Estonia’s film industry was provided a major boost in 2019 when Christopher Nolan’s big budget thriller Tenet opted to shoot in the former Soviet Union territory, injecting capital and prominence into the local film scene.
Allfilm, one of the country’s most successful and prolific producers, provided production services for the Nolan pic, and was given a further end-of-year boost when its feature Truth And Justice was a surprise inclusion on the International Oscar shortlist.
The company, run by producer Ivo Felt, was founded in 1995, only four years after Estonia became independent, and three years before the establishment of its national film body. Based in the capital Tallinn, where some 400,000 of the country’s 1.3 million population live, across 25 years Allfilm has produced a steady output of small budget features, patching together finance from local and international sources.
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The outfit is probably best known for producing Estonia-Georgia co-production Tangerines, which follows an Estonian man living in a breakaway region of Georgia while war rages on his doorstep. The film was Oscar nominated in 2015. Its director Zaza Urushadze died suddenly last month.
Truth And Justice, from debut director Tanel Toom, is a period epic that the director adapted from Anton Hansen Tammsaare’s famed novel, which is widely considered to be one of the fundamental works of Estonian literature. It charts an Estonian farmer in 1870 who struggles against a rival neighbor as well as his own family and beliefs. The film has been a smash hit in Estonian cinemas, becoming the most successful release of all time. It screened at festivals in Tallinn and Busan and will play Palm Springs in the new year. Berlin-based Films Boutique recently boarded sales.
Deadline caught up with producer Felt to discuss making the ambitious feature, working on Tenet, and his memories of the late Urushadze.
DEADLINE: Tell me the story behind Truth And Justice.
IVO FELT: If you had to name one novel from Estonian literature, you name this one. It’s on all school programs. There have been many attempts to make it into a film, but no one got it made. The book is very thick, it has many characters and subplots, so it needed a lot of development. Compiling a great script out of that was not easy.
Tanel Toom came to me one day with the book, wanting to make a film out of it. It wasn’t meant to be his debut film, but then [the Estonian government put out] a call for developing film projects to mark Estonia’s 100 years of independence. We thought it would be stupid not to try. The competition was really heavy for a small country, they received 160 entries. That was reduced to five, and we were one of them, getting the most points in the competition. Tanel then adapted the book into a screenplay.
The government provided €9m ($10m) across all the film projects – feature films, docs, animations. In total there were five features supported. It was allowed to be up to 90% of the total budget. We got €2.1m ($2.3m) to make the film, and added another €500,000 ($554,000) ourselves. Without the competition we wouldn’t have been able to make it. The total budget was €2.6m ($2.9m).
DEADLINE: It looks like quite an ambitious project.
FELT: It was very ambitious. We shot over a year and a half because we had to wait for the seasons. We had 75 shooting days, there was lots of set construction, and a very big crew for us. It was a period piece and these films usually cost a lot, somehow we were able to manage to do it with this quite small budget. For the first time in our local film history we used prosthetic makeup to a high level to age actors. We took concepts from Denmark to learn how to do that.
It was a special project for us. We had to take it very seriously – everyone knows the book here, it’s so prominent, you can’t spoil it. I also didn’t want to screw up Tanel’s first film.
DEADLINE: The film has been a big hit in Estonia.
FELT: It did unbelievably well for such a small country. Estonia has a population of 1.3 million and we had 266,000 people come to see the film. The box office was an absolute record of all time here, it beat Avatar by nearly a third. It also got really good reviews. It did everything a film can do in this country.
DEADLINE: You’ve been prolific producers in Estonia since 1995, how has the country’s film industry changed in that time?
FELT: We are small. We usually rely on state funding and subsidies, otherwise we wouldn’t really survive in this market. It has been dependant on the amount the government can allocate for filmmaking. We started in 1995, and there was one year, 1996, when not a single feature film was made in Estonia.
The Estonian Film Foundation was established in 1998. When they got off the ground, business started to grow. Since then, it has been doing well. We have been able to produce several films a year, including minority co-productions. We have been really open to all kinds of co-productions, and also production services, including a recent Hollywood film.
DEADLINE: That would be Christopher Nolan’s Tenet.
FELT: It was the first time ever a Hollywood film came to Estonia. It was a boost for us as a local producer. We were working on it for months and months.
DEADLINE: Estonia has been due to get its first purpose built studio facility for a while now.
FELT: We are constructing our first proper sound stage, we really hope it’s going to be built next year. Six production houses in Estonia gathered under one entity to make the project happen, that was three years ago. We have been struggling to get it off the ground. There was one plot of land that didn’t work for finance reasons.
But Nolan’s film supported us because it brought attention to Estonia’s film sector. And so now the city of Tallinn has agreed to build it by themselves, on their own land – it will be city owned and our joint company will rent it. This is a really big step for us, we have been shooting in warehouses all the time. It’s big for local films and also production services. It’s really great news. By the end of January we will know who is going to design the project.
DEADLINE: How important are international co-productions to your business?
FELT: Very important. The cinema audience is so small here, we need to cooperate to get these films seen outside of Estonia. It’s equally important for creative and finance reasons. It doesn’t matter if you’re a minority of majority co-producer, both work. It’s mainly with Finland as they sit next to us, but also with other countries, many of which have money available for co-productions. Truth And Justice was really exceptional because it’s solely an Estonia film, financed here, that doesn’t happen very often, we are always looking for partners.
DEADLINE: You’re working on a UK co-production, Gateway 6, can you tell us about that?
FELT: This was meant to be Tanel’s first film, but it got postponed because of Truth And Justice. We are now putting together the last bits of financing and are looking to shoot it in May. Olga Kurylenko is still attached.
DEADLINE: What else do you have coming up?
FELT: We are making a film about the 1990 Estonian basketball team. When the country had almost left the Soviet Union, there was a basketball championship and there was a big argument about whether Estonia should still take part in it or not. That’s another talented first time director, Ove Musting.
DEADLINE: We reported on the sudden death of Tangerines director Zaza Urushadze earlier this month, that must have come as a shock to you.
FELT: Totally. He had a film about to come out (Anton). We made Tangerines together, then promoted it together, so we became very close friends. It is a really big loss for me personally. We were developing other stories, dreaming about other films. It’s very tough to lose a great filmmaker. He was well known here, he was a national hero in Estonia as well as Georgia.
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