGBT community, and the families were fighting, and because of the stupidity of, often heteros, is that they’d ask ‘oh, well what do the gays think?’ as if there would be one type. Inside the gay community you have 500 million people, 500 million different gay people. Tom was depicting hyper-masculinity, at the same time it was a liberation and, in a way it felt like many people were like, ‘yes, I can be that’. You’re a high school quarterback, and you think, ‘I can’t be gay, all the gays are feminine, and they talk high pitched’, and then suddenly you’re allowed. Like ‘yeah, I can put my leather jacket on and move to Los Angeles’. It, of course, caused a counter effect, at that time. And now I think everybody celebrates it because I think the LGBT environment understands that it helps with acceptance. Acceptance feels like such a stupid word, actually, but it gives the LGBT environment a good thing, so I think it’s great. There was a time where you would say that Tom was not cool among all of them.
SFS: One salient point for me, having been tossed into the film quite late, and not being exposed to Tom’s art until the shooting, two exhibitions are going on right now in Berlin, with Tom’s original artwork. And for people who are slightly aware of Tom as being a pornographic artist, if you see his real artwork, it’s a standalone, exceptional genre of art which is this uber-masculine superhero. When I had seen the original artworks for the first time, that was when it rang true; what I was doing, what the movie was about. It wasn’t just this semi-pornographic flip-through magazine; it was something truly substantial and remarkable. So, when you talk about the coffee and the stamps, and the images that you’ve seen, the artwork is fascinating, in of its own. Not just because it’s sexual, or risque.
What do you admire most about him?
PS: His courage. He was 20 when he went into the war, and after that, you’ve seen fighting and people dying, you’re probably going to focus on life that looks a bit different because you realise that life can end, and it will end at any point, you don’t have to be afraid anymore. So, I think it was courage.
Did you worry about your character getting lost, or did she have her own life?
JG: I was afraid that she would be kind of black and white, that she would just be this bitch that everybody would hate, so that was my main focus [to make her more complex].
There’s a specific scene where Touko and Heiki are talking on the battlefield; there’s no scene like that in the movies, where your captain turns out to be gay also. I haven’t seen anything like that in a movie, so congratulations on that.
PS: The world changed a lot in 2016. Finland’s ten minutes away from Russia, and there are some dark ages there in Europe, the nationalistic movements and the sort of conservative movements are rising again, so I think it’s really important to tell the history so we can see that we should never go back there again. The world has changed a lot, and I’m very happy that we can bring something like this to the world.
The most positive reaction is that this is probably the first movie in Finland where there’s a lead character that’s gay, but you don’t make it into an issue. He’s just gay, and it’s not an issue. And I think that was positive for the community. I read a few columns on it, and suddenly we have this hero or antihero, or whatever you want to call him, and you don’t question his sexuality, it’s not an issue in the movie, because he doesn’t. And I think that was one of the main things we were focusing on.
Do you think it is important to get Tom’s name out there?
DK: I think that Touko would be very proud, and happy, at what is happening with his work – he was a very humble man, but he would accept it anyway; we know for a fact that he worked in advertising, also, but he would accept any way of getting his art out, any coffee, any movie, any stamp, he would be happy. He wouldn’t want to be in the spotlight, as we see in the movie, they’re like ‘we have to go to the microphone’, it was a true story that the rumour goes they had to drug him to get him to the microphone, he was so nervous. I think at the same time; it’s just important that this art, at this time, in this world, is just out there. With no shame, and with no fear, that we just put that out. And that’s also part of fighting against oppression.
Tom of Finland is in cinemas October 12, 2017