Renny Harlin offers insight into the making of 5 Days of War, his most personal film to date
5 Days of War is an action-packed international thriller from acclaimed director Renny Harlin. Based on true events, this intense film is a vivid account of a renegade American journalist, his cameraman and a local woman caught behind enemy lines, and determined to not only survive, but tell the world what was happening, during the swift but devastating 5-day war between Russian and the Georgian Republic in 2008.
We recently caught up with Renny Harlin to talk more extensively about the film and what inspired it. Our conversation is below.
The news that documentarian Tim Hetherington (director of Restrepo) died while behind enemy lines certainly hit hard. Your film focuses on the dangers of this particular job. How did hearing the news affect you, and help guide you in finalizing this for the big screen. The news must have impacted your thoughts on what you were doing and how you were doing it.
Renny Harlin: We were already shooting the movie when that happened. But it obviously brought it very close to us. And it was devastating to hear about that. At the same time, it reinforced our belief in the story we were telling. The fact that in the last ten years, five hundred war journalists have lost their lives...I was glad that we had decided to tell this story from the journalist's point of view, to shed light on these people who do this work, and who work so hard, trying to get these stories out into the world.
How did the story in 5 Days of War come together? Was it true fact culled from various different stories over the years, or was it based on one specific incident?
Renny Harlin: When I first got involved in this, there really wasn't a script. There was a rough cut of a blue print for a movie that didn't even involve journalists. Then I started doing my research. I went to Georgia, and I talked to a lot of refugees. And I met with a lot of foreign journalists that were still there, who had covered the war. All of these stories started to immerge. That is when I thought, the most effective way to tell this story was from a journalistic point of view. That gave me a chance to get some outsiders' eyes on it. I could also get into this story from a civilian perspective. I hired a friend of mine to write the screenplay, who was a very smart writer. He knows a lot about political subject matter. He also wrote a script for an Oliver Stone movie that I really liked. It was called Pinkville. I thought he would be the right person for this. We really did the research, and we studied reports from the UN, and on the internet, and the news, and the human rights watch. We wanted to get the timeline, and the facts of the war, very real, and very right. It wasn't easy, because there was a lot of misinformation on the internet. And a lot of news agencies had covered the story from a point of view that wasn't faithful to reality. Then, when it came to some of the details in certain scenes...Say, for example, the scene where the old lady is shot in the knee, on the river...That was a story I heard from a French journalist that witnessed this event. So, the details of this story were things that we directly heard about, or read, or a combination of the two. The characters were either people we'd learned about, or we took traits and combine those. One example being that the female journalist in our story was German. She is wearing a mini skirt throughout these events. That was based on a French journalist that was there. She was an attractive journalist that always wore high heels and worked in a mini-skirt. That was her secret weapon in being able to get to the front lines, or being able to hitch a ride on a tank. Or a Humvee, whatever. The soldiers liked having her around, so she would gain access to places that no one else had. It's really a work of fiction, but a lot of it is based on real, true events.
You shot a great deal of the movie on location in Georgia. What type of authenticity did that lend the film? Both in the way it looks and plays on screen, as well as pulling the emotion you wanted to capture out of the story?
Renny Harlin: It was a very powerful experience, considering we were there only a year after the war, and it was shot in some of these actual locations where these incidents took place. I saw all of the footage that had taken place. For example, at the military hospital, I saw video footage someone had shot of what went on there, and the material was so horrifying, that when I went to recreate it, I couldn't really show what I had seen. I don't think the audience could have stomached this. It was a very powerful experience. It was a very emotional experience, especially for the people that had lived through it. A lot of them were extras in some of these scenes, like the evacuation scene, and the battle scene...They were the real deal. For a director, it was a unique experience. I didn't really have to direct them. They knew exactly, much better than me, what they were feeling at the time, and how they made it through these experiences.
Did you ever feel any apprehension from the cast or crew about traveling into Georgia, and shooting on location, where the after affects of this war were still being felt...
Renny Harlin: They were all very passionate about doing this project. Of course, there were questions from their agents, saying, "Well, we read on the Internet that there is a travel advisory. US citizens aren't recommended to go to Georgia." It was the agents that would say these comments. From the actors? I never heard them say anything like that. I think that everybody was very passionate about this project, especially after they read the script.
When you shoot a movie that is about video journalists, does that make you rethink your own cinematography in conjunction with the story?
Renny Harlin: Yes and no. The first scene, especially, is shot from the cameraman's perspective. I wanted the audience to have that experience, of what it was like to be behind the lens of a camera in this situation. The first scene is verite style. The rest of the movie, I wanted to shoot it like a real movie. Not the shaky cam style that is now used in a lot of movies. But my cinematographer, Checco Varese? I chose him because of his background, which includes fifteen years as a war correspondent. He has been all around he world. I wanted to have his experience, so that we could translate that war correspondence style into a more cinematic style. Your question is very good, and it was a combination. I didn't want the movie to feel like one of those shaky camera movies.
5 Days of War is a departure from some of your more hardcore action movies. This is a serious drama that looks at a serious issue. Was this something you'd been looking to do for a while? To make something with a little more substance? And I don't mean that disrespectfully, because I love movies like Deep Blue Sea and Ford Fairlane. But this has heart and emotion that some of your past films didn't have, or want to have...
Renny Harlin: Yes. I had really come to a point, having been around Hollywood for almost twenty-five years...I love making films, and I enjoy it very much. But I really had an urge to do something with my craft that would give me more, and be closer to my heart. Something that would make me feel like I'm doing something that actually has something to say. I'd been looking for that kind of project. When I came across this, I really jumped at the opportunity. I really felt like, "Wow! I have more of a reason to get up in the morning. I am not just doing a cool scene. I am actually telling a story that means a lot to the people who are the subject matter of this story." Hopefully, it can also make the people who see the movie think about it a little bit.