‘The Paradise’ Screenwriter Matti Laine on Riitta Havukainen, Ran Tellem, Finnish Drama

Screenwriter Matti Laine’s “The Paradise” competes for the 2020 4th Nordisk Film & TV Prize, awarded Jan. 29 at Sweden’s Göteborg Festival.

The Paradise

UPDATE (Feb.25): Bowing on Finnish public broadcaster Yle in early February, “The Paradise” was viewed nearly two million times in a week on its streaming service Yle Areena – an extraordinary figure given Finland’s just 5.5. million population. 

MADRID  — Following on 2019 MipTV hit “Invisible Heroes,” set in 1973 Chile, “The Paradise” marks the second time in under 12 months that Finnish public broadcaster YLE has reached out to set – and co-produce – a primetime drama in the Spanish-speaking world.

Neither are commonplace dramas. Produced by Finland’s MRP Matila Röhr Productions, behind “All the Sins,” winner of the 2019 Nordisk Film & TV Fond Prize, “The Paradise” begins with a softly-sung song, ·”Viento, viento de la montaña” and aerial shots of  a caravan wending its way through low-wooded sierra to Fuengirola, an enclave on Spain’s sun-kissed Costa del Sol. “I’m so happy,” a young wife says in Finnish to her husband wo drives the caravan as they embrace, surveying Fuengirola below them.

Yet, in its first two episodes at least, “The Paradise” marks two other people’s story of renewal: Hilkka Mäntymäki (played by Riitta Havukainen, a highlight of the drama if its early stretches are anything to go by), a crime detective in sub-Arctic city of Oulu, aged 60, is asked to fly to Spain and locate the caravan couple when the husband doesn’t answer his mobile. Her boss sees it as a way of her getting time off from caring for her husband, Aarne, a brilliant doctor who is fast losing his memory, can’t remember what he did the same morning, though he can still deliver a university lecture.

Spain’s Fran Perea plays Villanueva, a Spanish police officer who investigates the death of a Finnish pensioner, Anna-Liisa Helminen, part of a 15,000-stronger Finnish community in Fuengirola. He has another connection, a Finnish fiancée, who’s most probably dead, a daughter he can’t bear to see, and a world-weary sense of defeat.

“When you’re old, you die. No further explanation needed,” he tells his new patrol partner.

But there’s more to the pensioner’s death than meets the eye, and Mäntymäki and Villanueva team, will follow the case through, discovering, in Noir’s time-honored traditions, a larger and disturbing picture. Variety’s talked to Matti Laine, “The Paradise” screenwriter. who also wrote “Bordertown,” after Ep. 1 was seen for the first time ever at early December’s Content London.

From its first two episodes at least, “The Paradise” has an original structure: A murder mystery solved by the end of Ep. 2, but then further murders which occupy the remainder of a series. One advantage of this is that you trap audiences with a shorter story, and once establishing empathy with the leads, address a longer story. But was that this the real reason for the structure?

We didn’t want to make the crime-plot too obvious, too straight forward, but as interesting as possible. So we “muddy-the-waters,” with another case first and grow the actual case delicately on the side, and as we developed the series we felt it works well. And as you said yourself, it was also a matter of suspense, we wanted to trap the audience as fast as possible, be right away in the middle of a mystery.

One huge attraction of the new TV scene is that it affords a far broader international stage to superb actors. Few might know Riitta Havukainen outside Finland, but from hints in Ep. 1, she turns in a superb performance, where the age of her comportment varies between the juvenile, dancing to a rock song and lifting weights, and a that of a far more mature woman. What that ambivalence suggests is that she’s not done yet. Her life isn’t over. Could you comment?

Mrs. Havukainen is a national treasure of Finland. She can do anything. She was our first choice to be our leading lady, and it was sure great that she wanted to join and made my job as a writer enjoyable.

”The Paradise” is one of the the first series Ran Tellem began developing when he joined Mediapro as head of international content development. How did you work with him? I believe you, Ran, Jarmo Lampela, YLE commissioning editor, made a work trip to Fuengirola at the very beginning of development….

At first we just sat down and talk about what would be cool to do, fwhat kind of series could be interesting to build, and so on. We made a lot of research into the Costa de Sol among the Finnish community. We also ate well, talked for hours and got bit by bit to know each other more and how each of us like to work. After every brainstorming and feedback session, I got back to my study and wrote the next draft and then we met again in Fuengirola, Malaga, Madrid, Oulu, Helsinki… It was very nice to work with such an experienced and great guy as Ran is and the whole process with ‘The Paradise’ made me for sure a better writer.

What was the largest challenge for you when writing “The Paradise”?

They were the waiting periods, because of the financing and stuff. There were a couple occasions when I really didn’t know if it was going to be a green light or red, and that was nerve wrecking as I started to believe in our material at a really early stage. In a matter of pure writing, of course as a Finn, I needed to do a lot of work to get more familiar with the Spanish culture, police procedures etc. to make it feel real for the Spanish viewers too.

In drama series terms, you’re best known for writing “Bordertown.” That sparked talk of “Finnish Noir,” as one of the market’s hottest new propositions? Do you think that, Finnish drama marks itself apart in any way, in tone, for example?

Absolutely! Our sense of dark humor, the Slavic influences in our culture, the geographical position between East and West, how hard the climate is and the darkness of winters … I could go on all day. All of that makes Finland as well as Finnish drama unique.

What are you working on now?

At the moment I’m writing a pilot for a new family drama/tech-thriller series. It’s an international co-production between London-based Blackbox Multimedia and Helsinki-based Funfar. I’m very exited about that! I’m also developing a TV-series based on my Elias Vitikka crime novels, the latest came out in Finland now in January. And of course I would love to continue with “The Paradise” . there are still many stories to tell around that world.”