Snowboarding films, Finland’s most watched music videos, and now pursuing his dreams in Hollywood. We met with the Finnish film director where he lives – in Venice Beach, California.
We meet with Joonas Kent at a Bulletproof coffee shop nearby his home. Upon meeting him, he seemed like that guy who knows everyone, and it was easy to tell from the beginning that he has charisma. We started chatting in Finnish, but soon he asked if we could speak in English. “My entire career, mostly, has been in English”, he explained. “The only Finnish friend I see frequently in California lives next door. He’s a Finnish director that’s been here three years. He hadn’t lived anywhere abroad before LA; he still has an accent and everything. He wanted to switch to English. To switch everything to English is very weird at first, but it’s especially weird when a Finnish person comes around and I have to switch to Finnish. Everything about work is always in English.”
I totally understand! So, who is Joonas?
Right now, I’m still considered young in this town. I’m a director that’s doing commercials for the money, but also the creative and fun aspect of them. I’m writing my first screenplay.
Can you talk about that (the screenplay)?
Yeah, in the last 3 years, after my snowboarding film career, it’s been a couple years of struggling and figuring out how to make ends meet and what it is that I’m driven to do. Now, for the past 6-8 months I have started to realize, or mentally given myself the permission to become who I know I can become as a director, professionally. In a book I’ve recently read, Big Magic, the author talked about how people look at perfectionism as a good trait, but actually it’s just a different kind of fear in disguise. It’s been a problem for me. But, now I’m understanding a lot more and I’m more able to get passed it. now I’m at the point where I know my work is going to be good enough if I just finish it. And I have to embrace it and keep doing the work.
Yes, ah! I love that book… it’s amazing.
Yeah, so that’s who I am professionally. Life and health wise, I am in the best place and the place I want to be in. I am getting better everyday and I have had the opportunity and privilege to run into so many mentors.
” I am getting better everyday and I have had the opportunity and privilege to run into so many mentors.”
Let’s jump into where you came from.
I was born in Raahe, but my parents moved to Espoo when I was a couple months old. Then we moved to Masala then to Malaysia. At that time I was already the oldest of 5, and looking back it was crazy – the amount of courage my parents had and the confidence they had to do that. I was already in second grade, with 4 younger siblings. I remember stepping out of the airplane that first time… the heat of Malaysia. I didn’t speak a word of English. I remember the language test very clearly… I didn’t say a word during the whole test. It was just the teacher and I. She cut the meeting off after 20 minutes because I did not say a word.
Oh no! That must’ve been so hard. So what happened, were you able you start school there?
I was fluent within 6 months. That’s what happens when you’re in a school where no one else speaks Finnish. I was in Malaysia for 3rd grade and then we moved to Holland for 3 years. Both of those schools were pretty prestigious American schools and I got to meet a lot of American students. In 5th grade I sang in a choir singing to Hillary Clinton, in 6th grade I shook Bill Clinton’s hand.
That’s a good start!
And then Holland and back to Finland. I finished middle school, high school, and went through my army training in Tampere. Then after the army, I moved to Helsinki for five years. After that I moved to San Clemente, California and from there to Huntington Beach and now I’ve been living in LA for three years.
Do you have family in Finland?
Yes, my parents live in Tampere with 3 foster kids from South Sudan. So, now we have a family of 8 kids and a dog. One of my younger brothers has two kids and is part of a successful musician app; they’re moving to NY. I have another sister in Berlin. Moving around as kids has definitely contributed to us being nomads. When I was 18 I started to have this urge to move. After the army I knew I was going to move, so I moved to Helsinki. When I was in Helsinki I was traveling for snowboarding quite a lot and it already started to feel like I was going to move abroad. It took a few years for me to be in Helsinki first to get that opportunity. I met the marketing managers and team managers of Oakley in Japan and did a couple jobs for them traveling here (California). I was 22 coming back and forth a couple times per year. This is the exact spot I’ve always dreamed of. I love it!
“This is the exact spot I have dreamed of. I love it here!”
So when did you start snowboarding?
I started snowboarding when we were still in Holland, at 13 or 14. When we moved to Tampere I found a crew of friends who snowboarded, all freestyle. We did tricks and filmed each other and that’s kind of how I started. We’d film each other all winter and then edit a movie all summer. Looking back, it was just kids having fun and getting creative. But that was the beginning of it.
Then I hurt my back on a big jump. I was really going for it. In the end, my chiropractor found that my left hip flexor was messed up. Rehab didn’t go that well and I still have a few problems with it. So, that hit kind of led me be behind the camera and I realized that I had that visual eye for filming, and a talent for it. Slowly I got opportunities to shoot with bigger names on the Finnish scene. At the time there were some pretty big names in Finnish snowboarding. Then basically I became a personal videographer for Eero Ettala, who started a blog.
This was when blogs were new. Right before I got to that level, there was a shift from big time snowboarding films from filming just one video in the winter where everyone would see the big premieres in the fall. But suddenly I was the first one with Eero and Heikki Sorsa to start an online YouTube series, called Cooking With Gas, and it became a pretty big thing and it was really popular. It was the first time that someone was putting out the best tricks of the year… in the same year and that was unheard of at the time. Now these tricks are seen within hours, or right away. The next day they would be on Instagram, etc. Looking back it was really cool to be on the forefront of that, but it was taking me away from my movie goal.
So when I met the Oakley guys, because Eero was one of the top professionals on the Oakley team, they decided to take me on and hired me and supported my move from Finland to the States. The first year I was shooting all kinds of surf and skate videos here and there. But winter was when they wanted to do one of the old school snowboarding films. We had a lot of professionals on the team so we interviewed those guys and I was able to edit from home in Huntington and I hired one of my great friends, an amazing editor to come from Finland. Him and I would edit during the day, grab lunch at the beach, and then go back and edit until 3am.
Wow, that’s amazing.
An 8-city, worldwide premiere tour like I had dreamed about was so cool. LA, Vancouver, Denver, Toronto, NY, London, Innsbruck, Helsinki…. In NY it was a sold out theater, with a standing novation at the end. I was like, WHAT. We got to end it in Helsinki, so that was really cool. It was the first snowboard film to have a premiere at Tennispalatsi, Helsinki.
So yeah, that was the snowboarding career. My contract ended and I had always wanted to come up to LA, but because that year had been so busy with the editing of that movie, the Oakley bosses had said “Hey don’t worry about your visa, you’re all good. We will cover you for another year, concentrate on finishing the film.” During the premier tour, I heard that my boss got let go and my boss’s boss got let go. So at that time it was end of November and they told me they could not renew my visa. I had a month to find an agent or a company to sponsor my visa. I was able to do that through a good friend of mine who’s a good action sports agent and he signed me as their video guy, so that got me my visa. Now I’ve got a manager for my visa.
Do you like being an entrepreneur, working on your own and finding projects?
I really don’t know anything else right now because it’s been that way for so many years. I worked for Oakley, obviously. But even that was traveling most of the year and doing what I love anyways, filming and editing… well, not editing but filming.
But you still edit?
Yeah, I did for that commercial. I have to stop being a perfectionist and let other people help me. With wanting to find the next project and my next step, it’s not good for me to focus on editing.
So do you have an editor to help you?
Well, I have editor friends but I need to find more collaborators to work with. It’s always good to have connections with production companies. I’m not exclusive with any production companies but I’m debating right now if that’s the route I’ll take. It’s kind of 50/50 about what people think of it. You are more restrained unless it’s the kind of collaboration that you work well with. I am on the roster for some production companies that are pitching my stuff but you have to have that as a back up and make connections on your own.
You said you’ve mostly done commercials here in LA, is there anything specific in your mind?
Yeah, this one commercial brought a lot of different kinds of people together from Venice, and I’m actually bummed that I wasn’t able to find a way to write in two body builders that I know. I almost took it as a challenge and I wish I could have made it happen but the guy who puts together the Life Parade told me he’s not good with those guys, they don’t really like him… for no particular reason. They just looked at him angrily as he passes with the parade because they think he’s taking the spotlight from them.
That’s crazy, and so mean!
I will show you the commercial, it’s a rough cut. It has different aspects of Venice people put together for a Finnish brand.
Ah, let’s see!
The creative director of the agency had seen that kind of Monster bike on YouTube, but it was from someone in Austria who built it seven years ago and they really wanted it. I told them we cannot find this person and the bike is most likely no longer alive anymore. The client added into the budget that I organize for the guys to build the same bike… just for those two shots!
Kent with the Monster Bike
“I know I’m capable of an Oscar winning film.
I know it’s happening.”
What inspires you in the film industry?
Basically, the biggest thing I want my work to be able to do is for people to feel something they wouldn’t normally feel, and get emotional about something they wouldn’t expect. So when it comes to my first feature idea right now, it’s going to be based around wildlife crime, more specifically, rhinos and elephants. It’s pretty far from most of the West’s understanding of what’s going on. Many have not seen a rhino outside of a zoo. The goal is that, at the end of the movie, people will be like “wait… was I just crying about a rhino?” That’s the big future goal right now, story wise. But I just started a writer’s boot camp course through this company that have been doing it for 30 years and they have an amazing track record with alumni that have won Oscars. I know that my first feature won’t be my biggest success, I know it can take years and years for script to get made. So I’m still very open to the fact that I’m looking at that movie being made in 6 years, but hopefully I’ll be making movies before that.
Is that your biggest dream right now, career-wise, to get your own feature?
Yeah. Like I said, I’ve been here for three years now and I still don’t have my own first script written. Had I had the clarity I have now, I’d most likely be in a better place, but it’s been a learning curve. I also struggle with the fact that I kept thinking I might have a lack of motivation, but I have to give myself a break and stop being a perfectionist.
Have you had any disappointments or failures in your career?
Actually… no. I wouldn’t say I’ve had any failures – I really believe there’s a reason for everything. For example, I was leaving Finland for the States and everything was supposed to be fine with my visa and everything. I had sold most of my stuff, given up my apartment and had a farewell party and everything, and then I was turned back at the U.S. border. I was devastated, and I went to live with my parents and waited for the my new visa to be processed.
I ended up touring with Finnish rapper Mikael Gabriel, shooting some behind the scenes clips at his gigs. Seven months later I was suddenly this hot shot music video director. I look back and I’m not exactly proud of those videos anywhere (laughs). They are some of the biggest music videos in Finland but I am not proud of them, at all.
Why?! You should be proud, they’re really good. Everyone loves your JVG’s Huominen on huomenna music video!
I know. Crazy. We filmed it right here actually, the dancing scene is just over there… yeah crazy, it ended up being the most viewed music video in Finland.
I believe that, I think it still is… crazy, crazy.
So suddenly I did all that. And then, I was in Brazil for Oakley for the Brazil X Games when I got an email from my immigration lawyer saying the visa was approved and it was really cool because… do you know who Ryan Sheckler is?
He’s one of the top skaters with Oakley and I was next to Ryan when I got this email and Ryan is from San Clemente, he has it tattooed like right here. So I have this video of Ryan yelling “welcome to San Clemente!” and me pointing at his tattoo. Yeah… that was that. Tt hasn’t always been that strait forward. I’ve honestly not done as much as I could have or should have after Oakley, I know there’s so much more, I don’t feel like I’ve put my best work out yet. It’s inside me and it’s about to come out. But the fact that I’m not proud of my past work kinda sucks.
You should be proud of your past work, and know that you’ll get your best work out of you when it’s time. It’s good to know that you have it in you, I feel the same.
That’s the thing; I know I am capable of an Oscar winning film. I know it’s happening.
I see it happening. It’s amazing. It’s right there. Go with the flow.
I love Big Magic by the way, just the way of understanding. We talked about this a lot yesterday with a lot of successful people. A very successful writer who was the second black man to be hired by the Daily Show. This event is so crazy because I don’t know why I’m there but I connect with these awesome people, who end up being the speakers at these events… it’s happened like three times now! I met a guy who just wrote a script for an HBO show and people around town are saying it’s the best pilot they’ve read.
So at these events, what’s the vibe there? Do you get inspired? Is it more competitive, supportive?
That setting is all about supporting each other. But of course, there’s competition here.
Do you ever feel like people might be trying to take advantage?
There is that, but I think about it more rationally. LA is the hotspot; there are so many people here and in this industry, so you are going to have more of everything. You will have a lot of bad people getting good gigs, and good people getting gigs, you just don’t hear about those people as much. I have actually had a lot of Finnish friends say they are scared of the “backstabbing” vibe that is said to be here. It’s crazy. There’s so much more opportunity. At least, that’s how I see it.
Do you feel that women are appreciated here, as in women’s work being equal to men’s within the media?
I’m not that deep into the film industry yet where I can talk about it in the film world, like the message that came out in the campaign. But there are definitely inspiring women here. I know a few female directors here who are doing huge shows and everything.
Name a few female inspirations.
Lauren Dunn is a friend of mine and is a director, she’s doing really cool stuff. I mean, all my female friends here are doing really cool stuff.