You’d think I’d have done a lot more Renny Harlin interviews in my career. I certainly watched everything as a young film aficionado, from Nightmare on Elm Street IV through Driven, and even Mindhunters and 12 Rounds. Now we can correct this oversight because Harlin has a new movie coming out this week.
Devil’s Pass is a found footage thriller about a film crew investigating the Dyatlove Pass, where nine Russian skiers died mysteriously in 1959. Everyone tells the filmmakers they’re crazy, and everyone is right because bad stuff happens to them in the mountains.
On the phone, Harlin was on about a second delay, but we had a great rapport bouncing from his Hollywood oeuvre to Devil’s Pass and back and onto Hercules 3D. But first, an age old question that has plagued me since I first moved to Los Angeles. Spoilers for Deep Blue Sea…
CraveOnline: This is really significant interview for me because when I first moved to L.A., before I was even a journalist, I got to go to one of those early test screenings for Deep Blue Sea and I saw the original ending!
Renny Harlin: Oh my God, that’s funny. You are one of the few in the world.
And it was only a month before the movie opened. Did you recompose that entire ending in a month? [Note: In the test version, Saffron Burrows’ character escapes the shark infested water and saves the day. In the release version, she gets eaten violently.]
Yeah, it was one of those great surprises where we thought, okay, we hope it works. At the test screening, as you might remember, the audience was really with the movie and when Sam Jackson gets eaten, the audience was screaming and laughing and we thought, okay, it’s a home run. When it came to the last seven minutes of the film, all of a sudden it just fell flat like a pancake and people kind of hated it. We were like, what the hell happened?
It just shows how sometimes you can be clueless and you’re so deep in the project that you can’t read the audience’s mind. Basically what had happened was that the audience felt so deeply that the scientist character, the woman who was behind the whole experiment with the sharks, that it was all her fault. In their minds, she was the bad guy and in our minds, she was the heroine and we thought saving her was the key. Basically, we had test cards that said, “Kill the bitch.” It was an amazing revelation.
I remember us all sitting down and going, “Holy shit, we are in trouble. How do we fix this?” It was my idea, I said, “Okay, we don’t have time for a big reshoot but I have an idea. When she falls in the water, what if she doesn’t survive. She gets eaten by the sharks and L.L. Cool J is the hero. Everybody likes him, and Thomas Jane.” We did a one-day reshoot at Universal Studios’ tank and it was a really simple shoot we did in order to change the ending of it. We did some CG work on the sharks and stuff like that, but it was a super fast fix and it saved the movie because the audience got what they wanted. It just goes to show that no matter how smart we think we are, it’s the audience who will tell us how it’s really supposed to be.
That’s still amazing to turn it around that fast. Did you actually remove Saffron Burrows from shots she was in at the end?
Yes, yes, we did.
Well, I hope I didn’t write “kill the bitch” on my test card. That’s mean. [Sadly, I probably did. You’re welcome, cinema.]
So now you directed a movie in the mountains again, 20 years after Cliffhanger. What were the differences?
It definitely reminded me of that situation. Of course, Cliffhanger was the Italian Alps and now we were in the darkest, most northern Russia. We were in a little town called Kirov. Their claim to fame is they have the most northern prison gulag in Russia. It has some very deep mines there, so it’s this little town basically. Everybody who lives in the town was either a miner or a relative of somebody who was in prison. So it was a pretty dark little place, then surrounded by high mountains and 20 feet of snow and freezing, freezing temperatures. Other than going to the South Pole or something like that, it was probably the harshest place on earth.
But I thrive in a situation like that. I love it. I think that it puts the crew and the cast in the right frame of mind and really gives a lot to the movie, besides it being the surroundings where we shoot. It actually affects everybody and how they work and how we become kind of a commando unit together, so I love it.