Deer to his heart
A family is torn apart and secrets are reveals when a criminal matriarch passes away in Finnish drama Poromafia (Reindeer Mafia). Director Mika Kurvinen discusses the influences behind this darkly comedic series and the challenges of filming in Lapland.
For 2019 Finnish drama Invisible Heroes, director Mika Kurvinen travelled around the world to film a Chile-set series based on the true story of two diplomats caught up in a 1973 coup.
Yet he can draw similarities between the demands and challenges of shooting scenes for that series and those filmed much closer to home for his latest project, Poromafia (Reindeer Mafia).
“My last series I shot in Chile and it was 36 hours to get back home,” he tells DQ. “So I thought for my next series, it would be in Finland. I said, ‘Let’s shoot it in Lapland,’ but I didn’t realise that it would be four hours to the airport and you have to drive in really difficult weather. Shooting there was almost as difficult going across the planet.”
Filming in the northernmost parts of Finland, in Kilpisjärvi and Kittilä, and also across the Norwegian border in Tromssa, meant “you can really feel it was shot in real locations and you can feel the different atmosphere the show has,” he adds. “It gives a unique touch to the feeling of the show.”
Reindeer Mafia, which debuts this Thursday on Nordic streamer C More, opens with the death of Brita Nelihanka, the matriarch of a criminal family that has long ruled over the Arctic lands in the north. When her relatives gather to hear how her inheritance will be split between them, Brita’s will offers big surprises, causing her whole family to become embroiled in an internal power struggle as their ill-gotten gains are set to be returned to their original owners.
Blending dark humour with Nordic noir, the eight-part series stars Samuli Edelmann, Mikael Persbrandt and Rune Tempte. Kaiho Republic produces for C More and MTV3 Finland, with Dynamic Television distributing.
“It’s a family drama combined with a Nordic crime twist and a love story,” says Kurvinen, who writes and directs the series. “I could say it’s a mix of genres. I grew up with Coen Brothers films so I can’t avoid trying to imitate them or how I see the dark humour and setups there. There’s also a cultural thing in Finland that men are quiet and they don’t speak so much to each other, so there’s an awkwardness to the humour also. When something really bad happens, the reaction from the characters is different from how you might imagine.”
The story of a family torn apart by inheritance and legacy planning may draw some parallels to HBO’s Succession or Danish drama Avingerne (The Legacy). But Reindeer Mafia is actually based on the novel of the same name by Mikko-Pekka Heikkinen that was published in 2016. The show’s producers invited Kurvinen to take a look at the book with a view to a potential adaptation, and he was immediately drawn into the world and its characters.
“But when we talk about doing an eight-episode TV series, the book is still quite narrow in how the characters are presented,” he says. “That was the starting point, as I understood I needed to create a bigger narrative for TV. I wanted to go inside the characters a bit more in the adaptation.”
When it came to writing the scripts, the original idea was to open a big writers room and draw ideas from a number of people. But after penning the synopsis and the first two episodes, Kurvinen agreed with the producers that he should write the whole series because he had already mapped out every twist and turn of the story – and the people viewers would meet along the way.
“This was really a huge test to see if I can write this stuff by myself,” he says. “Of course, there were lonely moments, but it really helped during the shoot because I knew the story and the characters so well that we could do minor or bigger changes to scenes immediately, because we knew all the effects those changes would have on the bigger story.”
Kurvinen, who has written on Invisible Heroes and crime drama Aallonmurtaja, says his approach to writing is to get inside the characters’ heads – a process that is helped by his acting background and leads him to roleplay as certain characters to see how they might react to different scenarios. “Sometimes certain narratives for certain characters led me into places I didn’t imagine going in, and they were the toughest moments, but you need to follow the character naturally and try to avoid a fixed narrative,” he explains.
“One of the things we added to the story is that it is about debts and the various ways of having debts, so all the characters are trying to settle their debts or have some kind of atonement. That was quite a juicy starting point for me as a writer. And because there’s really dark humour, you can have heavy turning points inside the story. It’s going to be surprising for people.”
Reindeer Mafia marks the first time Kurvinen has written an entire series, describing himself as a director first and writer second. He enjoyed the process so much that he is now planning to continue this dual role, though he is also open to directing other people’s scripts.
“It was an interesting experience,” he says. “Because I’m a director first, the writing is always much heavier for me. It’s always the blank-page problem, so when I started writing, the train started a little bit slower than I thought it would. But when I got the engine started, then it goes.”
That double role also meant that while he was writing the scripts, Kurvinen was storyboarding shots and editing the series in his head as the scenes played out on the page.
“I really think movies and TV series are written three times – the first time is, of course, when you are writing the whole thing. The second is when you are shooting it, because you are changing some things, maybe the location doesn’t match the script or the actors had a better idea of how to do the scene: and the third time is when we’re in post-production and editing,” he notes. “When you start writing, you are following the characters and what needs to be and what doesn’t, so the process is always moving. It’s kind of like an expedition.”
Behind the camera, Kurvinen sought to capture the Lapland scenery in wide shots for a story he describes as “Sons of Anarchy on snowmobiles,” with a nod to the crime gang at the centre of the story. Otherwise, he always wanted to follow the point of view of the characters in each scene, even when he completed numerous one-take shots that add a sense of pace and propulsion to the drama.
But filming in temperatures that plummeted to -30°C proved to be “really tricky.” Equipment would regularly freeze up, while the old American cars the production had sourced frequently didn’t start.
“There were so many situations where we had to push the cars in the scenes,” he reveals. “But the crew was amazing. We were in the wilderness, basically, every day during shooting, but you learn really quickly to dress warmly. The first couple of days we were really taught that.”
With Nordic noir still commanding huge interest around the world, Kurvinen hopes Reindeer Mafia has the potential to draw in viewers beyond Scandinvia and help to push the genre into new territory with the show’s mix of genres and unique sense of humour.
“This show has a lot of things for Nordic noir fans, but this has Nordic crime and a Nordic setting in a world that is a bit more fantastical,” he says. “The feeling of the place is a bit more magical.”