Uncharted waters

Uncharted waters

January 23, 2024


Finland’s Miikko Oikkonnen offers DQ an insight into his career and his writing process before discussing his approach to dramatising a real-life ferry disaster in factual drama Estonia.

Finnish writer Miikko Oikkonnen has created series such as crime drama Bordertown and thriller Heksinki Syndrome. But there is no doubt that Estonia, which dramatises the real-life sinking of the titular ferry in 1994 and the subsequent investigation into the tragedy, is the most significant and challenging project of his career so far.

Filmed in Finland, Sweden and Estonia, with numerous scenes also shot on water stages in Brussels, the eight-part series shines a light what happened to the MS Estonia in September 1994 and the international inquiry that followed, all through the eyes of survivors, rescuers, family members, politicians, investigators and journalists.

It is produced by Finland’s Fisher King in coproduction with Sweden’s Kärnfilm, Panache Production Belgium and Estonia’s Amrion Oü for C More Finland, Sweden’s TV4, MTV Finland and Telia Estonia. Beta Film is the distributor.

Here, Oikkonnen discusses how he began writing for television, the challenges of making Estonia and the role drama can play in retelling real stories.

Miikko Oikkonnen

How did you start out as a television writer?
I studied directing at Aalto University, but alongside directing, I often found myself involved in writing and producing student productions. This eventually led me to a job at [Finnish broadcaster] YLE as an assistant producer, and through that, I was also commissioned for my first scripts. So instead of film, television drama became familiar to me.

Towards the end of the 2000s, television drama was quickly rising alongside films. At that time, my business partner Matti Halonen and I founded a new company, Fisher King, with a specific focus on television. I decided to explore more about writers rooms and the special function of showrunners, which became the company’s way of operating, and eventually I became Finland’s first showrunner.

Which show served as your big break as a TV writer?
When we founded the production company, the strategy was to internationalise Finnish storytelling. At that time, all domestic drama was still funded with domestic money. The company’s goal was to produce series with an international approach. The fantasy series Nymphs was the first series I created, and it was sold to more than 60 territories. However, the real breakthrough came with the Nordic noir series Bordertown, to which I dedicated more than 10 years. It seemed to hit the crest of the genre’s wave, initially spreading to major channels in Europe and eventually reaching 180 territories worldwide via Netflix.

Where did the idea to dramatise the MS Estonia disaster first come from?
The sinking of the MS Estonia is one of the worst, largest and deadliest peacetime maritime disasters in 20th century Europe. Above all, the accident investigation itself has been termed a catastrophe due to its significant impact and implications, and the sinking remains a cold case. The accident and its investigation still make headlines in the Nordic countries, almost 30 years later.

This resurgence in public attention made it clear that the wounds from this incident still run deep within our society. When trying to find other projects about MS Estonia, I discovered a surprising absence of notable fictional dramas on the subject. Perhaps the topic has remained overly sensitive due to the memories still fresh in our minds. However, the involvement of networks such as MTV3 Finland and TV4 Sweden, which quickly embraced the idea for a series, signalled to me that the time might finally be right for such a production.

Estonia dramatises the sinking of the MS Estonia in 1994, which killed 852 people

What were your first thoughts about how you would tell this story?
Right from the beginning, it was important for the series to address all three countries involved in the disaster. The MS Estonia was a ship owned by Estonia and Sweden and named after the newly independent Estonia. The ferry sank in Finnish territorial waters and claimed 852 lives, the majority of whom were Swedish.

Everyone up here in the North can vividly recall where they were when the MS Estonia tragedy happened. It is a collective memory we share. However, very few are familiar with the extensive three-year-long inquiry that followed the devastating incident.

When I was presenting Finnish research material for the series to our Swedish colleagues, I was surprised to learn how little they knew about the events in Finland or Estonia during the investigation. Similarly, I had no knowledge of the developments in Sweden or Estonia, and the Estonians were unaware of the Swedish or Finnish perspectives. This created a starting point for the whole series: are we able to show these different points of view of the accident, paint a wider picture, and construct a comprehensive narrative of why the catastrophe occurred?

We wanted the series to feel credible and authentic to the audience, particularly within each of the three countries whose story we are telling, as well as internationally – whether in the scriptwriting process or realisation, in front of the camera and behind it.

What research did you do to ensure the project was authentic as possible?
When I started developing the series, I found more than 14,000 records in the Finnish National Archives related to the accident, and this is in Finland alone. There was probably an equal amount of material in Sweden and Estonia. We ended up hiring historians from all three countries to search for suitable material for the series. There was so much material that, in terms of content, we didn’t necessarily need to invent anything fictional for the series.

We knew when embarking on the task of recounting the MS Estonia story that we had a responsibility of depicting the actual event – we are telling a true story about real people. Although we wanted the series to adhere as closely to the facts as possible, of course, we were making a fictional series. This means we dramatised events, combined characters and events, and sometimes adjusted the timeline so that a drama series would emerge from real events.

The series also looks at the inquiry into the disaster

The writing team comprised people from different countries. How would you describe the writing process?
The process progressed rapidly once the concept was established. I first wrote the pilot episode before the writing team began their work. It was a concrete way to introduce the style and narrative approach of the series. Initially, I worked with a Finnish team: Sanna Reinumägi, Olli Suitiala and Tuomas Hakola. Writers from Sweden and Estonia brought the situations and characters from their own countries to life. In retrospect, this really contributed to the authenticity of the series and earned a lot of praise.

As showrunner, what were your biggest considerations when it came to production?
The production was substantial compared with anything I had done before. Estonia is claimed to be the largest Finnish drama production to date. But in practice, the work is somewhat the same as in any production. There was just more of it, and the production team included contributors from five different countries.

The shoots were also organised in five different countries with local production companies and local crews, so it was like a crazy puzzle – I feared visiting the scheduling room. Nevertheless, it was a special experience that made us overlook the differences and brought us closer in our commonalities. Also, the feedback from the networks involved and the international distributor, Beta Film, was very important to us.

How did you work with director Måns Månsson on the series?
Usually, a director joins the production closer to the filming stage, but the collaboration with Måns started during the early stages of the scripts. I had perhaps assembled the first versions of the first and second episodes when we began discussing the series and its content. We went through episode by episode and page by page, discussing how the characters, story and structure progress.

Måns was extremely involved in the entire content when the actual pre-production began. I also delegated a lot of responsibility to him. He further developed the chosen style with cinematographer JP Passi. He was heavily involved in the casting process and, as a Swedish director, essentially took charge of selecting Swedish actors. He also visited locations, leaving me time to continue working on the scripts.

The same deeper collaboration continued throughout shooting and in the editing process. Typically, directors do not participate in the editing of my productions, but this time, Måns was involved from start to finish. We diligently edited the series together with lead editor George Cregg. The time spent together editing was a great experience for me. It resembled more of a writers room. Discussions and joint experiments with the content undoubtedly led to a better end result.

Many scenes were shot on water stages in Brussels

How did the series balance practical with virtual and computer-generated effects?
This is a great question! We spoke with Måns and cinematographer JP Passi many times during pre-production, emphasising that we didn’t want the effects to overshadow the story. We wanted the viewer to feel in the midst of the events and be close to the characters, and the viewing experience to be both emotionally engaging and thoroughly gripping.

We recreated the vessel in different ways: We were shooting the tilting and sinking of the ship in the indoor water studios in Brussels. In Turkey, we rented an entire ship, and we were also shooting in existing locations in Estonia and Finland. By combining a real ship with VFX extensions, we aimed to convey the grand scale of the MS Estonia. With large, true-to-scale set pieces within the water studio, we show the rapid tilting and subsequent sinking of the ship. We accurately constructed a full-scale sundeck, corridors and cabins, all of which could be tilted and lowered into the water during filming.

A new aspect for the water stage crew was our wish to perform extended takes, incorporating practical effects such as rain, waves, water cannons and tanks. Our ambition was to follow our characters for several uninterrupted minutes, both within the ship and on the sundeck. This demanded extensive planning, tests, rehearsals and safety measures.
The ship modelling was done by the British company DNEG, and it was brought to life by Estonian visual effects company Frost Films. However, it was important to us that as much as possible of what is seen was captured with a camera and our actors, so most of the visual effects are digitally enhancing and extending real filmed material.

What challenges did you face and how were they overcome?
Perhaps the biggest challenges came from external factors that affected production. For example, in early 2022, we identified two vessels that could have been used as MS Estonia and MS Europa in the series. However, the port in Odessa, where these vessels were located, became inaccessible due to the ongoing war, making it impossible to proceed with production. Finding a new ship was not easy, and, understandably, no shipping line operating in the Gulf of Finland wanted to be involved in the project.

Another challenge was to build a large aluminium platform on which we could construct the sets, and which could be tilted and sunk in a controlled manner on the water stage. Sourcing materials for this platform also became difficult, and it affected the schedule. Moreover, rising interest rates and inflation over the years did not make production management any easier. As a showrunner, I had to grapple with various content decisions during both the filming and post-production due to these unexpected external pressures.

The eight-parter is a coproduction between Finland, Estonia and Sweden

What conclusions about the real-life tragedy did you come to after working on the series?
I read a considerable amount of research material, protocols, transcripts and articles about the accident. I don’t really doubt that the final report published in 1997 is mostly accurate. Interestingly, it’s worth asking why the report received such a contradictory reception and how it is possible that the accident investigation did not find anyone responsible for the accident. Hopefully, our series succeeds in showing the viewer the various reasons why the report was initially received with great scepticism.

Perhaps it also helps to understand the kind of chaos, pressure and conflicting interests under which the investigation was conducted. I argue that, in addition to the accident itself, the accident investigation was a failure marked by many overlapping errors. It is very interesting that the investigation into the MS Estonia accident has now been reopened, and new research results are promised to be published later this year.

What role does drama have in telling real stories in a way that documentaries or factual series do not?
You can read as many reports as you want, but they can never reveal the internal lives of people, particularly when it comes to describing the impact of unspoken things on them. Even interviews fail to capture the everyday interactions between people because there is an external observer in the moment. Only through fiction can you combine characters, themes and various times and places to create a tapestry that reveals aspects of a person that cannot be otherwise captured. This is why drama is an incredibly powerful tool.

What are you working on next?
After Estonia, I have continued with the second season of YLE’s heist thriller series Helsinki Syndrome, staring Peter Franzén. It is also loosely based on true events from the 90s, specifically in the banking and legal world. I hope the production will be completed this spring, and after that I dream of taking a development break. Estonia has been gigantic to me, so it feels like the next project must be especially meaningful and special. Developing something like that requires time and moments of freedom, right?

tagged in: , , , , , , , , ,