He started messing around with film at an early age. He set up giant battles with his toy soldiers and told short three minute stories. When he wasn’t filming he was writing radio plays that he was recording with his friends. As he grew older he had one goal in my mind; he was going to be an old school action film director like Don Siegel. He was laughed at and told it wouldn’t happen; if you weren’t into Brunelle then you were a capitalistic nobody going nowhere. Since then he has worked with Ed Harris, Val Kilmer, Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone, Geena Davis and his close friend Samuel L. Jackson among others. Renny Harlin had the last laugh.
Renny Harlin’s career started slow. After making two films he thought were going to open doors, he couldn’t even get an agent. There is an important lesson to be learned here about persistence. A lesson about humping the pavement and hustling your films until you find the right door to bust down. Harlin has gone from micro-budgets to big budget blockbusters and he sat down with us to tell us what’s what in action cinema and how it all started for a kid from Finland.
DAILY GRINDHOUSE: So what was the first film that changed your life?
RENNY HARLIN: My Mother was a film buff and she would take me to the movies all the time and I saw a lot of Hitchcock and things that she was into. My dad was working a lot so I became her movie buddy and she never really worried about the rating, if she was into that film then that’s the one we were going to see. She was mainly interested in drama and thrillers, but I graduated from those early films to action. One of those turning points for me was Don Siegel. I was a big fan of that whole style of filmmaking and he was shooting TELEFON in Finland and I was one of the spectators on the set.
I remember Charles Bronson was coaching a hockey team and a helicopter lands or something like that and in the middle of all of this is Don Siegel in a director’s chair with a megaphone and a cigar in his mouth and he’s calling all the shots and I just thought holy shit! I just couldn’t believe it. I went to school the next day and told everybody I was going to be a big action film director. It was bizarre saying that in Finland because I didn’t even know a person who had been to America at that point.
The other one that stands out though in terms of a theatrical experience is ROSEMARY’S BABY, I remember seeing that and just thinking it worked on every level; the visual language of the film, the story, the frightening moments, it all just kind of hit me. I thought that if you could affect somebody through cinema then that’s what I wanted to do.
I know you worked the Super 8 camera a lot and kind of played around with different shots, was it after seeing Don Siegel that you decided to pick that up?
No I was playing with film before that, I was about 10 when I started playing with film and kind of experimenting with that. We had a camera that would shoot 24p (frames per second) and then it did 36p. I remember watching a lot of Peckinpah and I was a huge fan of slow motion. I realized one day that if you shoot faster it will actually project slower so I took all my toy soldiers, tanks, planes, and I even got some of those little explosives that you can buy when you’re a kid and I set it all up and lit the fuse and rolled camera at 36p. I just thought it was going to be awesome. So I send the film to Denmark to be developed and it took like 4 weeks to get it back, my hands were shaking I was so excited. I finally got it back, set up the projector and it was over so fast. It was just like you could see the explosion and then it was over. I didn’t realize that you had to shoot it in 60p, 90p, or 120p to really slow it down. Anyway, that’s the kind of experimenting I was doing. It was usually just 3 minute long stories.
Where there any ideas you remember coming up with that later made it into your films?
Yeah that’s interesting, I was just thinking about that when I was shooting my last movie 5 DAYS OF WAR. I had scenes where I had 80 tanks, 6 fighter jets, 2,500 troops, and I thought this is what I was trying to do with toy soldiers when I was 10 years old. Another thing I use to do when I was a kid was a lot of radio plays. Film was really expensive and we didn’t always have it so I would write these radio plays that I would record with my friends. They were usually horror stories and they always had to be done in one take of course because I wasn’t able to mix things. All those stories though would kind of scare the other kids shitless. So maybe there are threads of that in NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET and PRISON or some of the others.
I am glad you brought up PRISON because I think that is really a film people need to seek out. I think as of right now it’s only on VHS but it’s worth the hunt. Your first two films BORN IN AMERICA and PRISON they both kind of play with the idea of freedom or lack of freedom. Was that just by chance that it ended up that way or was there a bigger commentary you were trying to get at?
You know, I don’t know. I did feel kind of trapped in Finland. It was kind of a suffocating environment in those days. I wasn’t really given the chances that I wanted to get and the film school was really sort of ultra-artistic so I was looked upon as this capitalistic American film loving loser. I think I felt sort of imprisoned in that environment. Also, now that I am thinking about it, my father was a doctor and he had some patients in the prison and I would occasionally go with him when he made his rounds there and see all that stuff so I am sure that has something to do with it. Having said that I have always been a fan of prison movies: ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ, THE GREAT ESCAPE, BRUBAKER, stuff like that.
What kind of research did you do for PRISON? I imagine prepping for a shoot in a penitentiary isn’t an easy thing.
With all the movies I make I do a lot of research. I know a lot of them seem superficial but I really do a lot of research because I want to know everything about the topic I am shooting. I did a lot of research on PRISON at a penitentiary in Wyoming talking to guards and prisoners. It was really chilling to hear their stories and to sit with them. There was one guy, I was sitting in the room with him, he wasn’t handcuffed or anything, and we were just talking like normal guys.
You never ask what they did or why they were there unless they volunteered. So after this guy left I asked one of the guards what he did, he seemed like a harmless guy, and the guard said “oh he got mad at his wife and kids, boarded them up in a house and set it on fire.” These were the people who were our extras which gave it a sense of reality.
PRISON is pretty remarkable on a lot of levels; it also features Viggo Mortensen in one of his first feature film roles. I know it’s cliché to say an actor has intensity but I think PRISON is one of his more intense roles. There is a scene in the prison yard when he’s going toe-to-toe with a prisoner who’s trying to run the yard that is just cool as hell. His performance actually in EASTERN PROMISES kind of reminds me of PRISON because in both films he uses his eyes so much.
That’s a really interesting point. When I was casting this little million dollar horror movie, I really wanted to get good actors though to make it stand out. We saw something like eighty guys in Hollywood, guys you would know from TV and bit parts in movies, but they all felt like the same old thing and I was really frustrated. After we get done with the eighty guys in comes Viggo who had hardly done anything at that point, I think WITNESS was his only film but I just looked at him and thought please let him know how to act. My mantra was that I wanted to find the next James Dean and he was awesome, very low key and on the spot I said this is our guy.
He really kept to himself and is a very quiet guy so that was maybe the only challenge as a director at that time, to get him out of his shell. He’s still kind of that way today if you watch him. There is a tremendous amount of strength in his characters but he plays it close to the vest. He’s a very good guy to work with. It’s funny though; I’ve never really heard Viggo talk about PRISON that much. A lot of actors when they become big stars are embarrassed about films they’ve done in their humble beginnings. Everybody has to start somewhere though, even if it’s on a little exploitation film.
Oh exactly. It’s funny you mentioned the genre attachment though because it does have that feel. I’ve never really thought of PRISON as a full on horror film. I agree though that actors shouldn’t be embarrassed about these films, we talk about these films sometimes more than their future big budget stuff. In the case of PRISON it was like Viggo was just pouring everything he had into that part. Sounds like you made the right choice with him.
I have always said that to me the biggest part of directing is casting. If you find the right actors for the right part then half your work is already done. I’ve had a real good fortune in finding actors that became big later on. People like Chace Crawford who is now in GOSSIP GIRLS hadn’t done anything before THE COVENANT, Taylor Kitsch who is now in JOHN CARTER was in THE COVENANT, John Leguizamo and Robert Patrick were in DIE HARD 2. Even if there is one line in the movie you do something with that line and turn that into something bigger.
Once PRISON was completed and released did you start to see doors open for you at that point?
I did but it opened the doors slowly. PRISON was produced by Irwin Yablans (editor’s note: producer of HALLOWEEN) who kind of found John Carpenter and he told me that I was his next Carpenter. Then things didn’t go as well as expected. Empire, who was distributing the film, went bankrupt and then New World inherited the film and they went bankrupt and it was just really painful. I thought it was my big break and it went nowhere. I was pretty desperate and was in dire straits financially. I carried around tape and showed it to whoever I could. Eventually I was able to show it to New Line and they liked me but they turned it down again but eventually I got NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 4 out of it.
We talked to Jack Sholder (NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 2) a few months ago and he said that he saw that film as kind of a key. He knew it would have some measure of success and would allow him to make more films. Did you approach that the same way?
I don’t think I was that savvy. I felt like if I did a good job I would at least be working after it. It went above and beyond my expectations when it got good reviews and was one of the more successful sequels in the series and what happened after that film was released just kind of blew me away.
Things happened quick after that, I mean you had THE ADVENTURES OF FORD FAIRLANE and DIE HARD 2 kind of back to back. In fact, I read that they were actually released a few weeks apart.
Yeah they were and that was crazy. Actually what happened first is that when NIGHTMARE opened and it was big I got a call from Spielberg who brought me in and we agreed to develop this book that we wanted to make. I was in heaven at that point; I mean you don’t get much bigger than Spielberg. The book didn’t really go anywhere though. At the same time I was approached by Walter Hill and David Giler to do ALIEN 3.
Whoa wait a minute, that’s a record scratch for me. You were on ALIEN 3?
Yeah I had made a deal with Fox to do that. I was both scared and excited; if I screw this up and don’t take this in a new place that’s different from Ridley and Jim then I am done and I look like an idiot.
How long where you on that project and why didn’t it happen?
I was on the Fox lot for a year working on the script with a couple of different writers and I could never agree with the studio on the direction they were going. They really wanted it to be on this prison ship but I had already done two prison related movies and I thought nobody would give a shit about a prison ship. You would never be able to build empathy with those prisoners, maybe one guy you could but that wouldn’t work.
So I have to ask, what did your version of the film look like? Fox obviously doubled down on the prison ship idea.
I had two ideas really. We have seen two of these movies and there’s a real mystery about these creatures. So let’s send a team of specialists to the planet that the aliens are from. Newt wasn’t in the script but Hicks and Ripley were included. They were like these experts now and so they were going to be sent with scientists and really explore in a smart scientific way what these aliens are. Are they like ants and just like any creature defending their territory? So Fox turned that down and I came up with an idea of the aliens coming to earth. I even did a poster that had aliens going through this mid-western corn field and I just thought what can be better? Ripley has settled into normal life, Newt has settled into a normal life and then the fucking aliens come and Ripley and Hicks have to get into action and Fox just thought the aliens belonged in outer space and that they didn’t belong on earth.
Wow, either of those concepts would have worked better than the prison ship. The third film is okay, it’s not a bad film by any means, it just doesn’t feel like an ALIEN film.
I agree. I know David Fincher and was friendly with him at the time and he really took that film head-on. It was just kind of hard to relate to those characters. You also didn’t have any firepower which the audience likes to see. Anyway, I finally quit and Fox called just after that and asked me if I wanted to do a rock and roll detective movie (THE ADVENTURES OF FORD FAILRANE) with a lot of music and I was like hell yeah, get me out of this ALIEN world.
Wow. Thanks for that little detour; I had no idea you were attached to that. So okay, you walk out of this dark period with ALIEN 3 and get to hang out in the sun shooting FORD FAIRLANE, not bad.
I had a really great time making that film and I was about 2/3 into the movie when Joel Silver who was the producer came up and asked if I wanted to make a sequel to DIE HARD and I told him of course! I loved the first film and I read the script for the sequel and liked it a lot. Bruce Willis actually came to meet me on the set of FORD FAIRLANE where I am doing these crazy scenes with Andrew “Dice” Clay. I went from shooting FORD FAIRLANE to shooting DIE HARD 2 in about two weeks. They both went into post simultaneously and then they were released about a week apart, a pretty crazy time.
I would think so; a lot of directors wouldn’t be able to switch gears like that. Those are two really different films. Dice was huge when you were making that movie but it didn’t do very well when it was released. You know I think along with PRISON, FORD FAIRLANE has a pretty huge cult following. What are your thoughts on why that didn’t work? It always felt like that film should have been a success.
Yeah I agree, we all had high hopes for it. It’s still a fun film, wherever I go in America, whenever I am in a bar, if someone finds out I did FORD FAIRLANE then I am their biggest hero and I get a round or two, it’s really crazy. It was the weirdest thing, the public opinion just turned against him so fast. This was a guy packing stadiums and on a huge ride, then his brand of humor became a target for various groups and he was blacklisted and ran out of town and the film got a bad rap: anti-gay, racist, chauvinistic, whatever. It was terrible.
You know I am up in Portland, Oregon and I saw that at a midnight screening and it sold out, the theater was packed and I remember just being confused when I saw that it didn’t stick around. I still dig the hell out of the film.
That’s awesome. Isn’t it great to be at a screening when the audience is digging it and having a great time?
Oh man it’s the best. That’s what movies are all about. Dice always said when he was coming up that he was going to be big and that the comedy thing was a way to get to the movies. What’s he like as an actor to work with?
He was awesome. Everyone who worked on that movie remembers it with such fondness. We were shooting in the coolest places around Los Angeles, the weather was perfect, and Dice was a riot. He was so funny and “on” all the time. A lot of the dialogue in the movie is improvisation. He would give a different take and try new things with every scene. He had this sidekick called Hot Tub Johnny and they would toss out lines to each other and Dice would try them. It was really a great time and I still like that film a lot.
So DIE HARD 2 is just a whole different beast than FORD FAIRLANE. I am wondering if you had the same reservations with DIE HARD 2 that you had with ALIEN 3. I guess at that time DIE HARD wasn’t the classic that it is now.
Yes it was less iconic then and I just thought I know how to shoot action and the sequel was a good way to expand on that character and that world. I did work on the script with Steven de Souza because my biggest problem in the beginning was just logic. The movie is full of fist-fights and fire-fights and conveniently Bruce or another character was always dropping their gun when they needed to have a fist-fight and then suddenly find a gun when they needed to have a fire-fight. That was kind of my first change, the second was the humor.
Bruce became a movie star with the first DIE HARD and he wanted to be taken seriously. He wanted the character to be real and serious and he didn’t want any humor. I thought the character though was very self-deprecating, wise cracking, sarcastic guy and the humor is a huge part of that so we had to retain that. We eventually came to a conclusion where we would shoot a scene the way I thought it should go and we would do another scene the way he wanted but we worked together well.
So when it came time to cut that thing up whose scenes ended up in the film?
Well if you watch the movie every joke and every funny moment is in the movie. Any movie needs some humor but especially this movie.
What were some of the challenges of shooting a film that big?
Well the scariest thing was the snow. For a film that needed snow we ended up having the least amount of snow in America for the last sixty years or something like that. I was this 29 year old director making a giant Hollywood sequel and we needed snow but there was no snow. We had all these planes booked for the shoot and we ended up just packing the planes with the crew and equipment to chase the snow. We went to Colorado, Canada, we just couldn’t find snow. This was before CG was really used so you couldn’t just draw it in.
There have been 2 other sequels in the franchise and a fifth one is on the way. Outside of DIE HARD 2 the other sequels haven’t worked for me at all. I think the third is just kind of okay and the forth one just lost me completely. Part of the reason why they haven’t work is that they are relying too much on effects to tell the story. What are your thoughts on what works in the DIE HARD universe?
We had some big scenes in DIE HARD 2, he jumped from a helicopter onto a 747, and people think they could do that on a good day. Guys can look at their girlfriend and say at least after the third beer I could do that. That to me is the essence of John McClane and when he becomes a superhero it betrays the audience. Tone is very important and the audience can’t have the rug pulled out from under them. One of the most brilliant things in the first one is when they see Bruce isn’t wearing shoes and they shoot the glass. That is great filmmaking, it’s just so visceral. Making things bigger and bigger isn’t always the best thing. There has to be rules of the game so you know what the stakes are.
What is it about the setting of Christmas that is so attractive to action films? You have DIE HARD 2, LONG KISS GOODNIGHT, but there’s also LETHAL WEAPON, and a bunch of other non-Shane Black scripted films. Why does that work so well?
I don’t know. I guess it’s a time of year that a lot of people can relate to. Things are supposed to be peaceful and families get together and so when you juxtapose that with something violent it’s a pretty strong contrast.
DIE HARD 2 is cool but LONG KISS GOODNIGHT is probably hands down your best film in my opinion. I am not sure if you have a preference or not but damn I love that flick. Sam Jackson doing the P.I. thing and Geena Davis carrying this huge action film on her back, she’s just tough as nails in that film. How much of her performance came from Shane Black’s script and how much came from her just kind of taking to that role?
Shane Black’s script was just absolutely brilliant. Geena and I really fought hard to get that script and there were a lot of people trying to get their hands on it. We did embellish some things when it came to Sam’s role but Shane was with us most of the time when we were shooting in Toronto. That film is rooted in reality which is why I think it works so well. We wanted to make sure we really told that story of Geena and her daughter and then of course the humor and banter between Geena and Sam.
There are scenes in this movie where it looks like you’re shooting in 20 below weather.
Well, ironically this was one of the coldest winters. There were times when I would be talking to Geena and I would say why are you talking so weird? You are talking like you’re moving in slow motion and she would say “I can’t move my jaw. “ We also had nights when the film would get so cold in the camera it would freeze and break. It was inhumanly cold but it gave the movie a lot too. That scene where Geena and Sam jump out of the window into the lake, that lake was like 50 below.
That was another film though that financially was disappointing. We got really great reviews and I remember it went through the roof in New York but the further east it started to slow down and then when it hit the west coast it went back up again. The thinking now is that we were ahead of our time when it came to a female action hero.
LONG KISS has one of my favorite finales in action films. It starts when Geena is in the freezer with her daughter and just goes flat out until the bridge blows and she and Sam are dodging cars. Can you walk me through the set-up there?
It was awesome. None of it was CG, those were real cars we were dropping and stunt-drivers dodging those cars. The bridge was a giant miniature that we blew, I think it was something like 200 feet long or something. Logistically that was a very complicated shoot that lasted about three weeks. There is a scene when Geena is bleeding on the bridge and her daughter tells her to get up but Geena didn’t get up. We had like seven cameras on her and she couldn’t get up because her jacket froze to the ground and it took like four grips to pick her up.
Is there a scene in that film that stands out for you?
I really love the shootout at the Deer Lake Motel after Sam’s character has been freed and he’s blown through the neon sign and Geena is giving him cover fire. I love that scene and then her running through the forest. It was really one of my favorite sequences I have ever put together.
Did anything change from script to screen?
Well I can tell you that in the original version Sam’s character dies in the end. We shot that and put it together and we looked at it and thought no fucking way, we can’t do that. So, we just cut it a different way so you don’t come to that conclusion. We had to think of a way to redeem that character in the eyes of his ex-wife and family so we somehow came up with the idea of having him on Larry King which was crazy.
We’ve been hearing news about a LONG KISS GOODNIGHT sequel, do you have any updates on that?
We are definitely working on a sequel. The studio hasn’t signed off yet but behind the scenes I have gotten together with a writer, his name is Ben Watkins. I met him during the fall when I did a couple episodes of BURN NOTICE. A friend of mine is the creator and Ben Watkins is one the head writers and executive producer and it turns out he’s a huge fan of LONG KISS. We talked about it and Ben is going to write the sequel and hopefully we have the script ready to go next year. Sam Jackson is on board, he said “I will definitely do it” and he was kind of a key cast member for it.
Is Geena going to be back as well?
I hope that she will be part of it. Actually the main idea of the story is that the adventure is with Sam Jackson’s character and Geena’s daughter in the film grown up and the two on the road together.
Can you give us some ideas as to what the story outline or their overall mission is at this point?
How about the mission is to find out who killed her mother.
Perfect. What are some of your films you think your fans may have missed?
Well I think a film like CLEANER which again is a movie with my friend Sam Jackson but I also got to work with Ed Harris. What a great guy he is, a gentleman and a professional. Eva Mendez is in that and some other really cool actors so that’s worth checking out.
And of course you mentioned 5 DAYS OF WAR which is out now.
Yeah I think people are really going to like that film. I was able to really take everything I have learned as a filmmaker and put it to good use in a film that meant a lot to me. It’s a really important story to tell and I hope people check it out.
Well man I can’t tell you how cool this has been. Thanks for hanging out with us.
Anytime, it’s been my pleasure. I really enjoyed this, thanks for having me.
More on 5 DAYS OF WAR from Renny:
Thanks again to Renny Harlin for his time, that guys is one cool cat and we hope to have him back again soon.
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