Sitting in a downtown Helsinki restaurant, film director Jesse Haaja sighs and reflects on the excesses of the past three years. In between travelling countless times Down Under to visit his girlfriend, Australian actress Bianca Bradey, Haaja has completed his first full length movie – a stressful slog that resulted in him losing 20 kilograms.
“If you want fast, easy weight loss, it only costs 1.3 million euros,” he says with a weary chuckle. “You will lose some hair at the same time, too.”
Along with acquiring a smaller wardrobe, the end result of his journey is Rendel, Finland’s first superhero movie. Lensed in seven cities and towns around the country, the film tugs at the dark seams that line the Finnish character to tell its pioneering tale.
“Rendel is a husband and a dad, a very normal Finnish guy,” Haaja explains. “Then something happens and the only thing that’s left is revenge. He is so blinded by it, he doesn’t know what’s right or wrong anymore.”
So, is it safe to say that he is a little more agitated than your regular, everyday superhero?
“He’s kind of a Batman, Punisher sort of guy,” Haaja confirms. “If those two could make a baby…”
Change of plan
The blood, sweat and tears poured into Rendel’s production actually represent the second act of its story. The film’s origins can be traced back some 17 years ago, when Haaja was a student. Digging deep into his imagination, the teenager began to sketch the outline of a character.
“I wanted to be a comic book artist,” he recalls. “But then I went to arts school and forgot the whole thing. I became a graphic designer and didn’t draw for many years.”
A decade-and-a-half of a marketing career later and Haaja began to suffer from cluster headaches, a debilitating state of affairs that wreaked havoc on his wellbeing. Mercifully, his condition eventually stabilised and with newfound clarity he sought a fresh focus.
“Once I felt like I had my life back, I thought about what I wanted to do with myself,” he states. “I realised I wanted to do a superhero film. It was then that I remembered I had my Rendel drawings in the garage.”
Fuelled by a few fingers of whiskey, a whimsical Haaja posted the sketches on Facebook and promptly went to sleep. He awoke the following morning to an unexpected response.
“Soon we had 20 000 followers on Facebook,” he recalls. “The newspapers here then reported that Finland was going to make its first full length superhero movie. But I had only wanted to do a short film…”
The budding filmmaker’s response set the wheels in motion for the gruelling next stage of his life: “I decided, well, let’s do a feature then.”
Although he had experience working on commercials and music videos with his day job, Haaja had actually never been on the set of a feature film. “How hard could it be?” he wondered to himself.
“I had a vision, but no knowledge or experience,” he reflects. “I was pursuing my dream and didn’t have time to stop and think. The only thing that saved me was that I had no idea what I was doing.”
Fortunately, he was taken under the wing of production company Black Lion Pictures, who were intrigued by his idea when they met at Cannes 2015.
Starting again from scratch, the script was rewritten in four days. The studio promptly gave Haaja the green light and soon cameras were rolling with an international cast. Finally, he was on his way to realising his dream – something easier said than done.
“We filmed for 14 weeks, 20 hours a day with a low budget and big challenges; we didn’t sleep or eat,” Haaja recounts. “Luckily, I realised early on that I need to surround myself with people who are more capable than me. The experienced crew helped me a lot, as they had so many ideas. Without them it would have been a disaster.”
Limited funds meant that the filmmakers had to find innovative ways to stretch every euro. Together, they were able to employ various cinematic tricks that boosted the look of the final product, without compromising the storytelling.
Also lending its support was the local indie scene, with fellow filmmakers such as Iron Sky’s Timo Vuorensola on hand to share their insight with the upstart.
Something for the fans
Fast-forward to September 2017 and Rendel is about to be released in Finland. Reviews have been overwhelmingly positive.
“Brutal, a surprising and dark-toned superhero film, whose cleverly constructed plot maintains interest up to the end,” stated Finnish film bible Episodi.
Things are looking promising abroad too. The film screened at the Berlin Fantasy Fest, and Haaja hints that it has been sold to a number of international markets.
And so, being as it is a superhero film, it seems there is only one thing left to add to the tale: merchandise.
“When it comes to the superhero genre, the fans are very active and dynamic,” Haaja says. “They need that stuff.”
Thus, Rendel’s mug is now emblazoned across action figures, torches, mice, powerbanks, tractors, a book – and even condoms.
“The fans want to buy everything you have,” Haaja states. “When we finished filming, I got an email from Texas. Someone wanted to buy my script with my notes on it for 5 000 US dollars.”
Haaja lets out another of his frequent laughs. The one thing that has been a constant during these past three years has been his good humour, in the midst of a moviemaking crash course filled with more twists and turns than a typical feature length film.
Now, with much resting on the success of Rendel, Haaja is still wearing a smile.
“If everything goes well, it’s a really nice Cinderella story. If not, it’s a huge failure; a sad story. Someone can then go and make the film about that.”