Three-minute Man (Part II)
"Hey, guess what, I'm going to do Will Smith's new video"
By Jouni K. Kemppainen
Antti Jokinen closes the laptop and carries on with his life-story where he left off. It was approaching the turn of the millennium and his breakthrough was just around the corner.
He had directed videos in Finland and in England, and he had become a father. The child's mother was the top Finnish fashion model Nina Kurkinen. The romance between these two Finnish successes had flared up in Paris, as is only right and proper for a story like this.
The Swedish director Jonas Åkerlund had given Jokinen a helping hand by showing a video portfolio of his work around to the right people in the right places in Hollywood.
Jokinen decided the time had come to move to Los Angeles. He first signed himself up with a good agent, but even after listing, there was no work to be had, not anywhere.
This did not stop him from writing video scripts and treatments the entire time. In the space of a year he amassed around 900 pages of screenplays for videos, none of which ever went into production.
"Everybody could see that I had a different kind of visual look. But things always fell apart on the fact that my showreel didn't have a single face in it that was recognisable to the Americans. A couple of times it got even worse - they actually tried to buy the scripts off me, which was kind of embarrassing. What do you mean? You don't want the extension of the script? Like, ME?"
After a year of knocking on doors, Jokinen got to make his first video, Toya's mix of R&B and hip-hop I do!. Jokinen took no salary for the gig, but put the money back into production.
It didn't help. Another six months passed without work.
Eventually he got a break. A band called City High saw a video that Jokinen had directed in Britain featuring Grace Jones, and their interest was aroused. In the end Jokinen got to direct their video, which had a healthy budget of USD 550,000.
Jokinen had a strategy all prepared. "Cool as you like, I looked at the names on the crew lists for all my favourite videos and hired them. The entire production team was the best you could find anywhere."
Jokinen is not kidding. For a start, the cinematographer he enlisted was Daniel Pearl, a veteran of countless videos, who was on the camera crew of the video of Michael Jackson's 1983 hit Billie Jean and has since worked with artists as varied as U2, Boyz II Men, Bob Dylan, and Will Smith.
City High's Caramel became a big single hit.
With that, things started to happen. Shaggy wanted to do a video with Jokinen, then Beyonce (and Missy Elliott) sought his services.
The very first American Idols TV-competition was decided, and the first three videos by the winner Kelly Clarkson fell into his lap. Suddenly Antti J. had four American #1 hits in the same year.
"I've wondered after the fact whether it was that the pieces sort of simply fell into place like that. Naturally I convinced myself that it was all about me being quite good at this game", says Jokinen and laughs, long and hard.
Now from not being able to get his phone calls answered, Jokinen was suddenly in huge demand. He said "Yes" to nearly all enquiries.
"In the United States, it works so that if you have this good milch-cow, then around it it is possible to build a complete apparatus so that the cow can concentrate solely on producing milk. The only thing wrong with all this is that by the closing stages of the worst hype, the quality of my work was going down like the proverbial cow's tail."
At its most frenzied, Antti J. directed four videos in a month. Then again, he had no shortage of ideas: those 900 pages of scripts in the desk-drawer.
A day on the job could go such that in the early morning the agent would deliver a new song to the location. The morning would be spent in filming another video, and around lunchtime the agent would call up and ask if the draft idea for the new song was ready yet. Hey, but I've been shooting all morning, Jokinen would reply defensively. Well, work on the writing during the breaks between takes, responds the agent.
A couple of years ago, Jokinen had had enough of the cement-mixer whirl.
"I deliberately slammed on the brakes. I started to concentrate on the content side of things and to turn towards projects that interested me personally. Well, sort of. I mean, even last year I was doing one and a half videos a month."
Antti Jokinen is amiable, with a nice dash of self-irony, and he is considerate to those around him.
There are no diva gestures, no posing, he doesn't big himself up in any way, or brag about the life he leads.
It is almost as though he has spent five Teflon-coated years in Hollywood without picking up any trace of the local behaviour patterns.
"What has kept my feet on the ground is that I have such strong roots in Finland", Jokinen observes.
He follows this up with a delicious example: the singer and movie star Will Smith got in touch and said that he would like to do a video with him.
Jokinen was incredibly excited about this. He immediately called up his best friend in Lahti and said: ‘Hey, guess what, I'm going to do Will Smith's new video'.
The voice at the other end answered laconically: ‘Oh yeah? His last film was total crap, you know.'
Jokinen himself does find traces of divaship from his past. "I think at the beginning, when things started getting crazy, I was guilty of some fancy footwork", he says, looking rather abashed about it.
"But I guess it is only human. People listen to you the whole time. They put you up on a pedestal. There's someone at your side all the time telling you how fantastic you are, and the salary coming in is more than you've ever dreamed of."
He confesses that there was a period when no hotel room or suite was really quite comfortable enough for him. And though he had always flown economy, those five or ten additional centimetres of legroom in the first-class cabin started to feel like the most important centimetres in the world.
"Although, when I look back on it, I think there were only two first-class trips."
Well, what about the wild parties? The sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll stuff?
"Drugs are everywhere you go in Hollywood. But those who are working, they are like in a factory. There's no time to go running around to parties."
And the competition in Hollywood is every bit as cut-throat as it is claimed to be. The challengers are standing behind your back on the location, waiting.
They might be lowly production assistants, whose role on the set is that of a gofer, doing things like carrying toilet paper to the artists' trailers. But behind this they all have a fine education to be a director, a producer, or a sound engineer.
And they are just waiting - waiting for someone further up the food-chain to screw up.
It is almost impossible to get honest, sincere feedback. Jokinen sounds exasperated and almost jealous when he tells how some of the rap artists choose their assistants.
The rappers still often come straight from the ghettos. When they have signed a record deal, and while the ink is still wet, they quit their dope-dealing activities and go into the music biz.
"And they bring their friends along with them. ‘Hey, you can be my manager, and you can be my personal assistant'. Even the managers of big stars can be friends from childhood, like in the case of Missy Elliott or Will Smith."
It takes all sorts to make Hollywood go round, but there is only one Finnish music video director there: Antti Jokinen.
"How much nicer it would have been to work there with some Finnish guys around me", says Jokinen.
In the early stages of his Hollywood career he did try to seek out Finnish directors and camera people whom he could have helped along in the business.
"It always broke down. I made sure that the right people got to see the tapes. And then I would say to the Finnish guys that now it's up to you. And they'd always call me back a month or so later, and ask if I'd heard anything."
A worried frown crosses Jokinen's face. "This doesn't all sound awfully dumb, does it?"
Jokinen seems genuinely modest despite it all, but the artists he works with certainly know how to carry off the diva role.
One female artist whom Jokinen was filming saw an ear-ring in a picture in Vogue, and said she wanted one just like that for the video shoot.
The problem with this was that the only place they were on sale was in Paris.
And so an assistant went to the shop in Paris and bought the ear-ring. Then she jetted back to L.A. with it. At the airport there was another assistant waiting, who carried the ear-ring down to the location in Mexico. The star took a look at the ear-ring, announced it wasn't big enough, and tossed it over her shoulder onto the floor.
At another shoot, Jokinen noticed that a string of horses had appeared in the studio carpark. It turned out that the big female star wanted to spend her leisure-time in the company of horses. Since no suitable stables could be found locally, the horses had been flown in specially.
"But after saying all that, generally you get on perfectly fine with the professional ones. Those people who are really successful, they know how the money-flows move. You don't have any problems with them."
Jokinen adds that one group who were a chapter to themselves were the boy-band Westlife, for whom he directed four videos.
The boys would use a stopwatch to ensure that each of the members had his face in shot for precisely the same amount of time.
For several hours now, Antti Jokinen has been drumming into me the fact that music videos are not art. They are pop culture, a part of the passing stream of disposable programming. They are usually made only for one thing: to make money.
The exceptions are rare, and now he wants to show me one.
It is Wyclef Jean's Wish You Were Here, a cover of the old Pink Floyd tune, and it dates from 2001.
This was Jokinen's third direction assignment in the States. He still regards it as one of the best things he has done.
Wyclef Jean, rapper, producer, and member of The Fugees, wanted to dedicate the video to his recently deceased father, who had spent his entire life as a ghetto pastor.
Jokinen decided that the video should be shot in the authentic milieu where Wyclef Jean himself grew up, on the mean streets of Newark, New Jersey.
The video goes along the same streets that the old preacher had walked, and we meet the same people - the drug-dealers, the car thieves, the pimps, the small storeowners, gang-members, kids playing basketball. Steel mesh fences form a backdrop to several scenes, until the singer and a small boy behind the fence are united.
The vocals and the acoustic guitar accompaniment flow peacefully. The images are soft and in their way quite beautiful; the cutting and framing is relaxed.
Jokinen watches the screen with a wistful look on his face.
"They don't make stuff like that any more. Fortunately this video came early in my career. It gives me the faith that one day I'll make a proper documentary like this."
The interviews are done, but in the following weeks and months Antti Jokinen is concerned about the Kuukausiliite article.
He would really like to show off his work in practice. But what would be a suitable video to watch being made?
From this end, the Rolling Stones sounds like a pretty good bet.
September 27th (SMS message): "I'm in London. Back home tonight. I'll call you then. Stones unfortunately put off for now. They're not making a video right now. But I'll fill you in tonight."
29th September (SMS): "I'll know more tomorrow. I'm probably going to take on a car commercial next. It'll be shot in L.A. and in New Zealand. Sorry for the hassle."
25th October (SMS): "The Stones thing unfortunately seems to be dead and buried for now. I'm in Finland and going back on Monday to shoot Toni Braxton's video in L.A. Back in Finland at Xmas."
15th December (SMS): "Hi. Sorry, was shooting yesterday. I haven't really directed anything that would be suitable for your cover picture thing. Tues and Wed I was directing the U.S. band Train, and at the weekend I've got Rage Against the Machine. Then a meeting in L.A. Right now, January's still a bit vague."
15th January (SMS): "The next three months at least I'll be working with Warner on this film of mine, and if it goes well, then longer. Sorry, but I'm sure you understand the situation."
24th February (E-Mail): "Sorry it took so long to get back to you. Moving into movies has been in the plans for some time already, and I have had offers from some studios, but I've been looking for something right. If there are werewolves crawling all over it by page 15 of the script, then I've just tossed the thing out.
The idea isn't to make a Hollywood picture for the sake of it, but I'd really like to do something personal. This movie is only still in the development stage. All the same, when the subject, the money, and the schedule all come together and I can get down to it, I think it is going to feel as though I've had a chance to drink a glass of water after walking through a desert. No, maybe make that a jug of beer instead.
Can you send me a copy of the piece when it's done? Thanks."
March 18th (E-Mail): "Wow. Jeez. Thanks for the article. I made a few small changes where the facts were a bit wrong, and I filled in the bits you asked me to, but otherwise I didn't touch the text.
All in all, a pretty positive experience, and let's have a beer when I'm next around."
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print in the April issue of the monthly magazine Kuukausiliite
Note: Several of Antti J.'s videos, including the Korn Word Up! video mentioned in this article, can be found from the YouTube site, and the Wyclef Jean Wish You Were Here video is also available out there if you know where to look, for example from megaupload.com.
More on this subject:
IMDB: Antti Jokinen (some videos listed under Other Works)
mvdbase.com: Antti Jokinen Videography
JOUNI K. KEMPPAINEN / Helsingin Sanomat