A couple months back, Paul Scheer and the gang covered The Covenant on How Did This Get Made? Ever since then, Paul and I have been trying to arrange an interview with the film’s director, the great Renny Harlin, a Finnish-born filmmaker best known for helming action-packed classics like Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger.
It took a little while to coordinate the conversation, as Harlin has been stationed in China these past two years. But luckily for us, between finishing post on his upcoming Jackie Chan film Skiptrace and launching his new production company in Beijing, Harlin carved out an hour to take a stroll down memory lane.
During our chat, we talked about all sorts of things. From his mission to assemble the “sexiest cast ever” for The Covenant to his original choice to play the villain in Cliffhanger. But as interesting as details like that can be—and as wonderfully quotable as Harlin tends to be—they pale in comparison to the unexpected and over-arching story of Harlin’s career. A career that, as you will now see, never even should have been…
Part 1: Not Just Any Director
Blake Harris: So before we talk about The Covenant and some of the other films you’ve directed—including Cliffhanger, the first Rated-R movie I ever saw!—I wanted to first discuss how you got into filmmaking.
Renny Harlin: Oh awesome! [laughing] And sure, I’m happy to talk about that.
Blake Harris: Great. And I read somewhere that it all kind of started back in the mid-seventies, when Charles Bronson was filming something in Helsinki. Is that true?
Renny Harlin: It is. I was about 15 years old. But I should say that, before that, I had been a film buff since I was, like, five years old. My mom took me to the movies all the time, she taught me to understand cinema. So I was always making my own little home movies and writing my own stories and stuff like that.
Blake Harris: But then, as a young teenager, that interest reached a new level?
Renny Harlin: Yeah. I happened to read somewhere that [director] Don Siegel was making a film called Telefon and shooting in Helsinki. Because those days, during the cold war, Americans couldn’t shoot movies in Russia. So Finland was always doubling for Russia. So I got excited and I went to where they were shooting. And there was Charles Bronson. And also these huge cranes and lights and even a helicopter. All big American stuff that I had never seen in my life. And there’s Don Siegel, sitting in a director’s chair, smoking a cigar and talking into a megaphone. That’s when it crystalized to me what a director is—what kind of a position—and the kind of power that a director has. And that day, I decided that’s what I want to pursue with my life. I wanted to be a director. But not just any director: I want to be a Hollywood director.
Blake Harris: Ha! And so given that it’s the mid-seventies and you’re all the way in Finland, how did you go about educating yourself? What were those next steps to become “the guy with the megaphone”?
Renny Harlin: Well, that was the funny thing: I had no idea how to go about it.
Blake Harris: Exactly!
Renny Harlin: I remember that right around that time, in high school, we had some social studies class where the professor asked the students, “What do you want to do when you finish school and grow up?” And you get all the typical answers: I want to be a doctor…a lawyer…an architect. Then it was my turn to answer and—based on my experience watching Don Siegel—I said, “I want to be an American action film director.”
Blake Harris: Oh man, I love that.
Renny Harlin: Everyone looked at me like: What? Even the teacher. But I had decided that’s what I wanted to be: an American action film director.
Blake Harris: Had you ever been to America before?
Renny Harlin: No. I didn’t even know even know a single person in the world who had been to America.
Blake Harris: Wow.
Renny Harlin: I started pursuing it. I went to the library and took out every book that had something to do with filmmaking or Hollywood or directing. Just started studying through books and movies, trying to understand more about it on a really professional level. And then when it came close to my graduating high school, I started researching whether you could study film in Finland. At that time, in the late ‘70s, the Finnish film industry was absolutely minimal. It was provided by the government, so it was not a commercial thing by any stretch. It was like a completely fringe art form. But it was something you could study in the university. There was a master’s program that took about five years.
Blake Harris: Was it expensive?
Renny Harlin: In Finland, just to explain briefly so you—as an American—can understand: University is for free. But you must be accepted. You apply for a specific program and then you have to go through two weeks of grueling exams. So anybody can apply to study anything, but you have to be really successful on those exams to get in.
Blake Harris: Gotcha.
Renny Harlin: But the problem was my parents. I mentioned to them that I would like to study film and they were shocked by the idea. “Please,” they said, “come on. Be realistic.” My father was a doctor, so he wanted me to be a doctor. My mother understood a little bit more about my creative urges—but still, like I said, film was like a completely fringe art form—so she said, “Why don’t you study to be an architect? That way you can still be creative.”
Blake Harris: So they were really against the film idea, huh?
Renny Harlin: In those days, it was like the equivalent of a kid living in L.A. saying to his parents, “I’m going to go to college and study abstract Peruvian poetry.”
Blake Harris: [laughing]
Renny Harlin: It was almost better to have no job than a job on the fringes of society. So I agreed to take the exams and try to study architecture. However, without telling them, I decided to also apply to study film. My plan was to take both exams, but I then found out that they occurred at overlapping times (partially). And so unbeknownst to my parents, I then ended up going to the film school exams instead of the architecture ones. And it was eight hours every day for two weeks. Every day I would come home and they would ask how the exams went. “Pretty good,” I would say. “They’re going pretty good.” Little did they know that I was actually taking the film school exams. And it was not easy to get in. There were 800 people applying, and they took eight students. But long story short: Miraculously, I became one of those eight and got into the film school. And then I had the tough challenge of going home and telling my parents.
Blake Harris: Yeah, I was wondering how that conversation went. How did you present it to your parents?
Renny Harlin: I said, “I have good news, which is I got in. And I have bad news, which is I lied to you, I took the exams for the film school and I’ll be going there.” So there were some tears, but eventually everyone was happy. At least I got into a university and I was pursuing what I loved. And then I went to study film there only to realize, after about my first year, that it’s hard to teach filmmaking. Especially in Finland, in those days, it just wasn’t on a very sophisticated level, and I kind of got bored there. I felt like: Okay, I can study film history by reading books. I can study film theory by reading books. I can study pretty much everything by reading books. But ultimately, it’s all about making films. Whether they are 30-second commercials or little documentaries, by making them you learn more than anything. And this film school, they didn’t have in mind to have us make any kind of films. All they ever let us do was take still photographs and study framing and storytelling through still images. So I was like: I gotta start doing something, and somehow I got my foot in the door at an advertising agency. I started making some industrial films and then some commercials. Things went really well and then I won some awards. After a year and a half in the film school, I was more busy making commercials and documentaries and short films than I was doing anything for the film school. Then to the horror and shock of my parents, I said, “I’m quitting university.” So now not only was I studying something totally useless, but I was going to be the first person in my family not to get a college degree.
Blake Harris: Wow.
Renny Harlin: So I quit and it was a big risk, but I followed my heart. Very soon after that I got hired to make TV films in Finland. And the whole time, I kept dreaming about making features. So I wrote a few feature scripts, but in Finland getting them financed was impossible. All the films that got financed were really, really, really, really serious art films that the government could support. About serious social issues. And my films were more action-adventure stories. So I just packed my things and went to Hollywood when I was 23 or 24 years old. I just left Finland and decided to go to Hollywood without knowing a single soul there. I [just knew] that’s where my destiny lies.