After 25 years in Hollywood, the veteran filmmaker now makes his home in China, where he recently directed Jackie Chan’s latest hit and has started shooting a fantasy tentpole for Alibaba.
Renny Harlin, director of such 1990s hits as Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger, is walking his dog Rascal through Beijing’s downtown Sanlitun district. After 25 years in Hollywood, Harlin, 57 and originally from Finland, now calls this colorful Chinese neighborhood home.
Harlin came to the Middle Kingdom in 2014 to direct the Jackie Chan action-comedy Skiptrace, co-starring Fan Bingbing and Johnny Knoxville. Upon its release this summer, the film earned $134 million, giving Harlin his first big box office hit in over a decade.
Instead of returning to Los Angles, as he originally intended, Harlin got an apartment, adopted Rascal for some companionship and stayed on in Beijing to explore further opportunities in China’s booming domestic film industry. In October, he began shooting his second Chinese feature, Legend of the Ancient Sword, an Alibaba Pictures adaption of a wildly popular Chinese video game. Last summer, he launched a Beijing-based arm of his production banner Midnight Pictures to develop a slate of Chinese projects and international co-productions.
The Hollywood Reporter joined Renny and Rascal on one of their usual morning walks around Beijing’s Workers’ Stadium to discuss what it takes to break into the Chinese film business, local etiquette tips for his Los Angeles-based peers and whether more veteran Hollywood figures will be making the exodus east.
How did you decide to stay in China?
I totally thought I was going to do what I usually do: work on a film for six months overseas and then go back to LA. But things went great and I enjoyed being here, so I thought, why not? This market is growing, and sometime soon — whether it’s next year or in five years, it doesn’t really matter — China is going to be the biggest movie market in the world. So why not be where things are growing and people are really excited about making movies, rather than in Hollywood, where it’s consolidating and only getting harder. Am I crazy? It was a really easy and fun decision.
Do you expect to see more people like you moving to Beijing to take advantage of the opportunities here?
In a way, I’m sort of surprised more people haven’t come over already. At the same time, I realize that it’s not as easy as one might think. It really takes commitment, because it’s an entirely different world and culture. The last thing to do is to come here with a really arrogant Hollywood attitude — like, we know everything, give us your money and we’ll show you how it’s done. You have to be humble and you have to bend and blend in and sacrifice your LA lifestyle.
Were the lifestyle adjustments hard for you in any way?
I don’t have any special attachment to Los Angeles. I had been there for about 25 years. The big difference is that I come from Europe, so Hollywood was a dreamland for me, but once I settled in there, some of that glory faded away and then it was just a place. There are some great things — good weather and beautiful places like Malibu — but there’s also traffic and polluted air and hundreds of square acres of really ugly architecture. To me, Beijing and China was exciting and different. The culture, history, architecture, food and everything else all felt like an exciting, welcome change.
People who are doing really well in Hollywood would say, why would I leave? I’m doing well and I have a great life. And those people who aren’t doing quite so well need to prove that they’ve done some impressive work and that they have something to offer, otherwise China isn’t interested.
Renny Harlin in Beijing’s upscale Sanlitun neighborhood, where he now lives.
So, I kind of fell into the right niche, because I’ve proven myself with some successful films over the course of my career. I was at a point where I wasn’t getting the big gigs, but I still have lots of experience, skills and film industry knowledge. So, I could bring everything back to the table and do the biggest movies China is capable of making.
So, first you have to find a person who actually wants to come here, and then that person also has to have the skills China needs — it’s a trickier fit than it first seems.
Part of what also made this workable for me, I think, is that I don’t have kids.
China’s box office grew by 48 percent in 2015, but this year it might actually contract slightly. What do you think caused the slowdown?
I think it’s like any new market — first it’s an explosion, where everyone is just saying, wow, we’re going to the movies! And then it pulls back like a rubber band, and people say, wait a minute, if we’re paying these premium 3D ticket prices, let’s make sure we’re going to the best movies, not every random thing.
The bottom line is: most of the Chinese audience is much smarter than people think — they’re very savvy and you can’t just fool them into seeing any Hollywood film. The market is rooted in a younger, quite cosmopolitan and social media-driven audience. But there is also growth of cinemas in China’s smaller third and fourth tier cities, where most people are relatively new to moviegoing and totally unfamiliar with American culture. So for them to get a sequel to Star Trek, it doesn’t really work. They’re just like, what is this? How do I get into this story?
So it’s a very strange mix — and it’s evolving very quickly.
What cultural tips do you give to Hollywood friends when they come over to China?
Socializing is really important. It’s important to spend time with people where you don’t just talk about work. Americans are used to being so highly motivated and productive in all situations. If you have lunch with an LA industry person, after a couple of words about the weather, it’s straight to the deal. Chinese people will think that’s very bad manners and opportunistic — like, I see, you just want a deal or money from me; you’re not even interested in building a real relationship.
Hollywood people are such salesmen. I’ve seen this with a lot with friends who come here. The confident, hard-sell approach — pitching projects and trying to make everything sound awesome, and awesomely lucrative — it will have the exact opposite effect in China. People take several steps back from that.
Also, it’s no secret that in Chinese culture people don’t like to say no. Maybe you’re trying to make something happen, and you’re getting a sort of vague answer, so you keep pushing. Later, when nothing materializes, you’ll probably find out that they just didn’t feel comfortable saying no to you, even though they totally disagreed with your proposal. You have to build relationships where you can read cues and really understand each other, and that takes time. The communication is not as simple and direct as we are used to. Of course, there are similar confusions on their side. You have to be prepared to invest time and really get to know your partners.
How about on set?
The most important thing is about respect. Whether you’re dealmaking or dealing with a crew or actors, you want to show respect and not seem like you see yourself as superior. Anytime you appear to show that you know better and you need to put someone in their place, it will not go over well. Even as the director you should never yell at the crew or put someone down, because it’s the whole thing about losing face with someone. You can lose the good faith of your Chinese crew with behavior like that.
For Legend of the Ancient Sword, the project I’m currently working on with Alibaba, we’re going full speed ahead and we’ll be shooting seven days a week until Chinese New Year in February. This is the Chinese system — no day off, and no overtime pay — because they pay crew a monthly salary and they work as much as they can. It’s grueling, but that’s how it’s done. If you’re in their system, you have to accept the challenge and always be gracious.
I’ve heard these stories about big U.S.-China co-productions that have had really high-class catering by Beijing standards, but still the Hollywood crew will be like, “we’re not going to eat this crap.” Whereas the Chinese crew are, like, “we’ve never had such luxurious food on any production!” That kind of thing can really erode the sense of collaboration and teamwork.
What’s hardest about moviemaking within the Chinese industry right now?
Finding experienced screenwriters and casting — these two by far.
The handful of Chinese screenwriters who have written screenplays that became big local blockbusters are in huge demand. They are totally booked and very expensive. Most production roles are much cheaper in China, of course. But if you’re a top writer, you’re making Hollywood money — maybe more. There’s such huge demand for good stories and there aren’t nearly enough experienced writers — especially bilingual ones with an international view. Translating a Western screenplay just doesn’t work, for many reasons.
Casting is the second huge challenge. There are just a handful of Chinese stars who automatically mean something for the box office, and they are always booked — usually with several movies, reality TV shows, commercials and other promotional commitments that earn them enormous money. Getting access to top talent and getting them onboard with a project is a very long process. If someone tells me they have a production in motion and they’re ready to start shooting soon, I always ask if they are cast. Because it takes six months to one year to assemble a strong cast — minimum.
And where did you get Rascal?
I had a dog in LA that I had to leave behind when I decided to stay here. I really missed having a dog, so I started researching. I tend to go for rescue dogs because, you know, someone has to help them. I found this place called the International Center for Veterinary Services (ICVS), and it’s this phenomenal organization that an American lady started 15 years ago. I went there and saw a bunch of dogs and it was just love at first sight with him. He had been rescued from the meat market with some other dogs. He had had some horrific experiences, so I had to house train him and teach him everything from the beginning. He’s a good boy now. I take him with me everywhere.