The story of Bordertown (Sorjonen) began in 2010, when director and screenwriter Miikko Oikkonen pitched the idea to the Finnish Broadcasting Company. After six years of preparation, shooting, and meticulous editing, the first episode premiered in October 2016.
Lauri Talikka, a terminal manager at the UPM Kaukas mill, was cast as an extra in the first season playing a political aide to MP Minttu Vesterinen (actress Marjaana Maijala).
“I had previously worked in theatre, so as soon as I heard that they needed extras, I sent in my application. It was a great experience! Best of all, I got to see how movies are made. A huge amount of time and effort went into shooting just a few seconds. I was surprised to see how many retakes were needed,” he recalls.
“There was a lot of waiting around, but when you’re filming many hours a day, all the cast and props have to be ready for the next scene at all times. Every second was carefully utilised. All of the actors were very nice, and it felt as if everyone enjoyed themselves.”
Whispers of reality
For those unfamiliar with the storyline, the series begins with Kari Sorjonen, a detective inspector at the National Bureau of Investigation, moving to Lappeenranta with his wife and teenage daughter. The seemingly idyllic bordertown soon turns out to be a seething hotbed of crimes more brutal than anything he has ever seen before.
The series was written in a very “genre-conscious” contemporary style. Screenwriter Miikko Oikkonen insisted on writing “only what he himself would want to see”.
“The underworld is not my thing. I much prefer writing about the crimes of ordinary people. I wanted to depict the reactions of the characters and offer subtle leads. We reviewed actual criminal cases for authenticity and resonance. Then we disguised the actual cases with fictional elements. I also wanted to shed a different kind of light on neighbouring Russia. There were no Russian criminals in the first series,” he reveals.
“The series has been remarkably well received internationally, and we’re extremely happy about the feedback. Finland is perceived as a very exotic country. Some viewers have even commented on how beautiful the clean waters look,” Oikkonen says.
The series is also popular in Uruguay, where UPM employees have commented on the “cameo role” played by the Kaukas mill.
Making the scene
The city authorities, businesses and locals in Lappeenranta were all tremendously supportive in helping the production team. The UPM Kaukas mill generously provided filming locations, and the Kaukas clubhouse appeared in both of the first two seasons as the mansion of Mayor Degerman.
The local city hall has a conference room that is now called ‘Sorjonen’. Visitors can even join a tour visiting the shoot locations.
Some scenes were filmed on the shore in front of the biorefinery, as the crew wanted worn-out-looking railway tracks in the background of the shot. The main characters were filmed having a discussion in front of a convertible, and then walking along the old track.
Oikkonen reveals that the mill also plays an important role in the third season. “It was great to shoot the third season in winter. In this season, the characters walk on an icy lake and in a snowy forest”.
Attentive viewers will immediately notice how carefully the filming locations have been selected. Despite the brutality of the stories, the series itself is visually captivating. Lappeenranta plays a key symbolic role as a city straddling two different cultures.
“Various borders are very significant in the series. The underlying idea is that the events take place on the Eastern border between Finland and the EU, at the junction of two countries and two cultures,” explains the director.
“Various other borders are also visually present. The series was filmed both above water and underwater, as well as both above ground and in a mine and a cellar underground. It also highlights borders inside and outside the human mind”.
Family or crime drama?
The one condition specified by the producers was that the content had to work for international audiences. The story of Sorjonen’s family is interwoven subtly with the crime stories, with the bordertown again providing the perfect setting for this thematic element.
“The basic question it asks is: How can a detective who solves brutal crimes manage to carry on with his everyday life with his family, and what kind of characteristics does this person have to possess?” Oikkonen explains.
While the series is action-packed, the twists of the plot unfold quite slowly. Oikkonen reveals this was a conscious choice: “Interesting twists are worth waiting for! At times, we even withheld information to avoid revealing the answers too soon”.
Sorjonen the savant
Played by Ville Virtanen, the main character Kari Sorjonen is no ordinary inspector, but a character with exceptional gifts.
“The role model for the character is the exceptionally talented British writer Daniel Tammet, who speaks 16 languages and is a maths genius with Asperger and savant syndrome. The character also resembles Sherlock Holmes, but in a more down-to-earth way,” explains Oikkonen.
Ville Virtanen was the number one choice for the role. “At first, Ville was busy with other projects, but now we can’t even imagine anyone else in the role. Now even the screenplay sometimes includes descriptions like ‘Ville expressing Sorjonen-like behaviour’. Ville genuinely has all the same gestures and facial expressions,” he adds.
“The Russian character, Lena, was an exciting one to write. In many ways, she is the exact opposite of Sorjonen: she is a straightforward woman who is always ready to act. Lena carries the burden of her past life, and she is far from a conventional mother. In the first story, Lena’s character is introduced in quite an unusual way – through a crime”.
Text: Sini Paloheimo
Pictures: Fisher King Oy