Renny Harlin interview: 5 Days Of War, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and directing low-budget war films

Interview Luke Savage 13 Jun 2011 - 12:39

With his latest movie 5 Days Of War out now on DVD and Blu-ray, Luke caught up with director Renny Harlin to chat about his long career in filmmaking…

They say the three time’s the charm. But when you're interviewing Renny Harlin, the second time's not too bad either.

The first time round, he was relaxed, engaging, and made 30 minutes seem like two very quick ones - an interviewer's dream. Especially one doing his first gig for this site, and praying to God that the tape worked okay.

And it's the same story here. This is 20 minutes, Roadrunner-style. They go too fast, leaving me wanting another 20 just to make a proper dent in the vast scribble of questions I have. Especially that one about A Sound Of Thunder.

Harlin is doing the promotional thing for his latest film, 5 Days Of War, a based-on-real-events story of journalists caught in the crossfire of the Russia-Georgia conflict in 2008. It's got Val Kilmer, explosions, and, unusually for a Renny Harlin film, a message in there to boot.

Here's what he had to say about making a war movie on the cheap, foot fetishes, and how to feed a film crew in a freezing Canada, Elvis-style.

The first time I interviewed you, you were in Cannes promoting 12 Rounds, but also prepping and getting excited about Mannerheim [a biopic of former Finnish president, Carl Mannerheim]. How did you get from that to 5 Days Of War?

Well, it was interesting. Mannerheim has fallen apart so many times I don't know any more what's going to happen. But I was prepping that, and the final scenes fell apart at the last minute. I was very depressed about that, and 5 Days Of War really became like my therapy.

I guess there were some parallels in terms of coming from Finland, and having lived in a small country next to a superpower, so I could certainly relate to the situation between Russia and Georgia. And I delved into the subject matter, and thought that this was another movie that was a true story, and I could really tell something powerful with it, and about wars that are going on all around the world, constantly. And I felt very passionate about this one.

And this feels as much of a departure for you as Mannerheim would have been, in terms of the type of movie people may expect from you. Did that appeal to you, the sense of getting your teeth into something?

Yes, definitely. You know, with Mannerheim, I wanted to make something that was reality-based and really touched upon a lot of serious and real issues and history. And this is very recent history, but in the same way, I felt that I could really sink my teeth into something that wasn't just popcorn entertainment, like 12 Rounds was.

I could give these people a voice. Now, in Libya or Afghanistan, or wherever, these wars just keep on going everywhere, and a lot of times we don't really get a real sense of what normal people go through, and what kind of sacrifices they make, and what kind of incredible suffering they go through.

And then I felt that the point of view of the journalists was also interesting, because they are sort of the unsung heroes. People don't realise that they are in the front lines there and without weapons, and at the mercy of events.

It’s quite striking from the very first scene – that long, opening shot is incredible. Is that kind of shot something you have in your mind as soon as you’ve read the script, or does it evolve on set?

Well, I really developed the script. When I first got involved, it was sort of a plan to make a movie about this war and kind of a blueprint. And then I brought my friend Mikko Alanne on board, and together, we researched this topic very thoroughly, read reports by the UN and the Human Rights Watch, and went there, and interviewed journalists who had been there, and refugees and politicians, and built the script from there.

And I wanted to start the movie with a bang, and really show what kind of things journalists can go through. And it's also based on a true event, at least a big part of it, and it was in my mind from the get go that I wanted to start with this. Kind of a single take from a video point of view, from the journalist's point of view, and really put the audience in the cameraman's shoes, and kind of tease the audience by not showing as much as they would like to see, but playing with the sound and the chaos of the situation.

It seems like an enormous undertaking. You shot the film in 36 days, is that right?

Yes.

Was there a point where you thought, how am I going to do this? Some of the action set pieces you've got in here are huge.

Yes, we made the movie for only 12 million dollars, so it was a real challenge. But I wanted to make sure that everybody from the cast to the crew was there with the right attitude, which was that we want to tell the story, and we don't need five star hotels and long trailers and all that stuff, but we're really going to roll up our sleeves and make this happen. So it was made in very challenging conditions.

Part of the time, the whole crew actually slept on a train, because we didn't have any hotels or anywhere to stay. I stayed for part of the time with the cast in a farmhouse where they had one bedroom, and we shared a kitchen and a bathroom. And so we did it on a shoestring budget, and I felt very innovative and, yes, it was very challenging.

We had people from 17 different countries in the crew, and there were a lot of people whose main job was just translating on the set. And there were definitely times when it felt like, okay, how am I going to manage 80 tanks, and eight helicopters, and three private jets, and 3000 soldiers, and 5000 extras in a refugee scene?

But somehow we just made it happen, and it was extremely satisfying because we really could see from the people who were helping us, and who were part of the movie, how appreciative they were that we were telling their story. That made it very powerful, and very emotional.

How much does the atmosphere change on the set when you’re making a film like this? It’s a grueling film to watch at times. Is it harder to make this type of film than, say, a 12 Rounds type film?

Yes, it is fairly hard, but it's a different experience. Of course, we all work, the crew and the cast, we all love what we do, so there are definitely moments when we joke and we laugh and so on. But then there are moments on this kind of a movie that were unique for me - really heavy and very emotional. And there were moments when the crew were in tears, and the actors were in tears, and the tears were real, because we were in the actual locations where the war took place only a year before.

And we were replicating real events, and the violence and the cruelty of these events was really, really powerful. So definitely, it put a serious tone on the moments, and it was very touching because my cameraman - my cinematographer, Checco Varese – I chose him because he actually used to be a war photographer. And he's been everywhere, from Rwanda to Bosnia to South America, and Iraq and Afghanistan. He's seen it all, and he was an invaluable help for me and the actors in kind of telling how these things go down in real life.

And for him, a lot of the scenes were very emotional. For example, when we were shooting the scene where Rupert Friend's cameraman is injured and they are saying their goodbyes, I glanced over and saw that my cameraman was just absolutely crying while he was shooting it. And later on, because he didn't talk a lot about what he had really gone through, he told me how he was a cameraman, and he had his partner next to him, and he had his eye in the viewfinder and he's shooting a crucial scene, and he sees that his battery is going and the light is fading and he says, “Hey, give me a new battery, come on I need a new battery”.

And then finally he looks over and next to him is his assistant with his brains on the ground, and he's been shot dead. With all the firefighting, he hadn't even noticed. So that kind of thing made it definitely a different kind of experience.

Does that add a certain amount of pressure on you, then? A responsibility to tell a story about something that’s still being felt?

Yes, definitely, definitely I had a sense of responsibility. And the hard thing is that people … I fully expect people to say, “Oh, you took so-and-so's side”. And, “Oh, you're telling the story from this point of view”. And, “Oh, it's not fair and balanced”. And that is one of the hardest things. I did my research and there are, of course, fictional parts, because it is a fictional film.

A lot of the characters are composite characters, and a lot of events are very much the way they took place. I do feel a sense of responsibility, and I do understand that, as a filmmaker, I have to take a certain kind of point of view, because I wanted to tell the facts as they are in all these reports that anybody can find on the Internet. So, yeah, I felt very much that I have to get the story right, and I have to do justice to these people.

What I found interesting was how you paint a picture of the role of the media in today's wars. The Georgian president's right hand man wasn't his chief of staff or anything like that, but his press officer. That was the guy who was always with him. 

Yes, and that's based on a real character. The real character's name is Daniel Kunin, and he was an American who was there with the president. And we did our research, and totally based the character on him, and that is true. It's said that the Russians, the day the war started, they had 80 journalists at the border with the troops that were flown in from Moscow.

And so it is very much these days… of course, now even more in today's wars, it's about Twitter and Facebook – those were still not so well known three years ago – but it's very much about manipulation of the media. A lot of the things that are shown in the movie... for example, how hard it is for our characters to get their message out, and how the rest of the world is reluctant, once they've sort of locked on their point of view of events, how hard it is to break that and break into that news cycle. I wanted to get that across.

I actually showed the movie to a lot of the executive producers and heads of department of CNN just a few weeks ago, and they were very complimentary, and they said that that's very much the reality. It's like, when you're out in the front line, it's not guaranteed at all that you can get your message out, if it doesn't fit the official story that is being put out there.

Going back to the opening shot, it reminded me of one of your earliest films, Prison, and the opening to that – the long, unbroken point-of-view shot of the prisoner walking to the electric chair. Do you ever look back at your old films, ever take anything from them for what you’re doing now?

That's a really interesting question. I'm flattered and impressed that you would remember that shot from Prison.

You've even got an early role for Viggo Mortensen in there.

Absolutely, yeah. And it's supposed to be Viggo Mortensen's hands in that opening scene. However, the way the shot was done... it was impossible, because the camera was him, so it was impossible to get the hands in front of the camera, so it's actually the hands of two different people, and it's not Viggo Mortensen's hands at all. It's the left hand of one person and the right hand of another person to be able to handcuff them in front of the camera.

But it's really interesting. I don't know if I would have remembered that, except some time ago, it was probably late last summer, I would say, or early fall, there was a screening of Prison. Some die-hard fans wanted to arrange a screening of Prison and have me come and talk there, so there was a great big screening in Hollywood, and that was the first time I actually saw Prison in the last 20 years.

And it's very funny you bring that up, because it is very much the same kind of thing, that it is sort of a character's point of view, and you stick with it for the longest time. So, to answer your question, I don't really look back at my movies. Maybe five, six months ago  I had another event where the American Cinematheque showed Die Hard 2, and that was a great event, and I was there giving some answers, so I watched that.

But other than that, I never really look back at them. Only if there is some really special reason. So I think it's just instinctual. I don't know, these things maybe come from early childhood, or whatever psychological crazy things we all have. Because when I do look at them, and I look at things that I do now, I always notice that I do a lot of close ups of feet. And I don't know what kind of fetish that is, but all my movies have lots of close ups of feet. And, also, all my movies have some sort of religious symbols, they have a crucifix, or church, or something like that.

And a Finnish flag. I couldn't see one here, though.

Yeah. To go back to your earlier question about responsibility, I felt like I couldn't … because this was so much about the identity of these countries, and so I felt like I couldn't put a Finnish flag or anything like into this film because it would feel too cheeky. So I felt like I got Finland in Andy Garcia's presidential speech, when he talks about other countries who have come through these kinds of things, like Finland and Hungary and Poland, and so on. So I felt like, okay, at least Finland was mentioned in the film.

Looking back at your films, one that's got a lot of fans, including me, is The Long Kiss Goodnight. I just wondered how it was to film that, because it seemed an interesting time. People had their knives out for Cutthroat Island, Shane Black’s script was a huge, record-breaking three million dollars. Was it a fun film to shoot? Because it’s a hugely enjoyable film to watch.

Yes and no. It was a very hard film to make, because it happened to be the coldest winter in Canada for 60 years, so there were a lot of days when we actually had to stop the shoot, because the film just wouldn't go through the camera, or the actors literally couldn't speak because their jaws were so cold from the freezing temperatures.

I remember a lot of the night scenes, when we were shooting on a bridge where the end action sequence takes place. I remember there was one scene, for example, where Geena is supposed to be… she's sort of staggering, she's all wounded and bloodied, and then she falls on the ground, and then her little daughter runs back and tells her to get up.

So we were shooting one of the first takes of that, and she's on the ground, and they do the scene with the daughter, and she's supposed to get up, and she kind of tries a little bit and then she doesn't. And then I wait and say, “Okay Geena, you can get up now”. And she tries again, and she doesn't. And it's like, “Geena, we're going to run out of film, just get up.” And she's like, “I cant!”

And then I yell cut, and we go over there to see what's wrong, and she has frozen to the ground because the front of her jacket was covered in blood. The blood has frozen to the ground, so we had to have, like, four people rip her off the ground.

So that gives you an idea of the circumstances. There were hard conditions, and a lot of the scenes were very hard to do, but it was enjoyable, because it was fun to work with Geena and Sam. They are the two most professional actors I have ever worked with. They show up on time, they know their lines, they are prepared, they are not method actors, so they do their scene with 110 per cent commitment and then, once I yell cut, they are themselves again, and they joke and they relax, and they are fun.

One funny anecdote is that when we were shooting the movie, Geena was reading about Elvis, and she learned that Elvis' favourite food was deep fried Big Macs. So she said, “I've got to try that!” So Geena had her assistant go and buy a deep fry cooker, like an oil cooker. And the oil cooker was in Geena's trailer, and then they went and bought, like, two dozen Big Macs, and then she covered them in batter and put them in the deep fryer, and fed them to the crew.

And they were amazing. You can imagine, a giant dripping doughnut that has all the hamburger stuff inside. And it must have like 6000 calories, but we ate those on a cold night. We ate deep fried burgers, and it was fun.

That sounds like a proper dinner. What's next for you, then? I don't want to jinx it and say Mannerheim, but is that still on the horizon?

I put Mannerheim on hold. It's something I want to do, but it's going to take three or four or five years because we have had so much bad luck with the financing. So I said I am going to move that now to the back burner for a while, let's re-group and let's get the financing together in the right way.

So right now, I’m working on a very large scale, sort of a modern sea adventure, and if everything goes to plan, we'll be shooting that at the end of the summer or early fall. I'm actually going to Cannes to hopefully secure the financing, and then hopefully soon we'll be able to make an announcement about that.

There's a director's seat going free, it seems, on The Expendables 2. Are you tempted to re-team with Stallone for a third time?

No, that's not on the cards. But since you brought up A Long Kiss Goodnight, I am developing a sequel for that, so that's hopefully something we will see.

With Sam Jackson's Mitch Henessey character?

Sam is 100 per cent committed, he is 100 per cent on board. And my plan is actually to focus on a story about Geena's daughter, who was six years old in the original, and would now be about 21. It's actually going to be sort of a buddy story between Geena's daughter and Sam.

And would you get Shane Black in for that, or is he busy on Iron Man?

No. Shane is not going to write it, so right now, I am looking for a writer who would have the same incredible sensibilities in terms of character, humour and action.

Well, good luck with that one. I think I speak for a few people when I say we'll look forward to that one.

Thank you.

Renny Harlin, thank you very much.

5 Days Of War is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.

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