Finnish-born Renny Harlin broke onto the Hollywood scene with Nightmare On Elm Street 4 in 1988. He went on to become one of the biggest action directors of the 90s, with Die Hard 2 in 1990 and later the similarly snow-themed Cliffhanger and The Long Kiss Goodnight. After a break from action movies that’s seen him tackle everything from horror (Exorcist: The Beginning) to teen supernatural romp (The Covenant), Harlin’s back on the action scene with 12 Rounds, a chip off the old Speed block starring WWE’s John Cena.
How did you first become involved in 12 Rounds?
This was brought to me by the producer Mark Gordon, and I liked the script a lot. But to be honest, at first I was a little bit apprehensive about John Cena, because I didn’t know him and wasn’t familiar with his work.
Then when I met with John I realised what a great guy he was. He’s very smart, very funny, and an all-round entertainer.
He has a very easy to like charisma in the film …
Yeah, I just felt that he had that charisma that would come across in film really well. And our approach was not to make him a superhero, but make him more like a common man in extraordinary circumstances. So we decided that we would cover him in long sleeve shirts, we wouldn’t show off his muscles, and we’d forget about the whole WWE connection. And he was really game for that.
12 Rounds feels quite different to some of the action films you’ve done. You’re mixing different cameras, it’s very rough and ready, and it’s quite unpolished. Which is meant as a compliment …!
Yeah, that was my approach. On one hand I wanted to return to 80s, early 90s action movies. And on the other, to use a modern approach in terms of shooting and editing. My whole thinking after I read the script and I talked to the producers was “let’s not make another glossy, polished Hollywood movie”. The story happens, except for the beginning, in roughly 4 or 5 hours. I thought, let’s take the approach that this was happening for real in New Orleans on this one afternoon, and there happened to be 3 documentary crews that were just trying to follow them and get it in film at the same time.
I told the actors, here’s your stage, this is the scene we’re going to do here, and we just do it. Unless it’s a stunt, we don’t rehearse it at all. And this gave the actors the freedom to do their stuff, and the cameramen freedom to just do their best. We averaged I think 87 set ups a day, and it gave the whole movie this very in-your-face kind of pacing and feeling of almost reality.
You were shooting in New Orleans, which you don’t really see much in action films.
Yeah, the movie had originally been written to take place in Chicago, but I felt that New Orleans could be a very cool backdrop. It was challenging, because it’s a very busy city with mostly tight streets, lots of tourists. It was not the easiest place to do an action movie in. But I felt it was worth it because it really gave us a beautiful and colourful backdrop.
You have a history of casting actors as villains who many people wouldn’t have thought of. Craig Bierko in Long Kiss Goodnight, William Sadler in Die Hard 2. A lot of people wouldn’t have thought of Aiden Gillen for the bad guy.
Now you mention it, John Lithgow in Cliffhanger too. I must be a genius [laughs]. But that’s very true. Craig Bierko was a comedian when he came to read. I try to go for something interesting and in this case, trying to find someone who would be physically equal to John would have been almost impossible. So I wanted to find somebody who you would feel that his power is his intellect.
So I saw a lot of people, and when I met with Aiden I just immediately felt that this guy was so charming and smart without having to do the overly “ha ha ha, I’m going to conquer the world and steal a million dollars” kind of stuff.
Thinking about William Sadler in Die Hard 2, that’s one of the most memorable introductions for a villain. Apparently it was your idea to have him appear naked in his first scene.
Well it must just come from my sick mind [laughs]. I don’t know why, but I remember we were working on the script with Steve De Souza and Joel Silver. And I said “I think it would be awesome if we see this guy naked and he’s nothing but muscles, a killing machine with scars all over his body”. Then when we cast William I said “okay, you’re not in bad shape, but I want you to be in fantastic shape for this movie”. And he really took it seriously, and he started working out like a maniac.
And I must credit the idea with the fact that it ended up probably being the best thing for my future in terms of my health, because when I saw Bill getting into such great shape, I actually started training. I feel it’s something that really keeps me standing on the movie sets. Though I never come close to looking as good as Bill!
You seem more concerned than most other directors about getting your lead actors to do their own stunts.
Yeah, I do always try to get them. Obviously I want them to be safe [laughs]. But I do try to get them to do as much as possible so the audience get their money’s worth. With this film we had a bunch of these really old-school, old-time stunt men who had been working in action movies in the 70s, and then John doing almost everything himself.
The sequence where he’s sliding on the rope from the burning building – that was the toughest one for him, because it turned out he has a fear of heights. So he really hated doing that.
And then come the next day of shooting, you actually went back to him and said, you’ve got to do that again. Is that true?
Yeah, that’s true. He thought he was done, so he went home, had a beer, and was like “oh my God, I did it, now I never have to do it again”.
And then next morning when I said “okay, let’s get the harness on, I’ve got one more shot I need to get”, he was absolutely horrified. But he said to me “consider yourself lucky, because you are the only director who will ever get me to do anything with heights”.
There’s very little CGI or green screen in 12 Rounds. Is it more difficult to get it for real?
Yeah, it is. But it’s kind of apples and oranges. It’s a lot of work to shoot things green screen. It’s very technical, and it’s frustrating because it’s hard to get powerful performances out of actors when they’re on a soundstage with a green backdrop and nothing else. Of course it helps a hell of a lot but it’s also a lot of work and to me the joy of it is to be on set and figuring out how to do it for real.
I’m sure the young audience love the spectacle of CGI, but I think you can see the difference in how some movies are really successful with it, like the latest Star Trek. It’s just really powerful storytelling, and while there are spectacular special effects, it’s still really relying on something very basic and cinematic.
And then there are some of these other comic book movies that are really not that good in terms of the characters and storytelling and they rely on throwing the kitchen sink at you with all the effects. Without mentioning names, I saw one comic book movie recently with my son, who’s 11. And he loves pretty much all movies, but I asked him what he thought. And he was like “eerr, it wasn’t that good”.
Was that Wolverine?
[laughs] I can’t name names … scratch scratch.
Looking back, you’ve said Deep Blue Sea was the hardest film you’ve ever made. Does that still hold true?
Definitely. Because it was all water. Maybe 80 shooting days we were standing in the water, or we were under water. Just the practicality of putting a wet suit on in the morning, being in the water all day. Your script, all your paperwork has to be made of plastic paper. And things that you wouldn’t think would ever float, they float. So you put some water into the set and all of a sudden the table is floating away and all the furniture is going somewhere. Or then things that you hope would float actually sink and you can’t find them anywhere. And you’re controlling mechanical sharks and you’re dealing with digital sharks. I enjoyed it, I loved the challenge of something like that, but it was very hard to put it all together.
You seem to challenge yourself with quite extreme weather conditions on a lot of your films. Would you take on another film like that?
Absolutely. I just love the sheer physical challenge of making a movie. So I would have nothing against doing another movie that involves mountains or snow or water or going to the desert. That’s fun. I love being on location and I get bored when I’m on a soundstage. I love being somewhere where you’re dealing with the weather conditions and all the possible challenges.
Thinking back over your career, you were attached to over Alien 3 for over a year. Can you tell us what happened there?
I had done Nightmare On Elm Street 4, which just completely changed my life. All of a sudden I was meeting with Spielberg and meeting with the studios, and trying to figure out what I wanted to do next. And when the idea of Alien 3 came to me I felt that it was an incredible honour. I felt like Ridley Scott had made a masterpiece with Alien. Jim Cameron had made a masterpiece with Aliens. And I felt, okay if I can take it to another level, then maybe I have a chance of making a masterpiece as well. And so I eagerly took the challenge, and I had offices on the Fox lot and I felt very excited. But then, as were developing the script, opinions between the studio and I were completely different. They basically wanted to make a movie that was just like Aliens – same kind of guns, just different place.
And they, for some reason, had this idea that they wanted it to take place on a big prison ship. And I didn’t get it. I said, “who cares about a prison ship?”. The whole basic idea of the Alien movies is that in the first one, it is a bunch of blue collar guys and women who could be truck drivers. It’s totally relatable.
And in the second one, it’s a war movie, and it’s these soldiers with Ripley going to battle these aliens, and there’s this little girl who represents humanity there. So again, very relatable. But if you do Aliens in prison, it’s like “who cares about the prisoners, let them die”.
What was it you wanted to do?
My first concept was we go to the planet where the aliens come from, with Ripley and a team of scientists and soldiers, and we find out what they really are. Are they evil, horrible killing machines who are taking over the world? Or are they just animals with a survival mechanism? That’s one way that I wanted to do the movie.
Second way, I said “aliens come to Earth”. I pitched this idea where we are in a Kansas cornfield, and you just see these things going through the cornfield and you just realise the aliens have come to Earth. I said “just show the poster to the audience – it’s the biggest movie ever”. And they were like, “nah we don’t think so, it should just be outer space”.
So for about a year we just went back and forth with these ideas and finally when we had this script of a prison ship and aliens, I said “I’m sorry, I can’t do this”. And it was a very crazy and scary thing to do. I was 29 years old, I was dealing with a huge studio, which was my dream, and I quit. But I went on to make other movies with Fox, and David Fincher ended up doing Alien 3, and of course he’s now doing fantastic. But not necessarily because of Alien 3.
Brodie’s Law is a project you seem to have been developing for a number of years (an adaptation of the comic book that sees anti-hero Jack Brodie gain the ability to steal his victims’ souls and take on their appearance).
Yeah, I think it’s a fantastic project, but it’s been an uphill battle. It’s been a little bit hard because it is a dark and violent world, and most of the time, 9 out of 10 meetings that you have with studios they like your story, and then they say “is it PG-13?”. And if you say “no, it’s actually kind of darker and more violent and sexual”, then they’re like “we can’t put the money into it because we want PG-13”.
Then there are examples of these movies whether it’s Wanted or many others, where R-rated movies do incredibly well in box office. But in general they are an anomaly nowadays and it all has to be the same. That’s been the challenge I think in setting it up. I do think it’s very commercial though, and it has great potential.
You’re working on Mannerheim now, about the Finnish military leader. Is that a very personal project for you?
Yeah, it’s something that I’ve been developing for 10 years. We were supposed to start shooting in March, but the financing fell apart 2 weeks before we started shooting. So it was a big setback.
Obviously our budget is nowhere near a Hollywood production. It’s in the neighbourhood of $20m. But it’s a big story of this incredible military leader, from his childhood all the way to his death, and how he had an impact on the First World War and Second World War.
And it’s a love story also. It’s something I’ve been wanting to make for a long time. To me it’s in the vein of Lawrence oO Arabia or Dr Zhivago, that type of a movie.
After two decades in Hollywood, are you enjoying going back to Europe to make that kind of film?
It’s a great experience. It was really exciting to be back, and work with people who have a different mentality to filmmaking. It’s not all about “what’s the box office!”, but it’s about creating something beautiful that we believe in. So it’s an actual passion project for me and I really hope that we get going with it at the end of this Summer. With everything going right maybe a year from now I can be in Cannes showing Mannerheim.
Mr Renny Harlin, thank you very much.
12 Rounds opens Wednesday 27th May in the UK.