HDTGM: A Conversation with Renny Harlin

Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces

Part 2: Is This Real Life in America?

Blake Harris: So take me through the process once you get there. You’re getting off the plane—you don’t know anybody—what is your first impression?

Renny Harlin: Well, my first impression was that I couldn’t believe my eyes. Because I had grown up watching American movies all the time, watching American TV series. And there were certain things—very particular things about American entertainment—that was very different than my life experience in Europe and Finland, and I had somehow presumed that that was kind of make believe. That it was just an illusion created for storytelling. However, when I landed there in L.A., I saw that’s actually how life is in America. Just little things. Like let’s take Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces—and just a simple thing—but he goes into a diner and he orders a sandwich and the waitress delivers it and the diner looks a certain way. I had assumed that part of that was created for the movies, but now I go into a diner in Hollywood and it looked exactly like the diner in that movie. And I just couldn’t believe it. I was like: Is this real life in America? And everything: the cars, the license plates, the street signs. Everything looked like what I had seen in the movies and on TV. So I just kept taking photos of everything because I just couldn’t believe it. It was like I was on a movie set.

Blake Harris: That’s hilarious

Renny Harlin: So it was a completely mind-blowing experience.

Blake Harris: Shock and awe aside, how did you logistically go about trying to break into the film business?

Renny Harlin: I didn’t know anybody, so I would literally go through the yellow pages and try to find producers and studios who would meet with me. That didn’t go very well. I met a few people and I said, “Well, I’ve done these short films and commercials.” And they said, “Well, it all looks fine, but you really need to have a feature in order to get a foothold here.” So finally I went back to Finland and got together with a friend of mine who had a video distribution company. We were both young guys and we both wanted to make movies, so we pooled up our money and decided to try and make a feature. We wrote a script and hired some American actors and shot as much of it as we could until we ran out of money. We were able to put together like 25 minutes of a movie—a movie with a bunch of action and explosions and some beautiful Finnish scenery—and then we went to Hollywood and started knocking on doors.

Blake Harris: And you still didn’t know anybody? You’re almost literally just knocking on doors?

Renny Harlin: Yeah, still didn’t know anybody. So we started going around and saying, “Okay, now we have part of a feature. You can get the idea of what we’re trying to do. And we want to find someone who will finance the rest of it.” Knowing now, knowing in retrospect, how insane our effort was, the only reason why we succeeded was we had no idea how impossible it was, what we were doing. We didn’t follow the protocol. We didn’t have agents or managers or lawyers or anything like that. We were two Finnish kids, just going to production companies without an appointment. Just showing up and saying, “Hey, can we meet with somebody here who wants to talk about making this movie with us.” And a few months went by like that and nothing happened.

Blake Harris: Do you think people were even watching the 25 minutes?

Renny Harlin: Well, miraculously we had left a videotape with a receptionist and one executive had grabbed that tape on his way home and popped it into his VCR and started watching it. And that executive got kind of into it: Hey, this is pretty cool! The next day he comes into work and asked the receptionist what that videotape was. The receptionist said something like, “I don’t know, there were these two kids from Finland here yesterday. I really don’t know what it is, but they left their phone number.” So the executive called us up and we met with him. We explained the project and that we were looking for more money to finish up the feature. “Well,” he asked, “How much more do you need?”

Blake Harris: How much more did you need?

Renny Harlin: We didn’t know! We hadn’t really even thought about that because we didn’t know how to make a budget. So we looked at each other—tried to sort of read each other’s thoughts—and then eventually said, “We need about $500,000.” Right after we said it, we felt foolish. $500,000? No way. That’s such a crazy big number. Why did we ever say that?! But then he asked us, “For $500,000 you can finish this movie?” Oh yeah, absolutely. “Okay,” he said. “Well show us your script, show us your plans and if you can really do it for $500,000 then we’ll finance the rest of your film.”

Blake Harris: Success!

Renny Harlin: Long story short: They ended up giving us the money. They sent an executive with us to Finland to watch us do it. Somehow, amazingly, we finished the film. And the film ended up getting released in, like, 1,200 theaters in the United States and sold to every country in the world. When we were making it, we were calling it Arctic Heat, but by the time it got released, the U.S. company had retitled it Born American. It came out, I think, in 1986, and it made some money and it was distributed everywhere. Of course, we didn’t make any money. Because we signed all the contracts without reading them first. So we didn’t make a cent, but it gave us a first step into actually having made a feature. Then we tried to get our next feature made, which turned out to be really, really tough again.

Blake Harris: Amazing, right? I think we all just kind of assume that success is an upward trajectory. But there are always a lot of stops and starts.

Renny Harlin: Always…

Part 3: Running Out of Rock Stars 

Renny Harlin: So after a year of nothing happening, my partner—the one who was with me in Hollywood—he gave up. He said, “We’ve lost everything, it’s not going to happen.” So he went back to Finland. But I couldn’t. I felt like I’d rather die than go back to Finland and confess that I’m a failure.

Blake Harris: How bad did it get?

Renny Harlin: We had maxed out all of our credit cards. We had lost all of our money. I ended up living in a garage in the valley in L.A. for a year. With nothing. I was scraping together enough to, you know, buy food by writing film reviews for obscure Finnish newspapers. I just lived in the garage, ate cheaply. Didn’t even have money to go to the movies or anything. I was just absolutely dirt poor. I didn’t have a car; I didn’t have anything.

Blake Harris: How did you rationalize that? You had made this movie—it was successful—and yet, still, you seemed to be in almost the exact same place as before that? What did you think you needed to do differently next time?

Renny Harlin: I just felt that I needed to get somebody to see the movie, somebody who would appreciate that we made this movie for, all together, about a million dollars. And somebody who would see that even if the movie was far from a masterpiece, it still had some production values and visuals that I was hoping people would appreciate.

Blake Harris: Okay, that makes sense.

Renny Harlin: So I was just determined to find that one person who would believe in me. And if that didn’t happen then I would just, you know, I didn’t know what would happen to me. But I just could not face the idea of going back to Finland, being the laughingstock of everybody and just agreeing to do something else. This was the only thing in my life that I wanted to do. And so, after about a year, somehow I got that videotape in front of Irwin Yablans.

Blake Harris: Wonderful.

Renny Harlin: Irwin Yablans was the producer who had discovered John Carpenter and produced Halloween. Irwin saw my film and called me up. We met and Irwin said, “I believe in you. I believe in your eye. I believed in John Carpenter once and you’re my next discovery.” At that time, he had a movie called Prison—which was going to be done for $1.3 million—and it was going to be shot in Wyoming at an old state penitentiary. “It’s a little horror film,” he said. “Do you want to make it?” And I said—without even seeing the script—I said “Absolutely.”

Blake Harris: There ya go.

Renny Harlin: Then I read the script, I liked it and we worked on it with C. Courtney Joyner [the original screenwriter]. We just kept polishing it. It wasn’t anything that happened very quickly—we still had to get the financing together and do all the usual things—but I was actually making a movie with a well-known producer. Finally, we pulled it together. We cast Viggo Mortensen in his first leading role—he was still a young kid in those days—and we made the movie.

Viggo Mortensen in Prison

Blake Harris: How was it received? How did the release go?

Renny Harlin: It didn’t make a big splash. In the long run, it became a semi-respected low-budget horror film—it has attracted a cult following—but it was another stepping stone for me. But at the time, after that, I was kind of back to square one again.

Blake Harris: Wow. So what did you do?

Renny Harlin: I just kept trying to get people to see that film. And then eventually I got the executives at New Line Cinema to see it—by being completely persistent and refusing to take a no from them—just going back and back and back to New Line Cinema and talking to Bob Shaye, who was the chairman and [founder] of New Line Cinema. I somehow—by being insanely persistent—talked them into giving me Nightmare on Elm Street 4 [The Dream Master]. And then that became a huge hit when it was released and it changed my life. So, you know, I struggled for 3-4 years—I mean, I was a starving artist, literally—but I didn’t give up, and it paid off.

Nightmare on Elm Street 4

Blake Harris: Tell me about doing Nightmare on Elm Street 4. Obviously it was an enormous success, but tell me about how you approached it given that—unlike your previous films—this was not an original script. This was a known property, a known character. How did you approach that?

Renny Harlin: Well, I got very lucky in certain ways. Because when they were putting the movie together, the writers’ strike started. The big writer’s strike. And they didn’t really have a script. They had a blueprint, they had a treatment for a movie, but they didn’t really have a script. And they were in trouble because they had a release date set already, so they had to shoot it immediately. They were scratching their heads how to do this. I said, “Don’t worry, I can figure out the nightmare sequences very easily. I have a million ideas.” And I started storyboarding the nightmares. Like, there was a sequence where the kids get trapped inside a pepperoni and meatball pizza, and Freddy’s eating them. And there’s a sequence where there’s a girl inside a waterbed and all these sequences that I completely dreamed up and just storyboarded for them. Just showed them to New Line, they liked them, and we’d write them into script form. Then we started writing the scenes with Mike De Luca—who was a junior executive at New Line at that point—and Rachel Talalay, who was the producer. The three of us would just sit down: Okay, let’s figure out what happens in these nightmares and who these characters are. We wanted it to be this sort of female empowerment story. About this mousy girl who gains strength and defeats Freddy, ultimately.

Blake Harris: And what about with regards to Freddy?

Renny Harlin: One thing that I felt strongly about was this: We’ve now had three of these movies and we’ve established Freddy and everyone’s in on the joke, so we can’t make a purely scary movie any more. It just doesn’t work because everybody knows what’s going on. So we have to embrace Freddy and make him into the hero in a way. The phrase that I used was “The James Bond of horror films.” We have to make Freddy the James Bond of horror films. We have to make him funny, in a way. We have to wink at the audience and say: We get it, it’s Freddy and he has his tricks and we know that you know what’s going to happen. We’re going to make him funny, and we’re going to make him into this almost wisecracking hero of the movie.

Blake Harris: [laughing]

Renny Harlin: So amazingly, New Line got behind my idea. It was a big risk: We were taking a horror franchise and turning it around. I remember that everybody was very nervous about this during the shoot. Like I remember Bob Shaye coming to the set, and he wouldn’t even really talk to me. He’d just watch from the corner of the set, looking really worried and nervous. And I was sweating bullets, thinking that either I’m doing something that is really going to work or this is going to be the biggest disaster ever and I’m going to ruin this franchise.

Blake Harris: So how and when did you find out which way it was gonna go?

Renny Harlin: So we make the movie. We cut it together. Even in the editing process, everyone was kind of worried and serious. Then we had our first test screening at Warner Hollywood. We were gathered there in the back row, all the executives and me, and the room was full and the anticipation was high. The film starts rolling and the audience was just eating it up. They were yelling, they were laughing, they were applauding several times in the middle of the movie. It was just one of those…it was probably the greatest experience of my life. Because all the nervousness, all the fear, all the anxiety, all the effort, all the living in a miserable place without food, it was paying off. And we looked at each other and said, “We have a hit film.”

Blake Harris: How fantastic.

Renny Harlin: The movie opened in August and it broke every record. It was the biggest opening weekend in August ever. And on top of that, it got great reviews. It was mind-blowing that a fourth sequel in a horror series actually got really good reviews. So that, overnight, it literally changed my life.

Blake Harris: Incredible. I’ll admit that I never quite connected the dots—never quite realized how intentional and subversive your take was—but frankly I’m not totally surprised because one thing you’ve done very well in your career is craft memorable (and often unexpected) villains for your movies. Especially at a time—the ‘80s and ‘90s, I mean—when it felt like the villain of most action films was just Generic Bad Guy.

Renny Harlin: [laughing]

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