Interview: Director Renny Harlin Talks ‘Skiptrace’

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Action is a film genre where directors tend to get a little lazy and just include explosions and over the top gunfights. Fortunately, this isn’t the case with Renny Harlin, a gifted filmmaker who has en eye for action and has supplied the film industry with some of the most intense and exiting action movies there are. From Die Hard 2: Die Harder to Cliffhanger to The Long Kiss Goodnight, the man definitely knows what he’s doing. In Skiptrace (his latest action/comedy), we get a fun buddy adventure starring Jackie Chan and Johnny Knoxville. Renny was nice enough to chat with me about the film. Here’s how that interview went:

Hello Renny. Thank you for joining me.

My pleasure.

So, my name is Randy Unger, and I’m with Unger the Radar, and I want to say that it’s a huge thrill to meet you, sir.

Well, I am very happy to talk with you, Randy, so thank you.

Thank you for making the time. So Skiptrace, very interesting film. Very interesting concept. Great action, great performances. How did you come across the project?

Well, I have a long history with Jackie Chan. I was offered in the mid-90s the original Rush Hour, and at that time, I wasn’t available, so I couldn’t do it. That was the first time we tried to work together, and then in the late 90s, there was another project called Nosebleed, which was another Jackie movie that we talked about making together, and something extremely tragic happened, which was the World Trade Center incident. That was the end of that project because the whole concept of Nosebleed was that Jackie is a window washer at the World Trade Center, and most of the action was about these acrobatics on the window washer rigs and so on. So that was obviously the end of that project, and then Jackie had this movie that he had been sort of dreaming about for over 15 years which he called his love letter to China, which was this road movie traveling across China and experiencing all these different events and different kind of environments because it’s such a vast country. So he sends me the script, and I read it, and I really liked it. You know, the script still needed a little work, but I got the concept, and I said, “I would love to come to China and work with you, and finally, third time being the charm, make this movie.” I flew to Hong Kong and sat down with him, and we talked about the project and decided to do it together.

That’s great, fascinating. So what is it like, directing Jackie Chan? That must be quite a wild experience.

Yeah, that’s a good question. It’s a wild experience because there’s nobody like Jackie Chan. I’ve worked with some action stars like Stallone and Bruce Willis, and everybody has a different approach. Jackie’s is a unique one, which is, you know, obviously he grew up in the Beijing Opera as a circus performer, and he became a stunt man, then he became an actor, and then he became a choreographer and a director, so he has seen it all. He has done it all, and he has the energy of ten people or a hundred people, so he shows up on the set as a first person of the day. He is there with a smile on his face, with a million ideas in his head, and so it’s really, working with him is like managing the situation because if you really let him do what he wants to do, the movie will probably take a year to shoot or more, as was the days actually when he directed. One of his recent movies from two years ago, he made this movie called Chinese Zodiac, and he directed it. They shot for over a year. It just kept going and going because he would never run out of ideas. My job as a director was sort of manage the story, manage the action, and get things done on time and on budget, and so on. So we would obviously have a script, have an idea what we are shooting on each day, and then Jackie would show up and say like, “Oh, I have a new idea. How about if we do this or this or this?” And then it would be my job to figure out what are the great ideas that we should definitely do and what are the ideas that we can live without and how to make it happen. And the big revelation, for me, about making movies in China, the biggest revelation was that where in Hollywood, I was used to everything is planned and organized and written, and we’ve gone through it in a dozen meetings with everybody, every department, and we’ve prepared everything for weeks or months. In China, especially with Jackie, improvisation is king, and so we could have everything planned, but Jackie could have all these ideas in the morning and say, “What if we do this and this and this?” And I would say, “Okay, that’s a great idea, but we don’t have the props and furniture and rigs to do this stuff,” and he would say, “Don’t worry. If you like the idea at lunch, we’ll have it all.” In the beginning, I was feeling very, you know, worried and cautious and concerned, but soon I learned, in China, you can make it up, and if you need something, they’ll throw fifty people at the challenge and after lunch, you will have it. Whatever you need. You need a piece of furniture, you need a set, you need a costume, whatever it might be, it will be there because they throw enough people at the problem and make it work. So it was very liberating for me to come in from Hollywood to see you can still be like a kid who comes up with an idea, and you can make it happen, and you can make it a reality. That’s one of the things I love about working in China.

So that’s a good tip for other Hollywood filmmakers. Just go to China and make your movie there.

Exactly, because you certainly can’t do that in Hollywood. People will look at you like you’re crazy.

Alright. So how would you define action hero?

You know, there are different kinds of action heroes, but for me, the best kind of an action hero is somebody who the audience can relate to, who will feel real, no matter what their abilities. There is the traditional action hero who is just a normal guy who is in a situation where he has to rise to the challenge and do something that he or us – the audience – would never normally do, but he has to do and he will. And then of course there is superheroes, which nowadays are commonplace in most of the big movies, but whether the common man or superhero, action heroes, to me, are somebody who you can relate to, who feels real, who has issues like we all do, who has fears and dilemmas in real life, yet rises above those things when called to action. My dog is barking in the background, but who rises to the challenge and does something that we all wish we could do in that situation. Defends those who can’t defend themselves, does something unselfish to save the day, and in general, I think that of course all big movies have some giant issue in the background like saving the world. The entire world is going to be destroyed if you don’t do this or that or whatever, but the best movies I think have a personal stake. It’s not about saving the world, it’s saving somebody that you love, somebody that you care about and just basically being everyman that we all are but doing something extraordinary when the circumstances press you to do it.

Okay, great, great. Out of all of your films, do you have a particular favorite?

I do. My favorite of my movies is The Long Kiss Goodnight, and it’s a movie where we started with the best of ingredients, which is a good screenplay. Shane Black is one of the best writers in years in Hollywood, and he wrote a script that I really loved and a script that was sort of like a mixture of really interesting character drama and comedic elements and actions. I always say that without a good script, there’s no good movie. Moviemaking is tough enough. You could even start with a good script and still end up with a bad movie, but if you start with a bad script, you will never have a good movie. So if you don’t have a script that’s good, there’s no power in the world that will turn it awesome once it’s on the screen. Working with Shane and being able to make this movie that had characters that were interestingly rendered, that had big emotions and issues, and then mixing that with some comedic elements and cool action was great for me. As a filmmaker, it was a fun movie to make, and I’m proud of that movie.

Well, I totally agree that’s one of your stronger films, and the idea of taking two people, totally different, and putting them in a situation and rising above it is an incredible formula that works to this day, so I commend you on that.

Thank you.

So basically, do you have a preference of films to TV, or TV to film?

In terms of working in TV or movies?

Yes, yes.

Well, you know, that’s an interesting question because if I was still working in Hollywood, I would say TV, definitely, because in TV nowadays, the quality of writing, the complexity of stories and characters is so far beyond movies that TV is a much more interesting medium nowadays in America, in Hollywood. You know, we see super interesting things with something like Breaking Bad or Stranger Things. I watched all eight episodes of Stranger Things in one day because I just couldn’t stop because I loved it so much. That kind of stuff doesn’t get made in movies anymore. Hollywood is so scared of, you know, making a mistake and getting fired because they do something original that doesn’t work, so it’s only when some strong filmmakers make something usually, you know, you have to start low-budget and get your fame in Sundance or something like that to show something with personality. Other than that, you know, you’re really with the studios who only want to make remakes or reboots or sequels, so TV is much more interesting, and that’s why I’m in China because China, to me, is like Hollywood in the 80s where there is a lot of excitement and passion and inspiration. People want to make movies and people want to figure out, you know, what’s the next big thing and not just rely on something that’s been done before. So for me, China is extremely exciting. I have a dozen movies in development, and none of them are following the formulas of Hollywood, and movies can be fun here, and I have absolutely no desire to return to Hollywood.

Really? None at all?

None at all, you know. What is Hollywood making? Reboots, sequels, and remakes and then a few romantic comedies and low-budget horror films.

Well, you know, I hate to call you out on it, you directed Die Hard 2 and Nightmare on Elm Street 4, so maybe there is some good that can come out of sequels.

(laughs) That’s absolutely true, and Nightmare on Elm Street was a movie that I saw the original when I was a little younger, and I loved it, and I had a really personal connection. Sorry, I have to take care of my dog. I had a really personal connection to it because I had nightmares and crazy dreams all my life, and so I really related to that movie, and I felt that I could really bring something new to that genre. So when I made, not Nightmare on Elm Street 2 or 3, but 4, you know, one could say that’s not very original, but I brought comedy into it, and I changed the genre in a way that nobody had thought could be possible. Nightmare on Elm Street 4 ended up being the most successful in the whole series and to everybody’s surprise, got really great reviews and was very successful, so I felt like I was still doing my personal statement when I made that movie. And Die Hard 2, yes, it was a sequel, and I understood what my job was, which was replicate the experience for the audience, yet give them something new, and actually, my biggest challenge in the movie was Bruce Willis, who had just recently become a movie star after being a TV star, and he said, “I want to make the movie completely serious and the character serious, and I don’t want to do this really humorous part.” My biggest job was convincing him that the reason why people loved the first movie was the character and this kind of sarcastic sense of humor. It has to be a part of the movie. So I still feel like I, you know, I sort of gave the audience what they expected from the first movie, and I was – but at the same time, I was able to take them on a different kind of journey and expand on it without going to where I think the latest sequels of Die Hard have. The idea has been, let’s go bigger. Let’s try to crazy, crazy –

It’s like a cartoon, almost.

Yeah, you lose the audience, you lose why the audience liked the character and then just go into some crazy territory. But yeah, so I get to answer your question, yes, I am guilty of making sequels as well, and I’ve had fun doing it. In certain circumstances, I think it is okay. If you make a movie that people love, why not take the character on another journey? But it’s the only thing that Hollywood does nowadays, and I think that’s the death of original storytelling.

Agreed, I totally agree. I totally agree with that. One more question. So going back to the idea of the buddy comedy formula, do you think that’s a formula that will live on or do you think it’s dying out?

No, I think it’s – I love that formula, and you know, there are so many examples of that in the history of movies, but maybe my all-time favorite is Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid with Paul Newman and Robert Redford. You know, buddy comedy, it’s the ultimate love story, really. It’s two guys doing something together, and usually, it’s opposites attract. They have different views of life and different goals, but they end up together, and they bond to go through this stuff together and sometimes with really positive, fun times or tragic consequences. I think that the audience loves watching that kind of story of friendship. Friendship is the ultimate love story, and I think that it’s definitely a genre that should live on and will live on and the kind of stories that I love watching.

Terrific, me too. Thank you for your time, Renny.

Thank you, Randy.

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