Mikko Pöllä • Co-creator of Californian Commando
“People are excited about getting something other than Nordic noirs from the Nordics”
by Marta Bałaga
- We talked to Mikko Pöllä, the head writer and co-creator of the new Finnish comedy series Californian Commando, starring US actor Kian Lawley
Also behind Black Widows and Easy Living, Mikko Pöllä has now extended his interest to brothers in arms. Californian Commando, which he co-created with Roope Lehtinen, of Fire Monkey, for Elisa Viihde and which was directed by Jalmari Helander, sees a spoilt Californian kid (Kian Lawley) shipped off to the army upon his arrival in Finland, the homeland of his mother. Talk about a baptism of fire. The show premiered in February.
Cineuropa: An American who finds himself in the Finnish Army – this idea is as crazy as they come, and yet apparently there is some truth to it, isn’t there?
Mikko Pöllä: We have compulsory military service for men, and I heard stories about half-Finns coming to Finland to join up. In real life, if you have never lived here, you don’t have to do it. But you can if you want! After we started production, lots of people told me they knew of cases like that. We wanted to create a bigger conflict, of course, and a situation where it’s not exactly voluntary – our character is forced to do it. We got that idea a couple of years ago in Cannes. We were having dinner and started to joke: “What if a guy from California ends up in the Finnish Army?” It’s the most horrible thing that could ever happen to any hipster pacifist.
Half of the show is in English, but there are many local references, like mentions of “Vantaa being the ugliest city in Finland”. Do you think they will be understood abroad?
I think it’s less and less important if a show is American or French or whatever. The way I see the audience now is as one huge pool of people, and more of them are interested in drama from different countries. That’s the way Californian Commando was written, and that’s the way it was made – you don’t have to be American or Finnish to enjoy it. We, Finns, tend to think we have a certain mentality, but I’m not sure that’s true. There are some cultural clashes in the show, sure, but it’s more about individual hedonism versus the common good. I think that the characters can be over the top as long as the audience understands why they behave the way they do, and their emotions and actions come across as true. Jalmari’s ideas had a big effect on how it eventually turned out.
One can see echoes of something like Jalmari’s [action-adventure film featuring Samuel L Jackson] Big Game [+see also:
film profile] here. How early did he come on board?
We have known him for quite a while. When he directed the second season of [TV series] Wingman, we started to think: “Maybe we should ask what Jalmari thinks about this new comedy of ours?” The scripts were already written when we first contacted him, but then, of course, we did extensive rewrites based on his ideas, as we always do once the director is involved. He had a lot of input, especially when it came to the action scenes.
Why the idea of having a YouTube personality as the lead? Were you aware of the controversy surrounding his past behaviour [in 2018, a video of the actor using a racial slur resurfaced, leading to his firing from The Hate U Give]?
Kian is a [Daytime] Emmy-nominated actor, and at first, we didn’t know he was an influencer as well – we only learnt that after Jalmari screened his audition and said: “I want this guy.” His background had nothing to do with him getting the role. After the decision was made, we also learned about the things in his past. We came to the conclusion that he was only 15 years old when his friend shot a video of him saying these things. Nothing about it is ok, but he has apologised, and this behaviour was never repeated, and now he is 24. Teenage wrongdoing doesn’t have to define a person for the rest of his life and needs to be forgiven at some point.
As you certainly have experience to spare, what is the situation with TV series in Finland? How much can you do, and how much is still out of reach?
What has happened during the past 20 years is that people’s lives have become more international. Everybody knows someone whose mother or father is from anther country, like in the show: people travel for work or move. Also, the VoD platforms offer shows from all over the world, and finding new favourites has almost become a hobby. Our Scandinavian neighbours have created popular shows, so people are more open towards Finnish content as well – also because of the production incentive that Business Finland introduced for international TV productions. It has allowed producers and broadcasters to improve the quality of their projects, even though we still can’t compete with Sweden or Norway, budget-wise.
I have never done a Nordic noir or a cop show, as it would be hard to produce something fresh within these genres. But now, when we talk about our shows at international markets, people are excited about getting something other than Nordic noirs from the Nordics. It’s a good base, but now we can start moving in different directions.
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