Interview: Dome Karukowski Talks Patriotism, Gay Pride and ‘Tom of Finland’

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As an actor, director, writer, and producer, Dome Karukowski is one of the shining talents of the Finnish film industry. And with a biopic about the popular author J. R. R. Tolkien on the way, we’ll definitely be hearing more about him in the future. It was, therefore, an honor when Karukowski took time out of his shooting schedule to discuss his current biopic in theaters called “Tom of Finland.” Below is an edited version of our chat, in which we talked about the film’s social relevance and the importance of its selection as Finland’s Oscar submission.

Shane Slater: When was the first time you encountered Tom of Finland’s artwork?

Dome Karukoski: I must have been 12. I remember that someone in our French group had found one of his comic books. And I do remember us giggling. There was a certain positiveness. I remember that feeling of joy when finding that art. You can laugh, there’s a kind of humor in it. I remember that emotion.

Then later on in 1991, when he passed away, it was released that he is actually Finnish. We didn’t know that. We thought Tom of Finland is not actually a Finnish name. As in the film, it’s an English alias. And everybody thought that he’s probably American or something. When it was released that he was Finnish, I remember that there was a sense of shame in Finland. People thought, “what do people think now in America or in Australia. Do they all think we are a lot of gays wearing uniforms?”

Those were the first times I encountered him. And in 2011, we started slowly getting more information and started developing the film.

SS: With him hiding behind a pseudonym, was there a lot of information about his personal life available?

DK: No. That was actually a big turning point for us, in terms of script development. In 2011 there were just biographies and books made about him. There was a documentary he had made with Ilppo Pohjola called “Daddy and the Muscle Academy”, but still the information was just fragments.

There was a big turning point for us when we acquired the rights for the art in 2013 and started working with the Tom of Finland Foundation. They had all the archives, the letters, his photographs. All the material in a museum in Los Angeles. And I think that was very helpful because then you have all that information that you need to build a film. He wasn’t a public figure. He kept to himself. So it wasn’t easy finding that information.

SS: How did you cast the lead role?

DK: It was a casting process of about 2 months. During that casting process, I looked at 30 or 40 renowned Finnish actors and some new faces in the right age group that could play a 20-year-old and then with aging makeup could play older. And I tried to find the chemistry. The way to find that is usually in casting to have 2 or 3 of them cast against each other, so you can see the reactions and emotions. And we cast Lauri Tilkanen who played Veli and then Pekka Strang together at one time.

There was an audition with them together and you could sense the chemistry. We were waiting and wanting them to kiss. There was this sensation, an electricity in the air with them. That’s when you know this is our Tom and our Veli. That was a big moment, especially in a biopic.

SS: As the film shows, his life intersected with many major social and cultural events like World War II and the AIDS crisis. Was there a lot that was left behind in the editing room?

DK: Yes, of course. All these wild and crazy events happened and we had to choose for the narrative’s drama to work. So we chose 5 segments that were really important to him. And then all those events from those 5 segments were in the film.

War was a huge influence both in his art and private life in a positive and negative way. That was always evident that it would be in the film. Then the second is post-war when he starts finding his voice as an artist. And then, of course, the moment he meets his partner Veli. Then two segments in America. So those 5 segments we felt were important. If something wasn’t in those 5 segments of his life, we left it out. Otherwise, the narrative would have been just anecdotes. So of course, a lot of material that could have been in the film is not in there.

SS: The film also shows how Tom of Finland was initially embraced more abroad than in Finland. Have there been any differences between the responses in Finland vs international audiences?

DK: I think for Finnish audiences, Tom of Finland has become a bigger name in the past 2 or 3 years. So now it’s easier to launch the film, especially when he got the official stamp of Finland in 2014. That was a big change for him to become known by a wider audience in Finland.

It’s intriguing. In Finland, we look at it as the history of our country in a way. Whereas if you go abroad, it’s more about gay culture. But then, especially in America, I’ve noticed that it’s very much a societal issue. If you look at what is happening in America today regarding these issues, it’s a societal film. And that was very much what we intended. In many ways, it’s about freedom of speech, about freedom of being. So I think that aspect of looking at it is correct. But also, it’s not wrong to look at it as a portrayal of one segment of gay culture. There’s no one right way to look at it. I am happy to take any way you want to see the film.

SS: You mentioned there was some shame when it came out that he was Finnish. Was there any controversy surrounding the selection of this film to represent Finland for the Oscars?

DK: Not at that point. But when we announced the film and started making it, the conservatives were on the discussion boards. But that’s always an easy place to shout.

With Tom of Finland, there’s actually an intriguing change. I remember that moment in the 1990s there was a shame in regards to the artist. But now, if you talk to the average Finn, the shame has turned into pride. In a way, even a nationalistic pride. We don’t have that many artists that are internationally renowned and we are a proud nation. Even a conservative might say that they’re not a fan of his art, but in a way, they’re proud he’s Finnish. I see a change in what has happened in Finland. It is now one of the most liberal countries in the world and we have to embody that change. That happens slowly until the conservative side has less of a voice. Part of that process is making movies like this.

“Tom of Finland” is now playing in select theaters.