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UNFINNISHED BUSINESS: Mikko Löppönen On Fighting For Film In Finland
Independent film has always been a sprawling and vast field to cover. It's network is always in flux with various people connecting with others and collaborating; Following the work of Fernando Jay Huerto eventually brought me to the likes of actress, martial artist and musician, Jessica Wolff, who has shown immense screen caliber in numerous projects she's worked on.
Such include sci-fi actioner, Fray and bloody revenge thriller, Eliza, the latter which staunchly remains one of the biggest jewels I've ever helped promote despite its current myopia. Its helmer, fellow Asian cinephile, Mikko Löppönen stands significantly as one of the best examples of contemporary action cinema today even in his current form. He's practical in his approach though, and quite modest despite having as much an interest as any passionate filmmaker.
His vocation in action films came seldom with his own screentime than behind the lens, favorably. Primary visits to to the local video store and absorbing major influences from the likes of Jackie Chan to the big scale franchises by James Cameron and Stephen Spielberg were all what helped shape his initial craft since picking up a camera nearly twenty years ago. It also helped that he dabbled in Judo, Savate and Kickboxing among other styles with friends.
"We started doing our own little films in 2000 after we had a film course in high school." he says. "That very quickly transitioned into fighting films and trying to come up with similar stuff. I didn't really 'get' how to do a fight scene until I started looking at badly made fights and analyzing them. JC was too good, it wasn't helping at the beginning! I guess the biggest realization was that reality doesn't look good and that the camera doesn't really see depth. That moment was an epiphany."
Löppönen eventually joined in with the online forums that emerged at the turn of the century - most prolifically The Stunt People forum hosted initially at the official website for Eric Jacobus's stunt team. I was never a participant of the forum myself as I didn't have working internet at the time, though learning of it in recent years became more and more interesting as I acquainted and re-acquainted myself with various filmmakers and ultimately became friends with a few. It's certainly a community he misses with social media tending to be a more saturated medium. He doesn't do stunts, but he follows the language of film and the craft as much as he can and has learned aptly in the process and loves good work as much as the next creative.
"When I see a great stunt or an awesome scene, I still go 'Holyyy shit! Who the hell did this?'" says Löppönen.
That engagement eventually led to him collaborating with Huerto several years ago reteaming the San Diego native with Wolff on action short, The Break-Up following their previous 48 Hour Film Project entry, The Finnisher from Jabronie Pictures. Their next reunion would occur in 2016 with Löppönen overseeing the festival circulation of 2015 action proof, Eliza, which earned Best Short Film wins at fests both at Canton and Artemis, starring Wolff in the title role following its development and evolution.
From L to R: Jessica Wolff, Mikko Löppönen and Fernando Jay Huerto
"The original idea was something way different. I had seen a nicely shot short in the interwebs where a female character takes out bad guys. That, for some reason, inspired me. So, I made out this plot where a gang leader is using Eliza's need for revenge to get rid of his competition. It was a halfpage script and when Jessica read it she was Iike 'this is shit' [laughs]!" he says.
"I planned it as a videogame type of thing with old school 80s synth music, and we did start shooting it like that. I realized at the halfway mark of the edit, however, that it didn't work properly. And so we cut out the boss plot, went all in with the revenge aspect and changed the tone from a videogame with synth music to a more traditional story, except still staying stylized."
Löppönen initially met Wolff during a gym gathering one day in 2009 with the aspiring filmmaker and his group noticing Wolff doing handstands. She obliged upon his acknowledgment and inquiring with her about practicing stunts, thus adding to her craft at the time studying theater, and with Löppönen taking a devout interest in her growth on screen, it became a definitive partnership for both parties.
"We kind of developed a director/actor trust somewhere along the lines." he says. "I learned a bunch of directing shit from her just by noticing reactions. There is a reason why good actors sometimes want a known director getting in there and that's because a bad director can make you look bad. So I do everything to try to make her, and others, of course, look good. Not just visually but dramatically as well, with too enhance their strengths and minimize their weaknesses."
Finland's own industry is certainly not without its stagnation in the genre, according to Löppönen humble opinion. "There is really no stunt related work in Finland..." he says, emphazing similarly like in other parts of the world, regional calling doesn't resonate much or even at all, and any activity in stuntwork or action cinema that does arise comes in tiny spurts or is imported, and is not as enthusing as in other places like the U.S.. There are definitely others in his field of independent film who otherwise do their part to contribute, people like Arman Ansari, and especially Ramin Sohrab who he notes well for his current efforts on feature film production, Layer Of Lies.
"We are trying to change it but... hey, I would have to become a producer to do that, and I hate producing." he adds. "There are some people doing it and they do a good job, but there is no culture of action here. If there ever is a good action film from Finland it's just that they probably brought another guy to do the action from abroad. Usually the scripts don't have a good protagonist/antagonist relationship anyway, and so the little action that DOES happen means nothing. It's too fragmented - where the director knows what he wants but doesn't know how to get there, the amount of shots needed or how to edit it together. Then an old school producer says 'cut this out, we dont need it'.. A culture of avoiding failure does that."
"Still there are some stunt people here who do gigs here and there. I know Ramin Sohrab is trying to make his own film and I wish him luck. It's goddamn hard."
...The latter of which better words probably couldn't be said when it come to independent cinema, especially a project like Eliza which was more of a leap of faith for Löppönen whose crowdfunder fell short of its goal upon the shortfilm's release. And it's not like the potential isn't there - it is. And neither is it as if Löppönen doesn't have the ideal creative tools to help make a bigger feature film work - he kind of does. I don't get the zombie part right away but as odd as it sounds, don't see that as a hinderance, really.
Jessica Wolff and fight choreographer/co-star Jesse Liskola on the set of ELIZA
"One thing it definitely needs is a likable and relatable heroine. And something we as an audience will get behind. I wanna cheer for her. And that's gonna be difficult. Other than that yeah, some stylized action would be appreciated. I love simple premises so gonna have to work on that. I have a treatment of a feature film and it does tend to veer off slightly into the Evil Dead."
Judging by many of Löppönen's viewpoints, the Finnish film industry has quite the ways to go as much as it suffers from worsened, stifling symptoms of his field in other areas. Fear of growth and taking risks are prolific almost anywhere in the world where people try to grow their work into the mainstream against the tide. He works as an editor on commercials which is easy and fair work for him as things stand in the meantime while the road toward better representation in genre film is still being paved.
Enter Jesse Haaja's debut superhero thriller, Rendel, which rolled out in Finland last year and eventually saw its releases thereafter, including in the U.S. courtesy of Shout Factory. It's an effort that Haaja can certainly attest to in offering something never-before-done for Finland's moviegoing crowd, and with none other than Löppönen tending to the film's fight action with at least one day of rehearsals drawn by numerous constraints and restrictions.
"I saw this guy post a video where a superhero fights some dudes in a factory." Löppönen says as he detailed how he met Haaja after sending him an enthusiastic e-mail to help out with action and stunts for a proof of concept trailer shoot in Helsinki. "It kinda went wrong as we ran out of time. But we did then go to their set later when they were shooting the film."
Since the release of Rendel, the calling, he says, is definitely there for genre titles, although not so much for small scale features with lesser-known producers. Alas, the campaign continues for Löppönen and Haaja once again following the production of proof-of-concept action horror, Furrow, with Wolff shepherding the narrative. Löppönen couldn't be present for photography during the weekend of March 2 and 3, though he did manage to contribute the necessary pre-visual fight design for Haaja to go on. Furthermore, production reportedly went on without a hitch and with Wolff wearing no less than a tank top and shorts amid -20°C temperatures...which is, in other words, damn cold.
"My main strength lies in helping behind the cam, so it would've been awesome to help them at the shoot too." he says. "Hopefully it all goes to plan."
Footage from the upcoming proof trailer remains pending as Haaja remains steadfast in bringing Furrow to the market scene for further profusion. Löppönen currently doesn't have anything similar planned while he continues his career path as recently as in Uruguay, while progress with Furrow would presumably be solid news for Löppönen in seeing Wolff move one step closer toward become the film star she deserves to be. Her work speaks for itself and for that, I stand in agreement.
For this, I certainly hope Löppönen grows as well. He's got the growing wealth and knowledge to grow his craft and impress audiences as he proves time and again, and, in my view, with any luck, Finland's film environment will grow with him and the like. Until then, it's one day at a time for the Finnish filmmaker in his endeavors, whether or not the doors he seeks in life stay closed as others open, with providence perhaps.
"I guess its about enjoying the journey, ups and downs. Right?"
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