Renny Harlin stands in front of a convention step and repeat holds a microphone.

Film Interview: Renny Harlin is No Stranger To Peril and Suspense

Film Interviews

The film industry is full of highs and lows, and being the hottest director in Hollywood one day doesn’t guarantee that you’ll even have a job the next. Renny Harlin has been helming features since 1986, and as his latest film The Strangers: Chapter 1 gets ready to hit theaters, he reflects on his secret to survival: adaptability.

A young Renny Harlin with long hair holds a megaphone and looks off to the side of the camera. He wears a baseball cap with the film logo "Cliffhanger" on it.
“You have to have this child-like mentality and imagination and approach to life. You can’t lose it, and you can’t become jaded,” say Renny Harlin. Photo courtesy of Carolco Pictures.

“I believe that, to have a long career in film and in Hollywood, you have to be able to reinvent yourself constantly,” Harlin says. The 65-year-old, Finnish-born filmmaker leaped onto the A-list in 1990 with Die Hard 2, an action blockbuster sequel which surpassed all expectations by significantly outgrossing the original and receiving critical acclaim for its skillfully crafted action and suspense sequences. Harlin followed this with the 1993 Sylvester Stallone hit Cliffhanger, and everything was smooth sailing until the costly 1995 swashbuckling epic Cutthroat Island, which was met by a volley of cannon fire from critics and by apathy from the public, threatening to sink his career. Never one to give up, Harlin moved forward with other projects, and his passion for the medium remained steadfast. “Filmmaking is not always easy,” Harlin says. “You have to have this child-like mentality and imagination and approach to life. You can’t lose it, and you can’t become jaded.” Over the next 30 years, Harlin went wherever the opportunities took him, and his prolific filmography would range from the cult favorites The Long Kiss Goodnight and Deep Blue Sea to excursions into international cinema, with a trio of Chinese films, Skiptrace, The Legend of the Ancient Sword and Bodies at Rest. “I think that those filmmakers who can’t adapt have a hard time lasting in a system that is quite brutal,“ Harlin says.

The Strangers: Chapter 1, which serves as a reimagining of the 2008 psychological horror film by Bryan Bertino, marks Harlin’s return to the horror genre, which provided him with his first big break at age 28 with A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master in 1988.  A three part story that was shot concurrently and is being released over the next year, with Chapter 1 hitting theaters on May 17, the new Strangers trilogy expands on the original premise to provide a backstory and fill in the missing pieces. After their car breaks down in a small town, a young couple, Maya and Ryan (Madelaine Petsch and Froy Gutierrez) must spend the night alone and isolated in a remote cabin. Things take a dark turn when they find themselves terrorized by three masked figures with no apparent goal beyond inflicting torment and pain, and whose motives are a complete mystery. “As a movie maker, the bottom line is that you want to make an impact on the audience,” Harlin says. “I think horror films are really a genre that, when it works, it’s great to see in the movie theater, in the presence of other people, and hear those gasps, screams, and little laughs, and have that cathartic experience together.” When it comes to building palpable suspense, Harlin believes that regardless of whether its an action or horror film, the key is focusing the story on believable characters. “If you think of Cliffhanger, I went into overtime making sure that the audience didn’t think that Sylvester Stallone was Rambo and he will never fail,” Harlin says. The opening sequence of the film features Stallone’s character, Gabe Walker, an experienced rescue climber, desperately trying to save a young woman whose harness breaks during a climb. Despite his best efforts, Gabe is unable to secure the climber and she plunges to her death, exposing the protagonist as mortal man who is as vulnerable as the rest of us. In The Strangers: Chapter 1, a very ordinary young couple hits the road only to find themselves caught inside a nightmare scenario. “ I think the key is for the audience to be able to relate to these situations and feel ‘I could be there. That could be me,” Harlin says. “It creates a great sense of empathizing with the main characters and going on the ride with them.” While Harlin is well known for his sense of style, he wanted to approach this film with a more grounded sensibility. “I love using slow motion,” Harlin says, though he reveals that there’s not a moment of it in his new film. “This is a movie that I wanted it to feel very real to the audience… so less stylized is better, because I don’t want the audience to think, ‘Oh, there’s a movie, now I’m watching this ballet of slow motion action and violence’… the surprises have to be really hard hitting.”

This iteration of The Strangers adds up to roughly 4 and half hours when the three parts are put together, and Harlin hopes that in the age of binge watching, audiences might get an opportunity to view them back to back in theaters at some point. Meanwhile, the director’s upcoming slate has him heading back to the high seas for Deep Water, a thriller about a plane crash in shark infested waters, with Aaron Eckhart and Ben Kingsley attached to star. The project seems perfectly suited to the master of thrills, chills and kills, and promises to be a gleefully pulse pounding experience. 

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