He’s directed such big-budget action epics as Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger and Cutthroat Island, but with his latest film 5 Days of War, director Renny Harlin explores some very different material as a filmmaker. It stars Rupert Friend and Richard Coyle as a pair of journalists who witness the atrocities of Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia, only to discover that the rest of the world isn’t interested in seeing their evidence.
While 5 Days of War may be one of the most significant projects in Harlin’s career to date, it was all but buried during its brief US theatrical outing this past summer. The director recently sat down to discuss his hopes for the film’s new lease of life as it now arrives on DVD…
Let’s start with the obvious question: why did this film not get the attention it deserved?
I think when you have the word ‘war’ in a title it’s not going to get a lot of people out in and into the theaters. People are so oversaturated by the evening news and what they see going on in the world, it doesn’t really feel like entertainment for them.
I was at a point in my career where after 25 years, having done all the action movies and so on, I really needed to do something that would have meaning for me. I needed to find something that connected me emotionally to the subject matter, so when I heard about this project, I passionately went after it.
Naturally in my dreams the movie would have been Apocalypse Now but I have to accept that it’s a very tough marketplace nowadays. This movie is very hard to pinpoint in the theatrical market in terms of who will come to the theater to see it.
I hope it’s going to find people on DVD and through all the other distribution methods. Those who like action can find it and those who like to watch movies that have to do with real issues will find it, so I hope it will have a grass roots life that way.
What was it about this project that attracted you to it?
That probably had its roots in me being from Finland and having grown up in a small country in the shadow of a super power, which in those days was the Soviet Union. When I read about this story, I just felt, ‘Here’s another country that used to be part of the Soviet Union, who has now been independent for 20 years.’
Georgia is a beautiful little Mediterranean country with an incredible history and culture, who and got pummeled by Big Brother and the world barely reacted to it, so I felt it was a David Goliath story that it was really worth telling.
What was relatable about this story was that these people are not in Africa or the Middle East; they don’t dress differently or have a completely different culture. They’re actually in a Mediterranean country very much like anywhere in the US or Europe, they’re a peaceful people, growing wine, fruits and vegetables.
So hopefully it would be a very relatable story for anybody in the western world who watched it.
Stylistically, this is a very different filmmaking style for you, isn’t it? Some of the early scenes have an almost documentary-like feel to them.
I wanted to start the film with a sequence that really puts the audience there and makes you feel what it feels like to be a journalist in these situations with a lot of confusion and chaos going on. And then I wanted to segue from that sequence into more of a classical storytelling style.
I didn’t want this to feel like I was copying the style from a movie like The Hurt Locker. I wanted to give it its own style, but I did hire a cameraman named Checco Varese, who used to be a war cameraman from Nicaragua to Rwanda and seen all of it firsthand. I wanted him to bring in that feeling of being there.
The action sequences feel very real. Is that a big advantage over CG, where the characters don’t feel as though they’re in real jeopardy?
That’s exactly what I was after. My roots are in filmmaking before CG, so with movies like Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger, we really had to do things in-camera with real actors, sometimes with stuntmen or matte paintings.
It was the old-fashioned way to do it, and I feel that in today’s movies, while I may enjoy some of them, sometimes it feels like you’re watching an animated movie. No matter how good the technology is, it just doesn’t feel real and I agree, the jeopardy doesn’t feel real.
I don’t know the last time that any filmmaker had 80 tanks, a dozen helicopters and a dozen fighter jets at their fingertips. Maybe when they were shooting Patton, but I don’t think it’s been possible for decades, so I wanted to make this real and in camera. All of the explosions and all the military machinery are real.
There’s very little CG in the film. I wanted it to be made like those good old movies, making it more visceral and making the audience feel like they’re really there.
What was it like shooting in Georgia where the wounds wee still quite literally fresh?
When I went there to do my research, it was less than a year after the war, and I saw a war-torn country trying to rebuild. After talking to some of the journalists and refugees, I was determined to shoot it there, so a lot of locations in the movie are the actual locations where some of these events took place.
I was at the risk of getting in trouble with my actors, because Hollywood agents spend a lot of time negotiating five-star hotel deals for their clients, and we were staying in mountain villages with no accommodations, hotels or restaurants.
People had to sleep in farmhouses or train cars and eat in some local person’s kitchen. It turned out to be a blessing, because it became a fantastic binding experience for everybody and made us feel like a team that was there for a great reason.
Is it fair to say that most of your actors signed on because of their love for the project?
Definitely. I found the right people, who wanted to do this for the right reasons, so there was never a word of complaint. There was only enthusiasm and a ‘Let’s get this done!’ kind of feeling. We had a premiere in Georgia earlier this year, and it was an incredible experience.
A lot of the actors flew back all the way from the States to be there. It was so emotional to see thousands of people lined up in the streets screaming and applauding.
What are you happiest with as far as your work on 5 Days of War?
Showing the country of Georgia and introducing it to the world. Showing the beauty of that place, its people and the culture. That was my most important accomplishment.
No matter what people think about the story, the characters or the actions, I think everyone will come away saying, ‘Wow, I didn’t know that Georgia was such a beautiful country, with such an interesting culture!’
I worked very hard on the film and put my full heart in it.