Renny Harlin used to be a go-to director in Hollywood, the guy who made blockbusters like Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger. He was offered Alien 3, Speed, and Goldeneye, but he walked away from them. Then he made 1995’s Cutthroat Island — the worst flop of all-time, according to the Guinness Book of World Records — and, suddenly, Harlin was no longer in demand. Now? He’s on a rebound, opening 5 Days of War this weekend. The film tells the story of two war correspondents (played by Rupert Friend and Val Kilmer) covering the somewhat obscure 2008 conflict between Russia and its former satellite, Georgia. (It also stars Andy Garcia, Heather Graham, and Emmanuelle Chriqui.) We spoke with Harlin at the premiere party about hustling military tanks from the government, losing Tintin to Spielberg, and Val Kilmer’s bubble-bath idea.
One of the film’s producers [Mirza Davitaia] is a Georgian government minister: Was he instrumental in getting the military equipment you used?
The film was partly his idea, because they were so frustrated after the war that nobody knew about it, and it was so misunderstood. So he said, “Let’s go to Hollywood and get them to make a movie about this.” We met with the minister of defense, and I would say, “I need maybe 40 tanks in this one scene,” and they would say, “Okay, when do you need them?” Then it was, “Did I say 40? I mean 80.” [Laughs.] So we ended up getting about 80 tanks, eight helicopters, three fighter jets, and thousands of soldiers: It’s all real.
Did that cause any tensions on set?
You know, what caused some of the tension was that we were so close to the Russian border, and so soon after the actual war. I had these stuntmen from Russia, and the insurers and financiers were like, “Are you kidding? You’re going to bring Russians across the border with a truck filled with [special-effects] dynamite?” But somehow we convinced them. And then, at the military base, the head of the air force looked at my stunt coordinator kind of funny, and asked him, “Where are you from?” He says, “Russia.” And they went bananas. We were immediately escorted out. It was very tense, but we fixed it. There were also these rumors that this crew member or that crew member was a spy, watching what we were doing. We had a guessing game going on: “Who’s the double agent?”
Were you concerned you might be accused of taking sides with this movie?
People don’t go to the movies to see a history lesson. We had to have a point of view, so my point of view is how the journalists see the conflict. You need characters who help you tell the story in a realistic way. Like, Heather Graham [who plays a reporter] is somebody you don’t expect anything bad to happen to, and when it does, you pay attention. I did kind of the same thing with Samuel L. Jackson in the Deep Blue Sea, when something bad happened with the shark. [Laughs.]
What about Val Kilmer? You’ve worked with him a few times now.
I love Val Kilmer. We had this scene with him in this film that was scripted so that he was on Skype, and when we were shooting at the hotel, he comes to me and says, “You know, I was thinking I should be in a bubble bath in this scene.” So we radioed the prop master and said, “We need some bubble bath here.” And he’s like, “When I got up this morning, I thought I was making a war movie!” [Laughs.] Some of Val’s ideas are smart, and some are crazy.
I hear you want to do some sort of sea adventure next? Did you learn anything useful from the experience of Cutthroat Island, so this one won’t be a disaster?
The bulk of what I learned from that movie is that you have to start with a great screenplay. It’s possible to make a bad movie from a great screenplay, but if you start with a bad screenplay, you never make a great movie. And so I’ve got Daniel Giat, who wrote Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, who wrote a great screenplay, with some incredible action and romance.
You’ve done a lot of action and horror movies. Ever want to do a film based on a comic book?
You know, after I had just done A Nightmare on Elm Street 4, one of the first people to call me was Steven Spielberg, and he asked me, “So is there a movie of your dreams you want to make?” “Seriously?” I said, “Tintin.” So I gave him a pile of those books, and his company went after the rights. At that point, the creator was still alive, and he said absolutely not. So it didn’t work out, and Spielberg and I went our separate ways. Then, years later, the creator died, and Spielberg went after the rights again, and he got them. So now there’s a movie.
In all your films, you include a Finnish reference. This one, too?
My Finnish wink! Usually it’s music, or a flag, or a bobblehead, or Finlandia vodka, but with this movie, it wouldn’t work. It was too serious to have that joke. So we just fit in a mention of Finland in Andy Garcia’s speech at the rally. But it’s always hidden somewhere. Sylvester Stallone would be like, “Why is there a big Finnish flag behind me?” “Oh, no reason.”