Production designer Sarah Greenwood didn’t expect to find herself on the fringes of the Arctic Circle while shooting 2011’s “Hanna,” the story of a teenage girl raised in the wilderness to be an assassin. “We weren’t originally planning to go to Finland,” she says, recalling the pre-production for a film meant to shoot in Germany.
Greenwood, director Joe Wright and cinematographer Alwin Küchler had been scouting locations in Bavaria, lured by a generous tax rebate and assurances that the region would be suitable for the movie’s winter scenes. But they arrived to melting snow and driving rain. A frozen lake they’d planned to shoot on couldn’t support the crew’s weight. “You just knew it was going belly up,” she says.
Küchler, who had recently worked in Finland, suggested they try their luck with Finnish Lapland instead: a vast, wintery wilderness with more than 200 days of annual snow cover.
When the team arrived on a 24-hour scout of the region, Greenwood was struck by the distinctive shapes of the snow-crowned fir trees — an “amazing, otherworldly landscape” she compared to drawings by Dr. Seuss.
“We arrived there without four weeks’ notice before we were going to shoot,” she says. Yet Finnish crews and local officials swept into action, settling the team in a ski resort with easy access to the wilderness and outfitting them with warm clothes and snow shoes. When a frozen lake needed to be cleared of snow to film a scene, the crew brought out plows and worked through the night.
To ward off cold in remote areas, they built igloos and lined them with reindeer fur. “It was such a can-do, positive approach,” Greenwood says. “Everything that we needed, they found.” Finland has had a limited track record servicing foreign film and TV productions, but the introduction of a 25% cash rebate last year was designed to boost the profile of a country known for breathtaking natural beauty and exquisite light. Bolstered by a dedicated and skilled English-speaking crew base and a rebate system already known for its efficiency, the Finnish industry is hoping it can follow in the footsteps of Iceland, which rapidly expanded its local biz after introducing a competitive rebate scheme.
Director Susanna White got her first taste of Finland while shooting “Our Kind of Traitor,” a 2015 adaptation of the John Le Carré spy thriller that opens with a bloody murder in the snow-covered wilderness of Russia. The producers had originally wanted to shoot in England using artificial snow — what White described as a cost-cutting attempt to “do it on a small scale.” But she resisted. “It was so important to me to get that look of the vast expanse of Russia … and it was a big part of setting up the story of the film. I really wanted a massive landscape,” she says.
Greenwood, working as the film’s production designer, made a pitch for the wild Finnish frontier bordering Russia. “We knew we could get what we wanted there,” White says. The team arrived for a quick, two-day shoot, working with a bare-bones crew of Finnish professionals who White described as “no-nonsense.” She recalls endearing local quirks, including the steaming portions of elk stew heaped onto their dinner plates, and a pilot who moonlit by using his helicopter to herd reindeer. “It just went incredibly smoothly, given how quickly we had to get in and out,” she says.
Because of distinctive regional attractions including Christmas-themed tourism and the Northern Lights, Finland is perhaps unique in the world for offering pristine Arctic wilderness areas that are nevertheless equipped with the infrastructure to meet a film crew’s needs. “It’s interesting to be able to fly into an airport, and be minutes away from Arctic landscapes as well as a comfortable hotel,” says Lori Balton of the Location Managers Guild Intl.
Local officials have thrown support behind efforts to lure more foreign productions. Beyond the frigid northern frontier, Finland boasts the world’s largest archipelago off its coastline, and nearly 190,000 lakes situated among woodlands and meadows teeming with reindeer, elk and other wildlife. Helsinki, the capital, is an attractive and easy-going city that’s quick to facilitate film shoots and features historical architecture that could “double for locations that are harder to work in, such as St. Petersburg and Moscow,” according to veteran location scout Dow Griffith.
There’s also the crisp, clear Finnish light, which lasts for 24 hours during the summer, when “there’s a magical shimmer to the midnight sun,” Balton says.
Traveling in Finland, she was often mesmerized by “the quality of the light and the exquisite length of the magic hour.” Greenwood fell under the same spell, describing it as one of the reasons she’s eager to work in Finland again.
“It’s like the golden hour forever,” she says.
Photo: Crime drama “Deadwind,” which plays on Netflix, utilizes Helsinki’s harsh weather and moody locations to heighten the tension.