How Renny Harlin Shot 3 ‘Strangers’ Movies in 52 Days

“I thrive under pressure,” the “Long Kiss Goodnight” filmmaker tells TheWrap

Renny Harlin
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Before Renny Harlin directed action-packed Hollywood blockbusters like “Die Hard 2” and “Cliffhanger,” he made ruthlessly efficient horror movies like “Prison” and “Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master.”

This week, he returns to his roots with “The Strangers: Chapter 1,” a reinvention of the home invasion thriller from 2008 and the first in a unique, three-part “Strangers” saga that will continue to be released for the next year.

“I blame my mother,” Harlin said about his attraction to horror movies. He was “under 10” when his mother first showed him Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” He “vividly remembers” seeing “Rosemary’s Baby” in a theater when he was just eight. He also saw Hitchcock’s “Frenzy,” notable for being the only Hitchcock film to garner an R rating in its initial release.

“I would guess that I was maybe 11 or 12, and I vividly remember how uncomfortable it was to sit next to my mom. There are these horrible rape scenes and killings going on,” Harlin recalled. “I remember there’s a woman with her breasts exposed. And there’s a guy going, ‘You want it, don’t you want it?’ And I was like, What’s going on? But my mom thought that it was a good education for me.” Ultimately, Harlin wound up a huge horror fan, drawn to horror comics and the stories of Edgar Allan Poe, and would even write his own morbid tales and draw storyboards of imagined movies.

He revealed he was inspired by action movies, too, and his first film, a Finnish production called “Born American,” was initially supposed to star Chuck Norris. Norris backed out, but Harlin made the movie anyway. “I wanted to make my first movie, just wanting to have my voice heard,” Harlin said. “I felt like it was the strongest way to have his calling card to Hollywood, coming from Finland. And doing something visual, doing something that will wake up people.” When he got to America, he went right into horror with “Prison,” and he’s been toggling back and forth between the genres ever since.

Harlin describes the new ”Strangers” project as “an opportunity.” “When I received the script and it was 280 pages long, I realized what we were about to embark on. It just felt like an incredible opportunity – a horror odyssey where you really get to go deeper than ever into the psyche of the victims and the killers,” he said.

It was also the latest example of the elasticity of Harlin’s career. He has directed features big and small, spent time in television, made movies in China and back in Finland (you’ll be forgiven if you missed “Reunion 3: Singles Cruise”). In 2024, he’ll have four movies added to his résumé – beyond the three “Strangers” movies, he also directed the sturdy action movie “The Bricklayer,” starring Aaron Eckhart.

“Hollywood has gone through huge transformations in the last few decades. And I always say that if you want to stay with it, you have to be able to reinvent yourself all the time and fit into what’s going on in the culture and the zeitgeist,” Harlin said. “If you refuse to bend, you will break. There are many great directors who have not been able to readjust to the realities of Hollywood.”

For example, he describes his time in China as a “coincidence.” He initially went there to direct the Jackie Chan/Johnny Knoxville movie “Skiptrace.” “I fell in love with the country and they fell in love with me and we just became a thing,” Harlin said, comparing it to downhill skiing. “You have to find the right place to get more speed under your skis to be able to go over another slope.”

The chance to do the “Strangers” movies came from Lionsgate and producers Mark Canton and Courtney Solomon. “They wanted to reinvent and reimagine the ‘Strangers’ universe and their ambitious goal was to do something completely new. We want to shake up the release plans of studios a little bit, too, based on the streaming model,” Harlin noted. Their “ambitious goal” also came with some extreme restrictions – the producers proposed that Harlin shoot the three movies “in basically 50 days or 52 days.” He recalled the team saying, “We know one person who could actually pull this off and do it within the budget and the schedule and who has done this before – has done sequels and big movies and small movies and understands this world.”

However, Harlin loved the original and didn’t want to step on those filmmakers’ toes. “We were reinventing this franchise and reimagining it, using the original movie and its core concept of a home invasion as a jumping off point and then being able to go deeper — like how some of the good streaming series do — into the story and the characters, both victims and the perpetrators,” Harlin explained. “It was a fantastic opportunity. I jumped right in and I was like, ‘I’m your guy, I know how to do this.’”

Well, sure, but how do you actually shoot three movies in 52 days?

The “huge challenge” started, Harlin admitted, with the decision to not shoot the movies back-to-back, like, say, the “Matrix” movies or the two initial “Pirates of the Caribbean” sequels. Instead, they would shoot all three movies simultaneously, “Because there are certain locations that at least partially appear in all three movies.” Harlin said that on Monday morning they would be shooting movie No. 3, then Monday afternoon would be movie No. 1 and then Tuesday morning would be movie No. 2. It drove the costume department crazy, who oscillated between bloody clothes and pristine new pieces. The actors, too.

To make sure everybody was on the same page, Harlin would make charts for himself and other members of the crew, not only of where the characters were and what movie they were making, but about the style of shooting, what lenses he would be using and how the scenes were being lit. “If you don’t do that planning, your instinct is, of course, to always give everything,” Harlin said. He wanted to prevent actors from, “crying full on in every single scene.” “You have to have an arc to the character and the story and everything else … With these emotional charts and crying charts that I made, I was able to keep track of, OK, this is where we should be.”

Further complicating matters was the fact that the movie was shot mostly at night. Oh, and his 3-week-old baby with wife Johanna, who were both on set with him. “I was working at night and I wasn’t there when the baby was up and being fed and all that stuff, but then the baby was up during the day when I was supposed to sleep,” Harlin revealed. “I loved it. I thrive under pressure. And in super tough conditions.” In fact, One of his favorite experiences was making “Cliffhanger,” when he spent six months in the Italian Alps: “Just incredibly cold snow storms, helicopters, just inhumane conditions shooting above 10,000 feet where the air is pretty thin … I feel like I get the best results in that kind of an environment compared to being in a studio with a blue screen.”

“The Strangers: Chapter 1” generally follows the contours of the original movie; a young couple (this time played by “Riverdale” breakout Madelaine Petsch and Froy Gutierrez from “Hocus Pocus 2”) as they are terrorized by murderous masked intruders. It’s simple. It’s effective. It’ll scare teenagers who go see it at the mall on a Friday night. But the question remains: where is this new “Strangers” series headed?

“We go in directions that you will never guess,” Harlin said. During production, which he described as a “living beast,” there was a lot of “rewriting and recreating.” Actors had input. Producers, too. He got to shoot things that he described as “dream scenes” – not dream sequences; he’s done plenty of that before (hello, Freddy) but scenes that he’d always wanted to do. “I won’t tell you what those are,” Harlin noted, “but I’ve always wanted to do a scene in a submarine. There is no scene in a submarine in these movies, but those kind of contained space scenes, where it’s really a pressure cooker.”

It’s also worth mentioning that even Harlin’s past has a way of reinventing itself.

Take, for instance, “Cutthroat Island,” his notorious 1995 adventure film that was a huge headache to make, with Matthew Modine filling in last minute for Michael Douglas alongside Harlin’s then-wife Geena Davis and which shipwrecked when it was released. Critics pilloried it and it lost so much money that one of the production companies responsible for the movie folded entirely. But now it’s seen as something of an underrated gem. It was co-written by Robert King, who would go on to become one of the most beloved showrunners of the prestige era. Plus, it predicted the rise of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films. A 4K UHD re-release of the film recently came out and looks gorgeous.

“It’s a movie that just keeps following me, my whole life for sure,” Harlin said. “I’m proud of that movie.” He added that everybody has movies that they are not so proud of – maybe the script wasn’t ready and he just tried his best. These are the movies that he doesn’t offer up if someone asks what movie of his they should see. But “Cutthroat Island” is different, he doesn’t feel ashamed of it. “I really feel like it is what I thought it should have been, which is, it’s an adventure movie. I think it’s beautiful. I think the locations look gorgeous. I think the sets look great. The costumes. I think it has some amazing action stuff. I don’t even know how we did those sea battles. And it was so much fun to make. Maybe we are being punished for the fact that it was fun to make.”

Harlin also said that there are so many reasons why that movie never had a chance in theaters. He doesn’t believe that people hated it, and its Rotten Tomatoes audience score of 40% does indeed suggest a mild indifference, not outright apathy. Instead, he blames its failure on the fact that “people didn’t know about it.” “It didn’t really get a release. Nobody saw the movie. And it just became this like, ‘Oh, that’s such an expensive movie and such a flop.’ Yes, it was a flop. But I’m proud of that movie. I love that movie. I think it’s beautiful. And all that energy and sense of fun that we had when we were making it, I feel like it’s on the screen. And I’m not embarrassed about that movie at all,” Harlin said.

Another movie that follows him around — although nearly impossible to find — is “The Adventures of Ford Fairlane,” which starred Andrew “Dice” Clay as a music world private detective (there’s a running joke about him watching INXS’ koala). “If I end up in a some s–t-kicking bar somewhere in middle America and some guy finds out that I did ‘Ford Fairlane,’ it’s like free drinks for the whole night,” Harlin said. “There is a huge fanbase for the movie, who know it by heart. They are really hardcore fans.”

The movie was made under extreme expectations – Clay was supposed to be a movie star after it came out, but was derailed by his envelope-pushing comedy that was perceived as anti-gay, which Harlin insists was not the case. “Literally weeks before that movie came out, it was like ban Andrew Dice Clay from everything. He’s a horrible person,” Harlin recalled. “That killed the release of the movie.” Harlin also doesn’t know why it’s so hard to find now; there’s a Blu-ray that has gone long out of print and it isn’t available digitally anywhere. “They could make some money with it, because people would like to see that movie.”

If the rest of his career is any indication, it’s just one reinvention away.

“The Strangers: Chapter 1” is in theaters now.

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