Among Renny Harlin's early work was a comedy about a Finnish insurance company. His first feature, paid for partly out of his savings, was supposed to star Chuck Norris but the production couldn't afford him and settled for Norris fils instead. About three Americans on the rampage in the former Soviet Union, the film was banned in Finland for being politically inflammatory. Harlin told The Face in 1990: 'Two years ago I was so poor I ate half a can of Campbell's soup for lunch and the rest for dinner. But I never gave up.'
These days Harlin - aged 34 - commands a director's fee in the region of dollars 3m per picture. He has swapped his Nordic pallor for an expensive Californian tan (although he retains a deadpan manner that might be taken for Scandinavian melancholy). He arrives for our interview with a bodyguard in tow. He makes movies that are more Hollywood than Hollywood. 'He wants to be an American,' according to his former personal manager. 'His whole life is a Hollywood cliche.'
Even that Chuck Norris vehicle manque was called (in English) Born American. It showed enough promise for Harlin to be hired on a prison drama called . . . Prison. Then he was drafted in for A Nightmare on Elm Street IV, one of the best in the series, and the biggest earner (it cost dollars 5m and made 10 times that sum). He prefers to skate lightly over The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, a disastrous showcase for the in-your-face comic Andrew Dice Clay. But he was catapulted into the big league with Die Hard 2, which, despite severe production problems (no snow, in a story for which white stuff was essential), went on to make a tidy sum for its producers. And now Cliffhanger.
The auguries weren't great. The film is about mountain-climbing, a subject that has seldom commanded boffo box-office (remember last year's K2?). There has been bickering over the script, which was reworked by the star, Sylvester Stallone, despite vigorous protest from one of the original writers. But it opened in the States last Friday to record business (dollars 21m in the opening weekend).
'I realised mountain movies are very boring, because mountain climbing is so slow,' Harlin says. 'In most of them the shots are quite simple because somehow just getting them is difficult enough. I decided that, if I was going to do this film, I would move the camera all the time and create a vertigo feeling for the audience.
'If you look at action movies of the Forties or even the Fifties, the shots were much longer - you could take a car chase or a shoot-out or a fight and have just one wide shot with everything happening in it. But now, it's unfortunate, but the attention span of the audience is much shorter; this kind of film has to be an onslaught of images. You need to suck the audience into the movie instead of just letting them observe it. Also, one mistake I hate to see is when directors go to a spectacular location or shoot a big scene and don't really show it. You have to compose the shots to see that you are there, otherwise you could have done it in your bathroom.'
You may have already caught the trailer and, I can assure you, it doesn't contain all the exciting bits. Harlin's a master at keeping up a good head of steam all the way through; like Cubby Broccoli, the producer of the James Bond films, he has a theory of 'bumps' - the white-knuckle bits: 'One reel of a movie is about 10 minutes and the rule of thumb for me is that every reel has to have one highlight,' he says.
'When I read a script I immediately see it in shots and sequences. Then I start storyboarding - for this I made 2,500 illustrations and planned out everything very carefully. It's almost like a comic book. I don't usually shoot a master (a shot giving an overall view of the scene) and then try to cover it from everywhere. Many times I don't shoot a master at all; I use a lot of moving camera and extreme close-ups of things. The editing is very important.
'There was not much room for improvisation because the locations were so difficult. I have to decide beforehand which way I'm gonna shoot, because once we start offloading the helicopters, that's where you have to film. Also, when you look at Cliffhanger, you think it's just people on a mountain, but in fact I would say that we have as many optical effects shots as something like Terminator 2, even though this is not a futuristic movie and has to look very realistic. And all that has to be planned beforehand: what will be done on location, what will be done optically, the painting and the matte shots, the blue screen shots, and so on. It's like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle.'
Then there was the task of bringing Rocky to a hard place. 'Young audiences are not easy to fool; they can smell if there's just a wide shot on the stuntman and a cut to a close-up of the actors,' says Harlin, who makes a point at several key moments of letting you see that this is actually Stallone out there on the wire. They like to make the little joke that Sly originally refused point blank to climb anywhere higher than the heels of his cowboy boots. 'He was terrified. But I was convinced I could get him to do it; we had become good friends and I know how his mind works. So I took him to the locations and showed him some of the stunts myself first and maybe he was too embarrassed to say no after that.'
Unbidden (and mindful of the rumours), he hymns Stallone's sterling contribution to the screenplay. 'If you compare the script I first read and what the movie is now, it became much more; it was very, very simplistic in the beginning, but Stallone did some good work in making the villains more interesting.'
The yarn, by the way, shows how Stallone, a member of the Rocky Mountain Rescue Team who has lost his nerve, finds it again (surprise]) when he's reluctantly drafted in on an emergency mission. Too bad that this involves a band of cackling baddies, spearheaded by an upper-class English mastermind (John Lithgow). One is sure that these characters are replete with psychological niceties. 'It doesn't show up on the screen, but I spend a lot of time writing life stories for every character, even the smallest one - where they were born, where they went to school, what kind of families they have. And before rehearsals I sit down with the actors, each one of them, and spend hours and hours talking about their characters.'
It's unlikely that this will much exercise the audience, and Harlin seems to acknowledge as much: mission accomplished, his movie ends briskly without undue dawdling over Stallone's love interest (Janine Turner from Northern Exposure): 'You have to realise when the story is over. It would be very boring to see them going home to make coffee.'
This calls to mind the only other Midnight Sun director with anything approaching international status, the gloomy Aki Kaurismaki, whose movies - Hamlet Goes Business, I Hired a Contract Killer - consist more or less entirely of people making coffee. Harlin cracks his first smile of the morning. 'It's very respectable, what he's been able to do. He does his own thing; he doesn't care about commercialism. I don't think he's interested in making my kind of movies and I don't think I'll ever make the kind of movies he does.'
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