If you can say anything about famed director Renny Harlin, it’s that he’s one filmmaker who likes to go big. The Hollywood veteran has reached a high level of fame with several blockbuster releases, and lists such famous titles as Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger, The Long Kiss Goodnight and Deep Blue Sea to his name. Yet people are too poised to forget his contributions to the horror genre, from the psychological thriller Mindhunters to A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master to The Covenant and The Exorcist: The Beginning. But Renny Harlin seems to be taking a different path from his standard fare, this time venturing to the unforgiving snowy slopes of Russia’s Far North in a low-budget “found footage” film, Devil’s Pass, coming out on August 23rd from IFC Films. The film tells the story of five young Americans traveling abroad to investigate the mysterious deaths of nine Soviet Hikers in the notorious 1959 Dyatlov Pass incident. In an exclusive interview, Diabolique got the chance to talk to Renny Harlin and ask him about his latest film and some of his inspirations along the way through his illustrious career.
DIABOLIQUE: Thank you for taking the time out to talk to us here at Diabolique Magazine about your upcoming film, Devil’s Pass. Our staff and our readers greatly appreciate it.
RENNY HARLIN: Of course. My pleasure.
DIABOLIQUE: What exactly attracted you so much to the original story of the famed Soviet Dyatlov Pass Incident in 1959? Did you have a personal connection to the story, or was it Vikram Weet’s script itself that first sparked your interest?
HARLIN: It was something that I read about and had seen a couple of documentaries on, and so for quite a while I had been sort of pondering it as one of those interesting mysteries [we come across] in our lifetimes and no one seems to have the solution. There’s all these obvious “Area 52” type stories, but [the Dyatlov Pass Incident] is actually something where there is concrete evidence that something very strange took place there. There were photographs, maps and reports, and yet still no one was able to figure out what the heck happened. So I was looking for an angle to figure out how to tell the story. Then, with the screenwriter, we thought [about] making it relevant to today’s world; making it about a bunch of young people today. We figured we could use the real events as the jumping off points; [this] would be the most interesting way of approaching it.
DIABOLIQUE: Most of the original Dyatlov hikers were quite young, many of them in their early twenties. What impact did this have on you while directing the five actors to play twenty-something American hikers?
HARLIN: Well, we tried to reflect the original group. They were just young students. They were people who go hiking and just [like to] have some fun. They were Russians in the 1950’s, but I’m sure they dealt with very similar things that young people do. So we wanted to sort of echo who they were: what they went through, what they thought they were going to do, how to trip was going to go and how our bright eyed young people put themselves in the same situation and get a little more than what they bargained for.
DIABOLIQUE: Where there any films that you feel were an influence to you and the Devil’s Pass?
HARLIN: There are a couple of documentaries that they made about this incident, and of course, there’s other found footage movies. You know, the funny thing is sometimes what happens when you’re developing a movie. We started working on the script a few years ago. After putting the script together, putting all the financing together, after making the movie, all that took [a great deal of] time. So by the time the movie’s coming out, there’s been like 180 million found footage movies! When we were starting it was a pretty fresh thing. Of course, Blair Witch happened years ago, but in terms of the wave of other found footage movies, there hadn’t been that many. But of those, I would say those kinds of movies are my favorite within the [horror] genre. My favorite I would say is maybe [REC]. [It was] definitely something that inspired me.
DIABOLIQUE: Did you feel you had to change or adapt Devil’s Pass while in production or in pre-production to distance it from the movies in that wave of ‘found footage’ films that sort of flooded the market?
HARLIN: No. Not really. I felt like we had our own story to tell. It didn’t really have any effect. The only thing is now I feel like, to a certain extent, the freshness of the [technique within the] genre has worn out quite a bit. I wish we could have come out with this movie a few years ago.
DIABOLIQUE: That actually segues nicely into my next question. You’ve directed quite a number of Hollywood big budget films, such as A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger, The Long Kiss Goodnight and Deep Blue Sea to name a few. Yet you went so intimate with this low-budget, ‘found footage’ film. Why was this? Was it the story that attracted you so much, or the found footage horror convention itself?
HARLIN: It was a combination. It was this story that I found very fascinating, and then just the idea of making a found footage movie. Because there had been a few good ones, like Cloverfield and, like I mentioned, [REC]. And so I thought it would be an interesting exercise to see what it is like to make a movie like that where the rules of filmmaking are very different. Because when you’re making a “normal movie” you tell the story points and drama through what angles, close ups and wide angles, and [by] moving the camera, whatever, and probably, when you go to the set you rehearse for fifteen minutes and shoot for five hours.
In this one it is the opposite because you can’t really use anything the same way at all, [especially] coverage! So you have to figure out how, pretty much in one camera angle, you tell a story of a certain scene and make it look organic and natural. So it’s kind of the opposite. You rehearse for five hours and it’s like a play. You figure out where everybody is and everybody goes, how the camera moves, and then you shoot it in fifteen minutes. It’s like, you do a couple of takes and, if you rehearse it well, it’s done and there is no coverage. So it was kind of a learning curve for the actors and the cameramen. Saying like, “Oh, why can’t we just do a close up of the thing” and I’m like, “Well if it’s not in the shot that we are designing, then we can’t because it doesn’t really follow the rules”. In that sense, it was a very interesting exercise.
DIABOLIQUE: You were talking about issues concerning coverage. Many of our readers and staff are filmmakers themselves and empathetically speaking, the location looked EXTREMELY COLD up there! In what ways did the cold weather impact or challenge you in production? I can only imagine the kinds of problems one would face by shooting in a climate with such harsh weather conditions.
HARLIN: Yes, well, we went very far up north in Russia above the Arctic Circle, pretty much as far north as you could go because we wanted to make sure there was a lot of snow and that the conditions were authentic. We ended up in this little town called Kirovsk, which is a mining town and there’s a prison colony there. So, basically, the people who live in this town are either minors or relatives of prisoners. So it’s a pretty hardcore town. A small town, but very, very hardcore.
I like that kind of challenge. When I did Cliffhanger, I remember we went to the Italian Alps and shot at these 12,000 foot peaks in super harsh conditions, snow storms, cold weather. I love that! And in this case, a lot of our locations you couldn’t even get there with a car or truck or anything so we would use snow mobiles, and snow trackers and all kinds of crazy Russian military equipment to get across these plains and get on these mountains. Literally, sometimes we’d find a road they had actually kept open and there [would be] like 20 ft high snow banks on either side of the road! So it was a bizarre, absurd situation. Yes, it was snowy, it was cold, but I like that. And I feel it contributed to the look of the movie, and to the actors, and how it’s shot and everything because it becomes kind of a little bit of a quest for survival.
DIABOLIQUE: How do you like working within the horror genre? Do you feel there any restrictions as to what one can and can’t do?
HARLIN: Well you know, I kind of bounce in and out of these genres and [that] really has its roots in my childhood when my mom used to take me to the movies. I was like six and she would take me to see really scary movies because she liked horror and thrillers. A lot of Hitchcock – and I was 8 years old when I saw Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, so I was really affected by those movies. So I ended up doing my very first film as action, then technically Prison was horror, then I did Nightmare on Elm Street 4, so I kind of bounced back and forth.
[But] first of all, for me, the reason to make a movie is to have an impact on the audience. Movies are not meant to be somewhere in their own world; it’s supposed to be the marriage of the audience and the film. That’s where the magic happens. And I think people go to the movies to either be scared or to laugh or to cry or to have some kind of strong emotional experience. What I enjoy about horror is there’s nothing more satisfying than making that audience jump because they like it; it’s what they’re paying for. Over the weekend, I had a couple of young relatives, they were like twelve and they wanted to watch The Covenant. So they watched The Covenant and it was funny to see them in a couple of places where they literally jumped out of their seats and that’s what I enjoy.
I wouldn’t mind making comedies as well. All genres. As long as it’s something I feel I’m making an impact on the audience. With horror, if you have a good script, it’s the easiest way to [make something good]. But it’s interesting nowadays because sort of everything has been done on one end of the spectrum. You know, all these reality kind of movies where “the house is haunted and blah, blah, blah,” so [on one end there are your] very low- budget but very real, real kind of horror films and on the other end are the more big budget studio films. What I love to see or to do is more like a ‘70s horror film, where they had actors like Gregory Peck and Lee Remick or whoever in these thrillers or horror films or like in Rosemary’s Baby or something… [they were] actually really great actors, like movie stars and [the films had] great production values and really good scripts… but in essence, the movies [were] still horror films.
DIABOLIQUE: Well despite your claims that ‘found footage’ horror films are a bit “old hat”, I found the ending remarkably original and unique. It’s great because it actually leaves you with questions, as opposed to similar films within the subgenre that cut you off right when things just started to get interesting. Without giving too much away, what was the genesis of the film’s dramatic conclusion?
HARLIN: Obviously it’s a real event originally. There’ve been theories about aliens and military involvement and Yeti and all kinds of crazy things, but nobody has been able to figure out what really happened. So we just decided to fly with it and say, “Well, let’s offer our thing”. Nobody’s been able to figure out what it was, so our solution might be outlandish, but it’s just as possible as all the others. And we wanted people to talk and we wanted people to say like, “Well how is it possible? If that’s what happened, than how did they get here?” We wanted people to talk about that because we actually have the answers if anyone has the patience to listen.
Devil’s Pass, directed by Renny Harlin and starring Luke Albright, Ryan Hawley, Gemma Atkinson, Holly Goss, Richard Reid and Matt Stokoe, scares select theaters from IFC Films this Friday, August 23rd, and will simultaneously be available on VOD, iTunes and Amazon. For more information on Devil’s Pass, you can visit its official website, visit IFC Midnight’s Facebook or follow IFC Films on Twitter: @IFCFilms. For more from Renny Harlin, you can visit his official website or follow him on Twitter: @rennyharlin_msp. To check out our previous interview with co-stars Holly Goss, Gemma Atkinson and Ryan Hawley, you can find it here or if you’d like to check out our interview with star Luke Albright, you can find it here.
For more on Renny Harlin and Devil’s Pass, keep checking back here at DiaboliqueMagazine.com! Don’t forget to pick up Diabolique #17, available now for iPad/iPhone at the App Store, and will be on shelves and for other digital platforms VERY soon!
– By Josef Luciano