Gay icon Tom of Finland, born Touko Laaksonen, was actually a decorated WWll officer before returning to his hometown of Helsinki which was rampant with homophobic persecutions. In reaction, Laaksonen lost himself in illustration. His highly stylized masculinized homoerotic fetish art (some of them inspired by his encounters in the army with German soldiers) could have landed him jail. His work was spotted by an American publisher who lured Laaksonen to the West Coast where he finally found freedom in LA. The iconography of Tom of Finland was born and helped fan the flames of the gay revolution.
TOM OF FINLAND by Dome Karukoski
VisionaireWorld: When and where did you decide to make a biopic on Tom of Finland?
Dome Karukoski: It was late 2011 when we started developing the film with screenwriter and producer Aleksi Bardy. We developed the script for over 4 years – researching and reading Tom’s letters. We also received a lot of help from the Tom of Finland foundation with materials and stories about his life. It’s not normal for a film to take 5+ years to make, but the difficult part was the screenwriting phase. How to tell a man’s life in such a short period? And at the same time, it’s our interpretation as artists, so it can’t be a “wikipedia-film” with just years and events rolling. It has to find a dramatical core. But now we are quite happy and proud.
VW: What influence did the art have on your life?
DK: I would say that his courage has influenced me most. Everything he did, he had to do it on a time when it was illegal. Having and drawing about joy and your sexual desires without shame at that time is very inspirational to me as an artist.
VW: Do you think the drawings have had an impact on fashion? Take for example Peter Marino, he looks like he’s taken directly out of a Tom of Finland drawing.
DK: I think he’s affect is quite obvious. He has influenced many designers. Jean-Paul Gaultier of course also among them. The hyper masculinity in his art has most likely affected many designers without us even noticing it directly. And also modelling and the way we shoot men in the ads. Often you see David Beckham or Rafael Nadal in an underwear print add and the compositions, use of light and posture seem to come straight out of a Tom’s drawing.
VW: Has it had any influence on your style choices?
DK: Tom’s artwork doesn’t seem Finnish to us Finns. It has a very international look. So it was very important for us from the beginning that the film would not look “a typical Finnish film”. It had to have an universal tone in it. In its textures and contrasts. Tom had courage, so we also wanted to have courage in our way of shooting the film. The editing is unconventional at times and we use a hand held camera in a period film which is also unconventional. An important thing was that how we lit the leather in the film. The leather had to have a shining feel. Lasse Frank, our cinematographer and his team used a lot of time to lit the leather right. So it would have to contrasty feel as it has in his drawings. The effect is very subtle in the film and of course it was not possible in every location, but the effect is probably easiest to see in the character Kake during the film.We also made compositions in the film that are close to Tom’s style. Some are quite obvious, some are very subtle. There are probably 20-30 shots in the film where we built it in homage to him.
VW: Why did Tom’s work become so iconic that it is still being celebrated around the world today? And not just in the LGBT community but in high-brow art spaces like Artist Space in NYC.
DK: Joy and pride. Having no shame about your sexual desires. These are emotions that touch us all regardless of who you are. At the same time its interesting that his art is so much about equality. Also in its sex. Everybody enjoys it. And of course the artistry itself. It’s almost impossible to find people who can imitate his drawings. The texture is so well done. With passion and with love.
VW: What is your favorite part of the story behind Tom of Finland? Your favorite scene from the movie let’s say.
DK: There are two scenes that I held very dear to me from the beginning. One is, of course, the ending scene. With its joy and call for to dance yourself out of the movie theatre. That scene in real life and in the movie represents everything. People enjoying life without no shame. The second one was his experience in Berlin. It has always felt almost like thriller for me. He had to find ways to bring his art out of Finland. Being smart and having the danger of getting caught. That tells a lot about the characters resourcefulness and makes me question myself. Could I’ve done the same?
TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL 2017
TOM OF FINLAND (Section: International Narrative Competition)
Director: DOME KARUKOSKI
Starring: Pekka Strang, Lauri Tilkanen, Werner Daehn, Seumas Sargent and Jessica Grabowsky
Running Time: 114 Minutes/ Language: Finnish With English Subtitles
Award-winning filmmaker Dome Karukoski brings to screen the life and work of one of the most influential and celebrated figures of twentieth century LGBTQ culture.
Touko Laaksonen, a decorated officer, returns home after a harrowing and heroic experience serving his country in World War II. But life in Finland during peacetime proves equally distressing. He finds post-war Helsinki rampant with homophobic persecution, and gay men around him are being pressured to marry women and have children. Touko finds refuge in his liberating art: homoerotic drawings of muscular men, free of inhibitions. But it is only when an American publisher sees them and invites Tuoko over to the West Coast that his life really takes a turn. Finally being able to walk free and proud in Los Angeles, Tuoko dives head first into the sexual revolution, becoming an icon and a rallying point. His work – made famous by his signature ‘Tom of Finland’ – became the emblem of a generation of men and fanned the flames of the worldwide gay revolution.
One of Finland’s most acclaimed directors, Dome Karukoski has been named one of “Variety’s” Top 10 Directors to Watch and his films have gathered numerous international awards. Winner of several Finnish National Film Awards, and Best Director for Dark Butterflies and Lapland Odyssey, Karukoski’s films are as successful abroad as they are at home.
PS: Please note: the film has been picked up for US release by Kino Lorber in Fall 2017.