HDTGM: A Conversation with Renny Harlin

John Lithgow in Cliffhanger

Blake Harris: You always brought a new twist to your antagonists. And, oftentimes, you made interesting casting choices like John Lithgow in Cliffhanger. As I mentioned earlier, that was the first ever Rated-R movie I saw—and was a favorite in the Harris house for years—so I’d be curious to hear how you cast Lithgow in that role.

Renny Harlin: Well, I feel like I learned very early on that your heroes are only as powerful as your villains. And I’m attracted to intelligent villains. I think that villains who are just brawn, muscles and weapons are boring. So I always try to find intelligence in my villains and also a sense of humor whenever that is possible. With Cliffhanger, we actually had an interesting journey because I wanted to find a villain who would be very unusual and different from what people were used to seeing on screen. So my first idea was David Bowie.

Blake Harris: David Bowie? Really?

Renny Harlin: Yes! I approached David Bowie and went to New York to meet with him. We had a meeting and we talked seriously about doing it. However, schedules and whatever didn’t work out. So, in the end, it wasn’t meant to be. With Bowie out, I still wanted to find a rock star, so we went to Bryan Ferry from Roxy Music. We had a great meeting in London—we were both really excited to do it together—but then again the schedules didn’t work out. So then I was kind of running out rock stars.

Blake Harris: Ha!

Renny Harlin: So I put my thinking cap on and I thought: You know, someone who comes across as intellectual and is funny (but is still very tall and kind of imposing) is John Lithgow. He was known, of course, for his great dramatic work and theater performances, but I thought he might be an interesting choice. So I met with him, we talked about the role, and the two of us really hit it off. And talking with him, I felt like: Oh yeah, he’s perfect! We can even rewrite the villain to really fit him and make him an incredibly Machiavellian, clever guy. And that’s how it became John Lithgow.

The Covenant

Part 4: Just the Sexiest Cast Ever

Blake Harris: Given how much I loved several of your movies—not just Cliffhanger, but also others like Die Hard 2 and The Long Kiss Goodnight—I could go on and on for hours. And hopefully we’ll get a chance to have a part two at some point down the line. But before we end this conversation, I wanted to talk a little bit about The Covenant, which we recently featured on How Did This Get Made? Can you tell me about how that opportunity came about?

Renny Harlin: That was actually interesting. That project was a real, sort of, baby of Clint Culpepper, who is the president of Screen Gems at Sony. He had this dream of making this movie about male witches. And so one day I get a call from my agents saying, “Clint Culpepper wants you to do this movie, The Covenant. He wants you to read it right away. Can you read it today?” And I was like, “Okay, send it to me.” I was sent the script in the morning, I read it and I liked it right away. It needed work, but I liked the concept. I called back in the afternoon and said, “Yeah, I read it and I liked it.” They relay the information and—this is still all the same day—Clint Culpepper asks them if I can have dinner with them that night. Okay. So we have dinner that night in Venice and Clint says, “I want you to do this movie. It’s going to be awesome.” I said, “Okay, I like it a lot, but the script needs work. So as long as we can do that, I’m in.” And we shake hands.

Blake Harris: So just like that?

Renny Harlin: It was literally like 10 hours from the moment that I first heard about this movie that I was now making it. It was literally the fastest anything like that’s ever happened. And so we started making it, working on the script and casting it.

Blake Harris: Tell me more about casting it…

Renny Harlin: The casting process was really interesting because we had the same vision: Let’s find young, awesome guys who can be unknowns but we’ll make them into stars. We told our casting director to set her net wide and just go for it and try to find new talent. And somehow, you know, she went to the modeling agencies…we said, “Just bring awesome-looking guys who hopefully can act. We want this to be just the sexiest cast ever.”

Blake Harris: [laughing]

Taylor Kitsch in The Covenant

Renny Harlin: That’s how we cast people like Taylor Kitsch. He was a model guy who had done only one really small role before. On Snakes on a Plane. And Chace Crawford, who had never been in front of a camera ever, ever, ever. Toby Hemingway hadn’t done much. Sebastian Stan hadn’t done much. Steven Strait had a couple of leading roles, but wasn’t a household name yet. So we saw hundreds of guys for sure. And we wanted to create a chemistry where the guys all represent something different. That’s how we put the cast together. It was a little bit scary because with a couple of them, they really were so green. But they did auditions and we believed in them and worked with them doing the shoot, and it all turned out to be good. And the incredible thing is, obviously, those guys all did turn out to be stars.

Blake Harris: Yeah, you guys knocked it out of the park.

Renny Harlin: They’ve all done well, and some of them have done incredibly well. And it was fun working with them, young guys at the beginning of their career. We were really a tightly knit group. We shot the movie in Montreal. We went out every weekend together; we would go dancing and drinking and just have fun together. The actors were really like a brotherhood and together we bonded and had a fantastic time working together.

Blake Harris: Given your track record and how new to film these guys were, I would imagine that they must have looked up to you in some way. What was your approach to working with such young talent, and what kind of advice were you able to give them?

Renny Harlin: Well, you know, I believe the important part of directing really is finding the right people for the right roles. Sometimes you go for what’s expected, and sometimes you go against type because you think that’ll really bring something different to the movie. And in this case, my main thing was the character and getting them really to get inside their character. Then spending time with them, talking about the character, to make them feel really comfortable with the character. Taking into account who they are as people, especially when they are inexperienced actors, what they can bring to the party, I wanted to get to know them as people. What are they afraid of? What are they shy about? What are they insecure about? What do they feel strong about? And that way, sort of mold the role to be as close to what they would naturally be able to play as possible. And then during the shoot, just encouraging them. To not be shy, not be self-conscious. To just embrace the role and the situation and the camaraderie between actors and characters. Just live in the moment and not be afraid to try things out and make mistakes. I say, “We can make as many takes as we need to, so let’s try it this way and that way—maybe a little more lighthearted, maybe a little more dark—and don’t worry about it.” The main thing is to make them feel comfortable that they can fail and they can try. And in general, as we were hanging out, my advice to them was basically just to pursue their dreams (if they believe that this is what they want to do). To pursue it despite possible difficulties and also never let it go to their heads and become entitled. To put it simple: not to become assholes.

Nightmare on Elm Street 4

Part 5: Mom, I Made It

Blake Harris: Just a few more questions. I was thinking a little bit about your experience on Nightmare on Elm Street 4. How you took a big risk and how well that paid off. But taking risk are, well, risky. It doesn’t always go the right way. Do you have any advice on when to go for it and when to maybe play it a little safer?

Renny Harlin: What we did on [Nightmare on Elm Street 4] was a gamble, but it was one I fought for from my heart. And that’s one thing that I’ve learned in my career that’s had its ups and downs. That when I follow my heart, usually the results are good. When I make decisions based on other circumstances, things don’t necessarily go so well. So sometimes, even if something seems commercially tempting, I’ve learned that if it’s not what’s in your heart, it’s probably not what you should do.

Blake Harris: That’s great. And in terms of following your heart and following your dreams, I was wondering if you ever had a conversation with your parents that kind of reflects on your decision. The kind of conversation where they might have said, “Good thing you didn’t become an architect!” I guess what I’m asking is at what point did they feel comfortable with their son having gone down this risky career path?

Renny Harlin: That’s a really good question. My dad, sadly, died before he was ever able to see my success. So he never saw me reach any heights. But I’m sure he, you know, ultimately believed I would make it. In terms of my mom, I really had some fantastic opportunities to show her my gratitude and make her happy. Because she went through incredible amounts of suffering when I was in Hollywood at first. I didn’t even have money to call Finland. So there were periods of, like, half a year where she didn’t know if I was alive. And so she really had to suffer. So I will always remember when I called her that weekend when Nightmare on Elm Street [4] opened. I called her and I said, “Mom, I made it.” And she cried on the phone.

Blake Harris: That’s beautiful.

Renny Harlin: And Bob Shaye, who I happened to be with at the time, he got on the phone and spoke to my mother and said, “You should be proud of your son. He’s made the biggest hit in the history of our studio.” That was the first moment where my mom…I just knew that her heart was bursting with pride. And then I had many more opportunities to reward her for everything that I had been through and what I put my mother through. For example, when Cliffhanger premiered—it had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival—I brought my mom as my date there and I walked the red carpet with people applauding and screaming. My dates were Sylvester Stallone, my mom and Elizabeth Taylor. Then we went to a big celebratory dinner and my mom was sitting between Sylvester Stallone and Elizabeth Taylor. My mom had grown up watching movies with Elizabeth Taylor starring in them, so that was just one of those moments that blew her mind.

Blake Harris: That’s so wonderful, Renny. Wow. Just one more question or you. What happened to your former film partner? The one who came with you to America and then ended up leaving to go back to Finland?

Renny Harlin: Well, interestingly enough, he went on to be a huge success in Finland. He started producing films and TV in Finland, and he currently has the most successful production company in Finland. Every year, he produces the biggest box office hit of the year. He has several TV shows on the air. So he has really become the godfather of movies in Finland and has had an incredible success there. He keeps making movies there, I keep making movies around the world and we get together whenever we can. We are still best friends and we are constantly in touch. I think that for him, being in Finland made him happy; he was more strongly rooted in Finland. And for me, being a kind of citizen of the world—living in Hollywood for almost 30 years and spending the better part of these last two years in China—I’m happy traveling the world and going back to visit Finland. He’s happy to live in Finland and visit the other parts of the world. So we both got what we wanted, and so far it looks like a pretty happy ending for both of us.

As referenced at the top of this piece, Renny Harlin recently launched a production company in China. This October, Harlin is scheduled to begin production on Legend of the Ancient Sword, which will be distributed by Alibaba Pictures Group.

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