Renny Harlin has killed a lot of people. As a longtime director of action movies, he’s accrued a fictional body count that we couldn’t begin to estimate. Characters have been shot, stabbed, blown up, dropped off cliffs and eaten by super-sharks. First coming to prominence in the ’90s, Harlin made a name for himself with movies that embodied a period when seemingly every other movie was a variation on Die Hard, from Cliffhanger (like Die Hard, but on a cliff) to, well, Die Hard 2 (like Die Hard, but in an airport).
It’s a career that has had its share of highs, with box office successes and cult favourites like Deep Blue Sea, as well as lows, like the notorious flop Cutthroat Island. It’s also a long one, and hearing Harlin talk about desired projects that never got off the ground and Hollywood’s obsession with the next big thing, it’s not hard to imagine why he decided to move to China. The move was precipitated by his latest film, Skiptrace, an action-comedy starring Jackie Chan, Johnny Knoxville and Fan Bingbing. Having now set up a production company in China, signed on to a video game adaptation for Chinese internet giant Alibaba, and even adopted a cute rescue dog, it’s clear Harlin’s here to stay.
How did you end up going from Hollywood to here?
I haven’t done a movie in Hollywood in 20 years. I’d make them in other states in America, or in Canada or Europe or Australia, wherever makes sense economically. I’ve travelled all around the world. Usually I’d go there, whether it’s Russia or Thailand or Bulgaria, spend six months or a little more there, make a movie, go back home, and that’s it. But I came to Skiptrace with Jackie Chan and I took kind of an unusual approach, which was not bringing anyone from America. I don’t know if anyone’s done that before, all these co-productions and American productions bring dozens if not hundreds of people with them.
I fell in love with the country, with how hard people work, the way they work, their attitude, the culture... Why go to Hollywood where everything is shrinking when this is going to be the biggest movie market in the world? People are excited about making movies. The opportunities are limitless.
How was making a film here different?
Something that can be a plus or minus depending on how you take it: in Hollywood, things are planned meticulously. The schedule, the budget, all the details, the stunts, everything is practised and rehearsed in pre-production weeks before you start shooting. Here, it’s a little bit more flying by the seat of your pants.
The thing that I really learned, and it was a very positive experience and had a lot to do with Jackie Chan, is that you can come to the set in the morning and change the whole action sequence. In Hollywood, it would take days – if not weeks – to make that change. You know, if you want to smash a chair over somebody’s head, you have to have a breakaway chair; in Hollywood it would take weeks to get it. Here, if we came up with that idea in the morning as we were planning the action sequence with Jackie, I would say, ‘But we don’t have the chair,’ and he would say, ‘Don’t worry, by lunch we will.’
Did Jackie Chan and Johnny Knoxville do all their own stunts?