Hollywood is a tough town, and nobody knows that better than Renny Harlin. The Finnish director was on top of the world in the early nineties when he helmed blockbuster action films like Cliffhanger and Die Hard 2, but one of cinema’s most notorious box-office bombs — his 1995 pirate flick Cutthroat Island, which cost a then-incredible $100 million and only made $10 million of it back — proved difficult for Harlin to recover from. “It was pretty incredible in the beginning, and then it sort of leveled out with some success and some disappointments,” admits Harlin, who’s spent the last decade directing television and low-budget films like The Covenant and 12 Rounds. “But I must say that now, I feel like it’s springtime for me again.” The 54-year-old director has a new movie coming out this week, the found-footage thriller Devil’s Pass (you can watch an exclusive clip below), and he was handed his biggest budget in ages for next year’s Hercules 3D. “I feel like I have such an incredible movie in my hands, and it’s one of those things where people are really going to take notice again,” promises Harlin, who’d like to add another high point to a career filled with peaks and valleys. Here are six lessons he’s learned from all those highs and lows.
You can’t lose faith after a flop.
“When Cutthroat Island happened, I had been around long enough to know that in Hollywood, everyone knows nothing,” says Harlin. “Hollywood is full of insecurity, and full of executives who know that they don’t have that golden key. They’re always looking for that next guy who knows something instinctively that other people don’t, and they’ll keep looking up to you until you make a misstep — which is when they realize that you are mortal, after all. And then they either give you another opportunity or they kick you to the curb.” So how did Harlin find it in him to continue after Cutthroat Island damaged his standing in town? “It’s a matter of whether you still believe in yourself,” he says simply. “If you have a strong will, you keep going. Not every movie is your dream project, but you keep going and you stay in the business and you try to do what you believe in. I kind of felt like I’d stepped on a land mine, and I needed to learn from it and prove myself again.”
Confidence is key.
“It was mind-blowing in the beginning when success hit me so hard,” Harlin admits. “They pay you a lot of money, and people treat you differently: You’re the toast of the town! To a certain extent, of course it went to my head, but I don’t think I ever turned into an intolerable asshole. I did start believing in my own hype a little bit, but you have to — as a director, so many people look at you and ask, ‘Okay, what’s the answer?’” According to Harlin, that healthy helping of self-esteem came in handy when Hollywood began to turn its back on him. “I guess it shows my arrogance, but I never felt like, Oh, now they found out that I don’t know what I’m doing,” says Harlin. “It’s not like I realized I had no talent; I was still the same guy who took Cliffhanger and rewrote the whole script and cast unusual actors like John Lithgow, and was able to put together something that people really enjoyed. That talent hadn’t gone anywhere — I just took a wrong turn, and I needed to get back on the road.”
Never lose the spark that got you into movies in the first place.
“As a kid, I dreamed of going to Hollywood, and I’d never even met anyone who’d been to America!” laughs Harlin. “When I came here, I had such determination — I thought I would rather die than not make it. I went through hard times in the beginning in my mid-twenties, living in a shitty little motel with drug dealers and hookers. I was clawing my way up with this blind determination, and when I finally started getting meetings, I didn’t play by the rules. I think I surprised people with my naïveté and my authenticity.” When Harlin finally broke into Hollywood, the young Finn stuck out like a sore thumb: “There I was in my late twenties, doing Nightmare on Elm Street 4 and Die Hard 2, and I was the youngest guy in the room, always,” he recalls. “I thought, When are they gonna find out that I’m just a kid? How can they give me this responsibility? Are they nuts? Now, though, it’s a little different: The room is full of young kids, and I find myself to be the oldest person in the room. But I still have that same wide-eyed feeling. I’m shooting this movie Hercules right now, which is a big, big, epic movie, and when I go to set, I still pinch my arm and say, ‘Is it really true that these people are giving me the opportunity to do what I love to do?’”
Don’t worry so much about the future of film.
Steven Spielberg and George Lucas recently caused a stir with their doom-and-gloom predictions of the changes to come in the film industry, but Harlin is unfazed by their pronouncements. “If you go back to the fifties, people said that TV would kill the movies,” he notes. “Then they thought video would kill the movies, or cable, or DVD, or the Internet. To a certain extent, yes, there is much less movie production than there used to be, but here’s what I say: If people only wanted to drink beer, they could just go buy a six-pack and take it home, but the reason they go to a bar is that they want to drink a beer with other people. I believe that no matter how much distribution changes, people still want to go to a movie theater. They want to have a collective experience.”
Big studio films are suffering.
Still, Harlin isn’t enamored with the way modern-day Hollywood is making decisions. “I think that Hollywood has changed a lot, and I miss that time of the great personalities running the business in the eighties and early nineties. A lot of those people have been removed from positions of power, and the kind of behavior that they used to display in the old days — whether good or bad behavior, or extravagant or risk-taking behavior — a lot of that has died and gone away. The business has become much more corporate and much more driven by fear and stockholder meetings. Studios are more concerned with toys and theme parks, and that franchise type of thinking has completely taken over. Sequels and reboots are the only way to get a movie made, and maverick thinking is gone. Big movies have less personality.”
But Harlin hasn’t written off superhero sequels completely; he has nothing but good things to say about Iron Man 3, whose director, Shane Black, scripted Harlin’s 1996 action flick The Long Kiss Goodnight. “I think it’s the best of the three, and it’s really thanks to Shane’s storytelling skill and sense of humor, more than anything else,” says Harlin. “I’m not surprised that Shane wrote such a great script for Iron Man 3; I’m surprised that he turned out to be such a great director as well. He showed such promise on the first film he directed, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, but I still saw Shane more as a writer, more of an introverted person. To be able to deal with the machinery that I know goes with a movie like Iron Man 3 — to handle the pressure you get from Marvel and the studio, and the hundreds of people you have to deal with on the set — I really have to tip my hat to Shane for rising to that occasion.”
If you’re privileged enough to work in Hollywood, you can’t complain.
“There are thousands and thousands of people who have tried but never reached their potential, and never reached their dreams,” muses Harlin. “How many people have made something that people have actually heard about? Let’s look at this situation right now: You are interviewing me. Some people might say, ‘Oh, isn’t it boring to get interviewed?’ but I feel like I’m so lucky that somebody actually wants to ask me questions. You actually want to talk about what I’ve made or what I’m thinking? That’s awesome.” The 54-year-old Finn chuckles to himself. “Thanks for being interested.”