Director Renny Harlin wants to make one thing perfectly clear.
"I don't know what you've read," he said with the trace of an accent, "but I never told anybody that I'm the Finnish Steven Spielberg." He faintly glowered at the thought of this presumption on his lips. "That's following me, that curse. I don't know where it started. I've never said anything that silly."
Others may have suggested it if he hasn't, or they soon will. Harlin is hardly an American household name yet, but with two major-studio films coincidentally opening a scant week apart--the sure blockbuster "Die Hard 2" today, followed by a gamble, "The Adventures of Ford Fairlane," next Wednesday--he will soon benefit from name repetition.
Not that either picture is likely to inspire a Renny Harlin retrospective at Cannes or the Museum of Modern Art. "Ford Fairlane," featuring the film debut of shock-comic Andrew Dice Clay as a private eye who looks and talks like shock-comic Andrew Dice Clay, is particularly lowbrow fare. "Die Hard 2" is just what it is, a slick, expensive action film that is high on thrills and low on logic.
But both show the sure-handedness of a director seemingly far more experienced than Harlin. Some are predicting that "Die Hard 2" may even turn out to be the biggest box-office hit of the summer--making this 31-year-old immigrant the hottest Hollywood property that no one has heard of yet.
Hottest and most expensive. Harlin is earning $3 million to direct his next film, "Gale Force," a suspense thriller to be produced later this year from a Joe Eszter has screenplay.
Perhaps more impressive than the movies themselves is the fact that they were made back-to-back, with no breathing room between them, by Harlin and much of the same crew under the aegis of producer Joel Silver. The young director tends to come off as cool and collected as Silver is notoriously loud and agitated. It's easy to envision them complementing each other in comic tag-team fashion. And when Silver approached him with the unthinkable last fall, Harlin didn't flinch.
"Near the end of shooting 'Fairlane,' Joel gave me a script," said Harlin in his office on the 20th Century Fox lot. "It was called '58 Minutes.' I read it and liked it a lot, so I asked, 'What is this?' And he said it was 'Die Hard 2.' I said, 'Oh, who's directing it?' And he said 'You.' And I said, 'Really? Like, next year?' He said, 'Well, next week, basically.' He was very strong in his will about it."
The story behind the story is that Joe Roth, the new production boss at Fox, had decided to order a sequel for this summer, and production needed to begin immediately to meet that deadline. Luckily, the studio had optioned Walter Wager's short novel, "58 Minutes," and a script that was already on hand was rapidly rehauled into a sequel that fit the Bruce Willis character.
Indeed, a week after wrapping up production on one film, Harlin was filming his next. Not only did he work on editing "Fairlane" at night and on weekends while filming "Die Hard," but he also started editing the latter, he says, from the first day of shooting.
"It was funny sometimes, going back and forth from one editing room to the other. I would sit down and look at the material and say, 'oh god, this is really too silly. I don't know if this is going to work.' And then I would realize it was 'Ford Fairlane' that I was looking at, not 'Die Hard,' and (comedy) was appropriate. . . . It was a tough year."
It got tougher. "Die Hard 2," which takes place at Christmas, was supposed to be filmed at an airport in Denver, but the weather looked more like spring when the crew arrived, setting off a frantic and often fruitless search for snowier climes.
"The end sequence is set in one place in the movie, but it was shot in eight locations," noted Harlin. "We started in Denver, lost the snow; went to Moses Lake, Washington, lost the snow in one day; went to Michigan, lost the snow in a few days; went to the border of Canada, lost the snow in two days.
"So we came to L.A. and refrigerated three stages, brought the airplanes and helicopters inside, rebuilt the entire church--which was originally a location in Denver--on the set. But we didn't get everything; I needed wider shots. Went to Lake Tahoe, the only place left with snow at that point, and shot there for two nights."
Harlin oversaw a crew of 350, about 70 of whom were employed to create a white Christmas--using plastic snow indoors, and biodegradable soap flakes and potato flakes outside.
Despite all the delays and cost overruns from moving that crew from state to state--with final budget estimates as high as $60 million, though Harlin claims it was lower--he says he never thought too much about the prospect of fumbling the project and being remembered as the man who killed the "Die Hard" franchise.
"It was intimidating in the beginning. But I never thought, 'This is too big, I can't do this.' I'm fairly experienced with effects and opticals and stunts, because every one of my pictures has had those elements. I realized that now, with a budget, I can really show what I can do--and if I screw up, I'll be killed. I'll be thrown into movie jail and never let out."
Harlin remembers being a movie buff at age 5 back in Finland, creating cinematic realms in his imagination and pretending his parents and friends were supporting characters to his leading role. At the age of 15, he told pals he wanted to be a director--not just any kind of director, but an American movie director.
After a stint in a Finnish film school, all 12 of his feature-length scripts were turned down by the all-important Finnish Film Foundation. The rejections gave him just the impetus he needed to come to the States, where he managed to put together financing for an ill-inspired 1986 action picture called "Born American."
Producer Irwin Yablans subsequently hired him to direct "Prison," and in what he considers his biggest break, New Line President Robert Shea brought him on board for "A Nightmare on Elm Street IV," which proved to be the most profitable sequel in the series.
Producer Walter Hill was impressed enough by that to sign Harlin for Fox's "Alien III," on which he labored for a year. Having abandoned that project, which is still in search of a workable script, he was quickly landed by Fox for "Ford Fairlane."
If Harlin seems to have suddenly become the golden boy of studio directing, his conscience continues to nudge him toward more significant work, he says. Does the Finnish Spielberg--so far typecast as an action-oriented director--have a "Color Purple" or "Empire of the Sun" in his future?
"I've gotten to the point now where I can choose what I'm going to do. I want to use my talent for something that has a purpose, that somehow justifies my existence and my right to use money and be part of the biggest mass media in the world. . . . One of the projects that I'm developing to direct is about the environment and the ozone layer and about nuclear weapons and whales and dolphins and everything. I want to do movies that say something."