Interview: Director Renny Harlin Goes Back To 'Prison,' Finds A Demigod

"It all started with my mother, who was a huge film buff."

It was a nice piece of luck that while Renny Harlin was lining up publicity to talk about one of his first, little-seen films, "Prison," news was making the rounds that the "Die Hard 2" and "Cliffhanger" director was in charge of a big budget, 3D, gritty action film about Hercules.

"Luck" might not be the right word when it comes to Harlin, whose tenacity and sheer force of personality have survived the highs and lows of being a big budget director, one who badgered his way into the director's chair for the third "Nightmare on Elm Street" sequel, only to find himself directing the followup to the greatest action film of the 80's, followed up the "best" Andrew Dice Clay movie (which still translated into a flop), with another big success in "Cliffhanger." You start to see a pattern, but Harlin seems philosophical about it.

But first, let's talk about "Prison" (it's out on Blu-ray from Scream Factory this week), and how a young guy from Finland talked his way into directing a young Viggo Mortensen opposite Lane Smith in a movie where it wasn't the inmates trying to kill you, but the walls of the prison themselves.

prison-filmThe film stars Mortensen as Burke, one of the cons being transferred into a dilapidated facility that had been abandoned for years after the wrongful execution of another convict. Warden Sharpe (Lane Smith) was a guard during the last execution, and when he's not sadistically tormenting his charges by forcing them to stand in the cold in their tighty whities, he's going bug-eyed with fear at visions of the thing that's living in the walls that's looking to kill both guards and prisoners alike.

Harlin confesses that until he sat down to record the commentary for "Prison," the last time he saw the film was somewhere upwards of 20 years ago. It's not like you'd see it in any kind of rotation on cable, and thanks to some financial problems with the distributor, it didn't have much of a theatrical release back in 1988. Seeing it now, Harlin says it conjures up all of the fears and insecurities he had as a young filmmaker given money and a couple of weeks to make a horror movie inside of an abandoned prison (with real prisoners). Acknowledging that 25 years later, he's aware of the schlockiness of the final product, he allows that he was able to do some things well, particularly when it came to squeezing the last cent out of the effects budget for some truly graphic kills. "I thought that some of the photography was good, and some of the actors were good, and it kind of had a nice atmosphere," Harlin says, admitting he wasn't as embarrassed by "Prison" as he thought he would be, and that he was able to pin down some visual motifs that stuck with him over the years (one that he points out in the commentary is the image of a cross).

"It all started with my mother, who was a huge film buff," Harlin says, who exposed him to Hitchcock and other dark material at an early, impressionable age. Even if he didn't understand some of the sexual motifs and characterizations at the time, he says he still synthesized what he saw onscreen, making him a filmmaker dedicated to getting a reaction from the audience. There are no small Renny Harlin movies, each one a big and over-the-top in a way that's either crowd-pleasing or pandering depending who you are (reflecting on his filmography, I find myself squarely in the former set).

He attributes his early success to not knowing better. He relates how when he was younger, he loved to write, to let stories go where they would, later learning as a young man that stories required structure, and later still as a filmmaker that a movie would be well-regarded if it adhered to that structure. It helped him get movies made, but Harlin laments that it took something away from the pleasure of writing.

That seat-of-the-pants philosophy carried over to his earliest directing gigs and the business of finding an "in" in Hollywood. "If I had known the Hollywood rules--that you need to have an agent, that the agent has to call someone, that someone has to set up a meeting--I didn't understand that it worked like that," Harlin says. His approach: to search the pages of the trade papers and find the offices of producers and walk up and introduce himself. Mistaken for a pizza guy or whatever, he'd say "I'm a filmmaker from Finland and a I want to make movies," sometimes disarming his targets enough to chat them up (in the "Never Sleep Again" documentary covering "Elm Street 4," he relates the story of pestering New Line president Bob Shaye until the man broke and gave him a job). "It was new to people, it was fresh to people, it would take them by surprise," although he realizes that at the time he was "clueless" and probably scared out his mind.

He's not ashamed of the curious trajectory of his career (he says it's just the ups and downs of the industry), and the lows have never stopped him from working. After the one-two-three punch of box office and critical failures in "Driven," "Mindhunters," and "Exorcist: The Beginning," ("I was in a place where no one thought I would ever make another movie") he had a minor success with the male version of "The Craft," "The Covenant." "You just gotta keep going for that dream, no matter what happens [...] and things will turn around." He says that if he listened to the doubters, he'd still be sitting in Finland, probably selling cars.

DyatlovPassIncident_largeFinding big budget film ponderous and not especially inviting, he's been keeping busy in the years since with a steady stream of TV work. Harlin lauds the quality of the the writing there, and he has several projects in active development, but film remains his first love. His time in TV and a nearly 30 year career making movies has him hungry for another feature.

Saying he couldn't be more excited to get back into the arena of big budget productions with "Hercules 3D," at $70 million, the biggest movie he's made since "Deep Blue Sea." With production set to start in May, Harlin says he's looking forward to delving into this gritty take on Greek myth, during an era where men and women who could neither read or write filled their inner worlds with clashes between impossible, mythic beings. He wants to pass along the stories they told, saying his Hercules film has a place as does the competing 2014 film about the mythological figure coming from Brett Ratner.

Besides "Hercules 3D," Harlin just wrapped "The Dyatlov Pass Incident," returning to horror with his take on the found footage genre based on the Ural Mountains incident where a group of hikers were found dead with mysterious wounds. In his film, a group of students travels to Russia to trace the steps of the original explorers, meeting their own grim end. We should expect that sometime later this year.

"Prison" is available in a Blu-ray/DVD combo from Scream Factory.

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