For the FRENCH version of this interview, CLICK HERE!
You are mostly famous as an action films director. Why this affection for the action genre? Who were your influences? Movies? Directors?
I think that I first fell in love with American classic cinema when I was a kid. The gangster movies from the fourties, the disaster movies, westerns and so on but especially movies from the seventies, the great action movies from Don Siegel or Sam Peckinpah. They really had original characters and cool stories. Those were the movies I was eating up when I was a kid. What happened was I already knew that I wanted to make movies, I was making those little home movies. I was fifteen when Don Siegel was shooting Telefon in Helsinki, with Charles Bronson. I wanted to go to the set and see how movies are made. They were shooting this scene by an ice-skating ring and there were those big lights and cranes and cameras everywhere and helicopters. I was trying to see and I wondered : where is Don Siegel? And then I saw this bigger-than-life character with a big parka on and he has a megaphone, a big cigar and a viewfinder and he’s telling everybody what to do! I was staring at him and I was like : that’s what I wanna do! A couple of days later in school, in social studies, the teacher asked everybody what they were planning to do with their lives and everybody wanted to be a lawyer or a doctor. Then came my turn and I said : I want to be an American action movie director!
When you started working in America, was there a lot of competition with American directors?
It was an impossible dream when I went to America first, and now having been there for a long time, a lot of young film directors seek my advice and I try to encourage them but I know how hard it is. The fact that I managed to make films in America, coming from Finland and not speaking really good English… the chances of winning the lottery were much bigger than that, it was a miracle! And I think that the biggest secret to my success was that I didn’t play by the rules, simply because I didn’t know the rules! When I got there and I was trying to meet people and find work, somebody asked me “who’s your agent?”. And I was like “What’s an agent?” I was thinking it was some sort of secret agent or something… (laughs) People said to me that I had to find myself an agent, a manager, a lawyer, a publicist and this and that… whatever! But I didn’t play by the rules so I didn’t even know you had to set an appointment or call somebody’s assistant! So I would just look up names in the telephone book : “Mmmm… Spielberg…” and just show up to the studios, go to the gate where they asked me if I had an appointment or a pass and I would say, “No, I’m just here to see Spielberg”. “Well, that’s not gonna happen!”… But in some instances, it did happen because I would just stumble on people and they were like “who is this crazy guy from Finland?” So that’s how I sorta broke in, not knowing what the rules were. Of course there were tons of other young directors trying to make it and I guess the ones that succeed are the ones who believe so strongly in their dreams, that nothing can make them give up. Of course, having some talent helps but the main thing is that you just don’t give up! You just keep running into the wall until the wall crumbles.
So, after Prison who was your first American movie and a success with horror fans, you were chosen as the director of the fourth Nightmare On Elm Street : The Dream Master, for New Line Pictures. What was that experience like? Was it harder because it was a sequel? A lot of people thought that the series had run out of steam at that point… even though they made another four sequels and a remake after yours!
Nightmare 4 was my third movie. Although it was a small budget, it was a big film for me and a huge responsibility to take this franchise. Lots of pressure! How do you do something fresh with something that people have already seen three times? So I was very nervous making that film but also very excited. And having suffered from nightmares all my life, it was a great experience and a chance to exorcise my own demons! I put a lot of my own fantasies and fears into the film! Also we took a big gamble with that film because after the audience had seen Freddy three times before, I thought it would be a mistake to make the fourth episode purely scary because people wouldn’t buy it anymore! So I felt that it was time to elevate Freddy and make him more of a superhero, almost like a James Bond kind of character! So he has a lot of heroic poses. He winks at the audience, saying : “hey, I’m back, let’s have some fun!” To me the movie became more of an opportunity to create a series of spectacular and fun scenes instead of trying to make it creepy and scary. The studio was very nervous about that approach. And it wasn’t until we had our first test screening that we knew it really worked because the audience went totally crazy and loved it! Freddy had become their friend!
Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger were your first big budget action movies in America. Could you share any memories from those films?
Oh, I remember a lot! (laughs) Both were extremely difficult movies because they dealt with snow. I’ve shot in water and all kinds of different places but snow is the hardest element, it’s time-consuming and unexpected because you never know what the weather is going to be like and how it’s gonna look like. When I shot Die Hard 2 it turned out to be THE winter in America that had less snow than any other winter in history. So we ended up going from place to place looking for false snow and it was really scary because it was my first big studio movie, so the pressure was huge! So there were definitely those nights when I just thought : “I just hope I’ll die because I don’t know how to do this!” That was very tough! Cliffhanger was easier because I had more experience now with the snow. We shot most of it in the Italian Alps and it was an amazing experience because we would go to these mountaintops that were the highest peaks of the Alps. We had to bring all the equipment, the crew, the actors, everybody up there with helicopters! It was just a fantastic and powerful experience.
What kind of freedom did you have on the second Die Hard? It was a sequel to a phenomenal hit from a major studio, so I guess the pressure to follow in the footsteps of John McTiernan must have been huge?
I don’t think that Die Hard 2 was just a copy of the first one set in another location, the story was quite different! I think that when you’re making a sequel, you owe the audience the replicating of the first experience, you owe giving them the same character in another situation. I think we succeeded with that. If I was doing it today maybe it would be different but I was happy with it! It was a really good situation because Joel Silver really believed in me and so did the studio, so I had a bit of freedom. I worked very closely with the screenwriter, Steven E. De Souza because there were lots of funny issues in the movie that we had to deal with. There were some scenes where Bruce (Willis) had to have a gun because we wanted a gunfight… In other scenes he could not have a gun because we wanted a fistfight! Figuring how he always finds a gun and then how he loses that gun was the most difficult task! (laughs) The other difficult thing was : how to get McClane from places to places because he didn’t have a car! So we invented those snowmobiles or these tunnels under the runways of the airport. There weren’t any tunnels but we decided that there would be tunnels! So we worked a lot on those issues… Another issue is that Bruce wanted to make a much more serious movie than the original. The first one was a huge hit so he wanted to develop the character and he didn’t want this movie to have any humor. He said that this should be a very real, very serious character! I said : “Bruce, the whole point of the character is that he’s an everyman, he’s serious, yes, but he has to have this self-deprecating sarcastic humor, that’s what makes him so loveable!” He said, “no, I don’t believe in that.” So that’s where our producer, Joel Silver really came in because we were like two kids arguing about it! Silver said : “why don’t we just do both? Maybe you’re right Bruce, but let’s also try Renny’s way!” Joel was looking at me like : “I know you’re right!” So whenever there’s a joke in the movie, it was always shot in two ways. When we cut the movie together, every single joke stayed in it. That was a valuable lesson for me. We test the movies because that’s how all studio movies are done and I learned that humor is gold! You can make the most serious movie about the most miserable subject matter but you have to have some humor because that’s what the human experience is! That’s how people experience life. Even at a funeral, somebody’s gonna crack a joke and you’re gonna laugh because it will help you cope with the other feelings! So I make sure that in every movie I make, there’s a light touch here and there so the audience can have a little release after all the tension!… But Bruce is a professional, you know, he comes on the set and does his work. Most of those people like Willis or Stallone are professionals who know how it’s done. Maybe they don’t hang out on the set all day cracking jokes like some actors do… maybe they’ll say : “OK, call me when you’re ready to shoot and I’ll come and do my job. I’ll be on the golf course”… But most of the time they are the best people to work with!
At the time, Cliffhanger was a huge comeback for Sylvester Stallone who came out of a series of flops. But I heard at first you didn’t want him in the movie?…
Right before Cliffhanger, Stallone had made a couple of comedies that hadn’t been so successful. And to be honest, I didn’t want him as the star of the movie! The studio wanted him! I thought it was crazy, that he was wrong for it! So they asked me to have lunch with him, just to talk to him. So I did. To be honest, I thought he was just kind of a stupid muscle guy. And he turns out to be really smart, really funny, really thoughtful. I told him : “You know, I just don’t see you in this role because you’re gonna do your Rambo thing, you’re like this superhero and there will be no humanity or realism to the story”. And he said : “I want you to tell me how you wanna make it and how you want the character to be. You’re my director and I’ll do exactly what you want, because I need it, I need to come back and I realize that I’m in trouble!” And after that talk, I said : “OK, if you let me make the movie the way I believe it should be, then let’s do it!” We shook hands and then I said : “in the opening scene, you’re gonna kill a girl.” He was like : “really?” I said : “You’re gonna kill a girl so the audience knows you’re not a superhero anymore”. And he said “OK, if that’s what you want, then we’ll do it!”
The you two made Driven, who was a lot less successful!
Yeah. There were two reasons why I made Driven : one was because I’m such a car-racing enthusiast so I couldn’t turn it down. The second one was my friendship with Sly and we wanted to make another film together. Originally it was about Formula One. I think that the biggest problem with this movie is that we could never get the rights to make a Formula One movie so it became a hybrid of something else which was unfortunate really! Not the best way to do it!
Has Stallone approached you to direct a sequel to The Expendables? You seem to be the perfect choice…
Cutthroat Island was a very good entertaining and funny movie but sadly was a huge box-office disappointment that also marked the end of a studio, Carolco, who went bankrupt. As the director of the movie, how do you cope with that kind of responsibility? At the time, didn’t you feel like the scapegoat for all of Carolco’s problems?
First, thanks a lot for liking the movie, thank you very much! I like it too and it was a dream for me to make that kind of a movie! I think that if you have to look for reasons why it wasn’t successful, one of the biggest problems was that we here ahead of our time : we had a woman as the leading character in an action movie! Geena Davis is a great actress but maybe she wasn’t what the teenage boys wanted to see. In terms of Carolco, I’ll tell you a secret : Carolco was already bankrupt well before Cutthroat Island. I know it well because I had made Cliffhanger for them. They had made very expensive movies like Rambo, Total Recall, Terminator 2, Basic Instinct, Cliffhanger… and all of them made hundreds of millions of dollars! Then the next movie was Cutthroat Island which cost 60 million to make so there’s no way that one movie could bankrupt the company! So I’m not taking responsibility for that. But yes, it was really hard and disappointing because I love the movie. And then of course, we go ten years forward and Pirates of the Caribbean is one of the biggest franchises in the world! So of course, that’s frustrating! I wanted MY movie to be that! But that’s life, you know… As my friend Stallone would say : “it’s not how many times you’re hit, it’s how many times you get up!”
What drew you to The Long Kiss Good Night? To this day I still think it is the best movie you’ve made! But once again, it didn’t set the box-office on fire… It kinda became a cult favorite over the years though…
The Long Kiss Goodnight was definitely not my idea. It was Shane Black’s script and I just loved it. At the time all the studios wanted to make that film so I was lucky that the studio I was working with bought the rights to the script! I still love that movie, I think it was a good script, with a good cast, good characters, good humor. The two main characters were really well crafted so I really enjoyed making this one, I’m very proud of it! In terms of critics it was really well-received, we got some great reviews for it but in terms of box-office success it didn’t work as well. To be completely honest I think that there were a couple of issues : one was that it was a female lead in an action movie and it probably came out a few years too early. We had the same problem with Cutthroat Island! And it may be a weird thing to say but to be completely honest I feel that, especially in America, the movie did extremely well on the East Coast and New York, Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco and so on… But in the Middle of America, a part of the audience perceived the movie as an interracial relationship between Samuel L. Jackson and Geena Davis. They thought it was a love story or something and they rejected that idea because they’re so conservative! I think it affected the movie!
You often said that Deep Blue Sea was the most difficult film you ever made. Why is that?
That was a nightmare because while snow is difficult, shooting on water and underwater is even worse! In those days we did not have the kind of CGI that exists today. We shot some real sharks in the Bahamas but we did most of the sharks work with these mechanical sharks that we had to build. And operating those computer-controlled sharks that had to be able to swim on their own and attack people was a nightmare! It was so hard to control! So technically, it was the most complicated movie I’ve ever made!
Was it difficult to impose the death of your main actor and star Samuel L. Jackson about 50 minutes into your film Deep Blue Sea?
Not really because that was designed from the beginning. To be honest I kinda used the example of the original Alien where the main character, Tom Skerritt, the captain of the ship is killed in the middle of the movie. And it’s a big surprise for the audience who goes “ oh my God, now who am I going to count on? That’s our hero!” That’s what made Alien brilliant because then Sigourney Weaver takes over. So I totally admit that I was copying that idea. I like to create surprises where the audience has to be on their toes and you don’t know who’s gonna live and who’s gonna die! That’s why I’d rather avoid hiring Tom Cruise in a movie. Because it’s very hard to make the audience feel that Tom Cruise’s character is in jeopardy! Because they know he’s Tom Cruise and he’s got to be alive and walk home at the end of the story! I did the same thing in Mindhunters : I killed Val Kilmer in the beginning of the film! By the way, that was the weirdest thing : to make a movie that’s supposed to take place on an island in South Carolina and shoot it in Holland! That’s the perfect example of those crazy tax deals that producers nowadays make. But I enjoyed working in Europe and working in Holland and I like herring a lot so… (laughs)
After Mindhunters, there were rumors of a project with Jean-Claude Van Damme. Was there any truth to that rumor?
I think that rumor was started by Jean-Claude Van Damme! (laughs)
In 2004 you were asked to come in and rescue the Paul Schrader version of The Exorcist 4 and you ended up making a different version altogether…
That was a crazy situation! Paul Schrader had made this movie for this company. A very good friend of mine was one of the people running this company. And he said that they were having problems with the film. They weren’t happy with it so they asked me to look at the film, just to give them some ideas. So I watched the film, I agreed there were some problems with it, said « you can do this and this to fix it and, hey, why don’t you ask Paul Schrader to just change it? » He said : “no, he doesn’t want to change it and we’re not in very good terms with Paul anymore”. So as a favor he asked me to reshoot these three scenes in a different way, just fix them and then we’re done!… I didn’t want to be messing around with Paul Schrader’s film. But a friend of mine talked me into it so I was just supposed to do these three scenes and then when we started preparing those, they said “why don’t we fix those other three scenes too?” And it started snowballing from a very small one week reshoot into remaking the whole fucking movie! I think it’s the only time in the history of movies where the same movie was done twice. Of course it had the same setting and some of the same characters but quite a different story. So that wasn’t really a good experience, it just wasn’t right, you know… If I had known how the situation was going to turn out, I wouldn’t have done it unless there was a completely different screenplay! It’s the most bizarre experience of my career for sure.
Did you ever discuss the whole thing with Paul Schrader afterwards?
No, we never talked about it.
Cleaner was a solid little thriller starring Samuel L. Jackson but it didn’t get a worldwide distribution. What happened there?
Yeah, It ended up having no theatrical release in America. It’s just a very good example of how studios nowadays are zeroed-in, making only a couple of genres : comic book movies, sequels and remakes, maybe some comedies and horror films! That’s the bread and butter of the studios. But smaller dramatic movies that don’t necessarily have a big movie star are very hard to sell. In today’s Hollywood, it’s not the executives or the creative producers who make decisions about what movies to make and to release, it’s the marketing people! That’s who they turn to first. A dark drama with Samuel L. Jackson who is dealing with the death of his mother while solving murders… the marketing people are going like : “what???”… (laughs) People will tell you that if you can make that movie for 5 million or ten million it’s a very good deal. But to break through the market in America, you need AT LEAST twenty or thirty million and in the case of the really big movies, hundreds of millions, just to market them! So it doesn’t matter how much the movie cost. They’d rather make a hundred million dollar movie because the marketing is gonna cost the same anyhow, so they say : “why don’t we do something big that will get the audience’s attention for sure?” Of course the sad side of this is that the smaller movies either don’t get made at all or don’t really get distribution. They used to have a second life on DVD but it’s not even the case anymore because, like the music business, the DVD business is dying right now! In the old days, let’s say five or ten years ago, you could say : “I want to make this really interesting little movie, don’t worry, we’ll make it cheaply, it may not get a theatrical release but we’ll still make money with the DVD”. But that argument doesn’t really work anymore!
With Twelve Rounds, did you deliberately try to go back to an eighties kind of action movie?
Very much so! Yes, Twelve Rounds was a return to the days when the actors did a lot of their own stunts, when stuntmen did incredible things, when things were done for real whether it’s an explosion or a car chase, the camera is there and it’s not all green screen and CGI… It was almost like an experiment in that kind of old-fashioned action filmmaking. I really had a good time doing it, I enjoyed it!
What is the most rewarding job for you? Directing or producing?
I love directing. But I enjoy and work well as a producer as well because I understand what a director needs from a producer : directors basically need to be left alone and protected by the producer. As a director, sometimes you feel like a worm on the ground and there’s a thousand birds picking at you all the time. People ask you questions all the time, from “do yo want tea or coffee?” to “how do you wanna shoot the scene?” and the director doesn’t want to have those studio executives looking over their shoulders, bothering them, giving their opinions and asking stupid questions. You don’t want to be worried about the money all the time and whether the actor had an argument with his girlfriend or not. You just want to do your work and the producer’s job is to protect the director from all that. I like that about my job as a producer, I like doing it but in terms of what I really enjoy doing, it’s being a director because that’s the creative job. And I love it when I’m on the set I’m alive, I’m like a little kid in a candy store, going crazy! Being a great director is a combination where you obviously have to have a creative vision and imagination. But you also have to be an organizer and a leader. If you can’t communicate your ideas and your vision to a huge group of people, all the artists and crew members and actors that work with you, it doesn’t help. Making movies is not like writing poetry or painting where you can be alone and be a genius with a vision. You also have to be a manager and make people follow you and believe you and help you create the movie! I hope I have at least one of these attributes myself! (laugh)
Any upcoming projects?
I’m starting work on a very big movie at the end of the Summer, a sea adventure based on real life events. I’m really excited about it! But I can’t really tell more about it or who’s going to be in it but we’ll know very soon! And then I have another project, a great horror comedy, a little bit in the vein of the first Scream but completely different. That’s the perfect film to come to this festival with. It will really blow people’s minds because it’s really violent and really funny at the same time!
Words by Grégory Cavinato.
Special thanks to Marie-France Dupagne.