|Birthdate and place: 11 December 1954, Helsinki.
Family: 2 older sons, one 3-year-old son; two grandsons, 2 and 3. Wife Nina, in my second marriage, and a big family from relationships that we have and have had.
Education: College dropout.
Television is… at its best, storytelling.
A successful documentary is… something that makes you cry and laugh.
Hollywood makes me feel… longing for good memories.
Finland has… an opportunity because of the Ice Age
Telling stories has taken Michael Franck to Tehran, Hollywood and back again over the years.
HAVING arrived spot-on our agreed time, as we stand in the kitchen of the office that houses documentary filmmaker Michael Franck’s family business, Franck Media, the sharply dressed media producer and director is currently busily attending to the espresso machine.
Owner of the first independent documentary film making company in the country, Franck’s colourful career has included stints in Helsinki, Tehran and Hollywood, and has been involved in politics, journalism and filmmaking in various capacities for the past four decades.
However, regardless of whether our scheduled interview is actually meant to take place in more formal settings housed here within G.W. Sohlberg’s old factory at the southern end of Helsinki’s Korkeavuorenkatu, Franck is already away and sharing his life story here in the kitchen as he organises a morning caffeine burst.
Using the history of the building we are standing in as a launching pad, soon he is negotiating his way through the signposts of his life; one that is peppered with colourful characters and frequently intriguing happenstance. As he casually sips his espresso, his story and observations pour forth, as staff members continue shuffling in and out of the kitchen.
I understand that your family has a rich history here in Finland.
Over the past 300 years many families have moved to this country. We have made a lot of films about these people who have moved here and established here. They have all in a way immigrants from different parts of the world. In my case, they were maybe Jewish, and they came as blacksmiths in the 17th century, around 350 years ago.
As a teenager my godfather was in the parliament. He was a very controversial man, as he was against the president of the time, Kekkonen. Although he came from the main banking family in this country, even they were a bit worried because he took such a tough stance against the president. He was very moral, in a way a populist. He preached about caring for the poor, the weak and the old. When I was 14 my first project was collecting clothes and dry food for poor people living close to the eastern border of Finland, in Northern Karelia.
But then I ended up in politics and by that time I had changed my position and was in favour of the president. That was a paradigm shift for me. Prior to my time in the ‘70s when I was in the city council, I was in the secondary youth movement. I was never really leftish, but most of us sort of understood the realities of Finland, even if we were in favour of the market economy. We lived in the reality that was decided by the post war set up. Finland was a strange case: as a part of the Soviet Union military strategy, the country had been ‘neutralised’ in Soviet terms. We were allowed to have our market economy, basic ownership and things like this; our political system was pretty much the same as Western Europe. But we weren’t actually supposed to oppose the Soviet Union. My godfather was one of the few who did. He became the ‘villain of the village’.
Anyway, Finland became an oil country. We had a balanced trade agreement, which was oil against export from Finland to the Soviet Union. The more the oil price went up, the more we exported to the Soviet Union. We were in a kind of oil elevator. Still, we suffered from the oil crisis. In 1975 my parents’ business went sour. My father had a small import business he had inherited from his father and my mother had small shops, pottery and interior design. They finally gave up. But the leadership of Finland – again, my godfather’s enemy – and his troopers, knew that my mother had been educated in Switzerland and that she knew the Iranian Shah’s family from the boarding school she had attended. So, my father was sent to Tehran to get business to Finland. When we arrived there it was a significant time in Iran’s history.
How was it culturally to live in Iran then?
In the beginning I was spending more of my time at swimming pools and discothèques, and living there with Westerners and the well-to-do people of Iran. They very much wanted to show to us the pro-Western side of their culture. It wasn’t that much of a clash. It started to come when the revolution came. For me it was a sign that maybe World War III was coming, a post-colonial revenge against Britain. We had bricks thrown against our cars, when people saw that there were blondes.
But on the streets, of course, Iran is many faces. I remember one British colonel that I met when I first came to Iran, at a dinner at my parents’ house. I think his name was Cooper. He said ‘Michael, it is your first time in Persia, so I will tell you a few arrogant things. First I will claim that the Western mind is one face, meaning that ‘yes is yes’ and ‘no is no’. Secondly, I will claim something more arrogant to you: the Arabic mind is two faces, as ‘yes is maybe no’, and ‘no is maybe yes’. But now you have come to Persia and this third face here you will never find.’ This was a few months before the revolution. I then became a war correspondent, and started to interview a lot of ayatollahs at that time.
So, how was it to physically sit face-to-face with an ayatollah?
Shariatmadari was the Grand Ayatollah at the time of the revolution and he was put under house arrest. I went to see him in the holy city of Qom. He was a very funny guy. One thing he said after we had spoken a few hours was that, ‘Now I will go for lunch, and have a long rest because I have four wives.’
It was very fascinating to be in Iran at that time. My parents’ home was like a Graham Greene novel. During dinner parties and in guest rooms there could be peace negotiators, people who turn out to be weapons dealers and representatives of different minorities. The joke at the dinner parties was, ‘Who are you spying for?’ because nobody knew who really was whom.
I went back and forth between the two countries, and continued also working in Finnish politics. In 1978 I stayed in Iran until towards the end of the year, when things got very complicated. My father decided that I should take my sister, who lived there, out of Iran. The last plane to leave was to be an Austrian Airlines plane, a regular commercial flight, before they closed the airport. We arrived at the airport at night, as the flights to Europe were always at night out of Tehran. But the captain had been so nervous that they had already taken off. The whole airport looked like the scene before Castro took over in Cuba, when the people who were allied to the West were leaving. A British Airways flight had been delayed so we were piled into it and left Iran. It was a month and a half before Ayatollah Khomeini flew in from France and the revolution began.
The following summer of 1979, I became a father and decided I needed a real job. I visited my bank here in the city centre; my account was empty. By chance, at the door I was offered a job, as political current affairs journalist on television. First I worked on the Swedish-speaking side. There I did my first documentary, Secrets of the Underground, in around 1981-82 which was about the Helsinki metro project, which I claimed was the biggest public swindle in the country since the war culprit trials in 1946.
Why was that?
The whole project was all very secretive. A lot of people, especially among the political left, were impressed by things in the East and had seen a lot of wonderful metro stations in Moscow and Leningrad and Budapest and so on. They thought it was a good thing. Then a few businesses, especially the co-operative business in this country, saw that they could build department stores above the metro stations. Then the politicians who wanted this metro created a totally secret organisation, unheard of in a Western country.
It was said to be the first so-called investigative journalist piece during Kekkonen’s regime. It finally led to huge trials where the main guy of the metro project was sent to jail and unfortunately. This project was the trigger for my getting into documentaries.
Then I went international and we did a posthumous doc portrait on Finnish rally driver Henri Toivonen, who had died in a crash on a racing track in Corsica. But most of the documentaries we did were about the growth of Islam. I then worked outside of public television with a private leftist team I had joined for a while called Epidem, the oldest Scandinavian documentary company. They were all more leftist guys, but liked my idea of focussing on the Islamic revolution. After that I founded my own company.
Why set up your own company?
It’s a drive that you want to take things into your own hands. There is so little factual programming here in Finland. We don’t really have a business here, as it is all tax paid. Some people at YLE were still angry because of my extremely subjective metro documentary – I had put dark glasses on all of the city leaders and ‘gangerised’ them.
However, after this more progressive experience at Epidem, I was allowed to produce one or two documentaries a year. In a way I had cleaned my profile. So, I started to make one-hour documentaries for YLE. They paid 30 per cent of the budget - and the rest I had to get from other public funds and foundations. It was difficult to take responsibility as an employer, based on ‘grants’. I started to think about doing bigger projects where I could actually find an audience that would pay for themselves through buying tickets: cinema.
How did you try to achieve this?
We ended up creating a project for an animated feature film, based on the things I had found interesting in the documentaries we had made. It was to be called Sindbad, the heroic character from the Arabian Nights story. It was to be about two kingdoms at some point of human history: a northern kingdom with blonde people, and a southern kingdom with dark people. These two kingdoms are running into a war, which will destroy the planet. Then a dark boy from the southern kingdom called Sindbad and a blonde girl in the northern kingdom called Aino, from the national Finnish epic Kalevala, befriend each other. They eventually save the planet from this war.
The investors came to be a mix; the workers’ main funding entity, that owned the workers savings bank here and a couple of capital investors that I knew, backed the project. And then John Halas from England got on board, who is the ‘Disney of Europe’, and had done Animal Farm as his first European animated feature in the 1950s, based on George Orwell’s famous novel. He loved this project and came to be a godfather for it, but there were difficulties. I was basically starting up a studio in Iran to create the expensive animation, in a country that I saw as having cynically expressed two “beneficial” situations: a revolution and a war. I thought that the funding of the expensive picture might be a bit more manageable because of these circumstances. Investors were looking at me like, ‘You are making this picture in Iran?!’ Then Saddam and Khomeini started bombing capitals, the war came to the doorstep of our start up studio, and it didn’t look very good. I decided to dismantle the studio and move the artists out of Iran and got them working here in Helsinki.
I then sent my assistant Hassan, who had been in charge of the Iranian unit, to Hollywood to meet up with Phil Mendes, an American animation artist that I had met years earlier. After a week Hassan called and said, ‘Even if God says we shouldn’t go to Hollywood with this project, we have to go to Hollywood with this project.’ I managed to talk the investors to continue providing the cash flow and got more involvement. So, we went there, and got director John Landis (Blues Brothers, Coming to America) on board as director. Mark Saltzman then came from the Sesame Street team to write, and background painter Walt Peregoy (from Disney´s 101 Dalmatians) as co-stylist, to work together with our Iranian master Noureddin Zarrinkelk.
When we had the final storyboard ready and the business plan, it was January 17, 1991. Our investors flew from Los Angeles to London to negotiate more funding, in an empty plane. Why? Because Desert Storm started that day, when the USA attacked Saddam, who had invaded Kuwait. The Western world went into a recession. Finland collapsed that same year because our main export market, the Soviet Union was running out of money and other energies as well. Franck Films two main investors went belly-up, and so did we. I remained in Hollywood for a couple more years, and then came home to be with my sons, and start over.
What was your next focus?
I started to direct a series on Finland´s relationship with the fallen down Soviet Union. The third film was a portrait of the man who had brought Marxism to Finland, Väinö Tanner. This was hated by Josef Stalin, because his changed his mind about many things. I found a quote from him stating that, ‘A responsible Finnish statesman maintains daily contact with the business community’. Despite the fact that I come from a bourgeois background, and had carried a certain shame of my prosperous background, a bell rang; if this guy states so, there might be something to study more closely here. That business, the corporate world, actually IS a part of the society. That there are stories to tell about Finland´s rise from one of Europe´s poorest countries 100 years ago – to today’s standards, seen from corporate perspectives.
Now, about ten years later, Franck Media has made about 100 films of approximately one hour, out of which 75 have been shown on TV. We have made documentaries on both family and publicly traded companies, governmental institutions and private foundations devoted to support social and cultural causes.
We are trying to get across the message that companies are not, as we were educated in the ‘60s and ‘70s, an enemy to good things. A company is part of society and there are good and bad companies. It’s funny that sports editors can say that when a Finnish sporting hero comes home for a ‘well-deserved holiday’ in Finland. Where is this guy paying his taxes? What’s well-deserved about it? Every time you present a cultural person, or maybe a sportsman, everything is fine and fantastic. As soon as you get close to a company they are ‘assholes’. This is what we are trying to work with and understand the mechanics between the corporate and the public, that every company is part of the society and why things work, economically. If people are used to just having the numbers, we tell the people’s story. We can’t oppose the facts, but it is the story around the numbers that we tell.
Of course it is always a matter of getting the trust from business owners and corporate management, to be able to tell these stories – as rich in detail and experience as possible, including shadows. In all documentaries, this is a totally central element for getting access to interesting stories, issues and people: that they can trust you, accept you as a filmmaker, interviewer, storyteller.
We live in an age where people have all kinds of information easily at their fingertips. What drives you to continue making documentaries?
They are stories and are not just information. It was said in YLE when I was there in the early ‘80s that ‘the talking head is bad television’. But Krzysztof Kieślowski, the director and philosopher said that the talking head is actually the best movie, as most of what we do in our lives involves ‘talking heads’.
Of course the fact that both of my sons and my wife are involved – and I have the opportunity to work with all of them – and this super team of a dozen more professionals at Franck Media, is a gift that I could not have dreamed about when we fell down in Hollywood.
Text James O’Sullivan,
photo Tomas Whitehouse