After a successful career in Hollywood making action films including “Die Hard 2” and “Cliffhanger,” director Renny Harlin has called Beijing his home for the past few years. His third Chinese-language movie, “Bodies at Rest,” is set as the opener of the Hong Kong Intl. Film Festival on Monday. Harlin says he has learned plenty.
What are audiences going to get from this film?
I love the single-location thriller genre. This one is set in a morgue on Christmas Eve, in which two lab technicians endure a night of hell with criminals who want them to hand over a bullet found in a body. The criminals killed a member of a prominent crime syndicate and need to remove the evidence. But, we learn that the chief pathologist is the last person on earth who is going to collaborate with criminals.
Obviously, “The Shining” is the reference point for films of this genre. We built the interior of the morgue in a studio in Beijing. And I had a great experience, planning shots and styles to deliver an action thriller set in a mortuary.
How did you and the project come together?
Wanda Media went to Hollywood and talked to all the agencies seeking their unproduced scripts that they could produce in Chinese. They bought the rights to several, and hired a Chinese writer to translate them. When they approached me, they offered me a version of that translated back into English. I sought out the original English script, re-wrote that, and we have worked from a version of that translated into Chinese.
This is my third Chinese-language movie. I’ve been lucky enough to work with bilingual actors, but also surround myself with script supervisors, assistant directors and experts to keep me on track. Language was not a barrier for some of the great German directors working in English in Hollywood in the 1940s.
What have you learned about Chinese film making after three movies here?
Making the film was a fascinating part of my learning process in China. As the criminals barge in, I have one of the technicians say the line: “This is not a bank.” I was told not to be sarcastic. That is not part of Chinese humor. But then my partners encouraged me to leave it in. People may get the joke eventually.
Similarly, after these two technicians, one male, one female, have endured their ordeal they kinda find each other. I thought they’d hug. But again, I was told that no, they’d come together and shake hands.
I’ve also learned that Chinese film crews are great. I’ve just been shooting “The Misfits” in the Middle East. If I’d been making it in China, it would certainly be quicker. Chinese crews don’t walk, they run. And as a director, you have to have your game face on all the time.
And about Chinese audiences?
Emotion is so important, you have to dig deep into emotions. We now have a company, Extraordinary Entertainment, producing films in China, and we are always asking ourselves, “How do we make things resonate?” The other element is humor. It is not the same as Western humor, but lots of it is a good thing.
Give people an experience with real emotion and humor and you’ve got a hit movie in China.