Some of you youngsters out there may not remember, but there was a time not so long ago that there was a time when a new film by Finnish-born director Renny Harlin was something worth getting excited about. There were few in the 1990s who knew their way about an action sequence like Harlin, and he proved that time and time again with works like DIE HARD 2, CLIFFHANGER, THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT, CUTHROAT ISLAND, and DEEP BLUE SEA.
Yes, he's also responsible for such not-so-classics like A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 4: THE DREAM MASTER, THE ADVENTURES OF FORD FAIRLANE, DRIEN, MINDHUNTERS, EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING, THE COVENANT, and 2009's 12 ROUNDS. I'll admit, I somehow missed his 2007 reunion with Samuel L. Jackson in CLEANER, but the film that actually brought us together for the first time is his latest action-soaked docudrama 5 DAYS OF WAR, which chronicles the intense and bloody border war between Russia and the recently independent Georgia, as seen through the eyes of the war correspondents who covered it. And I'm pleased to say the movie marks a return to form and a newfound maturity for Harlin, giving us his best work in more than 10 years.
What's remarkable is that 5 DAYS OF WAR was shot almost entirely on location where all of these events took place, from the bombed-out towns to the presidential palace. And, not surprisingly, many of the extras in the film lived through these events just a few years ago. In many ways, the story of the making of this movie is as important and compelling as the film itself, and I had a great time talking to him about it. Please enjoy my chat with Renny Harlin…
Renny Harlin: Hello, Steve.
Capone: Hey, Renny. How are you?
RH: I’m great. I’m so sorry I’m late.
Capone: That’s okay. Believe me, five or ten minutes is not late.
RH: I was at an art gallery in New York. I just got here this morning and I was at a friend's art gallery and didn’t realize that the traffic was so bad I couldn’t get back to my hotel on time. So I borrowed his bicycle and I bicycled through SoHo to get to my hotel. So, otherwise I would still be somewhere far, far away.
Capone: That’s great that you did that, thank you. This particular conflict in Georgia, why did you choose this particular one? There are probably about a dozen forgotten wars going on in the world at any given time. What made you focus on this one?
RH: You are absolutely right. I felt that these conflicts are going on all over the world, and what interested me about this one was that when I went to Georgia and did my research, I realized that it’s actually pretty much a Mediterranean country. It sort of looks and feels very much like mainland Europe in terms of customs and culture and religion and the way people dress and the landscape. It’s all very relatable, and I feel that the problem with a lot of movies that deal with these issues is that when you're dealing with Kosovo or Bosnia or Afghanistan or Rwanda, the challenge is to be able to make the audience relate to the characters, because the environment and the religion and the lifestyle is so different that it kind of feels alien, and sadly to a certain extent people have become over-saturated with that stuff in the news and sort of start closing their eyes and ears from it.
So I felt that this particular place and these people would be relatable to an international audience and also to an American audience, and I tried to portray the country as the beautiful place that it is. Like you said, this conflict could take place in a dozen different places, except for me, this was a place where I could make it, hopefully, come closer to the life experience of the audience.
Capone: Plus it’s great that you made a film again in the current day where we are allowed to hate Russians, like we used to in the '80s.
RH: [laughs] My very first film, BORN AEMRICAN, was during the Cold War era like in the mid-'80s, and I got a lot of feedback on that for the sort of negative portrayal of Russia, and actually it was the first movie banned because of political reasons in Finland where I come from and where it was filmed. It was quite a shocker and the worst publicity move for Finland ever, because since the 1930s they had never banned a movie for political reasons. It just goes to show how quickly things change in our lifetime, but that was the mid-80s, and within five or six years the Cold War era was over, but it just shows that an independent country like Finland was still so worried about what the Big Brother was thinking about.
Capone: How many war correspondents did you meet with and talk to to really get a feel for their day-to-day experience under those conditions?
RH: I talked to probably about eight or ten war correspondents, and most of them were people who had been there during the war. A lot of the details in the story, for example the scene where the old lady is shot in the knees and thrown in the river, that’s something that a French war correspondent told me about that he had witnessed. So a lot of the details and a lot of the characters in the story came from that, and actually when I first got involved I didn’t even know that I was going to tell the story the story from a journalist’s point of view, and it wasn’t until I went there and interviews people, refugees and soldiers and politicians and journalists that it became clear to me that that would be a way to get really on the grass roots level and be able to mix it up with civilians and also bring this sort of American person’s point of view into the story.
Capone: Certainly this story could have been told without journalists in it, I was wondering what motivated you to include them. Was it the fact that you were looking for a way to get Americans into the story?
RH: Yeah, it was definitely. Besides wanting to tell this story and getting this message out, we needed to make a commercially viable film that hopefully people would go and see, so it’s not a film that feels like a foreign film. So that was definitely one way of finding an angle to do that and making it relatable. Also, I’ve always been very interested in that whole profession, and over the years with Iraq and Afghanistan going on, it’s crossed my mind that it would be incredibly interesting to go there with a camera and shoot some of these experience. Those people who do it, they probably have much bigger balls than me, but they do incredible work.
My cinematographer, Checco Varese, used to be a war correspondent and spent 15 years shooting in all of these hot spots, and he was kind of like one of these war veterans who have a lot of stories, but not really like to talk about them, but I was able to get some of those stories out of him. It’s pretty incredible how these people risk their lives just because they are trying to tell the story and get the truth out there. What really interests me about that profession is that they are witnesses to what’s going on, but they can’t really affect things other than by telling people about it.
There are a lot of famous stories, but maybe one is that famous photograph that you have probably seen which I forget now if it was Ethiopia or Somalia, it was years ago when there was a picture of this dying little child, completely bone thin kind of crouched down on the ground and just looking at the camera and one his last legs, and next to it was this huge vulture just sitting on the ground and staring at the kid. It’s one of those famous news photographs, which is harrowing, but what do you do at that point? Do you make the bird go away and carry the baby to the hospital? To a certain extent, yes, but on the other hand you can’t really. It’s almost like making a nature documentary; it’s like you can’t stop the crocodile from eating the zebra. Your job is just to document it for the rest of the world to see, and the same thing in all of these war situations, these people witness horrible atrocities, but what are you going to do? You can’t just run there and try to stop these soldiers from doing what they do.
Capone: You’ve made an action film or two in your career, and the battle sequences in this film are remarkably well executed and almost too authentic. Do you look back at what you have done before and say, “Wow, this is the real thing, and what I've done before was just playing.” Does it make you re-examine the way you have treated action and terrorism before, or does what you've done before inform this new film?
RH: I think I've learned a lot from what I've done before, and yes when I look back at DIE HARD 2 and things like that, it does feel like kid’s play. The documentary footage that I viewed that people have shot about this war, at the hospital, for example, because our hospital scenes are in the actual locations where the actual military hospital was and where people were brought in, and I saw footage that they had shot that was so harrowing I couldn’t even replicate it for the film, because it was just so horrible and realistic. So with this film, I felt a huge responsibility in terms of telling this story, while attempting to make, if one can say, an entertaining film still sticking to the realities of the war, and I feel like I’ve learned from what I have done in the past. I’ve matured a lot as a person and as a filmmaker, and I sure hope that this is the first of many movies that are a little more reality based and reality driven and a little more mature and not as silly as some of my earlier films have been.
Capone: In this film, you’ve actually got two films happening. You’ve got the war correspondents film and then you’ve got this other story with the president of Georgia, which is so strange. It’s almost hard to believe, yet I’m guessing most of that really happened. Can you explain why he had a U.S. press advisor as part of his staff?
RH: You know I can't really explain it. [laughs] The irony is that Georgia was like the perfect poster child for what America is trying to do in the rest of the world. It was an ex-Soviet country that won it’s independence in 1991, then started building democracy, and had a very close relationship with the U.S. Just a few months before the war, Condoleezza Rice visited there; they named one of the main streets in Tbilisi the “George W. Bush Avenue,” and they were on the verge of joining NATO. They were doing, economically, great. America built an oil pipeline across the country, and everything was really hunky-dory. Then Putin just had enough of this and decided to stop it from happening and started destabilizing the country, and America had no way of coming to their rescue, because it literally would have started a war between America and Russia. So, they were left completely on their own.
I originally didn’t have the president part in the movie, but then as I realized how complicated and strange the whole timeline of the war was, and I felt like I needed that. Instead of just following the reporters, I needed to tell the audience how things progressed and why, and try to explain a little bit of the political climate, so that’s when we wrote it in. As we did our research and got to know the president, we met this guy, this American, whose name is Daniel Kunin, and he was there working with the president. I guess it was a result of this really close relationship with the U.S. that they ended up hiring this guy and he was there.
So all of the characters represent real-life characters and all of the conversations are based on real situations, and to the crazy extent that all of the scenes were shot in the president’s palace, and the scenes in the office are shot in the president’s office. Imagine in America going to the real Oval Office and shooting there. When we shot there, the president’s papers on the desk, and when we were shooting one scene actually we were in the middle of a scene, and Andy Garcia [who plays the Georgian president] is by the president’s desk, and the red line rang, and he just picked up the phone and said, “Not now, we are shooting a scene,” and put the phone down. We will never know if we started a nuclear war or stopped a nuclear war or what happened, but anything could have happened.
Capone: And I heard that the president’s favorite actor is Andy Garcia.
RH: Yeah, we asked him, “Who do you think should play you in the movie?” He said, “Well my favorite actor is Andy Garcia,” and I realized that he also happens to look a lot like him, and he was the first and only actor we went to, and he said yes right away. I had never asked him, but maybe his saying yes had something to do with Andy’s Cuban background and the politics that he’s been involved in.
Capone: It doesn’t look to me like you use any CG in this film at all. It all looks completely real, is that right?
RH: Yeah, it’s a very unique film, and I’ve been trying to think of like when was the last time that somebody had access to that kind of hardware.
Capone: I was going to ask where it came from because there’s a lot of it. Where did you get it all?
RH: I got support from the Georgian government, and we were able to make a very good financial deal with them where we could rent this equipment. In our biggest scene we had 80 tanks, we had six fighter jets, we had eight helicopters, we had 2,500 troops. I felt like, not since the '50s, when somebody was doing something like PATTON or one of those kinds of movies, or a David Lean movie, nobody has been in this situation, and I really appreciated it. It was surreal to be standing on a hill with the head of the Air Force and Land Force and somebody else next to me with like three walkie talkies and an army of translators and me trying to figure out like, “Okay, in this scene how long does it take for the tanks to come over the hill? When do I start the troops? When do I cue the actors? When do I roll the cameras? When do I call for the helicopters?” Somehow it just worked out, and it was a great thrill to be able to do that.
We had one incredible aspect to our action sequences, because obviously we were right next to Russia, so I thought for the stunts and special effects, I wanted to get the team that did NIGHT WATCH and DAY WATCH in Russia. So I got in touch with them, and they agreed to do the movie, but then when the Georgians heard about it, considering that this was less than a year after the war, they were like, “No way are Russians coming here to do special effects. We’re going to have like trucks filled with dynamite rolling from Russia here to do this stuff?” They just refused, but finally I talked them into it, and so all of those big explosions and stunts and so on were done by that team. They were incredible.
The only things that are CG in the whole movie is in the beginning sequence, the opening sequence that is supposed to take place in Iraq, because everything was shot in Georgia, and there’s not a single palm tree in Georgia, at least not in the areas where we were. So we CG'ed some palm trees and some mosques in the background. And then in the various attack sequences when the helicopters or the fighter jets are shooting rockets and there are explosions, the smoke trail from the helicopters to the explosion is CG, but the explosions and the people and the tanks and all of that, everything is real.
Capone: Have the people of Georgia seen this movie already?
RH: Oh yeah, it was a huge deal when we were shooting it there, and the movie had it’s premiere in Georgia just a few weeks ago, and I was there for the premiere with some of the actors like Andy. It was an incredible event. They had all of the main streets in Tbilisi lined with thousands of people and outside the theater. It was like we were the Rolling Stones, it was just an enormous event, and the whole country came out to celebrate the movie, and the opening weekend, they had to open theaters that had been closed for years just because there weren’t enough screens to accommodate all of the people. So it was a great experience, a very emotional experience, because for those people, getting their story on the big screen and for the world to see was just a huge deal for them.
Capone: When did you get the idea of putting the testimonials at the end? Those are really powerful.
RH: Yeah, it was something that developed during the pre-production of the film, because I went to the refugees and there are still tens of thousands of them living in these refugee camps. I talked to a lot of them mostly with translators and listened to their stories, and I started feeling like, “These people really deserve to get their chance to speak up, and also for the audience it might really bring it home and make them realize that this is not make believe.” So then I decided that the last day of shooting, we would bring some of them and whoever wanted to come. There were actually many, many more. There were dozens and dozens of them. I couldn’t put them all in obviously, but I chose some of them and I think the DVD will have more of them, but we just told them, “You can say anything you want,” and some of them just said the name of the loved one that they had lost and some of them spoke for 20 minutes. It was a really heavy experience for the whole crew, because most of us didn’t understand what they were saying, but we could just feel what they were saying, so every grip and electrician was in tears in the studio watching them.
Capone: There was one woman at the end who didn’t say anything, she couldn’t even get a word out, and that was so moving. So what is the real secret or shooting a movie in such a short amount of time for very little money and having it appear epic like this?
RH: I think it’s in pre-planning, because if you just try to figure out the logical solutions in pre-production and organize things as well as possible. We had to bring crews from many different countries. There were 17 different languages spoken on the set, so it was huge organizational puzzle, and we just tried to get everything ready so that the minute we started shooting it was ready to go. We had to figure out how to solve those big scenes, because when you have that amount of military hardware and you have so many extras and explosions very close to them, it can get very dangerous and chaotic if it’s not planned well. So for some crazy reason, it went really well and we didn’t have any problems. Always with a movie like this, there is often a problem of almost running out of money, but we were able to complete it on schedule and put a lot of production value on the screen. It was definitely a very satisfying experience in those terms.
Capone: You said a little while ago that you were considering doing more of these real-life stories, but do you have an idea of what’s next for you?
RH: Well I have actually a couple of things. One is a project that has to do with Somali pirates. I know there are other projects like that out there, though there is something that I have been developing, and I have to see now if it can become reality. Then one is a book that I optioned that is a very powerful story, it’s called MASTER OF WAR, and it’s the story of EriK Prince, the founder of Blackwater. It’s a story of Blackwater, and it’s a story of the whole sort of U.S. military complex and how it operates. It’s really about the business of war, and that’s something that I’m developing right now. So, they are two things that are very much based on reality, but at the same time hopefully sort of bigger-than-life, entertaining, exciting stories.
Capone: Did I read somewhere that you had an idea for a LONG KISS GOODNIGHT sequel?
RH: I do and I’ve now actually found a writer that I’m going to be working with on. Yeah, it will involve Sam Jackson’s character and Geena Davis’ daughter, who now would be like 21 years old. So it’s basically they end up on the road, and it’s another kind of a buddy action story in the same spirit of THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT.
Capone: Alright, well you'll have to book Sam Jackson between superhero movies.
RH: Exactly, but he's committed. He wants to do it, so I think it’s just a matter of time.
Capone: Renny, thank you so much for talking to us and for hopping on that bike to make the interview time.
RH: It was awesome. I was going the wrong way on one way streets, but I got here. [laughs]