The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Renny Harlin on his career: 'I get it. I'm not the messiah anymore'

July 29, 2011 |  4:32 pm

Renny_harlin Nobody knows just how quickly you can go from the penthouse to the outhouse in Hollywood better than Renny Harlin. “In Hollywood, money matters,” he says over a bowl of soup at a coffee shop in Santa Monica. “Everybody knows that if you make a bad movie that makes money, you can still work because people in Hollywood gravitate toward anyone who holds the key to what the public wants.”

In other words, before there was Michael Bay, there was Renny Harlin. A brash 6-foot-4 emigre from Finland, where he grew up in thrall to American action films, Harlin had a particularly steep career trajectory. A star director by age 30, he was washed up by 40. Harlin burst to prominence in 1988 with New Line's “A Nightmare on Elm Street 4.” In 1990, he had two more hits, “The Adventures of Ford Fairlane” and “Die Hard 2.” He followed those up with “Cliffhanger,” the 1993 action smash.

But then his career ran aground. His 1995 film “Cutthroat Island,” starring then-wife Geena Davis, was an epic flop. Harlin's next film, 1996's “The Long Kiss Goodnight,” was well-received critically but also lost money.

Since then, Harlin has worked largely on modestly budgeted films, sometimes stepping in when a director was fired, as he did on “Mindhunters,” sometimes reshooting a film that had run off the rails, as he did with “Exorcist: The Beginning.”

But perhaps it's time for Harlin, now 52, to write his comeback story. His new movie, “5 Days of War,” isn't just an impressive piece of filmmaking, it's a fascinating look at a war that was barely a blip on the radar screen in the West. The film, which opens in New York and Washington on Aug. 19 and in L.A. on Sept. 2, focuses on a group of hard-boiled war correspondents, played by the likes of Rupert Friend and Val Kilmer, who are covering a conflict between Russia and Georgia. The five-day conflict erupted in August 2008 after Georgia launched an overnight military offensive on a separatist faction, prompting retaliatory airstrikes from Russia before the European Union brokered a cease-fire.

The movie provides an unsettling glimpse of what little interest the world had in the suffering of the local populace — the international media was busy touting the Olympics in China. After reading an early draft of the script, Harlin went to Georgia to see the country for himself and spend time with foreign reporters who'd covered the conflict.

It's hard to imagine the movie ever being shown in Russia — it clearly sides with the Georgians. A number of independent Georgian investors bankrolled much of the film's $12-million budget, and Harlin says that backing didn't represent a conflict for him. Much of the story, he said, is based on real-life events, drawing on reports compiled by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch.

Shooting the film in Georgia in late 2009, barely a year after the war ended, Harlin was able to stretch the budget by having almost complete access to the Georgia military, which provided tanks, helicopters and fighter jets.

“We didn't travel with a circus of 40 giant equipment trucks,” he said. “It was more like guerrilla war, not like a lot of lumbering elephants.” Harlin's cinematographer, Checco Varese, spent more than a decade as a war photographer, so he doubled as a technical consultant, showing actors how to sleep with cameras cradled at their sides so they would be ready to move at a moment's notice.

The battle sequences were extraordinarily difficult to shoot. One complication: Nearly everyone in the international crew spoke different languages, forcing Harlin to hire a gaggle of multilingual students from a nearby university, who would translate his instructions. Another major snafu ensued when Harlin hired a team of stuntmen who had worked on the 2006 Russian action classic “Day Watch.”

“When they showed up, one of our producers said, ‘No way any Russian is putting a foot across the border, especially armed with explosives!'” he recalled. “At our army base, the commander zeroed in on our stunt coordinator and said, ‘Where are you from?' The coordinator answered, in Russian, ‘I'm from Russia.' And that was it — the army put us into total lockdown, convinced some sort of espionage was going on.”

Without a budget for computer effects, Harlin shot the battle scenes the old-fashioned way, with real tanks, fighter jets and 2,500 extras. “I'd have the commander of the Georgian army and air force at my side, with my own military coordinator, a couple of translators and our first [assistant director],” Harlin recalled. “And I somehow had to figure out how long it would take the infantry to march over a hill, then how long I would have to bring in the helicopters and cue the tanks so they wouldn't run everyone over, and then go to my actors for dialogue.”

Some days, Harlin's battle sequences were curtailed by Russian concerns about so much military hardware being massed so close to the border. “My air force would suddenly disappear because, on the radar, you'd see [Russian] tanks heading for the border. My air force coordinator would shake his head and say, ‘No, not today.'”

When it comes to saying no, Harlin is self-critical enough to realize that he should have said no to some of the movies he made, especially ones like “Cutthroat Island,” which never had a finished script. He also learned a host of realpolitik lessons about keeping a career going in a town that prefers to hire a hot new music video director over a savvy old pro.

“I get it — I'm not the messiah anymore,” he said. “I go from project to project, trying to make movies people will see because, as much as I'd like to have Paul Haggis give me his next script, I know it's not going to happen right now.”

Looking back, Harlin says he might have avoided some of his problems had he been better versed in the economics and marketing side of the business. But he's a long way from giving up, having seen a host of older directors, such as Ridley Scott and Martin Scorsese, still making movies that matter.

“The key to surviving in this town is learning how to reinvent yourself,” said Harlin, who was in Miami this week, schooling himself in the art of TV drama by directing an episode of “Burn Notice.” “You can't cry about what happened before. If I could come from Finland as a nobody and make some of the biggest movies in Hollywood, then even if I have to work on a smaller scale, who says that I couldn't do it again?”

--Patrick Goldstein



Photo: Renny Harlin arriving at the premiere of "5 Days of War" in Tbilisi last month.

Credit: David Mdzinarishvili/Reuters