It’s been quite a journey for Finnish filmmaker Renny Harlin. Once the director of “A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master ” (the highest-grossing entry in the series at the time) he moved on to the back-to-back onslaught of “The Adventures Of Ford Farlaine” and “Die Hard 2: Die Harder” that cemented him as one of Hollywood’s top action directors, a designation he carried all the way to the snakebitten “Cutthroat Island,” one of the biggest bombs in box office history.
Harlin’s star dimmed considerably afterward, but he continued working, though the budgets began to shrink, and Hollywood began to change. As a result, he’s gone off the grid with his latest. In “5 Days Of War,” Harlin tells the story of the Russo-Georgian War in 2008 through the eyes of a group of tenacious journalists, risking their lives while remaining uncertain as to whether anyone's even bothering to watch their coverage. In some ways, it’s a departure for the director, who tends to specialize in high-octane genre thrills. But it unquestionably carries the same DNA as the man behind “Cliffhanger” and “The Long Kiss Goodnight,” with its swift pacing and tense action sequences. We sat down with Mr. Harlin to discuss the film, as well as his early career, developing “Alien 3,” working with Sylvester Stallone and "The Long Kiss Goodnight" sequel he wants to make.
The Playlist: What are the origins of “Five Days Of War” and what input did you have on the script?
Renny Harlin: I had a very big input on the script. When I first got involved in this, there wasn’t a script, there was a blueprint. There was a war in Georgia, and we want to write a script about it, that‘s it. I brought in the writer, Mikko Alanne, who is coincidentally Finnish but lives in L.A. and has written a lot of interesting movies, some of which have not been made yet. He wrote “Pinkville” for Oliver Stone, which is about the My Lai massacre. He’s written about the gang wars in Los Angeles, lots of historical and political topics, a really smart writer. So I brought him on and together we embarked on a heavy journey of research with the Georgians, with the refugees, with the journalists to find the truth behind the events. Based on these meetings, we decided to tell the story from the point of view from the journalists, because that was a very outsider point of view and it gave us a chance to go grassroots and involve the citizens. So much about the movie is based on individual characters we met, or stories that we heard, and it was exciting to pull that together.
The first scene features a sequence told entirely through one character filming another. Why did you choose to begin the film with this cinema verite approach?
I wanted to open the film by taking the audience through the experience of a war journalist, to literally see it through a war journalist’s camera. The real beginning is all one shot, essentially. The scene was based on a real story I had heard about. I didn’t want to make the whole movie this style of shaky camera, realistic kind of thing, because I feel like that’s been overdone. But with that scene I really wanted the audience to jump right into the point of view of a journalist, and feel what they experience and have that intimacy and intensity of what it feels like being thrown in that situation. Based on my research, speaking to journalists that’s what they do. They go to the front lines, they don’t have guns, they don’t have protection, and sometimes they get into much more trouble than even the soldiers.
What do you believe was the source of the tension between Russia and Georgia?
In a way, Georgia was like the poster child for what America is trying to do with the rest of the world. It’s an emerging democracy. They gained independence in ‘91 when the Iron Curtain collapsed, and it became a very America-friendly country. America built an oil pipeline there, supported the economy, it was growing 10% every year. The country was about to become a part of the EU and NATO. America was going to build big military bases next to Russia. Russia was getting very frustrated with these developments and didn’t want a NATO base right next to them.
Just prior to the invasions, months before, Condoleeza Rice visited there, George W. Bush had a close relationship with the President there. They named one of their main thoroughfares in the capital, the George W. Bush Avenue. It was a very pro-America country. The second largest military presence in Iraq after America was Georgia, and that’s with a population of five million people. Just because they were supporting what America was doing. I think they were very disappointed when this war broke out and they didn’t get support from America. But you have to look at the bigger picture. How could America go against Russia, without starting a third World War? It was unrealistic to think America could do something. It was a complicated issue.
What impact do you expect “5 Days Of War” to have on viewers?
First of all, I realize people are being oversaturated by the news media about all the misery going on in the world, and these are endless wars in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Rwanda. I think, sadly, the problem many times is that the audience looks at these places, and they feel depressing. Visually you’re looking at a lot of desert and ruins. And the religion and culture and the way people dress is very foreign. It’s very easy for people to push that away and say, that‘s not my reality. So when I went to Georgia I recognized that this country is very much main street Europe, like a Mediterranean country, with very relatable issues and people. It became my mission to get that on the big screen, make it so people could relate to it and feel that can be their reality.
So it’s a bigger issue than just trying to educate the rest of the world about Georgia, the bigger issue was to make a movie and people can watch, and it doesn’t matter that it’s Georgia, it’s just a matter of, these things go on. Peoples’ rights and freedoms are being pummeled by bigger powers, and we should pay attention.
This is your second collaboration with Val Kilmer. What is it like working with him?
I don’t think it’s a secret that some people think Val Kilmer is difficult to work with. I worked with him on “Mindhunters,” and we became really good friends. He’s a fiercely intelligent guy and he will test you, and he wants to make sure you know what you’re doing, and if you don‘t, he’s going to take over. And it’s because he’s a smart guy, and he doesn’t suffer fools. We formed a great relationship, and the reason I wanted to work with him is because, you don’t just get his name and his face, you get something more. And instead of just having an ordinary character, now you have something that he’s going to create.
A good example of that is his first scene where he’s on Skype. It was written to be in a hotel with him sitting at a desk. In the morning of that shoot, we’re getting ready to do it, and he comes to me and he says, ‘You know, Renny, I was thinking about this, why don’t I do the scene in a bubble bath?’ And with him you have to think very fast, because some of his ideas are really crazy, or really genius, and you have to determine which is which. And I just looked at him for a second, thought about it and said, "I think that’s a great idea. Let’s do it." And I remember I told my assistant director that we’re going to move the scene to the bathroom, and that we’re going to need a bubble bath. And she radios to the prop guy and he’s like, "Hey Dirk, we need some bubble bath for Room 318?" And there’s a pause, and he says, "This morning when I woke up I thought I was doing a war movie, but did you just say bubble bath?" And ten minutes later we have a bubble bath and we’re ready to do it. If it is another actor, we do the scene at the desk, but now you have Val Kilmer, and all of a sudden, you have the bubble bath, and in thirty seconds you have a character that the audience likes, and knows, and is ready to follow. And that’s the magic of Val Kilmer.
You moved between a number of high-profile projects earlier in your career. What was it like almost immediately jumping from “The Adventures Of Ford Farlaine” to “Die Hard 2”?
It was exciting and it was very scary. After I did 'Nightmare on Elm Street' I got offered a bunch of movies. I decided to do “Alien 3,” and I worked on that for a year trying to develop a script that would be compelling and stand up next to Jim Cameron and Ridley Scott’s versions. So I felt a lot of pressure to make something special and I wasn’t able to come to terms with the studio about what kind of a movie to make. So I finally quit and I had no knowledge of my future, I was stepping into a void. I just felt in my heart I couldn’t do what they wanted me to do. They were very upset and I was very worried about what was going to happen. And the very next day, the same studio, Twentieth Century Fox, they offered me 'Ford Fairlane.' And I had spent a year in this dark, dungeon-y “Alien” world, and I read the script and it was all like rock and roll and comedy and action and L.A. and sunny beaches and parties and I said, "Oh my God, this is exactly what I need at this point."
It was insanely fun. We’re shooting in Hollywood, in Malibu on the beach, huge party scenes. We were like kids at play. And we’re dealing with Andrew Dice Clay, who’s incredibly funny and crazy and the set is full of beautiful girls, and we were just laughing every day. I would love to do more comedies, because you’re trying to come up with the most clever way to shoot scenes and make them as fun as possible.
I literally had just a few weeks from finishing “Ford Fairlane” and starting “Die Hard 2.” I was honored they would trust that franchise with me, but I also felt overwhelmed and scared. And it became a really hard film to make because it was all taking place in snow, and it was a winter that had no snow, so we kept chasing winter from state to state. I’m surprised these days when studios hire a first-time director to do these comic book movies, because no matter how talented you are, I know based on my experience that there are so many unknowns because you haven’t been there and faced the challenge. I’m surprised, because I think it’s unfair to first-time directors to be in a situation like that.
Eventually, you moved on to “Cliffhanger,” but before that, you were attached to a project called “Gale Force.” Can you talk about that?
I was supposed to do “Gale Force,” which was this big hurricane movie. That’s one movie I was really bummed we never made. This was before “Twister.” I thought that would be a great movie, but we couldn’t get the script right, and we had so many writers on it. Even Joe Eszterhas wrote one draft of the script, he turned it into an erotic thriller. But then Carolco obtained this other script for “Cliffhanger” and gave it to me. And I thought that was very exciting, and I said, let’s give up “Gale Force” and do this instead.
And then they said to me, we want Sylvester Stallone to star in this movie. And I said, no way. I don’t know who I was picturing for it, Kevin Costner or somebody, but they wanted him because they did “Rambo” with him. This was at a point where he had just made “Oscar” and “Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot,” both disastrous comedies, and his career was in the toilet. And I said, no way, I don’t want him. He’s a stereotype from the “Rambo” movies, and the comedies have really made him not a very desirable actor at this time, and I want someone really realistic...
And they said, have a lunch with him, we want you to meet with him, listen to him. So I have a private lunch with him, and he tells me how badly he wants to play this part. And he says, "I know I screwed up making those comedies, and I know people find me laughable now. But I really want to prove something, I want to do something real, I want to make this film." And I said, "I can’t name one director who has come out of a movie with you looking good. You always take over, and no one remembers who the director was. And that’s not what I’m looking for, I want this to be my movie, I want to hire someone who does a great job and works with me." And he says, "That’s exactly what I want, I promise if I do this movie, I will do exactly what you want me to do, I believe in you. I’m gonna be your partner, I’m gonna be your actor, and you’re in charge."
We talked some more, and I really took a liking to him. He was really smart, very charming. At the end of the lunch, I said, "Ok. If we have an understanding, I’m gonna tell you the first thing I’m gonna do. I’m gonna change the opening scene in the movie. Because in the opening scene, he’s a rescue worker, he’s very heroic [etc]. But if you’re playing the part, I want you to fail, and I want you to kill the girl." And he was like, "What?" And I said, "I am gonna change the scene so that you fail, and you kill this girl in the opening scene." And took a deep breath and he said, "Alright, you’re the director, if that’s what you want, let’s do it. I changed the whole opening scene so that he would fail."
In our first wardrobe fitting, he was looking for his outfit, tries this green sweater and a gray sweater, and I said, "So, Sly, which sweater do you like better?" And he looks at me and says, "You’re the director, you tell me." And I said, "Gray sweater it is." And that’s how it was the entire movie, we had a wonderful relationship, he always listened to me. He never did the ‘Sly’ thing. Sometimes, I found him kinda posing while climbing, kinda showing off his muscles, and I had to tell him, "Sly, don’t pose." You’re a mountain climber, not a weightlifter.
Caroco had such an infamous reputation at the time. What was it like working at that studio?
I loved it, because Carolco was a studio based on directors. When I was there, their stable of directors had Costa-Gavras, Paul Verhoeven, Tony Scott, Jim Cameron, Oliver Stone, Alan Parker and a couple of other guys. It was a real directors studio, they believed in directors bringing in great material. They lived very large, they spent a lot of money on private jets, private yachts. They had “Basic Instinct,” “Rambo,” “Total Recall.” But somehow, by the time I was ready to make “Cutthroat Island,” the company was already bankrupt. It was the last movie they were going to make. They had the money for it, but they had nothing left. They knew they were going under, they just wanted to make the movie. Problem is, they didn’t have a screenplay.
I wanted to make a pirate movie. My big mistake was, I said, "Okay, I’ll do it," and I said, "We’ll be able to create the script." The script wasn’t good, and it’s hard to make a good movie from a bad script. So we just made a mistake diving into it. The movie was made, the company had no money to support the movie, and it was straight downhill. But it was a great experience.
Will you return to Hollywood?
I’d love to make a big Hollywood film, I look forward to that, But I’m done with sequels. I told my agents not to bother with that. It’s different when you’re 30, and just coming into the business, but I really want to tell my own stories right now. If I were to make a sequel to any of my movies, though, it would be “The Long Kiss Goodnight 2.” In the story, Charlie’s daughter, who was six in the original, she’s now twenty one, and in the opening sequence Geena’s character is killed under mysterious circumstances, and her daughter hooks up with Samuel L. Jackson to find out the truth. He’s totally game for it, and I’m trying to get that made now.
"5 Days Of War" opens in limited release this weekend.