Renny Harlin is older now. Wiser. He almost made an Alien movie, was thisclose to taking the reins of the James Bond franchise, caught the biggest comedian on the planet in the last ten minutes before his precipitous fall... Harlin was a minute ahead of his time and sometimes a minute behind, and today he has a new movie out, with three more finished and on the way. He thinks the best is ahead for him, and...I might agree. There is something unlovable about Harlin's films--an irascible, some would say vicious quality that has engendered affection for them despite their gore and what should be noted is an at-times-uncompromising meanness. He shoots action sequences with clarity and logic: bullet strikes feel heavy, car chases physical, his ubiquitous explosions so jarring I remember the cuffs of my pants fluttering when the passenger plane went down in Die Hard 2 on opening night. He is a maximalist who got his start in low-budget horror and graduated, for a brief time, to the blockiest of blockbusters. Then it all went sideways.
He's due a serious critical revision of the kind we've accorded Paul Verhoeven and, if I could say, Walter Hill. Though he's accused of being "just" an action filmmaker, his films are stickier than the disposable entertainments they first appear to be. Now, in his late career, it's even easier to want to dismiss his output as just lining his nest based on his reputation. But did you know he produced Martha Coolidge's Rambling Rose? Which is my way of saying that in taking a broad look at the films he directed after The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996), I found genre films of surprising currency and substance, still shot with Harlin's trademark spatial intelligence and gravity, culminating in The Bricklayer, which features a hero, Steve Vail, who shocked me a little with his groundedness. He's easy. He's been through it. I wondered if I was seeing Renny Harlin in him: the guy who used to be the Guy, at peace with his current station. I started by asking Mr. Harlin about his relationship with Walter Hill.
RENNY HARLIN: I have such respect for Walter. He's my original hero in this business. Walter was the first Hollywood filmmaker that I met who agreed to meet me when I was 24 or something and nobody would meet me. Why would they? I was a nobody, you know? I was a nobody.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: Not entirely a "nobody"--you'd done Born American.
Ah, that's true, but only Born American at that point. I still couldn't get anybody to meet me or talk to me or anything. I didn't have an agent. I had nothing. But here's Walter Hill, inviting me to Walter Hill's office, and I was sitting in Walter Hill's office! Full of memorabilia. I couldn't... I was starstruck, you know, this is everything for a young person with dreams, you know? Talking to Walter Hill, my hero. The movies that I watched in Finland, growing up--The Warriors and 48Hrs. and, oh my god, Southern Comfort--all these movies. There I was, sitting with Walter, and he's listening to me and asking me questions. Walter has always had a place in my heart as the only person who would listen to a young filmmaker's dreams. He was willing to give me some advice. I just remember his gravelly voice, and I've always admired Walter so much. I've always felt that there's something about his movies that nobody else has, and it's like hard to put your finger exactly on it, what it is, but there's something very, very special about his movies.
Tell me about walking away from Alien3.
Awful. Terrible. So many reasons. It was terrible because it was Walter and it was all these people that I had huge respect for. Not to mention I worked on it for a year. I had an office on the Fox lot. Imagine driving through those gates to go to your office. It was mind-blowing. Look, that whole thing wasn't Walter's fault. I feel totally that it was the studio who saw the movie in a certain way and made it impossible for everyone. The studio said they want to do a movie that takes place on a prison ship, and I just... I tried to make it work, but I said this is against everything that Alien and Aliens [are] all about. Those films were about blue-collar people, just, you know, normal people coming face to face with this extraordinary phenomenon, and that's one specific dynamic. Alien is like, it's just you and me dealing with a pretty fucked-up situation. Aliens is a combat, squad movie. But you go on a prison ship with Ripley and Newt, and from the get-go, you have a troubled dynamic in an unusual environment. These are criminals, so how am I gonna relate to this environment?
And you'd already done a haunted prison movie.
(laughs) Yes, there's that, too.
What were your concepts?
I'm not any kind of a genius, but I had two. I thought either the movie should take us to the origin of the aliens--like, you know, we follow the ants to the anthill and we find out what are they really, and why are they the way they are. Are they intelligent individually? Are they just defending their species, or are they evil somehow? Or whatever it is we might consider to be evil. That was my first concept: that we do the search for the origin story. The other was that they come to Earth. This was way before Jurassic Park or any movies like that, but that's the kind of thing I wanted to do: Earth invaded by monsters. I had a poster made with a cornfield and the aliens coming through the cornfield. But the studio didn't like those ideas. They're like, oh, nobody would buy aliens on Earth.
Speaking as a 13-year-old after Aliens, aliens coming to Earth at that time was the only thing I wanted.
Right? And they said nobody wants to go to the planet where they're from. It has to be like this: prison ship, alien, mother and daughter, bam. And then. And we just, we tried to develop the script for a year, and went back and forth and tried and tried. Finally, I--it was a super scary thing to do. But here's the position I was in: I'm being asked to take the wheel on a series started by a movie made by Ridley Scott, who I hold in the highest esteem of film directors, and then Jim Cameron, who's a genius in his own right. So, here comes little Renny Harlin doing the third one with a premise I can't find my way into, and everybody's going to see through me. "Oh, this is bullshit. What's good about this movie? What's original about this movie? What's the grand idea in this movie?"
For me, we could do anything, go anywhere, but we're packing ourselves into a tight little space. We went around and around, how about this and how about that, is this the way, it that the way through? It started depressing me more and more and more. I was so afraid. You know, having done Nightmare on Elm Street 4--and yes, it was the fourth sequel, but it got pretty good reviews, and it was very successful--I'm on the Fox lot working with my hero, and I'm on the verge of my dream. But I'm gonna kill it because I didn't want to make this thing I cared so much about in a way I didn't believe in. I had to do something that would compare favourably to what Ridley and Jim did, and I... I don't know.
You doubted yourself.
It kept brewing and brewing in my head. I finally gathered my strength and, and, and, and I just told them I think I'm the wrong guy to do this. I basically, I have to quit. I was so afraid I'd never work again anywhere, but I was more afraid of the project. After I quit, I was terrified the studio would hate me. The producers will hate me. Everybody will hate me. I was so young and so idealistic. To be honest, I don't think I would have the balls to do that today. If I was in that situation again. But when you're young and idealistic, you know, you just... You follow your heart, and you believe that that's right, no matter what. You learn better when you get older. Sometimes those feelings you have, it's not the heart leading you, even though it sounds like it is.
You left with nothing lined up.
Nothing. I didn't have money. I didn't have any prospects of another movie at that point. Of course, then Fox, the day after I quit, they offered me The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, and the rest is history, as it were. But I didn't know at all what was going to happen to me. I really thought, if this is going to be the end of my career, then at least it was on my own terms. So that's the story, and I don't blame anybody. I just wasn't able to believe in it.
Or me. And so I had to go.
“...Most of the time, you get kind of ignored and marginalized and just kind of overlooked. I don't mean to complain, I have lived my dream, I know how blessed [I am]. But it hurts when people are like, 'Oh, this is just some B-movie shit.'"
I love The Adventures of Ford Fairlane. It's an L.A. noir whose timing was horrific. Your films, ironically, are often indicated by strong female leads--including one of the strongest, The Long Kiss Goodnight--but I don't know that you're thought of that way. What does that do to you? And where are you now with being misunderstood and underestimated for a career?
(long pause) I'm blown away by your analysis of my work. It really humbles you, because, you know, I don't, I don't know if you realize that when you make all these movies and you pour your heart into every one of them, and whether it's a detail of the sound or the colour of somebody's outfit or the camera angle or whatever it might be, you put everything into it. You think about it all very hard and everything means something to you, something precious, and you do it seriously. It matters to you. It's everything to you. When I work, for me, I'm doing art no matter how other people see it, no matter how silly the script might be or the fucked-up circumstances or the weird budget or whatever it might be that distracts people from just looking at the work. It's the only way I can do it and look in the mirror. I do as well as I can every time with all the heart I have and all the skill I have, and my thoughts and my experiences...
Yet most of the time, you get kind of ignored and marginalized and just kind of overlooked. I don't mean to complain, I have lived my dream, I know how blessed [I am]. But it hurts when people are like, "Oh, this is just some B-movie shit." Then that's it. Nobody cares. Or, nobody seems to care. You might as well have just shot it with your home camera in your backyard and people can be just as insulting and unappreciative of all the people's labour and love. Not talking about me--about this incredible team of artists who got together to make something[.] The things people say... And I feel responsible for that. You care. It's so rare to talk to somebody who actually takes it seriously and bothers to look at it as worthy of examination. Who might analyze it and see what I might have been trying to do, rather than spot what I failed to do. I've been fortunate to keep making movies...
But unless you're one of a very small number of people...
Yes. Sometimes, in order to keep making movies, you have to take movies that are not the ideal movie, or are not the script that you love, but you think, Hey, I can make this, I can make this into something. And sometimes maybe you're not as good as you think you are. You make missteps because you love the work, and in Hollywood you're only as hot as your last movie.
Tell me about being on the outside suddenly.
You're not doing the big studio movies and you would love to, but you, you can't anymore. They're done with you. And some of it is their fault and a lot of it is your fault, but it's done. I went to kind of recharge my batteries. I went to China. It wasn't a quest, it was a coincidence. I had talked with Jackie Chan twice about making a movie together, so when he offered me Skip Trace and I went to do that in China, I fell in love with it there. I really loved China. I love the people, the crew. It was all Chinese, like only me and 400 Chinese people. I just--maybe some of it was being away from that thing I wanted and had and lost, but I really enjoyed it. It inspired me and reignited a passion in me. They appreciated how I was doing things. I was appreciated again, and I needed that. They could learn from me and I could learn from them, their very improvisational way of doing things. I was learning how to do this again.
I ended up staying in China for six years. I made three movies there and very much saw my future there, making international movies. Then COVID hit, and it was impossible to stay there. I left. I ended up in Europe and a very seismic thing happened to me when I was in Europe. I met my wife, and I had... I had always been married to my work, and I was pretty single-minded. Every decision I made in life was based on work and my love of making movies. Making movies was when I felt alive, and so all relationships and everything else I had would in the end be secondary. Everything suffered when I was making a movie. Then I met my wife, and I fell in love, and we moved in together, and we got married and we had a baby. I have a 17-month-old baby, and we have a second one coming. It's all really shook up my world. It was the last thing I expected at this time in my life and my career. I still love movies, but I feel like it gave me a new perspective, a new focus. Instead of framing myself as just the lonely rock in the middle of the ocean, I just felt a new purpose in life. This was the last couple of years. I always believed that I'm going to... If you want to call it a comeback, that I'm going to get maybe that second chance to prove myself in my life and now in my career, it's going to be this way.
I see it in The Bricklayer. All the stuff you expect from a Renny Harlin, you know, but with this new element of a character who reflects a lot of the calm and experience you've just told me about. It's there.
That means everything to hear. I feel like I've been able to recalibrate myself in a way that I wasn't able to do before. There's a new reason why I'm doing what I'm doing. It's not just to gratify whatever needs gratifying in me--it's for my family, finally. It's for all of my children. I want to think this film is just the beginning of it. That it's just scratching the surface of what I have to offer of myself now. I think I can really tap into the purity of the passion that got me into this art form. I can concentrate better, be more focused, and just be better. I'm calm. I have found a purpose and a place in life where maybe I belong. I have to believe it will be seen in my work soon, because I...haven't tried to put it in there. There's no desperation to tell the story of my change, it's just that I've changed. Maybe The Strangers trilogy will show more, maybe Deep Water, which I just finished. I couldn't get up in the morning, I couldn't look my daughter in the eyes if I didn't believe that the best is yet to come.
Why do it otherwise?
Yes. I need to show myself and show the world that it wasn't a coincidence, it wasn't luck what I've done, but there is a consistency there. There was always something of me in my work, and I just needed to find the focus to get to where I need to get to, and I'm getting close to it now. I think that I can be the better version of myself than I've ever been.