As filming begins on the series adaptation of Finnish novel The Man Who Died, author Antti Tuomainen and screenwriter Brendan Foley tell DQ how they have created a drama from this darkly comic story about a dying man who falls in love with life.
Finnish streaming platform Elisa Viihde is continuing to expand its original drama output with The Man Who Died, a six-part series that begins filming this month in Hamina, a town in the country’s south.
Based on the novel of the same name by Antti Tuomainen, the darkly comic drama tells the story of Jaakko Kaunismaa, a successful mushroom entrepreneur. After he falls ill with mysterious symptoms, Jaakko’s world shatters when his doctor tells him someone has been slowly poisoning him. His days are numbered, but before his impending death, Jaakko decides to uncover the murderer.
During Jaakko’s hunt for the killer, people have a habit of dying or vanishing around him. Yet with the clock ticking, he feels alive for the first time in years as he faces the ultimate questions of love, life, betrayal, death – and mushrooms.
Jussi Vatanen (pictured above, right, with Tuomainen) heads a cast that also includes Saara Kotkanniemi and Sara Soulié, while the series is directed by Samuli Valkama (Monday, The Three of Us). Producer Markku Dlink and Brendan Foley (Cold Courage) adapted the novel for television, with Foley also writing the scripts.
Produced by ReelMedia in Finland and coproduced by Germany’s ndF, the series is due to debut on Elisa Viihde Viaplay in the autumn of 2022. Here, Tuomainen and Foley tell DQ about how they have sought to retain the novel’s unique sensibility on screen.
Introduce us to the story of The Man Who Died.
Tuomainen: The Man Who Died is a dark comedy about love, death and mushrooms. It starts when a man named Jaakko Kaunismaa suddenly hears he’s dying, and it seems someone has been poisoning him over a long period of time. In other words, Jaakko is being slowly but surely murdered. I’m hoping to have written a funny and warm book about dying that also provides some serious thought.
Antti, how did you come to write the novel?
Tuomainen: Before The Man Who Died, I had written five very dark, very serious and very noir novels, and I felt that there was an element within me that I wanted and needed to bring into my writing. That element was humour. I wanted to use the whole palette, so to speak, and I wanted to combine the two art forms that I very much love and which have both been great influences: noir literature and all kinds of comedy films.
I was looking for a certain kind of story and came upon a very simple idea: a man receives very bad news in a doctor’s office. Then, after thinking of dozens of different occupations for him, I suddenly remembered a very theoretical article in a Finnish magazine about a very hypothetical business – exporting certain kinds of mushrooms from Finland to Japan – so I built that into a very real-sounding business in the story. Last but not least, I set the story in the small town where I spent my childhood summers. All that combined to create the tone I was looking for.
What appealed to you about Jaakko hunting for his own would-be murderer?
Tuomainen: In hindsight, I suppose the hunt for his own murderer was actually quite secondary to the hunt for the meaning and substance of life itself. To me, Jaakko’s quest is first and foremost an existential one. At the same time, having Jaakko hunt for his own murderer provided me with the plot, a host of absurdities and a chance to get him into trouble again and again. Finally, it does force him to make major decisions about his life.
Foley: For the six episodes of TV story, someone investigating their own murder-by-mushrooms before they die is a great, slightly mad hook, which also provides the ultimate ticking clock counting down. It gives a real urgency to the lead character finding answers, ranging from whodunnit to ‘whydunnit’ as well as bigger questions about what matters to him in life, beyond mushrooms.
What were the themes you wanted to discuss?
Tuomainen: I realised early on that when you write about death, you’re really writing about life, especially the tragicomic nature of it at times. I also wanted to write about someone who wakes up one day and realises that life is now, actually, and it’s not what he thought it was.
Foley: Those same themes were what interested me in the visual storytelling. What makes us tick? What would matter to us if we found out we hadn’t much time left on the planet? Why do little things annoy the hell out of us when we can take big changes in our stride? And what would all that look like to an amiably quirky mushroom entrepreneur in small-town Finland?
Brendan, how did you join the project?
Foley: I’ve worked with producer Markku Flink before, including on Cold Courage for Viaplay, Lionsgate, AMC+ and BritBox. Markku optioned and sent me the book and I just loved it. I read fewer books than I used to because, with so much screenwriting, plus so many new series to keep up with, it can sometimes feel like a busman’s holiday. But this one was different. It just made me gasp and laugh, often on the same page.
Antti and I met up in London and made sure we both genuinely wanted to make the same series. Once we established that, we were determined to work much more closely together than might be normal for screenwriter and author. There is a huge gift of trust going in both directions, and that made all the difference.
When you read Antti’s novel, what were your first thoughts about adapting it?
Foley: It really is as if the Coen Brothers or Wes Anderson were parachuted in to small-town Finland. Tone is everything; the story was already very visual, but the tone and humour are so specific. You had to choose the right pace and the right, very specific descriptions of people and places so that anyone reading the script knows from page one what they are watching.
In this case, the humour is darkly funny in that way the Coens do so well – a mix of pathos, absurdity and larger-than-life characters. Get it wrong and you end up with slapstick or slide whistles. But nor can it be so dark that it becomes mean-spirited. It’s about someone who falls in love with life once they know how short it can be. If Breaking Bad was about someone discovering they were a much darker character than they thought they were, The Man Who Died is about someone whose impending appointment with destiny really brings him to life. In a way, it’s Breaking Good.
You describe it as a very visual story. How did you translate that to the script?
Foley: The real challenge was not, as is often the case, to cherry-pick and over-inflate some visual moments but actually to use as many of them as possible and then expand on the characters, action and themes so that there would be enough material of the same quality to fill six episodes, all while staying true to that tone and the wonderfully oddball nature of the characters. I always knew we were on the right track when Antti would say, “That bit wasn’t in the book, but it could have been.”
How do you approach adaptations? Did Antti’s novel pose any particular challenges?
Foley: I’ve written books too, and that gives you a respect for and appreciation of what’s involved. One very specific challenge was the process of migrating back and forth from Finnish to English. I started with a Finnish book that was brilliantly translated to English, which in turn became my English script, and then that had to be transmogrified, with Antti’s help, back into a predominantly Finnish language series, which in turn has to appeal to an international audience.
It’s like playing catch with a Faberge egg. You have to get it right every time. We were only able to do so because we had the support and confidence of streamer Elisa, who are just great to work with, alongside very experienced producers who let us get on with it, from Reelmedia in Finland and ndF in Germany.
How did you develop the series with producer Markku Flink? Is it very faithful to the source material?
Foley: Markku loves the book as much as I do. We sat down together at the very start and identified all the key visual and emotional moments that would be our milestones along the way. Markku was a great producer in that he made sure we had a structure that was creatively workable as well as shootable, and then he let me get on with it. I’m sure we’ll work together again. And if I get the chance to adapt one of Antti’s other novels, I’d do so in a heartbeat.
What can you tell us about the structure of the six episodes?
Foley: I won’t spoil the plot. At the start, Jaakko has no idea who may have poisoned him, but suspects quickly proliferate like mushrooms, so each episode has an element of a murder mystery as well as a more philosophical, character-driven side – something like the balance of the movie Fargo. In our case, Jaakko’s apparent ticking-clock lifespan also gives a great shape to the six episodes.
How do you balance the story’s thriller elements with its dark humour?
Foley: There were a few times when I dialled back the inherent humour in a particular moment to make sure that a life-or-death situation didn’t get lost in the mix. But, to be honest, the book did such a good job of making the darker moments and the amateur detective parts work alongside the pathos and bonkers-yet-real characters.
Tuomainen: I think this has a lot to do with the tone, with how things are presented. When I begin writing a book, I’m very particular and work very hard to find the exact right tone that particular story needs.
How does the filming location of Hamina and its surroundings inform the story?
Tuomainen: In the book, the small seaside town of Hamina is one of the main characters, one of the main ingredients and, to me, crucial to the tone of the book. It makes me very happy that the series will actually be filmed there.
Foley: One of the first things we did while the screen story was still percolating was for me, Markku and Antti to visit Hamina together. It is just a wonderfully quirky place. How could you not love a town that has Europe’s tallest flagpole with a Finnish flag the size of a basketball court?
Antti, how involved have you been with the television adaptation?
Tuomainen: Brendan and I have met, both in London and in Finland, and discussed the story, the references and especially the tone quite a few times. From the beginning, we hit a mutual chord. But in practical terms, I’ve stayed out of Brendan’s writing room. A book and a film, or TV series in this case, are such different animals that I have wanted to give Brendan and everybody else a complete freedom to interpret the story and translate it into the language of film as they see best. I have made a few suggestions along the way and I believe they have been listened to, which has been very nice. I don’t take it for granted. I’ve also been translating Brendan’s dialogue into Finnish.
What can you tell us about how the series will be filmed?
Foley: If Antti and I have done our job then a great deal of it is on the page. At that point, we aim to get out of the way and give this amazing Finnish crew a chance to show what they can do, led by Markku, director Samuli Valkama and cinematographer Anssi Leino, all of whom really get what we were aiming for visually and tonally and share our admiration for cinematographer Roger Deakins (Fargo, Skyfall). Then there is a really strong cast and crew, with Jussi Vatanen (Man in Room 301) leading the charge and a small army of great talent inhabiting unusual characters.
Markku Flink says this is “the most Finnish of all stories” and compares it to the Coen Brothers or Wes Anderson. How will this be translated on screen?
Foley: The Coens and Anderson are masters at making quirky, larger-than-life characters sympathetic and real, making sure that humour, pathos, action and humanity all collide, as in [Anderson’s] The Grand Budapest Hotel and [the Coens’] Fargo and A Serious Man. That combination of specificity and universality is why we think The Man Who Died will work internationally, as the book already has, particularly in the UK and Germany. We have also cranked up part of the story involving Japan and Japanese buyers of Finland’s wild mushrooms, so it’s truly an international story.
What are your hopes for the series and why might viewers in Finland and around the world enjoy the show?
Tuomainen: The response I’ve gotten from the book has been overwhelmingly delightful from all around the world. One of the things that has made me particularly happy has been that the book has taken so many people by complete surprise. That element of joyous ‘where did that come from?’ is the one I’m hoping the series will have as well.