Exclusive: Renny Harlin Looks Back at Prison and Nightmare 4, Ahead to Dyatlov Pass Incident, and More!

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While many horror fans know Finnish filmmaker Renny Harlin best for his efforts on A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, that wasn’t the director’s first foray into the genre world.

Shortly before signing on with New Line for NOES 4, Harlin first helmed the supernatural thriller Prison for producers Charles Band and Irwin Yablans.

A cult classic that never even made it to DVD, Prison will be celebrating its Blu-ray release on February 19th courtesy of Shout! Factory, and to mark the occasion, Dread Central recently had the opportunity to chat exclusively with Harlin about the release and his experiences making both Prison and Dream Master and caught up on what’s ahead for the man behind such classic actioners as Cliffhanger, Die Hard 2, The Long Kiss Goodnight and one of this writer’s personal favorites- Deep Blue Sea (my hat is like a shark’s fin, yo!).

Check out our extensive interview with Harlin below, and look for Prison on Blu-ray this February 19th!

Dread Central: How does it feel to see your first movie, Prison, finally get its due and to get such a fantastic treatment as well? The Blu-ray looks incredible.

Renny Harlin: Thanks, I think so, too. And it really was a surprise to me to have Prison released on Blu-ray because it wasn’t a movie that ever had a proper release, and I think its cult status has only slowly grown over the years, it being a movie that not a lot of people knew about at first but heard about from their friends or something like that. There’ve been a few screenings over the last several years, and the fans are always enthusiastic at those, which is pretty amazing to experience all this time since we first worked on it. And the Shout! Blu is just the icing on the cake to all of it for me. To see it like this… wow! It’s such a fun movie- it’s so flawed (laughs), but it’s so much fun, too.

Dread Central: Can you talk about how you got involved with Prison and about your approach to the story? I was rather impressed with the amount of stunts and extras as well as all the special effects gags- that had to be a lot to manage for your first feature.

Renny Harlin: Oh yeah, I had done one film in Finland before Prison, and so I was definitely a struggling director back then. I had been out of work for a while; I was out of money and didn’t have a roof over my head. That’s when I met producer Irwin Yablans, who said he wanted to mold me into a new John Carpenter with this script he had called Prison.

It wasn’t an easy shoot at all; we made the movie for something like $1.1 million in 36 days in Rawlins, Wyoming, at this great location which made the movie feel all the more real. Look, when I made the film, I did my very best, but I was still really green. We had like a 50-person crew, which was really challenging and kind of scary for me because I had never had to manage so many people at once. Then when one of the companies involved with Prison went bankrupt, it meant the movie was never going to see a theatrical release so that was scary, too- to put so much of yourself into something that no one was going to ever see.

So I did what I could do; I took my VHS copy of Prison everywhere I could – and yes, that’s all I had – and showed it to anyone who would watch. Then I had a meeting with the producers of the Nightmare on Elm Street movies who were about to start production on Dream Master so we had a meeting after they saw what I did on Prison where they asked me a lot of questions. They wanted to know how I managed to do everything in camera because that’s something they really wanted to do for part four, and they wanted to know that I could manage a budget, and once I could convince them, they brought me on board. And Nightmare 4 completely changed my life forever; it was very successful, and I’ve always appreciated the fans’ enthusiasm towards my work on it.

Dread Central: I really loved the Prison cast as well- everyone from Lane Smith to Viggo (Mortensen) to the guy who played Ted’s dad in Bill & Ted to one of my all-time favorites, Tiny Lister. Just a fantastic cast of character actors that you really allowed to shine in this- what was your casting process then?

Renny Harlin: We did have a very interesting cast in this, thank you. Managing this cast was very challenging in many different ways because of the sheer numbers and the varying degree of talent. We did have a really incredible group of lead actors, but because of how many inmates we needed in order to make Prison feel authentic, we had to use some real inmates from the area because we were out of extras. That was pretty crazy. Plus it was my first time working with English-speaking actors, too, so that was something else I had to get used to.

We also had a really hard time finding our Burke (Prison’s hero); we must have auditioned like 80 different actors but just couldn’t find someone who had that look- that cool, timeless look that still felt a bit dangerous. But then Viggo came in to audition for us, and I think at the time he had only had a small role in Witness and had done some television, but I knew he was perfect for Burke. Viggo just had that quietness to him and that introspective nature that made him feel very natural for who I thought Burke was in this story. And we really clicked on Prison, too; we were both still pretty new in the business and around the same age so it was really easy to work with him.

The older character actors I used like Lane (Smith) or Hal (Landon Jr.) were far more intimidating because here I was, as green as I was, and these established, professional actors were waiting on me to tell them what to do. I probably wasn’t the best communicator back then, but I absolutely learned a lot while making Prison so it was basically like my official Hollywood movie training in some ways.

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Dread Central: (John Carl) Buechler’s effects in Prison were pretty fantastic- considering how ambitious a lot of those shots were with inanimate objects coming to life and stuff like that, did shooting those sequences present a huge challenge to you as well?

Renny Harlin: Part of the writing process with Courtney (Joyner) was that we looked at every horror and prison movie that we could get our hands on and approached this as realistically as we possibly could and then infused it with some action horror. We really didn’t think about how difficult the gags were going to be when we were working on the script so thankfully, when we came to everyone with these really crazy set-ups, no one even seemed to flinch. Our whole production team had a really great can-do attitude, which really helps when you’re making an indie movie; you need that.

So as we were going along and shooting Prison, we were literally inventing things to pull off the gags as we went along. For the barbed wire scene, we decided to shoot all of that in reverse, which worked really well. For the inferno cell scene where we see the cell pretty much heat up and melt around Rabbit, we built a set out of opaque plastic, put glue all over the floor, set off a smoke machine and just kicked the lights way up, which really sold it. A lot of this movie was trial and error so some moments definitely work better than others. We didn’t have the time to go back and fix anything so we always had to hope it worked as well as we thought it did; thankfully, in most cases it did.

Dread Central: I can definitely see how Prison influenced the way you approached your work on Nightmare on Elm Street 4; it’s probably the first movie of that franchise that really embraced horror action, and I don’t think you’ve ever gotten credit for introducing that approach to the genre as a whole because we weren’t really seeing that approach too much at the time; we certainly did once Dream Master ended up being successful though.

Renny Harlin: Thanks; you know, I hadn’t really thought about it from that perspective before, but perhaps you’re right. So yeah, I would say that while Prison was my introduction into the Hollywood system, I think Nightmare 4 was my real education in terms of filmmaking because we had so many obstacles on that movie, and taking all that into consideration, it’s rather amazing how successful that sequel ended up being.

When I came on board Nightmare, we had no script, just a blueprint because of the strike at the time, so I just went through the story, beat by beat, and storyboarded everything myself. I had the people take those boards and develop the script around them so I was really creating a movie around a series of moments, which was insanely hard. We’d work on those scenes in the morning and work on the dialogue as we’d go along every afternoon; I’ve really never had to do anything like that in my career, but it certainly pushed me to often create something out of nothing, like the fight scene with Rick, literally.

Dread Central: You’ve got a new project called Dyatlov Pass Incident that you recently released a trailer for- what can you tell us about that film?

Renny Harlin: It’s a project I developed myself that takes place in the Ural Mountains in Russia. Some years ago, a group of people who went into those mountains went missing and were all found dead later by some very unexplained circumstances with each of the deaths varying from each other. One person’s skull was completely crushed, but they showed no signs of a struggle or blunt force trauma; one person was found completely naked, covered in radiation burns and missing a tongue; and so on.

But no one since it happened has been able to explain just what happened to those people up in the Ural Mountains, and I just thought this was such a compelling story to explore. There are numerous sites out there with conspiracy theories and ideas about who or what could do that to those people who went missing so I used that as the basis of this story; I loved the idea of basing the story in reality because this is something that really happened but then giving it my own twist to make it a great movie. It’s a found footage movie as well; it just seemed natural to shoot it that way since we’re following a group of students who are out to retrace the steps of that group of people who ended up dead in the mountains so mysteriously. We shot it all in Russia, and we’re showing it to distributors now.

Dread Central: Through your research did you stumble across anything surprising surrounding the case?

Renny Harlin: You know, I read all these letters and diaries and studies on the case, and I think the most surprising thing is that it’s still a case that remains unsolved- there’s just no explanation for what happened to those people. They had just eaten dinner, and then they all went into the tent together, which was normal. But for some reason they tore out of that tent from the inside – I mean, tore it to shreds – and ran off scattering away from each other, all dying just a short distance from each other. It’s really disturbing; there’s just no rhyme or reason to their deaths, which I think will make for a really entertaining movie.

Dread Central: And I heard that you’re going to start shooting Hercules 3D with Millennium Films soon; can you talk a bit about that?

Renny Harlin: Oh, yes- I’m really excited for Hercules as I’ve been wanting to make this movie for some time. I know there’s another project out there, too, but what we’re doing is not a comic book/fantasy approach. This will be far more gritty and realistic in some ways, and I think they are going to be two very different kinds of movies, which I think is great. There’s more than one way to tell a great story.

We start shooting May 1st in Bulgaria, which is fantastic; we have a great budget behind us, and we’re using really amazing 3D technology to shoot in so I think it’s going to be something that fans will enjoy. For now, though, I’m just staying focused on making the best movie possible; I’ll worry about the rest later.

Prison Synopsis:
After Charles Forsythe was sent to the electric chair for a crime he didn’t commit, he forever haunts the prison where he was executed. Flash forward several years when the prison is reopened under the control of its new warden, Eaton Sharpe, a former security guard who framed Charlie. When prisoners are ordered to break down the wall to the execution room, they unknowingly release the angry spirit of Charles Forsythe, a powerful being distributing his murderous rage to all, leading up to the warden himself.

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