‘Skiptrace’ Director Renny Harlin Talks About Why He Fled Hollywood For China

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Skiptrace, opening this week in limited theaters and VOD, is an odd movie. A Midnight Run-esque action comedy about a cop transporting an uncooperative witness across national borders, starring Jackie Chan and Johnny Knoxville, the cast and logline alone make it feel unstuck in time. And with a Finnish-American director, an all-Chinese cast and crew (and financing), and action that takes place in locations across Hong Kong, Macau, mainland China, Russia, and Mongolia, and in a mishmash of languages (dubbed, translated, and subtitled, depending on the scene), it feels a little like Rush Hour or Shanghai Noon run through Google Translate.

That odd, familiar-yet-unfamiliar quality could also apply to its 57-year-old director, Renny Harlin. Harlin has directed a series of films that are somewhat of a piece, at least in terms of their balls-out, exuberant goofiness, but he’s also impossible to entirely pin down. If he had a breakout movie that introduced him to the mainstream, it was probably A Nightmare On Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, still the biggest grossing film of the franchise behind Freddy vs. Jason (crossovers don’t count). Since then, his career has vacillated wildly. He was responsible for the Guinness-recognized biggest flop of all time (1995’s Cutthroat Island), as well smash hits (Cliffhanger, 1993), cult classics (1996’s The Long Kiss Goodnight), and everything in between (like 1999’s Deep Blue Sea, one of the strangest movies I’ve ever seen). 1990 seems like a defining Renny Harlin year, when he had a massive flop (the Razzie-winning The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, starring Andrew Dice Clay) and a massive hit (Die Hard 2) open within two weeks of each other.

These days, Harlin keeps an office in Beijing, and has lived in China for the past few years. While many directors complain about the difficulty of trying to make movies that will appeal to teenagers in Asia, Harlin was drawn by greater creative freedom. I talked to the famously risk-taking director about Skiptrace, and what it’s like making movies in a country where, as he puts it, “taking risks is still appreciated.”

How many different locations did you shoot on this movie?

Good question. We had eight major company moves which is always, when you’re making a movie like this, the machinery, equipment and crew is big. We had 400 people in the crew and we moved eight times with props and planes and trains. We started the shoot in Mongolia and then traveled across China all the way to Macau and Hong Kong and in between stopping different locations like Beijing and outside Beijing. It was a great experience for me just as a person getting to know China and seeing different parts of China. Different parts of history and culture and then as a filmmaker, to be able to shoot in such a variety of locations was great.

When we were planning the movie we really started by saying, “Okay what are some of the most interesting places in China that would look great in the movie.” We originally looking at picture books and me saying, “Okay where’s this place with this weird crazy mountains and what is this place with this beautiful grasslands.” That’s how we put the movie together — to try to be able to do a road movie that would have as many different location and looks as possible.

Was that all an artistic decision, or — I know this was a Chinese production — was part of the goal to show some cool parts of China?

This movie started 15 years ago. Jackie’s idea. Jackie had this dream of making a movie that he called his love letter to China. He wanted to show the Chinese audience and the international audience that China is not exactly what you expect and not the traditional stuff that people think China is. Certainly that it’s versatile and different. That’s how it started and then when I came on board as an outsider from America I said, “Okay with all these places and locations how we can tell the story.” It was never dictated by the producers or the financiers but it was really Jackie and me. Jackie educating me about China and me as an outsider saying what I thought that would be cool for an international audience to see.

He’s 62 now and he’s still doing a lot of these crazy stunts that he’s known for. Are there stunts that you had to keep him from trying to do himself or do you just let him go?

It’s a balancing act because he will do anything and he comes up with the craziest ideas. I have to make sure that, because when Jackie was doing his Hong Kong movies a couple of decades ago or 30 years ago, they could do anything. And if you break your leg or arm or something, then you just take a couple of months off, then you come back and keep shooting. It was the Wild, Wild East. Now when we are making a Hollywood-meets-China kind of a movie, you have a budget and you have a schedule and you have to stick to it.

I had to do everything I could to keep him safe. He still got banged up and hurt himself a few times doing the shooting but, when you’re getting older you’re not quite as flexible and able as you were when you were young. I had to run that balance of how we get the audience filled with most of Jackie Chan stuff, but don’t put him in situations where he’s going to get hurt. He’ll do anything, so it was up to me trying to hold him back.

Was there anything specifically that he wanted to do that you held him back from doing?

When we were doing the river sequence in these rapids, he wanted to do it all himself. It wasn’t until afterwards that I learned that he’s not really a good swimmer. In fact he can’t really swim. I didn’t know that and so we put him in these rapids and they are pretty extreme and you can get banged up with the rocks. You got to be able to really maneuver in it. We had a couple of hairy moments there where, knowing later on that he couldn’t really swim that well, I would have never done it if I had known. But he didn’t tell me.

On this movie you got Jackie Chan and you got Johnny Knoxville who are both known for stunts in different ways. Which one of them do you think is the better actor?

Hands down I got to give it to Jackie. Jackie is a great actor. He has such an amazing history. He started when he was 5 years old. He went to the Beijing opera and he was trained as a performer there. Then he became a stunt man and an actor and a choreographer and a director. He’s done it all and he’s really an amazing dramatic actor. I would compare him to Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton in terms of being able to combine physical action with really awesome personal stuff and emotional stuff.

What you see in his movies, it’s really him. He comes up with that stuff and he knows how to pull your emotional strings and I think that as he’s getting older I think we’ll see him do more dramatic parts because he knows that there’s a limit to what you can do physically when you’re getting older. I think we’ll see more of that. Not to take anything from Johnny. I was really impressed with him having come through the gag videos and stuff that he started with. He actually also is a really good actor and a good dramatic actor. I think there are some really nice moments between them in the movie where you see both of them be very sincere and real and I think they complimented each other and both do a great job outside the action stuff.

Then Chan he seems like, like you said, he brings a certain slapstick to action movies and to shooing stunts. Do you think the mainstream action movies have lost that sense of comedy and slapstick when they shoot some of their action sequences?

Yes. I think that Hollywood action movies have become very formulaic like and rely on superheroes nowadays. Studios are very cautious of doing anything else. You have these comic book heroes and you use a lot of CG digital effects and the heroes of these movies have become invulnerable. They can go through anything. They can be blown up and smashed and fly through the air and nothing really touches them anymore. I think we’ve lost a lot of what makes these characters human and what makes them, us to connect to them emotionally. What makes them funny.

Actually, while I’m saying that there’s some movies that I really have enjoyed like Guardians of the Galaxy where Chris Pratt’s character is very human while being a superhero but he’s still human. Or Deadpool where Ryan Reynolds’s character is still very real while being able to do crazy, crazy stuff. Those are exceptions. I feel that a lot of the Hollywood movies have lost the, instead of having characters that are relatable, that are funny, we are replacing that with insanely spectacular action that you end up just watching the movie for the epic, crazy stuff. It’s like a video game or amusement park ride that is the giant instead of characters that actually make you feel and make you have fun because of who they are.

Guardians of the Galaxy must have felt like a huge risk for Marvel when they decided to do that movie. I commend them for taking the risk because it could have been a movie that just fell slap on its face, but the director, James Gunn obviously knew what he wanted to do and how to do it.

That’s the only way to advance the entertainment and art of film is by taking risks. Hollywood is super scared of taking risks and that’s why I’m in China because this is the Wild, Wild East, and here taking risks is still appreciated at this time.

I’ve read a lot about you talking about it being easier to make films in China now. Are there any drawbacks? Have there been any difficulties to making movies there?

Everybody in Hollywood, they want to come to China, they want to get the money that is here and throw around these ideas of co-productions and let’s work together and let’s make Chinese movies that appeal to the Western audiences, and let’s make Hollywood movies that appeal to the Chinese audience. Let’s put American movie stars in Chinese movies and let’s put Chinese actors in Hollywood movies. But it’s easier said than done.

I think that there’s going to be a lot of disappointment where it doesn’t work, because Hollywood doesn’t understand the Chinese culture. Chinese financiers and producers, both of those want to make Chinese movies that would appeal to the Western audience but there’s still a long way to go and lot of lessons to be leaned. I would say I’ve now lived in China for two and half years. I’m really immersing myself in this culture and understanding, trying to understand how it works and how this culture is good benefit for me and working together. But it has to be a natural fit.

You can’t just take a Hollywood script and change the name to Chinese guy and say okay great now we have a great Chinese movie. You have to really understand how you can integrate these elements and make them work in an organic way. That’s the biggest challenge and I think it’s going to take some time for that to work out.

Do you read your reviews? Does what you do change at all based on how it seems to be received?

I don’t read my reviews. I haven’t done that since I started my career, because it’s one person’s opinion and it’s great to read something where somebody says, oh that was awesome or oh you did a great job. Of course it makes you feel good. Then same way, you read something where people say, you’re such an idiot and this was so bad. You don’t have any understanding of what you’re doing. Because you are a human being, that makes you feel bad.

I prefer to just do my best and I always when I finish a movie, I always think I could have done a better job and I could have done things differently. There are so many factors in the making of the movie. You’re working with dozens of people and you’re trying to bring all these people together to do something cool and make the right decisions and make the best possible movie and hopefully please the audience. It’s not easy and I prefer not to read the review and I just prefer to be my own toughest critic and try to do a better job next time.

Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.