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Empire Meets Renny Harlin
The '90s action king on 5 Days Of August, Alien 3 and Cutthroat Island

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"Gravity's a bitch, ain't it?" Michael Rooker's Cliffhanger payoff line, deadpanned as he helps Sly dispatch another bad guy into the snowy abyss, must bring a wry smile to Renny Harlin's face. In his '90s heyday, Harlin was turning out Friday night favourites like Die Hard 2 and Sylvester Stallone's crampon-and-cordite epic - films perched at the exact midway point between action masterpiece and guilty pleasure - before Hollywood gravity kicked in and the marque projects slowly fell away. Deep Blue Sea and The Long Kiss Goodnight completed a wildly entertaining popcorn quartet, but Cutthroat Island bombed in acrimonious circumstances and his recent movies, including an ill-received Exorcist prequel, have hardly matched those highs. His new film, though, sees him back doing what he does best: marrying human stories with big action beats, and generally making things go "kaboom".

Five Days Of August is set during the 2008 war in South Ossetia. It's a gutsy attempt to capture the short, nasty conflict between Russian and Georgia through the eyes of Rupert Friend's grieving photojournalist. Andy Garcia, Val Kilmer and Richard Coyle give the cast some extra dramatic heft. Five Days Of August probably won't see him invited to Moscow anytime soon, not that Harlin's too bothered about that. "It really became a passion project for me," he tells Empire, explaining why he won't be stepping forward for The Expendables 2: "I don't want to take another year or two of my life just for a paycheck - I want to do something that speaks to me." When we catch up with him, he's sitting by the water in Marina del Ray, working on the screenplay for a serial killer movie he's planning ("It's a young woman with a little daughter who's being stalked by a prolific killer"), and resisting the allure of another sun-kissed LA day. He chatted about the film's tough shoot, the frustrations of going straight to DVD, and his next projects. Look out for a modern sea adventure that could be the highest concept movie in the history of the world...

Empire Meets Renny Harlin

Did you have any reservations in tackling a historical event that's so recent and so bitter, or was it a subject that just grabbed you straight away?
Renny Harlin: I think it had something to do with the fact that I come from Finland. I grew up in a little country in the shadow of a superpower and could relate to the story. When this script blueprint came to me, I researched and found out a lot of shocking details that I'd never read in the press. I read reports by the UN, the EU and human rights groups and then I went to Georgia and talked to journalists who'd been there during the war and would knew people. I also talked to relatives and politicians. It really became a passion project for me and I felt a huge sense of responsibility. This is not just a movie; this is about an entire country or two countries' identities and there are so many misconceptions in the public's mind about why? [But] to me it's a universal story: it could be set in Bosnia or South America or in Afghanistan, or now Libya...

Was it challenging to bring the movie to the screen?
Renny Harlin: Yeah, the process of shooting the movie was challenging. Our budget was only $12 million dollars and I wanted to tell a big story in large scope and shoot in the real locations where the war took place. That was a very emotional and powerful experience for everybody. We shot in some really remote locations and the actors had to stay in a farmhouse. You don't get to do that very often.

There were great films made about war from the reporter's perspective in the '80s - like Salvador, The Killing Fields and The Year Of Living Dangerously - but those stories seem to have migrated to the documentaries format lately. Did you set out to rediscover that kind of storytelling?
Renny Harlin: Yeah, I thought those were great films and that was definitely my intention. The technology has developed so much and now besides the conventional way [of reporting], there is Twitter, there’s Facebook, so this information can come out and inform the world, sway opinions and rally people. Journalists really risk their lives, as you can see by what just happened [with Tim Hetherington's death]. It’s the luck of the draw where you are when they start shelling civilian areas…

You shot it in 48 days which seems kind of short for the scale of what you were doing.
Renny Harlin:
This is not just a movie; this is about an entire country.
It was tight. We didn't have a second unit, so we shot everything ourselves and we really had to move fast. We had a crew that came from 17 different countries so we had a lot of translators on the set, plus we were using the Georgian army. We had scenes where we had 80 tanks, eight helicopters and 3000 soldiers and 5000 extras so sometimes there were people standing next to me each carrying three or four different walkie-talkies talking to troops. It was an interesting experience. There were no comforts: it was roughing it out, doing it commando-style and long hours, but it went really well. Every day was satisfying because we felt like we were telling a story that should be seen.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s brought a lot of criticism from Russia. Were you aware of the responses to it? Are you keen to keep it out of the political arena?
Renny Harlin: Yeah, our film got banned by Russia when we were shooting it. This is propaganda and still I don't know if anyone has seen it. I welcome as much dialogue about these things as possible - everybody is welcome to go on the internet, to the EU or UN, human rights sites and the reports are there for everyone to read. They tell the story of who did what and we stuck to those facts. Of course, the movie is fictionalised account, and, while the throughline of the war is accurate, there are composite characters and fictionalised events like in any movie. I knew it was going to cause conversation and, you know, people have different opinions. I encourage everybody to dig into it and find out.

I gather Georgia’s president came to a screening in LA.
Renny Harlin: That’s right, he was in LA and he came to a screening and it was very powerful. There were a lot of other Georgians there too and we had a big dinner after that. If I may quote him, he stood up and gave a speech and said, “This movie is a masterpiece”. I’ll take his quote (laughs).

Empire Meets Renny Harlin

I guess he was pretty happy to be played by Andy Garcia...
Renny Harlin: I got to know the President at a very early point and he told me his favourite actor was Andy Garcia. I thought Andy Garcia looked a lot like him so we were, like, "Let's try and get him. That would be fun." It must be a surreal experience for a fairly young president of a young country: they go through this war but only three years later they have a movie about the war and he himself is played by Andy Garcia, Hollywood movie star. It must be pretty bizarre.

It is a cinematic film - you’ve got all these helicopters and tanks, and some big helicopter shots. Does it frustrate you that people won’t see it on the big screen?
Renny Harlin: It’s a bit of a disappointment for me that it’s only coming out on DVD in the UK. It’s in movie theatres in the US which I’m very happy about, and in a lot of other countries as well. I’m very disappointed, of course. How much would it cost for it to be released in one theatre in Soho? I talked to people like you and publicise the movie and think we can fill a theatre with people who are interested in this kind of topic. I guess the distribution of film has changed, so you have digital distribution online, and all these different channels, but there is nothing like the old-fashioned movie theatre.

What's next for you?
Renny Harlin: Well, I was in Cannes to talk about my modern day sea adventure. I can’t tell you what it’s about, but it’s a modern-day movie - sort of military sea adventure. Maybe you could say to a certain extent it’s Die Hard meets Top Gun meets Hunt For Red October.

Wow, that's pretty high concept.
Renny Harlin: It's very big scale. It will take me back to my roots, making a big adventure movie like Cliffhanger.

And it takes you back to sea as well...
Renny Harlin: Yes, I like the sea.

Despite Deep Blue Sea and Cutthroat Island, and the experiences you had making them?
Renny Harlin:
It was frustrating to see Pirates of the Caribbean become one of the biggest franchises in movie history.
Well, Cutthroat Island was a disaster but it was fun to make. I hope we learned from my lessons and put them all into this film.

Pirates Of The Caribbean has demonstrated that there’s an appetite for pirate movies, which wasn’t there for a long time. I guess Cutthroat Island suffered from that a little bit. Is it a frustration to you that you missed that boat?
Renny Harlin: Of course. I would foolish if I didn’t say it was frustrating to see Pirates of the Caribbean become one of the biggest franchises in movie history and my experience with Cutthroat Island was, I loved making that movie, I really like that movie. I think there might be a lot of reasons, but the big reason was that we were somehow ahead of our time. Also, we had a female lead in a pirate movie [Geena Davis] and that didn’t resonate with young boys in the right way. The concept didn’t work and it’s hard to put it down to one thing, but you learn and think twice before you repeat anything like that.

On a completely different note, I wondered if you heard about that air traffic controller who was suspended for watching your movies at work?
Renny Harlin: Yeah, a lot of people emailed me that. It’s the best compliment ever that I was able to keep an air traffic controller awake (laughs).

I was interested in some of your recent thoughts about the studio system. You’ve talked about two films in particular, Taken and Avatar, and how they’ve changed the way that studios see the pictures that they green light. What’s your take on the way that things have changed since your heyday? How easy would it be to get films like Deep Blue Sea and Cliffhanger greenlit these days?
Renny Harlin: I feel like this summer is going to prove that you can’t just endlessly make these comic-book movies and think that people will keep coming back to see the same story over and over again. It’s just the way the studios operate: if something is successful they will just do the same thing over and over again because they just want to get the money from the audience again. So any kind of original idea is a risk, even if it was a great story. If you can make Taken for $20 million then, okay, maybe they’ll do it but even Taken was done by a European company and had a really hard time finding distribution. Fox sat on it for nearly a year…

Empire Meets Renny Harlin
Renny Harlin on the set of 1993's Cliffhanger

What was the last film you saw at the movies? Are you a regular?
Renny Harlin: That's a good question. I've been so busy recently I can't even remember what the last movie was that I saw. But I tend to go to a lot of the smaller movies, independent movies. For my work I try to see everything. Actually, I'll tell you. I went with my 13 year-old son to see Hop (laughs). I'll admit that was the last movie I saw.

Before we wrap up, I wondered how you look back at the time when you made Nightmare On Elm Street 4 and Alien³ suddenly fell into your lap. Do you have any regrets about the way that period worked out?
Renny Harlin: No, no. On the contrary, it worked out really well because I was being honest to myself. I got a call from Steven Spielberg the day after Nightmare On Elm Street came out, and I met him and we start developing something together. Unfortunately it didn’t pan out, but the next thing was the Alien³. Of course, I was very excited and it was a great honour to be following in the footsteps of Ridley Scott and James Cameron, but after developing the project for a year, I just felt it wasn’t going where I wanted it to go and I was really afraid of making a movie that would just look like a bad copy of what Jim Cameron, for example, had done. So I took a huge risk, I really wrestled with myself. Here I am, 29 years old, I have an office on the Fox lot and I’m doing this movie. So for me to go to Fox and say “I quit”, it felt crazy. It was like, “How could I do that?”

Do you remember that meeting?
Renny Harlin: I remember it very well. I was scared shitless. I said to myself, “I’ve gotta be honest to myself - I don’t believe in this anymore, I don’t believe I can make a good movie, and I had no knowledge of another movie or if I would work again.” And I just quit.

That's ballsy.
Renny Harlin: I was feeling very scared for my future but the very same studio that was angry at me the day before, came to me the next day with this rock ‘n’ roll action comedy [The Adventures of Ford Fairlane] and asked me to read it. It wasn’t a big hit but it was a really fun departure for me after spending a year in the dark dungeons of Aliens, and Fox was so happy with it that they gave me Die Hard 2. So I was very happy, I went on to Cliffhanger, and it was a really good period in my life. People say that when one door closes, another one opens, and you have to be brave enough to close that one door without knowing what’s going to happen.

So I was going to ask you what your advice would be for any director coming into the Hollywood studio system but I think you’ve pretty much answered that.
Renny Harlin: Yeah, coming to Hollywood you have to believe in yourself and you have to have a dream and be willing to sacrifice anything for that dream. If you want to have a comfortable life, an easy life and not risk things, then it is not for you.

Five Days Of August is out on Blu-ray and DVD on June 13.

Interview by Phil de Semlyen

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