Thomas "Dome" Karukoski is one of Finland's most successful film directors, having won over 30 festival awards. His work includes The Grump and Tom of Finland. His latest movie is Tolkien, a biopic about the father of modern fantasy.
STARBURST: What was the elevator pitch for Tolkien?
Dome Karukoski: It’s a story about friendship, love and creation. It’s about how we see a young genius’s mind flourish and where the inspiration comes from. He’s confronting his own imagination, understanding it and learning to use it.
What drew you to Tolkien’s story?
There are two sides to it, as film maker and as a person. I read the Lord of the Rings when I was 13 and at that time I was an outsider. I was growing-up without a father who I later got to know, I was bullied, I was very alone and miserable. Then I open up this book and basically it became an escape. Those stories became friends. Fast forward 30 years and I’ve read almost all of his books, some of those twice. I knew about the Inklings/CS Lewis era, but I also knew about his youth years. And then you understand reading those stories that he was an outsider, that he became an orphan. Then finding these friends whom he went to war with. And that story was so beautiful that I wanted to tell it.
What inspiration did you draw on when casting Tolkien and his childhood friends, the TCBS?
The casting process was quite easy. When I started meeting actors I didn’t really have a script I want to show them. I would meet a lot of actors - I started with Nic because he was on the top of my list and top of the studios list. With actors I always try to find who they are and build upon them, because every actor has their own skill. With Nic he was inspirational. He’s very intelligent and very fast and witty. We always joked that he’s a bit of a hobbit even though he’s quite tall. The method was trying to find the true character in those people that resonates with the character portrayal later. After seeing Nic, it couldn’t be anybody else. When building the characters, it was just research, a lot of it was finding the right pace and rhythm. Everything I read about them said they were very witty, with a lot of pace and comeback lines. When you have that with friends that means you trust that they’ll understand your humour and understand your point.
Much of the movie’s focus hinges on the relationship between Tolkien and Geoffrey Smith. Why the focus?
Well of course they grew very close to each other in Oxford, and the other two went to Cambridge so they’d only see the others on the weekends, back and forth. They grew very close to each other. Stephen Beresford, who is one of the writers, is a gay man. He read Geoffrey’s letters and poems and he felt that there was a possibility that he was also gay. We can’t claim that, of course. I read it as the relationship was intimate though not romantic. Geoffrey was a bit younger, and his affection toward Tolkien was one of admiration. What’s beautiful about that story is that he was there for his friend during the darkest times. Geoffrey’s letter to Tolkien is word by word how he wrote it. Thinking about Tolkien at a time he thought he was going to die. Their relationship was friendship to its purest level. To think that you’re going to die and know that there is one friend you have who will continue your aim and your mission, the one desire they have about the world. I think that’s very beautiful.
How important was Edith’s perspective to you?
If I was to write that love story into a film that was untrue, and tell a tale about friendship and then love and then eternal love. The producers would say that would never happen. That it was too ‘Gone With the Wind’. The problem is that Edith can be easily seen as an elven princess, which of course what I’m going to do because it inspired Tolkien’s story Beren and Lúthien. When you starting reading about her, you find that she had this huge intellect and she was strong willed. She had character that Tolkien admired. It was very important to show these layers, that she was not just an elven princess and show her great stamina. She’s also an orphan. She’s learned to be strong and learned to fight.
How much did the story of Beren and Lúthien influence the script?
It influenced, yes. But at this point in Tolkien’s life he hasn’t written the story yet. We show the dance scene that inspired the idea of the story. He’s getting inspiration, he’s getting ideas and sounds and voices. He’s slowly building the theme of his life. Later he’s ready to build that world. The emotional truth of that story has to be in the film, but it’s not that story.
How much of a challenge was it to fold the fantastic elements? In the movie, he’s not yet written the books. The knight is perhaps the best example. He first sees the idea of a hero, but his ideal of a hero with a white horse is a notch higher, but then when he gets corrupted by war and bloodshed, that beautiful image becomes something else. It turns into a black knight. You might think it’s a Nazgûl but it’s not yet a Nazgûl . It’s something that has fallen. Internally, for him, it’s a battle of good and evil. How does he feel, what is his emotion here. Dragons in mythology are about fear, and here we have the fear of losing your friend, of losing your love. These aren’t taken from his books.
How different was this project from Tom of Finland? They’re very different. One is the story of an artist growing into fame, the other is a young man growing up to become an artist. Tom of Finland was more difficult because the time from had to be told in forty years. Where Tolkien’s story is more of a story about friendship and love. It’s much more focused on the personal.
How has the response from Middle Earth Fandom been?
We’ve had several screenings and we had applause during the film, so that’s always a good sign. I was with the Finnish Tolkien Society and they praised the film. I think the fans have loved. There will always be people who don’t like it and they’ll be people who will debate the facts. With a film like that you have to choose between facts and emotion, and if you chose facts it doesn’t become drama. It’s about the emotional truth.
What’s next for you?
I’ve just done two biopics back to back. Biopics tend to be hard to make because of the research and you can lose perception as to what to do next. Rest is what’s next.
Tolkien is out now at all good cinemas and you should rush out and catch it while you can. You can read our review here.