A profound, sweeping human drama from Finnish director Dome Karukoski that premiered at the Göteborg Film Festival before moving on to Tribeca and the rest of the festival circuit, the biographical Tom of Finland is Finland’s Oscar play this season in the category of Best Foreign Language Film. Based on a true story, the film follows Touko Laaksonen, who, upon returning home from World War II, turns to art, becoming famous—and infamous in his homeland—for his homoerotic drawings of muscular men. Risking prison time in a conservative state in pursuit of his artistic ideals, Laaksonen became an artistic icon and one of the most celebrated figures of 20th century gay culture, assuming the name ‘Tom of Finland.’
At a recent Awardsline screening of the film, Tom of Finland scribe Aleksi Bardy and star Pekka Strang sat down with Deadline Senior Editor Dominic Patten to discuss the biopic and how it came to be. Speaking about their attraction to the material, and the work of Laaksonen, the pair discussed the intriguing shroud of mystery surrounding the iconic artist, and the subtle dividing line between the artist and his art. “People tend to see the art and the artist as the same. I think Tocco lived a private life, and his art lived another life, and that’s also sort of how he lived in Finland,” Strang said. “He wasn’t known as Tom of Finland in Finland—he was Touko Laaksonen, this man on the streets of Helsinki—but then again in LA, he was this icon when he got here.”
While Strang touched on the experience of meeting the artist’s relatives after a screening in Laaksonen’s hometown of Turku, Bardy commented on the way the film has been received in Finland, for the way in which it reveals the conservative, repressive side of the country in this period. “Many people have been shocked, especially younger people. They have been asking, ‘So, you must be exaggerating about the operation,’ and I tell them that actually, it’s the opposite, it was much worse—that this film is only depicting some events in the life of Tocco Larson, and peoples’ memory is so short,” Bardy said. “People think that Berlin must have always been so liberal; it wasn’t. What happened to him in Berlin is all true. What happened to him in Finland is all true, and much worse.”
While producing a film based on a real life figure can be complicated, with the need to acquire life rights, Bardy found himself in a lucky position making this film, based on a choice Laaksonen had made before his death. “He chose to write a will where he gave the rights of his work to foundation, the Tom of Finland Foundation, which is located here in California. It’s people he worked with and his friends, and some of his lovers of the time who are now preserving his art and its memory,” the producer explained. “Working together with the Tom of Finland Foundation was an important part of making the film real. That not only gave us the rights, but it also challenged us to make the film better, and make the film more true.”
For Bardy, the takeaway from Tom of Finland is a life-affirming one. “It’s possible to change the world into a better place with just drawings,” he said. “Somebody who’s a very lonely person, who has fantasies, and was able to sort of deliver those fantasies on paper, can change the entire world—how we think, how we feel, how we act.”
To hear more from the talents behind Tom of Finland, click above.