Photo: Kino Lorber

The filmmakers involved in the biopic Tom of Finland, which is playing at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, didn’t necessarily set out to be political, but the subject’s inherent politics nonetheless surfaced in the six or so years since they began making it. Tom of Finland tells the life story of Touko Laaksonen, the gay artist born in 1920 whose explicit drawings of pneumatic, happy-go-lucky, often leather-clad men engaged in all kinds of configurations of gay sex date back to the ‘40s and would become globally iconic by the ‘80s.

“What’s happening in the world—in Chechnya and Iran—is making it a political movie,” said Pekka Strang, who plays Tom, during an interview at New York’s Smyth Hotel. “We don’t have a political agenda, we’re telling a story, but the world’s in a strange place so the perspective is a bit different than a few years ago.”

Laaksonen, like present-day gay men in Chechnya and Iran, faced persecution for his sexuality from the likes of cops patrolling the cruising parks he frequented and from countries that had restrictions on the portrayal of sex (especially gay sex) in art. But even more universally resonant today was the sunny tone that dominates much of Laaksonen’s some 3,500 drawings. Tom’s men were invested in the fun of sex and are largely free of the pathos and shame that have been culturally associated with sex among gay men (and that some gay men having this sex even today still struggle to shake). The shameless smiles of Tom’s men were ahead of their time, and they remain so even in 2017.

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As a biopic, Tom of Finland is fairly straightforward, showing Laaksonen’s early days serving in World War II to the blossoming of his career in the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s (his public career launched with the publication of non-explicit pictures of his were published in muscle/bodybuilding magazines) to his ‘80s journey to America, where he was embraced as an icon of sex positivity and liberation. Given the kink present in Laaksonen’s work, the movie is neither as explicit nor as sanitized as it could be—there are frank depictions of cruising and gay sex—and it deftly juggles Laaksonen’s private sex life, his public profile, and his somewhat fraught relationship with his sister Kaija (Jessica Grabowsky), who did not know about her brother’s art for decades and then forbade him to come out from behind the Tom of Finland moniker so as not to risk sullying the family name. A particularly intricate point of tension arises during the film’s depiction of Laaksonen’s relationship to the AIDS crisis that began in the early ‘80s (in the movie, he feels responsible for promoting the gay sex that soon became linked to a deadly virus), though Tom of Finland lacks a serious examination of the body ideals Laaksonen’s envisioned and then later, through things like steroids, became a reality.

I spoke with Strang, Grabowsky, and the film’s Finnish director Dome Karukoski about Tom of Finland, and below is an edited and condensed transcript of our discussion.

Photo: Kino Lorber

JEZEBEL: What familiarity did you have with Tom’s work prior to making the movie?

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Dome Karukoski (director): I’ve had different phases with Tom’s life and art. The first is you remember when you’re a small boy growing up and I remember these moments when one of my friends had either stolen or found a comic book, it must have been a Kake, and us giggling about the big penises and just what was happening. It just felt fun.

The secondary then was when [screenwriter and producer] Aleksi Bardy suggested that we should do a film about Tom of Finland, I took out a couple of his biographies and just learned about his histories. I knew a lot about the art, but nothing about Touko. I was mystified. After the Finnish gay promotion law [similar to Russia’s current gay propaganda law] was overturned in 1999, the art started popping out, there was a mystery behind it.

Pekka Strang (“Tom”): I knew very little about Touko Laaksonen, because I don’t think anyone did. The Tom of Finland brand is much bigger than the guy behind the art. I have some blurry memories of the images. When you see them, you feel like you aren’t seeing them for the first time—that you’ve seen them somewhere before.

Jessica Grabowski (“Kaija”): I didn’t know about the artist, but I felt like the art has always been in my life.

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Given Tom’s work and the movie’s theme I wonder if everyone here is comfortable talking about their own sexual identity and how it relates to making such a gay movie.

Strang: I’m comfortable talking about it. The question I’ve been answering in Finland is, “How does it feel as a heterosexual man to play a gay character?” The question feels really 1950s.

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Karukoski: I’m a heterosexual man directing a film about a gay icon, so I could feel I had that pressure of hopefully I don’t fuck it up, basically. Because of that pressure I did a very, very intense research period of five years interviewing the Tom of Finland foundation, spending a lot of time with them and Tom’s friends. I had several gay friends who would read the treatments and long synopses of the script and the script versions.

For me it was very important to be self-aware and understand that I’m a heterosexual and the way you look at a man or a penis is different. So the nuances would be right, we filled the film—most of the extras, most of the people in front of the cameras were gays and huge Tom fans. As a director it was easier to go into a gay bar or a gay love scene as we see in the film and it was just giving directions and the guys just made the scenes. It was important to me for their looks and their feels and their passion in the scenes would be right in the gay scenes. Then again you have another thing, the relationship between the sister or the relationship with the family or the relationship with the war, which is a very universal and relatable thing in Finland. It was kind of understanding it, but at the same time, it’s vital to understand that I have to do even more research on this than normal.

Strang: When you go into a culture that’s not your own, or an area where you’re the minority, you have to be really sensitive. The thing I learned was that love doesn’t have a gender. When you meet someone and you fall in love, it’s not about identity. It’s just about two human beings meeting.

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When you step into the shoes of people who have been beaten or questioned for their existence, it’s a sad moment to understand that it’s happening all the time, still. Not only about sexuality but race and nationality. Those are things you can’t choose. You’re born into this life with those things and to be oppressed for things you can’t choose is really cruel. The road is much rockier than for us who can go out there and never question ourselves.

Karukoski: Another thing that has changed in six years is I have a deeper understanding of male beauty. Six years of basically just looking at catalogs and catalogs of hot guys and looking at Tom’s drawings, I think I look at the male body differently. I think that’s changed for me forever. The way I look at things in the gym. During the gym scenes, when I would look with my assistant and there’d be a hot guy in the scene, and it was her birthday and she’d be like, “Is that my birthday present?” And I totally understand. Five or six years ago, I’d maybe understand but not on this level. I understand how she sees the sexuality of the man. The look and the charisma and the muscle as an add on that charisma, I think I became very much more aware of that.

Do you think Tom created this standard of male beauty, or did he merely put his finger on certain markers of masculinity that those who appreciate the male form would naturally enjoy seeing emphasized?

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Karukoski: It was both inspiration and influence.

Strang: The greatest artists always pick up on something that’s happening already and then they do it and you can’t really say what came first. I think he inspired but he was also a visionary. Just to draw these drawings in the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s. You can’t predict the future but you can change the world with pictures and I think he did.

Strang: He drew his own utopia, and then he got to see it.

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What strikes me as most relevant in his drawings today is the light and non-pathologized vision of gay sex, which is still something that our culture has a hard time conveying.

Strang: The most scary part of his drawings is the liberated part—the total liberation of sexuality. That’s what scares people. “Am I also that liberated? Why am I living in this corner of life.” I think that’s a wonderful gift he gave all of us—to be open and to accept that grown-up people can do whatever they want with each other. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to join it. But you can’t start moralizing someone else for doing it.

Karukoski: That was the message we wanted to convey. In a way the movie is an allegory, kind of a continuation of Tom’s message. That is the element of dance your way out of the movie theater, without shame and in light.

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Jessica, what do you make of working in such a male-dominated setting?

Jessica: I kind of feel at home. My mother used to be an air hostess so I’ve hung out with a lot of gay people since I was young. Most of my male friends are gay.

The movie doesn’t touch on Tom’s depictions of men having sex in Nazi uniforms. Why was that left out?

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Karukoski: It’s complicated. He idolized Hugo Boss, [and thought] the Nazi uniform being the sexiest in the world. He didn’t care about the Nazi mentality. You have to understand also that to protect the country from Russia, [Finland] had to ally with Germany. Otherwise the Soviet Union would have just taken us. So you have German guys that are basically protecting the country. It’s a very complex thing we talked about with the screenwriter that if we added to the film would need 15 minutes of screen time just to explain that he wasn’t idolizing Nazis. He had a love affair with a German pilot that died and you have that in the film and it’s, “Oh, he was having sex with the Nazis.” You get a lot of that, especially here. It was just impossible. We decided, “OK, we’ll just leave it out. It’s Wikipedia material.”