Trivia: Renny Harlin Begged Not To Make Legendary Flop 'Cutthroat Island'

Hollywood loves stories of failure almost more than it loves success. The tales of flops such as Heaven's Gate, Ishtar and The Bonfire of the Vanities have spawned endless conversations, magazine articles and no few books. But the story of a flop is often distilled down into over-simplified factoids and circumstances. In the broad public view, all most people tend to know is that a movie was over-ambitious or poorly conceived, and that it tanked, possibly taking companies and careers with it.

One of the legendary flops is Renny Harlin's Cutthroat Island, a 1995 pirate film that starred his then-wife Geena Davis and actor Matthew Modine. The film cost almost a hundred million to make, and raked in only about one-tenth that amount. Stories have flown that the movie's failure was responsible for the demise of production company Carolco. That company previously made Basic Instinct, Cliffhanger, Terminator 2, and other successful films, as well as another oft-discussed dog, Showgirls, released only months before Cutthroat Island.

In a new interview to promote his current film 5 Days of War, Harlin talks candidly about the experience of making Cutthroat Island, and the fact of it being a financial disaster. His statements are frank. While he indicts Carolco for making the film when he says the company was insolvent, he also accepts a certain arrogance of his own, inflated by the success of Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger, as being part of the problem. But, he says, if he'd been allowed to walk away, the movie never would have happened at all.

Speaking to Kim Masters on KCRW, Harlin says that Carolco had been so mismanaged that it was broke before Cutthroat Island ever went into production. According to him, between Carolco's imminent demise and the fact that distributor MGM was being sold, there was never going to be an appropriate marketing budget for an atypical adventure film being released at Christmas. (The film hit on December 22, 1995.)

The filmmaker does seem to admit his own complicity in a way when he says,

It was a good reminder, I think, in a way, that when you start believing in yourself too much, and thinking that you're invincible, that you're a genius, that someone brings you down and says, like, "OK, you're definitely not a genius, and you've had a good run, but you have to be humble and play by the rules."

But knowing that Carolco was bust, he asked to be let out of his contract with the company:

I'll tell you another detail that people don't know about. Originally, Michael Douglas was supposed to star in Cutthroat Island. And he walked away. At that point I was left there with my then-wife, Geena Davis and myself, and a company that was already belly-up. We begged to be let go. We begged that we didn't have to make this movie. And I don't think I've ever said this in any other interview. We begged that we not be put in this position.

Geena was scared mindless about headlining this film. We felt that a pirate movie with a female lead was suicidal, but we were contractually obligated. And we were so concerned about the script at that point that I personally spent a million dollars of my own money, I hired Mark Norman, who had won an Oscar for writing Shakespeare in Love. So I tried to hire the best writer in the business. Because, again, Carolco said, "we don't have money. We don't care if the script is not good, or if it doesn't work any more because it was written for Michael Douglas and now it's not that story any more." So I spent a million dollars of my own money to hire Mark Norman to write that script. We did the best we could under the circumstances. So, was it painful when it all came crashing down? Yes. Did we learn a lot? Yes.

Harlin insists that Carolco's financial status had doomed the film from the beginning and that it knew Cutthroat Island would be the final film the company would make. He laments the fact that the spectre of the film continues to haunt him, but also seems to accept it as an inescapable chapter in his own history.

The entire interview, which runs about twenty minutes, is very much worth listening to. It's only Harlin's perspective, but I'm inclined to take most of what he says at face value; I didn't finish the interview thinking that he'd exaggerated or unreasonably pin blame on others that didn't deserve it. You can use the following embed, in which the Cutthroat Island talk begins about nineteen minutes in: