DQ travels to Finland to meet the cast and creative team of Mobile 101, an upcoming drama that charts the rise of Nokia amid the mobile phone technology boom of the 1980s and 1990s.
Outside a nondescript office complex in Southwest Finland, what looks like a school sports day taking place in the 1980s is getting underway.
On one stretch of a green overlooked by dozens of charcoal windows are two people struggling to stay upright during a sack race, while opposite them a committed game of darts is being played.
Most of the actors and extras participating in these games are decked out in vintage Adidas tracksuits and sweatbands in a kaleidoscope of neon colours that break up the grey and drizzly October morning in the town of Salo.
They are here filming Helsinki-based Rabbit Films’ latest drama, Mobile 101, which has been commissioned by Nordics and Baltics streamer C More and local Finnish commercial broadcaster MTV3. The six-part series charts the rise of Finnish mobile manufacturer Nokia from 1988 to 1990 – and it is hoped the show, which Rabbit also distributes internationally, will be commissioned for second and third seasons to examine the firm’s downfall in the noughties after it failed to recognise the burgeoning smartphone market.
The concrete and glass IoT Campus – the location for today’s shoot – was not chosen purely for its aesthetics. Now home to several tech companies, the site used to be one of Nokia’s main hubs. For the next couple of hours, the crew are filming a team-building day for Nokia employees before they move on to Salo train station and the former restaurant Salon Seurahuone for later scenes.
Launching in 2022, Mobile 101 is structured around three central storylines. Katarina Tammi (Satu Tuuli Karhu) is an ambitious young law graduate who, after failing to get her dream job at the UN, ends up working at Nokia alongside her university classmate Aki Makkonen (Emil Kihlström). Struggling at first to adjust to corporate life, she soon becomes a rising star at the firm, even if she is tested when rival company Motorola sues over patents.
Meanwhile, Risto Salminen (Aku Sipola) is a talented and introverted engineer who, despite setbacks, pushes forth to develop Nokia’s first ever mobile phone. Finally, Sampo Sarkola plays Jorma Ollila, Nokia’s chief financial officer and later CEO, a role he is plunged into unexpectedly following the suicide of previous CEO Kari Kairamo.
While based on real life, Mobile 101 is a fictionalised version of events, written and directed by Maarit Lalli. Lalli, who became a director in her 30s after a previous career working in administration for an interior design company, decided to embark on the project eight years ago after reading the news that Microsoft had bought Nokia in 2013. “I started announcing that I was going to make a project based on Nokia so that it would become a reality,” she says.
Lalli is sat a table at Salon Seurahuone, a restaurant that recently closed for good after 14 years in business. Brought back to life, its central room has been dressed as a formal and glamorous diner, with a dozen or so tables draped in white tablecloths and lit up by candles. Outside, trays and trays of the same food are laid out, ready for action. It looks like the diners are about to tuck into pork belly and beetroot salad for their main course, rounded off by chocolate and jam roly-poly cakes for dessert.
Playing with the cutlery, Lalli says the process of producing Mobile 101 began with interviewing former Nokia employees, from top-level executives to cleaners. She encountered no resistance from Nokia, whose history has never been portrayed on screen before, and spent hours mining stories. Among them was that of former CEO Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo.
Kallasvuo, who worked at Nokia for more than 30 years before he was fired in 2010, shrugs when asked in an earlier conversation at his offices in central Helsinki if he had any reservations about being brought to life in a drama. He hasn’t been on set or read the script, and he says he knows little about the series. But nonetheless, he was impressed when he saw a clip of his on-screen self, played by Martin Bahne. “Instantly I knew it was me, although I’ve never met Martin,” he says. “I can really see myself in him – my gestures, everything.”
Once Lalli, who won three Jussi Awards (Finland’s film awards) for her debut feature Almost 18, had gathered the stories, she began fleshing out the script. Describing herself as a collaborative writer who prefers to work in a team, she would workshop the plot before distributing scenes to her fellow writers. Later, they all reconvene and Lalli makes edits and changes to their drafts. One of her trusted team members is her son, Henrik Mäki-Tanila, who also cowrote Almost 18. Following in his mother’s footsteps, Mäki-Tanila is a writing student at a film school and a reality TV producer.
But Lalli, with her director’s hat on, often becomes frustrated with how she approaches scriptwriting when filming starts. “When I’m writing, I don’t think about the process of directing. I just want to produce the best possible story,” she says. “But then when I direct, I get frustrated with ‘Me the Writer,’ as I might have written storylines that are logistically difficult to direct.”
Sarkola, who plays a serial killer in Netflix’s Bordertown, and Secret Lives (Salatut elämät) star Sipola both later say after the day’s filming is complete that they have never worked with a director like Lalli. Describing her style as “anarchist,” they say she is unorthodox in her approach and unafraid to break convention.
That sentiment is echoed earlier by their co-stars, newcomers Karhu and Kihlström, who are sat in a cubicle in the IoT Campus’ reception area while waiting to film the aforementioned Salon Seurahuone restaurant scene, which Kihlström says will be an awkward affair in which they come to blows with his character’s overbearing mother. Karhu and Kihlström agree that Lalli is extremely receptive to actors’ opinions. “She doesn’t often have the clear blocking in place,” Kihlström says. “Instead, she wants us all to figure out a character’s movements and expression together.”
Karhu adds: “She would be in her element if we were able to have five hours all together to explore where a scene could go – but we don’t have that time!”
It is the second and final block of filming for Mobile 101, after a 40-day shoot from April to June and a four-month summer break. Both Karhu and Kihlström have made SparkNotes-style revision guides to help jog their memories, and they are clearly delighted to be back. As well as the IoT campus and the restaurant, other locations in Salo have included the Hotel Fjalar.
“It’s like a museum,” Kihlström says of the hotel that was opened to honour radio and TV technology pioneer Fjalar Nordell. “Everything is from the 80s or 90s still and there’s a huge hallway full of vintage TVs and mobile phones.” In a couple of days’ time, the crew will fly to the final location, Munich, for a week-long shoot where the German city is doubling up as Washington DC.
With little hesitation, Karhu says one of her most challenging scenes to film involved driving a classic sky-blue Volkswagen Beetle around the streets of Salo. But taking a vintage car out for a spin was not as glamorous as it sounds, she says, owing to its equally vintage gearstick and steering wheel. “It was incredibly difficult because the wheel and the gearstick were heavy and would constantly jam,” she recalls. “It was helpful that the streets were closed.” In the passenger seat was Kihlström. “But I couldn’t help as I don’t have a driving licence,” he laughs.
Karhu and Kihlström know each other from drama school, the Theatre Academy of the University of the Arts Helsinki, although they were in different year groups. While their paths didn’t cross much then, in Mobile 101, playing friends, they share many scenes together.
A major moment in the series sees Katarina battle it out with Motorola lawyers. “My character really loses her temper,” says Karhu, who had to strike the fine balance of showing rage while not hamming up her performance. “It had to be really big but also convincing,” she notes. Kihlström, meanwhile, had the opposite problem. In the same scene, his character does not have a line but must offer support to Katarina. “It was a lot of face acting,” he says.
Describing Aki as a “spoilt rich kid who has been fed with a golden spoon and got the job through family connections,” Kihlström says he got to know the character by rehearsing lines to himself in a local park. Aki also has a panic disorder, something Kihlström has no experience of. “It was difficult to portray, so I spoke to lots of people with panic disorder and imagined a lot,” he says.
Before one scene at Aki’s mother’s house, where he has a severe panic attack, Kihlström says he had to isolate himself to get into the zone: “I had to really get in the mood, which meant when the sound guy came to chit-chat, I had to postpone our conversation to a later date.”
Also acting in Mobile 101 is producer and Rabbit scripted head Minna Haapkylä. Famous for her Jussi award-winning roles in films Rakkaudella Maire (With Love from Maire) and Kuulustelu (The Interrogation), she bounds over in 80s sports gear, fresh from shooting her scenes as a union rep for the Nokia employees, a minor part in the series.
Lalli contacted Haapkylä about Mobile 101 after she failed to garner interest in it as a film. “I knew straightaway after reading the script that it was a series, as there was so much story in it,” Haapkylä says. From then on, it was all systems go. “People were also ready to talk about Nokia and wanted to feel nostalgic and remember its good days,” she continues. “Nokia really was a national treasure for the Finnish people and it was a source of national trauma when it started going downhill. Enough time has passed now, though, to look back at what happened.”
Haapkylä retains her actor’s perspective when it comes to producing, and had a hand in shaping Mobile 101’s script. “As an actress, I get emotional reading the lines. I would come along and read the script and then I would say, ‘Emotionally, I can’t relate to that,’ and I would invent lines that were more appropriate to the character,” she says. “I would play the parts of all the characters and advise when the script was or wasn’t working for them.”
Producing didn’t stray too far from her mind, however: “I read the script a little bit as a producer – saying no to helicopters and things of great expense and that sort of thing – but mostly I read it from an actor’s standpoint and put myself into the story.”
One of the few headaches for Haapkylä during production has been the coronavirus pandemic. Additional safety measures were put in place, such as regular testing, but certain government regulations brought complications. “We had problems with using extras as we weren’t allowed more than 15 people in the same room at one point, so we had to keep the number of people on set down,” she says.
The pandemic also closed shops, which is not ideal when you’re a costume designer on the hunt for a very specific aesthetic. “The costume-buying process was complicated by Covid,” says Mobile 101 head of costume design Maria Sirén as she makes the final adjustments to the outfits worn by diners, who are decked out in green pencil skirts and polka dot dresses, at Salon Seurahuone. Instead, clothes were sourced from flea markets, recycling centres and theatres in a process that took three months. “Although I never really stop adding pieces,” Sirén says. Her favourite costume is a 1980s power suit.
Moving out of Salon Seurahuone’s dining room so filming can start, Lalli says that, above all, she wants scenes to be “alive.” It’s the main piece of advice she gives to the actors, while she puts herself in the shoes of the audience when directing by standing directly behind the camera.
“When a scene is shooting, I try to stand close to the actors and not sit behind the monitor. My goal is to support and direct the actors close up to see the audience’s perspective. That often means I can spot if something is out of place, because I’m close to the action,” she says, before going to take her place in the heart of the action.