Interview: ‘Skiptrace’ Director Renny Harlin on Working With Jackie Chan and Chinese vs. American Filmmaking
Many of us grew up watching Renny Harlin’s action movies like Cliffhanger, Die Hard 2, and The Adventures of Ford Fairlane. It would be several more years before Jackie Chan was properly introduced to America with the U.S. release of Rumble in the Bronx. The two represent quite different approaches to action, with Harlin embodying the explosive bombastic American style and Chan his own unique brand of comedic martial arts.
Harlin directed Chan’s latest movie, Skiptrace. Chan plays Hong Kong detective Benny Chan, who is mismatched with an American gambler Connor Watts (Johnny Knoxville). Chan has to get Watts back to Hong Kong, but their journey will take them from Russia, to the mainland, through the desert and the cities, all while being chased by bad guys led by Dasha (Eve Torres). Some of Chan’s trademark set pieces include a fight in a Russian nesting doll factory, and another scene has him singing “Rolling in the Deep.”
We spoke with Harlin by phone out of his Beijing office, because he’s staying put there. I had actually corresponded with Harlin on Twitter last year after the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles showed his maligned pirate film Cutthroat Island. 20 years later it finally played to a friendly crowd. We started out talking about the Cutthroat Island screening, and discussed Jackie Chan, American vs. Chinese filmmaking, and more.
While you were in Asia filming Skiptrace, I tweeted you that I’d been to a screening of Cutthroat Island at the New Beverly Cinema here in L.A. It was a pretty full theater and we all loved it.
That’s awesome. I do remember you sending a message regarding it and I remember feeling very happy that it was part of the series of movies that were screened there. I was actually surprised and very glad to hear that the response was good because it’s one of those things that has always remained in my mind as one of those unfortunate situations. I’m not saying that the movie is a masterpiece but it didn’t get distribution at all, so it fell through the cracks and got this really bad reputation. It’s a pity because I thought that coming years before Pirates of the Caribbean, I thought it was a fine pirate movie for those of us who would like to see a pirate movie.
It made me wonder, have you ever gotten a chance to see that movie play with a good audience? Maybe at the premiere?
I have never seen Cutthroat Island with an audience in my life. It’s a sad story.
Hopefully they’ll do it again and you can come.
Yeah, it was definitely a highlight to get your message.
I’m glad. Obviously you’ve worked with some of the biggest action stars in the world. You did two Stallone movies and Die Hard 2 with Bruce Willis. How does Jackie Chan fit in with those experiences?
That’s a good question. Jackie is in his own class. Having started as a circus performer basically [in the Peking Opera] and a stuntman and an actor and a director and a choreographer, he does it all. He has the energy of 10 guys and the ideas of 50 guys. He’s the kind of a guy who is super involved in the movie, comes to the set first guy in the morning, last guy to leave, participates in everything and is just the hardest worker. He’s not about “Okay, when do I show up and where’s my mark and where’s my trailer?” He’s there and he’s part of the process and he loves it. He loves making movies more than anything in the world. He’s always in a great mood with great energy and ready to try anything. Also I must say, he was super respectful of me as a director. He would have ideas when he showed up in the morning, but he was never pushing them. Also being a producer on the movie, he was never like, “You’ve got to do this” or “You’ve got to do that.” He would just say, “Hey Renny, what do you think of this? I have this idea.” Some of them were genius and I would say, “Great, let’s do it.” Some of them would be impossible to execute in the timeframe and constraints we had. Some of them I felt like, “Okay, that’s a good idea but it doesn’t quite fit our story or our style.” So it was a great collaboration and he was totally listening to me and following my direction. That was never an issue.
The interesting thing that I learned from him that was first a little scary and then really liberating was that in China, you can do anything. In China, nothing is impossible. He could show up in the morning and have all these elaborate ideas of an action sequence. He wanted to do an action sequence where he would break all this stuff and do all these fire gags. I’d be like, “Hey, I love your ideas but we are not prepped for that. We don’t have the breakaway chairs and breakaway walls and props and things.” He would be like, “If you like the idea, don’t worry about it. After lunch we will have it all.” The crew would go to work. We had 400 people in the crew, all Chinese. I was the only American. They’d just go to work. We’d be shooting something else and there’d be 30 guys working on this stuff. After lunch, there’d be perfect replicas of the furniture and props and all the breakaway stuff. The cranes would be up with wires. It’d be all done. I couldn’t believe my eyes. It’s kind of the same when they say they can build a high-rise building in two weeks here. If they put their heart into it, they can make anything happen. That was a huge revelation for me coming from American filmmaking where for something like that, you would have at least 10 meetings, 10 weeks of prep and planning and building and getting ready. Here, you literally can improvise, come up with ideas and pretty much anything is possible. That was the great thing that I learned from Jackie.
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