Dying to live

Dying to live

April 11, 2023


A poisoning victim sets out to find his would-be murderer in Finnish drama The Man Who Died. Producer Markku Flink, writer Brendan Foley and director Samuli Valkama discuss nailing down the series’ specific tone and a key scene in which one character ends up all at sea.

Finnish drama The Man Who Died is based on the bestselling book of the same name by Antti Tuomainen, one of Finland’s most successful contemporary international authors. The story follows Jaakko Kaunismaa (Jussi Vatanen), a man in his prime who runs a thriving mushroom business, with keen customers as far away as Japan. Jaakko’s world is shattered when a doctor reveals he has been slowly poisoned by persons unknown. 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. But as the clock ticks, he feels gloriously alive for the first time in years, all while facing the ultimate questions of love, life, betrayal, death – and mushrooms.

The six-part black comedy crime drama is produced by Reelmedia, part of the APFI (Audiovisual Producers Finland), in coproduction with NDF international Production for broadcaster Elisa Viihde. Fifth Season handles international sales.

Here, producer Markku Flink, writer Brendan Foley and director Samuli Valkama explain
why The Man Who Died is proving popular with viewers and discuss the making of a key scene that culminates with a body being dumped at sea.

Jussi Vatanen (left) and Elias Westerberg’s characters dispose of a body in a key scene from The Man Who Died

Valkama: The Man Who Died has all the elements of a good story – crime, suspense and black comedy. In our story structure, every episode starts and ends with a bang. The first episode ends with a big car chase through the streets of Hamina, and all the endings of the episodes have something special, such as fight scenes with samurai swords and axes. But all of this is done in a deadpan, serious style.

Foley: Working on The Man Who Died was simultaneously one of the most challenging and rewarding writing jobs of my career. We were starting with a great book of the same name, by Antti Tuomainen, who is popular in both Finland and abroad, particularly the UK.

Flink: Antti Tuomainen is probably the most popular current Finnish crime writer internationally. His books have a quirky twist, similar in tone to the work of the Coen Brothers [Fargo] or Aki Kaurismäki [Le Havre].

Foley: Our first task was to remain loyal to that quirky tone with material that is incredibly funny and incredibly dark, sometimes at the same time. Keeping that tone was our holy grail, as we went from the original Finnish book to an English script, to a translated Finnish script, and then very carefully created English subtitles for the international market.

Valkama: As a director, I approached our series like we were making several feature films. The visuals and storytelling were precisely planned, with the key scenes storyboarded and designed well in advance with the DOP and production designer, and then rehearsed well with the actors.

Flink: In a sequence that comes at the end of one episode, Jaakko and his unfortunate helper Petri are attempting to dispose of a thug’s body and a samurai sword. It serves as an example of how we were aiming for very specific moods in the series. The amazing cast got that exact tone first from the script and then from the director and our great crew, all guided by that specificity and shared vision. Above all, it gave the actors the chance to really inhabit their characters.

Vatanen in discussion with director Samuli Valkama on location

Foley: The key was finding some killer visual moments, both from the book and invented for the series in equal measure. When Jaakko and Petri are attempting to move the body, samurai sword and all, in Jaakko’s car, its boots protrude out the back. But being law-abiding Finns, they cover the feet with their T-shirts as little warning flags, since they want to obey the highway code. The sequence ends with another killer visual: as the body is dumped at sea and the dumpers row away, the body pops up again, the head and top of the samurai sword now looking like a bobbing fishing float, marking the end of the episode.

Valkama: The process of getting things done on a series is always quite similar, but good planning is always met with surprises on the way. This time, the surprises were on the better side, and the luck was that we had a great locations manager and a local first AD, who introduced me and the DOP to some wonderful locations. A great script, the right casting, and the perfect locations are very good ingredients for getting things right. But how this is done always varies. This time, one of the key locations for the series was found while browsing the internet on a day off and coming across a local nature photographers society’s Instagram account – et voilà!

Foley: When it came to the dialogue, Finns are notoriously minimalist with their words, so we had a wonderful ongoing conversation between Jaakko and his delivery man Petri, who also happens to be having a fling with Jaakko’s wife. Jaakko needs Petri to help him move the body, but also wants to torment him in revenge for the affair. He does so by speaking like a Dilbert-style boss leading a corporate team-building exercise, rather than a dying man moving a body. He has only told Petri he has a friend in trouble who has had an accident. As they approach the body, Jaakko confides, “The accident was quite serious. He’s not looking his best.”

Flink: The moving of the body and the bonding of boss and delivery driver created a sequence that the audience loved. It was very Finnish, yet it also appeals to an international audience.

Valkama: I have now seen the first two episodes of our series with several different audiences at home and abroad, and viewers seem to love the series right from the start – but when the last 20 minutes of the second episode start, people seem to be electrified. I think it’s because of many things being right – the story, the actors, the direction, the DOP, the sets. But then there’s always the sense of something special starting to happen, that X-factor, which makes things click. To get this, I guess one has to work really hard and then get that slice of good luck to make everything just right. I think we got it here.

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