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Articles - Cinematography

Renny Harlin

Finnish director Renny Harlin has been actively making
big-budget, action films in the U.S. since the mid-1980s, when he
made a splash with the high-profile sequels A Nightmare on Elm
Street 4: The Dream Warriors
and Die Hard 2: Die Harder.
Since then, Harlin has gone on to direct numerous mainstream action
pictures, including Cliffhanger, The Long Kiss Goodnight,
and Deep Blue Sea. From the set of his latest movie, the
auto-racing-themed Driven, written by and starring Sylvester
Stallone, Harlin reflects on conceiving action sequences for his
films, making them happen on set, and why he longs to someday cross
genres.

MovieMaker: What are you criteria
for choosing a movie? Why the penchant for action films?

Renny Harlin: When I started out as
a film director, which was my lifelong dream, I wanted to make action
films because I found them exciting, interesting and challenging.
It was like a big sandbox with all the toys you could play with.
It was also a way for me to use my imagination and visual sense
to give people something really entertaining. When it comes to Driven,
for me, this is a lifelong dream. I have been a racing fan since
I was a kid. A couple of years ago, Sly and I-who are friends-put
our heads together and said, ‘We both love racing; we travel
around the world to all of these Formula One races; why don’t
we try to put together a movie about this?’

MM: Was it tough to sell Driven as more than just another car chase flick?

RH: Yeah, but we had two selling points:
First of all, it is not like a traditional Stallone movie, because
it is really about the ensemble of four ambitious men – the drama
between the different drivers against the backdrop of racing. Also,
there hasn’t really been this type of a race car movie since Grand Prix. The technology we have now, in terms of both
digital sound and visuals allows us to give the audience an experience
that is absolutely beyond what they have seen before. Having now
shot 52 days of our 70 days, I can tell you that the audience is
going to experience what it is like to be strapped in a car, in
the driver’s place, going 240 miles-per-hour on a track. It’s
the ultimate ride. I haven’t had this much fun in years. I
feel so alive and I am so excited every day I go to the set. Just
seeing the results of what we are shooting, I cannot wait to show
the audience what it is going to look like.

MM: How do you go about writing the
action sequences into the actual script? Or is this something that
is done at a later point?

RH: I’ve never seen a script that
describes the action in terms of how it is going to be shot. What
I always do in the early stages of pre-production is storyboard
everything, build miniatures of the sets, and use little miniature
cameras to look around it. I always look for that angle that would
give a most unusual way of seeing the subject, and it doesn’t
have to be the point of view of the human eye. On the contrary,
it should be the point of view of something where the human eye
can never be. In Driven, I am trying to make the camera like
this strange bird that is following these cars and flying around
them and giving the audience a head-spinning experience of what
it’s really like to be there instead of being an observer.

MM: Give me an example of the thought
process you go through when designing one of your much revered action
shots.

RH: I am doing a sequence in one of
the races where there are two guys competing for the victory. The
other one wins just by a matter of inches as they come down the
main straightaway, 240-mph towards us. One car passes the other
just by inches right before the finish line. I have this wide straightaway,
and I have the race cars. What I am going to do is place the camera
on a crane in the middle of the raceway. The cars are going to be
coming toward me [at] over 200 mph, and my camera is low-right
on the level of the asphalt. The cars are going to split the camera,
left and right. As they come toward me, I crane up fast and tilt
down, so that I see them under me as they are about to cross the
finish line . But right there -where they would obviously zip
past me so fast you could never tell what happened-I am going
to morph into digital cars. You will never be able to tell whether
they are real or digital. The time freezes on these cars that are
just smoking past the camera. They go past the finish line as if
you had shot it 5,000 frames-per-second. In extreme slow motion,
you see the smoke from the tires and how the cars are reacting to
the G-forces. You see, extremely slowly, how they go over the finish
line. You see clearly that the other car wins by inches. Then, in
a flash, you go back into normal time and the cars rocket past you.

MM: What is it like directing Sylvester
Stallone, a man who obviously has a ton of experience both in front
of and behind the camera?

RH: My main direction to Sly is don’t
do the Rambo, low-voiced, tough guy thing. Just be you-a normal,
nice, vulnerable human being. His character is a failure in this
movie. He’s not a champion, but he’s learning that it’s
not about who crosses the finish line first. It’s about coming
to terms with your demons and finding some kind of meaning in your
life.

MM: With so many large-scale, action
films under your belt, do you ever have an urge to work on a smaller
film in some other genre?

RH: I would love to make a movie that
has no explosions, no effects; [a movie that is] totally about people.
When I read about Cameron Crowe doing this great movie, I was not
jealous, but I thought, ‘Somebody, please give me that chance
one day, to be able to tell that type of story.’ I have
had this conversation with Sly many times. He said, ‘You’re
great with drama, but how can you give up this big stuff?’
Ultimately, I have to come to terms with that and say ‘What
do I really want to do with my life, who do I want to be, and who
do I want to be remembered as?’ Maybe there’s a balance
and I could do both.

For more information on Renny Harlin, link to: http://www.rennyharlin.com

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