Was it your common family name that triggered your desire to bring her life to the screen?
Our family connection goes back a long time. Hella's husband Sulo was my great uncle. But that was not the reason why I wanted to tell her story. Hella was a powerful, energetic, creative and very brave woman. An Estonian immigrant, she spoke seven languages and fast landed high paid jobs in import/export in Finland in the 1920s. She was a true business woman. She then started to write plays and got tremendously successful. She also collaborated with Bertolt Brecht. The most fascinating thing about her was that she had a complex personality. She was very wealthy and yet claimed to be a socialist. She was also convicted for spying for Russians in 1943 and put in jail. She managed to escape death row by only one vote. Just one year after her release in 1944, she became managing director of Finnish public broadcaster YLE.
Hella was just an extraordinary woman and in the history of Scandinavia and even Europe, there are few women with such a heroic life. But at a time when people where starving, her lavish lifestyle and arrogance became almost embarrassing and there was a strong effort from the Finnish secret police to destroy her.
How much time did you spend on pre-production?
The project started already in 2003, even before my first TV movie Gourmet Club. The length of time writing the script was, I feel, positive for the project and 2011 is a perfect time in Finland to release the film. There have been a number of historical male figures that have been made into film, but not a single woman of her calibre.
How did you cast the lead actress Tiina Weckström?
We knew we would need an actress who had a strong screen experience. Finland is a small country so we tracked down all the potential actresses for the role. Tiina was actually the only person we test shot. She is amazing.
How challenging was it to film this big period piece?
Everything in the project was super difficult. I was about to abandon it several times. At the beginning, I thought that with a historical project of this magnitude we would need a very big budget. But we managed to shoot this 35mm film for €2 million. We spent six months during pre-production location scouting in Finland and Estonia and found wonderful historical mansions. It was very exciting. As a director, I really enjoyed creating a visual world that doesn't exist...like with Christmas Story!
How did you put the financing together and what kind of release is planned for the film?
Putting together the financing was not so difficult as the budget was reasonable for a historical film. My company Snapper Films produced it, in co-production with Estonia's Amrion Ltd (producer/founder is Riina Sildos). We received financial support from YLE, the Finnish Film Foundation and Nordisk Film & TV Fond and I had an MG from Sandrew Metronome.
The film has been heavily promoted on various TV stations, radio and press outlets. Sandrew is launching it with 70 prints. It will be interesting to see how the 35+ core audience will respond to it.
What other projects are you working on?
I've been very busy with Hella W, and before that with Christmas Story. The film did amazingly well. It was sold to 120 countries and is probably the widest distributed Finnish film ever. We also sold over 100,000 DVDs in the US alone which is rare for a small foreign language film. Now I'm looking forward to making English language films for the international market. I have a project, the magical thriller Fata Morgana in early stages of financing. Joel Silver's Zinc Entertainment is the US producer. Snapper Films is co-financing and co-developing.
In terms of Finnish language projects, we have the rights for a well-known book franchise Ella and Friends based on Timo Parvela's classic novels. Taneli Mustonen will direct and filming should start this summer.
Snapper Films also co-produces European films. We recently worked on the French film Let My People Go, a comedy produced by Les Films Pelleas, starring Carmen Maura and several Finnish talents like actress Outi Mäenpää who just won a Guldbagge for Pernilla August's Beyond.