I always thought Tom of Finland (the artist Touko Laaksonen) and French novelist Jean Genet would make great lovers. I discovered them both as a budding young writer at university and was struck by their incredible ability to create material that was at once artful and erotic. Genet's gorgeous prose inspired me to take risks with my own writing. (My latest novel in progress, Skyscraper, explores the impact that an S&M love affair has on the flagging career of an architect.)
This month I was thrilled to stumble across a saucy teaser for the Special Film Company's Tom of Finland biopic,* which I found promising, sexy and smart:
The Special Film company is running a crowdfunding campaign for its film, using a second clever teaser to draw attention. I caught up with the film's directors, Henri Huttunen and Vesa Kuosmanen, to chat about their approach.
Scott Alexander Hess: What is about Tom of Finland that made him such a gay icon? What keeps him relevant as an artist today?
Henri Huttunen and Vesa Kuosmanen: Touko wasn't just an artist. In many ways he was a herald of a new era. Many gay men were proud of who they were for the first time because of his art. We don't think he is revered as much for his muscular, often leather-bound gods among men than for what they symbolize: openness, courage, freedom to love and pride. The most captivating thing about Touko's art isn't boots, asses or muscles. It's the eyes. No shame, no fear, during a period of time when the society forbade you to feel those things if you were gay.
Time hasn't taken the edge off his art. He is still the undisputed master of pencil and has been hailed as one of the five most important artists of the 20th century. Neither has the subject of his work become less topical. Society has come a long way from when he became renowned across the world in the '50s and '60s, but there is still a lot of work to be done, even in his home county. Touko and people like him -- champions -- will always be needed. His art serves as a reminder of what we all should strive for: a more accepting, loving world.
Hess: What approach and tone does your film take? Will it have the erotic energy of the artwork?
Huttunen and Kuosmanen: The style of the film is the number-one reason why we want to do this film as an independent production. We don't want to tone it down to please a wider audience. Touko didn't compromise with his art. Why should we? The film will be as bold and sexy as his art, something all of Tom's men around the world can be proud of. Think about a crowded circus tent with trapeze artists having sex in the air as the audience roars in applause. That's Touko. And that's what you and us both want to see. We want to make every frame in the film to look like Touko's composition, to have that tension and sense of humor present all the time. That's our way to honor Touko.
That is not to say we are making a movie based just on erotic shock value. There was more to Touko than that: the war, the atmosphere of the '50s, the persecution of gays and the police raids, during which thousands were arrested for their sexuality. These are all things that shaped Touko, all things our story is built on. We like to describe our film with the words "Boogie Nights meets The Pianist."
Hess: What will you look for in casting the film's lead?
Huttunen and Kuosmanen: The film's lead has already been decided on. From the very beginning, Olli Rahkonen was a clear choice for the both of us to play Touko.
Henri has worked with Olli on multiple occasions during the years, and the pair share a deep mutual respect for each other. Still, it was Vesa who first suggested casting Olli. [Several of] Touko's friends who have seen the teaser of the film have told us that the decision is right. They couldn't imagine anyone else to play Touko anymore.
Portraying Touko is a huge undertaking for any actor, and quite frankly, taking this challenge on requires a hefty set of balls. You have to become someone who is loved and adored around the world, who has touched and changed so many people, someone who was a world-traveled, sophisticated gentleman, a decorated war hero, charismatic and humble, and yet, most importantly, he was a pained, supremely talented artistic genius who had to hide his sexuality from even those closest to him. He changed the world with his courage. Touko Laaksonen -- Tom of Finland -- is very nearly the closest an actual person has ever come to being a superhero.
Despite all of this, when we told Olli what movie we were working on and that we would like him to play the lead, he didn't hesitate a second. This is one of the qualities that makes him ideal to play Touko. Olli has a burning desire to always exceed himself, constantly pushing himself to his limits and beyond them. We are sure that this, combined with his sensitivity and natural charisma, will help him carry the role -- and the movie -- with dignity.
Also, he isn't exactly hard on the eyes, both in a '50s tailored suit and in full leather.
Hess: What is it about Tom that led you as directors to take on the project?
Huttunen and Kuosmanen: Most importantly, we were drawn in by a great story. An artist who needs to hide his sexuality becomes an international gay icon through his art. A gay war hero in a largely homophobic country that reveres its veterans. A man whose courage to keep on drawing during a time [when] it could have cost him dearly freed a whole generation of men. A hero who is largely unknown to the populace of his small, northern home country but celebrated all around the rest of the world. This is the story we need to tell!
Stories have an amazing power to touch and inspire. The very best of stories have the power to change the world. This is a story that needs to be told, and to be heard, especially here in Finland, where people have someone they should be so proud of but just don't know it. Telling it in a way we think the subject would have loved it to be told is the most important thing in our lives right now.
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*As often happens in film-land, a second Tom of Finland film is also underway, this one by Finland's Helsinki-filmi production company and directed by Dome Karukoski.