HDTGM: A Conversation with Renny Harlin

 

Renny Harlin

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…

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1998 The Avengers oral history

In June 1987, in an interview for The New York Times, Stanley Kubrick spoke glowingly about a series of Michelob beer commercials.

“They’re just boy-girl, night-fun,” Kubrick praised, “leading up to pouring the beer, all in 30 seconds, beautifully edited and photographed. Economy of statement is not something that films are noted for.”

That piece published on a Sunday. The following day—after interested parties tracked down who was responsible for these spots—the phone of fashion photographer turned commercial director Jeremiah Chechik started rining off the hook.

Living up to that hype, Jeremiah Chechik’s first feature, Christmas Vacation, dazzled at the box office. Over the next decade, Chechik continued to rise up the ranks, establishing himself as a profitable director and, perhaps as importantly, a director known to work well with actors and the studios. Which is why, in the mid-‘90s, he was tapped by Warner Bros. to direct a $60 million summer action film based on a popular ‘60’s British TV show called The Avengers. With a stellar cast (Ralph Fiennes, Uma Thurman and Sean Connery) a legendary producer (Jerry Weintraub) and a top-tier British screenwriter (Don Macpherson), The Avengers seemed like a can’t miss film.

Unfortunately though, it missed the mark by a wide margin and drastically changed the trajectory of Jeremiah Chechik’s career. But what, at first, may have looked like a fall from grace wound up leading Chechik to terrific success in another medium. To find out what went wrong and then, ultimately, what went right, we spoke with the talented filmmaker and took a stroll down memory lane…

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Mel Brooks

From Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein to Spaceballs and The Producers, legendary filmmaker Mel Brooks has been responsible for some of the most beloved movies ever made. And unsurprisingly, at various points in his career, he has discussed the making of almost all his films. Except for one—the lone dud in his canon—a film so bad The New York Times declared it “an embarrassment,” and which Brooks has never publicly discussed: Solarbabies. Well, at least not until now. Because last week, on behalf of the How Did This Get Made? podcast, I spoke with Brooks at length to try and figure out how (the hell) did this get made?

Going into the interview, I expected to hear tales of unforeseen calamity and production run amok. But what I didn’t expect—and what became the prevailing thread of our conversation—was the enormous personal toll that Solarbabies had on Brooks.

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Hell Comes to Frogtown

In 1978, a pair of young, wannabe filmmakers made a 12-minute, 35mm short called Xenogenesis. One of those wannabes was a visionary artist by the name of James Cameron. The other—who Cameron calls “the best kept secret in Hollywood”—was a precocious storyteller by the name of Randall Frakes. 

Over the following four decades, the two have collaborated on several projects. But one project that did not collaborate on—though they came close to doing so—was a subversive, sci-fi B-movie called Hell Comes to Frogtown. That one was written solely by Randall Frakes, though the final film stayed significantly from his initial vision. To figure out what happened, I spoke with Randall Frakes about cyborgs-turned-assassins, wrestlers-turned-actors and the underappreciated unity of opposites. 

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solarbabies oral history

In 1970, an L.A.-born artist who went by the name “Metrov” moved to New York City. He began the decade working as a designer for the famed Push Pin Studios and then eventually made a name for himself as a fine arts painter, working out of a loft studio across the street from Andy Warhol’s Factory. 

In 1979, inspired by a friend and guerilla filmmaker, Metrov came up with an idea for a low-budget, high-concept movie he wanted to direct: Solarbabies. This is a story about what happened next—how it was sold to Mel Brooks, how it was directed by a choreographer—and why, by the time Solarbabies was finally shot, its creator was no longer involved in his creation. 

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can't stop the music

There’s something odd about the trailer for Can’t Stop The Music. Actually, scratch that, there’s a lot that’s odd. But, as a writer, I noticed something odd about how the narrator introduced the film. After proclaiming this to be “the musical extravaganza that launches the 80s,” he then introduces the movie by saying, “It’s Allan Carr’s Can’t Stop The Music.” Typically, that apostrophe-S, possessive descriptor is reserved for the film’s director (especially so when the director also writes the script). 

But in this case, Carr was neither the director nor the writer, which got me wondering: what made this his film? What did the producer of Can’t Stop The Music get billing like that? Like I said: something odd. But after a little investigation into the making of one of Hollywood’s biggest flops, it makes complete sense. Here’s why…

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sheldon_TheOrder

Shortly after running our last piece, How Did This Get Made: A Conversation with Frank Dux, the Real-Life Inspiration for Bloodsport, I was put in touch with Sheldon Lettich. This was significant not only because he wrote the screenplay for Bloodsport, but also because Dux had said some unflattering things about the writer.

So when I finally connected with Lettich, I worried that there might be some not-so-flattering words headed my way. But to my pleasant surprise, Lettich was a complete gentleman. And when I told about him the purpose of this How Did This Get Made series—to investigate how movies got made, and the careers of those involved—he was happy to clear up any misconceptions and provide additional insights into the making of Bloodsport, his two decades of collaboration with Jean-Claude Van Damme and what it takes to write a badass, blow-em-up action film.

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Bloodsport

Unlike so many of the testosterone-fueled films of the ’80s, Bloodsport holds the rare distinction of being based on a true story. It’s the amazing tale of Frank Dux, a Caucasian martial artist who fought in (and won) a ruthless secret tournament that’s held only once every five years. It’s a tale so amazing that two months after the film’s release, it was dismissed by the L.A. Times as nothing but a fabricated “macho fantasy.” And that piece, filled with accusations and allegations, continues even to this day cast doubt upon the reputation of Frank Dux.

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Gabriel Hardman interview

In 1993, at only 19 years old, an aspiring comic book artist named Gabriel Hardman got what appeared to be a big break: the chance to pencil Marvel’s War Machine. But not long after completing the assignment, Hardman chose to ditch comics, move to Hollywood and try to make it as a storyboard artist.

By any measure of success, there’s no doubt that Hardman “made it.” Over the next two decades, he worked on a variety of beloved and/or critically acclaimed projects; ranging from Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997) to Interstellar (2014). But at the same time, while on that upward trajectory, he storyboarded a handful famous flops. Including three films which have been the focus of How Did This Get Made? episodes: Wild Wild West, Spider-Man 3 and Green Lantern.

Interestingly enough, it took a frustrating experience on one of those three films to lead Hardman back to the career he had previously left. And, since then, he has regularly toggled between working in comics (such as Invisible Republic and Heathentown) and working on films (such as Inception and The Dark Knight Rises). To learn more about this unexpected journey, we spoke with Gabriel Hardman about some of the ups and downs in his career.

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How Did This Get Made: Teen Witch [An Oral History]

Teen Witch

Teen Wolf – Wolf + Witch = How Did This Get Made?

Although dueling accounts exist with regards to the origin of Teen Witch, both versions credit their inspiration from the formula above (Teen Wolf – Wolf + Witch). Given its origin, one might expect that Teen Witch would feel dastardly derivative. But no matter how you feel about the movie—some absolutely, overwhelmingly adore it; while others view it as the quintessential ’80s bad movie—nobody can deny that Teen Witch feels unique unto itself. It has sincerity, it has heart. And it also has—unlike the original draft of the script—lots of music and dancing. How, exactly, did these ingredients enter the equation? And, one can’t help but wonder, does that explanation provide us with clues as to why this movie has aged the way it has?

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