It is a dark and stormy night and Pelle Heikkilä, one of Finland’s biggest stars, is hit by massive waves in a 10 meter deep water tank.
Filming for “Estonia”, a Scandinavian limited series about Europe’s deadliest civilian maritime disaster, is underway in Belgium on an indoor water stage. The eight-part cinematic show, with a budget of 15 million euros (14.7 million dollars) and which is bought by Beta Film (“Babylon Berlin”) by Jan Mojto at Mipcom, traces the sinking of the MS Estonia on September 28, 1994, which killed more than 850 people.
The series is helmed by Swedish director Måns Månsson (“The Real Estate”, “Chernobyl”) and Finnish director Juuso Syrjä (“Bordertown”, “Helsinki Syndrome”), who are polar opposites, one coming from the cinema from festival-friendly authorship, the other from high-end commercials.
Like the cast and crew of the series, the tragedy itself involved multiple countries, including Estonia, as it was an Estonian ship and sailed from Tallinn; Sweden, because nearly half of those who died in the sinking were Swedes; Finland, because the ship sank in the Baltic Sea near Finland; and finally, Germany, as the ferry was built by a West German shipyard.
Heikkilä (“Helsinki Syndrome”, “Invisible Heroes”) plays Ari Luoma-Aho, a Finnish rescue swimmer whose helicopter unit was the first to arrive on the scene.
“I don’t have to act in it, I’m really trying to survive and save people. It’s like total chaos,” says Heikkilä, who admits the role was different from any he’s had. played before because Luoma-Aho is still alive and not a public figure.
“At first Ari refused to be part of this because he was skeptical about how it would be done, because he saw other TV series and movies about ‘Estonia’ and thought that ‘they were always poorly made and glorified the rescuers,’ says Heikkilä. , who stars alongside Doris Tislar, Katia Winter, Jussi Nikkilä, Peter Andersson and Arndt Schwering-Sohnrey.
“But when he read parts of the script, he said, ‘I think you’re onto something. Like that’s close to reality,'” he continues.
The series’ immersive and subjective point of view is precisely what Syrjä had in mind. “The camera is one of the characters and when we are in the middle of this chaos, we strive to be there, to go in the middle of the accident, because we need to feel it and it is held by hand,” says Syrjä.
JP Passi, the Finnish cinematographer of “Estonia” who also worked on the Emmy- and BAFTA-winning miniseries “Chernobyl,” says he approached filming thinking “how scene was in reality, how she felt, looked – knowing that it was very, very dark.
“They let us keep it as dark and as gritty and as crazy as we wanted it to feel like it’s the real thing and we’re in the middle of it all,” says Passi, who collaborated to the series with the producer and VFX supervisor. Stefan Rycken and Dave Banister.
On set, Tislar, an Estonian actor, is also drenched, having directed underwater scenes for days. She plays Grete Kukk, an Estonian dancer who was scheduled to perform with her band aboard the MS Estonia and was among the 138 people who survived. Grete nearly drowned because she put her lifejacket on backwards and had to change rafts.
Tislar, who admits she wasn’t a good swimmer when she was cast and had to train every day for the role, also has a heavy heart when talking about the project.
“It’s a series but we have to understand that it’s not entertainment, it’s not just another action thriller,” Tislar says. “It’s a real-life thing, and we have a responsibility to honor those who didn’t survive, even though the focus is on those who survived.”
It’s telling that ‘Estonia’ reunites Månsson and Passi, who had previously worked together on ‘Chernobyl’ which dramatized another European disaster, the 1986 explosion at the nuclear power plant.
Månsson, who was second unit director on ‘Chernobyl’, says ‘Estonia’ is the biggest challenge he has even faced.
“I thought ‘Chernobyl’ was technically difficult, but it’s much more complicated,” says Månsson. “It’s an ethical and moral minefield.”
If the sinking of the ship is an important part of the show, “Estonia” also highlights the sprawling probe launched the day after the tragedy by the Joint Accident Investigation Commission set up by Sweden, Estonia and Finland .
Showrunner Miikko Oikkonen (“Bordertown,” “Helsinki Syndrome”), who co-wrote the series with Olli Suitiala and Tuomas Hakola, says the starting point for the project was the fact that hundreds of testimonies from survivors and rescuers were eventually declassified.
“When I started reading the final report and going through the documents, I realized that the investigation itself was even more interesting than the accident,” says Oikkonen. “It was a power game, a political game between these countries and it involved a lot of conflicting interests.”
The investigation lasted almost four years and was abandoned by all but one member, the young Henri Peltonen, who is one of the series’ protagonists. Inspired by a real character, Peltonen was determined to uncover the truth and wrote the final report.
“The investigation was an equally horrifying experience, and metaphorically, it was also sinking. These two scenarios mirror each other,” says showrunner Miikko Oikkonen (“Bordertown,” “Helsinki Syndrome”) who co-coordinated. -wrote the series with Olli Suitiala and Tuomas Hakola.
“When they started the investigation, they said it was going to take two weeks, then two months maximum,” says Oikkonen. By the time the final report was published three and a half years later, five of the six people on the board had left – they died or resigned.
With no one to blame, the disaster remained something of a cold case that has, over time, become almost taboo in Sweden, says Månsson.
Månsson says the impact on Swedish society has been “massive” because the country “hasn’t had wars and never had disasters before…and all of a sudden almost 500 Swedes died and we weren’t ready for it.”
He says he finds the “lack of accountability” and the fact that “to this day no one knows what really happened” scary.
Månsson attributes the investigation’s lack of resolution to the Nordics’ anti-conflict attitude. “In so many other parts of the world it would have been taken to court and would have been a legal battle,” says Månsson.
What the survey provided was “detailed information about what happened inside the ship, the hallways, the cabins and how people felt, as they interviewed survivors,” says Syrjä , adding that he used the wealth of information to make it “as true as possible”. ”, and also “refined” to “make it more dramatic”.
Matti Halonen (“Bordertown”), who produced the series with Johannes Lassila (“Bordertown”) at Fisher King, the BETA-owned company behind “Nymphs” and “Bordertown,” says he and Oikkonen’s initial idea were to deal with the catastrophe as a “trauma of war”. “I’ve done a few war movies and I see a lot of similarities in that kind of conflict,” says Halonen, who founded Fisher King with Oikkonen in 2013.
“When you have a war, nobody wants to have it. It shouldn’t happen. We all have the same things here,” Halonen continues.
Justus Riesenkampff, executive chairman of Beta Nordic Studios, of which Fisher King is a part, said “Estonia” marked an important milestone for the company and for Finland. “It’s a whole new level. ‘Estonia’ has a budget three times higher than the average Finnish series,” says Riesenkampff.
The series has been commissioned by C More, TV4 and MTV3 Telia Estonia, and Beta has already secured major pre-sales, including German broadcaster SevenOne Entertainment Group, which bought “Chernobyl”. Fisher King produced the series with Sweden’s Kärnfilm AB, Andre Logié of Panache Production Belgium and Estonia’s Oü.