China, Directors, Features, Filmmakers, Finland, Hong Kong, Interviews

Renny Harlin interview: “I happened to be the right guy in the right place at the right time”

We talk to the Finnish director about his move from Hollywood to China, and his latest film Bodies At Rest

James Mudge spoke to director Renny Harlin before the Opening Gala screening of his latest film Bodies At Rest at Hong Kong International Film Festival 2019.

James Mudge: I’d be very interested to learn more about your decision to locate to China and why you decided to start making films in China.

Renny Harlin: It was really one of those things in life, and I was really in the right place at the right time. Having lived in Hollywood for 25 years, I had made movies all around the world, and tried to make a movie with Jackie Chan twice earlier, but it didn’t work out, so he approached me with Skiptrace, which is now exactly five years ago, and I flew to Hong Kong to talk to him and we decided to make the movie together, and I thought OK, this is fun, but it’s like so many of my other movies that I made in other countries, I come here five or maybe six months, go back and edit it back in LA and life continues, but it happened to be an unusual movie in the sense that it was a road movie, so we travelled with the story, all the way from Inner Mongolia to Macau and many other places in between, so I got this amazing view of different types of China and its cultures, and food and architecture.

I just found it incredibly fascinating and thought there must be something genetic, I don’t know, but there’s something between Finnish and Chinese people which just works, and it starts maybe with us being little bit introverted, a bit shy on the first level but very open when you get to know people. I just felt like I belonged here, and the whole experience of working with a Chinese crew turned out to be great, and felt very different to the very organised Hollywood way of doing things where everyone has an exact role, and it was more like being surrounded by 400 people who all work together, and you throw people at a problem and it gets done. It was a great experience and we finished the movie under schedule and under budget, and word got around that I was this guy from Hollywood who didn’t bring his own people to show the Chinese people how it was done, but wanted to work by the rules of the Chinese people.

I learned so much, and liked it, and all of a sudden I started getting offers for other movies, the market was just starting to explode in China and producers felt this was a good marriage and that I could bring elements from my Hollywood career and work in the Chinese system and just make it happen, so I made the decision after I got hired for my second movie, I said OK, I’m moving here, getting rid of my home in LA and moving here. And it’s been fantastic, it’s now been 5 years, I’ve made 3 movies the third one premieres here tonight.

I just finished a fourth movie in Abu Dhabi literally three days ago, finished the shoot there, which is not a Chinese movie, it’s an American movie, but I had a window and it popped in. But I’m definitely back here and I started my own company here last spring in May, we got funding for it so that we have our own development fund. We have half a dozen really exciting movie projects in different stages, some are finished scripts, some are treatments, we have another half dozen TV series that we’re negotiating with iQIYI and Yoku and Tencent, talking to Netflix about things, so it’s just turned out to be this incredible launchpad for me, and I definitely happened to be the right guy in the right place at the right time, and in a way it surprises me and I get asked a lot about it, like where are the others? I’ve been out doing it and had some success out here, working solidly and making films for theatrical release, and so why aren’t others following in my footsteps.

But then when I think about it, it’s not so easy for someone if you live in LA and have family, all kinds of ties there. You have to have enough experience to be of value to producers here, but you can’t be such a top guy that it doesn’t make any sense for you to come here, if you’re directing big Marvel movies or Star Wars then I think you’re very happy staying in LA. But now there’s a small handful of these guys, so few theatrical movies are getting made and everything else is Netflix and so for me it was a no-brainer and I love it here, and it’s been a really solid flow of projects, different projects, not must Hollywood stories – we’ve both been there, low budget horror movies are a great starting point for sure, but these other films are all Hollywood is doing now. It’s a tough place, and I still love the idea of my movies being shown on the big screen. I like my life here, and if I want to go to Europe or go to LA there are lots of direct flights….and I like the food.

JM: Can you speak Chinese?

RH: Very little. It’s really a language where you have to take, and I’ve talked to a lot of friends about this, you have to take 6 months off and go to a distant universe somewhere in the middle of nowhere and you do nothing but study Chinese. Some friends have succeeded, at least in getting the basics. Or, you hire a tutor and meet with them for hours every single morning for a year, and you can pick up some basics. In casual conversation you get the very basics, but I’m sorry to say that I don’t know when I’ll have the time to really learn it. Of course it would help me a lot, but now I surround myself with a group of Chinese people who have studied back in the states, film lovers and who are perfectly bilingual and they are my everyday advisors and helpers.

JM: How does it work with the scripting process? Do you have the scripts written in Chinese?

RH: here’s so many methods to this madness. I’ll tell you quickly a story about Bodies at Rest. Originally one of the executives read it as a writing sample from Hollywood, so it was totally an American script, first generation. Then they wanted to make it into a Chinese movie, so they had a Chinese translator translate it into Chinese, and that was the second generation. Then they gave that translation to a Chinese writer, who made it into an actual Chinese screenplay and that was the third generation…. then they decided that they would like me to direct it, so they took that third generation and translated it back into English, so now I had this fourth generation. Then I read it and I liked the basics, though it had a lot of problems. Some of it was so clunky and weird and I practically couldn’t understand some scenes – they told me it had gone through four translations and said maybe that’s the reason, so I asked if I could read the original American version so at least I get the idea. I read the American version and I said OK, now I get what you’re trying to do, why don’t we have just me rewrite the American version into a Chinese setting location-wise and character-wise, so that’s fifth generation, and that’s writing I did with my team of expert young movie buffs, and that version was translated into Mandarin and then Cantonese. So that’s sixth generation, and that’s the movie we made.

That’s just one example. When we are generating our own projects we try to find bilingual writers – there are some here and there are quite a few in LA. Though of course, they are all super busy, and that’s so far seemed like the only way to make it work, as if you’re writing totally with a Chinese writer you’re totally at the mercy of the translators and it’s really hard to get the cultural aspects quite right if you’re working like this. We’re also working with some Hollywood writers, but from the beginning, from the first treatment we work closely with our team of Chinse writers so that we get every detail right from the get-go instead of producing a whole script and saying OK let’s change the cheeseburgers into dumplings, trying to work in tandem to get things as close to reality as possible. But it’s very challenging, and when I talk at film schools in China I say you want to make it big internationally, first thing, learn English. If you can work in both Chinese and English you’ll always have work, you’ll be so busy. But still, there’s a lot of people who really don’t have the fluent English skills.

JM: Do you find there’s a lot of cultural differences in what a Chinese audience expects from a script compared to what a Hollywood audience would expect?

RH: Definitely, definitely. I’m trying to learn every day. It’s been 5 years now and every day I try to learn, reading a lot, seeing every movie made, talking with my team and my company, friends. And there’s always surprises, like in the making of Bodies at Rest there were issues with humour – I like to put humour in my movies even if they’re intense thrillers. I pretty much realise now that things like sarcasm don’t work at all in Chinese films, and that’s the bread and butter of American movies. Sort of Bruce Willis type one-liners don’t work here, and you have to find other ways to work humour into it here. And the ways in which people here relate to each other and show their emotions, family is very important, more than in Hollywood movies.

It’s an everyday learning curve about body language in how people react to each other and what they do and say, and in China if you want to have a hit movie you have to have very strong emotional aspects in the story and relationships, people really want to be moved and cry and get really heavily involved in the emotional landscape. Of course, everywhere in the world people like to see movies that touch their emotions, but in China it’s really much bigger than in Hollywood.

JM: It’s interesting that a lot of American films are very popular in the cinema in China, but you don’t get so many remakes of Hollywood films when they’re adapting films. That cultural gap is quite an interesting one.

RH: Definitely again. I think this was one of the biggest misconceptions that Hollywood had when they started the idea of co-productions, which pretty much started or was in full speed when I came here five years ago – Hollywood studios just thought they could take any script or any movie that was popular and turn it into a Chinese movie. They just change the names and a few details, but the cultural differences are so huge that time and time again ultimately these films haven’t been made, or if they have then they haven’t worked and if you went back and read the trades 5 years ago, 4 years ago, 3 years ago, everybody was announcing movies and financing pacts and slates of films.

“Hollywood studios just thought they could take any script or any movie that was popular and turn it into a Chinese movie.”

Most of those companies have vanished and those movies never got made, as it’s not so easy on so many levels, not just culturally the movies themselves and the stories, but also just people dealing with each other, filmmakers, producers and financiers. I remember four years ago just everybody and their brother coming here from Hollywood and having big dinners with local people and announcing these financing pacts and co-productions and then flying back and feeling like I really understand China, and they spent three or five days here at best, and they didn’t even scratch the surface, and they have no idea. They were very excited, but most of those films went nowhere. And also I think a typical kind of American underestimates another culture, where they think they can pull their Hollywood thing and all the Chinese financiers will just fall in line, but they made a classic mistake of not realising that Chinese financiers are very smart, and they can read you before you even open your mouth, so any kind of arrogance will never work.

JM: I think that’s one of the big differences with what some people think of as a co-production and how it doesn’t always mean they’re trying to work together, just having the idea that there’s money in China an that they can get their hands on the money.

RH: Exactly. And it’s so hard if you try to satisfy both cultures and have a little bit of this and that. And there’s all these examples of American movies where they have a big Chinese actor who has like 3 lines of dialogue or vice versa, and both audiences are upset on both sides of the world, and they find it laughable that there’s this big American movie and here’s my idol, this big Chinese actor and he’s literally saying these three lines. It’s embarrassing and it feels like somebody is trying to trick me into seeing something just because of his name. And the actor can’t be happy, I’m not happy, nobody’s happy.

JM: I know what you mean. What’s your take on the commercial Chinese films in the cinemas at the moment?

RH: Well of course the big winner is The Wandering Earth, which I haven’t seen yet, can’t wait to see it, for years I’ve been saying, for the last few years at least that the next big thing in China will be science fiction, and I’ve been told no, the Chinese audience is not used to putting a Chinese actor in a space suit, it won’t feel realistic and it won’t work. But I was smart enough to develop a couple of these movies already, and I’m ready to come out of the cave soon. Wandering Earth changed things completely. Then in these last few years, we’ve had these very patriotic almost Rambo-type movies that have been very successful – I feel like that wave has peaked and that we’ll see less of those movies, that’s just my instinct. I think the quality of Chinese movies is going up all the time. Action movies will always work, romantic movies, if well made with really convincing characters and great emotional resonance, those always work. Chinese animation hasn’t worked yet, not on the level of Pixar. I’m developing a big animated movie which I hope will change that. Definitely technically and in storytelling Chinese cinema is going up. But everyone I talk to, the biggest talent is the script, the screenwriters. There are only a few really good ones available and they’re very expensive, even more expensive than Hollywood writers, and it’s really hard to get them. And so a lack of material is the biggest challenge. There’s money for good movies and there’s actors, but the material is harder to get.

JM: That’s great – many thanks for your time.

Bodies At Rest screened as the opening film at the Hong Kong International Film Festival 2019, and will screen on the opening night of the Far East Film Festival 2019.

About the author

James MudgeJames Mudge James Mudge
From Glasgow but based in London, James has been writing for a variety of websites over the last decade, including BeyondHollywood in the US and YesAsia in Hong Kong. As well as running film consultancy The Next Day Agency, James is also the Festival Director of the Chinese Visual Festival in London, an annual event which showcases Chinese language cinema... More »
Read all posts by James Mudge

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