Renny Harlin has had what could easily be called one of the biggest hit or miss careers in Hollywood. For every Die Hard 2 there’s a The Covenant. For every Deep Blue Sea there’s a Cutthroat Island. Well, okay, there’s only one Cutthroat Island. Harlin’s new movie, 5 Days of War, is his most serious in years: a hard look at war journalists covering the Russo-Georgian War in 2008. Harlin sat down with us to discuss his new, ambitious film, war movies as a whole, and take a hard look at some of his most interesting earlier projects, including The Exorcist: The Beginning, Long Kiss Goodnight and the very different version of Alien 3 he worked on for a year before David Fincher joined the project.
CraveOnline: My first question for you, and I think this is the single most important question ever… Have you seen Rise of the Planet of the Apes yet?
Renny Harlin: I have not, and I am embarrassed because one of my best friends works at the company that produced the film, so I know a lot about the film. Over the last year I’ve been following closely the making of the film, and the creation of the photo-realistic apes and all that. And so I’m really excited for the making of the film. Always, I was told, it was going to live or die with the design of the apes. And I’ve been thrilled to read the reviews. I hear how highly it’s regarded. I’ve heard from people who have seen it that they liked it very much. I’ve been working the last couple of weeks, three weeks, so intensely that I haven’t had time to do anything. So… It’s a long answer. No, I haven’t seen it.
CraveOnline: The only reason I ask is because the entire plot of the movie is based around the genetic manipulation of animals to cure Alzheimers, and I’m like, “Renny Harlin covered that!”
Renny Harlin: You know, several have said that to me. Several people have said that there are actually same lines of dialogue. I think… There’s a scene in Deep Blue Sea where the sharks swim backwards, and one of the scientists say, like, “They can’t do that!” I think somebody said that that same line is actually in [Rise of the] Planet of the Apes.
CraveOnline: Very similar moments. It just amused the hell out of me, watching it. I loved Deep Blue Sea, but let’s talk about 5 Days of War. There’s lots of war movies out there, but this is kind of the only one about the Russo-Georgian war. Everything’s about the Middle East. I guess that’s the point. What brought you to this?
Renny Harlin: Well, first of all I would say that, as we all know, there’s wars going on everywhere in the world. So I wanted this film to kind of be an example of this situation that could take place anywhere, but happens to be the Russo-Georgian war, and what I really tried to do after I did my research and spent time in the country and talked to the people… I tried to create an environment that would be as relatable to a European or American viewer as possible. Because I feel that when you deal with movies that take place in Kosovo, Bosnia, or Rwanda or Afghanistan, the landscape, the religion, the culture, their customs, the outfits, everything is so foreign to the mainstream moviegoer that it’s hard to relate to it. It’s hard to make people really care, as horrible as that is to say. But it feels to me like that. I so tried to tell a story where, through the journalist’s eyes first of all, you look at it as an American or as a European. And the people you meet, they’re very much like ordinary people with ordinary issues in an ordinary world, and that way make it as relatable as possible. And then on the other hand, I felt like it was a really worthwhile story to tell considering how little it got attention. When it started, when it happened, it started in 2008 on August 8th, the same day as the Beijing Olympics, and the world didn’t pay attention. They very quickly sort of just decided to take certain angles to the events, and that was it. And when I went to Georgia less than a year after the war, and I looked at the physical scars of the people […] and I talked to the journalists who were there during the war, and I [saw] the fears in peoples’ eyes, it really became a mission for me to be able to tell this story and hopefully – hopefully – build an entertaining movie that at the same time would make people pay attention a little bit, and have a little discussion about these issues.
CraveOnline: How do you balance those real-world issues with a sort of old-fashioned… You have to entertain people to get them through the movie. It can’t just be a long slog. I notice that in the second half of [5 Days of War] it becomes a bit more of a mission-related movie. It becomes much more focused on plot.
Renny Harlin: I know, that’s true. But like some of my favorite movies like Platoon or Apocalypse Now… You know, Apocalypse Now is about the Vietnam War, but it’s sort of a surreal, fictional story. And while I kept real, historical points of this war, I wanted to create a fictional story that would be as dramatic and suspenseful and interesting as possible, so that it would bring the audience to the theater. Because you can’t give people history lessons. You can’t tell people to go to the movie theater because it’s your responsibility to learn about this stuff. That’s not why people go to the movies, so it’s a balancing act, and of course I have to sort of try to keep my “action film director” path in check to try to sort of tell a story that feels real, yet has the sort of spectacular aspects of a war movie.
CraveOnline: You make a good point about how you can’t be too didactic. A lot of the recent war movies like Lions for Lambs, they were sold as a preachy thing and they were utterly rejected by audiences. I was wondering what you thought of some of the more recent war movies you’ve seen? Like The Hurt Locker or Generation Kill…
Renny Harlin: Yeah, I really loved Hurt Locker because it didn’t really preach about Iraq. It was a personal story of a handful of guys, and their lives and what they do, and it was very suspenseful, very exciting, some great action, and a character story. So I think it kind of hit all those notes and unfortunately, after all the accomplishments that the film gathered, and all the awards and so on, I think what it had working against it was that it took place in Iraq. And people are just sort of so overfed with information about that war, and frustration of that war, and the desert landscape of that war, that people don’t really find it as something compelling that wanted to spend money to go out and see the movie in a movie theater. Unfortunately, though the movie was so great, in terms of box office it didn’t reach the kind of result that it should have. There’s certainly a few movies that I’ve enjoyed very much but like you said, you have to try keep in mind that it’s still entertainment, no matter what.
CraveOnline: I’d like to ask you about some of your older films, if that’s okay.
Renny Harlin: Mmhmm.
CraveOnline: I was very fascinated by a movie you did a few years ago called The Covenant. There’s a bit at the end, there’s this huge climax and the two actors are having this huge witch-off in a barn… Who played the villain in that again?
Renny Harlin: Sebastian Stan.
CraveOnline: So Sebastian Stan is really going completely nuts, and he says this one line that has always stuck in my head: “Oooooooooooh, witchay!”
Renny Harlin: (Laughs)
CraveOnline: Is that a reference to something that I’m missing? Was that you? Where was this kind of madness coming from?
Renny Harlin: (Laughs) – I don’t know. It was a combination of actors, screenwriters and me creating this world and these characters. It’s interesting that you bring that movie up, because I was kind of disappointed that it wasn’t more successful than what it was. I kind of felt like maybe we missed the mark somehow. I was hoping, this was a few years before The Twilight Saga, we were kind of hoping to hit that segment of the audience, and somehow we didn’t. And you know, we had a bunch of really good looking guys and romance and this kind of mystical stuff, so I don’t know where went wrong, and if it’s just that we didn’t have this famous source material we came from or what…
CraveOnline: Well, that would help any movie… Unfortunately, not all of your films have been critically appreciated. If you had to pick, which one would you say deserves a second chance the most? Like, you just want people to go back and revisit Long Kiss Goodnight, which was awesome.
Renny Harlin: Well, Long Kiss Goodnight, actually I got a very good critical response to that.
CraveOnline: Actually, you did. I’m sorry. That was a bad example.
Renny Harlin: Long Kiss Goodnight was very well reviewed, and it just commercially didn’t work as well as we wished it to work, and again you can find all kinds of reasons and blame things or whatever, and I’m happy to blame myself, but one thing that I think we had going against ourselves was [that] it almost feels like we were a little to early with the idea of a female hero in a movie like that. Because it was before Wanted and Charlie’s Angels and Salt, and all these other sort of female-driven movies, and it just felt like we kind of missed our mark in terms of finding the audience. A teenage boy was saying, “Okay, it looks like an action movie, but there’s that lady is in charge,” and then women said that, “There’s a woman in it, but it looks like an action.” And it somehow missed the audience in a strange way, because… In big cities we did really well, like New York and Los Angeles we did fantastic business, but then in sort of Middle America it didn’t work so well. I’m actually very happy with the reviews of that movie.
Renny Harlin: But the movie that got really slammed was Cutthroat Island, and that to me is like… I’m willing to say that I like that movie. It’s not Pirates of the Caribbean, but I think it’s a totally fine sort of family and young people’s pirate adventure. And I think that people just ganged [up] against it because it failed at the box office and so on, so I think that if anybody had the extra two hours in their lives and wanted to go check out something and give it another chance, that would be the one that I recommend.
CraveOnline: Fair enough. You were on Alien 3 for a really long time.
Renny Harlin: Yeah.
CraveOnline: And you left because it wasn’t what you wanted. What did you want from Alien 3. I’ve always been curious about this.
Renny Harlin: Okay, that’s a good question. And I think you can imagine how, as a young filmmaker, I’m only 28 years old, I had made Nightmare on Elm Street 4, which got a very good critical reception and a huge box office reception, and all of a sudden I’m being offered movies by Spielberg and everybody in town. And I’m a huge fan of course of Ridley Scott and James Cameron, and then I’m offered Alien 3. And I think, this is a fantastic opportunity. I get my office on the Fox lot in Hollywood, and there I am, and I literally have to pinch myself when I’m sitting in my office. I’m on a studio lot, I’m 28 and I’m making this giant movie. I can’t believe. And at the same time I’m really scared, because I feel that if I make a movie that is just a copy of the previous ones and just adds a little firepower or something, I’m going to be a laughing stock. I’m just going to be compared to the previous directors and they’re going to say that I’m an idiot. So I feel huge pressure [to do] something smart. And so I work on it for a few months, and I develop first one idea which was that this movie was going to take place on the planet where the aliens are actually from. So basically my pitch to the studio was, let’s look at aliens like ants. They are ants, and somewhere is the anthill. And now we’re going to travel to the anthill to find out, really, what are they all about? And who knows? Maybe they’re not really evil to begin with. Maybe it’s just a mechanism of survival that they are demonstrating. It would be really interesting – and obviously you’d have an action-packed thriller – but it would be really interesting to me to go to their origins and make this alien origin story. And then they reject that and say people don’t want to see that…
CraveOnline: I would have wanted to see that.
Renny Harlin: Me too! I don’t understand to this day why they didn’t buy it. And the second one was, I know you remember that we’re talking like ’88, ’89, so this is before Jurassic Park and movies like that, so I say… Okay, then I have another idea. Let the aliens come on Earth. Picture Middle America, a cornfield, and the aliens are going through the cornfield toward the farmhouse. And they’re just like, “Eh, no, people won’t like it. It’s a science fiction movie, it has to take place in outer space. People won’t buy it if they come to Earth. We don’t like it.” So I just get more and ore depressed because they don’t like my ideas, and then they come up with this idea… And none of these people work at the studio anymore […] so there’s no one to really blame… They want to tell the story about a prison spaceship where the aliens come. And they say it’s contained, and that’s how it should be, and I say, I don’t get it. The audience isn’t going to relate to a bunch of prisons. They’re prisoners, they’re all bad guys, and no matter what you do it’s just going to be this dark story, and what’s so great about the previous ones, is that the first one was basically about truck drivers and the second one there’s a little kid and so on, it’s like a mission movie. So go back and forth, and finally they are adamant about it, and one day I just look at it and say, “You know, I honestly can’t make this because I don’t believe in it. I don’t think I’m going to make a good movie.” And I quit, and it was a scary thing to do, after having worked on it for at least a year, but I had no idea what my future was going to be and who was going to hire me, and I just had to trust my gut instinct. Do I quit? And then the next day, the same studio, Fox, offered me [The Adventures of] Ford Fairlane and subsequently Die Hard 2, and all those things happened. But it was a tricky time in my life, and then the interesting thing was that then David Fincher was hired to do it, and they did the prison planet, and while David Fincher was a genius filmmaker, even he couldn’t squeeze out a movie that would satisfy people, and the franchise took a real hit at the point. And David Fincher took a real hit, and it wasn’t until he went on to do Seven that he sort of got out of that situation. But it’s just one of those things where you just gotta follow your instincts. And sometimes, to be honest, I wish that I had done that more in my career. Sometimes you [just] want to work, you’re frustrated because you can’t get a project off the ground, and you end up doing something that is maybe not the perfect thing for you to.
CraveOnline: What would you say would be one of those movies where in retrospect you weren’t following your instincts?
Renny Harlin: Well, for example when I did The Exorcist: The Beginning, it was a very complex situation. My friends were producing the film, and I wanted to help them because they had sort of made the movie already, but it was a troubled production, and I agreed to help them and I just got caught up in a situation that was in every way not the right situation, and it wasn’t the right way to make a movie. I think in those situations you just have to have the balls to say no, and I’m sorry, I can’t do this.
CraveOnline: I remember the controversy surrounding that. There were a lot of purist film nerds who were very concerned that Paul Schrader’s movie was taken away from him, and then they finally released Paul Schrader’s version and it wasn’t that great.
Renny Harlin: First I was supposed to help them shoot some scenes, and then I sort of agreed… I guess Paul didn’t want to continue making the movie at that point, and then all of a sudden they decided to shoot a whole new movie, and it was terrible. You know, I have incredible respect for Paul Schrader. He’s written and directed some of the greatest movies, and it was just a very painful situation for me to be in, and I learned a lot from it.
CraveOnline: Well, I guess my last question is what do you have coming up next?
Renny Harlin: Well, I just directed an episode of Burn Notice in Miami. I love that series, and I wanted to go do an episode of that and get a little experience in TV, and I had a really good time doing that. And on the movie side I have several things that I’m putting together. I have a big movie that is based on a book that I optioned called Master of War. I guess I’m just making movies that have “war” in the title, but it’s based on a book that tells the story of Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater, and it’s a very interesting story of a guy who put an army together from scratch and became a giant player in the whole business of war. So that’s another sort of reality-based movie that I’m very excited about and I also have a couple other things, but I have to see how the casting and everything comes together.