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Renny Harlin on The Strangers: Chapter 1, China and Don Siegel

A white man leans over two people sitting at a diner booth.Froy Gutierrez, Madelaine Petsch and Renny Harlin on the set of The Strangers - Chapter 1

Renny Harlin is closing in on 40 years in the movie business and still committed to his craft. He has worked all over the world on films at the top and bottom of the box office charts, but still gets a twinkle in his eye when discussing how a score can tweak the tension of a scene. He dreamed of being a Hollywood action movie director since childhood, and is best known for his bombastic 1990s blockbusters like Die Hard 2 (1990) and Cliffhanger (1993). But after Hollywood ejected him for younger models, he maintained a furious productivity elsewhere, working in China, United Arab Emirates, Bulgaria and Greece, with aging compatriots including Jackie Chan, Pierce Brosnan and Aaron Eckhart. 

Now he has returned to Hollywood with an ambitious three-part reimagining of the 2008 home invasion horror hit The Strangers. Harlin shot the three parts at once for Lionsgate, and all are planned for release over the course of the next 12 months. The Strangers: Chapter 1 is out now, and proves how adaptable Harlin is to his material. He is trying to out-quiet A Quiet Place with a pared down, minimalistic slasher movie.

Harlin: First I want to know, who is the artist who created all that beautiful artwork behind you?

Filmmaker: Yeah, those are by my daughter, from when she was a little younger. She’s seven now, about to turn eight.

Harlin: I love that they are still on the wall.

Filmmaker: Oh yeah, those will stay there forever. And I know you had some new arrivals to your family, so congratulations.

Harlin: Thank you! Yeah, I have a two-year-old daughter and a four-week-old son. My daughter is not quite on that artistic level, but it’s heading in that direction. I’ll show you quickly my notebook. For example, here’s my calendar. The sharks I drew myself, but the rest is her handiwork. First my reaction was like, “Oh no, I don’t want to mess up my fancy calendar!,” but then I thought, “What better memory piece to have later on than her silly scribblings there.”

Filmmaker: Absolutely. You’ll treasure that later on! Smart move to hold onto it. Your first big break as a director was on A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988), and I wanted to know how your approach to the horror genre has changed all these decades later working on The Strangers: Chapter 1.

Harlin: I had a very specific approach when I did Nightmare on Elm Street, because I was a big fan of that franchise but felt like Freddy had become a bigger-than-life character. The movies really revolved around him and it was time to really be honest with the audience and make him the hero, even if he’s a child killer. So, my idea that I presented to the studio was, “Let’s make Freddy the James Bond of horror,” and we did that from his introduction on in that movie. Freddy was very much in the center of the story, and we introduced more humor than before.

At the time it felt like a big risk. I know the studio was really worried about it, but I was very convinced that this was the way to go and it worked out well. When we finally tested the movie and it came out, it got some pretty good reviews and was successful in the box office. So, that was a very special case, because we took a very special approach to that particular horror film and now, of course, with The Strangers the approach is totally different. I don’t know if it’s because of the decades in between or my experience in filmmaking and so on. One thing that I feel like I have experienced in the various genres that I’ve worked in and on some sequels…the key thing is to give the audience certain ingredients that they liked about the original. You have to be faithful to that to a certain extent. In this case I always had to keep in mind that the movie—in this case, three movies—have to feel real. That was the appeal of Bryan Bertino’s original. Not to copy the same filmmaking style that was very specific to that time but to keep in mind that bigger is not better. What’s real is better, and sometimes smaller is even better than bigger. 

I would love to give you a really good answer to your specific question about how things have changed over the decades, because it’s stunning to me to think that we’re talking, like, close to four decades ago. When I first actively started watching movies it was the 1970s, and if I go four decades back we’re talking 1930s, which was a different language. I don’t know if, when you’re in it yourself, you become a little bit blind to it. Of course I realize all these technical changes in terms of CG and the editing style—all that has changed hugely just in my time of filmmaking. Even before Elm Street, when I did Prison (1987) I storyboarded everything. I don’t feel like my approach has changed. Of course I’ve learned some new things and seen what works and what doesn’t, but the most important thing is just being honest with the audience and staying in the genre that you’ve chosen and not letting down the audience’s expectations. 

Filmmaker: You mentioned how, on The Strangers: Chapter 1, you’re trying to simplify. For example, there is a very minimal use of scoring. Could you elaborate on that as well as on your relationship to the original film? 

Harlin: I didn’t know anything about the original film when I walked into the theater and was really impressed by the storytelling and the fact that they just decided to ignore traditional Hollywood plot structure, to tell a story about a home invasion with no rhyme or reason. You keep waiting till the end of the movie, [expecting] that there’s going to be some kind of a resolution to this, but there’s no resolution and it was just shocking. That film, you know, it was a product of its time. I think stylistically we used to call it shaky cam—that sort of very realistic camera technique that people like Paul Greengrass used a lot—and it certainly brought a sense of sort of immediate reality to it. Also, it was unusual in its treatment of the relationship of the couple, because they were breaking up in the beginning. So, the whole movie had a sense of dread and sadness and loss to it.

I didn’t want to make a random sequel that takes place somewhere else with some other characters or do a remake, but to reimagine this idea of something random like this happening to people. And then if one of them survives what happens to them—and if we follow that story not two years later but immediately, the next day. So, this first chapter is almost like the first act of a much bigger movie, like a four-and-a half-hour movie, where we set up this situation. I didn’t want to copy that film stylistically or even story or character-wise, as it’s evident our approach was that this actually is a couple that is relatively happy and their life is just starting together, then this thing happens to them.

It’s interesting that you notice that about the score or the lack of it, and the sound work, because that could partially answer your first question which is how my approach and filmmaking style changed. I would say, definitely I used to think that bigger is better. Of course, action movies are very different but if you look at the scores of Die Hard 2 or Cliffhanger or Cutthroat Island or Deep Blue Sea, they all have big huge soaring scores. I feel like the score is so important, because it directs the audience’s feelings and it can make a simple empty room seem suspenseful, but also I feel like scores can let the audience off the hook. The scene becomes entertainment and they get distanced from the reality of the scene, and that way they can actually relax instead of being more tense. So, I wanted the score to first of all not be very melodic but more atmospheric. There was much more music originally, but in the mixing stage I started experimenting with either taking some of the instruments out or taking the score out completely and relying just on sound. I realized that our sound design was quite good, then I kind of put the sound designers through a ringer by making them even go further, trying to keep it real trying to keep it subtle but trying to create the atmosphere of the house and the forest. And it’ll also be very clear in the two subsequent films, where the environment provides the sound without hopefully drawing too much attention to it, but still creating a sense of reality, because the music is not giving you a free pass and you have to be in the reality of the scene. Which hopefully feels as close to real life as possible.

Filmmaker: One of the things I really liked about the first one is how these killers are ghostly specters guiding their victims to harm, instead of blunt force slashers. That spectral menace was lost a little bit in the second one but you have brought it back here.

Harlin: Yes, and without criticizing somebody else’s film or anything like that I completely agree with you. I felt like the previous sequel turned it into a little bit more like an adventure or action film, more plot-driven in a way. I was trying to stay true to this feeling of randomness and that you don’t really get into a physical confrontation with them. They are in power and are directing you in very subtle ways. You feel that “Oh, the characters are being smart, they have come up with an idea” and if they do that maybe they save themselves—only to realize that The Strangers already probably thought of that, and they knew that they were gonna do this, and they are just letting them do it because it’s like they are torturing them. I don’t know why I am thinking of this, but Sam Peckinpah’s Wild Bunch starts with a scorpion being eaten by ants or something like that.

Filmmaker: Yeah, and kids are poking them with a stick, happily watching this happening.

Harlin: I don’t know why that just popped into my mind, but that kind of deal.

Filmmaker: Speaking of classics, I read that your mom took you to see Rosemary’s Baby when you were a kid. Is that true?

Harlin: She loved movies—she loved thrillers, she loved Hitchcock, so I started watching Hitchcock when I was very, very little. And I mean, my mom was not a stupid lady, she was well educated…and I don’t know why she thought I was mature enough to see these movies. I vividly remember the movie theater where we went to see Rosemary’s Baby and I was eight years old. Of course it was super scary, but I was already reading Edgar Allen Poe and all these horror comic books and drawing my own comics that were horror-related. That world fascinated me a lot, so I just ate up those movies. Then action movies became a second thing, but yeah I remember seeing a lot of movies like that sitting next to my mom. My dad was always busy working, so I was her date, then we would discuss the movies and how they were made. I don’t think I ever felt scared or disturbed by them. I just felt interested. 

Filmmaker: You’re already interested in how they were made and the structure and all that, even as a kid?

Harlin: Definitely. We would watch Psycho and she would say “Do you think that he was really hitting her with that knife in that shower?” And I said “Oh, for sure,” and she’s like “Well, actually he wasn’t. You get the impression that the knife is hitting her but it’s not.” That’s the magic of movies. If you do these things right, the audience’s imagination is going to fill in the blanks. So, it was very early film school I guess.

Filmmaker: Is it true that you saw Don Siegel filming Telefon with Charles Bronson in Finland when you were a teenager?

Harlin: Yeah, he was definitely my hero and yeah, I believe I was 15 years old. In those days, you couldn’t go to Russia to shoot scenes, so the movie would always come to shoot Russia scenes in Helsinki, which had the same kind of architecture. And yeah, it was a life-changing experience for me when I saw them shooting in the center of Helsinki. It was a scene involving a helicopter and an ice hockey game. Bronson was there and there were huge crowds curiously watching. There were huge lights and cranes and things, then I got through the crowd and saw Don Siegel sitting in a director’s chair with a cigar and a megaphone telling everybody what to do. And a helicopter is going up and a helicopter is going down and Charles Bronson’s doing this…. And it was just like a beam of light came from the sky and hit me and told me, “That’s what I want to do.” I had always been one of those kids who, when the neighborhood kids would get together and say “Let’s play bank robbers” or whatever it is, I would say, “OK, you do this, and then you guys do this, and you’re the bad guys and you’re the good guys.” I was always naturally the one making up the story.

Because I loved war movies, and most of the year the ground was covered in snow, I remember doing war scenes together with my friends. It was always like, somebody would play my brother and then he’s dying in the snow and we have our last words to each other…these emotional scenes that we would create and I would say, “And now you know you’re dying but you’re gonna say, ‘Tell mother I love her,’”  stuff like that. So, I would make up these scenes without really understanding what I was doing, and I had made films with our little Super 8 camera, our family camera. But that was the moment when I was like “Oh my god, that is what I want to do.” Somebody can be in charge of all that and get to make their own story? From then on I really I knew for sure—every single little decision in my life was based on that goal. I never put it aside. I never thought, like, “Maybe I’ll be a lawyer.” I was like, “I have to be a Hollywood action film director.” It’s informed everything I did every day in my life after that.

Filmmaker: And was Walter Hill an early mentor?

Harlin: Yes, Walter Hill was another one. I always loved his writing, like The Getaway for example. I was ordering books from Larry Edmunds Bookshop from Hollywood Boulevard when I was 16 and able to also get some scripts for the first time and see what a screenplay looks like. I was just so impressed with Walter Hill’s style, which was so sparse—where somebody writes all these paragraphs, he’ll just write one short sentence. Through some crazy coincidences, when I first came to Los Angeles when I was 23 or 24 I met somebody who somehow knew Walter Hill vaguely. And I talked about Walter Hill and this person said “Maybe I can get you a meeting with him.” I just couldn’t believe it, but then that happened and that was my very first professional meeting.

I couldn’t get anybody to meet me because I didn’t know anybody and had nothing to really show for myself, but I always remember Walter Hill agreed to meet with me. I got into his office and and it was full of memorabilia from all his movies. It was just him and I’m sitting there and looking at him, and I just felt like a little kid in front of my movie god. My friend was there who had introduced me and said something like, “Maybe Renny could be the new Walter Hill one day,” and Walter Hill looked at me, kind of smiled and said something like, “Well, I hope that before that I still get to be Walter Hill also,” and it was something that to me was mind blowing. At that moment I was like “Why would he say that?,” but in retrospect I came to realize that he was already at that point middle-aged, or a little more, and had made some of his big movies. To me, he was god, but in his own mind he felt like maybe his best films were behind him.

Filmmaker: You’ve traveled the world as a director, and I wanted to hear more about your sojourn to China and collaborating with Jackie Chan. You spent six years there?

Harlin: Yeah, we previously tried to work together twice and it didn’t work out, then Jackie sent me the script for Skiptrace and I thought “Great, now finally we got to do something together that is meant to be,” and the movie just happened to be a road movie in China. I went there and everything just worked out. First of all, they expected me to bring a bunch of Americans in, but I was a huge fan of Hong Kong and Chinese cinema, so I was like, “You have the best people here, I don’t think I need anybody, let’s save the money.” We ended up with a crew of 400 Chinese people and this one university graduate girl who spoke good English and was my translator. Their method of working was night and day from Hollywood. They pretty much didn’t have a script, they didn’t have a budget, they didn’t have a schedule, they were used to showing up in the morning and then coming up with ideas of what to do. And I had a very organized Hollywood way of making films with a shot list and plans and everything, and somehow we really worked really well together. I think that part of it was that I came from Finland, so I came from very humble beginnings, so I was used to working with different cultures. In Finland, my crew was maybe 15 people, then in America it was maybe 150 people and I had to learn to work in the system and understand it and adjust to it, and it was the same way in China. I wasn’t like, “I come from America and I know everything.” I said “I come from the world and I’m eager to learn your ways.” 

And here comes my daughter [laughs]. This is Coco. 

Filmmaker: Hi Coco!

Harlin: Coco wanted to come and say hi. She has a sticker here she wants to get. 

Filmmaker: She’s working on a new masterpiece!

Harlin: Yeah okay, where are you gonna put the sticker? OK, so it went so well that the producers just came to me and said, “Why don’t you stay here and make another movie with us?” And it’s a snowball from there. I thought I was gonna be there for a few months, like I usually would do with any film, because nothing shoots in LA anymore, but a few months turned into six years. And I got financing there for my own company. I had a staff working for me, I developed a bunch of projects, I gave lectures at the universities, I was on the jury of big film festivals. And it just happened to be that time when Hollywood felt like they can get a lot of money out of China, and they did. I mean, every Marvel movie probably estimated that at least a quarter of their box office results was going to come from China, if not more. And then Chinese companies thought that they’re gonna get into the Hollywood business and buy all the studios, and it was just this hubris that was happening.

I just happened to be the Hollywood guy who showed up and didn’t just show up for a weekend and have some kung pao chicken. But I was willing to live in the system, which for an average Hollywood producer or director or actor is very different. You don’t have the comforts, and I was just like, “No, I think this is great, I don’t mind.” I did three movies in six years, made a lot of friends, really enjoyed living there, loved the culture—and honestly, I think that if somebody asked me, I would have said that I see my foreseeable future in China. Not just making Chinese movies but making international co-productions and being kind of the bridge between Hollywood and China, because I knew that I was one of the only people who really understood how the system works in China and what the mindset of the Chinese film people was and how they felt about Hollywood in all honesty. But then destiny changed everything. COVID started and I had to leave. China basically completely shut down. I left my home, I left my company, I left everything there and never went back. It was practically impossible to go there. If you went there you would have to be six weeks in some government facility, and then same thing if you wanted to get out. It was just too hard. Most of my friends left, a few stayed 

I wasn’t really sure what I was gonna do, but I went to Finland first. Actually, I went to L.A., but L.A. shut down, so I went to Finland which still seemed pretty safe, then one coincidence led to another and I ended up doing a few movies in Europe. That gave me the jumping-off board to come back to America. It was always in my mind, but I was waiting for COVID to ease up and all that. I made a couple of American movies in Europe that became a natural bridge of returning. I met my wife, we got married, we had a baby. We needed to have a home, we wanted to live in America, but I’ve done my 30 years in L.A. and just want to be in a different environment, to get different inspiration and energy.  We ended up in Miami and are super happy here and excited about doing new projects and working together. She’s my producer. It’s almost four years now since I left China but it feels very distant.

Filmmaker: You worked with Aaron Eckhart on the 2024 action movie The Bricklayer, and you recently wrapped another film with him called Deep Water. What can you tell us about that one?

Harlin: We’ve finished editing and now we are doing visual effects. There’s a lot of lot of visual effects, because it all happens on the open water and we shot in this tank in New Zealand. I know there’s a lot of interest with the distributors. I would say that it’s coming out early next year hopefully in a big theatrical release. I’m very proud of that film, it’s really a big huge canvas. It’s very character driven though it has big special effects, but it’s very emotional. One of my early favorite movies was the original Poseidon Adventure. This is my Poseidon Adventure. That’s my dream for that movie.

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