Interview: 'Skiptrace' Director Renny Harlin On Working With Jackie Chan And Chinese Vs. American Filmmaking

Many of us grew up watching Renny Harlin's action movies like Cliffhanger, Die Hard 2, andĀ The Adventures of Ford Fairlane. It would be several more years before Jackie Chan was properly introduced to America with the U.S. release of Rumble in the Bronx. The two represent quite different approaches to action, with Harlin embodying the explosive bombastic American style and Chan his own unique brand of comedic martial arts.

Harlin directed Chan's latest movie, Skiptrace. Chan plays Hong Kong detective Benny Chan, who is mismatched with an American gambler Connor Watts (Johnny Knoxville). Chan has to get Watts back to Hong Kong, but their journey will take them from Russia, to the mainland, through the desert and the cities, all while being chased by bad guys led by Dasha (Eve Torres). Some of Chan's trademark set pieces include a fight in a Russian nesting doll factory, and another scene has him singing "Rolling in the Deep."

We spoke with Harlin by phone out of his Beijing office, because he's staying put there. I had actually corresponded with Harlin on Twitter last year after the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles showed his maligned pirate film Cutthroat Island. 20 years later it finally played to a friendly crowd. We started out talking about theĀ Cutthroat Island screening, and discussed Jackie Chan, American vs. Chinese filmmaking, and more.

While you were in Asia filming Skiptrace, I tweeted you that I'd been to a screening of Cutthroat Island at the New Beverly Cinema here in L.A. It was a pretty full theater and we all loved it.

That's awesome. I do remember you sending a message regarding it and I remember feeling very happy that it was part of the series of movies that were screened there. I was actually surprised and very glad to hear that the response was good because it's one of those things that has always remained in my mind as one of those unfortunate situations. I'm not saying that the movie is a masterpiece but it didn't get distribution at all, so it fell through the cracks and got this really bad reputation. It's a pity because I thought that coming years before Pirates of the Caribbean, I thought it was a fine pirate movie for those of us who would like to see a pirate movie.

It made me wonder, have you ever gotten a chance to see that movie play with a good audience? Maybe at the premiere?

I have never seen Cutthroat Island with an audience in my life. It's a sad story.

Hopefully they'll do it again and you can come.

Yeah, it was definitely a highlight to get your message.

SkiptraceI'm glad. Obviously you've worked with some of the biggest action stars in the world. You did two Stallone movies and Die Hard 2 with Bruce Willis. How does Jackie Chan fit in with those experiences?

That's a good question. Jackie is in his own class. Having started as a circus performer basically [in the Peking Opera] and a stuntman and an actor and a director and a choreographer, he does it all. He has the energy of 10 guys and the ideas of 50 guys. He's the kind of a guy who is super involved in the movie, comes to the set first guy in the morning, last guy to leave, participates in everything and is just the hardest worker. He's not about "Okay, when do I show up and where's my mark and where's my trailer?" He's there and he's part of the process and he loves it. He loves making movies more than anything in the world. He's always in a great mood with great energy and ready to try anything. Also I must say, he was super respectful of me as a director. He would have ideas when he showed up in the morning, but he was never pushing them. Also being a producer on the movie, he was never like, "You've got to do this" or "You've got to do that." He would just say, "Hey Renny, what do you think of this? I have this idea." Some of them were genius and I would say, "Great, let's do it." Some of them would be impossible to execute in the timeframe and constraints we had. Some of them I felt like, "Okay, that's a good idea but it doesn't quite fit our story or our style." So it was a great collaboration and he was totally listening to me and following my direction. That was never an issue.

The interesting thing that I learned from him that was first a little scary and then really liberating was that in China, you can do anything. In China, nothing is impossible. He could show up in the morning and have all these elaborate ideas of an action sequence. He wanted to do an action sequence where he would break all this stuff and do all these fire gags. I'd be like, "Hey, I love your ideas but we are not prepped for that. We don't have the breakaway chairs and breakaway walls and props and things." He would be like, "If you like the idea, don't worry about it. After lunch we will have it all." The crew would go to work. We had 400 people in the crew, all Chinese. I was the only American. They'd just go to work. We'd be shooting something else and there'd be 30 guys working on this stuff. After lunch, there'd be perfect replicas of the furniture and props and all the breakaway stuff. The cranes would be up with wires. It'd be all done. I couldn't believe my eyes. It's kind of the same when they say they can build a high-rise building in two weeks here. If they put their heart into it, they can make anything happen. That was a huge revelation for me coming from American filmmaking where for something like that, you would have at least 10 meetings, 10 weeks of prep and planning and building and getting ready. Here, you literally can improvise, come up with ideas and pretty much anything is possible. That was the great thing that I learned from Jackie.

SkiptraceThat factory fight is a classic Jackie Chan sequence. Tell us about choreographing and filming that scene.

The story took the characters to Russia and that's where they meet, so we wanted to figure out how do we do a sequence that could really display his crazy antics? We came up with this as we were developing the script, this kind of a Russian factory that makes these dolls which are such a Russian cliche. It was Jackie who came up with the idea of the dolls that are packed inside each other and use them in the fight. It felt like such a ridiculous idea and was actually kind of complicated to shoot. If you're holding one doll and it breaks, how do you get a hold of the other dolls inside? How do you make them breakaways and how do you make the outer doll break and not the inner doll break? It was actually logistically harder to do than it looks, but we thought it was just absolutely funny because everybody knows these dolls.

It was all built. It was a huge warehouse in Beijing or actually a huge old factory where we built this. None of the conveyor belts or any of that was real. It would be too dangerous and complicated to shoot in a real factory so they were all built just to serve the story and the action. We mapped out the gags together and built it. I worked closely with Jackie's stunt team and Wu Gang who is his stunt coordinator and became my very close friend. Then Jackie showed up on the day. We were shooting there probably for three or four days and then he looked at the [pre-vis] and we showed him all the gags we had designed. Then he was like, "How about this? How about that?" He started adding his ideas to it. Some of them are little and some of them are actually really big. It all worked within what we had built so there's a lot of preplanning and a lot of Jackie's improvisation.

SkiptraceIt's true Jackie's training in Peking Opera includes every kind of performing, including he's a singer. I have his album. Did you include the "Rolling in the Deep" scene because Jackie's also a singer?

It was a little bit of a revelation to me also. I had heard about the fact that he sings but the fact that he's had several albums that are bestsellers. He can draw 25,000 people easily to a stadium concert. So I was kind of looking for a place where I could have him sing. Then when we were in Mongolia, I just loved that place and I loved the people and loved the atmosphere. I thought this would be an awesome kind of east meets west meets Mongolia meets rest of the world kind of scene. I asked around, I asked young people in Mongolia, "Are there western pop songs do you like?" They said, "Of course." And I said, "What is your favorite?" And they said, "Adele." I was like, "Oh my God, that's so awesome." Then I got this idea to include the Adele song. I asked Jackie and he was like, "Yeah, of course I know the song." He just had to learn some of the lyrics. The crowd all knew the lyrics. So we created this scene that I thought was awesome and the audience really seems to like it because it's kind of like western pop culture bringing all these cultures together and seeing that music and art is universal. It can really unite people in a positive way.

Did the horse poop on cue in every take?

[Laughs] That was one of those crazy ridiculous things. That horse was a goofy horse. It wouldn't do anything that we asked him to do. The Mongolians can handle the horses and do anything with them but for normal people, it's totally impossible to control them. So that horse never did anything on cue. When Jackie and Johnny were supposed to ride it together, the horse said, "No, thank you. No two people on me." When it was supposed to be not moving and Johnny is trying to pull it, the horse refuses to move. That was a whole big deal because the horse wouldn't do anything that we wanted him to do so the pooping was just one of those crazy coincidences. They happened to be doing the scene and the dialogue when it happened. I thought about it a couple of times, should I include it in the movie? I thought I'll just go for it. Why not?

SkiptraceI'm glad you did! Was shooting some scenes in Mandarin a challenge for you?

It wasn't a challenge. All the scenes that we did in Chinese, we also did in English. So all the actors were able to do them in English. Then I just chose when I was editing the movie, I felt like the Chinese actors were stronger in their scenes when they were speaking their native language, so I chose to do those with subtitles. I thought the performances were much stronger and I felt that it was justified that when there's Chinese people with Chinese people talking, it makes sense that they use their language. Then when they are dealing with American characters, there are American characters in the scene, then they speak English.

Jackie always shows the outtakes at the end of his movies and you've never done that before. Now that you showed outtakes for Skiptrace do you think it could be fun for other movies too?

Yeah, I like the idea. I've never copied it before but since this was a Jackie movie, it felt like it belongs there. I would probably consider it. I think it makes sense the best when it's a comedic movie. If it's a serious movie, then the screw-ups I feel would have a different effect to show them. There are always those, but in a comedy, because you can laugh at it all, I think it works.

Was it nice to be able to film in real locations and not on a green screen?

It was awesome and it was a great introduction for me to China. We traveled to eight different locations, eight different big moves, airplanes, trains and trucks moving 400 people and all the equipment. It was a big deal. We started in Mongolia and then traveled across China, all the way to Macau and Hong Kong, shot around Beijing and did stage work in Beijing. I picked the locations based on what looks the best. There are still plenty of locations for the sequel but I just wanted to pick some of those locations that we could really show the audience how diverse and how beautiful China is.

Are there plans for a sequel or for you to direct more Asian films?

I can't confirm it yet but there's definitely been talk about a sequel. In terms of Asian films, definitely. I'm currently living in Beijing and I'm in preproduction on a movie for Ali Baba Pictures. It's a big fantasy adventure movie called The Legend of the Ancient Sword. It's based on one of the biggest video games in China. We are in full prep. We are building sets. We are casting actors. We start shooting in a couple of months so that's going to keep me in China for more than the next year. I have my company now here. I'm developing a lot of things for me to direct and produce. Currently I'm planning to stay here and work here. I really love it here. I think the crews are great. People are great. There's so many stories that can be told here, movies that haven't been made here. Besides the sort of traditional fantasy movies and historical movies and comedies, I think there's all kinds of interesting action films that can be made here. Also thrillers and horror films. I think it can be kind of a new thing here, so I'm excited about working here.

Eve Torres is a great villain in the movie. Since you directed 12 Rounds with John Cena, what is it about WWE personalities that make them stand out on screen?

Well, they are awesome entertainers. They are used to being in front of people and creating drama, comedy, insanity and are bigger than life characters. They are physically incredibly able bodied. I loved working with John and I see John having a great future also, especially in China now that WWE is becoming a big deal in China as well. I think John can be a big star here. Eve is awesome. She's just such a great package. She's incredible physically. She's beautiful. She's a good actress. So maybe not all of them but a lot of them have the charisma that it takes to be on the big screen.

It's funny, John Cena has had a lot of success in comedy now from Trainwreck.

I know. I think he was awesome in it. He was so funny, and I know John pretty well. He's a very funny guy. He has very funny deadpan comedic timing so I think he can do anything.


Skiptrace is in select theaters Friday, September 2 or on DirecTV now.