‘Rare Exports’: Interview with Finnish Director Jalmari Helander

This week B-D got on the phone with Finnish director Jalmari Helander, whose Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale won raves on the festival circuit before being picked up for U.S. distribution by Oscilloscope Pictures. The film is about a young boy and his father who capture an “evil” Santa Claus wreaking havoc in their small town in Finland after he is unearthed in an archeological dig. When they attempt to sell him back to the multinational corporation which sponsored it, Santa’s elves come to free their leader from captivity. B-D’s Chris Eggertsen spoke to Helander (who is planning on shooting an English-language feature next) about the film, adapted from his 2003 short entitled Rare Exports, Inc., and he opened up about the long process of writing the script, how he feels about those Spielberg comparisons, and whether he is a film of more traditional horror movies (a category which Rare Exports most definitely does not fit into). See inside for the full interview!
It’s the eve of Christmas in northern Finland and an “archeological” dig has just unearthed the real Santa Claus. But this particular Santa isn’t the one you want coming to town. When all the local children begin mysteriously disappearing, young Pietari and his father Rauno, a reindeer hunter by trade, capture the mythological being and attempt to sell Santa to the misguided leader of the multinational corporation sponsoring the dig. Santa’s elves, however, will stop at nothing to free their fearless leader from captivity. What ensues is a wildly humorous nightmare – a fantastically bizarre polemic on modern day morality. RARE EXPORTS: A CHRISTMAS TALE is a re-imagining of the most classic of all childhood fantasies, and is a darkly comic gem soon to be required perennial holiday viewing.

Bloody-Disgusting: So I guess you’re pretty focused on ruining Christmas for a generation of children, aren’t you?

Actually, I’m not because…people from America have ruined Christmas for the Finnish people. I’m just taking it back…we also have this old Santa Claus legend and it’s much more interesting than the American one.

B-D: I agree. So this is based off a series of shorts that you made previously, correct?

Mmm-hmm, yes.

B-D: How did you expand the idea into a feature-length movie?

I always had this idea about the secret behind the Rare Exports. My original idea was to make a third short film that reveals all the secrets [behind] what’s happening. But I had so much of people saying `you should make a film feature film about [the Santa tale].’ And then I started, and my boring period of writing it took five years. But I’m glad I did it.

B-D: So it took you five years to write the feature?

Yes. Not every day, but the last two years were the most important ones. Lots of [time passed] before I realized this is the way to go.

B-D: And where did you get the evil Santa idea originally?

The evil Santa comes from the mythology of this folklore. We actually have this, something like 100 years ago, we have this very scary Santa character. And the idea was originally from…I saw some pictures of this evil Santa with horns. It’s actually funny that the word for Santa Claus in Finland is Joulupukki, and if you translate that directly into English it’s “Christmas Goat”. But I’m so used to the word here in Finland that it’s actually weird seeing that, `ok, it’s actually an animal with horns’ [rather than] something like “Father Christmas” or blah-blah-blah. There are a lot of interesting stories in many European countries about Santa Claus. The original legends are quite scary, it’s interesting.

B-D: Well we’ve had a lot of evil Santa movies here in the States, have you seen any of those previous films?

Actually, I haven’t. Everybody has asked me about “Silent Night, Deadly Night”, have I seen it? But no, I haven’t. I actually don’t like…that kind of movie. But I’ve seen “Bad Santa”, but I don’t know if [that counts].

B-D: So you’ve been compared to Joe Dante and Steven Spielberg in some of the reviews, and it seems you’ve chosen to go for a little bit more of a mixture of horror and darkly comedic tone. What made you decide to go that way?

I don’t think it’s a horror film at all. There are some scary moments in it, but I think it’s some kind of adventure film myself. But of course, there are some horror elements, but it was clear to me from the beginning that I wanted to make something that you could feel very happy about…I have this idea of something like that concept of…[having] this young boy who…saves them all. And that was the point for me.

B-D: Well like I said, you’ve been compared to some pretty big directors, namely Dante and Spielberg. So have either of them been influences on your work?

I guess Steven Spielberg has a lot of interest to my work, because his movies are very much the type of movies I want to watch. And quite often…[he features] a normal family who get into the middle of very weird things, supernatural things, like in “Close Encounters” or “E.T.” or movies like that…those are like my favorite movies.

B-D: Well you really do focus on the core relationship between the father and the son in this. Is there anything autobiographical about this?

Yeah, there’s lots of me in there, in the character of Pietari (the little boy), because I was the only who wanted to make movies, and blah-blah-blah, and I always had this idea to make movies. And everybody else were [into] cars, or doing something like manly work, you know what I mean? And there’s a lot of people that say to me that maybe I should concentrate on doing something reasonable and not make movies. So there’s lots of that in the movie.

B-D: So when it screened at Toronto, were you surprised at the big reaction it got?

I was hoping for it. The most terrifying place to me has been the Locarno Film Festival, which was the first [place it screened] for the public. I was really afraid if people were going to like it, but the reaction was so good there that I of course hoped that the same thing would continue in other countries, so I’m lucky.

B-D: So what is it about the movie that you think translates to other countries outside of Finland?

I think it’s because it’s an inspirational movie, and of course there’s kind of universal themes, like Santa Claus. Everybody knows Santa Claus, this kind of character that everybody has something in mind when they hear [his name]. Also the relationship between the father and the boy is the same kind of situation. Lots of people have had that [relationship]…I think it’s because of those things.

B-D: Well like you said, it’s not a straight horror film, it’s definitely a mixture of different elements. But are you a fan of straight horror films at all?

I like good horror movies, but I don’t like movies like “Hostel”, because it makes me feel quite bad when I watch it. But what would be a very good horror film to me, maybe something like “The Others” or “What Lies Beneath”, or horror films like that. I like that kind of horror film, [not] like [torture porn] kind of things.

B-D: So you’ll never make a slasher film or something like that.

I hope I don’t. [Laughs]

B-D: So the full title of the film is Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale. So is “Rare Exports” going to be an ongoing series of films? Or is it only confined to this single movie?

I’m writing something definitely different right now, but I have an idea of the second part of “Rare Exports”. But it’s going to be a very expensive movie, because [it's about] what’s gonna happen when all the Santas are sent to the different countries. It’s gonna be huge. So I’d need very, very much money to shoot it. [Laughs]