I recently had an opportunity to speak with Renny Harlin, the director of such well-loved action films as Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger and The Long Kiss Good Night. We spoke primarily about his new film, 5 Days of War (see our review here), a film of which he is justly very proud and I found him to be enthusiastic, good-natured, sincere and passionate.
Here is what we discussed:-
Dave Roper: Firstly, congratulations on 5 Days of War, I think it’s an excellent and powerful film. It portrays a conflict that many will be unfamiliar with. How did you come to the project in the first place?
Renny Harlin: I was looking for a topic after making so many popcorn movies, I was really searching for something that would resonate with me more. I had been working on another historical project that didn’t come together in terms of the financing and then when I came across the producers who were discussing putting together a movie about this war and many in the public at large didn’t really understand what had happened and why or how it went down, so I just started doing some research. Once I started diving in to it I found it extremely interesting and shocking and just the fact that the whole thing took place right when the Olympics started in Beijing and that the world didn’t really want to hear about it and deal with it and this whole sort of murky idea that people have about countries that were formerly part of the Soviet bloc – are those countries still part of Russia or are they independent countries? When I did my research and I read independent reports about the event from the UN and from the EU and from Human Rights Watch I really got a full picture and then I went to Georgia and I spent a lot of time there talking to the journalist who had been there during the war and it became an incredible project for me to tell the story. Maybe a part of the reason was also that I come from Finland and I grew up in a little country in the shadow of a super power and I felt that I could really relate to that and then I felt that I could really tell kind of a universal story. It happens to be the story of Georgia and Russia but these things they can go on and on and on in the world it’s like whether it’s Rwanda or Bosnia or South America or of course Iraq and we have the uprisings in Libya and Tunisia and Egypt and so on, so it’s like all of this urge that people have to find their freedom, to have their voice heard and it seems like that’s the most important thing for people is really freedom and either getting it or keeping it. So I really felt like we could make a movie that deals with very serious issues and then on the other hand has big elements with a pretty spectacular setting and events that are cinematic and probably could be if I could use the word ‘entertaining’ for younger people who might not be inclined to take part or show an interest in political events, but I thought that through cinema I could tell the story and let these people get their voices out.
DR: I’m surprised that a film with such a strong cinematic style and such a strong cast and director and crew for the most part doesn’t seem to have found a theatrical release. Is that a frustration for you or is that something you expected when the project started?
RH: I was expecting that in some countries, in the United States the movie is coming out in August in a very impressive theatrical release and I would say in most countries it will be a theatrical release. I would be lying if I didn’t say that I was very surprised that in the UK it didn’t [get a theatrical release] because I feel that in all European countries it should be a topic they recognise and people should relate to it and people should open their eyes a little bit and say ‘where was I when this war happened?’ Even if they had put it in one theatre I would be happy, just put it in one theatre in Soho and I will do a little publicity, you don’t have to do an expensive campaign and I will come there and talk to anybody who wants to talk to me and get people interested. I don’t know, in today’s world the models have changed so much now. There are movies that are made purely for digital distribution and then later on they can come out on but you never know anymore. I totally understand that this is not your big comic book, popcorn movie, so I understand that it’s not a wide, wide release movie like that but yes I am very disappointed that it’s not in theatres because it has big production values and the country looks beautiful and of course I work with the best sound mixers in the world who did a fantastic soundtrack, so hopefully people have the equipment in their homes so they can get an idea of the theatrical values of the movie.
DR: Clearly there is a lot of military hardware on display in the film. As far as I can tell everything was filmed in Georgia itself, so where did all of that hardware come from?
RH: Yeah, the movie was shot all in Georgia and a lot of it was shot in the actual locations where the war took place and we did get help, we got a very good deal on the military hardware and I have scenes where I had just a very minimal amount of CG. For example, in the scenes where we are in the village and an attack helicopter is shooting missiles and then you have big explosions on the ground and various things explode and so on, the only thing digital there is the smoke trail from the helicopter from that explosion because obviously we can’t shoot with real missiles. So everything in terms of the helicopters is real and the explosions are real and I literally had scenes where I had eighty tanks, eight helicopters, three fighter jets, two or three thousand soldiers and two more thousand extras playing refugees, so it was crucial for me that I was able to get a very good price and because the equipment used to be under Soviet rule it’s mostly Soviet equipment. We just changed the insignia on the planes or helicopters but it’s the same kind of equipment, so it was a very exciting experience because I really felt like not since the 50’s or something like or whenever Patton was filmed, I don’t think any director has had the luxury of having this kind of equipment at his disposal because nowadays it’s all CG and you have a couple of helicopters but other than that it’s CG. It was the most incredible experience as a director to stand on the set and see 80 huge tanks parked there and there were two people next to me with three different walkie-talkies and I’m telling them ‘ok I want the tanks to come from there, this speed and then when they hit this spot I want you to cue the jets to fly over and then I want the helicopters to come from here’, it was really an amazing, amazing experience which I think just doesn’t happen nowadays.
DR: How did you find it filming in Georgia, being on the doorstep of where so many of these events unfolded? I understand from the closing credits that Russian forces are still there, was there a tension that you were aware of while you were filming?
RH: Yes, I would say that there was a sense in some of the scenes. We were just a few miles away from where the Russian troops are now and there were situations where we were told that fighter jets that I wanted to use couldn’t fly on a certain day or in a certain area because there was a reaction from the Russian side or that we couldn’t bring this many tanks to a certain town because it was too close to the border and it was raising suspicions that actually this was the cover-up for something that we were actually doing.
DR: That sounds like quite a challenge just on the practical side of things…
RH: There was definitely that element of child’s play and also, I wanted to use this stunt team and a special effects team who were Russian and had worked on Night Watch and I thought their work was so great that I wanted to use them and that became a huge political hot potato. How can you even suggest bringing Russians to do the special effects and stunts in Georgia in a movie about a war that took place barely a year ago? But I won the battle and I was able to bring them in but there was a very, very uptight incident when we went to one of Georgia’s major air bases where they had rows of helicopters and jets and I went there with my stunt coordinator and we were looking at these helicopters and how we are going to rig them. All of a sudden the commander of the helicopter battalion was quite tense and because he hears this guy talking and he also hears one of them talk Russian and and he says ‘wait a minute, where are you from?’ and he says ‘Russia’ and it was a very tense situation. We were immediately escorted as they thought this might be a spying exercise, but overall we were so welcomed by the Georgians because they felt that we were going to get their voice out and tell their story. They were very generous and very hospitable and so overall it was a really pleasant experience being there. What made it very emotional was that we were shooting many times in the real locations and almost all the time using people who had been through the war. There were definitely moments where we did refugee scenes and these people are walking and their bodies are dirty and they are carrying their meagre possessions and you really didn’t have to direct them, you didn’t have to tell them to look serious or happier than they are because they were reliving something that had just happened. They had lost family members and so on, so it was a very powerful, emotional experience.
DR: I thought that was conveyed so well, particularly the attack on the wedding and then later on the actions of the soldiers down by the river when the villagers are being rounded up. It was an interesting contrast for me between the immediacy and the urgency and the handheld, loose feel of those scenes and then you had the more bombastic, larger attack sequences, but it was very effective.
RH: That old lady at the river, that was based on actual events and that’s something that one of the journalists told me that he had witnessed, so there were a lot of things like that that we put in because we heard the stories about them.
DR: Now moving on, is Mannerheim going to be your next project?
RH: I’ve been working on Mannerheim for all of 10 years but at the moment I decided to put it on the shelf because we came so close to financing it a couple of times and then we weren’t able to make it a reality. Right now I’m working on a big modern time sea adventure and I’m going to Cannes tomorrow to hopefully finalise the financing. Then we can we can start prepping and I hope that we’ll shoot at the end of the summer but it will be really going back to sort of Die Hard sized film-making, so I’m really looking forward to that. I’m sorry I can’t tell you more about it yet but I will let you know hopefully in a couple of weeks.
DR: Have you not been put off from working at sea? I understand that Cutthroat Island worked out to be quite a difficult experience.
RH: I’m happy to head back to the seas. I did Deep Blue Sea as well and that was a great experience and Cutthroat Island - I mean, the funny thing about it is that the experience of making it was one of my best. It was absolutely fantastic. It was every boy’s dream to be on this ship and on the open seas and islands of Thailand, so it was absolutely fantastic fun. Whether things went wrong with the release of the film and maybe the film is not perfect, but I still like it so my love of sea has not gone anywhere and hopefully I’ve learned a lot of things from it and won’t make the same mistakes.
DR: One last question, maybe this is a hard question to answer, it’s like asking you which of your children is your favourite but which of your films do you feel proudest of? Which are the films do you feel has most closely matched your hopes and expectations?
RH: I would say that right now of course I have to say that The 5 Days of, the movie used to be called 5 Days of August but my understanding is that in the UK it’s coming out it’s going to be called 5 Days of War. I must say that it’s certainly my proudest achievement, I feel like I was able to tell a real story and about real people and it sort of came out the way I wanted it to come out so I’m very proud and happy with it. Otherwise I would say that my favourite has always been The Long Kiss Goodnight because for me it’s a combination of good writing, good acting, humour, action, it’s unpredictable, it’s not a cookie-cutter action movie like all of the comic book movies now are, so I like that movie, it has cool music and just to me it has a kind of a cool vibe.
5 Days of War is out on DVD from 13th June 2011.